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Japanese dancer/filmmaker’s lifetime of uncertainty

How famous can somebody involved in outsider art be? THEO PANAYIDES meets a Japanese maker of films that touch the soul, and emotional practitioner of a local dance form

How famous is Masaki Iwana? There is, I suppose, a presumption that when a venerable Japanese film director comes all the way to our little island with one of his films – even if it’s showing in the Images & Views of Alternative Cinema festival, specialising in the strange and experimental – he must be quite famous. Yet in fact Masaki is much better-known as a butoh dancer (more on this later) than a filmmaker – and even there, his performances tend to get just a few thousand views on YouTube, that ruthless arbiter of our digital age. As for his films – well, they’re “a bit special”, as he puts it. The new one, Charlotte-Susabi, has been well-received by Japanese critics, but has only played commercially (not counting one-off screenings like the one in Nicosia) for two weeks apiece in Osaka and Tokyo; it’s fair to say we’re not talking Avengers numbers. “I have fabricated four long films,” he tells me simply, borrowing the French ‘fabriquer’, “all independent”.

Fair enough; but listen to this. I trawled social-media site Letterboxd, looking for reactions to Masaki’s work, and came across a user called Justine (letterboxd.com/justineluna/) who watched his Vermilion Souls, from 2007. I know nothing of Justine, but she – if they are indeed a ‘she’ – doesn’t seem to be a professional critic. Her profile photo (which may not be her actual photo) shows a teen or 20-something girl with rainbow-flag sleeves and pink hair; she describes herself as a filmmaker making “queer punk-rock films for the kids that got picked last in recess”. She watches a lot of movies (she’s watched 90 already this year, and it’s barely March). Here’s part of what she says about Masaki’s film:

“This might be one of the greatest films ever made, and almost no-one will ever know because of how obscure it is. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t just see something truly transcendent in its pursuit of artistic perfection. Vermilion Souls is a film that begs to be seen, and experienced for all its deep and rich command of both the visual and emotional layers of the language of film…

“Even [with] me praising this film, and getting others to see it, it’s not an easy film to consume. It’s sexually explicit, brutally violent, depressing, bleak, surreal, and sad, but it is the work of someone with a vision of the world, and of the human condition, deeply in tune with every single feeling one can experience. I’ve never seen a film like this.”

The moral of the story? Being ‘famous’ is a relative term, and the world is full of surprising connections. The slightly-built, ponytailed Japanese gentleman sitting next to me in the Weaving Mill in Nicosia forged a deep connection with this pink-haired young woman somewhere on the internet – surely much deeper than the average blockbuster has with the millions of viewers who munch their popcorn and cheer at the end – even though she (unlike me) has presumably never met him in person, and he (unlike me) is presumably unaware of her existence. Indeed, part of me wishes I’d checked out Letterboxd before our meeting, so I could’ve told him about Justine; it might’ve cheered him up a bit. The abiding impression of Masaki – filtered through his charmingly fractured English, with the ‘l’s often coming out as ‘r’s and vice versa – is of a rail-thin, soft-spoken, self-effacing figure, humble almost to a fault, who tends to greet any personal question with a dry, startled chuckle, as if surprised that anyone would find his inner life interesting enough to ask about it.

“Are you a happy person?” I ask at one point. “Are you an optimist?”

The chuckle, rising briefly to a sheepish laugh: “Optimistic? No, no, no, no! Pessimistic.”

In what way?

“I have not so much confidence in myself. If I had had very strong confidence in myself, probably my appearance” – he actually looks quite natty, in a brick-red shirt set off by a light-brown muffler – “and my life would be changed, very much. I am very modest person. Always I am hesitating.”

Really?

“I think so,” he replies, and laughs at how hesitant he’s being even to call himself hesitant.

But you make all those films, I point out – and not within the system but self-financed, independent. You’ve been performing as a butoh dancer since 1975. You do so much!

“Yes,” he agrees. “Externally. Externally, yes – but actually I am struggling, always.” Masaki gives it a beat: “But everybody is the same, I think.”

Is he beset by doubt all the time?

“Not doubt,” he shrugs, “but I am – sometimes I feel disappointment. For my ability.”

Justine, for one, might be shocked by that admission – yet it’s also true that Vermilion Souls, the first of Masaki’s four films, was made when he was already in his 60s (he turned 74 a few days ago). He appears to have been a late bloomer – though also, it seems, a strong finisher. “What were you like as a young man?” I ask, prompting another sheepish chuckle.

“I always think that my – how to say, young days, were always 10 years delayed compared to other ordinary young men. For instance, when I was 20 years old, I was really a kid… I was very – sad, maybe.”

Why sad?

“Because I couldn’t find any direction in my life.”

