Night Cruising (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

The opening sequence of Makoto Sasaki’s documentary is undoubtedly its boldest and most intriguing moment: for thirteen minutes, the screen is utterly black while the clear and detailed audio of voices and sound effects narrates a sci-fi tale centered on two figures, Edih and Lesk, in search of “the Ghost” in a futuristic setting. This audio viewing, as it were, is bookended by a shot of a movie screen from the perspective of a spectator seated in the cinema, with a curtain drawing open and close. When the lights go up in the same cinema, a series of sit-down interviews with non-sighted viewers commence, which reveals the rationale for those thirteen minutes.

Each interviewee speaks of watching movies and personal preferences/memories. Some interviewees acquired blindness at a later age and thus have a prior set of sighted references when it comes to picturing in one’s head how a film looks and acts. Other interviewees are congenitally blind and therefore possess their own unique perceptions and sense of image-construction, among other things. One such interviewee is Kato Hideyuki, a musician and system engineer who likes actions films. As it turns out, Kato is the focus of Sasaki’s documentary. Following the interviews, the film immediately goes about accompanying Kato as he wraps up the writing of a sci-fi screenplay with a blind protagonist that he hopes to direct and consults a (sighted) writer for advice. One eventually gathers through conversations early in the film that the thirteen-minute audio film is the one that Kato has written and directed. Director Sasaki is not only making a film documenting the various stages of the production of Kato’s work but also assisting in the making of the latter. This self-reflexive element is ultimately key to the documentary’s own inner workings and themes of vision, film, and filmmaking, as it witnesses Kato’s dealings with the world of the visual set against his own non-sight-based ideas of form.

Early in the film, too, Sasaki puts forth the question to Kato that must nag the spectator in the beginning as well as doubtful film/video folks have already posed to him regarding his project: “How can you make a movie without seeing the images?” What follows is a film precisely about how Kato realises his project. Near the end of the documentary, one sees Kato’s completed short film, images and all, unlike the opening audio version. However, the extensive process of Kato’s meetings, discussions, production shoots, and digital imaging consultations in the pursuit of realising the film in his head as closely as possible, with the collaboration of many individuals, is that much more compelling in comparison to the final result. For, taking Sasaki’s above question as a cue, emerging most organically and remarkably from these conversations is the redefining of film and filmmaking, notably in post-digital terms. In helping Kato to understand the filmmaking process from the perspective of sighted people as well as sighted people to understand his own process of visualising his actual world, inner and outer, the documentary engages with issues that film theorists have been grappling with since the inception of the medium. In many ways, Sasaki’s documentary could have been titled “Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?”

The process that Kato undergoes to make his film can admittedly become exhausting, as it requires so much more physical engagement from him to further understand the laws and components of the physical, sighted world in which he seeks to externalise his creation. But what maintains Kato’s enthusiasm are the multitude of conversations and concepts addressed between him and representatives of fields of work about space, movement, and the body, which cannot help but wax philosophical. In a meeting with Just Cause creatives, Kato and company get into the very basic yet profound issue of how differently space is conceived and represented for sight and non-sighted people. Place it in the context of filmmaking and the “grammar of cinema” must be reevaluated.

At the National Museum of Nature and Science with the help of physical anthropologist Kazuhiro Sakane, Kato touches and interprets faces and their bone structure, in part to help him with the audition/casting process. Placing their task at hand within the larger context of filmmaking and spectatorship, while also deconstructing beauty, self-professed member of the Anti-Lookism club Sakane notes, “How the audience connects with a face can impact how they identify with the story.” Similarly, at A-Lab Co., Ltd.’s Sensitivity Engineering Laboratory, Kato speaks with android engineer Tadashi Shimaya to further get a sense of the impact of faces and facial movement and expressions. Also aiding Kato, regarding wardrobe and makeup in this case, is his conversation with colour research scientist Ken Sagawa on colour’s scientific and figurative elements. Meetings with concept artists result in printed 3-D storyboards so as to be legible to Kato through their tactile qualities.

Sasaki’s documentary is regrettably nowhere near as formally daring or innovative as the people, conversations, and processes that it shows, barring the opening sequence. Its rather dry form sometimes even detracts from the exciting work that goes on in the film. Of particular note are the four different production design teams that Kato ends up working with to visualise his work. Together, they develop a tactile, embodied language in league with digital media, such that the melding of body and technology to come up with ways to better understand sighted and non-sighted senses of spatial perception, and above all Kato’s envisioned mise-en-scène of action scenes, is thoroughly fascinating.

Night Cruising is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 28.