By Thomas Michalski
Viewing Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1965 short White Morning, it's easy to get the impression that the filmmaker, like Scorsese or Godard, is obsessed with cinema itself, totally devoted to deciphering its language and developing its potential. The film is so pure, ably communicating, without the benefit of any real dialogue, the many dimensions of the protagonist, 16-year-old Ako, and the workaday world she finds herself in -- the monotony of labor in an industrialized society, the restlessness of youth, the allure of romance and the hideous threat of sexual violence -- that it must be the result of supreme focus, right? As it turns out, no, since while Teshigahara is obviously a masterful director, filmmaking is only one of the art forms he excelled in. The very definition of a polymath, Teshigahara switched between mediums with astonishing ease, and just as effortlessly bridged the traditional, the popular and the avant-garde, but what's even more impressive is that he somehow managed to find similarly multi-talented peers to collaborate with.
Born Jan. 28, 1927 in Tokyo, Teshigahara inherited a healthy disregard for convention from his father, Sofu, a sculptor, painter and founder of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, or flower arranging. In so far as anything having to do with floral arrangement can be considered daring, Sogetsu certainly was, nothing short of a radical rethinking of the whole practice. What had been a stuffy, respectable craft suddenly became a legitimate and thriving art form as the elder Teshigahara added scrap metal and other unorthodox materials to his compositions. Hiroshi followed in his footsteps, majoring in oil painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and eventually attaining the title of lemoto, or grand master, of Sogetsu.
During a voyage to Europe with his father, a 30-something Hiroshi came to the conclusion that his passions -- Ikebana, painting and the film world he had been dabbling in since graduating -- were not discrete, standalone endeavors, but simply parts of an all-encompassing creative whole. The trigger for that epiphany was experiencing the idiosyncratic work of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. "Gaudi made me realize that the lines between the arts are insignificant," he said of the man to whom he would later devote a feature length documentary/love letter. "Gaudi worked beyond the borders of various arts and made me feel that the world in which I was living still left a great many possibilities." Armed with this new philosophy, Teshigahara set about exploring those possibilities, following his muse wherever it took him, whether that meant directing a feature film or an Italian opera, designing a bridge or designing an art installation for a department store.
That Teshigahara was a versatile and boundlessly creative man should by now be abundantly clear, but his work was also enriched by long-lasting artistic relationships with two other fascinating, multifaceted figures, Kōbō Abe and Toru Takemitsu. The brilliant Abe, known for his bleakly existentialist novels, which sometimes veered into ahead-of-its-time sci-fi (do yourself a favor and check out 1959's Inter Ice Age 4), became the director's go-to screenwriter. After providing an original script for Teshigahara's dramatic directorial debut, The Pitfall, Abe aided the filmmaker in adapting many of his previously published works, including his contribution to the international short story collection Fifteen-Year-Old Widows, which became White Morning, and the 1962 novel Woman in the Dunes, the film version of which earned Teshigahara both an Oscar nomination for Best Director and the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Like Teshigahara, Abe wore many hats. In addition to writing fiction, he was also a dramatist, photographer and trained physician; he even created some new kind of tire chains that won him the International Inventor's Silver Prize.
An old and dear friend of Teshigahara, composer Toru Takemitsu created the scores for all of his feature films and several of his shorts, including the disorienting, disjointed soundscapes of White Morning. Musically omnivorous, Takemitsu counted Claude Debussy, John Cage and Duke Ellington among his biggest influences and, thanks in no small part to his work with Teshigahara, became the one of the most sought-after film composer in the Japanese film industry, lending his sonic expertise to over 100 films from across a variety of genres, including Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece (well, one of his masterpieces) Ran. Some may look upon doing soundtrack work as slumming it for a composer of Takemitsu's caliber, but he actually preferred it to writing performance pieces, which was just one of the ways that he turned people's expectations on end. Takemitsu's eclectic resume makes Abe's and Teshigahara's seem almost mundane; beyond his prolific musical career, he organized festivals, penned detective novels and frequently appeared on Japanese television as a celebrity chef.
Together, these three men are responsible for some of the most original and challenging works in the storied history of Japanese cinema, but each was also an iconoclast in his own right. In a way, their fruitful union seems almost inevitable; the fact that Teshigahara, Abe and Takemitsu were not beholden to any discipline, not married to a medium made them uniquely suited to collaborating with each other, and their skills and sensibilities dovetail perfectly, but on the other hand, it all seems so utterly unlikely. One real Renaissance man is hard to come by, three of them coming together to create something beautiful is nothing short of extraordinary.