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Artists at Work: Takahiko Iimura

Duncan White interviews Takahiko Iimura about the visual poetics of his experimental films, which combine Japanese characters with English phrases to interrogate what we mean by ‘image’.  
Artists at Work: Takahiko Iimura Watch video in videozone

Takahiko Iimura emerged in 1960 as a pioneer of Japanese experimental film-making. He has continuously investigated the relationship between language, media and perception in his work. After 1970 his work became increasingly involved with video and other related media beyond film.

As well as connections with the Fluxus movement in New York, Takahiko has been associated with Structural film-makers and was closely connected with the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, screening expanded cinema works at the Festival of Independent Avant-garde Film in London in 1973 alongside Malcolm Le Grice, William Raban and Gill Eatherley, among others.

More recently, Takahiko has returned to a concern with word as image, and this interview, exploring the use of text and language in his work, is published to coincide with the performance of White Calligraphy: Re-read at Central Saint Martins, London on 7 October 2010 as part of the Light Writing Screening series.

DUNCAN WHITE: Your work consistently engages with the relationship between image and word – Jonas Mekas described your early film Ai (Love, 1962) as ‘a film poem’, for example. Why has this connection between image and word been important to you?

TAKAHIKO IIMURA: My answer to this is anecdotal. I was first interested in poetry during my high school days. I wrote a visual poem using Japanese characters – similar to a Dadaist poem – which I arranged visually. As you know, Japanese characters, which we call Kanji, are ideograms based on Chinese symbols. For instance, my first visual poem used the character ‘eye’ at the top of the page. The character is made up of a standing rectangle with two vertical lines in the middle representing an eyeball. In high school I was very desperate and thought seriously about suicide. But instead of killing myself I wrote this poem: at the top of the page I have an eye and under the character there is nothing, just empty space, and at the bottom of the page is the same character lying down horizontally. In a way this represents another character that means ‘number 4’ in Japanese, which is pronounced ‘c’. This sound phonetically also means ‘death’, so in this new form the ‘visual sound’ of ‘Eye’ actually means ‘death’. This combination of a visual and phonetic symbol acted as my starting point.

After graduating from school I came across neo-Dada and Action painting in the early 1960s and I was very much influenced by that new fashion in art. Junk(1962) was the very first film I made and it was influenced by the neo-Dada ‘junk’ art of the time. But it’s a kind of film poem in the tradition of experimental film.

DW: When making Junk, were you interested in the material qualities of film and the material substitution of objects with words?

TI: To some extent, yes. But I was more interested in my relationship with the objects – how I participated in the scene and how I was involved. It was a question of putting myself in the work as another object.

DW: So you saw yourself as junk as well as the junk you were filming?

TI: Yes [laughs]. I tried to participate in some way – like with the boys fighting on the beach in Junk.So it was an engaged process that I recorded. That was my starting point.

DW: You said that neo-Dada and ‘junk’ art were an influence on you; were there other influences at the time? You say you came to film via poetry and painting?

TI: That’s right. I painted a few Abstract Expressionist pieces, but I wasn’t satisfied and I wanted to go further. So through the combination of poetry and painting I found this other visual form – film. My discovery was the way I could record myself engaging with the medium. This was my introduction to experimental film – which I could only read about because we had no cinematheque in Japan. We had no way to actually look at them – not until 1965 when some avant-garde films of the 20s and 30s came to Tokyo from the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.

DW: So your first encounter of experimental film was through writing and books?

TI: And little photographs.

DW: In a sense, then, the text as a frame has always been important – which leads on to my next question: writing is invisible – we read but don’t necessarily see words – but you seem to be interested in words as objects. Or in making words visible? Are you interested in making the audience read rather than look – reading as ‘making conscious’?

TI: I am interested in both things – reading as well as looking at the image. Those early visual poems I made are closely related to a later work, White Calligraphy, which I made in 1967. In that film I copy an ancient Japanese story [Kojiki (c.712)] onto a film. I scratched a character into every frame of black leader. When it is projected it is too fast to read – so it’s more a visual effect. But at the same time, as you learn how to see the film, it becomes possible to read certain characters when they appear, like the words ‘God’ or ‘life’ or ‘heaven’. Such words often appear in this story, so they are more easily recognised over time. In fact my new version of White Calligraphy (2010) has sound – my voice reading certain characters on the sound track using slow speed on DVD. It was shown for the first time in Frankfurt this summer [‘Cameraless Film’ at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt].

