From Televisual Didacticism to Revolutionary Action

The early films of Noriaki Tsuchimoto reveal an artist increasingly expanding the political potential—in form and subject—of documentary.
Matt Turner

Noriaki Tsuchimoto (right).

When asked about his profession, the Japanese documentarian Noriaki Tsuchimoto would declare himself “a partisan revolutionary first, a filmmaker second.” This radical and humanist approach to filmmaking practice, in which people’s struggles are always centered, and political concerns take precedence over everything else, is central to the filmmaker’s later, better known films, but it is also present in the less widely seen works he made in the 1960s. Diverse in form, style, and subject matter, each disparate film from this period contains fragments of ideas that the filmmaker would return to, and also clear indications of what would come to preoccupy him and emblematize his approach.

Born in 1928, Noriaki Tsuchimoto grew up in Tokyo, studying at Waseda University until he was expelled in 1953 due to his involvement with the Japanese Communist Party. After his expulsion, a period spent as a communist guerilla in what the filmmaker has referred to as a “Mountain Village Operation Unit,” and an arrest following a clash with the police, he worked for the Japan-China Friendship Society, a supragovernmental organization that promoted relations between Japan and the People's Republic of China. In 1956, he became involved with Iwanami Productions—a company that employed filmmakers such as Susumi Hani and Shinsuke Ogawa to produce educational and public relations films—working first as an assistant to other filmmakers, before becoming a freelance director for the company. Having not been formally trained as a filmmaker, it was here—with practice, and through debates with his peers at regular meetups with a cohort of artistically-minded filmmakers at the company that collectively called themselves Ao no Kai (“the blue group”)—that he learned his craft. It was also where Tsuchimoto identified the need for a more independent, political form of filmmaking than that which Iwanami was able to accommodate.1

While the works that Tsuchimoto later made independently—in particular the 17 formidable films he created in support of the victims of the Minamata mercury poisoning incident—are what gained him world renown, the films he made in the 1960s, both with, and independent of, Iwanami, are also valuable, and just as demonstrative of what critic Chris Fujiwara described as the embodiment of “a search for a point of view capable of representing the point of view of his subjects, and an immersion of the filmmaker’s subjectivity in the contradictions of his material." Talking in 2003, Tschumoto himself said that “these early works are crucial texts to understand the multi-faceted methodology I applied to my filmmaking throughout the last four decades of my career.” In all of these films, Tsuchimoto finds ways to channel his own socialist perspective through the stories he tackles, without ever misrepresenting the nature of his subject’s struggles or sidelining their views.  

Depicting a modernizing, globalizing Japan, and covering issues relating to transport, policing, worker’s rights, the student movement, and intra-Asia socialist solidarity, together these films provide a cross-section of the political state of 1960s Japan, but also assess and interrogate Japan’s position within Asia and the world. While outside of Japan, these early works had been historically underseen, a new Noriaki Tsuchimoto retrospective—previously shown at Courtisane in Ghent in 2019, recently at Open City Documentary Festival in London in September, and next at the Museum of Moving Image in New York in November—presents them alongside a number of the most notable films Tsuchimoto made about the Minamata disaster, giving a sampling of the filmmaker’s practice and ethos, widening the understanding of the strength and breadth of his filmmaking beyond what has previously known.  

Tokyo Metropolis (1962). Photo courtesy of Kiroku Eiga Hozon.

The earliest film in the selection is Tokyo Metropolis (1962), which was made as part of Discover Japan, a TV series Iwanami produced that looked to give an overview of each of the country’s prefectures. Featuring observational images of the city and simplistic narration describing the nature of life in Tokyo and various trends of the time, it is a traditional, informational film in which its maker’s signature is mostly invisible. Made at a period when Tokyo’s population had just exceeded 10 million, Tsuchimoto—who had worked on several episodes in the series the year before—makes this expansion the subject of the entry, creating an film built around figures in which Tokyo is categorized as a city of “3700 restaurants,” or, more grimly, a place where there are “3 deaths and 200 injured” as a result of accidents on the roads everyday. Though it has some unusual compositions and a snazzy jazz soundtrack that makes it feel like a snapshot of the time, the film’s only real insight is that Tokyo is expanding exponentially. almost to the point of unrecognizability, swallowing everything, “like an amoeba,” as it grows.

