One of the towering figures in Japanese documentary, Tsuchimoto Noriaki began his career as a documentarist, like many of his generation, at Iwanami Production in 1956. Tsuchimoto was since his university years a very active student, involved in the establishment of Zengakuren, member of the Japanese Communist Party and eventually expelled from Waseda University in 1953 for political activities. Mostly known in Japan and in the rest of the world, and rightly so, for his life-long series on Minamata and the mercury poisoning caused by Chisso Corporation, a total of 15 films in more than 40 years, Tsuchimoto in his long career tackled with his movies many different issues. Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985 and Traces: the Kabul Museum 1988, two movies set and about Afghanistan in a crucial time for the country, Nuclear Scrapbook (1982) on the danger of Japan’s nuclear policies, and On the Road: A Document, are some of his best non-Minamata works. It’s on this last one that I’d like to focus my attention today.
At the Beginning of the 60s Tokyo, and Japan in general, was in turmoil and experiencing huge changes, on the one hand the country was trying to leave behind and “forget” the tragedies of war, the consequent American occupation and more than 20 years of militarization and nationalism, on the other hand Japan was projecting itself and its people at maximum speed towards the future and a new phase. This “double” movement implied, among other things, starting a series of infrastructure projects that would completely alter the landscape of urban and suburban areas of the country, especially in preparation for the big international showcase of 1964, the Tokyo Olympics: streets, highways, the launch of the Shinkansen (the famous bullet train), and the devil’s pact with atomic energy. All changes that would shape, for better or for worse, the country’s future and made it what it is today.
On the Road was made in this whirl of structural, social and political changes, let’s not forget the huge demonstrations against the ANPO treaty in 1960 and those that would shake the country in the following years, a period of turmoil that is reflected in the film’s production history, as Zakka Films site puts it:
On the Road was originally commissioned as a traffic safety film with the Metropolitan Police as one of the sponsors. But it actually had a double existence: in reality Tsuchimoto was also working with the drivers’ union. When a police official finally saw the film, he dismissed it as “useless—the plaything of a cinephile,” and so it was never used for its original purpose. While winning numerous awards abroad, including at Venice, it was shelved in Japan for nearly 40 years.
The production is also a strong statement of Tsuchimoto’s artistic independence and creativity as a filmmaker, “The film was conceived as an experimental dramatized documentary” and “Tsuchimoto had amateur actors play the principal roles and, because the sound and image were recorder separately, asked drivers to reenact their duties, meeting and conversations”*. For all these reasons On the Road turned into a formally and highly creative documentary and a very different one, in style and concept, from those of the Minamata series that would follow in five years. Alienating music, fast editing and a cacophonic cityscape rendered through a jazz-like rhythm bring to mind the city symphony movies of the beginning of the 20th century, reimagined for and in the 60s. A snap-shot of an era of change for Japanese society framing a mutating urbanscape with a free-style touch that makes it highly watchable and fresh even for today’s viewers.
While it’s important to praise and introduce all the movies of the Minamata series to the broadest audience possible, it’s also vital not to overlook some of Tsuchimoto’s works made outside of his life-long series and by doing so affirming his importance and role in the history of Japanese documentary.
On the Road: A Document is available on DVD (with English subtitles) at Zakka Films, of course!
* from the DVD booklet