Kinema Junpo Best Japanese Documentaries of 2018

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.

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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.


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.

Inland Sea 港町 (Sōda Kazuhiro, 2018)

Screen at this year edition of the Berlinale (Forum), Inland Sea is the latest documentary by one of the most interesting and original voice working in Japanese non-fiction today, Sōda Kazuhiro.  Based in New York, Soda in the last 10 years or so has built an impressive body of work, Inland Sea is the seventh documentary in his ongoing observational series, among my favorite Theatre 1 and 2, a diptych about playwright Oriza Hirata and his theatrical company, and Oyster Factory, a documentary premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2015. Inland Sea was filmed soon after Oyster Factory, in fact the town is the same, Ushimado, a small village facing the Seto Inland Sea in Okayama prefecture. While in the previous film Soda focused his gaze on a small oyster factory and the problems of surviving in a globalized world (you can read more here), in Inland Sea he follows three elderly people living in the village and their daily activities. Here the synopsis:

Wai-chan is one of the last remaining fishermen in Ushimado, a small village in Seto Inland Sea, Japan. At the age of 86, he still fishes alone on a small boat to make a living, dreaming about his retirement. Kumi-san is an 84 year old villager who wanders around the shore everyday. She believes a social welfare facility “stole” her disabled son to receive subsidy from the government. A “late – stage elderly” Koso-san runs a small seafood store left by her deceased husband. She sells fish to local villagers and provides leftovers to stray cats. Foresaken by the modernization of post-war Japan, the town Ushimado’s rich, ancient culture and tight-knit community are on on the verge of disappearing.

While, as mentioned above, the film is part of his observational series, from the very first scene is clear how Soda with his camera and his voice is an important and catalytic presence in the relational texture that is Inland Sea. As Nichols would put it, while Sōda is filming and representing a certain reality, the documentary and the act of filming itself becomes also an important part of that reality. More than in his other works, his voice and that of his wife and their presence is here a fundamental part of the movie, often the people filmed converse with Sōda and we, as spectators, are always aware of the relationship between the camera and its environment. Naturally all documentaries are works of fiction, to one degree or another, but to my eyes acknowledging the presence of the camera and its effects in a documentary shot in an observational style, is one of the main qualities of the movie. It’s a honest and ethic filmic approach that I really value as important, especially in the contemporary documentary landscape, an approach that stems also from the style and methodology adopted by Sōda:

I spontaneously roll my camera, watching and listening closely to the reality in front of me, banning myself from doing research or prescribing themes or writing a script before shooting. I impose certain rules (‘The Ten Commandments’) on myself to avoid preconceptions and to discover something beyond my expectation.

The movie is shot in its entirety in black and white, the only case in Sōda’s filmography, just the very last scene, a boat floating, is in colour. I haven’t read so much about the movie, I wanted to experience it without preconceptions, so I don’t know the reason behind not shooting in colour, but certainly this choice gives a very distinctive elegiac tone to the movie, and a flavour of obsolescence and marginality to the places and the people depicted in it. Compared to Sōda ’s previous movies there is, at least in the first hour or so —  the last 30 minutes are basically a very long and touching monologue of one of the old ladies, Kumi-chan — less talking and more insistence on the daily routine of Wai-chan and Koso-san, long periods of time are spent with the old man on the boat, fishing, and with the old lady, selling the fish.

By focusing on a place on a relatively far corner of Japan, far away from the metropolitan excitement that too often is associated with Japan, a place not yet forgotten, but on the edge of disappearing, and where the population is shrinking — the akiya (empty houses) seen in a sequence are becoming part of the present and near future of the archipelago — Sōda is also hinting, consciously or not, to one of the crucial issues of contemporary Japan and its geopolitical construction as a nation. That is, the parasitic relationship between sprawling urban centers and countryside, often forgotten, exploited (as highlighted by the situation in Fukushima or the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant), or reduced to the folkloric image and touristic destination of Japan National Railway’s posters. In a post on his blog last year commenting on the Ogawa Pro’s Sanrizuka series, Soda wrote that, I’m paraphrasing, the struggle and resistance to the construction of the airport, because of the thick dialect spoken by the farmers at the time, almost incomprehensible to a person born and raised in Tokyo, felt like an act of exploitation perpetrated by the central state towards its colonies.

