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On Observation: A Conversation with Kazuhiro Soda

The Japanese documentarist and his producing partner discuss their filmmaking career in anticipation of a joint NYC/online retrospective.
MUBI's retrospective Kazuhiro Soda: Radical Observation runs March 4 – April 17, 2019. A retrospective of the filmmaker is also showing March 3 – March 27, 2019 at Spectacle in Brooklyn.
In the crowded field of auteur-driven nonfiction cinema, the New York-based Japanese filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda has distinguished himself as one of its most vital and consistently rewarding talents. Regularly selected for international film festivals and awards since premiering his breakout debut Campaign in 2007, Soda’s deeply personal and probing observational documentaries offer intimate revelations across a wide swath of subjects, including: political elections (Campaign, Campaign 2); public health work (Mental, Peace); artistic practice (Theatre 1, Theatre 2); fading rural Japanese communities and industries (Oyster Factory, Inland Sea); and, most recently, Americanness (The Big House).
Co-produced by his wife Kiyoko Kashiwagi through their independent production company Laboratory X, these consecutively numbered “Observational Films” are guided by Soda’s immense curiosity and empathetic imagination as well as his “10 Commandments of Observational Filmmaking”—a Dogme 95-like set of rules that distills the filmmaker’s many years of practical experience, research, and intuition into a streamlined methodology. With edicts like “no research,” “no scripts,” “roll the camera yourself,” and “pay for the production yourself,” Soda emphasizes independence, mobility, and spontaneity above all else. His bare-bones approach enables intimacy with his subjects as he follows them, camera in hand, from their workplace to the passenger seat of a car to their living room, all the while actively listening and trying to capture behavioral nuances that offer a key to unlocking some new insight into his subjects within their surroundings—whether it is the stooped profile of an elderly healthcare worker setting out cat food for the neighborhood strays, the gloved hands of Chinese migrant workers shucking oysters, or the face of a tireless theater director watching his actors rehearse the same scene over and over.
Thoughtful and studious, Soda’s curiosity is rooted in the fundamentally existential inquiries that he explored as an undergraduate majoring in religious studies at Tokyo University. “Why do we live? Why do we die? And if we all die, why do we bother living? I had these kinds of juvenile questions,” he jokes. Juvenile or not, Soda’s choice of observational subjects continue to speak to a consistent interest in how people get by and what gives their lives meaning, often despite hardships. In Soda’s memorable second film Mental (2008), about an outpatient mental health clinic in Okayama, the question is situated front-and-center: an array of patients suffering from mental illnesses talk through their problems with the clinic’s aging psychiatrist, Dr. Yamamoto, in order to find a way to continue coping with life. In Peace (2010)—a tender portrait of Kashiwagi’s parents, Toshio and Hiroko, and their tireless work attending to the elderly and disabled—the suggestion of an answer is found in the way Toshio interacts with his cats (a relationship Soda considers “divine”).
But Soda’s eye is not simply seeking transcendental moments. A self-described disciple of Frederick Wiseman, he is similarly interested in the inner workings of institutions and how they’re sustained. More often than not, he observes work, and, by extension, how money manages to hover over everything. In an emblematic exchange in Mental, one of Dr. Yamamoto’s patients discusses recent government cutbacks on welfare and says, “for mental patients like us, money can be the best medicine sometimes.” After Dr. Yamamoto suggests the solution is only temporary, the patient acknowledges that money can’t solve everything, but it could “at least solve half” of his problems. In Theatre 1 and Theatre 2 (2012), Soda’s epic two-part documentary about celebrated playwright Oriza Hirata and his theater company Seinendan, the art of theater is secondary to the many other activities that financially sustain it. As Max Nelson points out in Cinema Scope, it is the film in which Soda “concentrated most directly on how money is actually made” and as such might indeed be the work most directly related to his observational documentary senpai.
