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Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Film Critics' Workshop: Day 2

Young critics look at a new Japanese film, the turbulent era of 1960s Japanese TV docs, and the place of the documentary film critic.

Day 2 of the Film Critics' Workshop now under way at the Yamagata International Film Festival finds our English-language participants considering a new Japanese film, the turbulent era of 1960s Japanese television documentaries, and the place of the film critic in an age when documentary production is booming and when more and more people are relying on Twitter to publicize and find out about films.


Children of Light: Tachikawa Kazuya’s Never Let Me Go

The sun rises over rice paddies. Skillful fingers expertly pare daikon. These opening shots establish a distinctly Japanese sense of home with visual economy. “Home for Children of Light” is a small foster care facility in rural Saitama. An institution, but also a family. Never Let Me Go (Tonaru hito) is Tachikawa Kazuya’s document of life at the home.

Tachikawa’s ear is carefully attuned. The steady chop of the knife slightly precedes the transition from outdoor to indoor. Sounds of waking children fill the still-empty hallways. Shooting over the kitchen sink, Tachikawa observes the foster mother. Chopping tirelessly, she explains the Children of Light philosophy in terms simple enough to be understood by even the youngest of the children clinging to her apron strings. Later, she gently guides a little child’s hand, correcting a stray kanji character. “Don't shoot me for getting it wrong,” the kid quips, a subtle jab that heralds a shift in focus from foster mother to her flock.

“What are you looking at, pervert?” The barbed words slip from the lips of the kid as Tachikawa shoots her playing on the swings. She’s probably no more than five. Tachikawa keeps on shooting. We become aware that getting any closer to these children might be difficult. Angelic in sleep, the camera captures Kouki’s diurnal transformation into violent two-year-old terror. By way of explanation, mum shares a photograph with the camera. It shows tiny Kouki peering down from a cupboard like a frightened animal, the single image suggesting a history of absolute neglect. She settles the children by reading them “Pinocchio,” the archetypal fairytale of parental desire.

“Three Little Pigs” shapes the film’s next movement. Marina, Mutsumi, and Mariko sleep side by side, perhaps five, six, and seven respectively. They fight often, and the argument is always the same. “Your dad is sick,” “your granddad died,” “you don't even have a mother!” They debate these metaphysical fragments of family history with fervor. Suddenly, abstract questions become very real as Mutsumi’s mother, Kana, unexpectedly reappears. Mutsumi anxiously fingers a burn scar as her foster family drop her off for her first home visit. She returns withdrawn, and the foster father takes a call from Kana. As he calmly talks her down from her panic attack, the camera picks out a small crucifix ornament swinging from his mobile phone.

These small details are deployed sparingly, just enough to make the film cohere. Eight years elapse, yet there is no clear sense of passing time. Children appear and disappear without explanation. The film ends where it begins, chopping daikon. The film refuses to piece together pasts or predict futures, narrative displacement conveying the children’s disjointed lives with fidelity. —Jamie Morris


Above: Civic War (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1965).

Voices from the Past: Three Episodes of Non-fiction Theater

The dawn of Japan’s television broadcasts in 1953 was soon followed by the advent of television documentary. Non-fiction Theater was the best-known series produced by Ushiyama Junichi, one of the first-generation pioneers of this genre. Oshima Nagisa’s A Rebel’s Fortress (Hankotsu no toride, 1964), A National Railway Worker (Aru kokutetsu jomuin: Suto chushi zenya, directed by Oshima Nagisa, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Hani Susumu, et al., 1964), and Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s Civic War (Shimin senso, 1965) are all from this series. The YIDFF’s retrospective of 1960s and 1970s television documentaries allowed viewers to rediscover the value of those works, both historical and aesthetic.

With A Rebel’s Fortress showing a villager’s protest of the unjust construction of a dam, A National Railway Worker following workers about to go on strike, and Civic War presenting conflicts stemming from the government’s demand of land, all three films dealt from a political perspective with the social incongruity caused by Japan’s high economic growth during the mid-1960s. In addition to revealing history, these works also created their own history. Television documentaries in the 1960s enjoyed a highly free environment to experiment with techniques, explore theories, and compete with one another. 

Aesthetically, these three works are interesting for their use of sound. The storytelling in these documentaries is all done by narration. The reality of the story is thus covered by three layers of surfaces—the camera lens that witnesses, the screen that shows, and the narrator’s voice that tells—all under direct control of the filmmakers. Furthermore, narration makes these documentaries lecture-like, demanding little effort from the audience to determine the meaning of the images; in other words, the audience becomes relatively vulnerable to the assertive standpoint of the directors in support of the victims they are filming. 

Sharing the same sound designer, Iwami Kiyoshi, these works resort to similar types of emotive, symphonic music, perfectly fitting with the booming economy and its stirring atmosphere, which ironically was not what the filmmakers were celebrating. Music is employed to imply the emotion of the people on screen, to emphasize the urgency felt by the filmmakers, and to arouse sympathy from the audience. 

