Email Interview with Masaharu Sato

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This interview with Masaharu Sato was conducted over e-mail by Masami Tsubouchi, curator of the current exhibition at the Hara Museum. It has been divided into three parts of which this is the first.

Background to the work Calling

Tsubouchi (T): We were very happy to have been able to invite you to do the Hara Documents exhibition, modest though it is in scale. I believe the first work I saw of yours was Avatar II (2009). Later, I saw Calling (2009-2010) at No Man’s Land exhibition. In truth, that second time I didn’t realize the work was by the same artist. I remember seeing things that were seemingly familiar but still strange nonetheless and not being able to express what it was exactly that I was looking at. In other words, for me, it was a new visual experience, something I didn’t understand well, which is why I made it a point to focus my attention on your work. But first I wonder if you can tell us what technique you use to create those uncanny images in Calling?

Masaharu Sato (S): I basically use four tools to make my work: a video camera, a personal computer (iMac), software for drawing and video editing (Photoshop, After Effects) and a pen tablet (mouse in form of a pen). If I compare it to the painter’s craft, my canvas is the PC, my pigments are the software and my brushes are the pen tablet, which makes my process an analog one, even though the devices I use are digital. Having said that, some 15 years ago, when I first started using the PC to draw things, the pen tablet was quite a lot of trouble to handle. I think anyone who’s drawn a picture on a PC will understand, there is a bit of a time lag between the stroke made on the pen tablet and the stroke that appears on the monitor. Naturally such a time lag doesn’t occur when you add paint to the surface of a canvas. It’s a minor problem given the fact that once you’ve gotten used to the lag, it no longer bothers you, but the feeling is different from the sense of satisfaction one gets when drawing a picture the usual analog way. The more I draw with a pen tablet, the more ephemeral I feel my own existence becomes.

But I digress. Back to the process of making Calling. Compared with my other video works, there’s a lot less movement in this series. After I’ve uploaded the video that I took with the digital camera, I choose one frame of the 24 that make up one second of footage. Then, using it as a base, trace the image with Photoshop. In the first stage, I use a line to outline the items. For example, if it’s a scene in a room, I draw an outline around the tables, chairs, washing machine and even small accessories that appear in the room. After that, I fill in each item with a different base color.

The picture at this point lies somewhere between realistic and abstract. I then enlarge the screen with a magnifying glass tool and start adding details using a tempera-like technique. As I go through the stages towards completion, the original image has been etched in my brain, so I make fewer comparisons with the original, until finally I end up with a final image that reflects the one in my head.

Development of the Tracing Technique as a Way to Fulfill the Creative Urge

T: Wow. The labor involved is backbreaking, as I had imagined. Why did you come up with such a laborious method? Is it related to what you said before, about feeling your own existence becoming more ephemeral when using a pen tablet rather than the usual methods? Also related to that, you said that during your time as a painting major, you didn’t produce a single painting, and that this moratorium-like period continued when you were in Germany. Was it the tracing technique that led to a great change in that situation?

S: When I was in junior high school, I underwent special training in academic painting in order to gain admission to an arts-related high school. The high school I went to also specialized in art, with art classes accounting for 70% of its curriculum. For three years, I studied Western-style oil painting, design, Japanese painting and sculpture. My first attempt at the entrance exam to Tokyo University of the Arts failed. So I spent a year in Tokyo studying at an art cram school in Mitaka where I painted from morning to night. The next time I passed the exam and was admitted. By that time, I was burnt out on art, having studied classical painting to modern painting for about seven years. I didn’t have the slightest interest in producing a painting. Maybe it was a reaction, but I ended up leaping without much thought into the world of contemporary art which until then I hadn’t taken seriously. For example, during the annual exhibition of work by first-year oil painting majors, I hated the idea of exhibiting inside the painting studios with everyone else. Instead, my exhibit was a vast outdoor embankment which I had covered with debris I had gathered in the city. For my degree show as a grad student, I took a full-size mold of my own body, made a wax replica and transplanted body hair and pubic hair from my own body to this copy.

