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Unblinking in its examination of the death of the filmmaker’s father, Burning Star (95:00 min., 1995, 16mm) is a deeply personal film, an act of mourning and a confrontation with death’s excess. Shot on the days following his father’s death from exhaustion, following the Kobe earthquake relief effort, the film moves thoughtfully through the rites of passing.
Throughout the film, Onishi Kenji confronts the viewer with the direct results of loss. The film starts in the silence and darkness of the family’s house and then moves through the filmmaker’s own particular funeral rite &lrquo;” a very visceral exploration of the physical coldness of death and the metaphoric sexual link between father and son. It climaxes, stunningly, with an extended long take of the father’s immolation in the heart of a crematorium.
Only twenty-one when he made this film, Onishi Kenji has since produced a large body of experimental work which continues to challenge the viewer’s sense of the exploitative power of film. Typically long form and transgressive in their subject matter, very few of his films have been made available in North America.
“Onishi Kenji’s father died from over-exhaustion following his part in Kobe’s 1993 earthquake rescue effort. As a way of mourning, Onishi, then twenty-one, took up his camera and began to document the day of his father’s funeral and cremation. Instead of participating in the funerary rites, Onishi devised his own personal ritual, a mechanical ritual between camera and eye. Through this intimate act of visioning, Burning Star presents to us three acts of mourning, moving from the abstract to the corporal to the transformative.
In the first act, Onishi explores the abstract nature of loss. The image is dark and the house feels empty. The ambient soundtrack of rustling movement amplifies the sense of absence. There are attempts at everyday living – the answering machine is checked, people move around the house, clouds move across the sky, but the sense of loss and stasis permeates the corners of the house. The images seldom take a clear shape – the shots of the quotidian are abstracted into angles, shadows and darkness. Eventually the mourners arrive, taking the body in a hearse to a temple for the funeral.
Loss is explored in the corporal sense in the second section, where Onishi is left alone with his father’s body after the funeral. He taps the body to get a sense of its physicality – the warmth of live flesh replaced with the hollowness of death. He proceeds to undress his father, as if to come to terms with his own life through the corporal death of his father. He explores the physical relationship between father and son as he caresses his father’s body and strips it until his father is nude. He fondles his father’s penis – as if to explore the source of his own life, which now lies inert. Finally, he lays beside his father, and the section closes with a shot of their feet. After Onishi has attempted to understand the physical roots of his existence in his father, he lays down to acknowledge their shared future.
The final stage of the father’s funeral is his cremation. Again, Onishi brings his camera intimately into the situation, filming the immolation of the corpse through a portal in the crematorium. As the force of the flames fill the screen, the sense of destruction is almost transformative. We are no longer viewing a dead corpse; it has become a source of energy. His father’s bones take on a cosmic form, the process of cremation indeed resembles a burning star. The image of death has moved from the abstract through the corporal to the shockingly beautiful.
Throughout these three sections, Onishi allows the act of filming to interpret the act of grieving. In each section, he is seen on-screen, camera in hand, in the process of filming. He identifies completely with the mechanical eye of the camera and it is this process of detached vision that defines the film. This mechanical quality brings a coldness to the film, a studied intimacy that presents the body physically, but does not place it emotionally. It inhibits interpretation – the camera serves to close out the social aspect of the experience, erasing any boundaries or reference points, and places the viewer uncomfortably in direct relation to Onishi’s filmic ritual – the sense of death becomes personal.
It is not until the coda that emotion breaks through the mechanical rhythms of the film. After the cremation of his father, Onishi stumbles out into the parking lot, overwhelmed by the experience. He is no longer holding a camera, he is simply experiencing. The shot is a long shot and in slow motion, a sharp contrast to the intimacy of the previous acts. By breaking the intimacy of the rest of the film, this shot allows for reflection and distance. With this distance, the spectators are able to feel the emotions of experience, adding flesh to the coldness of the previous seventy minutes. Onishi also seems to change at this point, and the final scenes show a return to everyday life. Having reached, and surpassed, the rupture of emotion, the filmmaker returns to life, filming his neighbourhood and the signs of movement and growth.” (Chris Kennedy)