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Disambiguating Work

"The Works and Days...," an 8-hour semi-documentary portrait of a farmer's life in Japan, is a rare and complex characterization of labor.
Steffanie Ling
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Anders Edström and C.W. Winters's The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is exclusively showing on MUBI in the U.S. starting December 5, 2021 in the series MUBI Spotlight.
“Thanks to Hesiod for providing the title, Works and Days, and to my sister Rosemary for pointing it out to me.” 
—Bernadette Mayer in her author’s note for Works & Days (2016) 
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is an eight-hour film that takes us through five seasons of a farmer’s life in a Japanese village so small it doesn’t seem to have a proper name. Anders Edström and C.W. Winters’ second collaborative film is arranged in four parts with three intermissions. The first three sections are each prefaced with a Japanese death poem followed by ten minute intervals of a black screen accompanied by a minimal piece of music that eases the viewer back into the image. The film is concentrated, in both lightness and heaviness, as a densely crafted slice-of-life film based on (and largely played by) Edström’s family—but it aspires to do, and be, a lot more. 
Shiojiri Tayako, who is Edström’s mother-in-law, plays herself as she performs a scripted re-enactment of the last few months of the life of her husband, Junji. His waning health hovers in the margins of these sequences while Tayako works on her property and interacts with her family and neighbors. Junji was also meant to play himself, but passed away suddenly two days before shooting was scheduled to begin. The film is scripted and affirmed as fictional, with convivial sequences shot with formal similarities that supply the feeling of being “privy” to intimate exchanges. Around the property and across dinner tables overflowing with emptied serving plates, we listen and watch intergenerational exchanges about re-reading books in retirement and how children don’t know how animal products get to the store. These elements are a foundation upon which expressions of life’s duties and stray ambitions materialize as tears after failing an exam three times and finally passing, a confrontational skewering of a wild boar, and the mourning of Junji's eventual death. Through this complex construction, The Works and Days strives to do justice to a small cohort of artistic practices. This durational work has been formally constituted with photography and musical composition so elemental to its cinematic experience they can stand alone from the film as Edström’s photo book, Shiotani, and The Black Sections, a sound collage albumavailable on Winters’ Bandcamp. When we pay attention to how the filmmakers speak about the film, many more occupations are laid to bare. On the film’s official website, The Works and Days is plainly described as a “georgic” and “geographic description of the work and non-work of a farmer,” our protagonist, Tayako. A georgic is a literary work that focuses on rural life, so building on this tradition, how will the film’s formalism galvanize as cine-geogric? 
In an interview with Cinema Scope, Winters and Edström provide their aesthetic philosophy to image making, anchoring not only their individual preoccupations with photography and music, but also shared intellectual concerns with literature, philosophy, history, and geography.  Through their answers, a conversational bibliography accumulates. They cite a historically diverse range of artists, poets, filmmakers, musicians, philosophers, and even a biologist. In response to a question of duration, they quote from the foreword of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), “We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail… We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.” This particular interview with Edström and Winters is currently the most comprehensive with regard to answering the film’s most frequently asked questions and serves well to lend the viewer additional context. Yet, in this expanded telling, we might be sinking into an awe of the “meticulous” rather than encouraged to linger with the images before us. 
The reference to the georgic can be traced to the title of the film which was inspired by Hesiod’s Works and Days. In Cinema Scope,Anders and Edström convey that this gesture is a homage not only to Tayako but to unnamed farmers across time and space: “...a reminder that, while we do describe the daily taskscape of a particular farmer, she is but one of untold farmers over millennia whose tasks accreted into the learnedness of habit. It’s a thread of extended time, a perspective of longue durée” (my italics). Although, upon investigating the content of the poem, the title does less to pay homage to millenia of farmers across Japan than it does to inflect the film with Hesiod’s morality about toil. 
