Most films from this year Oberhausen International Short Film Festival could be easily categorised. There were some distinct groups of films: features looking like a warm-up before a “proper” filmmaking career; animation taking full advantage of the power of contemporary digital technology; personal avant-garde documentaries which examined the issue of identity in the era of audiovisual communication, using extensive footage from home movies; “victim documentaries” which presented the plight of people suffering hardship in tumultuous parts of the world.
One of few films which resisted easy classification was Super Documentary: The Avant-Garde Senjutsu by Kanai Katsu, awarded the FIPRESCI prize. Its main asset is self-referential irony. The film tells the story of an elderly man (Kanai Katsu himself) who mastered the ancient art of Senjutsu, which gives one the power to raise his or her energy level. This vigour can be subsequently blown into an object or creature, making it obedient to its master’s wishes. Yet it is not quite certain if the hero/filmmaker believes in his story. When he cast spells on flowers or animals, calling out funnily “funky funky”, striking a pose of master Yoda from “Star Wars”, one has the irresistible impression of irony, which refers to the filmmaker himself, to his endeavour, to eastern “energetic” philosophies and western fascination with them. At the same time a doubt appears. Irony is, so to say, “culturally conditioned”, more than anything. It can’t be ruled out that something that for us, Europeans, is ironic, isn’t so in Japanese culture.
In the hands of Kanai Katsu an old Faustian theme is turned into musings over the passing of time and over the human desire to overcome fate, tinted with a warm, mild and nostalgic sense of humour. The film displays a sort of ecological consciousness, which is at odds which the hasty rhythm of the contemporary world and with the attitude visible behind most of films presented in Oberhausen. One could almost draw a set of oppositions bringing out the outstanding quality of the Kanai Katsu film. It was made by a man over 60, whereas the overwhelming majority of films were made by youngsters of 20 something; it cherishes values of maturity and age in strict opposition to the “culture of youthfulness”; its very slow pace (for some too slow) is similar to meditation rather than to action; its simple and patently naive animation stands out against computer-powered virtuosity, which is so common nowadays; its fascination with nature, which is the real context of the protagonist’s life, seems very true and profound.
Some spectators in Oberhausen pointed to the narcissistic and patriarchal overtones in Kanai Katsu’s film. True, the director likes to be in front of camera, talks a lot about himself and places himself in the centre of events. It is also true that his wife, brought to life from a figurine by Senjutsu power, remains figurine-like, never uttering a word, subordinated to a man who is her husband and father and creator at the same time. And yet, one has to ask whether narcissism isn’t a common feature of all artists? Artists are narcissistic, that’s what they are, so perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss a film which presents this so patently, bearing the risk of being “politically incorrect”. And we know too little about the relationship between the director and his wife to decide whether the alleged patriarchy is a not-so-nice feature of the man and a part of the film’s hidden ideological message, or rather one more dimension in the film’s strategy of self-referential irony.
© FIPRESCI 2004