After having tried every means of expression called “art” from junior high school until the time I graduated from college, my ardor for art had cooled down even more than before. Feeling the need to turn over a new leaf, I went abroad to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany. I didn’t enroll as a regular student, but as an auditor, so two years later my visa ran out. Not having found what I was looking for, I didn’t feel ready to go back to Japan, so I remained on a visa from the Japanese restaurant I had been working at. At first I simply thought there would be no problem working at the restaurant and making art in my free time. But it didn’t turn out that way. From the morning, I was busy preparing for lunch, then with taking care of the busy lunch crowd. After a rest, I had to prepare things for the evening. Until closing time, I had to handle orders and prepare stock for the next day. At the end, I’d have a beer to sooth my exhausted body and then get home around 2 am. I repeated this process every day for two years, during which my urge to be an artist gradually faded.

The manager of the restaurant would nag us saying, “You have to deliver the same flavor to the customers every day!”

You asked if my situation was greatly changed by the tracing technique. As an answer, I might be able to say the tracing technique was a natural result of that situation. In a situation where I had no time to finish any artwork, the act of tracing was a way for me to satisfy my creative urges.

Tracing the World in Order to Understand It

Masami Tsubouchi (T): In the strictest sense, when you trace a thing or an action, what is produced is a reproduction, so it is very interesting when such a thing is accepted as a work of art. To my eyes, your tracings looked very much like copying. It seems to me that it is an attempt to understand the world by tracing it, in the way that artists copy a famous painting in order to understand the work or artist better. To an acquaintance of mine, the act of tracing seemed similar to the copying of sutras. I felt there was some truth to that. For yourself, you’ve been tracing for several years with the real feeling that you were “subsuming” the subject within yourself by doing so. Can you talk about how the act of tracing led to your most recent work Tokyo Trace?

Tracing as an Act of Shadowing or Tracing as a Daily Act

Masaharu Sato (S): Although the technique of tracing live-action film images is rarely seen in today’s world of commercial animation, it’s a classic technique that was invented before Disney began making animated films and is now referred to as “rotoscoping.” The technique was used in the early Disney film Snow White to make the animated characters seem more realistic. The characters’ roles were first acted out by real actors and then the live-action images were traced and later overlaid by the animated characters. This technique was a kind of early version of the motion-capture technique used in CG today. Rotoscoping was invented to make awkward characters move more smoothly as if they were alive, but there still remained something unnatural about such smoothly moving characters which caused viewers to react in a way the creators never expected. I had known for several years about the rotoscope technique. As I started to create works by tracing live-action footage, I realized it was this strange quality of movement that I found so enchanting.

My friend Shuji Sugihara, upon seeing a video work that I made in 2013, wrote in his blog, “The method Sato uses is like closely shadowing his subjects.” Until then I had thought of tracing as only a technique, but by substituting it with the word “shadowing,” I was able to think of tracing as one of the mundane “act” that one does as part of everyday life, like eating, riding a bike, watching the news, laughing, getting angry, taking a shower, chatting, farting, singing karaoke over drinks and getting tired and going to sleep.

During this time, I was contacted by Ms. Tsubouchi about holding a solo show at the Hara Museum. At first I was thinking of showing something totally different from Tokyo Trace, but when I found out I would be able to choose my own theme, which is not the case with a group show, I decided to put my focus on the act of tracing which I had used up till now.

Animation with a New Soul

T: I was interested in your act of tracing, so I was happy about your decision.
The Tokyo Trace series is different from what you did up till now, in that you trace only one part of the video image. Even though the two versions of Calling shown in Gallery 1 are animations, there’s a one-of-a-kind feeling about them that is very interesting. There’s also something uniqueness about the subtle discomfort that arises from a seemingly real live-action video that has been traced.

