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.

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Image Forum Festival 2018 イメージフォーラムフェスティバル 2018

The 32nd Image Forum Festival ended last Sunday in Tokyo. The nine-day-long event, hosted at two different locations in the Japanese capital, the Theatre Image Forum and the Spiral Hall, screened in total more than 80 films, including 23 in the East Asian Experimental Film Competition, the main section. Established in its present form in 1987, the festival succeeded and replaced an experimental film festival that was held, in various phases and different shapes, in the capital from 1973 to 1986.

To this day the festival continue to embody the mission and the legacy of its predecessors. Primarily dedicated to experimental cinema and video, the event provides a special opportunity for the viewers to experience on a big screen a mix of feature films, home cinema, documentary and experimental animation.
After Tokyo, the festival will move to Kyoto, Yokohama and Nagoya, with slightly different contents, there will be special sections dedicated to artists of each city. This is a right and welcomed decision, since too often Tokyo ends up cannibalizing the cultural and artistic events taking place in the archipelago.

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This year’s special retrospectives were dedicated to the provocative films of Christoph Schlingensief, German director who expanded his works beyond cinema to touch theater, television and public happenings, Kurt Kren, Austrian artist associated with Viennese Actionism, but also author of structural films, and the experiments on celluloid by Japanese photographer Yamazaki Hiroshi. I wasn’t aware of the films of Schlingensief, and I have to say that it was at the same time a discovery and a delusion. While I really liked 100 Years of Adolf Hitler (1989), claustrophobic and parodic reconstruction of the last hours of the dictator and comrades in his bunker, I couldn’t digest the other two movies of the so called German Trilogy. German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) and especially Terror 2000 (1992) are too much of a mess and stylistically all over the place , and probably too bound to the events of the time, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent unification of the two Germanies, for me to decipher them.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check the works of Yamazaki, but I’m planning to see them at the end of September, when the festival will come to Nagoya. As with his conceptual photos, the shorts made during his entire life explore the relationship between time and light, a topic I’m very attracted to.
I also missed the screening of Caniba (2017) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, about the “cannibal” Sagawa Issei, if I’m not wrong, this was the Japanese premiere of the film, and the special focus Experimenta India, a collection of visual art from the Asian country.
Interesting was to catch Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge, 2018), about the famous ex-refugee of Tamil origin, now a pop icon and singer, an artist I was completely unaware of. The documentary is based on more than 20 years of footage filmed by herself and her friends in Sr Lanka and London. While I didn’t connect with the first part of the movie, too self-indulgent for my taste, the film gets much better in the last 30-40 minutes when, albeit briefly, touches on complex and fascinating topics such as immigration and art, fame, and social awareness in the show business.

The East Asia Experimental competition was pretty solid, besides several short films coming from a variety of areas like South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and naturally Japan, two were the long documentaries screened. A Yangtze Landscape (Xu Xin, 2017), a visual exploration of the social and geographical landscape along the longest river in Asia (you can read my review here), and Slow Motion, Stop Motion (Kurihara Mie, 2018) a movie that positively surprised me and won both the Grand Prize and the Audience Award. A review is coming soon, stay tuned.

Documentaries at the London Korean Film Festival 2017

The London Korean Film Festival has opened its 12th edition last Thursday and will run in the capital for two weeks, from November 10th through the 19th the festival will then go on tour around the UK, touching Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Belfast.
In addition to showcasing a wide-range of titles produced in the Asian country, there will also be masterclasses, talks and collateral events, a special occasion for the British audience to get a glimpse of South Korean cinema and film culture in general. This year line-up includes not only UK and European premieres, animations, classics, shorts and indies, but also a fascinating focus on Korean Noir, “Illuminating the Dark Side of Society”, and, of particular interest for this blog, a program dedicated to documentary.

The first movie presented will be Two Doors (2012) directed by Kim Il-rhan and Hong Ji-you, a documentary investigating the the Yongsan Disaster, when in January of 2009 a sit-in rally in central Seoul resulted in the deaths of five protesters and one police officer. While Two Doors focuses more on the legal aspects of the tragedy, amassing documents against the violence used to prohibit the demonstration and the sit-in, The Remnants  (2017) is about the personal tribulations and the legal problems that some the people who took part in the demonstration had to go through in the seven years after the tragedy. The movie was directed by Lee Hyuk-sang, who was also creative director behind Two Doors, and the festival has organised a special conversation with the director on November 2.
Goodbye my Hero (2017) by Han Younghee, a movie addressing labour relations and workers’ rights in contemporary South Korea, and Park Kyung-hyun’s Dream of Iron (2017), a film essay about the development of the steel industry in the country during the 1960s, will complete the section.
The ‘Women’s Voices’ s section includes also a documentary, Candle Wave Feminists (2017) by Kangyu Garam, a movie that delves into the revolution that led to former prime minister Park’s impeachment and her spiritual mentor Choi Soon-Sil’s arrest.