The extreme runtime of the combined Theatre films (352 minutes) testifies to the depths of Soda’s curiosity. He’s able to mine a seemingly infinite amount of interest and ideas from a single location or milieu (Commandment 6: Cover small areas deeply). Often, one film will bear another: Peace came out of his experience with Mental; Oyster Factory (2015) and Inland Sea (2018) come from the same seaside town of Ushimado (a third film is apparently being prepared); and Campaign (2007) led Soda back to his friend Kazuhiko Yamauchi, a.k.a. Yama-san, for Campaign 2 (2013), a pair of films that should be required viewing for any introductory documentary film course. If Soda’s interests are indeed to seek out clues to life’s big questions, these two films offer a lesson in what not to do with your life, which is to fall in line with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s largest and most influential political party—further proof of Dr. Yamamoto’s claim that money isn’t everything. While kind-hearted and sincere, Soda is also openly critical Japan’s government and unafraid of voicing his political opinions with a bit of venom (he and Kashiwagi are currently involved in two lawsuits against the Japanese government), which he does regularly on social media to a substantial following. And while Soda’s stated intention is not to push a certain “message” or “conclusion” with his films (Commandment 7: Do not set up a theme or goal before editing), it isn’t too difficult to distinguish some clear heroes and villains.
Having recently completed The Big House (2018)—an ambitious project about the University of Michigan's famed football stadium that finds him turning his camera to the U.S. for the first time and sharing a directing credit with Japanese cinema scholar Markus Nornes, as well as a small army of film students—Soda thankfully shows no signs of slowing down (in typical Soda style, an upcoming film born from his experience with The Big House, also shot in Michigan, is currently in post-production). As the subject of his first New York City retrospective at Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater in conjunction with MUBI’s online retrospective, Soda took the time to chat with us about his inspirations, his approach to documentary, and his experience working with his life partner and collaborator.

NOTEBOOK: You state that you are inspired by “the tradition of observational cinema” and Frederick Wiseman in particular. What was your introduction to his work?
KAZUHIRO SODA: Well, I studied filmmaking at SVA (School of Visual Arts in New York City), fiction filmmaking, for four years. I was only interested in fiction filmmaking then. I didn’t even take one documentary class. But then when I graduated, I was looking for a job and I accidentally joined a company that produced documentaries for NHK. So without knowing anything about documentaries, I had to make them professionally [laughs]. It was a small company, like 20 people.
NOTEBOOK: What kind of documentaries did NHK commission?
SODA: There was a documentary series called “New Yorkers.” It was a weekly series, a 20-minute documentary every week shown on NHK in Japan, all produced and completed in New York by this company. I first joined the company as a production manager but because they were always understaffed I became a director within a few months. There were four directors on rotation, which means I had to come up with one show every month. The first week you need to do research, find a subject, write a script, get a approval from NHK. The second week, I’m shooting. The third week, I’m editing. The fourth week, I write narration and record narration, do all the subtitling, sound mixing, everything. Then I move on to the next show. I did that for three years, maybe 30-40 episodes?
KIYOKO KASHIWAGI: It was such a fun program, I really enjoyed it. Every time he finished a new episode we’d watch it.
SODA: That was really like a crash course for documentary filmmaking. It was really good training, looking back. We had a lot of freedom and I really enjoyed it. But after three years, NHK started asking me to direct longer documentaries, like one-to-two hour specials. And then I got really frustrated. Now I’m in the spotlight and they want to control everything and I had to do so much research before shooting. I had to write detailed scripts—beginning, middle, end—and shot lists and narration. And you had to get approval from the hierarchy of NHK producers, and once you got approval you could finally go out and shoot. But you always see something totally different or more interesting than the script you wrote, and if you shoot it and go back they scream at you.
NOTEBOOK: Because it wasn’t approved.
