Memories of Agano (阿賀の記憶 Satō Makoto, 2004)

This is an unfinished draft for an essay on Satō Makoto’s Memories of Agano 「阿賀の記憶」, a work in progress, at this stage no more than a series of random thoughts about one of my favorite movies.


last update: 26 September 2017


“…the habit of imposing a meaning to every single sign”

Trinh Minh-Ha

Satō Makoto’s documentaries seem to be (again) part of the filmic discourse in Japan, or at least on the rise in some cinematic circles, and deservedly so. Nine years have passed since his death, this year (2016) a book titled「日常と不在を見つめて ドキュメンタリー映画作家 佐藤真の哲学」(roughly rendered “Gazing at everyday and absence, the philosophy of documentarist Satō Makoto”) was published and a screening of all his documentaries, followed by discussions and talks, was held in Tokyo in March and later at the Kobe Planet Film Archive. I haven’t read the book yet, but the title summarizes and conveys perfectly the themes embodied in Satō’s last works: the dicothomy absence/presence and the presence of absence, that is to say the phantasmatic presence of cinema.

Sato’s final works, Self And Others, Memories of Agano and Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said witness and embody a shift in Satō’s approach, movies through which he was attacking and partly deconstructing the documentary form, to be fair with his works though, it’s a touch that was partly present in his films since the beginning, but in these three documentaries it becomes a very prominent characteristic. This publication seems to be timely and enlightening because is tackling Sato’s oeuvre not necessarily from a purely cinematic point of view, the book’s curator is by her own admission not a cinema expert, but it’s expanding the connections of Satō’s movies and writings towards the philosophical.

I hope the book will kindle and revive a new interest on his works, Satō is in my opinion one of the most important Japanese directors of the last 30 years, and sadly one of the most unknown in the West, I don’t really think there’s much out there in the internet or on paper about Satō, nor in English nor in other non-Japanese languages, and it’s a pity and a missed occasion because his movies, again, are more than “just” documentaries, or even better, are documentaries that have the power to question their own form and stretch in many differents areas. If you’re not familiar with his works, you can get a glimpse of Satō and his touch reading this beautiful and long interview, or you can buy them on DVD thanks to Siglo, it’s a rarity in Japan, but they come with English subtitles.

This year (2017) Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival will also hold a retrospective for the 10th anniversary of Satō’s death, commemorating and celebrating his works, his influence and his reception abroad.

One of Satō’s documentaries that resonates with me more than others, even after many viewings, is Memories of Agano (阿賀の記憶, 2004). As the YIDFF describes it:

Ten years after the acclaimed film Living on the River Agano, the film crew returns to Niigata. Personal memories reflect upon remnants of those who passed away as the camera observes abandoned rice fields and hearths that have lost their masters.

It is a relatively short but complex movie running only 55 minutes, an experiment in the form of a non-fiction film, splendidly shot on 16mm by cameraman Kobayashi Shigeru, the same cameraman who worked and lived together with Satō in Niigata for more than three years during the shooting of Living on the River Agano. The film is a poem on the passing of time and consequently on the objects that will outlive us, the persistence of things in time, including cinema itself. The original idea was in fact to make a film about the remnants of Meiji, that is “the glass photographic plates of the Niigata landscape from the late Meiji to early Taisho era (1910s) left behind by photographer Ishizuka Saburo. Using those old black and white photographs as a motif, we started out making the film with the same concept as Gocho Shigeo in Self and Others”. This quasi-obsession with objects is the thread that waves through the film’s fabric: boiling tea pots, old wooden houses, tools…

One of the most stunning scene of the movie and one that defines Memories of Agano is placed at the very beginning, when Satō and Kobayashi after returning to the area where the first movie was shot hang a big canvas tarp in the middle of a wood projecting on it the documentary they made 10 years before. The effect is profoundly disturbing and touching at the same time, images and thus memories are suddenly like tangible spectres.

On another level, Memories of Agano with its intertwining of past, present and landscapes ー the external ones with mountains, fields, rivers, and the interior landscapes of old and almost empty houses ー could also be read as an attempt to approach and partly re-elaborate the fūkeiron-cinema, the theory-of-landscape-oriented-cinema, 「footnote: “launched” almost five decades ago with A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969),  The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War (1971) and The First Emperor (1973)」

As for its aesthetics, one of the quality that strikes me every time I rewatch it, is the slow pace and the use of long takes that give the movie a dreamlike quality of lethargic torpor. The scene that embodies at most this aesthetic idea is an almost static shot of a teapot boiling on an old stove lasting about 10 minutes, on the background, sort of white noise, the words of an old lady spoken with a thick Niigata accent. She talks sparsly with Satō himself also about the fact she doesn’t wanna be filmed, half jokingly half seriously, a breaking of the fourth wall so to speak, a dialogue between camera and object filmed that was prominently present in Living on River Agano as well (“Are you filming me?” “Don’t shoot me!” are sentences that punctuate the course of this movie and the one made in 1992).