DW: Do you read the words in English or in Japanese?

TI: I read in Japanese because the phonetic sign has no meaning outside of Japanese. But certain words also have meanings in English – such as ‘God’ and ‘Heaven’ – so I read those in English. It is a combination of Japanese phonetics and Japanese translated into English.

DW: The interchange between languages in the film sounds very interesting. Would you say the strong relation between reading and looking in the film stems from the fact that you don’t see that much of a distinction between reading and seeing?

TI: Yes, like I said, many of these Japanese characters are originally based on pictures. So naturally reading and looking are something you do in combination, as a combined way of seeing the characters, a combined way of creating meaning.

DW: Like a lot of the Structural filmmakers from the late 1960s and early 70s in the UK, you seem to be interested in resisting (or even denying) the image in film – is this what got you interested in text as a kind of anti-image, as in White Calligraphy (1967)?

TI: Well, White Calligraphy is not anti-image. In this case the image is included – not only a pictorial image but also as calligraphy. The character is based on a picture and this is quite different from English, where the language is based on the use of symbolic signs. So speaking of Structural film – I do not consider those works anti-image either. They may be a more minimal image – yet they are still image. When you close your eyes during The Flicker (Tony Conrad, 1966), for instance, you still see a faint image or even a colour through your eyelids.

I made a film called Shutter (1971), in which I shoot the shutter of a projector from the front at different camera speeds (from eight to 64 frames per second), while fading in and out with the camera. The image I achieved is an eye-shaped form that appears to be coming and going because of the fades. It creates a flicker effect as well, but my interest is in the movement of the eye-shaped image. Unlike The Flicker, I show the image in positive and in negative, one after the other.

In the case of my other work, I made a film called 1 to 60 Seconds (1973), using the numbers one to sixty traced at certain intervals – so all you see is ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘5’, and so on, in separate frames written directly onto black leader. The film is dark between each figure for a corresponding number of seconds. When it is projected you are very conscious of time. The numbers appear in ascending order but are compounded as the two number systems run at the same time. So the figure ‘3’ comes six seconds after the beginning, because you add one, two and three and you get six – giving you this dual system of duration. Once you are accustomed to this darkness you become aware of the whole space and your surrounding environment in the intervals between the individual seconds. It’s total darkness, but still some perception is possible in darkness. John Cage said there is no such thing as complete silence – similarly, there is no complete darkness.

DW: In terms of being anti-image, I was going to suggest that the denial of the image in your work – as in the work of Peter Gidal – is more about anti-representational imagery. It seems that you also want to represent something without using representational imagery.

TI: Right. It’s a question of representational images vs the image itself. So when you are sitting in the cinema I want you to distinguish between ‘picture’ and ‘image’. Picture, for me, equals representation, while the image is non-representational in form.

Moreover, for representation you have to have a series of pictures in order to represent meaning. This positions the viewer outside of the picture. In the case of the image, the viewer can be a part of it (as with 1 to 60). The image is not necessarily outside of yourself but could be inside – with you, as it were. That would be one distinction you could make.

‘Motion picture’ in Japanese is called ‘eiga’, which literally means ‘reflected picture’. It emphasises the actual state of the picture: how it was presented as an on-screen reflection rather than as a picture which moves. The idea comes, I suppose, from the shadow picture play which was rooted in Asia long before movies were invented. In the shadow-play people are meant to see only the screen on which the shadow of the players carries all of the story.

DW: That reminds me of your work, I Am a Viewer / You Are a Viewer (1981), in which your shadow is on the screen, and as you move out of the way you almost invite the viewer to take up a similar position, to become part of the image.

TI: Yes, that’s true. The piece was adopted from the shadow picture play in which I was a player as well as a viewer. Therefore the separation of the player and the viewer (or the author and the audience) was shifted from the physical to the operational.

DW: Your use of Japanese characters also seems to be reminiscent of Eisenstein’s ideas about the ideogram in film language – is this something you refer to in White Calligraphy?01

TI: I read a long time ago about Eisenstein’s theory of montage and his example of the Japanese pictogram. He sees the word as a symbolic image and by combining certain characters it is possible to make another character, which has a quite different meaning. This informs his analysis of the word in relation to the cinema and montage theory. In my case, White Calligraphy itself is not an analysis of the character – it’s more about the reading of the symbolic image and also later (as with my new work) it becomes about an engagement with the actual meaning of the word.