An engaging, snappily made film that fulfilled its commissioner’s remit, Tokyo Metropolis was succeeded by two transport oriented “sponsored films”—An Engineer's Assistant (1963) (which is not screening in NYC) and On the Road: A Document (1964)—which showcase more of their author’s sensibility and his political background and concerns. Commissioned respectively by the Japanese National Railways and the Japanese Police Commission, as examples of the sponsored film format—which archivist Rick Prelinger defines as a films “designed to serve a specific pragmatic purpose” that were financed by “a particular sponsor for a specific purpose other than as a work of art”—it might be expected that these films would be aesthetically unremarkable.2 Instead, much to the consternation of their commissioners, both of Tsuchimoto’s transport films were not just notably artful but also slyly radical, promoting the interests of their respective institution’s workers rather than channeling any particular message that the authorities that financed them may have wanted to express. 

Created in the context of the accelerated urbanization of the then forthcoming 1964 Tokyo Olympics, An Engineer's Assistant was commissioned following a multi-train crash in Mikawashima in 1962 that resulted in the loss of 160 lives. Presented by academic and programmer Julian Ross, who guest-introduced the film at the London screening, as “a portrait of the young men with the reputation of the national railways on their shoulders,” An Engineer's Assistant was intended to reassure consumer confidence in the railway networks by showcasing the introduction of a new technology intended to prevent future accidents. Instead, it serves to illustrate the resilience and integrity of the railway workers facing the impossible task of always keeping the over-scheduled trains running strictly on time. Following a single, hyper-pressurized night-time journey in an ethnographic style, the film locks its focus onto the train’s engineers and drivers, showing the intricacy of their labor through a barrage of quick-cutting, color-rich images shot over-the-shoulder and accompanied by bursts of dramatic, almost-operatic music by Miki Minoru (In the Realm of the Senses). The result—which plays more like Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010) than a public information film—is frenetic, visually abstract, and unexpectedly beautiful. It ignores the proposed message of the employer, having management present only as an invisible, off-screen nuisance, and instead foregrounds the laborers’ embodied perspective instead, displaying their skill and resilience in the face of ever-heightening demands. 

On the Road: A Document (1964). Photo courtesy of Motoko Tsuchimoto.

On the Road pushes this formal experimentation further, also willfully disregarding its sponsor’s expectations and using the project to play with visual style and advance a narrative that not only subverts, but actually counters the one that the film is supposed to expound. Also situated within the expansion of downtown Tokyo, the film’s focus is on the “traffic war” of the increasingly congested metropolis, taking the form of a balletic, expressive city symphony that follows the struggles of one driver and the diminishing economic viability of his work in relation to the constant danger and risk. Instead of servicing the narrative of the police commission’s traffic department, who wanted a film teaching viewers about traffic safety, Tsuchimoto instead chose to collaborate with the taxi driver’s union, reversing the perspective from the expected top-down information provision to a bottom-up view of the congested city that gave voice to those who were otherwise unheard.

Featuring astonishing black-and-white cinematography by Suzuki Tatsuo (Funeral Parade of Roses, Pastoral: To Die in the Country) that sees him throwing a handheld camera around like some kind of pre-digital form of GoPro, and at some points (literalizing a bottom-up perspective) strapping it to the taxi’s tires, it is a tremendously exciting film, always zooming in suffocatingly close to the action and bursting at its seams with a youthful vigor and style. All of the film’s tactile images merge together into a frenetic blur: A topography of road signs, ad-boards, and neon street lights; haphazard shots of the city’s jagged architectural skyline protrusions and tangling telephone pylons; cars speeding round roundabouts, blurring together into a mesh of shimmering metal and spiraling lines; city workers blow-torching open the Cronenbergian steel of a road-side car-wreck and cleaning up the splintered shards of shiny glass. The result creates a more resonant and lasting impression of Tokyo’s boundless expansion than the statistical narration of Tokyo Metropolis could ever provide. Though On the Road later reemerged to much admiration, the Japanese Police Commission were not enthused when they saw it, calling the “useless” film a “plaything of a cinephile,” and blocking its release in Japan for almost forty years.

Frustrated, Tsuchimoto briefly returned to making films for television. Broadcast on Japanese TV but rarely seen since, The World of the Siberians (1968) is the most unusual work in the retrospective, if also an interesting film through which to consider Tsuchimoto’s understanding of his own politics. Commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution and filmed over a five month trip taken in 1967, The World of the Siberians is a travelog that offers an outsider’s perspective of the landscapes and peoples of Siberia, bookended with documentation of the celebrations in Moscow. It is a beautiful if peculiar film, with a perspective on Siberia and the USSR that is somewhat simplistic and naive, and a tone of narration that leans too far towards speculation and touristic wonder. (In one scene, while filming farmers, the narrator suggests, seemingly without irony, that for the Siberians, “perhaps what the revolution meant was the introduction of cucumbers into their lives”—never asking any of them whether or not they agree.)

The World of the Siberians (1968). Photo courtesy of Toho Stella Co., Ltd.