Memories of Agano also present itself as a documentary of opacity rather than one of transparency, the choice of not using the subtitles when people speak with their thick Niigata accent, a Japanese citizen from another area of the archipelago would probably understand 50% or 60% of what is said, a technical option that was used in Living on the River Agano – signals a major change in Satō’s approach to documentary and cinema in general. Feeding the viewer with limpid and clear messages and making a “comprehensible” movie is not what interests Satō here, but rather placing obstacles, visual riddles so to speak – the aforementioned tarp for instance, but also visually striking moments of pure experimentation – and thus presenting the opacity of the cinematic language seems to be the goals he had in mind when he conceived Memories of Agano. The images are thus escaping the organizing discourse tipical of so many Japanese documentaries, in contrast they open to new (cinematic) discoveries and keep resonating with the viewers and engage us on many different levels.


Interview with Toshi Fujiwara about No Man’s Zone (無人地帯, 2011)

I’m reposting here and Interview I did in 2011 with Fujiwara Toshi, author of No Man’s Zone (無人地帯, 2011), to this day and in my opinion the best documentary about the March 11th’s triple disaster.
The interview was originally posted on the Italian blog Sonatine. You can purchase the DVD of the movie here (with English subtitles). 


Matteo Boscarol I’ve watched a couple of documentaries dealing with the disaster that hit Japan on March 11th, but in my opinion, your work stands apart from them. I think you adopted a broader perspective. Among other things, I felt No Man’s Zone was a visual essay on the impact that images of destruction have on our society.
Toshi Fujiwara Yes, you’re right but obviously it was something that was inside me from before the disaster and grew up over the years.
M.B. It was also like watching two documentaries, one with the row images and interviews from the area hit by the tragedy, the other one more reflective, with the narration and the editing giving a philosophical frame.
T.F. We’ve tried to create two separate layers very deliberately. One of the reasons is that it is a French-Japanese co-production. The cameraman and director are Japanese, and the editor is French…so why not have two layers to incorporate a certain distance within the contest. Originally, we thought of a French voice and the narration was different from the final one. It was more like a fictional story. The idea was that of a French woman and a Japanese director corresponding through the Internet. We collaborated with some French writers, but they didn’t get the right ideas because it was also supposed to be quite critical of the French culture itself. It turned into something rather awfully colonialist. So it didn’t work and I rewrote the whole narration.
M.B. In this way, it should be able to reach a foreign audience. The Japanese media didn’t do a good job, but at the same time, the international media excelled in misinformation, especially the Italian media.
T.F. Even here in Japan, it’s turning this way. Now the Japanese anti-nuclear movements are paradoxically against the people of Fukushima.
M.B. There’s a scene that particularly impressed me and even reminded me of some parts of Ogawa Shinsuke’s Heta Buraku. It’s the one when the camera is following an old lady wandering and speaking in her garden.
T.F Thank you for the compliment. It is probably because my cameraman, Takanobu Kato, was working with Ogawa. He was one of the last people to leave the production. It was important that he was with me because, being trained under Ogawa when his production was in Yamagata, he literally lived there raising rice and so on. As such, he knew how to shoot rice fields, and other details of life in the countryside.
M.B. In the same scene through the memory of the old lady, there are also references to a wider sense of time, historical and natural cycles, reaching as far as the period after the Second World War.
T.F. I would say that it goes even farther back in time; in fact, she recalls her father having been a silk worms teacher. It was before the war when Japan biggest export was silk itself.The images of movies of this kind focus usually on destruction, but we tried to suggest what was there before the destruction. What was destroyed and also what the people of these areas have lost is much more important.


M.B. What triggered you to go to Fukushima a month after the Earthquake to start to shoot?
T.F. I was disgusted by the way the images were shown on TV. The live footage didn’t show us how the people used to live, and didn’t give people a chance to communicate. Their lives up there were so different from the lives of journalists in Tokyo; moreover, the images are just raw material without any good editing. My intention was to make a film that would look distinctly different from what we watched on television, which was usually shot very hastily with a hand-held camera. One of my first commitments was to shoot as beautifully as we could. That’s why, when possible, we used a tripod. Already, I’d hated lots of contemporary documentaries because their shots aren’t beautiful. They shoot them too easily. Even though we did it in 10 days, we tried to do it as well as we could. Beautiful editing also was important.
M.B. And the voice of Khanjian Arsinée for the narration is very beautiful indeed.
T.F. Her voice is incredible. She’ s Armenian, but she grew up in Lebanon so her native tongues are Arabic and French. She moved to Canada when she was 17, in French-speaking Quebec. I liked her voice because she is not totally native in English [the narration is in English] and so we cannot clearly identify the nationality of her voice.


