“Contemporary documentary in Taiwan: memory, identity, flux”

I’m very pleased to announce that a paper I’ve been working on in the past several months, has finally been published. It’s been included in the latest number of Cinergie (2018, n. 13), an open-access, peer-reviewed journal about cinema and cinema related studies.

Titled “Contemporary documentary in Taiwan: Memory, Identity, Flux“, the article is an expansion and re-elaboration of some of the short takes on documentary in contemporary Taiwan I’ve been posting on this blog in the past two years.

The movies I’ve wrote about are: Le Moulin (Huang Ya-li, 2015), Wansei Painter – Tetsuomi Tateishi (Kuo Liang-yin and Fujita Shūhei,2016), Letter #69 (Lin Hsin-i, 2016) and 3 Islands (Lin Hsin-i, 2015).

You can read the paper here

P.S. Another movie that would have fit perfecty in the discourse I’ve tried to articulate in the essay is MATA-The island’s Gaze (2017, Cheng Li-Ming), but unfortunately I watched too late.


MATA-The island’s Gaze (2017, Cheng Li-Ming)

Taiwan experimental-documentary scene, whatever meaning you want to attach to the term, is one of the most intriguing and vibrant in contemporary cinema, particularly when the themes tackled are going deep into colonialism, identity and the complex history of the island. I’ve written on the subject here, here and here, and a longer and deeper analysis is coming soon.

In MATA-The island’s Gaze, directed by Cheng Li-Ming, the focus of attention is the gaze of Scottish photographer John Thomson, who visited Taiwan in 1871 , and his relationship with some members of the Siraya tribe – one of the several that inhabited Taiwan before the arrival of the Dutch and the Han – originally settled in the southern part of the island, near Tainan. Here the synopsis:

Scottish photographer John Thomson’s trip to Taiwan in 1871 is an important historical event. In this film we selected a hunter photo to re-interpret that event and visit the Siraya tribe to find an Elder, who talks and sings well, bringing us back to the past through his plucking of strings.

Then we saw the vigorous hunters holding their breath, staying very still in front of that weird machine for a long time, with a boy and a dog squatted at their feet. The director grabbed the view of this moment and invites the audience to watch with curious eyes.

On both sides of the river of time, he repeatedly speculates and watches the past, the future, and the influence of images on this island.

In its elliptical form, the work is centered around the concept of gaze, the mechanical gaze of the camera of the outsider/colonizer on the one hand, and that of the two Siraya people captured in a photo by the Scottish himself on the other. As the director himself explains “I created a pair of characters out of a photo with a boy and a dog squatted at the corner, through their curious stare at the vigorous tribal hunters and their encounter with the ‘image hunter’, witnessing a duel of old and new world”.

Words of a descendant of the Siraya and his reflections on language and the importance of words in creating history and reality are intertwined with an imaginative reconstruction of the encounter between the photographer and the two hunters. Here again the director’s own words:

This film is a sequel to “Looking for Siraya”, and this time starts with a photo of hunters holding shotguns to continue the act of taking back our souls. The stereo camera that John Thomson carried happened to inspire me creating a stereo composition. Through dramatic imitation of John Thomson’s journey as well as recording of Siraya who stays beautifully in primary image in photos yet actually is fading at present, we try to imagine how our Formosa’s “Mata(s)” treat this “mechanical eye” that intruded into the island.

You can watch MATA-The island’s Gaze on Vimeo:

MATA-The island’s Gaze from Li-Ming Cheng on Vimeo.


Ogawa Production retrospective at Cinéma du réel (March 23-April 28)

This year Cinéma du réel, one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals, will kick off its 40th edition this coming Friday, among the more anticipated events of the Parisian festival there will be a special focus on Ogawa Shinsuke and Ogawa Production, a huge retrospective dedicated to the documentary collective that from the 1960s onward changed and impacted the landscape of non-fiction cinema in Japan and Asia. Part of the events celebrating and reflecting on the civil unrest and protests that shook the world in 1968, from March 23rd to April 28th, the festival and the city of Paris will showcase seven movies made by the group in the 1960s:

Sea of Youth – Four Correspondence Course Students (1966)

