I saw a green horizon in the dark

Helmuts Caune

An interview with Japanese artist and filmmaker Takashi Makino


One of the opening acts of this year's Cesis Art Festival was a performance “Space Noise” by Japanese artist Takashi Makino (1978). Before gathering into almost completely dark hall, people were given a simple 3D filter with which to cover one eye in order to fully experience the image. The “performance” consisted of a large 25-minute video on a projector – an abstract film that was something in-between a fast-moving footage of outer space, very advanced Windows screensaver and the last act of Kubrick's Space Odyssey. The picture was accompanied by an equally abstract, ambient soundtrack. However, the “performance” part of it all became clear when one averted the gaze from the screen and looked at the artist – Makino's actions in front of a desk full of various controllers clearly indicated that he's orchestrating everything that's going on, both visually and audibly.

Makino is a Tokyo-born Japanese filmmaker who started making moving pictures in early 2000-s. Almost all of his films are similar to the one audience saw in Cesis: while the picture seems abstract, it's actually a footage of very real material things. Makino has spent countless hours filming various rich-structured surfaces – water, snow, rain, rocks, trees, crowds of people, buildings – that he then combines by layering various images onto each other. Going against the mainstream of most of contemporary film and video being rather direct and straightforward in its meaning, Makino strives to make pictures whose meaning is known to him only, but the audience is left with plenty of room to seek a meaning of their own. It's sometimes hard for an untrained eye to get used to the unusual structure and intensity of his work, but once that is achieved, the beauty of those layered pictures can captivate one for hours. Since 2008, Makino's work has seen a breakthrough in international recognition. Makino currently resides in Yokohama, and for the last six years he can happily say that he doesn't need to do anything else in life in order to survive and can fully concentrate on his art.

During our conversation, Makino constantly kept taking various notes and intensely drawing various shapes – almost doodling – in his notebook, as if he was trying to illustrate his thoughts. Being reminded of a similar interview behaviour sometimes exhibited in interviews by none other than Hans Ulrich Obrist, I couldn't help but ask what is the purpose of that. Makino answered that he's simply afraid that his English is too poor for me to understand him, so he's trying to complement it with some written words and other visual material. While I took that for an answer, I (after looking at the “notes”) cannot say that I fully believed it.

Žanete Skarule and Takashi Makino at the opening of Cesis Art Festival

Arterritory: Do tell, what was it that I saw on the screen during the performance?

Takashi Makino: I used two videos that I layered onto each other, and if you're asking about what exactly was the material in each of them – for instance, there was a footage of a waterfall reflection, which I shot with a camera with very dark focus, so it created this image of very small dots. Then there was also some footage of trees. And sunshine. Sometimes I shot the reflection of water frame-by-frame, and sometimes on a low-resolution video, sometimes on a high-resolution video, and mix of both of them... Today's video had about 20 layers.

You mean, layers of different images?

Different images, yes. I have a large archive of materials, many hours of footage of the water and the surface of minerals and rocks, which I shoot using a very small macro-lens... There is also footage of a lot of crowds and... And forests, and trees. The video of the trees you “saw” today was the one I shot with the camera stabilizer while walking in the forest. I shot that footage last April in Thailand. I was in Thailand for one month, and I got many of the materials there... So, yeah, trees in forest, walking with my camera and shooting mainly images like this, and then just editing, editing, editing. And that makes many of the layered materials. Everything is from the nature.

And where did the sound come from? What were those samples? Was it also something recorded by you, or...

Everything is recorded by me.

Ok, and what kind of sound was it?

Mainly analog synthesiser. Recorded sound, some raindrops, some scratch noise, and the effect of crowds of people talking, which goes like whaassskkkhkhk...

Takashi Makino performance “Space Noise” at Cesis Art Festival. Photo: Viktorija Eksta

Takashi Makino performance “Space Noise” at Cesis Art Festival

When you start the performance, do you approximately know how it will unfold? Do you have a plan, or you mostly improvise?

I make an approximate plan. It's not 100% improvised. I have, like, a vague map in my brain as to where I want to go...

You have spent many hours recording very simple occurrences in nature. Why is it important to record such normal, everyday, mundane natural stuff that happens all the time? Like waterfalls and rocks, and trees. Why is it important?

It's a long story.