M.B. You went to Fukushima with your cameraman and one assistant—is that right?
T.F. Yes, it’s better to have a small crew also knowing that the TV people often annoy them…
M.B. How did the people there react to you and your crew?
T.F. Again, we were only three and we were not wearing any protective gear or masks, so they were extremely polite to us as they usually are to everybody else. You know, the people of Tohoku have a tradition for hospitality. Also, we were not asking abrupt and stupid questions like “what do you think of that and that…?”.
M.B. The problem of how to approach and relate to the people affected by disasters is a crucial one for the art of documentary. At the last Yamagata Documentary International Film Festival, there was a debate on this topic.
T.F. I was there myself, and I think the largest problem of these documentaries is that they’re more about the filmmakers going there and not necessarily about the places and the people living there. The general problem is that many filmmakers went to Tohoku, but they made films about their own confusion and panicked state of minds, while they forgot to make documentaries about the damages of the quake and the people who were directly touched by the tragedies. They are too self-centered and unconsciously self-obsessed. An even larger problem that I observe is that the audience in Tokyo takes comfort in seeing these movies, being reassured that the filmmakers are also confused. I find this tendency very problematic for being too masturbatory. They are forgetting the original function of cinema, which must be something open to create links and communications; under such circumstances, we should be mediums to make a bridge between those who experienced the tragedies and us who didn’t. That is one of the reasons why we tried to make “No Man’s Zone” an open film text, instead of sharing the personal experiences (if not self-excuses) of filmmakers. We wanted it to ask direct questions to the audience. Of course, my cameraman worked with Ogawa and I made a film about Tsuchimoto. Thus, I was influenced by others and different generations of documentary’s filmmakers, I’ve kind of skipped the generation of the so-called private documentaries.
M.B. Like Kawase Naomi?
I like Kawase and what she does; she is of my generation, but we do different things and that’s ok with me. I could say that I do documentaries like in the 60s, except that there is no more politics involved. Japanese leftist politics disintegrated in a very rapid way after the 70s.
M.B. Do you think March 11th will change something in filmmaking?
T.F. In my opinion, it should. But I haven’t seen the change yet. After all, only 9 months have passed. One thing for sure is that we have to try to do something different, different from what we were doing before. Actually, before the quake, I was working on a movie but now I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to complete it. It’s about Japan before March 11th.
It’s a different period, it’s like being after a war in a way.
M.B. We should consider March 11th almost as important as August 15th, 1945.
A few months ago, I talked to Sono Sion, and he said that the tragedy was paradoxically “good” because it suddenly uncovered many problems affecting the Japanese society. For instance the relationship between urban centers and countryside, that is Tokyo-Tohoku…
T.F. I totally agree with him. We (in Tokyo) are just parasites, which is repeatedly stated in No Man’s Zone. The nuclear plants have been there for almost 40 years, and what is awful is that even now after 9 months in Tokyo, people don’t want to admit that we’re responsible.
And even now [this interview was conducted during the Christmas period], it’s like nothing has happened at all.At the Tokyo FilmEx this year, a lady in the audience from Fukushima was quite surprised after watching the movie. She walked outside and found the streets in full illumination for Christmas.
M.B. Can you tell us something about the music used in the film?
T.F. It was composed and performed by a free jazz American musician who’s been living in France for many years. His name is Barre Phillips and we’ve worked together before [Independence, 2002]. Again, we decided on a non-Japanese composer, one of the best that you can get, and also one that was not so expensive and not too commercial. The funny thing is that he recorded the music in a chapel of an ancient monastery in the south of France. In No Man’s Zone, there are a lot of Japanese traditional views with images of Buddhas and small gods, so I thought it would be interesting to have the music recorded in a Catholic chapel. In this way, the music and the narration can maybe suggest something universal. That’s why I wanted someone else and not myself to do the narration in English. It would otherwise have become just a documentary about my experience. This nuclear accident is asking tremendous and huge questions to all of us, to our civilization and how we have related ourselves to nature and to the universe, how we perceive our lives. We actually have to think about the philosophical and even the religious aspects of it all, I would say, and it’s stated at the end of the film, that Japan, embracing western civilization, has accepted its idea of a nature existing for us, to serve humans. It’s actually a very Christian concept. It is not even Jewish or Islamic; it’s a particular belief of Christianity to say that God created everything for us.