Excerpts from an abbreviated English translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days  
In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Hesiod and Perses are brothers who have inherited a farm. The poem is structured as an exhortation where the former berates the latter for living in idleness. In the process of lecturing his brother on how to live his life, a short almanac for Greek agricultural practice emerges toward the conclusion of the poem, which provides further instruction on how Perses should conduct social reproduction (“Friendships; restrain in speech; behavior at parties”) and bodily function (“urinating and copulating”) on the advice of his brother. Hesiod’s classic work of didactic poetry espouses informed and dedicated farming practices as a testament to moral character. The commentary from Artforum echoes Hesiod’s championing of dedicated, hard work as well: “Here, the ordinary achieves monumentality through dedication… most especially on the part of Tayoko, one of many villagers (in Shiotani, if not across greater Japan) performing mundane tasks to keep their households in order and provide for their families.” Throughout the critical reception of the film, a consistent acknowledgement that The Works and Days captures the everyday life of the already few and aging resident population presentsTayako’s village and profession as historically passive. Kinoscope characterized it as “on the brink of extinction,” and again in Artforum, Tayako’s is described as  harvesting her crop with “with routine tranquility.” Between the invocation of Hesoid’s poem and the resultant commentary, the film’s depiction of Tayako working on her property and caring for her family primes us for a kind of reverie for images of quiet productivity that seem to be winding down in parallel with the flickering of Junji’s life. However, rural communities like Tayoko’s don’t simply disappear through a resignation to modernity, they are shaped through national agendas and divested from shifts in power and economic priority. 
When Anders and Edström were asked by Cinema Scope to address the “Japaneseness” of the film, they understandably discourage the film’s alignment with Japanese cinema and the reductiveness of the film’s share in “Japaneseness.” While the film cannot be an unexamined entry into the discourse of Japanese cinema, there is an inextricable fact that Japan’s geopolitics structures the lives depicted in The Works and Days.
In one particular scene from the second section of the film, a shot of Tayako standing on a roadside cuts to a dirt driveway that meets the paved street to form a bend in the path. It is either a cloudy day, or early in the morning, as a campaign vehicle for Saito Shingo rips down the main road broadcasting support for the Japanese Communist Party candidate. We only see the van pass through the frame and the candidate’s message is barely audible over the fuzzed sound of a modest megaphone; the caption reads, “Vote for Saito from the Japan Communist Party!” I couldn’t locate entries about any person named Saito Shingo affiliated with the Japan Communist Party. There does exist, though, a Saito Kazuko, a member of the Party elected to the House of Representatives. Saito supported the Ministry of Agriculture’s position against the Trans Pacific Partnership, a (now defunct) free trade deal that would have exposed the Japanese market to an influx of imported goods and removed 80% of tariffs on agricultural products, and 30% of tariffs from what the government Ministry of Agriculture classifies as the five main food categories. Given that Anders and Edström have emphasized that The Works and Days is a fiction film, and not a documentary, the inclusion of this particular sequence could be read as reinforcing the ambience of rural life, or injecting a bit of fun by portraying the caricature of a politically zealous man with a shoddy megaphone. Considering the 27-weeks of 18-hour days of shooting and the 114 hours of footage that resulted, it would be flippant to conclude that any image in this film is anything but intentional. 
When the filmmakers made mention of the longue durée, a specific expression and attitude towards the writing of history that commits to a long view of history, I thought about how the farmer became an icon of labor that is relatively fixed in mainstream, post-industrial consciousness as morally forthright. There, the farmer is a political subject that is constituted socially as antiquated (as opposed to modern) or spatially as rural (as opposed to metropolitan). In Japan, the figure of the farmer has been interrogated meticulously by medieval historian Amino Yoshihiko, who working in the ‘90s, examined Japan’s thirteenth and fourteenth century rural society. One of his most striking contributions has been a clarification on the term hyakusho, the word that today refers, generally speaking, to a farmer. Its direct translation — “one hundred titles” — more aptly reflects its original subject matter and negates social and spatial binaries seated in the post-industrial imagination. Medieval rural Japan consisted of diversely classed societies with economies, industries and forms of governance that were established independent, and in some regions, completely ignorant of the Emperor. While the rural classes in this period had their occupations officially recorded as farmers, Amino discovered a pattern where merchant and administrative classes were imposed with farmland even if they had no interest or skill in agriculture. Amino considers this gesture evidence of Japan’s agrarian fundamentalism that served to establish a tax system based on paddy fields and employed rice as a form of currency. The agrarian fundamentalist narrative materially established the narrative of the Emperor as “Rice King,” he who unified and modernized the country under Confucian work ethics and sacred leadership. Amino writes that the reality and history of Japanese society is founded on a fabrication of the farmer as a complacent subject of the “Rice King” and has continued to persist in Japan’s national consciousness. Looking for the “Japaneseness”of the film is less useful than grappling with the relevant nation contexts and histories that reveal how Japan’s national identity is shaped by its own agricultural fictions. A distinction between symbolic Japaneseness and just the straightforward geopolitics of Japan would propel how work can be described beyond poetics on offer.
