Kinema Junpo Best Japanese Documentaries of 2018

A couple of weeks ago the film magazine Kinema Junpo announced its 2018 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.

The best 10 Japanese bunka eiga — a term that, more or less, could be translated into culture movies, in orher words documentary — according to the magazine are:

1 Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa  沖縄スパイ戦史 (Chie Mikami, Hanayo Oya)

2 Sennan Asbestos Disaster ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村 (Kazuo Hara)

3 ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします (Naoko Nobutomo)

4 奇跡の子どもたち (Hidetaka Inazuka)

5 Gokutomo 獄友 (Sung Woong Kim)

6 武蔵野 江戸の循環農業が息づく (Masaki Haramura)

7 春画と日本人(Ōgaki Atsushi)

8 蒔絵 中野孝一のわざ

9 夜明け前 呉秀三と無名の精神障害者の100年 (Tomoki Imai)

10 まだ見ぬまちへ〜石巻 小さなコミュニティの物語 (Kenji Aoike)

Not all of them have an official English title, since most were not, and probably will not be, released internationally.

I haven’t seen all of them, but the list seems to reflect certain general and for me disappointing aspects of contemporary documentary in Japan, or at least, a certain way of doing and conceptualizing documentary in the archipelago. Documentary seems to be viewed more as a vehicle to present a certain subject or a certain theme to the viewers and less as a form of visual expression. In other words, no much effort and time is spent on how to stylistically construct the film, and I think part of the “problem”, at least regarding the list in question, is connected to the meaning of term bunka eiga and thus to the by-the-fault approach from the magazine that seems to prioritize the subject matter over cinematic style.
The list is also a reflection of what is happening at the moment in the Japanese documentary scene. I haven’t watched every single non-fiction movie made in the archipelago in recent years, but I see a good number of Japanese documentaries every year, and not only there are almost no trace of documentaries that successfully blur the boundaries between non-fiction, avant-garde and fiction — with few glorious exceptions of course — but there’s hardly space even for works that try to present and tackle themes in different ways.

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With that out of the way, I can now move to the positive notes. It was nice to see at the first two places Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa and Sennan Asbestos Disaster. The former is the third “installment” of the ongoing exploration, by journalist and documentarist Chie Mikami, of the resistance and fight of the Okinwan people against the American “occupation” of the islands. This time Mikami’s movie (co-directed with Hanayo Oya) focuses more on the past, documenting with old photos, footage and interviews, how in the closing stages of the Battle of Okinawa, a unit called “Gokyotai” was used to wage guerrilla behind enemy lines.
Sennan Asbestos Disaster is the latest work by Hara Kazuo (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On), about former workers and the relatives of workers at asbestos factories in Osaka’s Sennan district. Hara with his camera follows their legal battle against the Japanese government while seeking compensation for the damage done to their health by asbestos. I had the chance to see the movie in Yamagata in 2017, with four of the victims sitting and chatting in the row in front of me, a very impactful viewing experience that I still treasure.

A final point worth noting is that many of the documentaries in the list are about, to different degrees, the third age. In Sennan Asbestos Disaster the victims are almost all over 60, and so are the five men wrongly convicted in Gokutomo, and the couple depicted in Bokemasukara, yoroshiku onegaishimasu (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします), a movie about senile dementia,  is well over 90. The disease is also the central theme explored in the triptych of documentaries Everyday is Alzheimer (毎日がアルツハイマー 2012-2018) by Yuka Sekiguchi, the third and latest was released last year, an underrated series in my opinion. I am not discovering anything new, but this heavy focus on the elderly is another signal of the increasingly aging population In Japan, a demographic shift that is shaping, and in fact has already started to shape, the country in several ways, not least its film and visual production.


Best documentaries of 2018

2018 has been an intense and fruitful year for documentary, especially on the margins, between works released theatrically, those made available directly on streaming platforms, and those screened almost exclusively at festivals, the offer has become as diversified as ever. As usual on this blog I have tried to direct my attention to some of the most significant works of nonfiction produced in East and Southeast Asia, and in doing so (time is limited I’m afraid) I have neglected many others made in other parts of the world, and living in Japan also didn’t help. For instance I was not able to see Dead Souls by Wang Bing, a movie I’m looking forward to seeing.
If last year my main focus was Taiwan and its dynamic contemporary documentary scene, a research that culminated with this essay I wrote for Cinergie in July, 2018 was more varied. The screening of NDU‘s To the Japs: South Korean A-Bomb Survivors Speak Out (1971) at the Kobe Planet Film Archive, part of my ongoing exploration of the works of the collective, was one of the highlights of the year, unfortunately I didn’t have the time to write about it, but hopefully I will be able to scribble down something next year.
It goes without saying that the list below is a reflection of my taste, interests and viewing habits, and thus it is mainly composed of documentaries made in the Asian continent (but there are few exceptions of course), and works that push the boundaries of what is usually considered nonfiction cinema.

