Toshio Matsumoto b. 1932
Atman (1975)
Director: Toshio Matsumoto
Year: 1975
Time: 12 mins
Music: Toshi Ichiyanagi


Atman is a Sanskrit term signifying something similar to self or soul. Yet such a self implies a whole range of metaphysical and anthropological dimensions unknown in Western languages and, therefore, Western intellectual traditions. It's an ambivalent concept denoting two distinguishable, but not opposed, realms of being: the individual self and the cosmic self. The degree to which these two levels of existence can be assimilated differs according to each school of thought or sectarian line. As an essential concept in Hinduism, the term is present in all modern Indian languages, but it's also a central tenet in several Buddhist strands and other religious configurations in the East. Matsumoto's 1975 short Atman is a rigorous and entrancing technical exercise whose "meaning" can only be hinted at by its title. A masked human figure is standing on an open landscape. The camera(s?) continuously encircle(s) the figure, in an anti-clockwise movement, approaching and abandoning the figure in stop-motion steps and varying, sometimes vertiginous, speed. Ichiyanagi, a regular collaborator of Matsumoto, offers an excellent, richly textured electronic score that is essential in sustaining interest in this constant merry-go-round: occasional bursts of of rhythmic mayhem, brilliantly synched with the picture's stop-motion, give way to swarms of orbital noise and back again. The masked man could well stand for the relation between the two levels of self implied in the film title, but the significance of this particular horned mask can only be explored by someone versed in Japanese iconography. But fear not: with or without a clear meaning, Atman is a magnificent exercise in cinematic vertigo, an outstanding film in an outstanding filmography.