Cinema has been put to diverse uses over the years. Commercial filmmakers tell stories that entertain and may enlighten. American experimental filmmakers of the 1940s and ’50s, making low-budget films financed out of their own pockets, used cinema as a medium of personal revelation. Europe’s Marxist intellectuals of the 1970s tried to use cinema to help educate the naive spectator to the fact that film is itself a bourgeois illusion. Many young American experimentalists in the 1980s have returned to the goals of an earlier avant-garde, using film to better understand themselves, their families, their world.

But something has been happening in Japan that seems so fundamentally different from those possibilities as to call them into question. Each year a Chicago-based group called Innocent Eyes and Lenses presents group shows of recent Japanese work. This year’s programs offer an excellent introduction to the unique direction some Japanese filmmakers are taking.

For most of them, a film is first of all a machine. One makes a film much as one would construct a mechanical apparatus; indeed, one film, Te-Kuzure by Shiroyasu Suzuki, begins with a shot of a small machine. As we watch, our concentration is directed toward technique, which is not as empty an experience as it may sound. In the best of the films, technique becomes a series of metaphors within metaphors for both the film medium and, more generally, our machine age.

Perhaps the strongest of the films is Keita Kurosaka’s Transformation Piece No. 3–Mix Juice. This film’s opening is not especially promising. Nondescript images–dead fish, a reddish animal carcass on a plate, a man working outdoors in an industrial area–are intercut. One notices the brightly saturated hues of consumer advertisements, and images suggestive of the industrial and consumer realms. As the film progresses, these images are intercut more and more rapidly, until they finally alternate in flickering single frames. Then Kurosaka divides the screen into horizontal bands, among which different images alternate. These bands become many tiny and then even tinier squares, until the frame is broken up into many dozens of boxes, each containing a fragment of an image, and all pulsating so rapidly that one’s primary experience is of a chaotic wash of color. In a brilliant “surprise” ending, this wash is suddenly located in an image of consumption, in a glass in a woman’s hand.

In some recent paintings, James Rosenquist has alternated images on a single canvas, with an elaborate pattern of jagged lines separating them. The canvas becomes a spectacular battlefield of conflicting colors, and the result is in part a celebration, even a glorification, of the bright plastic colors of our consumer society. Kurosaka, by contrast, seems to be toying with the destruction of all meaning. When his chaos becomes the liquid in a glass, the effect is deeply ironic: everything one makes is ultimately incorporated into consumerism.

Almost as strong is Haruka Doi’s He Was Here, and You Are Here. This story of a failed love affair is conveyed with a variety of techniques that emphasize the shifting nature of cinematic illusion. Film images are frequently projected on objects, even a human body, in a way that emphasizes the shifting perspectives that attend a failure of communication. But we never feel we are experiencing an emotional self. We are in some house of mirrors, and the failure of the romance is due not to somebody’s failure to love enough but to a more fundamental condition of the world. In the mechanical universe of these films, there is no reality external to the mechanism of cinema. What a human body stands for is the effect it makes on the film strip, one effect among so many others.

In the Japanese films, the notion of an autonomous self, which in one way or another haunts virtually every American avant-garde film, hardly even arises. One is born inside a grand mechanism, and one’s existence consists of the variety of smaller mechanisms found along life’s journey.

While the dialectic between man and nature and machine and nature provides much of the content of American avant-garde film, as it did earlier with American literature and painting, nature is rarely an autonomous entity in these Japanese films. Junichi Okuyama’s A Cinedoer has a long early take of the ocean, but as the shot endures, the blueness of the ocean seems to become more the blue of film emulsion, and the film progresses via a mysterious collection of images to a point at which a scratch deep in the emulsion appears to divide the frame. Now it becomes clear that for this filmmaker there was no “ocean” outside the event that occurred on the emulsion. The final portion of the film consists of a view of a warped roll of film that we see slowly rotating.

Erotic imagery in these films does not make its usual direct appeal to the viewer. In the somewhat pedantic TeKuzure, by Shiroyasu Suzuki, images of a woman’s vagina accompany a lecture heard on the sound track on the difference between the “Perfect” circles of geometry and the “flexible” lines of the human body. Suzuki fails to film that body with anything approaching what I could call human feeling. More interesting is Nobuhiro Kawanaka’s ShiShosetsu, whose slow motion and warm, filmstock colors deny close-ups of a woman’s breasts some of their anatomic power. Throughout this film, little dark clouds, like puffs of smoke, rise through the image at apparently random moments; it’s as if we are sitting behind a smoker in a screening room, and we’re put at a further cinematic distance.

In Makoto Tezuka’s Model, a model’s image is humorously treated by being compared not only to itself via split screen but to other images, from a movie monster’s to the Virgin Mary’s. The use of a split screen and vertically moving frame lines for alternating images places the spectator squarely inside the machine of cinema itself.

I find myself of two minds about much of this work. While I want to recommend these programs to anyone interested in independent film, I see a danger in the stance that these filmmakers present. By abolishing so completely the ideas of an individual self and of physical nature, they lose much of the dialectical richness of mountain-as-mountain versus mountain-as-film that provides such complex paradoxes and meanings in American avant-garde film. Here we have differences only among cinematic techniques and degrees of illusion, differences that seem largely rhetorical. Almost every one of these films proceeds through some form of inventory of cinematic illusion. A Polaroid photo becomes a moving image. A fragment of an image moves across the frame to suddenly find its place, like a piece of a puzzle, in the whole. The music to many of the films sounds computer generated. Can these filmmakers explore any of the “great questions”–even those that appear most to concern them, such as the relationship of man to machine–if they abandon the idea that there are differences between the organic and inorganic, illusion and reality?

On the other hand, as art moves onward, new movements that seem to ignore or contradict the old eventually supplant them anyway, the musings of critics notwithstanding. It does strike me that the direction these Japanese films are taking is perhaps more appropriate to our current age than would be the romantic thrusts of earlier generations. For a child growing up in the age of television, rock video, video games, and computers, particularly in a society as collectivist as Japan’s, is it unnatural for an individual soul trying to reconcile itself to the external world to explore the form of that world? The plot of the rather silly Hollywood film Tron, in which one traveled inside a computer, here becomes the structure of the work–each film has been constructed as a particular kind of machine. These films leave me with a nagging question about what our world has become, and for raising the issue in so forceful and totally cinematic a way each deserves praise.