The film involves shifting focus between looking and reading at the same time – which is very dependent on the speed of the film. At first it may appear too fast but once you’ve become accustomed to it, as I said, you can read certain characters. In relation to Eisenstein’s theory – I have had arguments about his ideas on montage. His reading of the characters is based on separating, or isolating each character, from its context and making another sense or meaning. This is based on silent film, where images in sequence create meaning and is part of what I would call ‘film semiology’. This film semiology is based on narrative film. I’m concerned with experimental film, which offers a quite different reading of the cinema – one not based on narrative. Not being satisfied with ‘film semiotics’, I tried to invent my own ‘video semiology’ which is different from film semiotics. This is more concerned with context than with isolated images.

DW: What did video allow you to do that you weren’t able to do with film? Did it offer a new way of thinking about the relation between ‘subject’ and ‘object’?

TI: I was able to explore ideas about identity more because I was able to interrogate myself or engage with myself in a new way. Video changed the way I related to myself as a subject because it was live and instantaneous. In my piece I See You as You See Me (1990-95), I pasted these pronouns onto two monitor screens: ‘I’ and ‘You’. During the performance, I go back and forth between the two monitors reading out loud: ‘As I see you you see me.’ So I am literally in between ‘I’ and ‘you’ – sometimes combined, sometimes separated – in this case you as the subject and then you as an object – in English you have this double function right?

DW: So in that piece you become a kind of mediator between the two positions. It’s almost as if you disappear even though you are very present. I’m interested in the combining of installation and performance in which you are there and not there at the same time as you mediate between this fictional ‘I’ and ‘you’.

TI: But my other concern was the difference between languages – Japanese and English – that are structured differently. When I read ‘As I see you you see me’ in Japanese, the words are more directly related to the object you are looking at than they are in English. In Japanese ‘I’ and ‘You’ are often placed in parallel – not modified by the speaker. Often we don’t use ‘I’ as a subject. Just by naming the object you are the object – it is defined by the speaker; by its identification. Eisenstein never considered this relation.

DW: Yes, it’s almost the opposite of montage in a way. It’s about things being in combination simultaneously rather than one thing after another. So the Japanese composition of the sentence is very different. Does it have something to do with the role of the pictogram – the word as image – impacting on how the language is spoken?

TI: Not directly. In Japanese, the characters for ‘I’ and ‘you’ in feudal times were not so different – you would just add a prefix to make the word ‘you.’ ‘I’ and ‘you’ are still based on the same character – only the addition of a prefix or a honorific, the way you use the character, makes the difference between them. So this is more a context-based language than a word-based language.

DW: When you use installation are you exploring this relation between context and language?

TI: Yes, in a way. In the video, I spoke the sentence in Japanese and in English one after the other. The English translation of the Japanese, which is super-imposed, is put at the bottom of the frame, but each English word is positioned in the same order as each Japanese word, so it becomes a grammatically strange translation. For instance, with ‘As I see you you see me’ the order in Japanese becomes ‘I you see as you me see.’ The object follows immediately after the subject and the verb comes at the end. As I said, often in Japanese the subject is omitted, so that a sentence consists of the object only without the subject, which comes first, and the verb (or the predicate) follows.

More to the point: I found that this order is closer to what a video picture (shot) indicates in general. In video, the subject is not identified unless made explicit; only the object is seen. Once a camera is set up, the power is switched on and the video shows the object without the operator – as is seen, most typically, in surveillance cameras. I would say a video shot is not a (full) sentence as claimed by Christian Metz in his film semiology, but rather a sentence without the subject. This is one of my arguments in video semiology.02

DW: One of the things that interests me is the way that onscreen language is treated as a kind of taboo in the sound era of mainstream cinema. Once sound had been invented there wasn’t any need for text on screen. Cinema became a language in itself – a visual language. But in your work, and similarly in other artists’ work, word and image are combined to create a new relationship. Why do you think this might be the case? Is it a strategy for interrogating the way meaning is ‘written into’ films in the mainstream context or are you trying to find a new language of film and video?

