Film still from MASAO ADACHI’s film, Artist of Fasting, 2016. 

Feb 26 2016

Masao Adachi: Artist of Fasting

by William Andrews

One day a man appears in an unassuming shopping arcade in a nondescript Japanese city. He has no name or distinguishing features. For unknown reasons he has stopped eating and cannot move far without feeling tired. He attracts the attention of a schoolboy, who snaps a picture with his phone and posts it online. It goes viral and the man becomes a national sensation.

And so begins Artist of Fasting, the new film by Japanese cinema legend Masao Adachi and his first in a decade. Unusually for Adachi, the film has a literary source: A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler, 1922), a short story by Franz Kafka about a fasting man who becomes a spectacle. Commissioned by Asian Culture Complex in Gwangju, South Korea, Adachi’s film was premiered as part of the venue’s inaugural season in autumn 2015. Starting on February 27, the film debuts at Eurospace in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, and will then be rolled out to other art-house venues around the country. Artist of Fasting also screened recently at the International Film Festival Rotterdam alongside a retrospective of Adachi’s past work from the 1960s and 1970s.

What makes Kafka’s story so timeless and, conversely, Adachi’s film so contemporary is the way the eponymous “artist” is treated by society. In the film’s tale, the man (played by Hiroshi Yamamoto) is quickly labelled a “hunger striker” and attracts a barrage of reporters demanding to know the motivation for his protest. He is feted by the media as a “hero” of the times, attracting waves of supporters. People donate money, flowers and food, though these are regularly stolen by homeless people and local gangsters.

The protagonist becomes a symbol of inspiration for others, who project their own desires onto him. The fervor is almost religious. His groupies include two Buddhist monks waiting for a miracle that never comes and a troubled, young couple. Later, an intellectual arrives to rubber-stamp the man’s fast as the “ultimate art.”

Increasingly manipulated by others, the protagonist is literally caged by ultranationalists who make him part of their platform, parading him like a freak show with right-wing symbols. An armed soldier is assigned to guard him. But to all this attention and control the artist himself remains mute and unresponsive. He displays only indifference, or occasionally pain when people hurt him or medical professionals forcefully admit him to a hospital.

Film still from MASAO ADACHI’s film, Artist of Fasting, 2016. 

Adachi, who is now in his 70s and almost alone among his generation as an active filmmaker (past colleagues Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima both died in recent years), has his cynical eye firmly on the contemporary condition. It is especially timely to watch Artist of Fasting in 2016, just months after the intense media storm surrounding SEALDs, the student activist group that occupied the limelight with their demonstrations against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial state security bills in 2015. These passed in September, though only after huge mass protests took place around the Japanese parliament over the summer. Much of the media attention honed in on the well-dressed, polite SEALDs members, as interested in their fashion sense as their avocation for constitutionalism.

Immediately after finishing the shoot for Artist of Fasting, Adachi told ArtAsiaPacific that he paid a visit to the student protests. Coincidentally, there were even some actual hunger strikers among the demonstrators. Was this life imitating art? “No, they didn’t know who Kafka was! They even misread the characters of the [Japanese version of Kafka’s story] title,” he recalled with a laugh.

Other elements contextualize Adachi’s film firmly in present-day Japan. Artist of Fasting begins with footage of the tsunami and Fukushima disaster that devastated Japan in 2011. The dramatic scenes are also intercut with narration and historical photographs, though this is not as didactic as it sounds. Through the film, Adachi wants to examine the various kinds of side-show-esque performance art that have existed in Japan’s history, from the beggars who would line the postwar streets exhibiting their keloid scars to the anthropological images of Ainu that were shown as documents of the country’s “natives.” One cannot expect a straightforward structure in Artist of Fasting; it is very much meta-cinema, heightened by circus-style interludes. The street theatre overtones are not just flourishes, but deliberate attempts to highlight the performative dimension of celluloid.

Adachi compares his film to kamishibai, the art of “paper drama” storytelling that dates back centuries. He recalls how the term denki-kamishibai (“electric” kamishibai) had once been an old way of describing cinema. “Kamishibai is also a word that can be used to show contempt for a film. I wanted to reflect that. For me, this is a kamishibai film.” The slightly stilted, almost episodic structure of the film is as though Adachi is switching between picture scenes on a kamishibai board.

Adachi’s metaphorical paper drama is the sum of many parts, both Asian and Western; it is small-scale, focused on one man’s fate, but also broad in scope. It is littered with references, including a scene that pays homage to Orson Welles’s film adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Keen-eyed viewers will spot parallels between the protagonist’s feat of endurance with sokushinbutsu, the Buddhist tradition of self-mummification, and see that the narration is laced with quotes from Lu Xun.

The credits for the film feature a wide range of talent from Japanese cinema, theatre and beyond. Its official photographer was Nobuyoshi Araki, whose renowned work Sentimental Journey (1972–92) influenced Adachi’s “landscape theory” (fukei-ron), which posits that the filming of everyday landscapes has the ability to reveal the structures of oppression that underpin one’s sociopolitical environment. The film’s soundtrack is by Otomo Yoshihide, an experimental composer known for his noise music. Otomo had worked with Adachi on his previous film; yet unlike before, the director deliberately asked the musician for more positive and upbeat tunes for Artist of Fasting.

Film still from MASAO ADACHI’s film, Artist of Fasting, 2016. 

Another collaborator of sorts is Kozo Okamoto, a real-life figure whose plight Adachi’s fictional protagonist recalls in the film. Okamoto was one of three Japanese men who participated in a deadly attack on Israel’s Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in 1972. As the sole survivor of the incident, Okamoto was put on trial in Israel, a seemingly guileless Japanese wannabe-revolutionary, paraded in front of the news cameras as an apparent pawn of greater political forces. Adachi made his previous film, Prisoner/Terrorist (2007), about his friend Okamoto, and footage from it is consciously included in Artist of Fasting.

Adachi’s earlier work is often classified as avant-garde entries within the pinku eiga (“pink cinema”), a genre of Japanese cinema that is known for its soft-core pornographic elements. The filmmaker’s “kinkiness” is still present in Artist of Fasting, which includes gratuitous scenes of naked schoolgirls and an older dominatrix, plus even a bit of necrophilia. Though female scholars have given positive assessments of Adachi’s contributions, the torrid mix of sex and politics that was such a feature of the classic pinku eiga may seem dated now and has the potential to offend. At the recent screenings in Rotterdam, a Q&A with Adachi over the telephone was disrupted by one female attendee, angered at his depiction of rape. Issues of male gaze aside, his motives are sincere: “I use rape in my work as a symbol of the miscommunication of the contemporary human condition,” he says.

At the height of his success, Adachi made a PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) propaganda film with Koji Wakamatsu and later joined Fusako Shigenobu’s nascent Japanese Red Army in the Middle East. His name was put on international wanted lists and he led a somewhat precarious life until his arrest in 1997 in Lebanon, along with other Japanese Red Army associates. Deported back to Japan in 2000, he has no passport and cannot travel overseas. His attempts to restart his artistic career have encountered difficulties due to his political reputation. “I’m not a terrorist, but that’s what they always call me . . . When they hear it’s me who’s going to be the director, half the investors run away!”

As such, in Artist of Fasting Adachi may also be making an acerbic comment on his own predicament. It is surely no coincidence that the poster for the film is a collage featuring Adachi himself standing dubiously behind the bars of the hunger artist’s cage.