In order to earnestly and rigorously consider work as labor is to understand that it is a historical force that organizes human life for value production and non-work is a respite from the production of value. As I stayed with the film, I looked for images describing a farmer’s work and non-work. When Tayako labors on her land with a modest artillery of farming equipment, adjusts Junji’s pillow, delivers him tea, or politely receives gifts from her friends, hosts family or guests, I suspected I would think of those images as containing the emotional, domestic, and invisible type of labor that has been critically studied by feminist theorists Silvia Federici or Nancy Fraser. However, these sequences of work performed by Tayako seemed to elude any sense of relationship to production and have instead inspired a discursive atmosphere for the veneration of work rooted in Hesiod poem and Japan’s history of agrarian fundamentalism. Everywhere work had appeared in the film as performed tasks, it resonated as mundane, quaint or even ethereal. At the level of the image, work and non-work is encrypted. The loudspeaker-van scene required some excavation for its geographic description, and there are other images and aspects of the film that could be decrypted still. 
Despite a variety of connotations of labor suggested in the title, duration, and commentary of the film, The Works and Days does the most as an relational portrait of Tayako, an epic family project, crafted lovingly by Edström and Winters with commitments to certain artforms and texts to deliver a cinematic experience. In the film, images attempt to write descriptions of “the work and non-work of a farmer” against a geographic context that the filmmakers seem to downplay, resulting in images that provoke notions of work and non-work as modest movements untethered from geopolitical thrust.
Work and non-work are properties that hold the experience of the film together in other ways: in the ambiguous task-pleasure of attending to eight hours of cinematic time or in the material core of the image itself and its production; on the days that people booked off work to watch the film, in the flexible hours of the contracted cultural worker, or the unemployed who choose to spend a day at the cinema. Towards the end of the Cinema Scope interview when Winters’ describes meeting the requirements of his PhD, planning the logistics of the shoot, and life in general, he humbly conveys, “In the end, this stuff is just work. You show up every day, and you work.” In The Works and Days, images of work and non-work can’t be “just work” because they carry a belletristic role-call and artistic excellence on one hand, and a profound mourning process on the other. This leaves the georgic and geographic description compromised as it competes with death as the only thing that can guarantee and culturally permit “non-work.” What the film sincerely accomplishes is generous in textual and artistic form, and indeed monumental cinematic treatment sensitive to a single farmer, her family, and the performance of work. When those successes of the film are assigned the additional task of geographically describing the film, conveying the political material of work becomes one too much for a single artwork to do.

1. The filmmakers added nods to its constructed nature by also casting actors Kase Ryo and Motoki Masahiro with the idea that their audience might recognize them from their roles in Hong Sang-soo and Abbas Kiarastami films. 
2.  Cinema Scope. “The Land Demands Your Effort: C.W Winter (and Anders Edström) on The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin),” June 23, 2020. https://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/the-land-demands-your-effort-c-w-winter-and-anders-edstrom-on-the-works-and-days-of-tayoko-shiojiri-in-the-shiotani-basin/.
3.  Hesiod, and M. L. West. Works & Days. Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press, 1978. The commentary on Hesiod’s poem describes the figure of Hesiod using “a variety of means to diversify and strengthen his sermon: myth, parable, allegory, proverbial maxims, threats of divine anger.”
4.  ​​Japan Press Weekly. “Farmers in Day of Action Call for Cancellation of TPP Basic Agreement,” October 21, 2015. https://www.japan-press.co.jp/s/news/index.php?id=8656.
5.  Amino, Yoshihiko. “Emperor, Rice, and Commoners.” Japanese Studies 14, no. 2 (1994): 1–12.  “[The Yamato] state… recorded all the people of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, which it had more-or-or-less subjected to its control by the beginning of the ninth century. As such, the state conferred paddy fields in accordance with standards fixed for everyone over six years of age, male and female, from good folk [ryōmen] to servants, and exacted taxes on that basis. In other words, this state had a strong tendency to treat all 'hyakusho' as paddy field farmers.”
6.   The global pandemic has applied pressure to shift the landscape and attitudes around work. Given a wave of strikes across the United States in October 2021, it is somewhat awkward to further conflate watching a durational film with shift work without engaging with the subject of labor more directly. It should be noted that the eight-hour work day is contextually more specific to the development of labor standards in industrial manufacturing and factory work rather than agriculture. 

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