Interview with Takaharu Saito, Filmmaker

Takaharu Saito is a filmmaker residing in Sendai, Japan. His works include A Memory (2001), Portrait of a Day (2003) and ONE/S (2004). In the following interview, he talks about his latest film, Pre/sense (2006).


From Pre/sense

Mr. Saito has been kind enough to allow us to host his movie. Please take the opportunity to download and watch the movie by clicking here.

If you have trouble watching the film, please download Quicktime 7.

Interview follows.

Your previous films have often featured urban landscapes in states of decay. Pre/sense, however, features urban settings far less prominently. Was this a deliberate choice or due to the locations you had available to you?

Basically it was due to the availability of the locations. But this is not to say I was unhappy about that. I’ve become more and more aware that my works are acts of ‘recording’. That is, although images might appear heavily manipulated at first, I still see them as ‘direct images’, if you like, of impressions and memories of the place. Then in this work, ‘the place’ I wanted to record was just far less urban than in my previous works, so the images simply reflected that.

Something that has always intrigued me about your work is your exploration of the frame. Pre/sense is the first piece of yours that I’ve seen that uses digital effects to create frames. Was there a motivation behind this choice?

As you rightly pointed out, the frame has been one of my favourite motifs. So the idea of this digital-framing-effect occurred to me quite naturally, as a means to enhance what I’ve been working on. If anything else, I guess my interest in surrealism played a part, as they made a number of really interesting montages and juxtapositions.

When people watch your films, what do you want them to come away with?

Some sort of ‘unnamable’ emotion. I believe moving-image should not be reducible to concepts, meanings or themes that can be clearly expressed by words/language. In other words, I’m trying to make something that is NOT a ‘visualization’, but something which is to be received just as a moving-image – nothing more, nothing less. So I’m really happy when somebody sees my film and tells me ‘I don’t know what to say, but…’

I’ve often thought that the people in your films have very pronounced relationships with their environments, sometimes even more so than with other people. Is this a sentiment that resonates with you?

The answer is yes, I’m interested in people as a part of their environments (in a broader sense), rather than what they do to each other with their environments as a background. Also, it probably comes back to what I said on the first question, that I feel I’m ‘recording’ a place, rather than narrating a story or creating a drama. So in a sense the main character of my film is the environments and images they allow me to pick from themselves. People in my film, in this sense, are in the middle between these environments and the audience, I guess. They ‘translate’ what I feel/find about these environments to more tangible images (not only for the audiences, but for me as well, sometimes). In other words, they are ‘strings’ that bind disparate images.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

Some filmmakers I could think of immediately are:
  • Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Sergei Parajanov
  • Jonas Mekas
  • Mohsen Makhmalbaf
  • Mamoru Oshii (Japanese animator)
  • Jan Svankmajer
  • Michelangelo Antonioni
One thing common in all of them, I think, is that in their films, it is images that dominate, having an authentic autonomy and beauty, rather than being a mere accompaniment/illustration of a narrative, however excellent that is.

Where was Pre/sense filmed?

It was filmed in University of Essex in Colchester, UK, except for scenes by the sea, which were shot in the nearby beach of Mersea Island.

How do you come up with an idea for a film? Is it very planned out, somewhat planned out, or do you work intuitively and then craft your material into a finished film?

It’s half planned and half intuitive – improvised, to be exact. Usually, there are a few crucial images that I start off from. In the case of Pre/sense it was the final shot of the moving image. Then general atmosphere develops quite autonomously. And I start wandering around with a video-camera – this part is rather improvisational, I would say. I have general atmosphere or emotion in mind, then just shoot what I come across. It’s also quite reciprocal as well, for what I come across and shoot would, in turn, influence the overall plan of the project.

Similarly in the phase of editing, there are some elements from which I start, then after that, I do my best not to prevent organic development of the material, trying out various patterns rather intuitively.

The sky often plays a prominent role in your films. Do you see the sky as a part of the landscapes that are explored by the people in your films, or as an entity separate from the people?

Yes the sky indeed has been a crucial element in my works. And what I see in it is some sort of expressionistic quality, and a boundary of subject/object relationships. Particularly important for me is clouds, for with their ever-changing forms, colours and spatial relationships, I think the sky with clouds is always like an abstract painting, if you like. On one hand, consciously or unconsciously, I see them as a sort of projection of my feelings/emotions, in a very subtle way. On the other hand, they are never simply there as to be projected, for they are environmental elements probably more than anything else, unlike, for example, an inserted object that is meant to have some symbolic value. Then maybe the sky assumes both subjective and objective quality at the same time. Apart from the fact that I simply like it, this is probably the reason the sky is so important in my works.