All the documentaries will be screened this week starting from tomorrow, October 31st.

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Kobe Discovery Film Festival 神戸発掘映画祭 2017

A new beginning for the Kobe Documentary Film Festival. From this year the annual event held at the Kobe Planet Film Archive since 2009 will change its name and concept into Kobe Discovery Film Festival (神戸発掘映画祭). The renaming reflects a shift of the festival’s focus from documentary to film and moving image preservation and restoration, and the (re)discovery of less known movies from the past, something on the lines of what, with great success, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna has been able to become in recent years. I really like the idea, because I think that in an era like the one we live in, when digital images are produced, consumed and binged frenetically every day, going back to the dawn of cinema and exploring the fringes of film culture is a refreshing and re-balancing practice, especially in Japan.

The festival, although it is more a cinematic event organized in four days than an actual film festival, is also an opportunity to reflect on the importance of cinema archives in the contemporary mediascape, it may sounds tautological, but Kobe Planet Film Archive before being a theater is first of all, well, an important film archive.

The first edition of the Discovery Film Festival will take place from November 23 to 26 and is divided in six sections.
Amateur cinema discovered: home movie day, with screening of 13 Japanese short movies made in prewar Japan during the 1930s (there’s even a colour film, 兵隊と花), is an interesting occasion to get a glimpse of the everyday life in Japan in a period when the country was rapidly changing (mainly for the worst).
100 years of animation in Japan is dedicated to celebrate the early animations made in the country, divided in three sub-sections the program will present early examples of amateur experimental animation and silhouette animation, and some early works from the 1920s, including  An Old Fool (のろまな爺, 1924) by Ōfuji Noburō, rediscovered by the Planet Film Archive itself few years back. In the program also a couple of works recently discovered (sorry I don’t have the English titles): HOT CHINA 聖林(ハリウッド)見物, マンガ 空中凸凹拳闘 (1941),  カテイ石鹸 (an advertisement made in 1921) and 小人の電話 (1953).
The latest digitized films is a program that will showcase an interesting selection of movies recently digitized from 35mm prints, otherwise impossible to screen, by the Kobe Design University, while Selected by Planet will present a bunch of movies from its archives, including The Peerless Patriot (国士無双, 1932) directed by Itami Mansaku (father of Itami Jūzō), and the 1950’s 海魔陸をいく (no English title) by Igayama Masamitsu, a film between documentary and narrative cinema similar, as far as I know, to the works of Jean Painlevé.
A special screening of the color (Konikolor) version of A Jazz Girl is Born (ジャズ娘誕生, 1957) by Sunohara Masahisa, shown last year at Il Cinema Ritrovato, and a series of 8mm experiments by musician and filmmaker Mori Ari will conclude the festival. You can find the entire program (in Japanese) here.

The idea and the concept behind the Kobe Discovery Film Festival are really promising, also considering the important position of Planet Archive in preservation and restoration in Japan, and I whish the organizers the best of luck.

From the archives: Kamei, Hani and Ogawa in two Italian publications (1967, 1970)

The Centro sperimentale di cinematografia (Experimental film centre) in Rome is one of the oldest cinema schools in the world and the oldest in Europe, founded in 1935 the centre nourished and helped establishing, in different degrees, the career of many important filmmakers, photographers and actors. Japanese director Masumura Yasuzō famously studied at the school for about two years at the beginning of the 1950s under luminaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, an experience that without doubt helped shaping his approach to cinema and his views as a filmmaker.
In 1937 the centre started to publish its own film journal, Bianco e Nero, a monthly magazine that is still been published to this day. A couple of years back I bought online a copy from 1967 (February) that has an article, penned by film critic Claudio Bertieri, on the documentaries of Hani Susumu and Kamei Fumio. In November of the previous year the Festival dei Popoli in Florence, an event dedicated to non-fiction still running today, presented a mini-retrospective on Japanese documentary, and Bertieri discusses in the short article, titled Susumu Hani, Fumio Kamei ed il documentario giapponese (Susumu Hani, Fumio Kamei and Japanese documentary), the movie he was able to see at the festival. He devotes most of the article on Hani, Yuki Matsuri (1953),  Children in the Classroom (1954), Children Who Draw (1955), Twins in the Class (1956) and Hōryū-ji (1958) are the documentaries here analysed, while the rest of the piece is spent examining Kamei’s It’s Good to Live (1956) and The World of Yukara (1964), a trilogy about Ainu’s traditions. Although written in 1967 — a period when Japanese documentaries certainly were not known or available to watch as they are today (well, they are not that discussed even today…) — and with few dated observations here and there, most of the analysis remain solid to this day. Documentary as opposed to mainstream cinema ‘the man in the street here [in Europe] has not seen Louisiana Story, in Japan he does not know Hani or Kamei’, Hani’s ability to capture moments of pure innocence in children, or Kamei sensibility when portraying human suffering are spot-on insights.