His background was middle-class, the youngest of five kids born to the family of an office worker, a so-called ‘salaryman’. He trained at TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) as a film director, but by the time he graduated, in 1967, the industry was already in decline and no-one was hiring. He spent seven years as a theatre actor – then turned to his own form of butoh, which sounds like a very traditional art but in fact is quite modern, having sprung up in the post-war ferment of the late 50s. Butoh is counter-cultural, with elements of taboo-breaking and anarchy. It’s like the Earth and the Sun, explains Masaki, picking up a glass of water from the table to represent the former: the part where the Sun hits is bright, but the underside is “dark and dusky. Butoh dance treated this dusky part”.

We talk a bit about technique – but dance isn’t easy to describe, you have to watch it. One of his clips on YouTube (a performance in Berlin in 2014) is especially striking: Masaki’s hair, released from its ponytail, falls halfway down his back, the androgynous aspect sealed by the fact that he’s wearing a woman’s black dress, billowing up to his loins as he writhes on the floor. He wears a mask, giving him the air of a celebrant at some pagan ceremony. His work employs slowness and stillness – though of course “standing still doesn’t mean immobility, the inside is moving” – bringing an intense laser-focus to every small shift of his body that seems alien to the slight, modest figure in front of me, then suddenly he sways like an angry drunk, clutches at the dress, storms out of the room and comes back again with a blood-curdling howl. It is, to put it mildly, emotional.

“Some – uh, how can I say, impulse, phenomena, should come out very precisely,” he tells me, trying to explain his process – which perhaps is a way of saying that his inner spirit, so racked by doubt in real life, roars into action when freed from its cage of uncertainty. Masaki points, again, to the glass and talks of “this border”, the border between the world outside and the precious water inside. That border, in dance, is his own body, his way of revealing the life within as transparently as the glass shows the water.

The body is his instrument, like a virtuoso’s violin – but a body, unlike a violin, is hard to control; it grows old, it starts failing. This fact cuts deeper for Masaki than it might for other dancers – simply because his lifelong habit of always being slightly ‘delayed’ has emerged in another way too: despite his advancing years, he’s the father of an eight-year-old son, his first child. “For a long time I was alone,” he sighs – but now he’s in a renovated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (actually in rural Normandy, about seven miles from the village of Mortagne-au-Perche) with his much younger family. His wife is also Japanese (though raised in America), also a dancer and “a bit like my daughter”, he admits, in terms of their age difference. It must be hard, being a 70-something parent to such a young son. He laughs again, and dodges the question.

He moved to France in 1995, first Paris, then Normandy. The “vertical hierarchy” of Japanese society was stifling to him: “I am independent, always”. Masaki is part of a Japanese generation which enjoyed the “belle epoque” of the 50s and 60s, before the country sank into recession – though also a generation where a man was expected to be strong, and patriarchal. He’s not like that, and struggles inwardly with the old ways, especially given his delayed foray into fatherhood – “Before, I thought I should be very strong against my son. But now I am very soft to my son” – yet it would be wrong to think that his 24 years in France have made him European. “For other persons I don’t know – but I am, from the beginning till the end, I am Japanese,” he tells me earnestly. “I don’t like to speak French. English also, for our generation, very difficult,” he adds with a note of apology.

Maybe that explains a slight remoteness, the fact that we’re operating outside his true culture; he’s reading a Japanese novel when I arrive at the Weaving Mill and looks a bit awkward when I ask about it, as if I’d caught him in a private moment. But there’s also, I suspect, the simple fact that the Masaki Iwana I talk to – the diffident gentleman telling of a lifetime of doubt and uncertainty – is indeed remote from the Masaki who utters that blood-curdling shriek in the dance piece on YouTube, or the Masaki whose films have even pink-haired, punky admirer Justine warning potential viewers about the sex and violence.

When he creates he’s uncompromising, partly because he’s an outsider and doesn’t have to care what other people think. Right now, however, sitting in a foreign country and waiting for his workshop to begin (he’s giving a workshop on ‘Movement for Performance’, in collaboration with the Rooftop Theatre Group), he’s a different kind of outsider, an ageing Japanese gentleman looking back on his life – and perhaps also wondering the same thing I’m wondering: Just how famous is Masaki Iwana?

Hard to say exactly – but his professional life, at 74, seems to be thriving. He still dances a few times a year, training for an hour every day to regain the slight edge he’s losing with age – his next gig is a big music festival in Tokyo this summer – and his long-delayed film career is busier than ever: he’s now polishing a new script, just a year after Charlotte-Susabi, with the main shoot to come in summer 2020 (most of it will be shot at his house in Normandy, to save costs). Maybe that film, too, will end up connecting unprompted with some random Justine in another part of the world, in the magical way of outsider art.

And what of growing older? What of the ageing, failing body, the fading lustre of the dancer’s talisman? Masaki isn’t religious (few Japanese are) – but does he at least believe in life after death?

“No, nothing,” he replies. “For me, nothing.”

Does that make him sad?

“No. I…” He pauses, trying to find the right words: “Till the end of my life, I try to live. That’s all,” he replies simply – and, foregoing his usual chuckle, gets up to embark on the workshop.

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