Another aspect of Sōda’s style that really stands out in Inland Sea and a direct consequence of his methodological approach, is the absence of any explanation on the historical background and context of the subject filmed. His films do not offer any extra information about the people he meets and the places he shoots, but the camera and his documentaries are, in a certain way, an extension of his gaze. It is up to us the viewers to decipher and image what stories lie behind the landscapes and the people captured on screen, for instance we don’t know if the stories told by the very talkative Kumi-san, to whom the movie in dedicated (she passed away in 2015),  are completely true or to what degree they’re even truthful, yet this is life and it is here presented in all its complexity, sadness and beauty.

Inland Sea – Trailer from Laboratory X on Vimeo.

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.

100 best Japanese labor films

Last June the NPO organization “Hataraku Bunka Net” made and released a list of the 100 best Japanese labor films, a vast and varied list that besides documentaries includes also many classic movies and big names, TV series, indies and so on, from the beginning of cinema, with the actualities filmed by the Lumière company at the end of 19th century, to the present day. Below you can find the list in Japanese followed by my translation (feel free to correct me if you find any mistakes):

  1. 『明治の日本』(1897~1899, Lumière company )
  2. Kawasaki Mitsubishi Strike 「川崎・三菱造船所労働争議」(1921)
  3. What Made Her Do It? 「何が彼女をそうさせたか」(Suzuki Shigeyoshi, 1930)
  4.  Twelfth Annual Tokyo May Day 「第 12 回東京メーデー」(Prokino, 1931)
  5. Sumida River 「隅田川」(Yabushita Taiji, 1931)
  6. I Was Born, But… 「生れてはみたけれど」(Ozu Yasujirō, 1932)
  7. Mr. Thank You 「有りがたうさん」(Shimizu Hiroshi, 1936)
  8. Fighting Soldiers 「戦ふ兵隊」(Kamei Fumio, 1939)
  9.  Renga jokō 「煉瓦女工」(Chiba Yasuki, 1940)
  10. Kikansha C57 「機関車C57」 (Imaizumi Zenju, 1940)
  11. Record of a Kindergarten Teacher 「或る保姆の記録」(Mizuki Soya, 1942)
  12. We’re Working So So Hard 「私たちはこんなに働いている」(Mizuki Soya, 1945)
  13. Rushing Forward 「驀進」(Iwasa Ujitoshi, 1946)
  14. Coal Mine 「炭坑」(Itō Sueo, Yanagisawa Hisao, 1947)
  15. We Are Electric Industry Workers 「われら電気労働者」(1947)
  16. Living on the Sea 「海に生きる」 (Yanagisawa Hisao, Kabashima Seichi, 1949)
  17. Shirayuki-sensei to kodomo-tachi「白雪先生と子供たち」(Yoshimura Ren, 1950)
  18. Still We Live 「どっこい生きてる」(Imai Tadashi, 1951)
  19. Ikiru 「生きる」(Kurosawa Akira, 1952)