Even more interesting, but for different reasons, is Cinema: Giappone e Zengakuren (Cinema: Japan and Zengakuren) a short book published in 1970 by Samonà e Savelli, later Savelli – La Nuova Sinistra, a publisher established in 1963 and the first to directly represent the extra-parliamentary left-wing in the Italian publishing world. Over the next decade the books printed by Savelli – La Nuova Sinistra, also fueled by political and social unrest in the peninsula, would gain momentum and become a cultural reference point for left-wing groups such as Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua , and for the newspaper Il Manifesto.

The book is devoted to Ogawa Shinsuke’s The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan – Summer in Narita (1968), the first movie in the Narita/Sanrizuka Series. A brief introduction that outlines the Japanese political situation and the fierce resistance by the peasants and the students, is followed by a translation of some writings by members of Ogawa Production, just a couple of paragraphs nothing more, while the main part of the volume is a transcription of the dialogues spoken in the film. It was a period where the revolutionary cinema(s) of the globe were connecting to each other and were trying to build a common front against capitalism, the people in power and the establishment. The back cover is in this regard illuminating: Comitato di Cinema e Rivoluzione: Baldelli, Filippi, Ivens, Ogawa, Rocha, Solanas, Straub (Cinema and Revolution’s committee: Baldelli, Filippi, Ivens, Ogawa, Rocha, Solanas, Straub).

Reading these two publications after almost 50 years since they were originally printed was a very fascinating discovery, Ogawa and Kamei are two of the most important documentarists in the history of world cinema and essentially the reason this blog exists. Cinema: Japan and Zengakuren in particular is revelatory not as much for the information it contains, there are some mistakes of course — in the pre-internet age Japan was still a land far away and often misrepresented — but more as an artifact of an era long gone but still able to resonate with our present. An era when the arts were explicitly politicized, in a state of never-ending struggle and ready to change the world.

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A Yangtze Landscape (Xu Xin, 2017)

Festivalscope is giving access, till mid April,  to some of the documentaries screened at this year edition of Cinéma du réel, one of the most prestigious festivals dedicated to non-fiction cinema. (You can learn more here)
I grabbed the chance and last night I watched A Yangtze Landscape, a movie directed, photographed and edited by Xu Xin. IMDB describes it as follows:

A Yangtze Landscape utilizes a non-narrative style, setting off from the Yangtze’s marine port Shanghai, filming all the way to the Yangtze River’s source, Qinghai/Tibet – filming a total distance of thousands of kilometers. Experimental music and noise recorded live on scene are used in post-production, painstakingly paired with relatively independent visuals, creating a magically realistic atmosphere contrasted with people seeming to be ‘decorative figures’ right out of traditional Chinese landscape scrolls.

The documentary is composed of stunning scenary rendered in beautiful digital black & white, particularly the night landscapes are of almost pictorial quality, punctuated by scenes of people inhabiting the areas along the river, mostly areas ruined or emptied by the industrial and urban changes of the last decades. These parts with people are, in my opinion, performative, in a sense that the people seen, most of them poors, with mental problems or homeless, are performing themselves and their daily routine in front and for the camera. A Yangtze Landscape is for this reason a very partial film that focuses its attention on certain edges of Chinese society, I’m pretty sure that most of the comunities living near or on the banks of the Yangtze river are very different from the few exceptional individuals shown in the movie. Yet this is not a demerit of the film, a certain quality of artificiality so to speak, or performance as I have called it above, is very obviously present from the first minutes of the documentary, and the fact that it’s shot in its entirety in black & white is after all the biggest hint of its poetic aspiration and quality. Also on a technical side, it is worth noticing how in more than 2 hours and half there’s never a camera movement and a zoom in or out, the frame never moves, everything is crystallized and done by a very crafted editing, we have the camera “moving” only in the scenes where it is positioned on a ship floating on the river.
The movie has some similarity in its basic concept and structure to P. J. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, if I’m not wrong, the american director is among the people thanked at the end of the documentary. There the camera followed the lives of Chinese people commuting by train from one part of the country to the other, from the lower to the upper class, here Xu Xin directs his gaze from the port of Shanghai to its source in Tibet.
We see and learn through intertitles, there’s no narration, about abandoned old villages, a bridge where every year many people commit suicide and other disasters and accidents that have happened near or on the river in the last 5 or 10 years.
The only witness of all these happenings seems to be the landscape, it is almost useless to say it, but the real protagonist of the movie is the landscape, a space where natural, human and industrial histories/stories intermingle and merge.

