I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Toshio Matsumoto: Big in Japan

by Tom Winkelspecht
Dec. 14, 2017

While their country still reeled from its devastation in the aftermath of World War Two, Japanese filmmakers of the 1950s explored the changed world through their creative output. Kurosawa released Rashomon, which was and still is considered by many to be an allegory for Japan’s defeat. A few years later, Ishiro Honda directed Gojira and Japan relived the carnage brought about by nuclear war. 

Another one of Japan’s influential directors, Toshio Matsumoto, would also get his start in the ’50s. Matsumoto had originally planned to attend college for painting, but was pressured into studying medicine by his parents. Halfway through his degree, he quietly switched to his passion. It was in studying art that Matsumoto found a connection to early cinema. After graduating, Matsumoto turned his focus completely to filmmaking: “At any rate, since I didn't study production in college, I set a goal of trying to catch up with what people usually study in four years of film school in about a year on the job after getting out of college…Outside work, I listened, read, and saw a lot. I borrowed films and analyzed them, studying how they had been made. In that way, I learned in about a year what you study in the directing course at Nihon University, and then started making films the next year.” Matsumoto joined a small film company after graduating and in 1955 released his first short, Ginrin (Silver Ring), a PR film for an English language company. Ginrin is considered by Matsumoto to be a favorite, and was well received in the arts community.

After Ginrin, Matsumoto focused on making documentaries. The first films he directed were focused on socio-political topics, such as the mistreatment of Korean immigrant workers in Senkan (Caisson) and the lower-class children in Haru o yobu kora (Children Calling Spring). Matsumoto’s contributions to the Japanese film culture were not limited to directing. While making documentaries, Matsumoto was also active in organizing screenings and wrote a book of film criticism on the mainstream cinema. Eventually Matsumoto felt constricted by the rules of the documentary style and, like Poland’s Kieślowski, abandoned the style for feature films. He released Bara no soretsu (Funeral Parade of Roses), which soon became notorious for its homosexual themes.

The move to short films was an artistic statement. While Matsumoto relied on avant-garde techniques for early shorts and his feature films, those works still utilize traditional narrative styles. For his short pieces, Matsumoto subverted these. In his own words, “We have to do more to irritate and disturb modes of perception, thinking, or feeling that have become automatized in this way.” Matsumoto’s works as a video artist are attempts to do exactly that. The handful of shorts made in the 1970s and ‘80s are deceptively simple. His subjects, when featured, are commonplace images: a toilet, the silhouette of a woman running, a building complex, and the incoming tide. Matsumoto manipulates these objects through color, layers, distance, and angle.

Matsumoto’s pieces reflect post-war Japanese concerns. Metastasis presents layered projections of a toilet, but both the name and the equipment (Matsumoto used an Electro Color Processor, a machine commonly used by doctors) convey the ever-present fear of cancer in Japan of that time.

1975’s Atman examines folklore and religion in Japanese identity; a wildly circling camera observes a figure from all angles. The film’s title (the Buddhist concept of the self) and the demon mask worn by the figure are Matsumoto’s challenge to his fellow filmmakers, whom he felt never examined their responsibility for their roles in producing support for the recent war.

Matsumoto’s background in art history is also a large influence on his short films, and we can see his passion for avant-garde art styles imprint itself on his work. Expressionism is a large part of Expansion, in which the distorted form of a woman is only gradually revealed. White Hole shows Impressionist techniques such as the use of color and overall visual effect taking precedent over clearly defined detail work.

Mona Lisa is Dadaism in the vein of Duchamp‘s ready-mades, even using the Da Vinci painting favored by the Frenchman. Cubism also informs Matsumoto’s short pieces. The analyzing of objects through their dismantling is a theme present in his later shorts, namely the three films he made in the early 1980s: Connection, Shift and Relation. The musical score, often by long time collaborator Toshi Ichiyanagi, add to the surrealism of Matsumoto’s works. As a body of work, Matsumoto’s short films share the theme of changed perspective; deconstructing his subjects to the point of unfamiliarity. If art imitates life, it is no surprise that the destruction an social upheaval in Japan brought on by the Second World War would produce such an affect on the filmmaker.

Despite expressing the fear that there is “not much left today with a fresh impact,” Matsumoto has remained active in the film and art worlds, continuing to produce short avant-garde films into the 1990s. The ‘90s also saw Matsumoto release a series of inter-media and installation art pieces. His work remain as experimental as ever, incorporating multiple screens, early 3-D, fish tanks, and lasers. Toshio Matsumoto is currently a professor and Dean of Arts at the Kyoto University of Art and Design, and serves as the president of the Japan Society of Image Arts and Sciences. He also continues to write, authoring several books on photography.

World Cinema Directory

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Interview

Electronic Arts Intermix - Metastasis

Tom Winkelspecht lives in New Jersey. He is currently in a creative writing graduate program.  The rest of his time is spent between watching movies, plotting his return to Chicago, and writing. He can be found in the usual places: Tumblr and Twitter.