  20. Mother 「おかあさん」(Naruse Mikio, 1952)
  21. May Day 1952 [1952年メーデー」(Yoshimi Yutaka, 1952)
  22. Woman Walking Alone on the Earth「女ひとり大地を行く」(Kamei Fumio, 1953)
  23. The Crab Cannery Ship 「蟹工船」 (Yamamura Sō, 1953)
  24. The Wokers of Keihin 「京浜労働者」(Noda Shinkichi, 1953)
  25. The Street Without Sun 「太陽のない街」(Yamamoto Satsuo, 1954)
  26. Tachiagaru onnanoko rōdōsha (Zensen domei, 1954)
  27. Koko ni izumi ari 「ここに泉あり」(Imai Tadashi, 1955)
  28. Street of Shame 「赤線地帯」(Mizoguchi Kenji, 1956)
  29. The Lighthouse aka Times of Joy and Sorrow 「喜びも悲しみも幾歳月」(Kinoshita Keisuke, 1957)
  30. Bota san no enikki 「ボタ山の絵日記」(Tokunaga Mizuo, 1957)
  31. Yuki to tatakau kikansha 「雪と闘う機関車」(Tani Kyōsuke, 1958)
  32. My Second Brother「にあんちゃん」(Imamura Shōhei, 1959)
  33. Umi ni kizuku seitetsujo「海に築く製鉄所」(Ise Chōnosuke, 1959)
  34. 刈干切り唄(1959, Ueno Kōzō)
  35. The Secret of Tree Rings (TV series) 「年輪の秘密」(Hani Susumu, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, Nagano Shigeichi 1959-60)
  36. Ōinaru tabiji「大いなる旅路」(Sekigawa Hideo, 1960)
  37. The Naked Island 「裸の島」(Shindō Kaneto, 1960)
  38. 1960 nen  6 gatsu anpo e no ikari「1960年6月 安保への怒り」(Noda Shinkichi Noda, Tomizawa Yukio, 1960)
  39. The Weavers of Nishijin 「西陣」(Matsumoto Toshio, 1961)
  40. Foundry Town 「キューポラのある街」(Urayama Kirio, 1962)
  41. Woman of Design「その場所に女ありて」(Suzuki Hideo, 1962)
  42. An Engineer’s Assistant「ある機関助士」 (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1963)
  43. On the Road—A Document 「ドキュメント 路上」(Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1964)
  44. 68 no sharin 「68の車輪」(Morita Minoru, 1965)
  45. Kokoro no sanmyaku「こころの山脈」(Yoshimura Kōzaburō, 1966)
  46. The Siblings 「若者たち」(Tokihisa Tokihisa Morikawa, 1966)
  47. Nōyaku ka「農薬禍」(Shūkichi Koizumi, 1967)
  48. Waga Town, Waga District in Summer 1967 「特集 和賀郡和賀町 1967年 夏」(Kudo Toshiki, 1967)
  49. The Sands of Kurobe 「黒部の太陽」(Kumai Kei, 1968)
  50. The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun「太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険」(Takahata Isao, 1968)
  51. It’s Tough Being a Man 「男はつらいよ」(Yamada Yōji, 1969)
  52. Shipyard no seishun 「シップヤードの青春」(Kamiuma Isao, 1969)
  53. Where Spring Comes Late 「家族」(Yamada Yōji, 1970)
  54. Men and War trilogy 「戦争と人間 三部作」(Yamamoto Satsuo, 1970-73)
  55. Yūko gishiki Hokkaido Yubari shi mayachi tankō kaede ana「友子儀式 北海道夕張市真谷地炭鉱 楓坑」(NHK archives, 1973)
  56. Nihon no inasaku sono kokoro to dentō「日本の稲作 そのこころと伝統」(Aoyama Michiharu, 1974)