Before I started filmmaking, I made a lot of collage works from paper and sound. After I graduated from university, I could not make films because I had no money. I worked for a stage-lighting company as a lighting operator. Then I started to create something every day – some collage, some sound. I did that for some three years. And then I quit my job and started another job as a colorist. In that I could always be close to the film culture. Then I stopped working with sound and paper and just started making films myself. My first film was “EVE” in 2002. It was tree minutes long, and the way of thinking I used there is completely the same as in the collage. That is – I combine two different things and create something new. Max Ernst taught us about how to make a creative collage. It's kind of a miracle – on the same frame, in the same place different things meet – this one, that one, they don’t even change their individual shapes, but they totally make a different world. We don’t have to change or cripple either of them, just bring them together, make a composition and create a different world. That is the theory of collage. But I thought that one can use this theory also for moving pictures. In “EVE”, I use footage of water and electrical wires. Water is water, and water is wire, but together... So, my first idea was to make a collage film – getting different things to meet and creating new things. Like, when matches meet a certain kind of paper and create fire. This was my first idea. And after that I tried to make deeper and denser layered images. The important thing in making layered images is that I have to select a very complex image, so it's usually not an artificial image. Like, if I shot this one (Pointing to the surface of the table.), it would not be able to accept other materials. It's too simple, too light. So, naturally, I choose more rich structures. Water and minerals, and crowd. And sometimes I shoot snow and rain, and it works very well.

Takashi Makino at Cesis Art Festival. Photo: Ansis Starks

So you choose images that are rich enough so that both of them could survive when layered on each other.

Yeah. That is why I select nature. Natural materials are very different from artificial materials. However, recently I'm using not only nature materials, but also... This here is from one of my latest film, “On generation and corruption”. It's a landscape of Tokyo shot while walking. And I put water layers on it.

Why corruption? What's corrupted there?

It's an Aristotelian term. He wrote a book with the same title. I liked it very much, I drew a lot of inspiration from it.

Does this film and Aristotle's book have something in heaven?

It's also a very long story.


My films have no people, no faces, no languages, no narrative. No religion, no gender. I don't really care about that stuff because I don't like political things. I don't like saying something about such topics. So I don't care about that. But, when I read “On generation and abstraction”, I saw that Aristotle also thinks about why this world is existing at all, why all the life goes somewhere; he observes the nature very deeply and thinks about it very independently – independently of any pre-given science or religion. He tried to understand it in his own terms. He was a strange person. He asked – why do the birds disappear during winter? He even had a theory that they go into the Earth. (Laughs.) He tried to understand, and, of course, he made many mistakes, but his imagination is very rich and very interesting. That's why I liked that book. And then I tried to make a film that starts from the darkness, then something happens, and disappears, and starts again in some other place – with explosion – and disappears, then starts again. A kind of cycle. So I decided to use this title.


Until about six years ago I used only nature, but since recently I can shoot almost anything. Nature, people, architecture... Shoot them and combine. But the idea is usually not very different. My biggest interest is to create an imaginative image for an audience – it's very important. With that I mean a kind of image that leaves the most space for imagination. Moving image is a very difficult format. Normally it's something that exists very clearly, so clearly that we can use it as an evidence – in criminal investigation, for instance. It's very similar with reality. That's why... We say “image”, and we say we have a memory, and we can “imagine” something. In our mind, we imagine something that has crossed our eye...


But if we really imagine something and try to recall the details, it is not in such a high resolution anymore. And I really had an interest for that, and I also did a lot of research... I have a big interest in dreams. When I was five years old, I suffered a severe car crash. A truck ran over me, and I had a near-death experience.

Whoa. Were you in a coma?

For about one day. I woke up on the operation table, and my skull and both legs were broken. And during that coma I had a really long, heavy, beautiful dream that I still remember. I have a text about that... One of the most interesting things about it was that reality and dream were very connected. I saw a green horizon on a black background, and I was flying onwards, but the landscape never changed. It was very dark, but with a lot of green lines in front of me. But when I opened my eyes, I realized I was seeing my heartbeat signal in the monitor, which looked very similar to the landscape in my dream. I was amazed, I thought – where am I? Maybe my eyes have been opened the whole time? And I have had a very strong interest in dreams. After the accident, I started going to cinema a lot. I saw a lot of movies while I was little. Of course, at the beginning those were some lame Hong Kong action films. But I also was interested in the video rental, where you could get all sorts of other stuff. So I went there and took some Kubrick, like A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket... The latter really surprised me when I was 8, it was very shocking and different from a normal Hollywood movie. So I invited, like, twenty friends to my house to see it once more.

Takashi Makino at Cesis Art Festival. Photo: Paula Lūse

(Laughs.) A bunch of 8-year olds watching Full Metal Jacket. That could be something.

I really love watching films and thinking about their structure, and it has happened since a very young age. But when I decided to make films myself, I tried to connect with my car crash experience. Also, I wanted to make more artistic films. By that I mean – films that have more than one direction and one answer. When we see some abstract painting, we imagine something, and everyone can have a different idea. And I wanted to create that situation in cinema. To say something very strongly without using any shapes. To create a film that has a lot of energy and says something very important very strongly, but we cannot really understand what is happening. I really wanted to create that situation. But not to be completely abstract – but to try to connect with each person's imagination. That's my kind of approach. If we can share these films on a very deep level of consciousness, that's beautiful. The reason I use no dialogue is because words are too strong. And direct. Just as faith. I sent my work to Rotterdam Film Festival in 2008, and they accepted it – not just one but five films at once. And since then the international recognition of my work has really grown. I have counted – my work has been shown in more than 110 cities around the world. So it would seem that many people across the globe can find something in there. I am very influenced by Tarkovsky, especially Solaris. It's a very nice film.