Though used less consistently, the live-sound expression of events plays a striking role in these works, functioning as supporting evidence for the narration. By synchronizing images of people and their voices, documentaries today usually put characters and audience in a “face-to-face” conversation to make the characters’ proposals more convincing. However, made in the 1960s, when sync sound was not yet widely used in Japanese television documentaries, these three episodes of Non-fiction Theater fail to connect image and sound perfectly. Or perhaps they were not actually trying to. In these three films, a speaker’s speech flows together with the on-screen audience’s excited expressions; a furious argument comes with close-ups of a man working silently. Similarly, violent images often combine with silence. We see people shouting, yelling, and talking anxiously, but no one can hear: it is like their situation in the stories. The rupture between image and sound makes the scenes more fictional; however, the chaotic mood created by this very rupture enhances the sense of the urgency of people who are experiencing big events and the excitement of the directors who are recording history. Such a style emerged as the result, not merely of technical deficiency, but rather of the directors’ artistic experimentation. —Di Wu


Above: From left to right: Kitakoji Takashi, Abé Mark Nornes, Josetxo Cerdán, Chris Fujiwara, Matsue Tetsuaki, Wu Wenguang, and Akiyama Tamako (translator for Wu Wenguang).

A Documentary Film Critic in the Age of Convergence 

What constitutes a documentary film critic? What is the difference between fiction and documentary film criticism?  These were the questions discussed at a symposium on Documentary Film Criticism held on October 8 at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.

By bringing together different discourses and discussing current tendencies in this area of film criticism, this symposium, together with the new Film Critics Workshop concurrently taking place at Yamagata, sought to define a formal definition for the practice and help equip young critics to write about this complex and multifaceted art form.

The panelists at the symposium included the mentors at the Film Critics Workshop, American critic Chris Fujiwara and Japanese critic Kitakoji Takashi; Abé Mark Nornes, an American scholar of Japanese film; filmmaker Matsue Tetsuaki; Spanish film critic and programmer Josetxo Cerdán; and Wu Wenguang, a pioneer of digital documentary filmmaking in China.

In his introductory statement, Fujiwara, who served as moderator, suggested that criticism devoted to documentary films has not been able to keep up with either the rising number of documentary film productions or the medium’s ever-developing stylistic and narrative innovations. However, his anxiety over the state of documentary criticism was not shared by Nornes, who asserted that the practice is very much alive and active. To corroborate this, Nornes showed a full page of New York Times reviews devoted to documentary films and listed statistics tracing the growth in the number of books published on documentary films, from 30 in the 1930s, to over 400 in the last decade.

The very practical issue of survival is probably the most important one for any aspiring critic wishing to pursue his craft outside of academia, and Kitakoji said that a critic simply can’t live on writing about documentaries alone. As a pragmatic choice, the critic should write about both commercial and documentary films, especially since, in Kitakoji’s view, “documentary is a reconstruction of reality, thus it is fiction on some account.”

The situation is a lot more heterogeneous in Europe, where, Josetxo Cerdán said, a critic often takes on multiple roles within the film world, as filmmaker, producer, teacher, promoter, and programmer. The reason for this is also about survival—one must function in different domains in the film community to remain relevant and gain financial support.

A common link thus revealed by the discussion was the filmmaker-as-critic position. This was already prevalent in Japan 40 years ago, according to Kitakoji, when filmmakers Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki used their writings to disseminate their films and beliefs. Even today, Matsue Tetsuaki (Live Tape, the new Tokyo Drifter) continues to write about films in addition to making them, he said at the symposium, because writing gives him the chance to promote the films, a job still not being taken on by many others.

Yet the expectations and realities for a documentary film critic differ completely in China. Wu Wenguang disagreed with the Do-It-All model for a critic and instead asserted the importance of “independent critics”—a sort that China currently lacks and desperately needs. Wu complained that “it is too easy to be successful as a documentary filmmaker [in China] and get invited to festivals.” There is a need for critics who can accurately assess the quality of films being made, and to do so, the critic must be separate from the production side.

The panelists also focused on the place for a conventional critic in the age of social media. Matsue admitted that critics can be overlooked now, when distributors and marketers use connectedness, brevity, and catchy copy to reach a wide audience easily, and as a filmmaker, he is “not concerned with what draws people to the theater as long as they come.” The other panelists agreed that the best response to the current situation is for critics to embrace social media and create their own platforms for criticism using whatever tools are available.

As the symposium came toward an end, more questions arose: the possibility of a convergence of the criticism of commercial films and documentaries; the critic’s dichotomous stance as an advisor to ticket-buying audiences and as film promoter; the ethics of a critic’s relationship with the filmmaker and with the audience. Because of time constraints, these questions, big enough to fill another set of symposiums, were left largely unexplored.

In the end, the words of Wu Wenguang summed up succinctly what is required from new documentary critics: the courage to match that of the filmmakers, and the intellect to write about films with verve and independence. —Ian Wang

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