This, it seems, would be one of the key things Tsuchimoto would learn from this film. The later Minamata films show a marked shift away from Tsuchimoto speaking on the behalf of his subjects, shrinking his own presence and instead putting the participant’s voices center stage. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the ways in which Tsuchimoto examines what the situation his crew sees in the USSR might mean for socialism across Asia. One idealized but charming sequence sees Tsuchimoto survey a developing city in Siberia built not in the interests of capital like the Tokyo shown in the sponsored films he made but instead “for its own people,” wherein the town’s young socialists are seen dancing in the town hall and enjoying the “bikinis and jazz” of this liberal and modern new settlement. If with the sponsored films Tsuchimoto appeared to favor the take the money and run approach of making use of a commission opportunity to experiment with film form, here he seems to be using the travel opportunity of a television documentary to survey the state of socialism elsewhere.

Introducing the film at the London screening, Ricardo Matos Cabo, the organizer of the London retrospective, specifically noted Tsuchimoto’s “curiosity and ambivalence towards the USSR,” stating that, with the The World of the Siberians, he was “not just looking at, but working through, the relationship between Japan and the rest of the Asian continent.” At its end, Tsuchimoto interrupts the film’s spoken narration with his own first-person commentary while the crew are in Moscow watching the Russian Revolution anniversary celebration parade, describing the ambiguous feelings he holds about the spectacle of nuclear armament they are seeing unfold. It makes for a conflicted conclusion, creating a strange moment of self-reflective distance in a film that is otherwise quite straightforward and objective in tone. Tsuchimoto seems guilty about the naivety of his wonder at Siberia, and having now been reawakened to the nefariousness of the empire located in the center of power in the region, he makes the choice to intervene.

Having experienced the limitations of the sponsored film form, and not being convinced by the compromise of television either, describing it as a process of “being put through the wringer by [his] producer and having the accountant complain about the budget,” Tsuchimoto decided next to make work entirely independently. Two of these early independent efforts by the filmmaker, Exchange Student Chua Swee Lin (1965), and Prehistory of the Partisans (1969), his first major independent feature, are included in the retrospective. As films about social movements filmed with a direct, no-nonsense style, they feel like the most obvious precursors to Tsuchimoto’s significant later works, and as such, feel like pillars of the program, the first true examples of Tsuchimoto’s style of “committed cinema,” defined by the filmmaker John Gianvito in a text on Tsuchimoto as a form of “cinema unabashedly aimed at provoking political and social change.” Exchange Student Chua Swee Lin—a mid-length film about a student protest movement that arose in opposition to Chiba University’s threats to expel and deport Chua Lin, an exchange student who was receiving refuge in Japan after facing persecution for his involvement with protests against the separation and inde­pendence of Singapore in Malaysia—was originally a television commission, but is now often credited with playing a significant role in launching independent documentary filmmaking in Japan.3 Facing pressure from the Malaysian government, the network withdrew support for the film, so Tsuchimoto completed it independently, shaping it into a wider portrait of student organizing in Japan. Immersing himself among the students and having no pretense about the need for a documentary filmmaker to assume an objective position, Tsuchimoto drew upon members of the movement for help with the direction of the production, even having them canvas for funding.4 

Exchange Student Chua Swee Lin (1965). Photo courtesy of Kanatasha Co., Ltd.

The film follows Chua Lin’s struggle, covering various student protests and subsequent meetings with university management, for the full eight months until the decision to deport Lin is reversed and his place in the school is reinstated. Tsuchimoto appears to be there for all the important moments, and the film, with its shaky handheld camerawork, spirited and stirring narration, and bombastic music, seems to instigate a new period for Tsuchimoto, that of independently made documentaries in which he demonstrates his skill at using film to represent people and their plights. Though the film, which skirts between being a direct and embedded depiction of protest actions and a more reflective piece of portraiture, puts Chua Lin at the center, one thing notable about the film is the narrator’s use of “we.” Unlike the previous films mentioned, Tsuchimoto is not observing events from a distance but instead involving himself in them, channeling his own activities as a student activist into a fully committed, entirely convincing depiction of the activism of the next generation after his. 

Tsuchimoto has been described by academic Abé Mark Nornes as one of the "two figures [that] tower over the landscape of Japanese documentary," and the other, Tsuchimoto’s former Iwanami colleague Shinsuke Ogawa, was so impressed by Exchange Student Chua Swee Lin that he asked Tsuchimoto to make Prehistory of the Partisans, which continues the focus on student activism, for his collective’s Ogawa Productions.5 In 1948, when he was still at Waseda, Tsuchimoto had been involved in the formation of the Zengakuren, a network of university student associations that organized protests and marches on campuses across Japan. Prehistory of the Partisans focuses on the Zenkyōtō, a splinter group—claiming in the film to be “the red thread for a nationwide movement”—that emerged in the late 1960s and succeeded the Zengakuren, pushing for more radicalism and militant action. The film offers an expansive, intensive portrait of Japan’s student protest movement at the time, a period in which many students were not just protesting through rallies and demonstrations, but looking to actively take up arms.

