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.
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.