Kenji Onishi’s A Burning Star

Written by Ed Halter on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

A Day In the Life
Japan has gone through several fits of avant-garde film culture over the years,
it always seems to take a dose of shock to get any attention for the work overseas.
In the early 60s Takahiko Iimura joined in New York’s late-Beatnik libertinism
by screening erotic experimental works like Ai (Love) and Onan at the underground
Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. In 1968, Koji Wakamatsu presented The Embryo
at Belgium’s International Experimental Film Festival. The film depicts
a girl being tied down to a bed and slashed with razors. After audiences rushed
the stage and clamored to stop the projection, Wakamatsu declared that he screened
this bit of ultraviolence "to let the world know that such fantastic films
are being produced in Japan one after another."

Poet and dramatist Shuji
Terayama helped open the first Rotterdam Film Festival in 1971 with his notoriously
controversial film Emperor Tomato Ketchup. This stunning, atmospheric
fantasy of a children’s revolution has been rarely seen in the U.S., no
doubt due less for its sharp political critique than for its long scenes of
languorous pseudosex between naked boys and young women.

A self-proclaimed "gentlemanly
anarchist" who "uses the art of cinema as his battering ram,"
26-year-old filmmaker Kenji Onishi has continued this confrontational tradition
in the 90s. A central figure on the Tokyo experimental scene and already a veteran
of the international festival circuit, Onishi has made more than 100 films since
1990, ranging from Super-8 studies of light to full-length features filled with
drugs and violence.

In addition to promoting
his own films, Onishi operates Cinema Train, a company that distributes films
by young Japanese filmmakers and screens underground and avant-garde work from
overseas. His filmmaking output spans many genres, and he has become known for
a distinctive personal style that melds structural concerns with overtly sensationalist
subject matter.

Despite his scandal-mongering
rhetoric and extreme subject matter, his approach has more in common with the
arty abstract narratives of Hollis Frampton or Stan Brakhage than with the attitudinal
Cinema of Transgression or mainstream-friendly post-Tarantino artsploitation.
Like the bulk of Japanese independent cinema, Onishi’s films have screened
rarely in the U.S. But thanks to some under-the-radar booking by downtown avant-garde
exhibition duo Brian Frye and Bradley Eros, Onishi’s 1995 feature documentary
A Burning Star will make its stateside debut this weekend for a single

Produced in the Japanese
tradition of the avant-garde "personal film" (a first-person diary
film dealing with inner emotions), A Burning Star documents the day of
Onishi’s father’s funeral and cremation, from dawn to dusk. Hardly
a straightforward narrative, the film opens with 20 minutes of early morning
sunlight patterns seeping through curtains and shots of black-bottomed clouds
scuttling across a deep-blue sky, set to a soundtrack of shuffling feet and
anonymous household preparations. The shots have a slow but discernible pace,
just brief enough for the limits of the attention span, but long enough to lull
the viewer into a unique, documentary ambience crafted from neatly hewn slices
of disassociated sensoria.

The soothing setup gives
way to more disturbing events, told through wordless lo-fi impressions. At the
funeral, Onishi sidles up to his father’s casket when no one else is around,
lifts the cover and films his father’s face. The gesture feels compulsive
and desperate, as if Onishi wishes to record every contour and blemish. But
the act that follows is even more startling: Onishi sneaks into a preparation
room where his dead father lies on a floor mat, carefully arranged in ceremonial
robes. He slowly undresses the corpse, fixing for a while on his father’s
genitalia. For several long shots, careful compositions of inky black pubic
hair fill the frame. As fans of oddly pixelated Japanese porno can attest, photographing
pubic hair is an ultimate taboo in Japan, making this intrusion confrontational
in the extreme.

Later, as the body is cremated,
Onishi noses his camera up to the windows of the furnace. These are some of
the most morbidly beautiful moments in the film, creating otherwordly images
reminiscent of the gaseous surface of a hot star, with flames licking over quasi-organic
landscapes that look increasingly less like a skull, a ribcage or a hip bone.
The film ends with long shots of Onishi meandering in the parking lot, and footage
of birds flying over water, creating an overall mood of insuperable, melancholy
distance from his father and the world.

Bookended by contemplative
scenes of calm detachment, the film’s shocking moments feel strangely natural,
as the viewer is lulled into quiet reverie by Onishi’s love for the textures
of Super-8, the properties of shifting daylight and the compositions of human
silhouettes against the blue sky. Potentially overpowering emotions are stripped
down and distilled through sensory immersion into a gossamer-thin, subdued essence.
Despite its deep personal engagement, A Burning Star presents Onishi’s
artistic drive as essentially asocial and pathological. He uses his filmmaking
not as a way of connecting with his world, but of shutting it out through esthetic

In addition to the single
screening of A Burning Star, a related program of short experimental
works from Japan screens at Collective Unconscious the following Monday. The
program includes Onishi’s shortened, defanged 20-minute version of A
Burning Star
, probably created for easier programming in festivals, in terms
of both subject matter and length. The truncated result is a careful but ultimately
dull formal study of light and composition that jettisons not only the astounding
controversy of the feature-length version, but also its innovative narrative
structure. Other shorts in the program are, for the most part, equally or more
tedious, with the exception of Mikio Yamazaki’s Drifting, an optically
printed formal fantasy in which footage of a young man walking around narrow
streets seems to float off the screen like waves of water, set to an hypnotically
minimalist musical score, and Kazuhiro Shirao’s Industry and the Sex
, a series of city scenes altered into jewel-like compositions via an
enigmatic video-to-film technique.

A Burning
, Saturday, Sept. 11, 5 p.m., at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave.
(2nd St.), 505-5110.

the Land of the Rising Sun: Experimental Films from Japan," Monday, Sept.
13, 9 p.m., at Collective Unconscious, 145 Ludlow St. (betw. Rivington &
Stanton Sts.), 254-5277.