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Review: Americans in Japan

Americans in Japan has a rhythmic beginning that makes the audience involved in the narrative from the very first seconds, and carries them through an unending journey of images and places. Johnny Vonneumann uses a unique visual language and moves the film forward by focusing on visual cues and imagery. The images are so well-edited that there’s no need for a narrator to explain anything, as they themselves move the film forward. The narrative itself gets unfolded slowly via these images, and that’s one of the beauties of the film. One of the unique features of Americans in Japan lies in the fact that it carries us with itself as if we are also tourists exploring Japan, and out of these trips, we get to have a beautiful, shared experience. As a result, the viewers feel close to the places they’re visiting in the film, and they get involved in the making of the documentary, and experience the trip as if it was of their own. This is one of the ‘experimental’ characteristics of this documentary: the involvement of the usually in-active viewers; we do no simply wait to receive information, but we are actively creating and understanding certain elements of the film, as if we are one with the film.

Director Johnny Vonneumann

The film is filled with images that the filmmaker has captured during his trip, and they are then re-assembled and put together. The ‘multiple exposure’ technique is be used quite extensively so that the images get to create new meanings, when put together. Additionally, we see numerous fade ins & outs, and many dissolves. The capacity of the images is constantly changing, and one image gets replaced quickly by another image to create various combinations; For example, through double exposure, the image of an amusement park is replaced with the image of a woman in a typical Japanese room. The juxtaposing combination of the images of parks, squares, buildings, statues, streets create unique, contrasting feelings in the audience. When watching the film, you feel all these emotions at the same time: You feel the tiredness of roaming around in a foreign country, you feel the excitement of seeing beautiful exotic scenery, and you feel the comfort of walking in a familiar place.

In a film like this where there’s no narrator or dialogue, music plays a vital role. Not only it connects the different shots that are inherently different from one another, but it also balances the rhythm of the film and becomes the throbbing heart of the film, controlling everything. It is this music that sets an order on everything, and specifies the timing for each scene, and as a result, creates the identity that the filmmaker is trying to impose on the narrative. In the first four minutes of the film, the music has a specific rhythm and flows freely in the images without having one specific melody. This rhythm guides us to see all these images as one, and unifies their location for us. This is a brilliant move on the director’s part, to choose the right music that brings out the raw adventurous and travelogue-like qualities of the film, and to let us experience the now-unified scenes without any interruption.

In documentaries, showing the subject in a raw format is a usual practice, and the filmmaker has done the same in its portrayal of this trip in Japan. But his style, which involves combining scenes and using fast-cut images, creates a whole out of the individual scenes. The film becomes a collection of images that create meaning when put together like this. Americans in Japan is an experimental film in the sense that it endeavors to reflect themes that can only be achieved with certain cinematic techniques, something which individual scenes/images are unable to do.

Johnny Vonneumann brilliantly shows the foreign world of a city through the eyes of a tourist, and he takes us with him as fellow travelers (and not mere viewers) along with him. We all know about the incidents and the fragmented images that a tourist experiences in a trip and captures in their mind, and here, the filmmaker has turned those experiences into a superb experimental film. What he has done can be set as an example for making a film about travelling on a tight budget, one that isn’t an ordinary travelogue.

We strongly recommend this film to all fans of experimental cinema, because it is an impressive experience in language, narrative and form.


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