Alan Algee’s KYOTO: An Impressionistic, Immersive exploration of a City

Alan Algee’s KYOTO is an impressionistic, immersive exploration of a city that sits at the intersection of ancient and contemporary worlds filmed over hundreds of hours shooting primarily in the spring of 2016. Over the course of its two parts, the film seeks to examine the unique coexistence of cultural preservation and modernity in the daily life of a city that stood as the imperial capital for over a thousand years. But, KYOTO is also a celebration of the beloved place the director now calls home as he attempts to document the sublime and elusive nature of the “spirit of Japan.”

Drawing inspiration from Chris Marker’s seminal 1983 film Sans Soleil, KYOTO functions as a poetic meditation rather than a definitive documentary or a straight forward travelogue. Over the course of the film’s two parts Algee and co-cinematographer Toshiki Hayakawa drift down late-night streets, soar over sun drenched mountains, glide through expansive temple gardens, encounter ancient ceremonies and rush hour sidewalks and subways: an engrossing arc across the city’s life through “day break” and “deep night”.

Collaborating with trained movement artist Masumi Saito, recurring contemporary dance performances were filmed that engage with the breadth of Kyoto’s settings and that personify the spirituality and sensuality the director sees in the city, while also conveying the weight of the past and an elegance found in the city’s modern life.

The second half of Alan Algee’s KYOTO opens as evening sets in the city and vocalist Emi Ogura sings outside the busy Kiyamachi Street subway station. From here the director shares scenes he encounters on his own commute and nighttime excursions — “The laughter of college kids and salary men, glowing shrine lanterns for late night strolls or prayers, returning workforce commuters, host club solicitors, maiko-sans (geisha apprentices) hurrying to their next appointment, street performers, and lovers or groups of friends who sit at equal distance along Kamogawa River drinking and moon gazing — all of this happening at a low decibel just above a whisper.”

KYOTO concludes in the mountain villages north of the city with the Kurama Fire Festival and its parade of pine torches; the dislocating and disorienting, surreal images are among the first experiences Alan Algee recorded when he first arrived from America. And then a closing shot features the bonfires on the side of Daimonji Yama that illuminate the Kanji character 大, “dai” (meaning large or great), marking the end of the O-bon season, the annual visitation by the spirits of ancestors. This ceremony sees a series of massive characters set ablaze across the mountainsides that ring Kyoto ; the fires in the night meant to guide the spiritual beings out of the physical world until their return the following year. A fitting ending to this transcendental journey through Kyoto’s past and present.

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