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
The director documents and depicts the daily life of her dementia-diagnosed mother.
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.
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.