Yamazaki Hiroshi: The Solar Connection
Matteo Boscarol • 22.08.2023
Magino Village – A Tale / The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches, the epic documentary created by Ogawa Production in 1986 - and the culmination of the years spent by the collective living, farming, and filming in a small hamlet in Yamagata Prefecture¹ - opens and ends with time-lapse images of the Sun rising and setting. The peculiarity of these images is that what moves on screen is not only the Sun, it is also the horizon. The camera is focused and fixed on the Sun, following its path. According to Ogawa Shinsuke himself, these scenes were added only in the spring of 1985 after members of the group started to ask themselves how to put an order to all of the material filmed in all their years spent in Yamagata. The idea was to use images at the very beginning of the film that could clearly express the collective's feelings about the film, and about their experiences in Magino Village.
To film these crucial scenes, Ogawa and his group enlisted the help of Yamazaki Hiroshi; the photographer and experimental filmmaker from Japan, who at that time had already captured several astonishing long exposure photos of the Sun. and had also made experimental shorts centered around the Sun. While Yamazaki's work in photography is well-known both in Japan and abroad, his contribution to filmmaking is still awaiting rediscovery and a proper assessment within the broader context of the history of experimental cinema².
Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1946, Yamazaki Hiroshi became a freelance photographer after dropping out of Nihon University, where he studied in the Department of Arts. Drawn to photography from an early age as a high school student, he began capturing photographs of airplanes—a collection now unfortunately lost. Concurrently, alongside his interest in images, Yamazaki started to develop an interest in music, particularly Jazz - a passion he had cultivated throughout his whole life that influenced his visual works - and even ended up working at a jazz café named Bizarre in Shinjuku, Tokyo. While still a university student, his friend Hagiwara Sakumi, a cinematographer and director, introduced Yamazaki toTenjō Sajiki, the theater troupe co-founded by Terayama Shūji, where he got a job as a stage director. This experience, but also the artistic milieu of Tokyo in the late 1960s, provided the opportunity to meet with graphic designers, photographers, directors, and artists, such as Yokoo Tadanori, Narahara Ikkō, Awazu Kiyoshi, and Sugiura Kohēi. During the same years, Yamazaki also crossed paths with Adachi Masao, and Wakamatsu Production, from which he often received leftover film stocks. In 1971, Yamazaki provided the photos for an interview with Adachi published in the magazine Bijutsu Techō, and in the same year, worked as a set photographer for Shinoda Masahiro's Silence. On this occasion, Yamazaki had the chance to meet renowned cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo. After avidly reading photography magazines such as Provoke, Film Art, or Camera Mainichi, and crystallizing his methodology and approach to photography, he held his first solo exhibition in 1974 called ''Observation'' at Galleria Grafica in Tokyo. In the following decades, exhibitions featuring his work were held both in Japan and abroad, including showcases at the New York Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography.
Although in the late 1960s, Yamazaki achieved some success by photographing artists and their events such as multidisciplinary artist Akasegawa Genpei, the wrapping installations by Christo, dancers such as the great Butoh dancer Hijikata Tatsumi, as well as a multitude of other performers; he soon felt that this wasn't the path he wanted to pursue. His goal in photography was not to search for subjects, but for things that would not exist without his relationship with the camera. Due to artistic differences and despite his deep respect for the Japanese polymath, after working for Terayama for a year and a half, he distanced himself from Tenjō Sajiki.
Gradually, Yamazaki developed his own artistic sensibility in photography. Central to this approach were the concepts of what he has called on several occasions ''photographic and optical incidents'' (shashin teki to kōgaku teki na jiken). He chose seemingly anodyne landscapes, the sea, or the view from his home window, not because they were inherently beautiful or the coastlines were intriguing, but because they lacked distinctive features and didn't demand an active selection of what to shoot. Whether through a window or in front of the sea, there was nothing extraordinary to capture. However, while the camera shutter was open, certain optical or photographic ''incidents'', that is to say, accidental events captured by the photographic apparatus caused by the weather, light, or simply the passing of time, might have occurred, and thus determined the result. To achieve this, his interest moved towards exploring the boundaries and inherent qualities of the medium, more than what was in front of the camera. In Yamazaki's own words: ''Method = expression = concept. It is best when methodology, expression, and verbalized concept stand on the same ground''.
This approach transferred naturally into his filmmaking, as exemplified in some of Yamazaki's earliest films. For instance, in his 1973 short, A Story, a six-minute work shot in 16mm and composed of multiple exposures of Shibuya's streets, each image is captured from a different angle, and as the film progresses, the overlapping becomes more chaotic, to the point that the city on screen ends up collapsing onto itself. According to Yamazaki, this experiment was done to express the act of filming itself and was influenced by Bill Evans' ''Conversation with Myself'' (1963), an album in which the Jazz musician recorded and overdubbed three piano tracks by himself. Overdubbing was at that time a new technology that had not been explored in all its potential.