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Outstanding works

Toward a Common Tenderness (Oda Kaori, 2017)
After Aragane, Oda confirms herself as one of the most original voices in contemporary nonfiction with another excellent work, this time mixing the diaristic and the poetic. Mesmerizing, as usual, the sound design.

Miasma, Plants, Export Paintings (Wang Bo, Pan Lu, 2018)
I discovered the movie a month or so ago, but it was a revelation: history, art, geography and colonialism mixed in an aesthetically challenging piece of work.

A Room with a Coconut View (Tulapop Saenjaroen, 2018)
The most overtly experimental work in this list, not for everyone taste for sure, but I found it refreshingly good.

Inland Sea (Soda Kazuhiro, 2018)
Probably my favorite by Soda, one that resonates more with me and my experience of living in Japan. You can read more here.

Everyday Is Alzheimer’s the Final: Death Becomes Us (Sekiguchi Yuka, 2018)
A really important documentary, not stylistically daring, nonetheless a film that delivers a strong punch in the stomach of the viewer with its matter-of-factness exposure of the disintegration of memory, aging and death.

MATA-The Island’s Gaze (Cheng Li-Ming, 2017)
An elliptical work that focuses its attention on the gaze of Scottish photographer John Thomson, who visited Taiwan in 1871 , and on 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. (here more)

The Hymns of Muscovy (Dimitri Venkov, 2017)
“…the sky itself appeared to me like an abyss, something which I had never felt before ー the vertigo above and the vertigo below” Goerge Bataille

Slow Motion, Stop Motion (Kurihara Mie, 2018)
A poetic and witty personal film, documenting the filmmaker’s wanderings and meetings in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. I’ve written more here.

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Special (re)discoveries:

What Do You Think About the War Responsibility of Emperor Hirohito (Tsuchiya Yutaka, 1997)
A video experiment and an important time capsule inside a time capsule: the Pacific War and the emperor’s responsibility as perceived by certain strata of the Japanese population during the 1990s.

Jakub (Jana Ševčicová, 1992)
A film of faces, the ancient faces of the Ruthenians people, “painted” in a black and white so dense, grainy and gritty that is almost painful to watch.

Cambodia Lost Rock & Roll (John Pirozzi, 2014)
Incredibly sad, but at the same time incredibly fun to watch and listen to.


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Best cinematic experience

By far the best viewing experience I had in 2018. You can read my excitement here.


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Honorable mentions:

78/52 (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2017)
A guilty pleasure.

Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A. (Stephen Loveridge, 2018)
I did not like many things in the movie, but the last 30-40 minutes offer an interesting take on complex topics such as being an artist in the contemporary world, fame, social awareness, and immigration and art.

A Man Who Became Cinema
A documentary about Hara Masato and his struggles to keep making movies, one day I need to write something on Hara, a fascinating and “cinematic” figure.

Hashima Movie Museum 羽島市資料館

There’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit since I moved to Gifu prefecture a decade or so ago, a place I discovered by chance surfing the internet: a movie museum located in Hashima City, a few kilometers away from where I live.
Movie museums, archives and places devoted to the preservation and history of cinema and movies (big spectacles, home movies and video art alike) are more and more becoming for me an interesting field to explore. Therefore, even though it is striktly speaking not about documentary, but more about documenting film and its history, I’ve decided to start a series of posts about the few, but very active, film museums/centres in Japan.

The most famous of these are the National Film Archive in Tokyo and the Kobe Planet Film Archive in Hyogo, the latter a place featured many times on this blog and a mini-theater in its own right that I’ve visited many times and through which I’ve been able to discover many important movies. Another one I’d like to visit one day is the Toy Film Museum in Kyoto, recently in the international news because of the discovery of a once-believed lost movie from Ozu Yasujirō, Tokkan Kozo.

Located at the periphery of the “empire”, in an old area in the city of Hashima, the 羽島市資料館 Hashima Movie Museum is hosted in a small two storey building.

Established in 1996, the museum shares the building with the Folk History Museum, but the look of it (from the inside at least) is definitely more indebted to cinema than ethnography. At the entrance on the ground floor the visitor is welcomed by dozen of film posters from different eras, with the main exhibition space located on the first floor. One room is filled with old movie cameras, some of them bulky machines dating back to the 1940s, flatbed editors, speakers and posters, a real feast for the eyes, and as you can see from the photo below, there are even some seats from and old theater. Probably the seats belonged to the Takehana Asahi Cinema, a theater beloved by the people of Hashima and a place that once was an important part of the community, the theater was active between 1934 and 1971. The museum stands in the same spot where the Takehana Asahi Cinema used to be.

