:: Article

Hijikata in Astrorama

By Stephen Barber.

The seminal ‘lost’ film of the performance of the legendary Japanese Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata, believed irretrievably vanished as a memory of Hijikata’s work until its rediscovery in 2011, was one shot for projection at the Osaka Expo world’s fair of March-September 1970, using an experimental shooting and projection system, ‘Astrorama’. The film was titled The Birth, and was created to be shown in the Midori-kan (Green Pavilion), constructed to display Japanese innovations in image-projection and related technologies, within the city-sized grounds of the Expo, located at the peripheries of Osaka. The event, together with the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964, was intended to demonstrate Japan’s new ascendancy and its postwar rehabilitation, and attracted vast, dense crowds and international attention throughout its duration. World’s fairs and ‘Expo’ events have possessed an intricate and sustained history as showcases for experimental projection technologies; most notably, for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (‘World’s Columbian Exposition’), Eadweard Muybridge constructed the first-ever purpose-built hall for the projection of moving-image sequences to public audiences, the Zoopraxographical Hall, within which he projected his sequences with his self-designed Zoopraxiscope projector. As a result, the Osaka Expo 70 was an ideal context for the developers of Astrorama, Goto Inc, to show off their new projection technology, developed in the same lineage as IMAX and intended for large-format projections and audiences, within expansive spaces. The inclusion of many avant-garde artists as participants in Expo 70 formed an attempt to accentuate the event’s aura of innovation; Hijikata’s collaborator, Tadanori Yokoo, was closely involved in conceptualising the event, and it provided valuable income for experimental artists whose work (as with Hijikata’s) otherwise generated virtually nothing.

The Birth was shot on the slopes of the volcanic Mount Atosanupuri (‘naked mountain’ in the area’s original Ainu language, and also known as Mount Io) in north-eastern Hokkaido, in June 1969; the volcano, close to the caldera Lake Kussharo, remained active and constantly emitted sulphurous steam. Hijikata, still recovering from the corporeal ordeal of his Revolt of the Body performances of the previous year, remained rigorously self-isolated from the team of twenty-one Astrorama technicians, including their supervising director, Tomohiro Akiyama; he stayed alone at an inn on the shore of Lake Kussharo and refused all food, appearing each evening for the week-long filming sessions, which were shot at night. Hijikata appears in only one sequence of the ten-minute colour Astrorama film, as a magician or shaman – wearing a robe and with the distinctive long hair and beard from his previous year’s performances, as though the film had irresistibly manifested itself as a coda to Revolt of the Body – who originates the world as part-miracle, part-malediction; at the end of the sequence, Hijikata wildly leaps at and over the Astrorama camera. The film’s incoherent scenario had been written by the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa who had specially requested Hijikata’s appearance as the ‘monstrous and grotesque’ figure present at the world’s formative dance-conjuration; other sequences displayed primal natural landscapes, and fragments of cities, about to be destroyed. A further sequence, shot in Tokyo, showed Hijikata’s Asbestos Hall dancers, filmed from above, naked and apparently engaged in sexual acts, the images superimposed with images of hell from paintings by Bosch and others. The Astrorama camera used five lenses simultaneously to create sensorially engulfing, multi-dimensional sequences recorded on a special 70mm film stock whose exacting development process required it to be sent to specialist laboratories in Hollywood for processing.

The Astrorama film was projected, with an ambitious system simultaneously projecting five celluloid film-reels, onto the internal dome of the Midori-kan, across five screens, thereby generating a 360-degree, immersive environment for its audiences. Fifteen million people are estimated to have visited the Midori-kan during the six-month run of the Expo, though most were in the act of rapidly passing-through the pavilion, as part of tour-groups, rather than gathering specifically to watch The Birth as an audience. At the event’s end – as with all such spectacular, ephemeral expo-megalopolises, including the 1893 Chicago fair with Muybridge’s short-lived Zoopraxographical Hall – the extravagant pavilions were immediately abandoned and left to deteriorate into ruins, despite the vast expense entailed in constructing them. Several years later, the site was almost entirely razed and converted into a suburban ‘commemorative’ park for the citizens of Osaka, with Expo 70’s emblematic ‘Tower of the Sun’ allowed to remain standing at its entrance. Astrorama, too complex and cumbersome for commercial exploitation, also became redundant, and the original celluloid film-cans containing The Birth were stored-away without being documented, and forgotten, until researchers from the Hijikata archive at Tokyo’s Keio University re-discovered them, forty years later, in the Osaka storage-facilities of the Sanwa Midori-kai alliance of corporations whose previous incarnation had sponsored the Midori-kan pavilion. The film had been preserved, more through oblivious neglect than active conservation, as a trace of the defunct Astrorama technology, rather than as a film-documentational residue of Hijikata’s performance work or a record of the Expo 70 event itself. Rediscovered and re-projected, that document possessed all of the aberrant experimentation of Hijikata’s work at its most vital moment. Film-memory itself forms a transformation, for the eye, from disintegration and oblivion.

Stephen Barber is currently an Invited Fellow at the Freie Universitat, Berlin. His next book is Muybridge: The Eye in Motion, to be published in December 2012 (Solar/Chicago University Press).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 25th, 2012.