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.

Land of the Dawn 「夜明けの国」(1967), a Japanese doc about/in the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Chinese Cultural Revolution began 50 years ago, newspapers, websites, magazines, blogs and books are recently seizing the opportunity of this anniversary to write, provoke discussions and analyse the huge and still controversial historical event that shaped  the Asian country and whose ripples were felt all over the world.
In 1966 a troupe of filmakers from Japan was allowed to enter the country, or better, they were lucky enough, almost by chance, to be in China soon after the revolution was declared (in August 1966), shooting and recording, almost without knowing what was happening, the changes brought by the event. This was a kind of a “miracle”, since at that time formally there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries. The documentary is by no means a critical take on the revolution, after all it was still    in its making and also because there were areas the troupe was not allowed to film, but it works as a visual and unique document of the early period of the revolution. The group spent seven months filming landscapes, factories, cities, farms and people around China, the resulting documentary was assembled the next year and titled Land of the Dawn 「夜明けの国」. The movie was directed by the late Tokieda Toshie, a female filmmaker who worked and was associated to Iwanami Production for more than 30 years, among her vast filmography worth to mention is at least Town Politics—Mothers Who Study 「町の政治 ― 勉強するおかあさん」(1957), a nice and fresh taken on a group of mothers-turned-activists in the town of Kunitachi, the short documentary is part of the movies featured in this box set.

There’s a nice interview with Tokieda on the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival’s website, where she recalls her experience of filming in China. The movie is also discussed in a chapter of Nakajima Takahiro’s The Chinese Turn in Philosophy (2007):

「The film」opens with a scene showing young Red Guards arriving from throughout China and gathering in Tian’an men Square. In the following scene a train appears with a plate indicating “Wansui Maozhuxi [long live Chairman Mao];” it is an express train traveling from Beijing to Shanhai Guan. The narrator of the film tells us that the young people clustering around Shanhai Guan station are tourists going to see the Great Wall. However, Tsuchiya Masaaki suggests that
these young people teeming around the station are not tourists, but are going to Tian’an men Square to see Mao Zedong.
It must be easy to reach such an understanding if we could comprehend the meaning of August 1966, or at least if we could grasp the meaning of the opening scene of the young Red Guards gathering in Tian’an men Square. However, the film presents the opening scene like a picnic or a school excursion, when they take souvenir photos and write their names in Mao notebooks and exchange them. It is “daily life” in the New China, which is regarded as being similar to daily life in Japan where people enjoy having fun. Following this line, the second scene at Shanhai Guan station is to be understood as showing tourists going to the Great Wall. Likewise, if we go to the third scene, it shows people bathing in the Songhua River in Ha’erbin City. In short, “Country of the Dawn” is edited to make the unusual event of the Cultural Revolution become normal and understandable to a Japanese audience.

This is just a passage from a chapter where the author analyses the documentary in relation to Soseki Natsume’s Travels in Manchuria and Korea (here if you want to read more).
A final note on the availability of the film,  in 2008 the movie was released on DVD together with a book about the Cultural Revolution, it’s in Japanese without English subtitles, but if you’re interested you can buy it here.

Interview with Oda Kaori

Directed, shot and edited by Oda Kaori, Aragane was one of my favorite documentaries of 2015, a work that came out from film.factory, a film school based in Sarajevo and founded by renown Hungarian director Bela Tarr.
Aragane it’s an experimental documentary shot in a Bosnian coal mine, an immersive and hypnotic sensorial experience that was presented last year at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, where it got a special mention. 
I wrote a review of the movie in Italian for the blog Sonatine, but I’m planning to write one in English as well and post it here, time permitting. 

In October I had the pleasure of interviewing Oda for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, the following is the original and longer version of that interview.

Can you tell us how you got involved in cinema, that is, how you got interested in watching and making movies in the first place?

 I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I played for 8 years since I was 10 years old, but unfortunately my right knee got broken. I underwent two big operations but it was not possible to keep playing seriously. Doctors said NO to me. So I was lost completely because the only thing I knew in life was basketball. I decided to go to the US to study abroad then, you know the typical thought that if you move the place, something may change in your life. There I took a film course, that was the first encounter to filmmaking, I was not cinephile at all and I am still not. (but I like some films, of course)

I made the very first film with my family in 2010 (ノイズが言うには Thus a Noise Speaks). It is a self-documentary made by my real family and myself about the coming-out as gay. The idea was to use filmmaking to communicate with my family and face the fact that they could not accept that I was gay. It was a tough experience but I learned a lot from that and started to see and use camera as a tool for communication. Communication between myself and the subject (the people/ the space).

(A still from Thus a Noise Speaks 「ノイズが言うには」)

How about film.factory? how did you happen to move to Sarajevo and be part of the group?  

 I got a chance to screen my first film in the student section of Nara International Film Festival in 2011, and there I met Kitagawa Shinji, the person who more than anybody else understands my filmmaking. He was the programmer/organizer of the section. The film got an audience award and we kept in touch since then. In 2012, he wrote me an email that there would be a new program in Sarajevo to support young filmmakers from all over the world. I was very much lost at that time, because it was very difficult to make my next film after a self-documentary by which I confronted the biggest conflict I had.

So I decided to apply to the program, moving to a new place and meeting new people.

Luckily, my application got accepted.   


Can you tell us more about Aragane, where did the idea come from? I heard that originally it was supposed to be a fiction inspired by a Kafka story (A Visit to a Mine), is that true?

