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.

Anthropology and cinema: The Song of Akamata (Kitamura Minao, 1973)

I’m reposting something I wrote almost 4 years ago about Kitamura Minao and visual anthropology in Japan

Visual anthropology, ethnographic cinema, visual folklore and ethnographic film are all definitions floating around the same concept, a point of intersection between cinema, film or the visual arts on the one side and ethnology, anthropology or ethnographic field work on the other. Although all these definitions don’t exactly signify the same thing, I personally like the term “visual anthropology” the best, for no special reason.

I came to be interested in visual anthropology through the works of Jean Rouch, author and co-author of some of the most outstanding works in the history of documentary (Chronicle of a Summer, Moi, un noir, etc.) who was also a very well respected anthropologist who spend most of his life working in the African continent. Driven by this interest a couple of years ago I started to look for something or someone similar in Japan, and by pure chance one morning at Nagoya Cinemaskhole, I came across and discovered the works of Kitamura Minao.
Kitamura is one of the most respected visual anthropologist (I don’t know if he’d agree to be called so) working today in Japan, the founder of Visual Folkrore Inc. and, besides his works for TV (mainly for NHK), he’s also the author of some very compelling and inspiring theatrical documentaries. For instance, Kitamura is the director of one of my favourite films of 2012, Hokaibito: Ina no Seigetsu about the life of Inoue Seigetsu, a poet and wanderer who lived the last part of his life (he died in 1887) shifting through the land of Ina, now located in Nagano prefecture, between the Edo and Meiji period, a time of dramatic changes that transformed and shaped Japan as a modern nation.
Hokaibito: Ina no Seigetsu is a very unique documentary constructed by merging poems, written by Seigetsu himself and visualized on screen by nice handwritten strokes, with reconstructions of the life of the poet, played here by the legendary dancer Tanaka Min.
I haven’t seen so many of Kitamura’s works, especially those comissioned by museums or NHK, but a couple of years ago at the Kobe Planet Film Archive I had the chance to see two of his works made around 30 years ago: The Horse of Kaberu (1969) and The Song Of Akamata:
Life Histories of the Islanders of Iriomote Okinawa
The former in particular impressed me for its compelling topic: the failed attempt to film a sacred festival in Komi (filming the rituals in the remote island remains a taboo) that nonetheless turned out into a meaningful portrait of the people living or returning to the small land, and a revealing study of their deep relationship with traditions and religion practices of the island.
What follows is an introduction to the movie by Kitamura himself, given on the occasion of a symposium, “Expanding the horizon of Area Studies through film presentation The New Generation of Anthropological Cinema” held in Kyoto in 2006:




There are two sacred festivals in the Okinawan Islands that, although they continue today, have not yet been filmed or documented: Uyagan-Sai of Ogami Island, Miyako; and Akamata of the Yaeyama Islands, which I attempted, on one notable occasion, to film with an Arriflex camera. The result is this rather peculiar work that did not actually achieve its main objective.
Once a year, during June of the lunar calendar, wearing a wild red wooden mask and covered in leaves and vines, Akamata appears from the sacred cave known as Nabindo. He visits the village founder’s house in Komi to bless the villagers and promise a good harvest for the coming season.
In July of 1972, I arrived at Komi with my filming crew, having traveled by Sabani, a kind of small fishing boat. Although 73 families had occupied the village in 1960, only 17 families remained. Most of the young people had left for Tokyo or Kawasaki, and each year an additional few families had also emigrated to Ishigaki Island or Naha. With such a small village population, I was doubtful that Akamata would be held.
At midnight of the first day of the festival, I was called outside, where I was surrounded by several young men with sickles. They returned to me a bottle of sake I had presented them with in honor of the festival, and then threatened me, shouting, “We never gonna let you shoot Akamata. Never! If you do, you’ll be found murdered.” Their parting shot, “If we ever allow your filming, it’s the end of the village,” made me even more curious about why Akamata made them so excited and energetic. What magnetic force made people come back to the island to join Akamata?
Due to these developments, instead of filming Akamata, I decided to document the life histories of the villagers and the ways of life of the people who had emigrated from Komi. I rallied my frightened crew and began a daytime visit to a family by asking them to let us take a souvenir photo. They liked our request, even though the camera was my 16mm Arriflex. We also voluntarily joined in the work of the village community, drank together, and sang together, with the camera and recorder turned on.
Before completing souvenir photos of all 17 families, I began to understand the fairly complicated relationships among the villagers. For instance, there were conflicts between native and newly introduced religions. After the photos had all been taken, we visited ex-islanders live in Ishigaki and Naha in order to ask why they had left their native island. I found that these ex-islanders living in the cities maintained the same values they had cherished in their native village. It seems that Akamata still lives in their minds.
The sacred masked Akamata, covered by leaves and vines, does not appear at all in “The Song of Akamata.” Nonetheless, this film succeeded in documenting and unmasking the real lives of the islanders.
Duration: 82 mins, Medium: DV, Year: 1973, 2006 (revised), Production: Yugyoki Location: Komi, Iriomote, Okinawa, Japan

Here the original

Slow Motion, Stop Motion スローモーション、ストップモーション (Kurihara Mie, 2018)