Forest of Oppression – A Record of the Struggle at Takasaki City University of Economics (1967)

Report from Haneda (1967)

The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan – Summer in Sanrizuka (1968)

Prehistory of the Partisans (1969, directed by Tsuchimoto Noriaki)

At the end of Cinéma du réel, the retrospective will then move to the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume where will continue its focus on the Sanrizuka Series, movies documenting the struggle and resistance of the peasants and the students, united against the land expropriation perpetrated by the government in order to build Narita airport. The retrospective will last until April 27th presenting also the movies made by Ogawa Pro in its third phase, when the group moved to Magino village in Yamagata prefecture. The collective disbanded in 1992 with the untimely death of its founder Ogawa Shinsuke, a passing that also revealed the dark side of such a unique cinematic endeavor, Ogawa himself left a huge debt made during the years to support the collective and their films.

One member of the collective, Iizuka Toshio, will be in Paris to introduce the Magino films, and discuss his own movies and his relationship with Ogawa Shinsuke and the group. Curated by Ricardo Matos Cabo, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last October in Yamagata, the retrospective will also include other documentaries about the group, Devotion: A Film About Ogawa Productions (2000) by Barbara Hammer, A Visit to Ogawa Productions (1981) with Oshima Nagisa, Filmmaking and the Way to the Village (1973) by Fukuda Katsuhiko, and Kashima Paradise (1973) a French documentary about the struggle in Narita. An important part of the event will be the presence of scholar Abè Markus Nornes who will give a master class on Ogawa and lectures on militant film in Japan and Sanrizuka: Heta Village (1973).

If you’re in Paris, don’t miss this opportunity, experiencing Ogawa Pro’s documentaries on a big screen, in the proper contest and with proper introductions, is one of the best cinematic experiences I had in my life. Here the schedule of the screenings and lectures at Jeu de Paume :

April 3 (Tue), 18:30 Sanrizuka – Heta Village (1973)

April 4 (Wed), 18:00 Winter in Sanrizuka (1970)

April 6 (Fri) 16:30 Sanrizuka — the Three Day War (1970)
18:00 Sanrizuka – Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971)

April 7 (Sat) 11:30 Sanrizuka – The Construction of Iwayama Tower (1971)
14:30 Sanrizuka – Heta Village (1973)
18:00  Filmmaking and the Way to the Village (1973)

April 10 (Tue) 18:30 Dokkoi! Songs from the Bottom (1975)

April 17 (Tue) 16:00 Devotion: A Film About Ogawa Productions (2000)
18:00 The Magino Village Story – Pass (1977)
The Magino Village Story – Raising Silkworms (1977)

April 20 (Fri) 18:00 « Nippon » : Furuyashiki Village (1982)

April 21 (Sat) 11:30 Encounter with Toshio Iizuka
14:30 The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches – The Magino Village Tale (1986)

April 24 (Tue) 19:00 The Magino Village Story – Pass (1977)
A Visit to Ogawa Productions (1981, directed by Oshige Jun’ichiro)

April 28 (Sat) 14:30 Kashima Paradise (1973, directed by Yann
Le Masson and Bénie Deswarte)
17:00 Sanrizuka – The Construction of Iwayama Tower (1971)

Inland Sea 港町 (Sōda Kazuhiro, 2018)

Screen at this year edition of the Berlinale (Forum), Inland Sea is the latest documentary by one of the most interesting and original voice working in Japanese non-fiction today, Sōda Kazuhiro.  Based in New York, Soda in the last 10 years or so has built an impressive body of work, Inland Sea is the seventh documentary in his ongoing observational series, among my favorite Theatre 1 and 2, a diptych about playwright Oriza Hirata and his theatrical company, and Oyster Factory, a documentary premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2015. Inland Sea was filmed soon after Oyster Factory, in fact the town is the same, Ushimado, a small village facing the Seto Inland Sea in Okayama prefecture. While in the previous film Soda focused his gaze on a small oyster factory and the problems of surviving in a globalized world (you can read more here), in Inland Sea he follows three elderly people living in the village and their daily activities. Here the synopsis:

Wai-chan is one of the last remaining fishermen in Ushimado, a small village in Seto Inland Sea, Japan. At the age of 86, he still fishes alone on a small boat to make a living, dreaming about his retirement. Kumi-san is an 84 year old villager who wanders around the shore everyday. She believes a social welfare facility “stole” her disabled son to receive subsidy from the government. A “late – stage elderly” Koso-san runs a small seafood store left by her deceased husband. She sells fish to local villagers and provides leftovers to stray cats. Foresaken by the modernization of post-war Japan, the town Ushimado’s rich, ancient culture and tight-knit community are on on the verge of disappearing.

While, as mentioned above, the film is part of his observational series, from the very first scene is clear how Soda with his camera and his voice is an important and catalytic presence in the relational texture that is Inland Sea. As Nichols would put it, while Sōda is filming and representing a certain reality, the documentary and the act of filming itself becomes also an important part of that reality. More than in his other works, his voice and that of his wife and their presence is here a fundamental part of the movie, often the people filmed converse with Sōda and we, as spectators, are always aware of the relationship between the camera and its environment. Naturally all documentaries are works of fiction, to one degree or another, but to my eyes acknowledging the presence of the camera and its effects in a documentary shot in an observational style, is one of the main qualities of the movie. It’s a honest and ethic filmic approach that I really value as important, especially in the contemporary documentary landscape, an approach that stems also from the style and methodology adopted by Sōda:

I spontaneously roll my camera, watching and listening closely to the reality in front of me, banning myself from doing research or prescribing themes or writing a script before shooting. I impose certain rules (‘The Ten Commandments’) on myself to avoid preconceptions and to discover something beyond my expectation.

The movie is shot in its entirety in black and white, the only case in Sōda’s filmography, just the very last scene, a boat floating, is in colour. I haven’t read so much about the movie, I wanted to experience it without preconceptions, so I don’t know the reason behind not shooting in colour, but certainly this choice gives a very distinctive elegiac tone to the movie, and a flavour of obsolescence and marginality to the places and the people depicted in it. Compared to Sōda ’s previous movies there is, at least in the first hour or so —  the last 30 minutes are basically a very long and touching monologue of one of the old ladies, Kumi-chan — less talking and more insistence on the daily routine of Wai-chan and Koso-san, long periods of time are spent with the old man on the boat, fishing, and with the old lady, selling the fish.

By focusing on a place on a relatively far corner of Japan, far away from the metropolitan excitement that too often is associated with Japan, a place not yet forgotten, but on the edge of disappearing, and where the population is shrinking — the akiya (empty houses) seen in a sequence are becoming part of the present and near future of the archipelago — Sōda is also hinting, consciously or not, to one of the crucial issues of contemporary Japan and its geopolitical construction as a nation. That is, the parasitic relationship between sprawling urban centers and countryside, often forgotten, exploited (as highlighted by the situation in Fukushima or the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant), or reduced to the folkloric image and touristic destination of Japan National Railway’s posters. In a post on his blog last year commenting on the Ogawa Pro’s Sanrizuka series, Soda wrote that, I’m paraphrasing, the struggle and resistance to the construction of the airport, because of the thick dialect spoken by the farmers at the time, almost incomprehensible to a person born and raised in Tokyo, felt like an act of exploitation perpetrated by the central state towards its colonies.

Another aspect of Sōda’s style that really stands out in Inland Sea and a direct consequence of his methodological approach, is the absence of any explanation on the historical background and context of the subject filmed. His films do not offer any extra information about the people he meets and the places he shoots, but the camera and his documentaries are, in a certain way, an extension of his gaze. It is up to us the viewers to decipher and image what stories lie behind the landscapes and the people captured on screen, for instance we don’t know if the stories told by the very talkative Kumi-san, to whom the movie in dedicated (she passed away in 2015),  are completely true or to what degree they’re even truthful, yet this is life and it is here presented in all its complexity, sadness and beauty.


Inland Sea – Trailer from Laboratory X on Vimeo.

