Japan has a special meaning for Chris Marker. It’s the one place this eternal traveler—once of the physical world, now mainly of the mind, soul, and Net—has returned time and again, filming, pondering, and remembering experiences that in some cases he might never had.
Marker’s ouevre is packed with films and videos made in Japan or referring to/imagining the archipelago’s culture and history. His earliest exploration, the 54 minute The Mystery Koumiko (65), was made during a trip to Tokyo for the 1964 Olympic Games. Some 20 years after that, Marker entered what could be termed his Japanese Phase, a transitional period during which he transformed himself from an analog filmmaker into a digital media artist. This phase begins with the now-classic Sans soleil (82), which everybody seems to remember as a film only about Japan, which it isn’t. The many other locations (often other islands—Cape Verde, Iceland, the Île de France in Paris) merge into the curiosities of Marker’s Japan and his electronic imagemaking. In Sans soleil is followed by A.K. (85), a film about the making of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which, as its title indicates, is a portrait of, and homage to, the director, a man Marker considers a kindred spirit (although the film is far less inspired than his later filmmaker tributes The Last Bolshevik and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, which portray masters as remembered by Marker, rather than at work). Marker’s Japanese Phase comes to a close with Level Five (96), which begins with its heroine’s quest to find an alternative outcome to a video game programmed to adhere to the historical facts of the WWII Battle of Okinawa, which ended in mass suicide and carnage on a scale so monumental that words like “tragedy” and “catastrophe” are rendered inadequate. The film takes off from there, branching out into cyberspace, looking for a virtual loophole for guilt and a rabbit hole to rebirth.
You can read the complete version of this article in the July/August 2003 print edition of Film Comment.