Akiya, which world-premiered in Berlin’s Forum Expanded section, is a delicious oddity.
In the film, all we see is an analogue reel-to-reel tape recorder which plays what may be a song or a prelude to a song, depending on one’s interpretation, whose text has been translated into the archaic language of the Japanese 14-15th Century Muromachi period. This language is a foundation stone of the country’s nō theatre tradition.
Other than the deep female voice of nō singer Ryoko Aoki on the tape, there is no evidence whatsoever of human interaction. The machine turns itself on and off, and the subject that is sung about is of apartments that are left empty, or of the departure from life via suicide.
“With the method of using the ancient style of nō, I was able to interpret this absurd and, in a way, tragic phenomenon about millions of abandoned houses in Japan, as a mythical story. Often in a nō play
there is an encounter between the human and the supernatural and I wanted to convey this feeling of a ghost or of supernatural elements… However, we see no images of the uninhabited buildings but it serves as a conceptual starting point for the work.”
“I think the voice is very different compared to any other instrument. It brings another dimension to the work, a sense of remoteness,” director Kina stresses. “This is further emphasised by the tape ending just as she is uttering the last sentence, ‘let me sing this song for you’,” she adds.
Akiya is fascinating throughout all of its 5-minute duration, not only in conceptual terms but as a study in order, composition and timing. The machine is symmetrically aligned within the frame and the recorder’s light meters prove that what we hear on the soundtrack is what it is actually playing in situ.
“There is a strict sound choreography but also a strict choreography for the recorder,” says Kina. “I was also interested in what happens when the machine is a performer, a protagonist of the work. In nō theatre quite often the main performer wears a mask so of course, if you want to, you can also interpret this machine as a mask, which stylizes and codifies the facial expression and stimulates our imagination.”
The melancholic lyrics, gleaned from newspaper articles and poetic fragments dealing with the theme, was written first in English, then translated into Japanese and eventually into the archaic Muromachi.
“The translation process became an essential part of the whole film at all levels. Desolated houses became images, images words, words ancient song, song tape, and tape to film,” says Kina.
“At first the text was long, but using 35mm film guides the process and places limitations duration-wise, for which we needed to calculate how we do all this in one take and what is the longest duration we can use. So it all, in the end, became very technical.”