An exhibition of his photos and films, held in Tokyo in 2009, was aptly titled ''Moving Photos! Static Films!!'' capturing not only the perpetual dialogue between still and moving images but also his commitment to challenging conventional definitions of photography and filmmaking, as we will see later when analyzing his most important film. Before delving into some of his films centered around the Sun, it is important to briefly describe the photographic collection that is more in conversation with his short movies, Heliography (1978). The collection takes its title, literally “to draw with light”, from the name Nicéphore Niépce gave to one of his inventions, an early form of photography, in 1826. The Heliography series— he started to work on it in January 1978 in the Bōsō and Izu peninsulas—is an important point in Yamazaki's career, not so much because of the novelty of the subject, but on the contrary, because it crystallized Yamazaki's decade-long photographic engagement with the Sun. The images of the star, often captured above the ocean using very long exposure techniques, are to this day breathtaking. The outcome resembles abstract or non-figurative paintings³, almost as if the Sun itself painted the sky with brushstrokes. Time condenses and transforms into space, with horizontal lines paralleling the horizon, and comet-like beams of light traversing the dark sky.
In 1975, Yamazaki created Observation, a ten-minute 16mm film. In this work, he crafted the illusion of twenty-eight suns arching over the sky in his neighborhood, capturing everything from his window⁴. This short film is also interesting because, according to Nakajima Takashi, it signals a different approach to editing, one that was introduced to experimental cinema through the sensibility of photographers such as Yamazaki. In 1975, Yamazaki also joins Matsumoto Toshio as a
cameraman for Ātman, Matsumoto's pivotal work in the history of Japanese experimental cinema⁵. Although not centered around the Sun, the methodology employed in making Ātman deeply resonates with Yamazaki's output in filmmaking during the 1970s. Ātman is composed of 15,000 frames captured from various positions and distances around a central subject; a human-like figure wearing a Hannya mask. The rapid succession of frames creates a live animation effect and illusion of movement. According to Matsumoto: ''The camera was positioned in 500 different places, using a multitude of filters. It's a structuralist movie that reveals the mechanism of perception, an animation of sorts, made from live images''⁶. Generating moving images from stills, uncovering realities usually imperceptible to the human eye, and abandoning a human perspective to reveal or create something different, are all instances echoed in Yamazaki's most significant experimental film shot in 1979; Heliography.
The film opens with the Sun at the center of the frame bathed in a blue sky, the image is accompanied by a sound representing the Earth's rotation expressed in sound frequencies. Slowly, with the star still at the center, the horizon starts to appear at the bottom left of the frame, similar to what happens in the opening scenes of the 1986 Ogawa Production documentary Magino Village: A Tale. However, the horizon in Heliography is a blue ocean and its position in the frame is oblique. The Sun sets over the ocean creating a reflection on the water that changes progressively from a bright white to a soft orange. Once the Sun has sunk, the horizon becomes an orange line, forming a painting-like composition with the dark blue of the ocean, the light blue of the still visible sky, and the ever-expanding black of the earth at the bottom left corner of the frame. Soon, a pitch black invades the entire screen, the Sun is still moving, and the camera still follows it, but the viewers cannot see it since it is now behind the Earth. The film is at its middle point here, and about two and a half minutes have passed. From the upper left corner of the frame, a few dim and flickering lights start piercing the black screen, a city at dawn slowly revealing itself, presented to the viewers upside down, still slightly tilted on the left. Progressively the sky turns from dark blue into light blue, until we see the Sun rising from the city's skyline, moving up (down from left to right from the inverted viewer’s perspective). The film ends with the Sun continuing its trajectory in the sky and hiding behind atmospheric clouds scattered in the cerulean sky.
Not dissimilar to what happens in Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971), or more recently in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), the oblique, images of the Sun over the Sea, and the eye of the camera fixed and fixated on the star with everything else moving around, unanchor the viewers from the Earth, especially in its second dizziness-inducing part. By liberating and disengaging the vision from the human eye and re-centering it around the drifting Sun, the images become in the end an astral landscape, and the Earth almost a planetary spaceship.
Naitō Masatoshi in his conversation with Ogawa Shinsuke about the images of the Sun filmed by Yamazaki for Magino Village: A Tale, resonates with these points. According to the Japanese photographer, in films usually we see the sunrise perceived from the static point of view of an immobile Earth. The rising and setting Sun is almost always viewed from a geocentric point of view, the Earth remains fixed, while it is the Sun that moves. “Paradoxically,” continues Naitō “by showing the rising sun in a scientifically correct form in a film, we don't experience it as something real, but quite the opposite, as something mysterious. It seems as if we see the Earth from another planet because the Sun in that scene is a Sun with a cosmological dimension.”
Heliography was created with one frame being taken every four seconds and by gradually shifting a 16mm camera to keep the Sun in the same position—centered within the frame. To achieve this, Yamazaki set an adapted Bolex on a tripod and on an equatorial mount, a setup of equipment similar to that used in astrophotography. Such mounts can track celestial bodies even when they are not visible, in this case following the path of the Sun even when it sets over the ocean and disappears behind the Earth.