Even after its closure the old building remained intact and untouched through the end of the 1980s. At that time the people of Hashima started to pressure the city for having back a cinema in their neighborhood, the intetest probably kindled by the surgence of mini-theaters during the decade and fueled by the money flowing through baburu period. Around 1992 after an inspection the building was found dilapidated and in danger of collapsing, but hundreds of movies posters were discovered inside its vaults. This lead to the decision of taking a different path and embarking on a new project, and that’s how the movie museum was established. The new building was modelled after the old theater on its South facade and after the Takegahana castle on its West facade.

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(the old Takehana Asahi Cinema and the South facede of the museum, source )

The other room is set as a screening room with rows of chairs at its center and a small screen at the far end of it. The walls are adorned with film posters and other memorabilia, mainly about jidai-geki movies from the golden age of Japanese cinema. The highlights were for me two very old and beautiful long posters from the 1930s of which I could not, unfortunately, take photos. According to its homepage the museum stores more than 50.000 (50.000!) items between posters and other memorabilia, of which only a small part was on display the day I visited it.

The room every second Saturday of the month turns into a screening place were people gather to see and probably discuss different movies chosen by the staff of the museum. I Want to Be a Shellfish (1959), Nobuko Rides on a Cloud (1955), and The Bullet Train (1975) were among the movies screened during this year.

I think the museum sets a good example of what local movie theaters located outside big cities might hopefully become in the future: a place to preserve and celebrate the history of cinema, but also one that could work as a small repertoire theater and a “amateur” screening room where to enjoy a wide variety of films.

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Yamazaki Hiroshi and light

When last August I attended the Image Forum Festival in Tokyo, one of my regrets was not having the time to be at a special focus dedicated to photographer and filmmaker Yamazaki Hiroshi. As I wrote in my report, one of the good points of the festival is that it is touring, although with a downsized program, in other parts of the coutry. When I saw the schedule of the screenings in Nagoya in September, I seized the opportunity and spend an afternoon immersing myself in the experimental films of Yamazaki.

Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1946 Yamazaki Hiroshi became a freelancer photographer after dropping out from Nihon University where he studied at the Department of Arts. Parallel with his career in photography, for which he is known in Japan and at an international level, some of his works are displayed at MoMa, Yamazaki developed a passion for the moving image and in 1972 started to shoot short movies in 8mm and 16mm. His experimental short films are a natural continuation of his work in photography, albeit there’s an obvious difference in tone between the two. Moving freely back and forth from still photography to moving images, Yamazaki’s central preoccupation throughout his career has remained the same: the role light and time play in creating images through the mechanical apparatus. His photos are thus not about depicting human beings, situations or even landscapes, they’re more on the verge of creating and conveying something new, something that is dormant in the everyday reality and must be brought to the surface to be seen. Almost like an artist playing with the relativity theory, by distorting time Yamazaki is modifying the shape of light and thus the reality he presents in his works. Often, and rightly so, defined as conceptual photographer, his works are more akin to the paintings of Klee, Pollock or other artists who were shifting the limits between natural representation and abstract art, that to the works made by his contemporary colleagues.
Yamazaki got his first big recognition in 1983 for a series of time-exposed photographs of the sun over the sea, one of the themes that he has been pursuing and investigating throughout his entire career, and a theme very present in all the works screened at the event.

Eighteen works were screened, some in their original format (8mm, 16mm), some others digitally, and they were divided into two sections. The last film screened, The Seas of Yamazki Hiroshi, was an hommage to Yamazaki as an artist, friend and peer by photographer Hagiwara Sakumi. Planned and organised by the festival as a special screening to honor and remember an important Japanese photographer and filmmaker, it was for me a special occasion to experience, in one sitting, the attempts and experiments of an artist I didn’t know in a new medium. Here the works screened:

FIX YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 5min. / 1972 / Japan
FIXED-NIGHT YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 6min. / 1972 / Japan
FIXED STAR YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 7min. / 1973 / Japan
A STORY YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 6min. / 1973 / Japan
60 YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 1 min. / 1973 / Japan
NOON YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 3min. / 1976 / Japan
Observation YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 10min. / 1975 / Japan
epilogue YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 1 min. / 1976 / Japan
MOTION YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 10min. / 1980 / Japan
GEOGRAPHY YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 7min. / 1981 / Japan
[kei] 1991 YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / video / 13min. / 1991 / Japan

VISION TAKE 1 YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 8mm / 3min. / 1973 / Japan
VISION TAKE 3 YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 3min. / 1978 / Japan
HELIOGRAPHY YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 6min. / 1979 / Japan
WALKING WORKS YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 5min. / 1983 / Japan
3・・・ YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 5min. / 1984 / Japan
WINDS YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / 16mm / 6min. / 1985 / Japan
Sakura YAMAZAKI Hiroshi / video / 19min. / 1989 / Japan
The Seas of YAMAZAKI Hiroshi HAGIWARA Sakumi / digital / 20min. / 2018 / Japan.