Like Exchange Student Chua Swee, the film captures the student activists up close and personal, giving a view of events that often seems to unfold in real time. One particularly visceral and intense sequence which shows a showdown between police and students on the Kyoto University campus brings to mind the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which occurred during the city’s protests in 2019 and is depicted in Inside the Red Brick Wall (2020), a film directed by a group of anonymous filmmakers whose work can be seen to be in dialogue with the style of embedded protest filmmaking that Tsuchimoto had pioneered five decades before. In between this footage of the actions, Tsuchimoto records the debates that take place in the student movement’s meetings, giving a vital impression of the style and state of leftist organizing in this moment, the high-intensity, high-bravado clashing of strategies and ideas that occur behind closed doors. While these scenes give the film a sense of immediacy, of being part of the action as it occurs, the film’s narrative summation is more reflective. In the film, it is never clear exactly what, beyond opposing the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and “resisting imperialism” in general, the students are protesting against, nor what they hope to achieve in the moment beyond disruption, nor what they are striving for in the longer term. (In one scene, students are seen systematically destroying university furniture, an activity so purposeless on a literal level that it appears almost like performance art.)

Prehistory of the Partisans (1969). Photo courtesy of Athénée Français.

While still treating their commitment to their cause seriously, Tsuchimoto attempts to provide a longer view on events that assesses the possible next steps for students who are doggedly focused on a militant now. One vocal presence in the film is Osamu Takita, a charismatic, enigmatic “firebrand” whose intensity seems to fascinate Tsuchimoto. Takita believed that the student movement needed to be militarized, encouraging students to take arms and form “five-man partisan units” that would, as it is put in the film, “concentrate the mass’s energy” by “engaging in secret and military actions” within the safety of their groups. The most amazing sequences in the film show the students preparing for warfare, either “bound together” in their  tactical units, stomping their feet, shouting, and marching into the night, or in one instance, manufacturing Molotov cocktails in a university lab. In this scene, a series of close-ups show the students, clad in medical cloaks and brandishing all manner of scientific equipment, combining the ingredients step-by-step, then testing their creation by launching the bombs at a building and setting it ablaze. As they make these weapons, the narrator outlines the practical steps involved, offering not just a documentary record of what went on but also a how-to for any potential agitators who might be watching and ready to be mobilized to help “abolish the imperialist university” themselves. 

In contrast with all the talking and theorizing that precedes it, the scene seems bracingly forthright. Earlier in the film, Takita says that what he wants from this mobilization and militarization of the student base is the creation of “the possibility that every single person is able to strike back.” Tsuchimoto wants something similar from his filmmaking, having previously proclaimed the goal of his work as being able to make films “that anyone watching can understand.” In his 1960s films, he cycled through styles, techniques, and ways of working, moving away from working with compromising institutions towards pioneering a fully independent, autonomous approach. To achieve his aim, Tsuchimoto came to understand that he needed to not just observe events but actively immerse himself within them, involving his film’s participants directly in the depiction of the struggles of their lives and using the resultant films as a vital agitational and educational part of his support of their cause. “You could call it the anger of the masses,” says a student in one sequence of Prehistory of the Partisans, addressing the camera with an unflinching gaze. “We are not using words to tell our story anymore.” Moving from televisual didacticism to revolutionary action, Tsuchimoto’s film describes a bomb’s creation and then sets it off in front of camera, combining potent images with powerful words. 

"Noriaki Tsuchimoto" is running November 11–27, 2022 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

1. Abé Mark Nornes, “ATG in a Forest of Pressure,” in ATG Symposium: Against the Grain: Changes in Japanese Cinema of the 1960s and Early 1970's, (Vienna: Austrian Filmmuseum, 2005), 41.

2. Rick Prelinger, The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006), 6-11.

3. Abé Mark Nornes, “Tsuchimoto, Noriaki” in Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, (New York: Routledge, 2013).

4. Abé Mark Nornes, “ATG in a Forest of Pressure,” in ATG Symposium: Against the Grain: Changes in Japanese Cinema of the 1960s and Early 1970's, (Vienna: Austrian Filmmuseum, 2005), 46.

5. Abé Mark Nornes, "Noriaki Tsuchimoto and the Reverse View Documentary," in The Documentaries of Noriaki Tsuchimoto. (Zakka Films, 2011), 2-4.

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