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Bringing Ryoan-ji to the Screen

Daniel Charles

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East

A film, a CD-ROM allows you to "view" an opera at home, or to visit a museum without leaving your living room, but on condition of not replacing the original. Thus, a number of works tolerate being rewritten and reinterpreted, provided it’s to practical ends, for archiving or documentation: the more one recopies them, the more unique they become. But when reproduction stops being ancillary, it can seem suspect–a remake is never completely innocent: doesn’t plagiarism constitute the pedestal, the horizon?–and you should consider yourself fortunate when an opera by Mozart is filmed by a Bergman, or when Visconti takes on Death in Venice; we aren’t dealing with vulgar copies. Take, now, the "dry garden" of Ryoan-ji: to propose a filmed presentation would surely be risky, if we didn’t entrust it to a goldsmith; we simplify our lives if we address ourselves to an extraordinary film and video maker, like Takahiko Iimura, and for the team, the choice of a poet capable of entering into resonance with the images, and a musician capable of echoing them quasi-silently, designating naturally Arata Isozaki, architect of Tsukuba University’s "Campidoglio," and the composer who took up John Cage’s mantle at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Takehisa Kosugi. With such virtuosos, we won’t be disappointed.

However, the title that Iimura retained, MA: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-ji, gives us to understand that the film isn’t primarily or directly concerned with the work of art that  "is" the garden. The author himself admits in the explanatory text that he thought one of the aspects under which the garden offers itself, and which in fact is more, if not something other, than the work of art, ought to receive all of his attention. This aspect, the ma, is the "interval," the "interstices," the "between," inasmuch as separating (and, by that even, confronting, conjoining), in time as in space, the two terms of the same relationship. It’s a question of an immensely vast and, above all, abstract notion; or at least, if the ma appears applicable to an infinity of cases, figures, occurrences, it comes from an elementary structural strategy that is defined quite well by the ideogram’s double emblem: a sun in the embrasure of a door, which consists in making appear an intermediary place, capable of linking the edges of a [geological] fault. The philosopher Kitaro Nishida studied this place, comparable they say to the chora of Plato’s Timeus, using the name basho; he dedicated a number of analyses to it, which in the end tend to compare it to an abyss, to the "gaping" of a Rilkean "Open," from which springs forth all that is. Fecund abyss, basho designates all that the lexicon of the German word zwischen tries to encompass (to the extent it was used by Heidegger and synonymous, with the In-zwischen of Beiträge für Philosophie, of this "spatio-temporal game" that defines "Truth" as unveiling, condition of the veritas as the adequation of the thing to the spirit). And if the "old Heidelberg bridge," which to be sure is a work of art, isn’t content with linking the two banks already there, but situates and establishes them as banks of the same river, the "unveiling" that thus occurs, is constitutive of the work’s "Truth"; this can only be, however, as long as the bridge maintains its distance to this work: even though brought by the work, it can only override and surpass it.

We understand that the problematics of ma impassioned Takahiko Iimura fifteen years earlier, and that to it he dedicated, beginning with the Models series of 1972, a totally abstract film, the MA (Intervals) of 1975-77. During this period, nevertheless, Iimura was interested in "duration," in Bergson’s sense of the term, in which he hoped to find that with which he would legitimize going beyond the strict chronography that he had used up until then to "serialize" the ma. With the 1989 film on Ryoan-ji, Takahiko Iimura apparently returns to classical thematics and techniques, but his interventions–oriented from then on to space and to time in the same way, and giving himself the liberty to evolve through this space–rehabilitate the traditional concept of ma only at the price of an ambiguity that is worth investigating thoroughly, considering the exceptional subtlety of treatment that the filmmaker reserves for it.

How to embrace this ambiguity? By distinguishing, to begin with, that which, in the garden of Ryoan-ji, comes from the aesthetic, or from a criteriology of works of art, in opposition (and inasmuch as this opposition exists) to that which depends on meditation (religious or philosophical) and concerns the ma. It is better, given this subject, to ask the Good Lord rather than His saints: I shall turn directly to the one traditionally considered "the most Japanese of Japanese philosophers," Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941), being inspired by the first of his two communications on Time to the Décade de Pontigny of 1928.

What is, first of all, the "dry garden"? A "formal" garden, sho-in (and not "informal," so-an), which precisely because it is "formally" made, can give us access to the "form without form" that is the void. And why is it "void" (ku-tei)? In order that we may distinguish it from "anecdotal" gardens, subject to commonplace narrativity: these divert us from the profound purpose of all works of art meriting the name: a liberation from suffering, from desire, from the chain of reincarnations.