Among these works, three stood out for me. Observation (1975) is a ten-minute film, shot in 16mm, in which he created the illusion of twenty-eight suns arching over the sky in his neighborhood, and Sakura/Flowers in Space, shot on video in 1989, is a reflection on film of the ideas he captured in a series of photos towards the end of his career. Cherry blossoms are here depicted against the Sun, thus losing all the color and beauty they are usually associated with, and mutating instead into black shapeless figure of almost phantasmatic solitude.

But the absolute highlight was Heliography, a continuation but also a variation of what Yamazaki had being doing for more than 10 years with his photos, resulting in one of his most well known series, Heliography, released in 1974. In this series of photos of stunning visual impact Yamazaki subtracts all the unnecessary elements that usually are linked to a beautiful costal landscape, focusing primarily on the sun and the sea, captured here through very long exposures.
Seeing Heliography was for me almost a trascendental experience, and for a variety of different reasons. First of all because it came after an hour of seeing his short experiments in 8mm and 16mm, most of them interesting from a photographic point of view and in tracing a path in his oeuvre, but almost forgettable as stand alone works. Heliography arrived also as a natural progression of his experiments on film, but at the same time as a deviation and something completely new as well. It is visually and conceptually one of the most compelling films I have seen this year, six minutes of pure bliss. Like in La Région centrale, the oblique images of the Sun over the sea and the eye of the camera fixed and fixated on the star with everything else moving around, unanchor the viewers from the Earth, liberating and disengaging the vision from the human eye and re-centering it around the drifting Sun in what becomes in the end an astral landscape. A masterpiece.

To add one more layer to the experience, I really believe that had I watched all the works at home on a TV, non matter how big, Heliography would not have retained the same majestic power, I know I’m stating the obvious here for most cinephiles, but certain type of experimental cinema should be absolutely seen in theater.

So I Can Be Alright : Cocco’s Endless Journey 大丈夫であるように-Cocco 終らない旅 (Kore’eda Hirokazu, 2008)

In 2007, just before making one of his best movies, Still Walking, Kore’eda Hirokazu started to film the Japanese singer Cocco and her concerts throughout Japan resulting in So I Can Be Alright : Cocco’s Endless Journey 大丈夫であるように-Cocco 終らない旅, a movie released theatrically in Japan the next year. It wasn’t a new encounter beween the two, Cocco had collaborated before with Kore’eda when he directed two music videos for her, in 2002 Mizukagami, and in 2006 Hi no teri nagara ame no furu.
Cocco is probably more known outside Japan, especially among cinephiles, for her intense interpretation in Tsukamoto Shin’ya’s Kotoko, in my opinion, one of the best Japanese movies of the decade. The role she played in the movie had some affinities with her persona, a complex, delicate and troubled artist (at least she was so at the time of the shooting). Cocco’s eating disorders and self-harm tendencies are not a secret, when her diaphanous and skinny figure, not hiding the self-inflicted cuts on her wrists, appeared on the cover of the magazine Papyrus in October 2009, it caused quite a stir in the media.

It’s probably Cocco’s exceptional figure and personality, together with her uniqueness in Japanese show business world, that might have convinced Kore’eda to direct a documentary after more than five years from his previous one. As it is now well known, Kore’eda started his career in documentary, mainly for TV, when he joined the independent production company TV Man Union. However (1991) about the Minamata Disease and the legal struggles of the victims for compensation, was his debut, followed by Lesson from a Calf (1991) and I wanted to Be Japanese… (1992), on the rights of second and third generation Koreans born and resident in Japan. In 1994 he directed August without Him, a film that documents the fights of an AIDS patient and the relationship with his friends and with Kore’eda himself. From 1995 with his exceptional feature debut Maborosi/Maboroshi, Kore’eda then shifted towards fiction, but never really abandoned documentaries, a passion that he kept alive on the background of his main career. In 1996 for instance he was behind the camera for Without Memory, an indictment of medical malpractice and reflection on memory and loss, themes that feature prominently in all his fiction films. The most recent documentary-like work he directed was Ishibumi in 2015, a remake of a TV program made in 1969 about the tragedy of Hiroshima. While his commitment to documentary is still present, it is also obvious that his main career as a director has now moved away from it. Yet many of the qualities he developed as a documentarist are still very present in many of his feature films: the ability to improvise and capture the rawness of the moment, to work with non-professional actors and children, and the use of natural light, for instance.

