News and Opinion

Tsuchimoto's Documentaries on Afghanistan

In the last of my "reports" on the trailers I made for the Documentaries of Noriaki Tsuchimoto series (one for Minamata, the other for On the Road), i wanted to mention the ones that I put together for his two films on Afghanistan before the Taliban, Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985 and Traces: The Kabul Museum 1988

Tsuchimoto was of course famous for his penetrating documentaries on Minamata disease, but he worked on many other subjects, ranging from student radicals in the 1960s (e.g, Prehistory of the Partisans) to a biography of the poet Nakano Shigeharu. Some films were extensions of the issues raised in the Minamata series, looking for instance at other forms of pollution like nuclear radiation, or at the oceans. He was always concerned with the oppressed and the marginal and read profusely, compiling dozens and dozens of scrapbooks (which his wife Motoko, with whom I experienced the earthquake, showed me once). 

One topic of interest was Afghanistan and he ended up making three films on that country, based on the footage he was able to take during several trips as one of the few foreigners allowed to film in the nation in the 1980s, before the Taliban took power. I think part of his interest stemmed simply from his leftist sympathies, as he genuinely hoped that the socialist regime in those days would do a better job than some other socialist experiments. Another Afghanistan and Traces could be said to lack the critical eye that his Minamata works show, but they are by no means propaganda: just as Tsuchimoto genuinely cares for the Minamata victims through his camera, he goes beyond politics to express an affection for the everyday lives and culture of Afghanis. The resulting films are not as powerful as the Minamata films - Traces is closer to a documentary on art history (though one every art history department should have!) - but they serve both as irreplaceable documents of Afghan life and history (much of which is now gone or profoundly transformed) and as testimony to Tsuchimoto's unending efforts to understand others through film.

Sakagami Jiro Flies Away

This news got lost amidst the deluge of the earthquake and tsunami, but I wanted to mention that the great comedian and actor Sakagami Jiro passed away on March 10, 2011, the day before the disaster. He died of a cerebral infarction at the age of 76.

Like Kitano Takeshi after him, Sakagami trained as a comedian on the stages of Asakusa, working in between strip shows. It was there that he met Hagimoto Kin'ichi and the two formed Konto 55-go, a duo that specialized not in manzai talks, but skit comedy (called "konto" in Japanese, from the French "conte"). From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, they ruled the small screen and even had their own film series. The skits were the center of their TV comedy, but their "yakyuken," in which guests would do janken (rock-scissors-paper) with Sakagami, with the loser forced to take off a piece of clothing, earned the wrath of the PTA, but also helped transform variety programming into the game-filled, participatory space of "friends" that it is today (as I talk about in my article about telop/subtitles). Hagimoto (known affectionately as Kin-chan) went on to become the king of TV in the late 70s and 80s, but whereas his was always a clean TV, Jiro always had a touch of the strip halls in his comedy.

Tanaka Yoshiko

In somewhat shocking news from the world of entertainment, the wire services are reporting that the actress and singer Tanaka Yoshiko has passed away at the age of 55 of breast cancer. Tanaka, known to fans first as Su-chan, first came to fame as a member of the Candies, one of the big idol groups in the 1970s. After they broke up, she became an actress and appeared in many famous films such as Imamura's Black Rain (for which she won several acting awards), Poppoya, Yoshida's Women in the Mirror, etc. She also appeared a lot on TV. Ironically, her husband was the older brother of Natsume Masako, the idol star who tragically died of leukemia at a young age. Su-chan was too young as well.

Here is one of my favorite Candies songs (Tanaka is the one on the right).

Trailer for On the Road: A Document

This is the second trailer from the Documentaries of Noriaki Tsuchimoto series that my wife just put out from her small company Zakka Films. It is for On the Road: A Document, one of Tsuchimoto's early masterpieces. 

As with the trailer that I introduced last time, for Minamata: The Victims and Their World, this one was put together by yours truly. This was a daunting prospect. On the Road is a brilliantly edited work, arguably one of the best editing jobs in documentary history, so anything I did to the editing would be like colorizing Citizen Kane. All I could do was provide chunks of the film - some of which may remind viewers of Scorsese's Taxi Driver - and again use music (from the original film by Miki Minoru) to cover up my inadequacies. But I did try to create some kind of a narrative trajectory, ending with the accident, which to Tsuchimoto was a metaphor of the accident of modern Japan. 

I tried not to mess up the editing, but I did fool around a bit with the image-sound combination. Again, that was mainly to hide my bad editing, but the constructed nature of my trailer does somewhat match the constructed nature of the film. On the Road was made when Tsuchimoto was still directing PR films, movies commissioned by companies or government agencies to promote their activities. These were thus less fly-on-the-wall documents than scripted and carefully planned propaganda pieces. A number of Japan's great postwar filmmakers, such as Ogawa Shinsuke and Kuroki Kazuo, came out of PR films, and all figured out ways to rebel against the form while working within it. On the Road is definitely scripted - it even uses actors. But Tsuchimoto, instead of following the script of the sponsor, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, who wanted a film foregrounding traffic safety issues and what the Police were doing about it, composed it with the help of a rebellious taxi drivers' union. The resulting film could look so well edited because it was largely pre-planned, but it was a precursor to Tsuchimoto's later work in that he decided to side with the powerless in society, showing their reality, not some "objective" reality as propagated by the mass media. The Police were not pleased and On the Road, despite winning some awards, was largely shelved for over thirty years. 