How did you select the music for Pre/sense?

For this piece I was determined not to use a copyright-protected music. So I spoke to two of my friends who make music – Yusuke Fukuhara and Junya Oikawa. The former let me use two of his already-released (privately) music compositions, to which I was quite familiar. And the latter made some pieces for the project, from which I chose one that I liked the best.

One criterion I had in mind in selecting the music for the work was that ‘a music that somehow carves out space’, in other words the music that goes neither foreground nor background, instead providing a sense of space with which images can play. I really have to say both of my friends did a brilliant job in their music! Thanks to them, I didn’t feel the difficulty of not being able to use copyright-protected music.

Where did the title Pre/sense come from?

Basically, it’s a sort of play on words… On one hand ‘Pre sense’ meaning (or I hope it means) ‘before sense’, therefore signifying my attempt to go before meaning/concept/themes, i.e., ‘sense’, start to dominate. And on the other hand, the whole word of Presen’s’e reads like ‘presence’. So I hoped it conveys one character of the work, namely it’s a play of presence/absense. And above all, using a slash ‘/’, I wanted to make the title ambiguous and blurry in meaning, as a sort of challenge to language-dominated signification, which always tries to pin down everything, integrating everything into its system of logic. A bit of extreme view maybe, but basically that’s where the title Pre/sense came from.

One of the most striking scenes in Pre/sense occurs where actress Esther Grigoli is looking at a broken mirror in a structure. When I first watched the film, I didn’t realize it was a mirror and thought she was looking through the warped part of the structure. Did you plan this scene, or did you discover the broken mirror while filming?

That was actually planned – I had to smash a nice mirror to obtain that broken piece! In fact, I was quite surprised that many people told me they didn’t realize that was a mirror. I didn’t mean to make the scene ‘tricky’ or to surprise the audience. I just wanted to use the broken mirror as an ‘analog version’ of the digital framing effect.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in completing Pre/sense?

Probably, lack of time for shooting. As the shootings had to take place in term time, I was busy writing essays and things like that at some point. Then the actress Esther Grigoli had to be busy at another, so we ended up having only about 3 weeks to do the main shootings, although I had started shooting landscapes much earlier. So I was slightly worried and had to amend the plan a bit. But that was ok, in the end it was not a crucial obstacle.

How long did it take you to complete Pre/sense ?

It’s really difficult to say in one go actually. Roughly speaking, I conceived the idea of this project in early 2005. Then I tried to make it over the summer of 2005 in Japan. But it didn’t work out. So at the end of the summer, I just made a small 3 minute clip in which I experimented with the digital framing effect. I once thought of completing it in Japan when I come back in the summer 2006, yet I decided to produce it in the UK, while I was doing my MA. Then having shot everything there, I came back to Japan to edit it, completing it in September 2006. So you know, it’s very complicated… Maybe ‘one and a half years’ is the most appropriate?

Are you working on anything at the moment?

At the moment I’m working on a collaboration work with a student who works on the electronic music in Senzoku College of Music, Japan. We are in the phase of discussing the general direction, and will shortly move onto actual production, completing the end product by the end of January.

Can you leave us with a closing quote?

‘Poet is something you are allowed to be, but not allowed to become’ – Herman Hesse. This quote has become my working principle in some ways… I like it as I think it speaks about keeping the relationship between one’s life and art fresh, not to make an art about art.

All images from Pre/sense (2006), courtesy of Takahura Saito.

3 thoughts on “Interview with Takaharu Saito, Filmmaker

  1. Nice interview and film. Makes me want to visit this place they call Essex, UK.

    I can definitely see the imagery/cinematography is the focus of this film. This reminds me of some of Federico Fellini’s shots. I like the openness, airiness feel of the film… it’s very liberating in a sense. Thanks for sharing Takahura.

  2. Hi Taka!

    I wonder if you still look at this website, it’s great to read this interview. I have fond memories of seeing ONE/S on the big screen and am looking forward to seeing this film at some point, though I don’t seem to be able to download it at the moment. I have some reviews up on a website called filmexposed.com at the moment, including one of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. If you have spare time you might want to check this out.. Good luck with future films,

    Ben.

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