SODA: Right! I felt it was so ridiculous. Documentary is about capturing what’s going on in front of you and learning from reality. But it was the opposite [with NHK]: you have this agenda, you have your own blueprint, and you just cut and paste whatever fits your original plan. You don’t learn anything new. I really didn’t like that. I also didn’t like the fact that you have to explain everything with narration, music… if you have a sad scene you put sad music and try to make the audience cry—I didn’t think it was necessary. So, I gradually developed a pretty severe frustration and then, I think it was 2001 or 2002, I saw a film by Wiseman at Film Forum. It was Domestic Violence (2001). When I saw that I was like, “Shit, this is exactly what I want to do.” I was so ashamed I didn’t know him even though I was making documentaries [laughs]. I found out he’d been doing the same thing since the 1960s, so I went to the Donnell Library and they had a collection of Wiseman films—some on 16mm, some on VHS—so I called this my personal Wiseman film festival. I went there almost every day to screen whatever was available, and study. I studied very carefully. For example, I remember when I was watching Welfare (1975), one scene was really intriguing to me and it was a long scene, but it sustained my interest throughout. How was this scene constructed? What kind of shots? How long did it last? It was on VHS so I could rewind and study it. So I found out, “Oh, that scene was 28 minutes long and it was only two people talking to each other, but it still sustained my interest.” That kind of stuff I studied, shot by shot, from Wiseman’s films. Then I started to develop a desire to make my own films. And then I saw A (1998) by Tatsuya Mori at Japan Society. I eventually realized he was a TV director like me, but he completed A as a film because the TV station wouldn’t air it. I thought, “Oh wow, this is the way.” And he was also producing himself, and he was using a digital camera.  [I told myself,] “oh, you can do it.” So I felt like Wiseman and Mori gave me inspiration and courage to let me think I could maybe make my own films.
NOTEBOOK: By then had you given up on narrative fiction cinema? Or was it still in the background?
SODA: In the background. Actually, when I was working for NHK’s documentaries I was always feeling I had to return to cinema. When I thought about “cinema,” it meant fiction. I didn’t have this idea that if I’m producing independent cinema it could be documentary. I didn’t have that idea. So it was Frederick Wiseman and Tatsuya Mori, and also a book by [documentary filmmaker] Makoto Sato.
NOTEBOOK: What is the book about?
SODA: It basically introduces lots of different kinds of documentary filmmaking. He analyzes different filmmakers and their strategies and their [modes of] expression, which made me realize there are so many different ways to approach documentaries. They can be very artistic, and they are different from journalism, they are different from conveying information. So they kind of opened up my eyes and horizons.
NOTEBOOK: You don’t do any planning going into a documentary, but everything about your approach is very methodical and consistent. You have your Ten Commandments and so on. After so many years of making films this way, do you feel like any of these commandments have become the most important to you? Any that you would change?
SODA: I don’t feel any need to revise them. I didn’t have the commandments first and then make Campaign and Mental
NOTEBOOK: When did they get formed?
SODA: When I was writing a book about Mental, I was explaining how I make films and I realized that I have these unconscious rules. And I started writing about it and then I realized there were ten. When I wrote a book about Peace, I started calling it my Ten Rules. But then, because it was [the number] ten and since I studied religion, I created the Ten Commandments. I realized it’s catchier and people get more interested in them.
NOTEBOOK: So your feelings haven’t changed?
SODA: Not really. It’s useful, you know. Even though I have these rules, I unconsciously get taken off track. For example, when I’m shooting I sometimes get apprehensive about the outcome of the film and I feel like the footage isn’t interesting enough to make a film. And then I start to think about the structure of the film, or I start to think about how I could improve the film… But those kinds of thoughts are counterproductive, and I always remind myself that I have these rules and created them because the other way didn’t work for me, like when I was making TV shows. It’s always good to have these commandments as a reminder for me to go back to my original goals or thoughts. If you reverse all of the Ten Commandments it becomes “How to Make TV Shows” [laughs]. One: Do research. Two: Discuss with subjects. Three: Write a script. If you reverse everything… Ten: Don’t pay for the production yourself! [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: I would assume one of the hardest commandments to follow is to not set up a theme before going into the editing. By the time you’re ready to edit, you’ve shot 60 hours, 90 hours of footage, and over the course of all that time I would imagine you’d start to see repeated images or ideas that you find interesting and would automatically start to put things together in your head. How do you prevent that inclination, or is there a limit to how much you can?
