Kikuchi, the Best Film I’ve Never Seen

Peter Strickland, whose new short Cold Meridian is out now, wants your help finding an obscure Japanese oddity he’s been tracking for decades.

I first heard of Kenchi Iwamoto’s Kikuchi in the early ’90s, when it had a limited release in London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. According to reviews, it was a solemn black-and-white mood piece centered on a launderette worker who falls in love with a supermarket check-out girl. Comparisons were made with David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

The description alone conjured a world of noisy washing machines and tumble dryers that I wanted to get lost in. All kinds of sonic textures came to mind, along with ideas about clothing and transient connections between people in launderettes. Did the man fall in love with the check-out woman after buying something from her or did she go into the launderette to wash things? If the former, what did he buy in the supermarket? If the latter, what did she wash in the launderette? The soundtrack promised all manner of possibilities with the sounds of washing machines or added launderette training sessions in Japanese that required the staff to recite the repair manuals by heart. I started to make up all kinds of scenarios in my head about the film since I missed it on its very short run in London.

Another opportunity to see Kikuchi presented itself when it screened as a one-off at New York’s Anthology Film Archives on Friday October 28, 1994. It was my first ever visit to America and I was staying with my Greek relatives in Woodhaven, Queens. I called up Anthology to reserve a ticket and Jonas Mekas answered the phone, which made me somewhat starstruck, since I had read about him a lot in relation to his own films and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which he had to defend in court. I really wanted to see Kikuchi and chat with Mr. Mekas before the screening, even though he announced that he didn’t like “chatting.” Despite his legendary no-nonsense manner, I was incredibly excited about the evening ahead and being unfamiliar with the New York subway, only a few days into my stay, I found some acquaintances of my cousin’s to give me a lift into Manhattan in a beat-up station wagon. The car’s ignition was hot-wired and I had the feeling that despite their generosity in giving me a lift, the two young men were no strangers to crime. But, being a shy foreigner, I felt it was none of my business to delve into their activities.

It soon became my business, however, when we got pulled over by the police after the driver stopped on the way to Anthology to buy a bag of marijuana from a store in Brooklyn that did under-the-counter deals for favored customers. The license plate was checked and indeed, the car was stolen. Handcuffs came on and we eventually ended up incarcerated deep in the bowels of the Brooklyn House of Detention for 24 hours. After being strip-searched and made to throw my vintage MC5 badge in the trash, I was thrown into a large, crowded cell. At this point, I realized I was going to have a very different evening from what I’d originally planned.

It was a long and eventful 24 hours and we were literally sleeping on top of each other on the floor, with those inmates at the top of the pecking order having the luxury of the bench against the back wall. A drug dealer’s head rested upon my chest purely because there was no other option and a mouse in the cell opposite perched on top of a sleeping inmate. Unable to drift into anything more than ankle-deep sleep, I thought about the launderette in Kikuchi and casually assumed that I’d be able to catch the film on another occasion back in Britain. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the years that passed, I looked out for Kikuchi, in case it appeared at any repertory cinemas in London, but in vain. Random checks for VHS or DVD copies of the film revealed nothing and there was minimal information on the internet about the film.

In 2019, a quarter of a century after my arrest, I was asked by a cinema in New York to programme a bunch of films in conjunction with my fourth feature, In Fabric, and I picked Kikuchi, only to discover it was impossible to locate a print of the film. A Japanese expert in Rotterdam also tried on my behalf when I was asked to pick a film for his cinema, but his efforts were also in vain. Nobody knew of the film and it seemed to have disappeared into a cinematic black hole.

To this day, I still haven’t seen Kikuchi, only its influence becomes stronger and I’ve even toyed with the idea of remaking the film that I’ve never seen. Loneliness and desire in a launderette is all I have to go on, but one doesn’t need much more than that. In some ways, I’m apprehensive about seeing the film since I’ve fabricated my own narrative and soundtrack based on a plethora of Japanese noise bands I’m familiar with.

Of course, I’m writing this piece in the hope that it might provoke someone to unearth the film. Or maybe Mr. Iwamoto might be one of those directors who types his name into Google after breakfast, and he could then come to my rescue. But either way, maybe there’s hope that I’ll finally see the best film I’ve never seen.

Peter Strickland started making short films on Super 8 and 16 mm in the early ’90s. After directing his adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis for Reading’s Progress Theatre in 1992, he went on to direct a short film called Bubblegum (starring Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn). After a long hiatus, making culinary soundscapes with The Sonic Catering Band, he returned to film in the early part of this century. His first feature film, Katalin Varga (starring Hilda Péter) was funded from an inheritance and shot and edited on a budget of £25,000. The Transylvanian tragedy led to funding from the British film industry. He made the Milano-Dorking sonic anguish of Berberian Sound Studio (starring Toby Jones) followed in 2012, followed by the dominant/submissive romance The Duke of Burgundy (starring Sidse Babett Knudsen). In the past few years, he has made several radio plays and a concert film for Björk, co-directed with Nick Fenton, and his fourth feature, the Thames Valley January Sales nightmare In Fabric (starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste). His new short film, Cold Meridian, is now streaming on MUBI. (Image by Rob Entwistle.)