PODCAST — Episode 15, recorded
Yu Araki in conversation with BFMAF programmer Herb Shellenberger about the film ‘Fuel’.→
Yu Araki (1985, Yamagata City) is an artist and filmmaker. He studied Sculpture at Washington University (St. Louis, US) and Film and New Media Studies at Tokyo University of the Arts. In 2013, he was selected to participate in Tacita Dean Workshop hosted by Fundación Botín in Santander, Spain. During 2017-8, he was a guest resident at Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, and Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Araki’s recent solo exhibitions include ‘Rush Hour’ at the CAI Contemporary Art Institute (2019, Sapporo) and ‘Le Souvenir du Japon’ at Shiseido Gallery (2019, Kyoto). His work has also been screened at numerous festivals, including Beijing International Short Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, European Media Art Festival (Osnabrück), Hong Kong International Film Festival, JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film (New York), IndieLisboa and Moscow International Experimental Film Festival.
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He has curated screenings and film series at an international array of very excellent film festivals, cinematheques and art institutions, as well as some not so good like Tate and Tyneside Cinema which unfortunately have treated their workers very poorly. He is editor of Rep Cinema International, a newsletter/online publication focusing on repertory and archival film exhibition around the world and has recently written for the exhibition catalogue Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emswhiller (Anthology Editions/Lightbox Film Center, 2019).
My name is Herb Shellenberger and I’m a programmer with the Berwick Film & Media Arts festival. And we’re really excited to be speaking today with Yu Araki whose film Fuel is part of our 2020 festival. Thank you for joining me Yu.
Thank you very much for having me Herb.
Yeah. I was really so impressed by the film Fuel. I’d seen several of your works before, which I greatly enjoyed as well, but this film really blew me away and it’s sort of observational quality, but then also the simplicity of it, but then the complex ideas that I think you’re engaging with the film, they’re all really kind of elegantly put together. I want to start off our conversation by asking you about the process that led to the topic of the film, your travel, research, and thinking that led you to this restaurant and to the focus of the film.
Well, two years ago I was approached by a curator who wanted me to make a work that somehow deals with the Ainu culture in Hokkaido. And I don’t know how much everyone is familiar with Ainu, but they are indigenous people living in Hokkaido, the Northern Island of Japan, and historically what we now call as Hokkaido was the land of Ainu and in the 19th century, the Wajin or the Yamato ethnicity, which I am part of, basically took over the land. So it’s almost like the Japanese equivalent of what happened to native Americans in the US including all the mistreatments. So at first I was very serious about making a video installation or a video documentary about the Ainu. And then while I was doing research, I quickly hit the block of this sensitive issue or question how an outsider like myself can possibly portray them or represent them somehow. So I sort of went on a detour and it was during the research trip that I came across this robata restaurant. It was one of our coordinators’ favourite places to eat. So we just decided to go for a one night dinner. I immediately thought this was the place that I want to make my new film. So it just kind of happened all accidentally.
That’s really excellent to hear. It’s nice that these unexpected things can unfold into something bigger. So when you realised that the restaurant was what you wanted to focus on, what was the process like working with those people and in that space and how did the shooting and composition of the film kind of coming to you’re thinking.
Yeah. Well, the reason why I thought that it was the place for me was interesting because all my research about Ainu culture somehow funnelled into this one architecture, even though I was researching Ainu I didn’t go too much into the history of it, but it’s more of their traditional housing, which is called chise and it’s really centred around a fireplace. And it’s had a specific position on where the household man should sit or the wife or the kids and all this. And it was very simple. And you just share stories in front of fire and also cook and you do the rituals. And then this restaurant kind of had this imaginative ambient somehow. It’s not factual at all. I’m a professional wrong interpreter. So I shouldn’t be really mentioning Ainu, but I did get inspiration from their side of culture. And this also has a backstory because I was filming another film called Mountain Plain Mountain a year before that was just a short film that I co-directed with Daniel Jacoby. And that film was about Banei horse racing, which was basically what cultivated the land of Hokkaido. So I thought it was only fair to maybe again, make a film from the ones who were oppressed as a start, but I surprised myself how much it just didn’t come out the way that I anticipated at the beginning.
And in terms of the actual techniques of the cinematography. Did you shoot the film yourself? Did you work with a cinematographer?
No, I attempted, but it was a restaurant. It was still in business and I had to film while all the other customers were there. So I couldn’t have big lighting or crew. So I did it by myself. The actual filming was a span of two days, but it took me about two years to get the permission and all, and it’s such a popular restaurant in summer. So I had to wait until winter when there were less tourists. No, but it was a lovely collaboration. The restaurant people were very generous. They were very open. And they even invited me to get closer to her, to towards inside the kitchen counter. But I thought it was a very sacred place. So I decided to have a 600 mm Canon-like lens. That was just like pointed at her from the corner of the room, so it was very much fixed and nothing was planned or storyboarded, but it’s very thoroughly observational.
Did the chef react much to your observation or what was the exchange like working with her?