  57. A Poet’s Life 「詩人の生涯」(Kawamoto Kihachirō, 1974)
  58. Torakku Yarō: goiken muyō 「トラック野郎 御意見無用」(Suzuki Norifumi, 1975)
  59. A Song of the Bottom「どっこい!人間節 寿・自由労働者 の街」(Ogawa Production, 1975)
  60. Impressions of a Sunset「日没の印象」(Suzuki Shiroyasu, 1975)
  61. Otokotachi no tabiji 「男たちの旅路」(NHK drama, 1976-1982)
  62. Nihon no sengo dai 5 「NHK特集 日本の戦後 第5集 一 歩退却 二歩前進 二・一ゼネスト前 夜」(NHK, 1977)
  63. Oh! The Nomugi Pass 「あゝ野麦峠」(Yamamoto Satsuo, 1979)
  64. The Sakana man 「ザ・サカナマン」(Kuroda Teruhiko, 1979)
  65. Enrai 「遠雷」(Negishi Kichitarō, 1981)
  66. Kaikyō 「海峡」(Minami Kōsetsu, 1982)
  67. Genpatsu wa ima 「原発はいま」(Ōmi Michihiro, 1982)
  68. The Catch 「魚影の群れ」 (Sōmai Shinji, 1983)
  69. Gung Ho (Ron Howard, 1986)
  70. A Taxing Woman 「マルサの女」(Itami Jūzō, 1987)
  71. Kiki’s Delivery Service「魔女の宅急便」(Miyazaki Hayao, 1989)
  72. Earth 「あーす」(Kim Soo-Kil, 1991)
  73. All Under the Moon 「月はどっちに出ている」(Sai Yōichi, 1993)
  74. Bayside Shakedown 「踊る大捜査線」(Motohiro Katsuyuki, 1997)
  75. Whalers and the Sea 「鯨捕りの海」(Umekawa Toshiaki, 1998)
  76. Poppoya 「鉄道員/ ぽっぽや」(Furuhata Yasuo, 1999)
  77. Be More Human – Kokuro’s 15-year Struggle 「人らしく生きよう 国労冬物語」(Matsubara Akira, Sasaki Yumi
  78. Konbanwa「こんばんは」(Mori Yasuyuki, 2003)
  79. Genchō no hoshi「県庁の星」(Nishitani Hiroshi, 2003)
  80. Hula Girls 「フラガール」 (Lee Sang-il, 2006)
  81. Echoes From The Miike Mine「三池 終わらない炭鉱(やま)の物語」(Kumagai Hiroko, 2006)
  82. Hagetaka – TV drama 「土曜ドラマ ハゲタカ」 (Ōtomo Keishi, Inoue Go, Horikirizono Kentarō, 2006)
  83. Haken no Hinkaku – TV drama 「ハケンの品格」(Nagumo Seiichi, Satō Toya, 2007)
  84. Departures 「おくりびと」(Takita Yōjirō, 2008)
  85. A Normal Life, Please 「フツーの仕事がしたい」(Tsuchiya Tokachi, 2009)
  86. Genkai in a Black Company 「ブラック会社に勤めてるんだが、 もう俺は限界かもしれない」(Satō Yūichi, 2009)
  87. Ninkyō Helper 「任侠ヘルパー」(TV drama, 2009)
  88. A Lone Scalpel 「孤高のメス」(Narushima Izuru, 2010)
  89. Showa Housekeeping 「昭和の家事」(Koizumi Kazuko, 2010)
  90. Saudade 「サウダーヂ」(Tomita Katsuya, 2011)
  91. The Great Passage 「舟を編む」(Ishii Yuya, 2013)
  92. Tale of a Butcher Shop 「ある精肉店のはなし」(Hana usa Aya, 2013)
  93. Dandarin Rules 「ダンダリン 労働基準監督官」(Sato Tayō, Nakajima Satoru, 2013)
  94. Wood Job! 「ウッジョブ~神 去なあなあ日常」(Yaguchi Shinobu, 2014)
  95. Pale Moon 「紙の月」(Yoshida Daihachi, 2014)
  96. A Little Girl’s Dream 「夢は牛のお医者さん」(Tokita Yoshiyaki, 2014)
  97. Hirumeshi tabi: Anata no gohan misetekudasai! 「昼めし旅 ~あなたのご飯見せてく ださい」(TV drama, 2014)
  98. A Sower of Seeds 「種まく旅人 くにうみの郷」(Shinohara Tetsuo, 2015)
  99. Shitamachi Rocket 「下町ロケット」(TV drama, 2015)

