Before anybody outside Japan – and perhaps also inside it – really knew who Naomi Kawase was, and how important she was going to be for contemporary cinema, she made a journey to Australia. It was 1994.
She was part of a program of Japanese independent and experimental film – much of it originated on Super 8. This is what brought me to the screening as an audience member: for around fifteen years prior to this, I had followed the work of artists and amateurs who had made Super 8 into a special, unique medium of expression.
The longest, most ambitious and most fully formed film on the Japanese program that day was Kawase's Like Air (1993), also known subsequently as Embracing (it screened under that title at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2001). It was Super 8 blown up to 16 millimetre, a procedure which accentuates the medium's sharp yet ghostly visual, aesthetic qualities.
Like Air/Embracing belongs to a genre that is, in my mind, indelibly associated with the Super 8 medium as I experienced it throughout the 1980s and '90s: the autoportrait as Raymond Bellour labelled it, a term which is much better than the very American-sounding 'self-portrait'.
What is an autoportrait in cinema? It is not simply filming the story of your own life, or turning the camera upon yourself to record yourself talking, walking, performing. It is not Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, Ross McElewee, or even Luc Moullet or Nanni Moretti. It is not documentary, or comedy. In the autoportrait, the self of the filmmaker is not exhibited, it is hidden – or, almost hidden.
This autoportrait-self must be deciphered in motion, gleaned only through the traces it leaves: objects, rooms, scraps, things seen and heard by the filmmaking-subject. All of Chris Marker's prodigious work is one long autoportrait: you must look very quickly to ever see the reflection of his face, in over fifty years of his filming the world around him.
Such autoportraits are about everything that is passing, everything that is already lost. A profoundly melancholic form of cinema – like in Oliveira's great Porto of my Childhood (2001). The self, the person, is in ruins; the film is the filmmaker's whispered, fragmentary, sometimes pained attempt to hold up all the pieces in a fleeting pattern. There is not, ultimately, even one, pristine self that can be glued together – only multiple, fleeting versions of personal identity, remade every moment as the sky spins.
In Super 8 films – more modest even than Marker's light, supple camera and his displaced voice-over meditations – there is one visual figure that, above all others, encapsulates the process of autoportraiture: the moment when the filmmaker films not his or her own body, but only its shadow on the ground. This shadow dances, slips, is broken up by ground and rock and water ... it is "like air".
The film by Kawase that I saw on that memorable day in 1994 is 40 minutes long. Along with all the ephemeral details of places, of tokens, of captured images and stolen sounds – and of her own shadow – there is a subject, intensely personal and intimate to the filmmaker: it is her search for the father who abandoned her when she was very young.
But this is not a sentimental, redemptive, Hollywood fable. Nor is it even an understated, poignant account of a father and daughter negotiating each other's strangeness, like in an Ozu movie. What really happens between these two people, finally, is not for us in the audience to see or hear. We are left only with the indirect traces, the vibrations, so beautifully and poetically captured.
I am happy that I have only my memory of this magnificent early film by Kawase – already, in 1993, such a consummate artist of cinema – and no videotape or DVD to verify the details of that memory. Super 8 was always the most poignant of media, and has only become more so with the further passing of years – it seemed to exist, so fragilely, only to fade and break and disintegrate. Again, like air. Why expect films to last when human bodies do not? asked the avant-gardist James Broughton. So the best autoportrait would be made to vanish.
After the film was screened, there was a discussion between the small but appreciative audience and the filmmaker. Kawase took the stage with an equally quiet male interpreter. Usually, I am too nervous to ask questions of filmmakers – particularly if their films have just touched and moved me like this one. But I did ask Naomi Kawase a question, something about Super 8 and shadows and autoportraits, basically what you have just read. And in that babble, somehow, I managed to tell her how much I loved her movie.
Kawase listened very intently to the translator who interpreted my question in whispers into her ear. What did she hear? I will never know, but by the same token I will never forget her wordless answer: she simply looked at me, and bowed. A gesture as delicate and emotionally charged as any in her film that day – and in all her films since that day.
© Adrian Martin March 2005