She had a little difficulty hearing, so there wasn’t much of a conversation. She was just doing her own thing, just being pro, she was doing her everyday job, which is really graceful I thought, the way her hands move and the whole process. And she can control the grill. She basically controls the fire in three different strengths of fire, weak to strong and medium. And then she knows where exactly to place the ingredients and what time and all this.
Had you thought much about films about food and how food was filmed? Did that have any sort of consideration in the way you were putting it together?
Well, in the past, I have dealt with following food, I’m kind of a foodie. I just love eating so much. And this whole question, if you look at Instagram, why people photograph food, it’s been kind of an interesting subject matter. At the same time as a time-based medium, or maybe I cannot call it a slow cinema, but slow cinema is perfect way to capture slow cooking. Maybe.
Tell me about the sound design and the sort of sonic atmosphere of the film.
I basically couldn’t use any of the sound which was recorded on site because everybody was chatting, it’s just normal Izakaya type background noise, and it’s going to be a pain to edit. So I completely threw away that part. So then I was thinking about how to package this film. So there’s a television in the restaurant. And while I was filming, accidentally there was a news footage of a yellow vest movement and also some fire hazard happening. And some explosion that all happened while I was filming, it was completely spontaneous serendipity. That was pretty much towards the end of the second day of filming, which was my final day of the shoot. And when that moment happened, I immediately knew how to put this film together. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I think that Fuel, as a title, kind of rang in my brain. Well, just to give away the background sonic noise is actually jet fuel from the airplane that’s about to take off, and then I recorded it. And during my travel to Europe, it completely merged with the image somehow, maybe, and then you start to not notice. And also there’s a, what do you call those fire sparkles or?
Pops of the coals?
Yes. And every time when that happens, I had a soundtrack of slit drums which is made out of wood and just gives this kind of ambient, almost meditative quality. That was actually played by my friend.
It’s really interesting because in a way it’s just this complete construction and fabrication, but because the lens is so focused on this close shot, it does the sound in performance, the way that we view and understand that atmosphere what’s going on. The first time I was watching the film, I accepted that as completely naturalistic, but it just makes me think of earlier eras of documentary from the 30s or 40s or whatever, how they invested artificiality into capturing this reality.
It’s really always interesting how, when you know, there’s some things completely fake you somehow starting to look into reality from that fakeness.
You mentioned it before, but I wanted to see if you could expand on it at all, to really draw out the comparisons between the cise of the Ainu house and this grill and yeah, just talk a bit more through, well, first what that cise is. And then you’re thinking of how you connected these things because it’s not an association that many people would make, but I think actually it quite elegantly displays your own kind of creative intervention to this.
Yeah. No people should really Google first what cise really looks like. It’s this simple traditional housing. I was very fascinated when my Ainu friend took me to one of these houses and she explained to me there’s this window that god or spirits would go through. So you never take a photograph of it. So that’s like a sacred passage. And somehow that image struck me of the gods passing the window and that somehow matched with the Robatayaki restaurants. Well, the fire grill and the television which is like a window portal to another world. As I was getting familiar with the chef, when she has nothing to do, or when she has nothing to grill, she loves to watch TV, which is behind her. There are other windows in the restaurant, but I intentionally cropped it. So until the television appears, you rarely see any windows at all. So you feel this entrapment into this one closed space, almost like a cave-like atmosphere until the moment you see the television screen, which is connected to the world. Rather than literally representing the Ainu cise, that was my interpretation of what my experience was visiting the cise.
Maybe the last thing I’d like to ask you about is the men we see eating in the restaurant. And if you could talk a bit about who he is, and also his function within the film.
The man who appears in the film, eating is a Sapporo-based artist, Satoshi Hata. And she also helped me out with this project. And he’s also the gourmet guy who took me to all the great restaurants in Hokkaido. He once told me that he could be related to Ainu family or his mother’s side of the family, maybe part Ainu. And some people prefers to keep a rather low profile their Ainu heritage because of the discrimination. Yet he doesn’t know if it’s true, but he thinks it is. And he doesn’t speak the language or know as much of his customs. But that was quite interesting. And throughout the film, the only thing I directed was the part that he does his hand gesture before eating that comes from that Ainu gesture called onkami. There’s a formal way of doing it, but in my film, I told him just to do the half part of it so that it looks like he’s appreciative to what he’s about to eat. My version of onkami is done incompletely. And that also deals with his personal relationship to Ainu culture, which he thinks is incomplete. It’s a very sensitive decision. There’s some reality to how the traditions are being lost due to my race and how it’s been fading. But at the same time, you’re trying to preserve it. So there’s this dynamic happening surrounding this one particular culture. So that was my interpretation of the current status, which is not full, but people are still trying to be aware of it.
Have you shown the film to the people at the restaurant? Have they seen it?
Well, we were supposed to visit them, but unfortunately because of the COVID-19, we haven’t visited the restaurant yet. I also offered to burn a disc. So maybe I’ll ship that. I think the chef will be really happy. Well, they were really excited that it’s getting into a lot of festivals.
That’s excellent. We’ll be really excited to see where your film travels to next. And thank you so much for speaking with us today Yu.
Thank you very much. Such an honour.