YIDFF 2023 International Competition

“hibi” AUG
Maeda Shinjiro (Director)

Interviewer: Murayama Kyoichiro

The fifteen-second rule

Murayama Kyoichiro (MK): Congratulations on having “hibi” AUG selected for the International Competition. You have some deep ties with YIDFF, don’t you?

Maeda Shinjiro (MS): Thank you very much. The first time I submitted was in 1999. My film, Inoue Shinta Project of Shepherd 1999, was screened as part of the Japanese Panorama program. I’ve been taking part in the festival since my twenties, so I’ve sort of been raised by Yamagata. 

MK: Later, in 2005, “hibi” 13 full moons was selected for the all about me? program, and in 2011, The Shepherd’s Story / Shinjuku 2009 + Ogaki 2010 (co-directed by Suzuki Hikaru) was in New Asian Currents, Between Yesterday & Tomorrow Omnibus Vol. 1 “April 2011,” Omnibus Vol. 2 “May 2011” was in New Docs Japan, and the Between Yesterday & Tomorrow series was selected for Perspectives Japan in 2017 and 2021. And this time, you’re in the International Competition program, so it seems your ties with the festival are quite deep.

You have “hibi” 13 full moons, which was screened in 2005, and this film, another entry in the “hibi” series, but how would you pronounce the title “hibi” AUG?

MS: I say “hibi August.” “hibi” 13 full moons was something I shot in a single year in 2004, but this one I shot every year in August with the goal of making a single film over an extended period of time. Since I’d made the previous film over the twelve months of 2004, my plan was to shoot in August for twelve years, but I wasn’t satisfied with how the film ended, so I kept adding one more year and managed to finish in 2022, the fifteenth year of the project.

MK: With “hibi” 13 full moons, you had a rule of one shot per fifteen seconds. Is it the same this time?

MS: Yes. It’s fifteen seconds. Just like with “hibi” 13 full moons, I changed the time of day I shot to match the movement of the moon and linked those fifteen seconds from each day. The difference here is I added music and a monologue because I thought it would open up the film a bit for the audience.

MK: Yes, I believe 2013 and 2018 had music. And 2016 included your monologue about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

MS: I recorded sync sound for 2013 and 2018 just like the other years, but when putting them together, I decided to replace the soundtrack with music based on their overall structure. For 2016, I had several consecutive days of fifteen-second drone footage, but I was worried about the noise in the air. I was hesitant to use it as is, so I went ahead and inserted the monologue about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

MK: So you restructured them, so to speak, but can you talk a little more specifically about how you shot hibi so that the fifteen-second footage matched the movement of the moon.

MS: I decided that on a day with a half-moon, I’d shoot at six in the morning, on a day with a new moon, I’d shoot at noon, on the next half-moon, I’d shoot at six at night, and on a day with a full moon, I’d shoot at midnight; but generally my shooting schedule would shift by forty-five minutes each day. So, it was like today I’ll shoot between one and two, the next day between two and three, etc. Life got a bit rough then.

MK: I think it was in 2009. At the beginning there’s a shot where you overslept. (laughs)

MS: Yeah, right. What’s a bit confusing about the shooting rules is that on a full moon day, I’d shoot at midnight, but the next day’s footage I’d shoot an hour later at one a.m. It’s not one a.m. twenty-four hours later. It’s the next day on the calendar, but really it was like shooting continuously on the same day, so watching those parts might be a little awkward.

MK: For example, the 2008 shots with Oki Hiroyuki.

MS: He’s in a shot taken on full moon day, and he said he missed the last train, so he’s in the shot from the next day as well. The reason why is that the shot from midnight is followed by the shot taken an hour later the next day.

MK: I think the contents of these fifteen-second images in hibi change a lot depending on where you are on the timeline.