Cocco’s Endless Journey follows the Okinawa-born artist in an important period in her life and career, during her Kira-Kira Live Tour between 2007 and the beginning of 2008. The tour marked the 10th anniversary from her solo debut and also a time when her insecurities as an artist and as a human being clashed, deteriorating her physical and mental condition.
The film moves pretty smoothly and ordinarily for most of its 110 minutes, performances by Cocco are alternated with the artist speaking with her staff or going back to Okinawa for a family reunion. But it’s in the last 20 minutes or so that the movie becomes a remarkable and fascinating watching. From a musical documentary following an artist, her concerts and her preoccupations with civil and environmental battles ー Cocco’s tour touches Rokkasho, a town with a huge nuclear reprocessing plant in Aomori, and Okinawa with all the problems related to the presence of American bases, one of which being  the extinction of the Okinawa dugong ー the movie becomes something totally different. Cocco insecurities, her death drive and her fragile physical and psychological condition slowly come to the surface. It was something that was present before of course, we see her crying many times before or during the performances, but a long conversation with Kore’eda towards the end of the movie push the documentary to a different and somehow uncomfortable place. The long scene has a direct-cinema touch and works almost like a confession. On a hill facing the beautiful sea of Okinawa, Kore’eda, off camera, listens to Cocco talking about the difficulty of staying alive and about her suffering, but also the novelty brought to her life by the birth of her son (if I’m not wrong he was 7 at the time). For instance, she explains the difference between watching Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke by herself, disappointed by the hopefulness of the ending, and together with her son, when on the contrary she was relieved and glad for the happy end.
The very last scene takes place on a beach at night, here after digging a hole in the sand, Cocco and her staff starts to fill it with the fan letters she received and read and a lock of her hair, a cleansing fire that ends the movie.
Before the ending roll we’re informed by intertitles about all the recent developments that occurred in Okinawa and Rokkasho after the shooting of the movie, and that in April of the same year, 2008, Cocco was hospitalised for treating her anorexia.

Physical media (DVDs and Blu-rays)

You can find this page on the menu above (I’ll post it here just to get more visibility):

This is a page where I’ll try to list all the Southeast and East Asian documentaries that have been released on DVD or Blu-ray (no VHS o laser discs…yet), both those still available and those currently out of print. For now, since I’m writing in English, I’ve decided to include only the home releases subtitled in English, but there’s a lot out there with French subs (Yoshida Kijū or Wang Bing for instance)…

There are a couple of fundamental reasons why I’ve decided to embark in this task:

We can talk and write at length about a certain movie or a certain director, but if we don’t have the means to see the films in question, unless you have the money to attend all the festivals dedicated to documentary around the world, it’s like talking about ghosts, and sometimes absence creates myths…

Another reason, and maybe the more dear to me, is that in recent years I’ve become fascinated by the history and development of home video distribution and its circulation around the world.

Moreover, as always with lists, this catalogue might also work as a special way to discover new titles, authors and filmographies.

Since I’m based in Japan and the documentary scene here has been vibrant since the beginnings of cinema, most of the titles are Japanese. I’m sure there are many Chinese, Taiwanese or Filipino non-fiction movies subtitled and on DVD, if you know any of them, please let me know, you can leave a comment or contact me through Twitter (the column on the right).

The order is chronological, that is, old movies at the top and more recent ones at the bottom. I’ve used this format:

English title (if not available I’ve kept the original) – name of the director – year of production – format- DVD or BD company’s name – year of the home video release when available.

As usual, feel free to contribute, I’m also open to suggestions regarding the layout of the page (should I divide the list by country? by author, etc.)

You can navigate through the movies on the list I created on Letterboxd (although some titles are missing, but I’m slowly fixing it)

Yamamoto Senji kokubetsushiki / The Funeral of Yamamoto Senji (Proletarian Film League of Japan, 1929) DVD Rikka Press, in Prokino sakuhin-shū, 2013.

Yamasen Watamasa rōnōsō / Yamamoto Senji Watanabe Masanosuke Worker-Farmer Funeral (Proletarian Film League of Japan, 1929) DVD Rikka Press, in Prokino sakuhin-shū, 2013.

Tochi / The Land (Proletarian Film League of Japan, 1931) DVD Rikka Press, in Prokino sakuhin-shū, 2013.

Dai jyūsankai no Tōkyō Mē Dē / The Thirteen Tokyo May Day (Proletarian Film League of Japan, 1931) DVD Rikka Press, in Prokino sakuhin-shū, 2013.