SODA: Those are exactly the thoughts you have while you’re making a film, and I try to tell myself, “No, what I’m trying to do is observation.” And observation means looking and listening, then translating my discoveries into a visual language. That’s what I’m trying to do. So when I start to think about themes, I tell myself, “No, no, no. It’s not about themes; it’s about looking and listening.” So that’s what we do.
NOTEBOOK: Would you say the shots you end up selecting are those that most closely recreate your personal observation?
SODA: Yes, exactly. I try to recreate my experience as a visual form, a cinematic reality. So, for example, in Inland Sea, when we were out on the sea with Wai-chan, I was shooting him fishing and I noticed that he was maneuvering the boat with a very delicate touch. I noticed; that was my discovery. If I just stayed in a wide shot, that’s very hard to convey or translate [for audiences]. That’s why I insert a close-up: so that delicate maneuver can be witnessed by the audience as well. The same thing when he was maneuvering the boat, he was looking everywhere. His eyes were moving constantly. You can’t capture that in a wide shot, so you go in [for a close-up]. Also, when he started laying out the nets, you cannot stay in a close-up to show the relationship between the sea and Wai-chan and the boat, so you have to go wide. So whatever makes me feel interested and feel like, “Oh, I need to convey what I saw to the audience,” I spontaneously decide where I should be and how I should shoot that particular scene. It’s really a constant observation, interpretation. Observation, interpretation. Or translation.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a little about your collaborative process?
SODA: I shot Campaign all by myself. With Mental, she [Kiyoko] started helping me because she knew these patients. It was Kiyoko’s mother’s connection. Even before we started shooting, she met many of the patients before and they knew each other. We felt it would be helpful if she was with me when we basically intrude into their space with a camera. That’s how she started helping me.
KASHIWAGI: Right after Mental, I had terrible symptoms from shooting. We were with [the subjects] for two years.
SODA: She gets so affected by what she sees, and she became ill. She projects herself into other people’s experiences.
KASHIWAGI: When we were releasing Campaign in Tokyo, that was the hardest time. I was in Okayama dealing with people who were in Mental and they were like, “Oh, you’re doing great in Tokyo with the film!” and talking about Campaign. But then they started getting nervous, saying, “Oh, we’re going to be on a huge screen? I’m not sure if I want to.” And you [Soda] were in Tokyo and I was in Okayama dealing with them.
SODA: I think people in Mental became aware of what it means to be in a film, because the release of Campaign was going on. I think it’s hard for a regular person to imagine what it means to be in a documentary. You agree to be filmed, but it’s hard to imagine what it means to agree. I think that was a realization they had when we were releasing Campaign and she was in Okayama dealing with it.
NOTEBOOK: Is that a unique occurrence for you? Are there film subjects who approach you after they see themselves on the screen and are unhappy about it? I guess the politicians from Campaign and Campaign 2 are the most obvious ones.
SODA: [laughs] Yes, and even Yama-san was very angry. He came to New York with his wife to see the final cut and we showed it in our apartment and he was furious [laughs]. Later on he became supportive. He came to Berlin for the premiere and he was greeted as a movie star. He loved it [laughs]. But yeah, this is the toughest part of documentary practice. We’re dealing with real people and we have a responsibility to their lives. Their lives continue after the film is over, you know? It’s fashionable to say fiction and documentary are the same thing and there is no boundary in between, but this is a very big difference. In a documentary, we are directly dealing with the images of real people. With editing, which is a powerful tool, I can make a great person seem like a mean son-of-a-bitch if I wanted to. Documentary filmmakers have a very ethical responsibility towards the characters, and it’s always a dilemma because what you discover might not be something they like. But that discovery sometimes is important. How do I balance this? That’s always a big question, and we always discuss this. Whenever we have a rough cut we screen it together and discuss it.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have disagreements?