NDU and Asia is One (アジアはひとつ)

NDU (Nihon Documentary Union) was a Japanese collective established in 1968 by a group of Waseda University students, who would eventually drop out, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. From 1968 to 1973, the year the group dismantled, this group of activists, they considered themselves first of all as a collective of activists,  made four documentaries, moving from the street of Tokyo – the first work was Onikko – A Record of the Struggle of Youth Laborers – to the far away islands in Micronesia passing through Okinawa, the archipelago where they shot two of the their most significant documentaries. Motoshinkakarannu (1971) was made and is about Okinawa before the reversion to Japan, the group went to the island in 1971 and captured on film a society in flux and in the middle of a shifting passage. The film show and focuses on the margins of society with illegal prostitution and life in the red districts, at the same time highlighting the historical and social fractures that were traversing the area: anti-establishment and anti-American riots, the Black Panthers visiting Okinawa, pollution of water and much more. I listed Motoshinkakarannu as one of my favorite Japanese documentaries in the poll I’ve organised a year ago, but today I want to shift my attention on the second movie made by the collective in Okinawa (and beyond): Asia is One (アジアはひとつ),  a work that I hadn’t seen at the time of the poll, and that would have certainly figured in my list paired with Motoshinkakarannu.

Asia is One was screened on June 26th at Kyoto Kambaikan, as part of the AAS in Asia, and it was screen with English subtitles for the first time, the movie was shelved for many many years, forgotten, and was (re)discovered only in 2005 when was screened at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. The screening in Kyoto was followed by a fascinating Q&A with the only surviving member of NDU, Inoue Osamu, Nunokawa Tetsurō, who after the dismantling of the collective made other interesting solo documentaries in Palestine and US, passed away in 2012. As described by Roland Domenig (1), with Asia is One

NDU further explored the margins of Okinawan society and continued to break through borders by focusing on the Taiwanese minority. The film portrays Taiwanese migrant workers on the main island of Okinawa who substitute the Okinawa laborers who in turn are employed as migrant workers on Japan’s main islands. It traces the history of Taiwanese coal miners on Iriomote Island, follows legal and illegal workers to the westernmost island of Yonaguni and finally lands in Taiwan in a village of he Atayal tribe of Taiwanese aborigines, where still the Japanese naval anthem is played every noon.

