Makoto Aida: Cynic in the Playground
Running time: 98 mins.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
Yusuke Tamari’s 2003 documentary “Makoto Aida: Cynic in the Playground” is the third film I have seen (and reviewed for the Pow-Wow) from the Artist Series put out on DVD by New People Entertainment, the other two being “Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara” (2007) and “Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog of Tokyo” (2001). Thinking back on those films as well as Scott Hicks’ “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts,” which I recently caught up with, I am reminded of just how fruitful a subject the creative process can be – and how thoroughly I enjoy films about it, be they fiction or non-fiction. Apart from being incredibly inspiring, they also provide extremely fascinating insight into the unique minds and lives of those individuals who choose to dedicate themselves to making art. “Cynic in the Playground” is certainly no let-down in those areas, nor does Aida ever prove to be anything less than a truly intriguing person to observe.
Thankfully, Tamari’s documentary is crafted in the beautifully simple “observational” style – meaning no talking heads or heavy-handed voiceovers. Instead, the camera quietly follows and watches Aida as he works, relaxes, travels and socializes. Background information and commentary are provided unobtrusively via subtitles and by Aida himself, resulting in a casual, appealing tone that invites viewers to arrive at their own conclusions based mainly on what they see of Aida’s behavior, work methods and art. The artist himself is fortunately an easy figure to like. He consistently exudes an unpretentious, relaxed and, in some cases, even lazy mentality, comically illustrated by the many breaks from work that he grants himself throughout the film. At times, he openly downplays the role that his own ideas and beliefs plays in his art, at one point half-seriously mumbling his desire to tell journalists that his works have no meaning.
That is not to say that his work is empty or lacking of meaningful ideas or that Aida has nothing to say as an artist. On the contrary, his paintings and installations indicate a mind overflowing with ideas, judging by their color and variety. In many cases, Aida reinterprets and experiments with Japanese art forms like manga, anime and the older Ukiyoe painting and block printing style, as seen in such works as “Harakiri Schoolgirls” and “The Giant Member Fuji Versus King Gidora” (which are fairly NSFW, in case anyone reading this is immediately tempted to Google them). His pieces are often invested with a spirit of fun and jet-black humor, perhaps best exemplified by the “Attempted Suicide Machine” – a noose designed out of various objects and, in one incarnation, refitted for children! Other works like his “War Pictures Returns” series, which is made up of works designed in styles ranging from Warholesque to propagandistic, underline Aida’s clear fascination with historical and cultural iconography.
But as inventive as Aida’s work is, both he and the film make it clear that much of the so-called creative process simply consists of hard work. “I put a heavy value on the accidental emergence of an idea,” he says. “This step is only the creative aspect, and the next step is manual labor. This is a boring job. No pleasure.” He directs his efforts to three main projects throughout the film: the decoration of a 1950s shell chair, the recreation of a giant cardboard fortress he originally made in 1995 for an exhibit in Paris’ Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and a giant painting for a show dedicated to “Love and Birth,” which proves to be the most labor-intensive enterprise. Aida decides to paint a vast jungle intruded upon by a giant, flat monument that bears the character for “Human Being,” requiring him to painstakingly paint in the detailed shades and textures of myriad tiny treetops. To help him with this task, he enlists the help of young art students whose ranks humorously increase as the film goes on and are often shown diligently working away while Aida is slumped in a corner. But despite his good-humored grumbling and comments about the weariness and solitude he experiences in his work, the sequences of him working with and cooking for his student helpers and constructing the cardboard castle in Paris with French museum staff and visiting friends contain a visible spirit of fun and camaraderie – valuable perks that make it all worthwhile even when the creative process is as unglamorous as the film makes it out to be.
Befitting the quirky, at-times absurdist qualities of his art pieces, Aida-san comes across as a refreshingly laid-back individual; one whose apartment is littered with objects all over the floor and who lives his life in the same relaxed manner whether he’s preparing his latest work or spending quality time with his wife (Yuko Okada, herself an artist) and infant son. A most enjoyable documentary, “Makoto Aida: Cynic in the Playground” is a nice reminder that many in the art world rely upon a sense of humor as much as inspiration – if not more so.
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