Record of Blood: Sunagawa 流血の記録・砂川 (Kamei Fumio, 1956)

Before the battle of Sanrizuka to halt the building of Narita airport, and before the massive revolts of 1968-69, there was Sunagawa and the resistance against the expansion of the American base in Tachikawa (Tokyo). In the third installments dedicated to the struggle, Kamei Fumio, the grandfather of Japanese documentary, captures the clashes and fights of the farmers, labor unions and students groups (Zengakuren among others) with the police. The always useful YIDFF, a festival that held a huge Kamei retrospective in 2001, gives us more background:

This is the third film in the Sunagawa series following The People of Sunagawa (1955) and Wheat Will Never Die(1955). Making use of the second film in the series, it explains the progress made during last year’s struggle and then documents the state of this year’s efforts. On October 12, 1956, 53 surveyors and 1,300 armed police rushed the gathered union and Zen Gaku Ren (the All Japan Federation of Self-Governing Students Associations) members who then formed a scrum to protect themselves. 278 people from both sides were injured. On the 13th, at the protest’s peak, 5,000 workers and Zen Gaku Ren members had been mobilized when the police attacked the demonstrators’ picket lines. 844 protesters and 80 police were injured. Public opinion erupted against the the violence of the armed police and the government’s lack of a policy, and on the 14th, the radio suddenly announced that the government would stop its survey. Sunagawa overflowed with joy and excitement, and a victory demo was held. On the 15th, a National People’s Rally was held to celebrate the victory of Sunagawa’s fight against the base, and protesters who had sustained grave injuries came from the hospital to address the meeting.

Stylistically the movie has many of the elements that would be used by Ogawa and his group in their Narita/Sanrizuka series: hand-held camera scenes of pure chaos shot in the midst of the fights, but also moments of peace when traditional songs are sung and meals are communally eaten by farmers, students and labor union members.
Here is a short but impactful scene of one of the first clashes between the protesters and the police in the Autumn of 1956:

It is interesting to notice that two points of view are here used to depict the situation: one that shows the fight from the outside, from a certain distance that is, and the other where the camera is engulfed by the bodies of the participants and is actively part of them. The gaze of the movie is without any doubts on the side of the inhabitants of Sunagawa, an aesthetic statement that reflects and results from the choice by the cameraman and the crew to live together with the farmers and students for several months.

Here, like in many other of his documentaries, Kamei also uses narration, but the voice explaining the timeline of the facts and commenting on what is going on on screen, sometimes with emphasis, is that of a female. In the film and in the struggle, Women, mainly middle-aged or old farmers, are always on the front-line and a vital part of the resistance, like in the documentaries about Sanrizuka (although infamously they were not an active part of the Ogawa collective itself).

It is also worth noting how the Sunagawa struggle is one of the few battles against the state/power in Japan that in the end was won by the people. If it is true that in 1959 the Supreme Court overturned the previous decision of the Tokyo District Court that found all the U.S. bases on Japanese land unconstitutional, in 1968 the plan for the extension of the base was cancelled, and finally in 1977 the base was given back to Japan. As pointed out by Dustin Wright “Without the farmers of Sunagawa, the Anpo (Japan-U.S. security treaty) protests of 1960 would have been something else entirely”, equally I think it is not too far fetched to say that without Kamei Fumio and his works on the Sunagawa struggle, the Sanrizuka/Narita series and consequently the post-war Japanese documentary landscape would have been something completely different.

Record of Blood: Sunagawa is available on DVD in Japan (no English subtitles) as a part of this box set released by Iwanami Shoten.

On Kamei’s Fighting Soldiers (戦ふ兵隊 1939)

Record of a Marathon Runner あるマラソンランナーの記録 (Kuroki Kazuo, 1964)

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, with the next edition of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon, and the massive 100 Years of Olympic Films box set released last year by the Criterion Collection revived and rekindled my interest in sport documentaries. So I decided to revisit one of my favourite non-fiction films dedicated to sport, Record of a Marathon Runner, a movie shot by Kuroki Kazuo between 1963 and 1964 about Kimihara Kenji, a Japanese marathon runner active during the 1960s and 1970s. Kuroki was a director who, long before establishing himself as an author somehow associated with the Japanese New Wave (Silence Has No Wing and Ryōma Assassination are two of his best work of the period), was a respected and innovative documentary filmmaker at the Iwanami Production, where he and other friends, Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Ogaka Shinsuke among others, formed the Ao no Kai (Blue Society), a group that tried to experiment and find new ways of expression through non-fiction cinema.

