Aragane is the first full-length movie by Oda Kaori, a talented Japanese director who had her debut in 2012 at the Nara International Film Festival with the short Thus A Noise Speaks, a meta self-documentary that unflinchingly explored her coming out as a female gay and the subsequent reactions from her family. Aragane is a completely different work though, an experimental documentary that Oda directed, photographed and edited herself, but also a “product” of Bela Tarr‘s film.factory, the film school based in Sarajevo and established by the Hungarian director few years ago, a place where the Japanese director studied for three years. Aragane, the Japanese title means “ore” or small pieces of stone, was shot in a Bosnian coal mine and it’s an immersive and hypnotic sensorial experience, a very special and rewarding one that was presented last year at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and later at the DocLisboa in Portugal.
I had the pleasure of meeting Oda in Yamagata and later on she was kind enough to answer my questions by email, you can read the interview here.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan 2015, 68’ Director: Kaori Oda, Cinematographer: Kaori Oda, Editor: Kaori Oda, Producers: Shinji Kitagawa – FieldRain, Emina Ganic – film.factory.
The movie starts overground with the camera gazing at some busy workers preparing and checking the machines before going deep down into the mine, the camera then ride on a cart and with a very long tracking shot slowly starts its descent into the inner part of earth. Once inside, we’re introduced and enveloped in a world of darkness, a pitch black curtain broken only by sudden and random flashes of lights revealing a segment of a machine here and a face smeared with coal there. There are really few spoken words, we hear some random sentences uttered every now and then by the workers, but that’s all, much more important is the wall of noise created by movie, the soundscape being a crucial element of it. In the 68 minutes of deep immersion into the chthonian and dissonant world of the mine, we are almost constantly submerged by the cacophonous noise of the machinery, although the movie is also punctuated by sparse but significant and sudden moments of deafening silence. At the end of the movie for instance, when we emerge from the bowels of the earth, the peace and the vivid colors of the changing rooms and the stillness of the hanging clothes have an almost soothing quality for our eyes and ears.
As stated by the director herself, Aragane is not a direct inquiry into the harsh conditions of the people working in the mine, although it’s something that eventually and necessarily emerges, but more an attempt to convey on screen the time and the space of the coal mine as experienced by the workers, or, I would add, as experience by the mine itself. It takes some time to get used to the alien space and almost abstract geographies of the mine, for most of the time we don’t really know what’s going on and who is doing what, it’s more like being thrown into a cubistic landscape in the middle of its making. Once we get accustomed to the time and the space presented on screen though, everything slowly begins to make sense, what starts to surface from the images and sounds, and through the tracking shots and the slow and hypnotic camera movements, is the time of the mine – time experienced as duration – and the materiality of the space depicted. On this point Aragane is a documentary very akin to the works of the the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, Aragane reminded me – albeit with some distinctions of course- of Leviatahn, Single Stream and The Iron Ministry, just to name a few.
Aragane is a compelling viewing experience, not a cinematic revolution or a masterpiece of course, but nonetheless a very significant work for Japanese documentary – it’s only partly Japanese to be honest, since it was produced and shot outside the archipelago. What particularly interests me here is that finally Japanese cinema has an important work of non-fiction able to emancipate itself from the imprint of social and political documentary that usually dominates the contemporary non-fiction scene in Japan, and a work that in doing so liberate and explore the experimental qualities of documentary. I might exaggerate, but to find something similar in the history of Japanese cinema we have to go back to the great Matsumoto Toshio and his Ishi no uta (The Song of Stone, 1963).