Left: Takahiko Iimura, Ai (Love), 1962, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 10 minutes. Right: Takahiko Iimura, Aiueonn Six Features, 1993, still from a color video, 15 minutes.

JAPANESE ARTIST TAKAHIKO IIMURA has been making experimental films for the past forty-seven years. Though often considered a member of the 1960s New York underground, Iimura was working in Japan during most of that time. Frequently, his only means of accessing the films from which he drew inspiration was to read about them. These include works by Stan Brakhage, Stan VanDerBeek, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol, the artists commemorated in Iimura’s 1966–68 Filmmakers, a unique take on portraiture and an homage to a particular slice of art history.

Though working in relative isolation from his artistic peers during the ’60s, Iimura’s films from this period are some of his most powerful and original. The ten-minute Ai (Love, 1962), with sound by Yoko Ono, examines a couple having sex through a tightly cropped frame reminiscent of a view through a microscope. It was shot in this way, Iimura explains, in response to his country’s rigid censorship laws, whereby nudity was often blocked out altogether with a black mark on the film. By focusing intently on small sections of the commingled bodies, Iimura circumvented the ban and in the process created a surreal, erotic blur of hands, toes, and nipples, skin, hair, and eyes. As in Brakhage’s work, the camera acts as a character in its own right; in the case of Ai, it is the third party in a ménage à trois.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, working alongside developments in Conceptual art, Iimura created several works that examine the construction of ideas and language. Observer/Observed (1975–1998), for example, is a sort of eight-minute primer in semiotics. Now an on-screen character, the camera is shown head-on and then repeatedly removed, replaced by a blank white light. Iimura intones in his Japanese-inflected English, “This is a camera. This is not a camera.” In more recent works, Iimura has returned to the subject of the body and has also begun to experiment with visual effects. In Aiueonn Six Features, 1993, his face stretches to comic proportions as he chants vowels. Set against bright, almost neon backgrounds, eyes swivel and bounce, noses stretch and twist, and ears nearly pop with the sound.

A mini-retrospective of Takahiko Iimura in Los Angeles, organized by Adam Hyman of Los Angeles Filmforum and supported by the Japan Foundation, will include screenings at multiple venues: UCLA Film & Television Archive on February 27, Filmforum on March 1 and 8, California Institute of the Arts on March 3, UC Irvine on March 4, USC Cinematheque on March 5, and REDCAT on March 9. For more details, click here.

Annie Buckley and Dane Picard