Interesting and well crafted as it is, I nonetheless feel that something is missing from it, to denounce and criticize certain aspects of contemporary Chinese society, and not only China, is something that absolutely must be done, but now that the country is in the spotlight internationally the risk is to look too redundant. For instance, towards the end of the movie there’s a long part all dedicated to a couple of homeless, their shacks and their dogs, we can see them on the foreground sitting in an old sofa or wandering among ruins with the ultramodern city and its skyscrapers on the background. The image is beautiful in its contrast, and even if it possesses a degree of truth, it ends up being trite and obvious, weakening the potential of the movie. While I like the general style, again the black & white is pictorial and the editing is perfect, it must be said that sometimes the film looks too “beautiful” and the image too “clean” without being subversive. The parts that resonate with me the most are those where Xu Xin explores the aesthetics of documentary to its limits. The aforementioned night scenes of the cities lights along the river, shiny but empty jewel boxes, or those at the river locks, slow and almost endless images of the water level, the ships raising and the gates opening, paired with a cacophonous soundscape made of squeaking noises and experimental music.

My favourite documentaries of 2016

2016 has been a busy year and unfortunately, and for various reasons (one of them being the place where I live, Japan), I haven’t had the chance to see as many new documentaries as I wanted to. On the other hand though, having had access to many documentaries produced in Taiwan through Taiwan Docs, for a couple of months I binge-watched the non-fiction movies produced in the island in 2016 (and 2015), and it was a revelation. Not only it allowed me to discover and explore the complex sociopolitical situation of the area and its recent history, but luckily I also stumbled upon a couple of formally challenging films.

That being said, I can’t really miss what recently has become a sort of yearly custom, so here is my list of the best documentaries I’ve seen in 2016, some of them are from 2015, but released internationally, or at least in Japan, only this year. At the end I’ve also compiled a short list of the best (re)discoveries of 2016. (disclaimer: best should here be understood as “favourite” of course)

8. Quemoy (Chiu Yu-nan)

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“Quemoy, the islands adjacent to Mainland, used to be the frontier between Taiwan and China. However, it opens its border for the cross-strait exchanges. The film shows traces of Quemoy people in different generations and builds up a picture of complicated national identity in the boundary island.”
A relatively short movie (just 45′) whose main appealing point is its depiction of the complex geopolitical situation of the area.

7. Into the Inferno  (Werner Herzog)
6. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)

“This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.”
Both movies are pure Herzog, for better or for worse, I personally adore the man, but the risk the great German director is running in his recent documentaries – especially now in an era when the social media is so pervasive and his persona in the mediascape is sort of overexposed – is that of becoming prisoner of the image forged in almost 50 years of incredible career.
Be that as it may, if you like Herzog, these two documentaries released in 2016 are very enjoyable, Lo and Behold is a better work in my opinion, or at least more appealing to me, and not necessarily for its subject, more for its rhythm and editing. Into the Inferno in some points wanders a bit too much, the segment set in North Korea for instance, albeit fascinating for the unique insights on the country, felt too much like a long digression.

5. Further Beyond

An interesting experiment in meta-documentary and a non banal reflection of what identity and its construction through images and storytelling is. The movie is maybe a bit excessive in its meandering here and there, but 
some passages are pure digital beauty.

4. A Room of Her Own: Rei Naito and Light (Yuko Nakamura)

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Graced by outstanding sound design and soundtrack, the movie captures and beautifully embodies the sense of fragility and ephemerality of life seen through the art of Naito Rei. But A Room of her Own is interesting on many other different levels, partly experiment in non-fiction, partly personal documentary – what brought Nakamura to approach Naito was the severe illness of her mother – and partly a work that explores the intangibility of life, the movie is a very refreshing work of non-fiction, especially when considered in the context of Japanese contemporary documentary. I wish the last part, when four women are gathered on Teshima island, would have been longer. 
One last note on the photography, in tone with the themes explored by the movie, is really one of the most accomplished aspects of it.

3. 15 Corners of the World (Zuzanna Solakiewicz)

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I cheated, I know it’s a movie from 2014, but I watched it this year and it made a big impression on me, so I decided to include it in my list anyway.
15 Corners of the World is a mesmerizing and hypnotic documentary about the Polish electronic-music pioneer Eugeniusz Rudnik and, more importantly, about the visualisazion of sound and its materiality. An incredible visual and auditory experience.

2. Forgetting Vietnam

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The latest visual work from Trinh Minh-ha, I’ve written more about the movie here.

1. 3 Island (Lin Hsin-i)

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A work that creates a complex and experimental mapping of three distinct geographical Asian areas, interweaving poetry, abstract imagining, historical data and archival footage. If you want, you can read more here.

 

(re)discoveries (in no particular order)

 

Asia is One (NDU), read more here.

On the Road: A Document (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1964), read more here.

Hospital ( Frederick Wiseman, 1970)

Broadway by Light (William Klein, 19589

The Festival Pan-African of Algiers (William Klein, 1969)