Alison Klayman is a documentary filmmaker who has covered diverse global subjects, but is perhaps best known for her in-depth character portraits of groundbreaking creators. Her debut feature on Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) was shortlisted for an Academy Award; she later profiled the Cuban-American abstract painter Carmen Herrera who only gained critical recognition around her 100th birthday (“The 100 Years Show”), which was a critic’s pick from the New York Times. Her latest film focuses on the Japanese floral artist Makoto Azuma who challenges every preconceived notion we have about flowers by sending his eye-popping bouquets into space, or to the bottom of the ocean. “Flower Punk”, which recently debuted on the New Yorker website, captures the artist’s practice and philosophy, with insights into the role of nature in Japanese aesthetics and the interweaving of decay and beauty. In a brief conversation with JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles, Klayman reflects on the artist, the film, and getting to spend time in Tokyo, a favorite city where she had previously lived for two and a half years.
"Flower Punk" video provided by The New Yorker.
Q: How did you first discover Makoto Azuma's work? What compelled you to make a film about him?
A: My good friend Marc Silver, who was responsible for the gorgeous cinematography in the film, actually first told me about Azuma. When I saw Azuma and Shunsuke Shiinoki’s stunning photographs—the epitome of a picture being worth a thousand words—I was intimidated at first. They were so powerful on their own. What could a film add to this? But the more I read of Azuma’s writing and interviews, I felt that documentary storytelling was absolutely the right medium to show people Azuma’s personal journey, process and the ideas behind the works.
Q: What was most surprising about spending time in Azuma’s studio, and watching his productions unfold?
A: Everything about his studio is surprising. Azuma's studio is housed inside a nondescript concrete building just off the main strip in Aoyama, one of Tokyo's poshest neighborhoods. There’s an upstairs office with computers and often a floral arrangement set up in front of a seamless for a time-lapse shoot, which might stink from being there for days with the “click click” of the camera and strobe light going off every minute. Downstairs is filled with lab coat-clad staff unpacking, carrying, cutting, and styling flowers. Rainforest sounds play over speakers and mist sporadically takes over your field of vision -- everything is designed to preserve the vitality of the plants. It feels like you’re in a science lab or a kitchen in an elite restaurant. Azuma is the one in charge. Early on Marc sent me an essay by Azuma, “Being in the Middle of the Life and Death of Flowers.” In the first paragraph Azuma talks about his work with flowers being a “confrontation,” and I immediately thought of the other two artists I have been fortunate to spend time with and profile – Ai Weiwei and Carmen Herrera -- who both talk about struggle and confrontation in their work, whether it’s with a straight line or self expression in defiance of authorities. In Azuma’s work he’s struggling with how to draw out the most vitality and beauty in something that is moving towards death and decay.
Q: There’s a fascinating scene of the Ota flower auction, where Azuma’s studio sources many of their flowers. What was it like filming there?
A: The Ota Flower market and auction reminded me of the Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction, a classic stop on any Tokyo tourist itinerary and somewhere I’ve been many times. That there is something analogous but for flowers was such a delightful surprise to me, and it is not well-known even though it’s the second-largest flower market on the planet. The way that Azuma’s work deals with both the intrinsic beauty of flowers as well as the commodification of flowers was really interesting to me—he also does so many commercial collaborations with fashion houses and other brands—so I was really interested in revealing the way flowers are also bought and sold.
Q: Were there any special techniques you used to film flowers throughout this production?
A: We took a very simple approach to the cinematography, without extreme long lenses or macro photography. I think Marc and I didn’t want to try to one-up the works themselves, we were more interested in the intimacy we could get with the artists. We did use a drone for the landscape shots of Fukushima and his hometown in Fukuoka. Marc liked to hold those shots rather than do the drone movement that has become so common in documentaries. He preferred to think of the drone as a tripod in the sky.
Q: There’s a long tradition of floral arrangement as a refined art in Japanese culture, from the highly formal ikebana to other practices. Do you see Azuma’s work in relation to that history? In your observation, how do you think he navigates the tension between his “punk” ethos and traditional forms of flower-art (which are often defined by strict rules and spirituality)?
A: In perhaps a very “punk” way, Azuma I think came to tradition only after he forged his own artistic path in the world of flower arranging. The film talks about his origins, leaving a small town to be a punk rocker in Tokyo, and ending up by chance working for a flower shop. I think now, Azuma feels tapped into a lot of the same spirituality as ikebana and he is well-versed in traditional forms of flower-art. We visited many shrines and temple grounds together, and those visits are part of his regular routine and practice.
Q: Azuma reflects on the limited lifespan of the flowers and how they can be a reminder of death and decay as a part of life. How did you try to illustrate this interweaving of beauty and sadness in the film?
A: That’s such a lovely way to put it! Beauty and sadness are interwoven in most moments in the film. That’s how I generally see life and what I look for in the films I made—nuance and shades of gray, dualisms and complexity. I think that is the reality of our world and of the human experience in it.
Azuma’s works are colorful and some are even whimsical, yet early in the film we make the point that he is interested in death and decay as much as beauty (with an upbeat music cue playing underneath). We introduce his work “Back to Earth,” where flowers are arranged in a grassy field and documented as they decay and disappear from the landscape, alongside kusozu paintings, watercolors from centuries ago that beautifully and graphically depict human death and decay. I liked that it gave the audience an opportunity to see one of his artistic influences, and also to feel personally implicated by the theme of life and death. The life and death flowers are connected to the inevitable fate of us all.
Q: One of Azuma’s projects was planting sunflowers and working with the community in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster, and he describes the spiritual and philosophical side of sharing flowers as a form of duty and “prayer”. What do you think we all can learn from this in the era of COVID-19? Did this influence the way you approach film and creativity in your own practice?
A: I got to think a lot about life and death, both of flowers and then of communities with the trip to Fukushima. Highway notices began to warn us about radiation levels as we approached. The bathrooms in rest stations near the reactors had digital readings of current ambient radiation to be expected along the route. When we got closer the landscape turned eerie. In the abandoned towns, and in the ones where people were just starting to move back, it felt like nature had reclaimed the land, and despite the remnants of destruction it was incredibly verdant. Since the menace of radiation was an invisible one, we didn’t anticipate how terrifying it would feel until we were there.
It’s not dissimilar to the feeling of the early days of the pandemic. You know there’s a risk, but you can’t see the danger. Our crew documented the creation of Azuma’s botanical sculpture there in tense silence. Azuma chose Ukedo Elementary School as the site to do the installation because all the students and staff evacuated before the tsunami hit and survived, while he was concerned some of the other abandoned structures in the area might be haunted by lingering spirits.
Q: What did you think about flowers before you made this, and did it change your perspective? Do you have a favorite flower?
A: I grew up in a neighborhood of flower-named streets: Honeysuckle, Primrose, Periwinkle, Violet. But honestly I never thought deeply about flowers before this film. But during production I was totally enamored of the Pompon and Ball Dahlias we filmed. I loved the way their colors map onto the geometry of overlapping petals.
Q: What did you personally learn about Japanese philosophy, especially about the relationship to nature, that you didn’t know before?
A: I didn’t know much so a lot of it was new. I definitely started to notice the way flowers and adornment of nature could be found all around me in Japan, even in city settings.