Sports (Proletarian Film League of Japan, 1932) DVD Rikka Press, in Prokino sakuhin-shū, 2013.

Zensen / The Front Lines (Proletarian Film League of Japan, 1932) DVD Rikka Press, in Prokino sakuhin-shū, 2013.

Hokusai (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1953) DVD Criterion Collection, in Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 2007.

Ikebana (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1956) DVD Criterion Collection, in Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 2007.

Tokyo 1958 (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1958) DVD Criterion Collection, in Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 2007.

The Weavers of Nishijin (Matsumoto Toshio, 1961) Blu-ray Cinelicious Pics, in Funeral Parade of Roses, 2017.

The Song of Stone (Matsumoto Toshio, 1963) Blu-ray Blu-ray Cinelicious Pics, in Funeral Parade of Roses, 2017.

Tokyo Olympiad (Ichikawa Kon, 1965)
a) DVD Criterion Collection, 2002.
b) DVD/Blu-ray in 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012, Criterion Collection, 2017.

On The Road – A Document (Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1964) DVD Zakka Films, 2011.

In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia (Imamura Shōhei, 1971) DVD Icarus Films, in A Man Vanishes, 2012.

In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (Imamura Shōhei, 1971) DVD Icarus Films, in A Man Vanishes, 2012.

Minamata: The Victims and Their World (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1971) DVD Zakka Films, 2011.

The Pirates of Bubuan (Imamura Shōhei, 1972) DVD Icarus Films, in A Man Vanishes, 2012.

Sapporo Winter Olympics (Shinoda Masahiro, 1972) DVD/Blu-ray in 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012, Criterion Collection, 2017.

Goodbye CP (Hara Kazuo, 1972) DVD Facets, 2007.

Outlaw-Matsu Returns Home (Imamura Shōhei, 1973) DVD Icarus Films, in A Man Vanishes, 2012.

Extreme Private Eros – Live Song 1974 (Hara Kazuo, 1974) DVD Facets, 2007.

Karayuki-san, The Making of a Prostitute (Imamura Shōhei, 1975) DVD Icarus Films, in A Man Vanishes, 2012.

Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life Of A Film Director (Shindō Kaneto, 1975)
a) DVD Asmik Ace, 2001.
b) DVD/Blu-ray Criterion Collection, in Ugetsu, 2017.

The Shiranui Sea (Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1975) DVD Zakka Films, 2011.

Turumba (Kidlat Tahimik, 1981) DVD Flower Films, 2005.

Antonio Gaudí (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1984) DVD Criterion Collection, 2008.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches on (Hara Kazuo, 1987) DVD Facets, 2007.

Seoul 1988 (Lee Kwang-soo, 1989) DVD/Blu-ray in 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012, Criterion Collection, 2017.

Hand in Hand (Im Kwon-taek, 1989) DVD/Blu-ray in 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012, Criterion Collection, 2017.

Beyond All Barriers (Lee Ji-won, 1989) DVD/Blu-ray in 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012, Criterion Collection, 2017.

Living on the River Agano (Satō Makoto, 1992) DVD Siglo, in Satō Makoto’s Complete Works box-set, 2008.

Embracing (Kawase Naomi, 1992) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

A Dedicated Life (Hara Kazuo, 1994) DVD Facets, 2007.

Katatsumori (Kawase Naomi, 1994) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

See Heaven (Kawase Naomi, 1995) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

Hi-Wa-Katabuki (Kawase Naomi, 1996) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

The Weald (Kawase Naomi, 1997) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

A (Mori Tatsuya, 1998)
a) DVD Maxam, 2003.
b) DVD Facets, 2006.

Artists in Wonderland (Satō Makoto, 1998)
a) DVD Siglo, in Satō Makoto’s Complete Works box-set, 2008.
b) DVD Zakka Films.

Mangekyo/Kaleidoscope (Kawase Naomi, 1999) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

Self and Others (Satō Makoto, 2000) DVD Siglo, in Satō Makoto’s Complete Works box-set, 2008.

Hanako (Satō Makoto, 2001) DVD Siglo, in Satō Makoto’s Complete Works box-set, 2008.

Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth (Kawase Naomi, 2001) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom (Kawase Naomi, 2002) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, in Kawase Naomi Documentary DVD Box, 2008.

A2 (Mori Tatsuya, 2002)
a)DVD Maxam, 2003.
b)DVD Facets, 2006.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003) DVD Tiger Releases.

S21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, 2003) DVD First Run Features, 2005.

Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985 (Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 2003 ) DVD Zakka Films, 2011.

Traces: The Kabul Museum 1988 (Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 2003) DVD Zakka Films, 2011.