By welcoming the reign of plant life, we opt for the seasonal cycles and transmigrations that generally return to the same, locking the gardens into a hopeless identity, to live again indefinitely. On the other hand, suppress the vegetation, erase those mosses that sully the sand’s purity, and your garden will perhaps lose in "charm," but isn’t meditation worth this slight detour? Marvel of marvels, only renunciation accords it to us: to substitute the stone garden for the plant garden is to restore the perennial dimension of completion to the formal equilibrium obtained by the artist, which time risked conjuring away or at least hiding. Ryoan-ji represents in this sense the most skillful of compromises between "aesthetic" requirements and the thirst for meditation, because the arrangement of the fifteen boulders, the stylization of their groupings, and the silent tensions that immobilize them at the instant (and in the posture) when one thinks they are ready to spring forth–all this moderates the illimitableness of the sea of sand on which they rise up. It suffices to compare the sovereign fixity of the scattered boulders and the irony of the two sandy hillocks in the garden adjacent to the Daisen-in temple, also in Kyoto: the blocks multiply the instances of ma, and in this sense Ryoan-ji diversifies what the Daisen-in garden simply homogenized, retaining only the two sandy hillocks from the mosses of yesteryear. Equally, the sand alone, without hillocks, in the garden of the hojo gallery at Myoshin-ji (Kyoto, 19th century), perhaps doesn’t "mark" the place, the basho , with the intensity of the fifteen rocks of Ryoan-ji, because the inscription (the scarification) of the ma on the sea of sand is erased little by little "in real time," as the lines are traced. As if the "dry garden" (kare san-sui), extreme version of the "mountains and water" (san-sui ) style, condemned itself by assuming an excess of "dryness" (kare ), to bite, literally, the dust! But Ryoan-ji succeeds in immobilizing the place at this critical point where the ma rises: the transmigration–from one cycle to another, from one "great year" to another–is provisionally suspended, between "disincarnation" and "reincarnation." As Shuzo Kuki explains it, what causes the problem is the passage from one existence to another, given that time is will and that it is necessary for the will to act in order that the passage take place. That’s what Nietzsche called the "will to power," and what Kuki suggests considering rather as a "will in power": in the case of one who has "the feat of strength, or rather the feat of will, to be able to end his existence and be reborn again," it is clear that a potential will must necessarily subsist–especially if (as is the case when one finds oneself between death and rebirth) the actual will is lacking. In other words, the miracle of Ryoan-ji rests in the in-between in which its creator or creators placed it: if success depends, for a work of art, not only on its manifested conformity to aesthetic canons of a certain moment and a certain environment, but on the degree of emancipation in regard to time and space as they were conceived in that environment and at that moment, in that case, if one holds to the Buddhist vision of liberation at the place of transmigration, then the ma,conceived as the placing in suspension of the transmigration without any vague desire of eternization, assumes the aesthetic charge of Ryoan-ji. And Takahiko Iimura’s project, which consists of focusing on the ma, is completely justified.
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It’s precisely here that the ambiguity I spoke of seems to come to the fore. Iimura exposes it with all the hoped-for clarity: he hardly pretends to add some images, not even a film, to the opulent corpus already dedicated to Ryoan-ji. As we said, what interested him from the beginning was to describe "in filmic terms" the "indivisible" mixture of space and time that the ma offers here. And to this end, to live the ma, to make of it an "experience," in and by the film; but first of all as a film. Not thereby to reduce the film to just an illustration or explication: on the contrary, to take from it the autonomy and the self-development as axioms.

The entitled film, centered on "MA: Space/time...," thereby receives literal justification. Because the place, the reference to Ryoan-ji, can only come in a secondary position, since the essential is situated not in Kyoto, but first on the filmstrip. The materiality of the support (the filmic strip) places itself between the geographic reality of the referent and the historic reality of the filming, but not to disqualify space or time; rather it consists in articulating them differently, by reuniting them with a dash or a slash thus avoiding all marginalization of one in relation to the other. But this hyphenization of the title only serves as a prelude to the staging of ma at the level of the film image contents. Because Iimura took care to "frame" his film with an initial  framing shot that covers the quasi-integrality of the garden starting from the left, and a final framing shot from the right, the mirror effect is evidently only felt at the end of the projection: its recapitulating function is thus accentuated, which corresponds to the proposition of the unification of space and time. And the spectator can’t withdraw from the retrospective suggestion of a strong homogenization that underlines less the artist’s formal stance (which one must assume thirsts for unity), than the fragility of the ramblings both spatial and temporal of a camera charged with producing, for itself alone or almost alone, the impression of ma .

The movements that the Lumière Brothers’ camera in a gondola permitted in the Grand Canal of Venice around 1900 were already the cause of an indistinction of space and time, as they permitted a methodical scanning of depth. For Takahiko Iimura, the safari of the MAs takes place with systematic computer-controlled slowness. This technique ensures the tranquil navigation of the camera, operating on rails and positioned at the height of a monk sitting in the lotus posture. The camera details the rocks, the spaces between the rocks, the sand beaches, the narrows and passages before the walls, the trees beyond the walls–and even the human silhouette whose trace we surmise on one of the interior walls.

