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

Disclaimer: my little and personal experiment continues, this is my second post written in English, this time about the visual anthropologist and documentarian Kitamura Minao. As English is my second language, inevitably some subtleties and nuances are lost. Feedback and/or suggestions are welcome.


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.
The world of visual anthropology is, at least for me, a field yet to be discovered and although there are a lot of interesting books dealing with it from the point of view of ethnography or anthropology, not so much has been written about the subject from a purely cinematic point of view. But I might be wrong and I’m open to any reading suggestions.
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


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