Mamories of Agano (Satō Makoto, 2004) DVD Siglo, in Satō Makoto’s Complete Works box-set, 2008.

Haruko (Nozawa Kazuyuki, 2004) DVD Fuji Television、2004.

Rokkasho Rhapsody (Kamanaka Hitomi, 2006) DVD Zakka Films.

Echoes from the Miike Mine (Kumagai Hiroko, 2006) DVD Zakka Films.

Bing’ai (Feng Yan, 2007) DVD Zakka Films.

Three Sisters (Wang Bing, 2007) DVD Icarus Films.

Campaign (Soda Kazuhiro, 2007) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, 2007.

Mapping the Future Nishinari (Tanaka Yukio, Yamada Tetsuo, 2007) DVD Zakka Films.

Mental (Soda Kazuhiro, 2008) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, 2010.

Flowers and Troops (Matsubayashi Yōju, 2009) DVD Zakka Films.

Breaking the Silence (Toshikuni Doi, 2009) DVD Zakka Films.

Holy Island (Hanabusa Aya, 2010) DVD Zakka Films.

The Everlasting Flame (dir. Gu Jun , 2010) DVD/Blu-ray in 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012, Criterion Collection, 2017.

Ashes to Honey —Toward a Sustainable Future (Kamanaka Hitomi, 2010) DVD Zakka Films.

Peace (Soda Kazuhiro, 2010) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, 2012.

Barefoot Gen’s Hiroshima (Ishida Yuko, 2011) DVD Zakka Films.

Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (Rithy Panh, 2011) DVD First Run Features, 2013.

Living the Silent Spring (Sakata Masako, 2011) DVD Zakka Films.

Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape (Matsubayashi Yōju, 2012) DVD Zakka Films.

Theatre 1 & 2 (Soda Kazuhiro, 2012) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, 2013.

The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
a) Blu-ray New Wave Films, 2014.
b) DVD Strand Releasing, 2014.
c) DVD Edko Films, 2016.

Campaign 2 (Soda Kazuhiro, 2013) DVD Kinokuniya Shoten, 2015.

The Horses of Fukushima (Matsubayashi Yōju, 2013) DVD Zakka Films.

Flowers of Taipei – Taiwan New Cinema (Hsieh Chin Lin, 2014) DVD Edko Films, 2017.

The Last Geisha: Madame Minako (Yasuhara Makoto, 2014) DVD Zakka Films.

Ishibumi (Kore’eda Hirokazu, 2015) DVD/Blu-ray Vap, 2017.

Little Voices from Fukushima (Kamanaka Hitomi, 2015) DVD Zakka Films.

A Room of Her Own: Rei Naito and Light (Nakamura Yūko, 2015) DVD DIG, 2017.

We Shall Overcome (Mikami Chie, 2015) DVD Zakka Films.

Le Moulin (Huang Ya Li, 2016) Blu-ray/DVD Fisfisa Media, 2017.

Fake (Mori Tatsuya, 2016) DVD Happinet, 2016.

Personal documentary, diary films, first-person cinema and “Self documentary” in Japan

Film buffs on the internet and specifically on social media are often times obsessed by lists. Although I’m not a big fan of them when used to rank movies (how dare you to rank art! I’m joking of course…), it is nonetheless unquestionable that lists are one of the greatest tool to discover new movies and explore novel cinematic landscapes.

In the past month I’ve asked on Twitter (by the way, if you’re not doing it already, please follow us ) to list some of the most significant personal documentaries made in Japan. Some friends were kind enough to reply and share some titles, some of which I wasn’t aware of.

With this feedback in mind, I started to collect my thoughts and compile a list of what I consider the most important personal documentaries made in Japan. I’ve also included some titles I have not seen yet, don’t kill me for this, but I’ve trusted what has been written and discussed by people I trust and respect.

Before starting to explore what the list has to offer, let me clarify what we mean when we talk about “personal documentary”. Keeping in mind that the definition is always vague, in flux and susceptible to change, and so is the term documentary, I think we can approach a sort of truthfulness by stating that personal documentaries are works often made, but not always, in the first person and about the life of the director/cameraman. For these reasons often they are also called, or more precisely they overlap with, diary films and first-person cinema.

In Japan the term often used to define this kind of works is “Self Documentary” セルフ ドキュメンタリー. Illuminating in this respect is this piece written by Hisashi Nada for the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 2005. Also available on the YIDFF site, there’s an interview with Matsumoto Toshio conducted by Aaron Gerow, in it the theoretician and director criticized some trends in the Japanese self documentary scene of the 1990s, a take that, for what is worth, I agree with:

there are problems with an “I” which doesn’t doubt its “self” and the so-called “I-films” (watakushi eiga) share those: they never put their “I” in question. Since they don’t attempt to relativize themselves through a relationship with the external world, they gradually become self-complete–a pre-established harmony.