However, the exploration is neither absolutely regular (the agogics vary) nor without simulacra (the zoom distorts proportions), or–above all–uninterrupted: for the benefit of a suspension of the image, a Western-style language interruption suddenly takes over the screen. Thus the poetic spurts can be slipped in four times (not including the introduction), between the sequences of mobile takes, in the manner of narrative inserts for silent films. They consist of texts that speak the void, and the fusion with the void; their author, Arata Isozaki (the architect who recomposed in Tsukuba Plaza the Piazza delle Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo, by radically inverting it), chose to gradually measure out his subject matter from one insert to another–not, indeed, as a premeditated intrigue, but out of concern for an internal coherence: from the most exterior of perceptions, he guides the reader toward quasi-mystical fusion. One should undoubtedly approach in the same spirit the rare sonorities–lightly touched, enrobed in long silences or laid out in stages that echo each other–by which Takehisa Kosugi, the extraordinary inventor of timbres, carried out the mission with which Iimura entrusted him: to formulate, with the means of his art, the praise of ma.

Speaking of his film, Iimura observes that he marries a "paradoxal" textual chain, which works "at a level of extreme conceptuality" (Isozaki’s written interventions don’t hesitate before negative enunciations or oxymorons, thus claiming an "oriental" logic of "contradiction"), with a suite of images intended to describe (and reproduce) the typical trajectory accomplished by the camera in the name of the operator/magister ludi. Now, this "promenade"–which occurs just above the ground, according to the technical stipulations imposed by the principle of the computerized tracking shot–never shows the "invisible" in the strict sense. However, from the beginning to the end, and during the 16 minutes of the film, it is only a question of the ma and its "negativity"! "No objects, nothing but the distance": notwithstanding Isozaki’s call to order, at the level of the shots, not only do "distance" and "objects" coexist, but "distance" (which ceaselessly repeats itself: it’s the subject of the film) is unceasingly occupied by new "objects": at times a rock, at times the sand, at times the wall. Each of the filmed objects is used and reused as a stop-gap, and finally the impossibility in which the spectator finds himself plunged, to encounter finally the subject (or the supreme object) of the film, that is to say the ma, (the void, the nothingness, the nothing–in brief, all the ingredients of a negative theology): this impossibility becomes the object (or the supreme subject) of the film. Such a denegation of negation gives the film its flexibility and its endurance–in other words, its exceptional power of fascination.

The "ambiguity" which I noted, and which becomes, with Takahiko Iimura, the motor of a superb adventure, not only filmic but also multimedia, is summed up in Magritte’s paradox: "The invisible isn’t hidden from sight. To be hidden you must be visible." But in formulating this "Mystery of Being," we don’t imply any attempt at assimilation of Iimura’s process into the logic of "Being as being" in the Western sense. Let us refer in effect to the problematic that Baron Shuzo Kuki developed in 1928:
In Japan, alongside Buddhism, another moral ideal developed during the feudal period, called Bushido: "The Ways of Chivalry." Rectitude, Valeur, Honor, Charity–these are the cardinal virtues of Bushido. Bushido is the affirmation of the will, the negation of negation, in a sense the abolition of nirvana. It is the will that is only concerned with its own perfection. This perpetual repetition of the will which was the supreme evil for Buddhism now becomes the supreme good. (...) Infinite good will, which can never fully be realized and which is destined forever to be "disappointed," must always renew its effort. (...) Let’s confront the transmigration without fear, valiantly. Let us pursue perfection with the clear conscience of "disappointment." Let us live in perpetual time, in the Endlosigkeit of Hegel. Let us find the Unendlichkeit in the Endlosigkeit, the infinite in the indefinite, eternity in the succession without end.
This admirable text merits a little more celebrity: in effect, it traces in letters of fire the veritable way of Sisyphus (and I have shown elsewhere how Albert Camus had traced over Kuki in rewriting, ten years later, the coda of his essay on the Myth of Sisyphus: but no Japanese, to my knowledge, has noticed!). But Sisyphus, if he is "happy," it is maybe because he "has the art of not perishing of Truth." I believe that I can discern, in Takahiko Iimura, something Nietzschean in this sense. Nietzsche, we know, saw in Buddhism the "nihilism of the weak." And Kuki opposes, in his conclusion, the two "means" to throw off the yoke of  "Eastern" time, that of transmigration, recurring and identical: the Buddhist release, transcendent and intellectualist, by the Indian nirvana, and the release by Bushido, immanent and voluntarist. "The first consists in denying time with the intellect in order to live, or rather to die, in the intemporal "deliverance," in the "eternal rest"; the second consists in not worrying about time, in order to live, truly live, in the indefinite repetition of the painful search for truth, for good and beauty. One is more the consequence of hedonism that looks to escape misfortune, the other is the expression of moral idealism, valiantly determined to put itself forever at the service of the God in us, fighting without respite and thus transforming evil into good.

By bringing Royan-ji to the screen, Takahiko Iimura has respected, indeed, the way of Buddhist release and paid a profound homage to it. But (and there resides the ambiguity to which we wanted to bring attention) he has at the same time privileged, in accordance with his century but also with Japanese tradition, the way of immanent release. This release, which the film and not the site materializes, seems to us susceptible of being interpreted today not only as the application of the Bushido morale in the imaginary domain of transmigration (that which Kuki brings out well), but as confirming the emergence, at the end of the 20th century, of a new category which overwhelms our consecrated aesthetic bearings: that which Mario Costa undertook to study under the name of  the "technological sublime".

Translated from the French by Eleanor Mitch, copy edited by Nadine Covert.

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this article was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East