Friday, October 16, 2009

Documentary filmmaker and visual poet Shoichiro Sasaki

by Chris MaGee

Of all the news items and reviews that we post here on the Pow-Wow our most popular feature continues to be our monthly top ten lists. It's understandable. People love lists. They're a quick way to gauge the taste of the person(s) compiling it and, in the case of our top ten lists, a way to discover new films and filmmakers. It doesn't just work one way though. Often readers will post their reactions to our lists in the comments or contact me via email to vent about films, stars, or filmmakers who didn't make the final cut. The one list that has generated the most feedback would have to be our most recent, The Top Ten Japanese Documentaries. I got messages from pointing out the filmmakers we overlooked. See? These lists are learning experiences for us as well. Of the many names that we received following that post the one that I thought should be tackled first here was Shoichiro Sasaki, if only for the influence he's had on some of the most familiar and esteemed Japanese filmmakers.

Born in 1936 Sasaki studied at Rokkyo University and went on to join Japan's national broadcaster NHK in the early 60's. It was there that he started out directing radio drama's, one of which, 1966's "Comet Ikeya" was written by avant-garde poet and filmmaker Shuji Terayama. It wasn't until 1971 and his helming of the TV drama "Mother" that he shifted from the aural to the visual and from there he quickly developed his deceptively simple aesthetic. Ironically for someone who started making radio plays Sasaki's films relied more on imagery than narrative and he would often use non-actors cast from people living nearby where he was shooting. It was this style that earned his work the label of "visual poems". Now a professor in the Faculty of Information and Communication at Tokyo's Bunkyo University Sasaki has gone onto win two Emmys (one for his 1976 adaptation of manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge's "Red Flowers"), the Prix Italia Grande Prize (for 1981's "Utopiano: Dream in a Different Key", and four Best Film awards at the Califiornia State Media Arts Festival. Beyond the trophies though Sasaki's real accolades come from the filmmakers who he's influenced. Naomi Kawase, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Shinya Tsukamoto have all spoken of their creative debt to Shoichiro Sasaki.

In the end I suppose this post isn't so much me speaking to all of you about Sasaki as it is a request for someone out there to fill in the gaps of the information I've presented. Sadly Sasaki's profile is much higher in Japan than here in North America which is a real shame. The few clips that I've managed to see throughout this month have got me really intrigued, and you'd think that with some of the biggest Japanese directors openly acknowledging their debt to him that someone (Facets, Tidepoint, etc) would look into making his films available on these shores. Hopefully some day soon, maybe soon...

Check out clips from some of Sasaki's documentary films in this YouTube tribute below. Thanks to Keiko Kusakabe for the heads up about this fascinating artist.

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