Record of a Marathon Runner is a PR movie (a sponsored movie) founded by Fuji Film, but paradoxically shot almost entirely on a Eastman Kodak film.  If you want to know more about the movie’s troubled production and have more insights on Kuroki career, this interview is a must read.

It is possible to watch the relatively short documentary (only 62 minutes) on The Science Film Museum’s Yutube official page, unfortunately it’s without English subtitles.

For some scholars, and I couldn’t agree more, Record of a Marathon Runner represents the other side of the official discourse about the Olympics, the one exemplified, with great artistic results I have to admit, by Ichikawa Kon’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) for instance.  In Record of a Marathon Runner the connections with the big event are very thin if not completely absent, in fact someone could argue that the movie is not even about the Olympics at all, we don’t see the marathon or the games themselves, the camera “just” follows Kimihara Kenji, who would eventually finish in eighth place at the competition in Tokyo, throughout his training and running in the winter and spring of 1963-64, as he prepares for the big event.

Although originally the documentary was conceived by Kuroki without narration, the movie uses a traditional narration alternating with the words spoken by the marathon runner himself and his coach. However, the tone of the words is so flat and has an almost matter-of-fact quality in it, that there’s no glamour nor pathos, on the contrary, everything, from the endless and solitary training, to the foot injury and the recovery, is displayed like some sort of natural phenomenon. Drained of any passion, the style of the movie reflects the act of running as felt by Kimihara himself, or at least as it is presented in the film, mechanical and without a real purpose, but it is also a way of transferring on screen the gray skies and the dull landscapes depicted, Kitakyūshū city with its industrial suburbs often drenched in rain, or the very ordinary countryside roads in Kagoshima prefecture.

This sense of necessity and that of the loneliness of the runner is amplified by the use of an eerie, dissonant and minimalist music, and by a cinematography that often uses long shots when depicting the athlete while training on the track, on the beach or on the streets. Even in the only scene when Kimihara is shot on a close-up while running, the monotonous sound design and the circularity of his movements form a hypnotic run that seem to lead nowhere. Another scene towards the end is also exemplary about this aesthetic approach: Kimihara after recovering from his injury participate in a competition- the Asahi road relay as the last runner – the only proper race we see on screen. After he wins and crosses the finish line though, he goes on running for a couple of minutes among people and trees like in a state of trance and without goal.

Focusing on the experience of running in preparation for a competition, highlighting its harshness and solitude, Kuroki also depicts indirectly the social background which Kimihara belongs to, the working class of a highly industrialized Kita Kyushu, and the life of an athlete before the brief and ephemeral light cast by the Olympic event.

2017: Kinema Junpo Best 10 – documentary

Awaited every year with trepidation by cinephiles and the community of Japanese film-lovers, and a perfect occasion for discussing the state of the art in the archipelago and agree or disagree with it, last month the prestigious film magazine Kinema Junpo announced its 2017 Best Ten Lists . Launched in 1924 with only non-Japanese films, and from 1926 including Japanese movies as well, the poll includes, in its present form, four categories: Japanese movies, non-Japanese movies, bunka eiga and a section awarding individual prizes such as best director, best actor, best actress, best screenplay, etc.
You can check the results for all the categories here. Given the nature of this space, I want to focus my attention (with the slowness that characterizes this blog, apologies) on the bunka eiga list, that is to say, the best 10 Japanese documentaries released in 2017 according to Kinema Junpo (as far as I know only three have been released outside of Japan and thus have international titles):