Just like Ātman, Heliography is also composed of a collection of individual frames - but one can ask if this is not true for all cinema?- taken at long intervals and from different positions, thus presenting and creating a reality that the naked human eye does not usually see. Time is also distorted, like in Yamazaki’s photographic works, but here it is compacted and accelerated, the Earth we see on the screen is rotating at 96 times its normal speed. As noted by photographer Kitano Ken, Yamazaki's works make visible a world that surpasses a phenomenon that appears in front of our eyes, they allow us to look at the world from outside of itself, or as Yamazaki himself put it: “Heliography is the Sun setting and rising. That's all. It's not a reproduction. People haven't seen that reality, even though it might seem like one. The world created through media is different from what humans see with their eyes. This is the most basic idea that I have when creating my works.”
Naturally, Yamazaki's output both in photography and in filmmaking did not stop with Heliography. In the following decades, he kept experimenting with still and moving images and exploring new and different media. Sakura, a twenty-minute work shot on video in 1989, for instance, is a fascinating take on one of the symbols of Japan. But an analysis of this and other works by Yamazaki goes beyond the scope of this article.
What I have tried to do in this essay is to put Yamazaki's films about the Sun, and partly his work in photography, in resonance with other works created during the 1970s and 1980s in Japan, and consequently with the cultural and artistic landscape of the time. I have done so, focusing especially on one of the most important experimental films of the decade, Heliography.
Kitano Ken. Abstractiveness in the ‘Documentary Age’, in Yamazaki Hiroshi Concept and
Incidents: A Retrospective From the Late Sixties Onward, Catalog of the exhibition. Tokyo
Photographic Art Museum. 2017.
Nakajima Takashi. The Moving Images of Yamazaki Hiroshi, in 32nd Image Forum Festival,
Catalog of the festival. Image Forum, 2018.
Nornes Abé Mark. Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese
Documentary. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Matsumoto Toshio. Atman's commentary, in Matsumoto Toshio jikken eizō shū DVD Box.
Ogawa Shinsuke, Naitō Masatoshi. Fragments from a Conversation Between Ogawa
Shinsuke and Photographer Naitō Masatoshi, in Of Sea and Soil. The Cinema of Tsuchimoto
Noriaki and Ogawa Shinsuke. Sabzian, Courtisane, CINEMATEK, 2019.
Yamazaki Hiroshi. Taimu toneru shiriizuzu Vol.28, Yamazaki Hiroshi ''Ugoku shashin! tomaru
eiga!''. Recruit Co. Ltd., 2009.
Ishida Tetsurō. Concepts and Incidents, The Method and Works of Yamazaki Hiroshi, in
Yamazaki Hiroshi Concept and Incidents: A Retrospective From the Late Sixties Onward,
Catalog of the exhibition. Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. 2017.
Fix (1972, 16mm, b&w, silent, 5')
Fixed-Night (1972, 16mm, b&w, 6')
Fixed Star (1973, 16mm, 7')
A Story (1973, 16mm, 6')
60 (1973, 16mm, 1')
Vision Take 1 (1973, 8mm, 3')
Observation (1975, 16mm, 10’)
Epilogue (1976, 16mm, b&w, silent, 1')
Noon (1976, 16mm, 3’)
Vision Take 3 (1978, 16mm, 3')
Heliography (1979, 16mm, color, sound, 6')
Motion (1980, 16mm, 10')
Geography (1981, 16mm, 7')
Walking Works (1983, 16mm, 5')
３・・・(1984, 16mm, 5')
Winds (1985, 16mm, 6')
A Flower in the Space (1989, video, 19')
［kei] (1991, video, 3')
Films about Yamazaki Hiroshi
The Seas of Yamazaki Hiroshi, Hagiwara Sakumi (2018, digital, 20')
1. For more on the bright and dark sides of the collective: Forest of Pressure
Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary by Abé Mark Nornes, and Devotion: A Film
About Ogawa Productions (Barbara Hammer, 2000)
2. Steps in this direction were the screenings of many of his films organized at the 32nd Image Forum
Festival in 2018, an event where I first had the chance to discover them. In 2016 the screening of
Heliography (1979), in a program dedicated to Japanese experimental cinema, in Bruxelles, Belgium,
and a retrospective on Yamazaki and Hagiwara Sakumi at Bozar Cinema (Centre For Fine Arts) -
again in Bruxelles, in 2019.
3. As noted by Ishida Tetsurō, these photos share some similarities with what was being done, at the
time, by the Mono-ha collective (Ishida 2017, 177)
4. It is worth noting that this film resonates deeply with 13 (2020) by Isobe Shin’ya, one of the most
remarkable examples of experimental filmmaking coming out from Japan in recent years.
5. Information regarding their collaboration is scarce. As reported by researcher and scholar Sakamoto
Hirofumi in a private conversation, Matsumoto does not mention Yamazaki in his writings, nor does
Yamazaki in the few I consulted. Further research in this direction is needed.
6. All the translations from the Japanese are, when not noted, by the author.