Japan Cuts 2016: The Artist of Fasting (Masao Adachi)

by Jason Suzuki

"Will we just die a slow death in the prison of freedom?"

So asks one of the monks sitting next to his elder as they watch and ponder the existence of the titular fasting man, who at this point in the film has become a local and eventually national cultural sensation, a blank canvas for groups and individuals to project upon and take advantage of. Adachi's film is only his second made since his return after his break from film during which he joined the Japanese United Army in Lebanon lending his assistance to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was later imprisoned upon his return to Japan. Since the character is such a cipher the film is an intellectual journey for the viewer combining various source materials, real-life footage of disasters and atrocities, and vignettes both within and beyond the film's simple premise of a man who begins a public fast and the people who encounter him.

The Artist of Fasting, the basis of the film derived from the Kafka short story (The Trial also plays into the film), opens with footage of the 2011 tsunami. It places the film in the present but within a larger context of tragedy and scapegoating. Performance art, which is what the fasting man is doing, is also foregrounded as vignettes of staged recreations resembling that of a carnival  are peppered throughout the film. The epistemological quest for meaning, to find out what the fasting artist is fasting over is very human but the film shows how easy people turn when the investigation comes up with nothing. Spectators and pundits are quick to apply their own meaning to his acts.

As a man who does not state his purpose, he represents the unknown. References to the ainu, indigenous people of northern Japan, place the fasting artist within a history of the persecution of the unknown. But that's not before the man has been labeled as a hero by the media and the militaristic entertainment organization who buys his being. When a public display becomes spectacle the spectacle quickly becomes a savior. From 24-hour news cycle reporters to the monks and the rejects who sit and watch the artist day after day, it doesn't matter motivation as they all want something more from nothing.

The film feels much like the work Adachi was making earlier in his career with contemporary Koji Wakamatsu. Surprisingly, and this might be a testament to the safety net usually worn by political films these days, it feels fresh. His background in pinku eiga will be immediately felt by the kinkier aspects to the film where sex, politics, and slapstick meet. Schoolgirls start to disrobe and rub themselves all over the fasting as soon as a camera appears. A group of nurses who force him to be hospitalized, yet another case in the film where militarism has been combined with a field of specialty, dress like they came off the set of a hospital facsimile AV shoot.

Fans of Japanese noise music might be surprised to see that Otomo Yoshihide is behind the bubbly, comic score of the film. Reportedly requested by Adachi, the recurring cues are immediately noticeable and are meant to take you out of the film. You will find no pathos here.

The question still remains whether radical politics should be met with radical form and content. It is a question that has been linked with films of a political or experimental nature and one that was grappled by New Wave directors such as Oshima and Susumu. Odes to the freewheeling, intellectually stimulating work of the 60s and 70s was lovingly epitomized with Eiji Uchida's Last Days of the World. But here it is coming from one of the last wells of this movement, who seems to have had quite a bit to work with from contemporary society. 

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.