TI: Before discussing the treatment of language in modern cinema, I would like to mention that we, in the East, have a long history of combining the art of pictures and words in painting, in particular in scrolls, which is, in a way, an ancient art of cinema. In those scrolls the picture and the words are put in parallel, side by side, not one supporting the other, unlike the illustrated book. Also I should mention that even in mainstream cinema, for foreign language cinema, you have language written at the bottom. This was not uncommon when I went to ‘art cinemas’ in Tokyo in the 1960s. I agree that for modernist cinema, especially experimental cinema, that: ‘Cinema became a language in itself – a visual language’. But if you turn to postmodernist cinema, if we can categorise it as such, language is no longer something to be excluded. In 1976 I wanted to produce a video semiology in video, not on paper. I had to deal with language, not only in writing but also spoken in parallel to the image. So that in the film Observer/Observed (1975-98) the three media [text, voice and image] of language co-exist with and intervene on each other. Also each medium works on different levels: the scene is first identified by the image; it is then identified by the text on screen that describes the relationship in symbolic form; and the structure is finally described by spoken words. It was necessary to have this kind of multimedia to understand a video semiology in video. Later I published a CD-Rom of Observer/Observed and Other Works of Video Semiology (1999) which realized this interactive, multimedia operation.

DW: Your work stands out from other Structural work at the time because you develop a direct correspondence with post-structural theory – Barthes and Derrida both play an important part in your thinking – but other Structural film-makers, such as William Raban, tend to play down the connection between Structural film and Structuralism when I’ve asked them.

TI: There is no direct connection between Structural film and Structuralist theory in film literature. I tried to not necessarily connect them but I became more interested in post-Structuralist theory – particularly in video through which I could engage myself using these texts.

I chose to investigate Derrida’s ideas in Speech and Phenomena (1973), particularly his statement that, ‘I hear myself at the same time that I speak’. I became interested in reading or literally saying these words in public as well as in the studio. I wanted to get into the textual aspect and the aural encounter of the sign. I went further and put myself into the work by saying the text while recording it – and this is my other investigation into this area which is not so much explored in the history of film or the video arts.

DW: I wanted to ask you about this idea of identity and the influence of Japanese art on your work. Has your interest in exploring identity through video been influenced by your experience as someone coming from Japan to live in the US and Europe? Did that cultural experience influence your investigation of identity through video?

TI: My interest in Japanese or Oriental culture is based on a contradiction and has certainly informed my attitude to the text as such. When I say, in the piece I made with my wife, ‘I am Takahiko Iimura / I am not Takahiko Iimura’, it’s about creating a positive and a negative position at the same time. This is very much in the tradition of Zen philosophy which openly admits contradiction. It is a denial of self. Yet the self-denial of the image put me in a positive position outside of the image. Saying ‘I am not Takahiko Iimura’ in the image of myself turns me into myself, one who sees the image as a positive – if we are to assume there is no plural ‘Takahiko Iimura’. To live in this contradiction is a way to find something else. Or as the classic example, of René Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, has proved: only words can make the negation, not the image, which only presents us with an affirmation. Another example is the yin and yang circle, in which the white part has a black dot and a the black part has a white dot. This is a ‘double structure’ of a positive within a negative and a negative within a positive, which in turn makes a whole circle. In my film 24 Frames Per Second(1975-78), which consists of a white frame within one second [24 frames] of black and a black frame within one second [24 frames] of white, the ratio between each frame and the number of seconds increases one frame every second in both directions until they become 24/24 – as you use positive and negative at the same time (in the film process) positive becomes negative and negative becomes positive in time. In these movements no and yes have no difference – only the movement between. When these positions are fixed, things are dead. Positive and negative are relative terms. We live in this kind of world, I think.

DW: Thank you very much for that.

This interview was conducted on 27th April 2010 as part of ‘Light Writing’, a research project on the interconnections between film and writing with a particular focus on the use of text in artists’ film and video based at The British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection, Central St Martins College of Art and Design London.


  • Eisenstein: ‘By the combination of two “depictables” is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable […] For example: the picture of water and the picture of an eye signifies to weep; the picture of an ear near the drawing of a door = “to listen”.’ Eisenstein, ‘The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram’ in Film Form, ed & trans by. Jay Leyda, London: Denis Dobson, 1963, p.30. In this context, from separate hieroglyphs has been fused – the ideogram.
  • See Takahiko Iimura, ‘A Semiology of Video’, The Collected Writings of Takahiko Iimura, Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 1996, pp.127-62.