Bela (Tarr) gave us an assignment to do an adaptation work. He wanted me to do ‘Bucket Rider’ a short story from Kafka that revolves around man looking for coal. So I went to a coal mine company to do research for the project. The space and the workers were incredibly attractive, immediately I knew I wanted to shoot them as I felt and not through an adaptation work.

What was the involvement of Bela Tarr in the making of Aragane? Did he give you any suggestions, ideas or was he just supervising the project?

I brought some shots I made there and told him that I wanted to make a film. He watched them and said ‘Go and shoot’. We had one meeting when I was still shooting and I had doubts about which direction I should go with the project, should I go more for the people and their story or more with the space itself?

He told me ‘Listen to yourself, what do you want to do?’

I said ‘I am attracted to the space and the physical work of miners’

After shooting, I edited the film and showed the first rough cut to him and he gave me some comments such as ‘maybe you should eliminate this shot’ or ‘keep this one’.

More than once you’ve mentioned space and your relationship with space when making a film, I think is a very fascinating subject. When I watched Aragane I felt very strongly that it’s a work about landscapes (a dark one, the mine), the materiality of it and the machinery in it. An “alien” landscape and the beauty of it. What brought you to focus more on the space/landscape and the machinery, and is there a reason behind the use of long takes?

 I think I was fascinated by the space because it was something totally new, complete darkness, magnificent volume of noises, but also sudden silence where there were no machines around.

The space drugged me into the film, my camera (gaze) was a communicator/mediator between what was there in front of camera and myself. I tried to understand and feel what was going on by shooting the space and its own time. Also, I didn’t approach the subject from the angle of the hard conditions of miners, unfairness and danger of their works (even though it is there in the film because it was just there). I hope people would not get me wrong by saying this. I/my camera shared some moments with them, I tried to be with them moment by moment. Focusing on social issue can be something good for miners, to say what is the problem and how ignorant we are about the issue, but I think the best I can do with my filmmaking is to try to be with the subject (space/people/time) and make them seen by being with them.

About the machinery, I think I shot them because their existence is big in that space and also because miners were proud of the machines, especially the huge ones digging into the side walls.

It may be a bit difficult to explain why the shots needed to be so long, but I tried to be honest toward the moments I captured with my camera.


I think the sound in Aragane is as important as the images, can you tell us more on how you were able to capture and magnify the sounds of the machines and, if you can, tell us about your relationship (as a filmmaker) to sounds/noise and soundscapes?

 It is very interesting to me that lots of people mention about sounds and soundscapes. The sound was recorded with the internal microphone of a Canon 5D, because I didn’t have something like Zoom, also I was most of the time alone, so my hands and focus was with the Camera/Image. My light was on the helmet to make the curtain space visible, so it would have been impossible for me to take care of the sound recording. What was recorded was done “without care” and automatically.

I did the sound mix myself, changing the volume here and there, cleaning a bit of noises, and making rhymes/music by adding some noise on top of another noise. That was fun and I think made the film to gain a sensorial feeling.

I was just playing with sound in Aragane , but I want to learn more about sound. The film made me realize and feel that Film is an audiovisual art.

It’s interesting that you’ve used the words “sensorial feeling”, the first time I saw Aragane I thought straight away of the works of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Manakamana, Iron Ministry, etc.), you told me already you haven’t watched their movies and that you’re not really a cinephile, but I was wondering if you got ispired for your approach by any movies or more in general by any other work of art.

 After your email, Matteo, I watched ‘Manakamana’ ‘Iron MInistry’, and ‘People’s park’,

and I see what you see as similar.

It is very interesting because, before you mention about the Lab, I’ve thought that if I stop making films, I want to be an anthropologist. And I feel I am learning about human beings by making movies.

I might not be so good yet and I have not a clear idea about what I am doing with my camera, but it has been very clear for me that my theme is ‘where we come from, what we are, and where are we going?’ .

I know it sounds abstract and even pretentious, but I’m serious. I may not get the answers before I die, but I have at least the right to explore and challenge these themes with my life, I guess.

 I am inspired by: Wang Bing, Pedro Costa, Raymond Depardon, Wiseman, Cezanne. My bible: Letters To A Young Poet by Rilke.


One last question: what are your future plans, are you working on something at film.factory and how about after film.factory?

I have a few projects now.

One is my essay film, to conclude the experience in Bosnia and filmmaking here. This is my priority right now. It’s in the production stage.

And then I plan to do a workshop of filmmaking/photography/camera in a discipline center in Sarajevo. (It is a institution for the underage kids who commit crimes, not strict as much as a prison). I want to share the possibility of using the camera as a tool of communication and expression with these kids. This kind of workshop is what I want to do as my life time project, I don’t know if I can finance such a project, but I want to try my best to make it a constant practice in my life.

Or I might move to Mexico to do a project after film.factory, one of my colleagues is from Mexico and I want to shoot something there related to sea/water/cave. It’s still in the research/developing stage. Or maybe I’ll go back to Japan, it all depends on if I can support myself and how these projects can be produced!

 Feel free to add something you want to say or share.

 So many people have been supporting my filmmaking. My family, Kitagawa Shinji, Bela Tarr, and my dear colleagues. Most of the time, I shoot and edit alone and this sometimes make me misunderstand that I am making films alone, but in fact, there is always someone who introduces the subject to me, tries to support me mentally, gives me some thoughts on the film, shares the film, writes about the film, and watches the film. All these people make films. All these spaces and times make films. I’m just one of the gears/energies that make films happen.