9 Jul. 2019

Half-width Spaces / HOSHINO Futoshi

Lost Films by Hirakawa Youki (1983-) is a series of works whose subject is literally “lost films.” Contrary to the mysterious mood of the title, it points to a material fact. According to the artist, of all the movies produced around the world by the 1930s, only 20% are available today. Speaking of Japanese films, less than 5% have survived from various disasters in the past. Indeed, we have limited access to the films directed by the old masters before World War II, because most of them were destroyed during that period. Therefore, as far as prewar works are concerned, “lost” films are not unusual, but are rather the norm.

Despite this fact, the narrative of “lost films” seems to evoke special emotions in people. We often hear in the news that a film that was thought to have been lost was found somewhere in the world, and that it has been restored at a film center or some other institution. Although there is no original, which is a characteristic of “art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (Walter Benjamin), it is possible to restore it using advanced technology called digital remastering, as long as there is at least one remaining print. Today, there are three kinds of movies in the world: (1) existing movies; (2) movies that are thought to have been lost but might have survived somewhere; and (3) movies whose traces have been completely erased from the world. In the case mentioned above, people are surprised to know that what was thought to be (3) turned out to be (2). It is perfectly understandable that the rediscovery of such films, through the enormous efforts of researchers and archivists, appeals to people’s emotions. What makes the narratives of “lost films” come alive—not to mention the nostalgia and romanticism associated with their loss and rediscovery—is nothing other than this human drama.

By contrast, Hirakawa Youki’s approach to “lost films” is quite different. According to him, even if the movie itself does not exist, there is one thing that definitely remains. It is the title that exists in magazines or posters printed at the time of release. Unlike the movie itself, which has only a master film and a limited number of prints for screenings, box office data such as titles, that spread widely at the time of the film’s distribution, do not disappear so easily. Hirakawa employs the title as footage, in a way that is unrelated to nostalgia or romanticism about the lost movie. The work shows only the lost films’ titles and years of production, and the gallery echoes calmly with the voice of someone reading the titles. The black screen that lasts for nine minutes seems to testify to the absence of the movie whose title is being read [1].

Until It Becomes a Film Sing in a Loud Voice (2018), the third work of Lost Films is based on prewar Japanese movies. The previous two works in the series were based on German and English films. The lyrical title is a combination of the title of two films (Until It Becomes a Film and Sing in a Loud Voice) and appears at the very end of the work [2].

It begins like this: “The Mist-Laden Night / Into Darkness / A Ship in Distress / To an Unknown Country / Beyond the Decline / In Broad Daylight / Seeking the Light / To the Extremes of the Sea / Pulling Day.” As noted above, each of these is derived from the title of an old movie, followed by the year of production underneath (most of them are from the 1920s and 1930s). The screen never switches from a black background and over the course of nine minutes one hundred movie titles are read out.

It seems simple, but there is a lot to think about here. First of all, using what logic did the artist come to put them together? The main premise is that, as I said, they are all the titles of movies that have been lost. Secondly, each one of the Lost Films is made by combining the titles of movies that were filmed in particular languages: German, English and Japanese [3]. Also, as a final premise, these one hundred titles have been deliberately selected; when presented consecutively, they deliver a certain meaning.

However, it is not always obvious what guarantees this continuity. When visitors of the gallery pick up a leaflet listing the titles, they would recognize it as a kind of poetry. This is implied by its layout. For example, the first stanza “The Mist-Laden Night / Into Darkness / A Ship in Distress / To an Unknown Country / Beyond the Decline” would be understood as a poetic sentence that says, “In a foggy night, the wrecked ship heads for an unknown country beyond decline.” Deviations from standard syntax are the most prominent feature of what we call poetry. Knowing this fact, we would try, without much discomfort, to glean a meaning out of this kind of loosely concatenated string.

If that was the case, Hirakawa’s work could have been released in the form of poetry. As mentioned earlier, the Lost Films series employs the titles of lost movies as footage. The term “footage” usually refers to a portion of film. However, that does not apply here, because, as far as we know, none of the cited movies exist any longer. Also, after all, the title of a piece is nothing but “words.” If that is the case, it would be more natural for an artwork whose footage is words or language to take literary form. Nevertheless, Hirakawa decided to produce it as a short movie. However, this is not surprising, because words are inscribed in any movie as plainly as audio/text, that is, voice-over and subtitles.

