Ghosts of Time and Light: The Experimental Cinema of Ito Takashi

A report from the Japanese artist's in-depth profile at the 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.
Yaron Dahan


In the beginning, there was the photograph. The single frame, varied and repeated, combined to grant the inner eye the illusion of motion. This photographic essence, this basic cinematic unit, is Ito Takashi’s obsession, and the beginning of our voyage through his oeuvre: The single iterative frame as the artistic element of space-time, and the source of the cinematic alchemist’s mastery over his art. It is an art on the frontier between stop-motion and motion, between the stillness of the photograph and the action of the motion-picture.

To see an artist’s entire body of work in one sitting is to gain privileged access to their infatuations, and with the retrospective of Ito Takashi’s film work of the last 25 years screened at this year’s International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, we were granted access to his particular matrix of obsessions, to witness its growth, its transformation, and its evolution.

Artists by nature tend to despise their earlier works, not so much because they fail, but because these films, like adolescent loves, tend to reveal their motivations too plainly. Ito Takashi’s three earliest works shown in this retrospective—Noh (1977), Movement 2 (1979), and Movement 3 (1980)—are no exception. These early experiments reveal a desire to dissect time and space into their most basic cinematic unit—the frame—recomposing their space-time into the artifice of motion: the facets of a Noh mask, the spaces of temples, the distances between shrines…


As these initial experiments develop, Ito Takashi’s films grow in complexity. This first architectural stage of film experiments comes to a head in Spacy (1981): the camera is placed in the center of a basketball court and progresses through its space-time at first along the four walls, the four cardinal directions of its axis. Near each wall stands an easel, and upon the easel is an animated image of the same basketball court through which the camera slides. Ito Takashi’s camera travels time and again through the reflexive image of itself through the sealed cinematic continuum, accompanied by the electronic spasms of a synth soundtrack. As the camera travels from screen to screen, from wall to wall, each moving image functions both as a screen and a portal. Ito’s animatronic camera animates the basketball court into jittery stop-motion impulses traveling joyous and playful across the court from image to image creating motion though photographic stillness.

Play is the exact word to define Ito Takashi’s game on the court, for as in every game, this film posits its arbitrary constraints (the limited space of the basketball court, right angle turns, animated stop motions in black and white). Ito Takashi’s game begins following the filmic rules, before evolving quickly into one of inventiveness and surprise. The camera moves along invisible geometric patterns (not unlike the lines which define the game of basketball), and the spectacle of space is reinvented.

Once these cinematic-temporal playgrounds are constructed, Ito begins to haunt them with phantom females, child-demons, light-ghosts, and plaster-mannequins. Bodies inhabit these re-constructed space-times, moving within them in skittish stop-motion spasms; animated dolls with blurry faces and limbs akimbo marking their presence as retinal imprints or analog superpositions. Throughout the rest of his oeuvre Ito returns to his animated iteration and variation in space-time as the foundation for his later experimentation, which grows in both breadth and complexity: adding variations first of rhythm and angle, then color, then frame size or shape, then adding characters and symbols, and finally dramaturgical elements woven into the formalist experiments. As his films develop, bodies find their ways into the frame, as do television screens, photographs, lights, hands, flowers always pushing Ito Takashi’s experiments into unexplored areas, however always motivated by the same obsessions.


Ito Takashi’s second period, which begins with the short film Thunder (1982), adds many of these elements to the experiments of the first: light painting, superimpositions, mystical demons, ghostly voices. Although the number of techniques employed is multiplied, the principle resembles that of his previous films. Thunder is limited to a single space (what seems to be a university building), and a single gesture (the ghostly image of a woman veering and uncovering her face), and through a mathematical and arbitrary series of possibilities the film builds up expectations, disappointing them, bringing them to paroxysm and surprise each time the viewer believes the film has exhausted its systemic possibilities. A gesture of shame, of timidity thus inhabits a building like an monomaniacal ghost projected upon its walls, captured in a photograph, re-animated through stop motion, granted a half-life between the perceptible world and the imagined one.