1 人生フルーツ Life is Fruity

2 標的の島 風(かじ)かたか The Targeted Island: A Shield Against Storms

3 やさしくなあに 奈緒ちゃんと家族の35年

4 ウォーナーの謎のリスト

5 谺雄二 ハンセン病とともに生きる

6 沈黙 立ち上がる慰安婦 The Silence

7 米軍が最も恐れた男 その名は、カメジロー

8 笑う101歳×2 笹本恒子 むのたけじ

9 まなぶ 通信制中学 60年の空白を越えて

10 廻り神楽

With the term bunka eiga (cultural film), for a comprehensive analysis of the word and its usage in relation with other definitions, read here, the magazine awards non-fiction movies that explore social, cultural and political themes, often focusing more on the subjects tackled than on the formal aspects of the films themselves.
It is almost a fact that we’re living in a new golden age for documentaries, an era when every year, in theaters or on streaming platforms alike, there’s at least one film that push the boundaries of non-fiction cinema towards new territories. Unfortunately Japan, with all the exceptions of the case, seems to have stayed or have left behind. This is not the right place to discuss and deep dive into the reasons for this impasse, suffice to say that it is a problem affecting Japanese cinema in general and not only nonfiction movies.

That being said, it is nice to see at the top of the list Life is Fruity, a movie directed by Fushihara Kenshi and produced by Tokai TV, a production company based in Nagoya that in the last twenty years or so has been releasing a bunch of interesting and insightful documentaries. Again, all of them have quasi-TV aesthetics, nonetheless the topics explored and, in the best cases, the touch used, make them worth watching. Of the 21 documentaries produced by Tokai TV I’ve had the chance to watch five, among these my favorite is 青空どろぼう (Sky’s Thieves, 2010), a movie on the Yokkaichi Asthma, one of Japan’s four major diseases caused by pollution.
Life is Fruity tells the story of 90-years-old architect Shuichi Tsubata and his wife Hideko living in Aichi prefecture in a house surrounded by vegetables and fruits. Almost half a century ago Tsubata was asked to plan a new town in the area, but his idea of building houses that could coexist with woods and blend with the natural environment was rejected, and a project more in tune with the fast growing Japanese economy of the time was chosen. Tsubata left his job, purchased a piece of land and built his dream-house in a manner of his master,  Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond.

You can see an English subtitled trailer by clicking on the Vimeo button:

Number two in the list is A targeted Village, the second documentary directed by Mikami Chie about the ongoing protests and resistance of Okinawa people against the American military presence and expansion in the island.
In 1983 director Ise Shinichi started to record the daily life of his 8-year-old niece Nao, a girl with intellectual disability who also suffers epilepsy, and her interaction with her family and society. After 12 years of shooting he edited the material into Nao-chan, a movie released in theaters in 1995, followed by 「ぴぐれっと」in 2002 and ありがとう 『奈緒ちゃん』自立への25 in 2006. やさしくなあに 奈緒ちゃんと家族の35年, number 3 in the Kinema Junpo list, is the fourth installment in this ongoing series and documents the ups and downs in the daily life of Nao and his family. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it seems to perfectly continue the tradition of Japanese documentaries dealing with disability, from Tsuchimoto Noriaki to Yanagisawa Hisao (a retrospective of his works is happening now in Tokyo) and, in more recent years, Soda Kazuhiro with Mental.


ウォーナーの謎のリスト is a documentary about American archeologist Langdon Warner and his list of culturally valuable Japanese sites that, allegedly, saved the most important temples and monuments from destruction during the American bombing of Japan in World War II. 谺雄二 ハンセン病とともに生きる tells the story of poet, activist and writer Kodama Yōji, who suffered from leprosy and fought against isolation and discrimination during his entire life, while with The Silence, second generation Japanese-Korean Park Soonam, records the struggle carried on by the victims of sexual slavery during the invasion of Korea by imperial Japan. In 米軍が最も恐れた男 その名は、カメジロー, his debut behind the camera, newscaster Sako Tadahiko explores the life of Senaga Kamejirō, an outspoken politician and communist who fought the American occupation of Okinawa until his death in 2001.
The list does not represent Japanese documentary landscape in its variety and complexity of course, by design the more experimental works are ruled out, nonetheless besides few titles, the films here selected don’t seem to hold any particular appeal to an international audience, again at the risk of becoming trite, it’s not because of the themes explored, but more because of what to me appears to be the lack of a distinctive style and vision.