If this work had been realized as a poem, exactly what would not have been achieved? In that case, perhaps, the titles of the lost films would have remained mere words. Am I saying something strange? Titles are nothing but words. However, as we have seen, over here words exist in a way that is possible only in this medium: voice-over and subtitles. In short, Lost Films is an attempt to bring to life a movie that has been lost, being reduced to words (namely, its title). Hirakawa tries to revive it again as a movie. Incidentally, according to the artist, the striking title Until It Becomes a Film is likely to be a documentary about the film industry. Hirakawa says that when he “discovered” the (title of the) movie, he could imagine the general direction of the work. Indeed, the title Until It Becomes a Film Sing in a Loud Voice makes a beautiful contrast with the previous work The Better Way Back to the Soil that was released in 2017. “Until it becomes a film” clearly intends the opposite sense of “back to the soil.”

Bringing movies back to life through the movie—in short, the title is a brilliant summary of the attempt made by Lost Films. It also seems that the work is trying to highlight the essential character of the movie. Whether it is The Better Way Back to the Soil or Until It Becomes a Film Sing in a Loud Voice, there is no punctuation mark, such as a comma, between any of the two titles. This leaves a somewhat strange impression on the viewer. Until It Becomes a Film and Sing in a Loud Voice (“映画になるまで 君よ高らかに歌へ”)—these two titles have neither a comma nor a period, just a half-width space between them. Nevertheless, we recognize a continuity. This half-width space corresponds to the function of montage, that allows you to connect any shots you want. Each shot in the movie is adjoining and is beyond the use of markers such as commas and periods [4]. The choice of the half-width space clearly demonstrates the artist’s awareness of this.

Why are this and that placed adjacent? Ultimately, there might be no reason. The half-width space is probably an allegory of the ontological basis of the movie. Moreover, this observation would remind us that the dividing line between lost and existing films is very thin. Hirakawa’s work encourages you to recognize the miracle of a coexistence of things having different origins and fates.

[1]: Hirakawa Youki has been interested in the subject of absence and disappearance in previous works, and has treated them quite materially. See Haito Masahiko, “The Pulse of Light,” translated by Brian Amstutz, in HIRAKAWA Youki (Exhibition Catalog), Ando Gallery, 2018, pp. 7-9.

[2]: Hirakawa’s work may be characterized by its minimal appearance, mostly employing images and objects. However, the Lost Films are different from other series in that they show a delicate use of “words” as described later. The works that use natural objects effectively, on the other hand, are detailed below. Iida Shihoko, “The Form of a Long Sleep: The Moment Eternal Life Appears,” translated by Manabe Nanae, in Youki Hirakawa, “Until You Fall into a Deep Sleep” (Exhibition Catalog), Minokamo City Museum, 2014, pp. 28-31.

[3]: The series began in 2017. The first piece Vom Fels zum Meer Von Ozean zu Ozean (2017) is in German, and the second The Better Way Back to the Soil (2017) in English. At the time of writing this essay, his fourth work Due cuori Sperduti nel buio Due occhi per non vedere (2018) had already appeared in Italian.

[4]: As art critic Sawayama Ryo has rightly pointed out, the structure of this work, as detailed above, is highly reminiscent of the film theory of the early twentieth century, especially the montage theory of Yury Tynyanov and Nakai Masakazu. However, ironically enough, the title of this exhibition included in his review lacks the half-width space, whose importance I have pointed out in this essay, between the two titles of the films. Sawayama Ryo, “Film, Poetry and Voice: A Review of Youki Hirakawa’s ‘Until It Becomes a Film Sing in a Loud Voice’,” Bijutsutecho, July 3, 2018: https://bijutsutecho.com/magazine/review/17195 (accessed on March 1, 2019). [There is no spacing between “Until It Becomes a Film” and “Sing in a Loud Voice” in his original Japanese text.]