(Laughs.) “Nice” is a nice word for it.

Solaris is not something imagined by human, it's the human imagination itself. I tried to make that kind of situation... Often, when watching a very dense, abstract movie, we imagine much of the content ourselves. I like that collaboration with viewer's imagination.

It's similar to the image on the screen when the connection breaks on TV...

Yeah. (Laughs.) The resolution there is not good enough for me, but we can imagine things there.

Do you have an overall aim? Why do you do this?

I don't know, I just really want to be free. (Laughs.) When I was a kid, I really didn't have a good relationship with teachers. I doubted what they said too often. I realized early that we don't know why we were born and why we are here. I could not forget about this problem. It's a very fundamental mystery for me, at least since the car crash.

And you didn't like your teachers because they had an answer to all that?

They always had a clear answer. But it seemed to me that the answer is – we have no answer. I like that, because that, I think, is the closest to the truth. I don't want to say anything very clearly. Even what opinion I hold. But, however, I think that we can decide why we were born and how to live. That is the biggest decision in our lives. And I decided to say something very different from other films, and I decided to share these big mysteries in the cinema. In cinema, where there is darkness and one screen, where we share something, I wanted to try something different and new. I wanted to make such a situation.

Why is the question “why you were born” a problem? Obviously, you were born because your parents made it happen.

(Laughs.) That is not the real reason. That is just the result.

But how does doing this help you to be free?

I don't want to decide upon what is an answer. I don't want to say anything. There is an answer in every film, but if I say anything, I'm afraid that my answer will limit the imagination of the spectator.

That's completely understandable. But you said that you like to make films that leave an impression of something important being said, but leaves it unclear of what that important thing is. Do you know what is being said there, in the film, that important thing?

Oh, yes. I control everything. I know it.

But you don't tell it to anybody.

Sometimes I say just a few words, but just some really surface things. However, if someone asks me something more deeply, I can try to answer.

OK, can I ask you- what was the deeper meaning behind “Space Noise”, which we saw today?

Oh, well, “Space Noise” is just meant to give a unique experience to the audience with the help of 3D filter. You can see different movement from any given position in the room.

In your website, it is said that “just like from the news reports of wartime Japan, commercial cinema has intended meaning and precise meaning in each of its images”. Or something like that. Why such a seemingly arbitrary comparison with wartime Japan?

When I worked as colourist, I saw lots of Japanese propaganda films from the period between World Wars. I edited and coloured most of the films Japan made in that time. It's all one huge propaganda and censorship machine, of course. And it just seems to me that the current media in Japan are not that much better. They are not fully democratic. For instance, media in Japan are forced to cover up the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the pollution that has happened since then. Japan is far from being a fully functioning democracy. Japanese media is very bad, including its TV.

Takashi Makino performance “Space Noise” at Cesis Art Festival. Photo: Viktorija Eksta

Do you think there is anything intrinsically Japanese about your work? Despite it being very abstract. 

That's a difficult question. I once saw a beautiful documentary film about the Kyoto Moss temple, which has a very beautiful roof with natural abstract patterns made of moss... And one monk there said that Japanese people have the ability to understand “shapeless beauty”.

Shapeless beauty.

Yes. That may be one speciality of Japanese people. Only then I thought, after seeing this documentary film, that perhaps nothingness is kind of an important category in Japanese thinking. After seeing that film, I thought about the relationship between my work and Japanese culture, and Buddhism. I have no teacher or master, I am not religious, but sometimes I see similarities in Buddhism and my thought. I don't know. I tried to apply my films to the Oberhausen short film festival, and they didn't accept my work because, as they told me, it is not Japanese enough, so they cannot show it. That it doesn't look like a Japanese film.


It was surprising. So I asked them – but what is a Japanese film? They didn't give an answer. So I have no idea. But the fact is that I was born in Japan and I make this.

And is the identity of being Japanese important for you?

Perhaps I'm influenced by it, but I wouldn't go to say something strict about it. You know, memento mori is a very popular principle now... “Remember about death”. What I like more, is memento stella – “remember about stars”. About the fact that we are all made of the same raw material. The situation in the world is pretty bad right now – a lot of people are dying from disease, terrorism and disasters... If we could all remember about the fact that we all live on the same planet and are all made of the same stardust, perhaps we could understand each other better. I am working on this idea in one of my current projects.