SODA: [To Kiyoko] Not so much, right?
KASHIWAGI: Not so much, no.
NOTEBOOK: Do you find that you [Kiyoko] end up having a similar experience to Soda? You’re there with him, but you have your own observations.
KASHIWAGI: It’s pretty much the same, but I have extra experiences because people always try to talk to me behind the camera. I hear a lot of their stories, and they go, “Don’t tell Soda!” So I know more about them than Soda does. Sometimes I tell Soda about something I learned and he goes, “Oh, shit, Kiyoko! Why didn’t you tell me about that while I was shooting?” But when I see the editing, sometimes I tell you [Soda], “You shouldn’t use this cut because this person it talking about this and I don’t think it’s good for him or her.” We have that kind of conversation sometimes.
NOTEBOOK: This seems helpful with regard to what you were saying about the ethical responsibility of using someone’s life. Since they’re giving a little extra to Kiyoko…
KASHIWAGI: I’m much closer to them than Soda is. They talk to me more. He’s observing them, but I’m observing the whole situation, including Soda, so I see their relationship, and so on.
NOTEBOOK: And you mean this particularly for Mental subjects, or...?
KASHIWAGI: All the films.
SODA: Especially Inland Sea and Oyster Factory. She was with me the entire time.
NOTEBOOK: Those locations were very close to each other, right?
SODA: The same town, Ushimado. She came to every filming partly because it’s her mother’s hometown, so she didn’t want me to mess with the people. She wanted to keep an eye on me [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: You spent a lot of time there before shooting?
SODA: Yes, we often visited Kiyoko’s grandmother while she was still alive, so she [Kiyoko] has a special feeling and attachment to Ushimado and that’s why we spent vacations there, renting a house. Then we became friends with local fishermen, and that started Oyster Factory and Inland Sea. It was her connection that started the whole thing, and she wanted me to behave myself.
KASHIWAGI: Of course! Because he can’t read the social code they have and I can. Even if they say “yes” to something, I have to tell Soda “no” because it didn’t actually mean yes, but he doesn’t know that.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to respond to certain kinds of social, political, or historical issues? Or is it more personal?
SODA: It’s more like desire, just a desire to record. It’s fascinating. I think human beings invented cameras because we like to keep what we see. Just like Buddha said: “Everything is changing.” Second by second, right? Every second the world is changing, but sometimes we feel like we want to preserve this moment. That’s why when we got on a trip we often take photographs, and when we meet an old friend we usually take pictures together—we have the desire to preserve our experience. The same thing applies to documentaries. Why do we make documentaries? I think one of the reasons is that we want to preserve this moment, and it’s such a powerful medium because you can record not only images and sound, but also time. It’s very close to how we experience our world. Our camera tends to be aimed at what’s disappearing. Peace also started that way. When I was in Kiyoko’s parents’ home, Kiyoko’s father was feeding some stray cats. The relationship between him and the cats was so… to me, so divine. I wanted to record it.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve had a few retrospectives internationally at this point. Do you find the reception to your films differs between national audiences?
SODA: Not so much. There is quite a difference between Japanese and non-Japanese audiences, though. For Japanese people it’s almost like looking in a mirror. There’s an immediacy that I can sense, of their experience watching the film.
NOTEBOOK: Has every one of your features had a theatrical run in Japan?
SODA: Yes, every one.
NOTEBOOK: Do you read the reviews?
SODA: Yes. Reaction differs of course. Some people really love it, but some people don’t get it at all—like they’re just watching random shots of nothing. “What was the point of making this film? Nothing happens!” [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: No strong detractors or politically motivated takedowns?
SODA: No, no. I wish that kind of stuff would happen.
KASHIWAGI: That would make it a huge hit!
SODA: We could use it for publicity!

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