MS: I decided to follow a lax rule where I shot at a predetermined time each day. This was meant to incorporate some randomness into the film. It allowed me to document spaces I wouldn’t normally shoot. On the other hand, there were days where I’d go to meet certain people and stage my shots in a planned-out manner. The purpose of making these rules was not so much to accurately document the daily lives of individuals as to film the diverse visions we have in our lives.

Record and recollection

MK: I think, and this is true of Between Yesterday & Tomorrow, this feeling the film gives that you have linked fragments of daily life are in the diary film tradition. Your films are produced by setting clear instructions, or rather directions and rules.

MS: I believe the diary is the origin of film forms where something is created following a set of rules, and I believe that the individual filmmakers who’ve taken the diary film approach have been very conscious of the idea of rules. For example, Jonas Mekas, for his part, had a limit on how many feet of film he could use per movie; and Suzuki Shiroyasu’s Fifteen Days (1980) is also aware of the idea of rules.

MK: If you don’t confine a film within some kind of framework, it’s definitely going to end up somewhat amorphous, isn’t it?

MS: While the fifteen-second model was something I thought of, the idea of films based on rules is not something I discovered; for example, Oki Hiroyuki’s early works, the Buddy Matsumae series, were improvised films shot over ten days from New Year’s Day; these films had a major influence on me.

MK: Up until the 1980s, diary movies were shot on film, so the length of the film was one inevitable constraint. What about you, have you ever worked on film?

MS: Not on any film I’ve shown publicly.

MK: You went from videotape to digital, didn’t you? Was this kind of digitizing ever a factor in establishing the rules?

MS: I started making audiovisual works in the 1990s using a video camera, not film; but when we entered the digital age, it became possible to shoot for an unlimited amount of time, and whatever footage I shot could be handled by a computer. That’s the era we live in, and that’s exactly why we need to have some kind of rules-based approach. At the beginning, I made films that were systematically auto-edited by a computer, but the first film I shot according to the rules I actually set myself was “hibi” 13 full moons.

MK: In the movie, it’s common to see spatial transitions, say, from Ogaki, Gifu to Shibuya, Tokyo the next day, that are left unexplained, but I think it is very interesting how the meaning in these unrelated spaces colliding seems to be the basis of montage.

MS: I search for the motifs I need to shoot today while thinking about the footage I shot yesterday, and I end up spending every day considering how the next shot will link to the previous one. Linking together shots of completely different locations makes for a powerful montage, and so I tried that; or, on the other hand, I also went to the same location as the previous day and shot from the same camera position; so every day I was shooting by trial and error.

MK: So, you are staging your scenes. So, in that sense, it’s truly a filmmaker’s personal film, because in another sense, you could make the same film with, for example, a surveillance camera.

MS: Yes, you could. If you set up the camera to shoot automatically at a designated time, in theory, you could link those fifteen-second increments together, but the outcome would certainly be different.

MK: But as far as directing goes, you’re always working within the range of the moon’s movement, including reshoots, right?

MS: Yes. I’m often asked if I didn’t do one take a day, but on days where I was feeling indecisive, I sometimes would shoot several takes and pick the best one afterwards. Other times I did one long take and selected the best fifteen seconds from that.

MK: What kind of camera do you use?

MS: For the first film, “hibi” 13 full moons, I purposely used the cumbersome built-in camera on my laptop. For “hibi” AUG, I used an HDV camera and shot on videotape the first few years. When I started production, in 2008, it was the early days of HD, or high definition, format cameras, and they were just getting popular. Later I switched to a hard disk camera, or an SLR camera or a smartphone. By the end, I was shooting with a variety of cameras.

MK: In Between Yesterday & Tomorrow, memory comes through in the gaps between images and words, and the changes in time. By contrast, in “hibi” AUG I get the impression that it’s not a matter of memory, but of recording. I think a recording is intimately connected to the time it is (or was) recorded in. What are your thoughts on time?