Slow Motion, Stop Motion スローモーション、ストップモーション by Kurihara Mie was awarded with the Grand Prize and the Audience Award at the 32nd edition of the Image Forum Festival. Shot in Laos, Miyanmar and Thailand in the course of 4 years, as far as I know the director usually stays in the regions for at least a couple of months a year, the movie is a funny and poetic telling, through the mode of the personal documentary, of her experiences and encounters in those countries. On the surface thus Slow Motion, Stop Motion is a diary film and a record of her meetings and interactions with the people she meets and befriends, but on a different level it’s also a glimpse into their life and daily struggle to survive. Avoiding shots of turistic places, beautiful postcard-like landscapes, and disengaging completely from a moralistic and exploitative use of the poorest areas of the countries, the film excels in creating a vivid and vital potrait of the people Kurihara meets. The images captured by the Japanese, but often she gives the camera to children and other people to freely film whatever and however they want, feel thus very authentic. Moreover the home movie-quality that permeates the entire work is functional to what seems to be one of Kurihara goals, that is capturing glances of ordinary life in South East Asia.

An important element of the film is the narration. Done by Kurihara herself it’s infused with a dry sense of humor, the words spoke n not only are funny and represent a commentary a posteriori on what is depicted on screen, but they often reflect and indirectly criticize the act of filming itself and the fetishism towards technology that visual artists very often succumb to. In one of the funniest parts, the director buys a cheap version of a Go-pro and tries to film underwater scenes and pigeons, there were no seagulls on the beach, like in the beloved Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.

The humorous parts are intertwined with few poetic and melanconic scenes, when Kurihara reflects on the sad mood that permeated the day of her departure for instance, or in a long scene without comment or narration, almost ethnographic in style, where an old man kills, plucks, cleans and cooks a rooster for his family.

The film has neither the stylish and polished aesthetics so in demand in the current international festival circuit, nor the political and activistic approach that often drives people to documentaries. I really hope that despite the lack of these qualities the movie won’t fall under the radar, because as a hybrid experiment that uses the diary and personal documentary style as a point of departure, it subtly touches very crucial themes such as post-colonial representation and representation of marginal areas in contemporary visual culture.

Image Forum Festival 2018 イメージフォーラムフェスティバル 2018

The 32nd Image Forum Festival ended last Sunday in Tokyo. The nine-day-long event, hosted at two different locations in the Japanese capital, the Theatre Image Forum and the Spiral Hall, screened in total more than 80 films, including 23 in the East Asian Experimental Film Competition, the main section. Established in its present form in 1987, the festival succeeded and replaced an experimental film festival that was held, in various phases and different shapes, in the capital from 1973 to 1986.

To this day the festival continue to embody the mission and the legacy of its predecessors. Primarily dedicated to experimental cinema and video, the event provides a special opportunity for the viewers to experience on a big screen a mix of feature films, home cinema, documentary and experimental animation.
After Tokyo, the festival will move to Kyoto, Yokohama and Nagoya, with slightly different contents, there will be special sections dedicated to artists of each city. This is a right and welcomed decision, since too often Tokyo ends up cannibalizing the cultural and artistic events taking place in the archipelago.

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This year’s special retrospectives were dedicated to the provocative films of Christoph Schlingensief, German director who expanded his works beyond cinema to touch theater, television and public happenings, Kurt Kren, Austrian artist associated with Viennese Actionism, but also author of structural films, and the experiments on celluloid by Japanese photographer Yamazaki Hiroshi. I wasn’t aware of the films of Schlingensief, and I have to say that it was at the same time a discovery and a delusion. While I really liked 100 Years of Adolf Hitler (1989), claustrophobic and parodic reconstruction of the last hours of the dictator and comrades in his bunker, I couldn’t digest the other two movies of the so called German Trilogy. German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) and especially Terror 2000 (1992) are too much of a mess and stylistically all over the place , and probably too bound to the events of the time, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent unification of the two Germanies, for me to decipher them.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check the works of Yamazaki, but I’m planning to see them at the end of September, when the festival will come to Nagoya. As with his conceptual photos, the shorts made during his entire life explore the relationship between time and light, a topic I’m very attracted to.
I also missed the screening of Caniba (2017) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, about the “cannibal” Sagawa Issei, if I’m not wrong, this was the Japanese premiere of the film, and the special focus Experimenta India, a collection of visual art from the Asian country.
Interesting was to catch Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge, 2018), about the famous ex-refugee of Tamil origin, now a pop icon and singer, an artist I was completely unaware of. The documentary is based on more than 20 years of footage filmed by herself and her friends in Sr Lanka and London. While I didn’t connect with the first part of the movie, too self-indulgent for my taste, the film gets much better in the last 30-40 minutes when, albeit briefly, touches on complex and fascinating topics such as immigration and art, fame, and social awareness in the show business.

The East Asia Experimental competition was pretty solid, besides several short films coming from a variety of areas like South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and naturally Japan, two were the long documentaries screened. A Yangtze Landscape (Xu Xin, 2017), a visual exploration of the social and geographical landscape along the longest river in Asia (you can read my review here), and Slow Motion, Stop Motion (Kurihara Mie, 2018) a movie that positively surprised me and won both the Grand Prize and the Audience Award. A review is coming soon, stay tuned.