A film by Adachi Masao is arguably a category all its own, in keeping with his entire body of work. The Artist of Fasting may be only his second film in the twenty-first century, but it continues his commitment to a cinema of radical politics that stretches back to the mid-twentieth century. This commitment began with being a part of cine-clubs during his university days in the 1950s; making his first films with the Nihon University Film Club collective in the early 1960s; and tensely crystallising from the mid-1960s by striking out on his own as a director, working with Oshima Nagisa, and most importantly, beginning his lifelong collaboration with Wakamatsu Koji. As a director, his last project in the twentieth-century was 1971’s Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War, after which he went underground to join the Japanese United Army in Lebanon. His return to filmmaking occurred only in 2007, with Prisoner/Terrorist. In The Artist of Fasting, though based on Frank Kafka’s short story ‘A Hunger Artist,’ Adachi also nods to portions of Kafka’s novel The Trial; all in the service of his distinct mode of filmmaking, imagery, and confrontation with the politics and performance of knowledge, power, and imperialism.
The film is a densely layered collage that serves as and provokes a space for the discussion and performance of rather abstract concepts, with freedom and all its variants (political, sexual, economic) most prominent among them. Its audiovisual layers include archival footage (such as of the 3.11 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor explosions that opens the film), sometimes presented in a montage; interludes characterised by staged scenes with individuals and their gaze pointed directly at the camera; intermittent male voiceover narrations whose tones range from that of a circus ringmaster to that of a Japanese TV documentary narrator, as when the latter references Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ parable in The Trial. But, of course, the film’s most dominant layer for the discussion and performance of abstract concepts are sequences carved around the hunger artist.
Episodic sequences on the hunger artist himself (Yamamoto Hiroshi) begin with him walking within what looks like a market hall and casually sitting in a corner and staying put, much to the bafflement of a few nearby pedestrians. What transpires due to his refusal to eat, move, or utter a word occupies much of the film’s running time, interrupted only by the film’s other aforementioned layers. In truth, the man’s first attempt at fasting is interrupted ten days later, when he is hauled away from his spot by a physician and her staff concerned with his health. Yet he begins a ‘second round’ of fasting in the same spot, which transforms from being an individual act in a public place into a collective, public performance on the meaning(s) of freedom, individual will, artistic creation, power, and politics — particularly pertaining to Japan — on a metaphorical makeshift stage.
News of his fasting and unremitting muteness (unlike Kafka’s hunger artist) spread fast, and the Entertainment Show Society (ESS) forcibly puts him under contract and promptly constructs a cage for him to inhabit at the same spot, adorned with Japanese symbols like the flag and a Japanese soldier equipped with a gun for guard duty. Officially ‘othered’ and spectacularised by the cage, the media portray him either as a show-off or a ‘fasting warrior’ instilled with sacrifice as a victim of Abenomics; occasional passersby provide offerings; two monks seat themselves opposite the cage, in the hope of witnessing enlightenment; a man and a woman do the same because they find peace in his caged quietness; even the yakuza benefit from him by taking the donated money while the homeless do the same with the food and drink. The ESS manager’s reasoning for the appropriation of his fasting reveals a colonising psyche that is an underlying theme in the film: how self-imposed starvation — and, by extension, difference (ethnic, racial, sexual) — is interesting only when it is viewed as a spectacle and at a distance and how people are always in need of a hero, or villain, whose face/figure can serve as an empty vessel into which they pour their fears, hopes, and desires.
Though not referenced in the film, one cannot help but think of performance artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s collaborative work ‘The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West’ (1992–1994). Fusco and Gómez-Peña placed themselves in a cage and presented themselves as members of an undiscovered indigenous tribe off the Gulf of Mexico. They were displayed thus in various museums around the world and a substantial majority of visitors believed them to be such and reacted similarly to the passersby in Adachi’s film.
While Adachi’s hunger artist does not engage with the performance of rituals like Fusco and Gómez-Peña that would increase his otherness, the episodic sequences on what happens around him and his cage have the raw quality of street protest theatre, or guerrilla theatre. Moreover, in an ironic twist, Adachi places the burden of performance with those outside of the cage, like the ESS; the physician who returns multiple times with her staff dressed in scrubs/dominatrix outfits; and five men and women dressed in white who perform seppuku. In fact, the ‘Humanity Pavilion of the 21st Century Expo in Japan,’ a reenactment of Japanese empire in the film, is an explicit performance on knowledge, power, and imperialism that is not so removed from present-day Japan and deftly combines the performance art of Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s postcolonial work (which partly refers to the history of displaying humans from Africa/Asia/South America in world fairs as an undeniable ritual of empire and colonisation), street protest theatre, and even sho-gekijo.
Within this context, what becomes of the hunger artist is less of a surprise than a call to awareness.