Formally the documentary is composed of  landscapes and interviews, all of them out of sync, possibly due to the equipment used or maybe the lack of it. The uncanny space created by this displacement, but also by the use of music from radio broadcasts and kids voices, thrown here and there during the movie, gives the work  a peculiar aesthetic tone, a type of non-fiction cinema that I like to call “chaos cinema”. (2)
To explain and understand the “chaotic” trait of Asia is One, and Motoshinkakarannu, we have to delve deeper in the philosophy that laid behind NDU. What the collective has tried to convey through their cinema is extremely fascinating, in their writings (3), mainly published in the magazine Eiga Hihyo, the group was explicitly pushing towards a cinema/activism of anonymity, trying to reach an “impersonal space” and rejecting even the term “work” (sakuhin) because it was seen as the product of a single person in command and as a result of a dominating power structure. In this regard famous was their criticism of Ogawa Production, a collective that bore the name of a single person and that was basically structured hierarchically (4). To this kind of collectivism NDU tried to oppose a more fluid idea of group activism, where the structure was a flat and horizontal one,  and in doing so promoting a cinema made by amateurs (5) and not by professionals. “Everybody can push the button and shoot with a 16mm camera” said Inoue, and this is even more true today since the advent of the digital revolution. Whether this approach was successful or not, and more importantly, whether this horizontal structure and “amateur cinema” is possible at all, are questions without answers that are haunting scholars to this day.
Going back to Asia is One, the part of the movie the resonates more with me is the last one, when the film moves to the Atayal village in Taiwan. There’s a quality in the close-ups of the tribe people, beautiful and ancient faces, that is very fascinating, also because it is in these scenes that the political discourse on identity, or the negation of it, reach its peak. From the 17th Century onward The Atayal people, like the rest of the tribes inhabiting the island,  had to face the colonization of the Dutch, the Spanish, the Chinese and later of the Japanese (1895 – 1945). Calling them “barbarians” the Japanese Empire tried to assimilate and annihilate their culture (6), the words from the tribe people in the movie add layers of complexity to the situation  : “Japan conquered us and abolished many of our ancient traditions and customs”, but at the same time “we were drafted and went to war with pride and ready to die” and “luckily the Japanese abolished some of our ancestral traditions like beheading”.
Asia is One ends with the militaristic song If I Go to Sea against an everyday scene with the aboriginal Taiwanese people isolated in the mountains singing “We want to go to war again.” Of course there is oppression and violence, physical and cultural, in every colonization, but things here are very layered. It seems to me that in this process of cultural and historical coring that the movie conveys, from Okinawa to Taiwan, two very significant points emerge. The first is the crisis of the identity concept, often a forced cultural and national superstructure imposed by the stronger part on a “highly fluid space of human life” (6), as Inoue explained “identity was one of the most hated words inside the NDU, identity is a choking concept”. The second point that struck me is the recurrence of a power and social structure that exploits the margins and the outsiders, in mainland Okinawa the illegal prostitutes and worst jobs are done from people from Miyako island, and in Miyako and other small islands the lower part of society is occupied by Koreans, Taiwanese and aboriginal people.
A final note on the title, the movie as a product of a collective that was thriving towards anonymity, has not film credits, nor it had originally a title, Asia is One was attached to it only later, and it’s a kind of a joke because as Inoue himself said “we all know that Asia is not one!”


1 Faraway, yet so close by Roland Domenig, in The Legendary Filmmaking Collective NDU and Nunokawa Tetsurō ed. Yasui Yoshio, Tanaka Noriko, Kobe Documentary Film Festival Committee, 2012.

2 This might not be the best way to describe the movie, but aesthetically it reminded me, maybe because of the out of sync, of Imamura Shōhei’s documentaries shot in South East Asia during the 70s.

3 Some of the writings are translated in The Legendary Filmmaking Collective NDU and Nunokawa Tetsurō, op. cit.

4 You can find more in  Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary, Abé Markus Nornes, Visible Evidence 2007.

5 Some interesting insights on amateurism in cinema can be found in The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, Eric Cazdyn, Duke University Press 2002.

6 In 1930 the village was the site of an anti-Japanese uprising, the so called Musha Incident, an event portrayed in Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Wei Te-Sheng, 2011)

7 Nunokawa Tetsurō in YIDFF 2005 Special Program, Borders Within – What it means to live in Japan.

Documentary film festivals in East Asia

Surfing through the internet in search of information and publications about documentary in East Asia, I’ve stumbled upon what seems to be an interesting and original dissertation.”Extending the local: documentary film festivals in East Asia as sites of connection and communication” is a thesis written in 2012 by Cheung Tit Leung at Lingnan University and, as the title suggests, it’s a study about the importance of East Asian documentary film festivals for the development, nurture and distribution of Asian non-fiction cinema, and Asia in general, across the globe. The author focuses his attention on four film festivals in the region, arguably the most important ones, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (Japan), the Documentary Film Festival China (China), the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (Taiwan) and the Hong Kong’s Chinese Documentary Festival (Hong Kong). 
I’ve read a dozen of pages so far and I have to say that the topic is really fascinating, more than I expected; whether or not you’re into Asian cinema, this thesis is an important piece to the relatively new field of Film Festival studies, but also one that explores the connections between cinema and a region, East Asia, seldom analysed on specialist periodicals or inside academic circles. 

Your can legally download and read the thesis here.