On the other hand, another unique thing about Tokyo Trace is I feel the great potential that the technique presents to animation as a technique and action. For me, I was shocked how tracing only a part of the video made traced part seem more real than the unanimated parts, as if there were a spirt residing in it. The ambiguity between the real and unreal one sees in Calling transfers to other dimensions.

This ambiguity has had a large effect on my own perception of actual scenery. I end up detecting parts that seem traced within real landscapes here and there: a jetliner lightly gliding through the evening sky, trees stoically resisting the frigid cold. These and other things appear as animations (laughs).

Sorry for indulging in my own personal thoughts. I’ve said a lot about what intrigues me about your work, but if I may continue with one more point. Tokyo Trace includes as many as 90 scenes of Tokyo. By evoking through “shadowing” the vague bittersweet quality of life in one mundane scene after another, it is impossible not to feel the complexity that exists in everyday life. This, along with the gentle, heartrending sound of Debussy’s Clair du Lune played on the player piano made me think about various situations in my own past and feelings about my own future in perhaps a sentimental kind of way.

In closing, having placed your focus on the act of tracing, can you give us your personal thoughts about Tokyo Trace?

An Encounter with a Book that Turned My Eyes to the Mundane

Masaharu Sato: It’s hard to talk about a work that’s just been finished. If you ask why I chose Tokyo to do my tracing, why I sought to record the most mundane of scenes, some reasons do come to mind, but to get at the reasons that lie deep within my psyche will take a lot more time than I have for an email answer. The more I try to find a good answer, the more I get only banal ideas, which made me realize how close to impossible it is to explore my own unconscious. Perhaps I can try a slightly different approach by re-visiting the time my attention turned to the mundane.

When I was 20, I became acquainted with the work of Werner Herzog, the German film director. At the time, Herzog was a complete departure from the somewhat stylish films of that other famous German director Wim Wenders. Herzog’s austere style made his films very different from an entertainment movie. I became enamored of his imagery and the strange sense of time he conveys in every one of his films. Wanting to read something written about his movies, I searched through bookstores, but came across only one book. This was Of Walking In Ice, a diary written by Herzog himself.

In the diary, Herzog wrote about how, upon hearing that his mentor Lotte Eisner was ill and dying, he decided to travel 700 kilometers on foot from Munich to Paris in the dead of winter to see her. Another person might have taken a train or plane, but Herzog goes on foot, believing that by walking, it would help her survive.

Like a martyr, Herzog steadily made his way on the frigid country roads alone, taking shelter in vacant houses when tired, then continuing on. Three weeks later, he reached Lotte. Having no camera, Herzog kept a written record of the events and dreams that he experienced during his odyssey.

Things That Become Visible Under Extreme Conditions/ Overcoming Cancer

“No one was there to harvest the apples. They lay fallen on the muddy ground, half rotted. From a distance I saw a tree to which one leaf appeared to be attached. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the tree, strangely enough, still had all of its apples. Not a single one had fallen. On that wet tree, no leaf remained. Only wet apples that refused to drop.”*

Herzog struggled with the most extreme of conditions: hunger, lack of sleep, cold, painful feet, loneliness, as well as doubts as to whether his was a meaningless act. Placed in the middle of this extreme situation, Herzog brought to his observations an intensity that probably would not have existed under ordinary circumstances.

Herzog does the same thing in his movies. As in the diary, he creates extreme situations from which he derives reality. I would never be able to copy Herzog’s actions, but I was visited with an extreme situation during the making of Tokyo Trace. This came in the form of news that the cancer I had been cured of had relapsed and that I would need immediate surgery. The surgery succeeded and there was no metastasis, but during my hospitalization, I was bedridden with pain and fever because my entire upper jaw had been enucleated. While in this miserable state, my wife brought me gerbera flowers and placed them on the table in my hospital room.

It was then that I was finally able to see the wet apples that Herzog saw.

*From Of Walking in Ice: Munich – Paris 23 November – 14 December 1974, published in German in 1978.