Films on sound: La Faute des Fleurs

By Frances Morgan

Vincent Moon’s prolific, itinerant camera has captured numerous musicians to date, from indie rock superstars like Arcade Fire to Malian folk guitarist and singer Sidi Touré and a documentary about All Tomorrow’s Parties. The Parisian director’s series of Take-Away Shows, video podcasts featuring ad-hoc live shows by musicians passing through the city, are less concerned with genre, and more with chanelling the energy of performance in an intimate, lively style.

Of course, many of Moon’s subjects are also his contemporaries – young bands and artists with whom he has a clear rapport. What’s impressive is that he seems to establish a similar connection with sixty-year-old Kazuki Tomokawa, the enigmatic Japanese artist who’s the subject of full-length film La Faute des Fleurs, screening for the first time in the UK at Café Oto, London, on 8 March.

LA FAUTE DES FLEURS _ a portrait of Kazuki Tomokawa (trailer) from MODEST LAUNCH on Vimeo.

As Moon tells me from Brazil, where he is currently filming musicians from the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, his encounter with Kazuki Tomokawa came about by chance. While the director was a fan of modern Japanese artists like Keiji Haino, Acid Mother’s Temple and Merzbow, he had never heard of the ‘screaming philosopher’ with numerous albums to his name who had been active in the Tokyo underground since the late 1960s, until a fan, Naohito Koike (who ended up as La Faute’s co-producer), contacted him, inviting Moon to Tokyo to film his hero.

Those expecting an in-depth history of the Japanese counterculture – or even a strictly chronological run-down of Tomokawa’s career, which also includes painting, acting for cult directors such as Takeshi Miike, and a reputation as a cycle racing expert – won’t exactly find it in La Faute des Fleurs. The film, shot in two weeks, unfolds at the pace of the Moon’s own sudden immersion in Tomokawa’s life and legend, which he clearly finds as charismatic as fans like Naohito Koike do. While friends and associates of the singer fill in biographical details, and Tomokawa himself speaks eloquently of his discovery of poetry and art as a young man, the emphasis is on impressions of the present, of subtle interactions between people and places, and especially between musicians. Tomokawa’s guitar-led and gutturally voiced songs are the core of the film, played in full in a number of settings, and shot with a sensitivity to both the musical structure and emotional atmosphere of the performance.

Kazuki Tomokawa, still from La Faute des Fleurs

“It’s hard for me to think about Tomokawa’s music without thinking of him onstage,” says Moon. “I like to see live music, and Tomokawa is an incredible performer, and extremely intense. When I first him, it was like pure energy…it’s a similar expression that I was witnessing with Keiji Haino, this explosion of music.”

While translation of dialogue was a key part of the editing process, Moon chose not to subtitle the songs themselves, even though Tomokawa is known as a powerful, poetic lyricist. While it’s true that, as Moon says, some of the lyrics are to be found online, translated by Alan Cummings, the decision seems based more on a sense of the formal impact of the film, and a desire not to distract the viewer with too much explicatory information.

When shooting live music, Moon tries to be "part of the performance". For non-Japanese speakers, these live sequences can indeed be appreciated for their sonic and visual artistry, and some – recorded by cellist Gaspar Claus, who also performs in the film – are particularly memorable. One of Tomokawa’s more frequently performed and quoted songs, ‘Pistol’, is performed in the ornate setting of an old Tokyo brothel, with birds and flowers adorning the walls. The intensity of the performance, which is filmed with a hand-held camera in almost a punk style towards the end, against such a delicate backdrop might be deliberately jarring, but it is nonetheless compelling viewing.


Kazuki Tomokawa - A Take Away Show #98 - Part II from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

Moon’s favourite muscial scene is the final one of the film, in which a clearly emotional Tomokawa gives a raw solo performance. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen from a musician,” he says “Before that, he had burst into tears, there was a very strong moment when he’d been talking about his son…He was very drunk, and that last song, it really carried everything.”

Tomokawa’s heavy drinking, and his relationship with a son from whom he was estranged for many years, lend an air of melancholy to La Faute de Fleurs, but neither factors are lingered upon in prurient detail. Instead, Moon chooses to celebrate Tomokawa’s constant urge to create, and his spontaneity, a quality that he also values in filmmaking: “On the day I spent a whole day with him in the studio, it wasn’t at all about making a perfect recording. We spent an afternoon recording an album. He arrives, he drinks for two hours, and he starts a song, and each time it’s just one take…he explodes all the strings on the guitar, but that’s fine – next!”

Like Tomokawa, perhaps, Vincent Moon is not looking for the note-perfect performance, but to capture something more intangible: “There’s something I feel when I film certain musicians, and it’s not about technique,” he says. “It’s more about the personal ritual.”

La Faute des Fleurs will be shown at Café Oto, London, on 8 March, with an introductory talk by Alan Cummings.

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