MS: I’d been thinking about making a film based on the theme of time for a while. I suppose I was more conscious of wanting the audience to feel a sense of time, including thinking about what time is, in “hibi” AUG than in Between Yesterday & Tomorrow. However, while it’s true I made the film hoping to confront the issue of recording, it seems to me that the issue of memory is inseparable. The everyday scenes I recorded dealt with history, including each year’s events and news. As they watch the film, I’m sure the viewers superimpose their own memories and recollections. In that sense, “hibi” AUG is also a film about memory.

Seeing the unknown

MK: In your essay “Seiza’ satsuei nisshi” in the book Bijutsu × eizo (Bijutsu Press 2010), edited by Matsumoto Toshio, you describe the hibi series the following way: “By setting some rules, the aim was to increase the chance of encountering the unknown, hidden in everyday life, and at the same time to visually capture the bodily information in the response to those encounters. Also, for me who shot it, it was training in ‘seeing.’” How was it “encountering the unknown”?

MS: I searched for the unknown every day. I think the rules for the film helped me encounter a lot of it.

MK: “What can you see?” is not a simple question. And of course, there will be times when something you’ve never sensed before arises in your mind, including kinds of sensations you can’t yet verbalize. But the people in the audience probably wouldn’t tend to know the rules you set for yourself. So, it seems that the way we see “hibi” AUG, changes a lot depending on whether or not we know the rules from the start. What do you think?

MS: For Between Yesterday & Tomorrow, the rules appear as text on the screen beforehand, but in “hibi” AUG, only the years are shown. I decided that the rules were not the most important thing, and so it was fine if not everybody realized I was cutting together fifteen-second shots from each day or that I was changing the shooting times daily.

MK: The first time I watched it, I didn’t know the rules, so I got the impression it was another entry in the diary film tradition, but knowing the rules gave it a different kind of perspective and meaning as a conceptual work. It seems the audience’s perception can change considerably depending on whether or not we know the rules.

MS: Unlike documentaries that are meant to convey a clear theme or message from the artist, this film is about the process itself, where “scenes that seem to have little meaning” are connected in succession. I’m sure there’s some pleasure in confirming this concept while watching the film, but to me the rules were just a device that made the film possible, and I thought it was enough for the viewers to watch the sequence of shots, overlapping with their own memories.

MK: It’s interesting enough to watch scenes that seem to have no meaning unfold, but I still wonder what meaning the reality projected on the screen will have for the audience after the film is over. What meaning does the reality in front of the camera have for you, the director?

MS: Well, for me, the real world is more uncertain and elusive the more I look at it. I am acutely aware of the ambiguity and uncertainty of human vision. Some of the scenes I shot with my camera were consciously intended to highlight the dangerous, if not eerie, nature of their existence.

MK: Reality is uncertain, isn’t it? So, by pointing a camera at reality, a creator is attempting to incorporate it into his own world.

MS: They say audiences watching the Lumière brothers’ movies at the time were awestruck to discover trees swaying in the wind. How can I evoke such an experience in modern audiences? That’s what I was thinking about when filming and linking together shots.

MK: I forget the year, but there was, for example, a shot of someone with an umbrella on a drizzly day walking towards the camera. A grayish mist fills the entire screen, and it feels nice, and that alone made it memorable. I think the appeal of imagery is that it extends sensations that can’t be put into words.

MS: I think that’s exactly it.

MK: Thank you for giving us so much of your time.

Compiled by Murayama Kyoichiro
Translated by Thomas Kabara

Photography: Sato Hiroaki / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2023-08-22
* Interview conducted on Zoom prior to the film festival, with excerpts published in Sputnik (No. 4) , the official guide to YIDFF.

Murayama Kyoichiro
Film critic and editor. From 1993 to 2017, Murayama was a member of the YIDFF International Competition Selection Committee. He served as a juror for the YIDFF 2005 New Asian Currents. Currently, he is a member of the YIDFF Board. He co-authored and co-edited Sekai wa sekai wo kirokusuru: dokyumentari saiko (Shinwasha, 2006); Dokyumentari: riaruwarudo ni fumikomu hoho (Film Art, Inc., 2006), etc.