Koreeda Hirokazu at Yale, Day 2

This got delayed by the quake and all, but here finally is my report on the second day of Japanese filmmaker Koreeda Hirokazu's visit to Yale University at the end of February 2011. (You can read the first report here.)

I wanted to give some of our students the chance to sit down and talk freely and immediately with Koreeda in an intellectual atmosphere. Since his English is not good enough to handle such a conversation without translation, I decided to hold a workshop on Saturday the 25th that was done entirely in Japanese. Unlike the first workshop, I did not ask Koreeda to prepare anything and thus left it up to the students to lead the discussion.

The first topic was his new film Kiseki, which literally means "Miracle," but was given the English title I Wish because the international sales agent thought "Miracle" might give the mistaken impression it was a religious movie. It was in fact commissioned by one of the branches of JR, a big railroad company in Japan, to commemorate the opening of the final leg of the Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train). The story is about two young brothers, living apart because their parents got divorced, who are convinced that seeing two shinkansen pass each other in a special way can create a miracle. Koreeda showed a long trailer the sales agent prepared for foreign distributors (Koreeda stressed that this was not his editing or music!), but you can see an early Japanese version here. The film stars the two Maeda brothers, who are famous in Japan as manzai comedians, performing under the name Maeda Maeda, but who really want to be actors some day. (Koreeda told me over dinner that he was somewhat embarrassed during the auditions because everyone in the staff knew who they were except him.) It also has such Koreeda regulars as Natsukawa Yui (whom I really like), Odagiri Jo, Abe Hiroshi, and Kiki Kirin--as well as newcomers like the granddaughter of Kiki Kirin (she's the daughter of Motoki Masahiro, of Departures fame).

Trailer for Minamata: The Victims and Their World

Zakka Films is a small company run by my wife, Ono Seiko. She's the only employee and so it is far from being a major player in the business. For a long time she was a coordinator at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (that's how we met), so she has a lot of solid connections that have helped her business get started. These include top scholars such as Markus Nornes and Jasper Sharp who've written material for the fine booklets included in her DVDs. I also help out a lot with writing contributions, editing, and checking subtitles, so I can testify to the quality of her product.

But there is one thing whose quality I cannot guarantee, and that's the trailers.

Because I made them.

I've done the trailers for all her DVDs so far (including that for the Roots of Japanese Anime), and while they are not tremendously bad, they're not that great either. I guess I don't have that much talent for editing. But they have been fun to do. I got to learn Final Cut and play around a bit with images. 

Approaching Spectators of Japanese Cinema

KankyakuA great new anthology has just come out in Japanese that takes up the broad issue of spectatorship of Japanese film from a variety of perspectives. I had written about this earlier.

Kankyaku e no apurochi (観客へのアプローチ)

Ed. Fujiki Hideaki (藤木秀朗)

Shinwasha (森話社), 2011. ISBN 978-4-86405-020-3

It is part of the excellent Nihon eigashi sosho series put out by Shinwasha, but somewhat different in that it is just bigger (apparently Nagoya University, where Fujiki-san teaches, helped out with the publication).

The book features a splendid variety of scholars from Japan and abroad, including some of the best working on Japanese film and image culture. 

The contents include Miyao Daisuke writing about Hayashi Chojiro's (Hasegawa Kazuo's) female fans, Nakamura Hideyuki (who also contributed to my film theory publication) writing on 3-D film in Japan, Kato Atsuko on film industry market surveys, Kim Donghoon on cinema in 1920s colonial Korea, Fujiki Hideaki on film as social education in interwar Japan, Kinoshita Chika on Makino Masahiro's Onna keizu, Kitamura Hiroshi on Yodogawa Nagaharu, Thomas LaMarre on otaku consumption, Usui Michiko on utsushie, Joseph Murphy on film and literature in 1920s Japan, Sasakawa Keiko on Mizoguchi Kenji's The Downfall of Osen in Osaka (the film is available with subtitles as part of the Talking Silents series), and Hata Ayumi on 1970s movement cinema. 

The Documentaries of Tsuchimoto Noriaki

My wife runs the tiny company Zakka Films, which has been trying to fill some huge gaps in the availability of Japanese films by putting out DVDs of rare work. Her first DVD was Roots of Japanese Anime, a great collection of prewar animation, and she has just announced the release of the second set of films, The Documentaries of Tsuchimoto Noriaki. As with the first release, I helped out in various ways from checking subtitles to helping edit the pamphlet to even editing the trailers. This is a particularly important release for me given my personal relations with Tsuchimoto-san

Here's the press release. 


We would like to announce the new release of THE DOCUMENTARIES OF NORIAKI TSUCHIMOTO from Zakka Films. We were somewhat reticent to advertise our new products at a time of great crisis in Japan, but given the documentarist Noriaki Tsuchimoto's long commitment to battling environmental pollution and critiquing modern Japanese society and the corporate state, we finally felt we should release them now since his works are as pertinent today as they ever were.

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