Thunder and the other films in this style—Ghost (1984), Grim (1985)—all portray retinal echoes of ghosts and televisions and lights, remnants of abandoned images, accompanied by insidious electronic soundtrack. And the temporal regularity of the stop-motion process in combination with the insistent sound creates a cinematic vortex through the repetition of its mantra-like image and sound.


This series of experiments finds its culmination in Zone (1995), a recapitulation and re-composition of the ensemble of his works up until then. In Zone, a headless plaster-man is bound to a chair surrounded by recognizable images from his previous work. A ghost inhabits this imagined space: a Noh-masked, light-draped child-demon haunting the artist’s passage into the life stage of fatherhood, necessitating a re-evaluation if not reinvention of the self. The decapitated plaster-man is caught in the hourglass of dissipating time, and a plaster train rotates in increasingly smaller circles on the floor as the symbolic and autobiographical haunt their way into Ito's constructed spaces. 

The Moon

In this stage, culminating with Zone, Ito Takashi’s work passes into an evidently more autobiographical phase. The titles alone of two works of this period, Photodiary (1986)  and Photodiary 87 (1987) are indicative of this transformation, as well as the shift of the location from a nervous, raw Tokyo, to familial and suburban Kyoto. The films of this phase use these animated spaces and ghosts to question and re-construct the familial image: the mother, the circle of friends, the wife, the child. In Venus (1990), a “normalized” image of wife and son has its contrasts pushed until their faces are stripped down to their elemental qualities, as the camera continues to explore the space of a garden presumably link to this relationship. In The Moon (1994), a sort of dark fairy tale of origins, the mythical relationship between father and son is explored, with the presence of an sort of elemental breakdown of childhood archetypes: the demon, the moon, the forest, the bicycle.

Monochrome Head

In the final stage of his filmmaking presented at Oberhausen, Ito Takashi transforms these basic elements from the autobiographical to the symbolic, and his films distance themselves from the mechanical and the electronic of their origins to move towards a symbolism and sensuality. 1997’s Monochrome Head, the first of these films is inhabited by three demons: an enraged bat-swinging girl, a hopping-mad grave-digging demon, and a fictionalized filmmaker watching himself in the mirror. Objects (camera, bat, shovel, bag) speak a language of their own, mixing with that of gesture (swinging, jumping, throwing, filming) and that of space-time to weave a web of indecipherable symbols whose meaning is simultaneously clear and elusive.

Like in Monochrome Head, in most of Ito Takashi’s films we find the reflexive act of creation—cameras, filming hands, photographic prints, negatives, cutting tables, storyboards—which in exposing the act of creation add another dimension to the works, which in fact increases their force. The light-painted ghosts are no less scary because we are aware of the technique of double-exposure, and the artistic exploration is no less profound, when we see the artists hand (quite literally) in the frame. This explicit reflexivity, reminiscent of the visible presence puppeteer in Bunraku theater, in which the strings of artifice are explicitly shown to give significance to the gesture1 of filmmaking, and allow the experiments to retain the force of their act.

A Silent Day

And in the final series of films Ito revisits many of the above techniques, now mastered, to open them to vast themes: jealousy, desire, suicide, voyeurism, the double, motherhood, beauty. In A Silent Day (2003) we can see the rage of a young woman trapped between motherhood and beauty take a bat to her demon-puppet child, watching the erosion of her own beauty or sexuality in the mirror. In Dizziness (2001), we are exposed to the criminality of the act of looking, the act of filmmaking, an act linked to death and eros of its three female protagonists.

These latter phantoms of men, women and children emerge from the initial temporal-spatial experiments which are the basis of his obsession: the motion of the image through time, the existence of the being as a function of light. It is the recreation of both space and being as functions of time and light that leave imprinted on our retinas the handprints of Ito Taksashi’s electronic ghosts of time.

1. “Bunraku itself (that is in fact its definition) separates the act from the gesture, allows the act to be seen, exposing simultaneously the art and the work necessary to create it, reserving for each one its own form of writing.” —Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs

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