With this in mind, let’s start:

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (Hara Kazuo, 1974)

My favourite Hara Kazuo’s film by far, yes more than The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, this is more or less where and when the personal documentary started in Japan. Contrary to what many films made in the following decades did, Extreme Private Eros is a sublime embodiment of the famous motto of the 1960s and 1970s “the personal is political”.

Impressions of a Sunset (Suzuki Shiroyasu, 1975)

If Extreme Private Eros is where the Japanese personal documentary started, Impression of a Sunset is where the diary film à la Mekas emerged in Japan. Mostly unknown outside Japan, it’s in every way a diary composed by images where Suzuki, after buying a CineKodak 16 (a pre-war 16mm camera) at a second hand camera shop, starts filming his wife, his newborn baby and his workplace. With Impressions of a Sunset and other works such as 15 Days (1980), Suzuki is more a poet with a camera than a documentarist in the sense we give the term today.

Embracing (1992) and Katatsumori (1994)

Probably the most known personal documentarist from Japan, Kawase started her career with short home movies about her search for the father who abandoned her as a child in Embracing, and about the strong bond with her grandmother, who became her adopted mother, in Katatsumori.

Memories of Agano (Satō Makoto, 2004)

I’ve written extensively about the movie and its hybrid and experimental qualities, clearly it’s much more than a personal documentary, but director Sato and his cameraman returning to the locations and the people filmed more than 10 years before in Niigata, make it a movie perfect for this list.

Dear Pyongyang (2006) and Sona, the Other Myself (2009) by Yang Yong-hi

A documentary by zainichi Korean director Yang Yong-hi about her own family. It was shot in Osaka Japan (Yang’s hometown) and Pyongyang, North Korea, In the 1970s, Yang’s father, an ardent communist and leader of the pro-North movement in Japan, sent his three sons from Japan to North Korea under a repatriation campaign sponsored by ethnic activist organisation and de facto North Korean embassy Chongryon; as the only daughter, Yang herself remained in Japan. However, as the economic situation in the North deteriorated, the brothers became increasingly dependent for survival on the care packages sent by their parents. The film shows Yang’s visits to her brothers in Pyongyang, as well as conversations with her father about his ideological faith and his regrets over breaking up his family.                                                                                        In Sona, the Other Myself the director continues the exploration of her family, Sona is the daughter of her brother who moved to North Korea from Japan in the early 1970s. Through her, the film shows the generation that migrated from Japan to North Korea and their offspring who were born and raised in North Korea. (from Letterboxd).

Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman (Sunada Mami, 2011)

Recently retired from a company after some 40 years of service, Sunada Tomoaki, father of filmmaker Sunada Mami, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and only has a few months left to live. True to his pragmatic core, Sunada sets out to accomplish a list of tasks before his final departure: playing with his grandchildren, planning his own funeral, saying “I love you” to his wife, among others. (from Letterboxd)

Everyday is Alzheimer’s (2012), Everyday Is Alzheimer’s 2 – The Filmmaker Goes to Britain (2014) Everyday Is Alzheimer’s the Final: Death Becomes Us (2018) by Sekiguchi Yūka

Director Sekiguchi Yūka documents and depicts the daily life of her dementia-diagnosed mother and how this changed her family’s life.

Yongwanggung : Memories from Across the Water ( Kim Im-man, 2016)

Statement from the director: “Yongwangung was a Gutdang (shaman’s shrine) where first generation Korean women who crossed the seas from Jeju to Japan use to go before the Second World War. In 2009, I heard that the shrine was about to be demolished by the Osaka city government. My childhood memory of my mother praying in the kitchen came back when I was filming elderly women in Jeju. I felt the urge to have a shamanistic ritual for my mother who had been hospitalized.”

Home Sweet Home (Ise Shinichi, 2017)

This was one of the movies I was more eager to see last year, but unfortunately I couldn’t catch it. The film covers 35 years in the life of filmmaker Ise Shinichi’s family, documenting his disabled niece Nao since 1983.

Special mentions

Toward a Common Tenderness (Oda Kaori, 2017)

It’s one of my favourite viewings of the year, but it has just come out and I need to rewatch it, that’s why it’s not included in the list. The balance between the personal and the poetic is what makes it special.

Magino Village – A Tale (Ogawa Shinsuke, 1986)

As the mysterious object of Japanese documentary per excellence, Magino Village goes of course far beyond the realm of  personal films, but somehow this sprawling movie is, among other things, the result and the partial documentation of more than a decade spent in Yamagata by the Ogawa collective.