Zushi City sits in the middle of the forests and hills of Ikego in Kanagawa Prefecture. Its history stretches back into Japan's prehistoric Yayoi and Kofun periods with archeological excavations uncovering almost perfectly preserved farming tools and pottery. The thing about Zushi City and many of the residences on its outskirts is that they weren't always on the same land. For centuries the area was inhabited, but in the late 1930's the Japanese Imperial Navy set up one of its largest munitions bases in Ikego. To make its construction possible many villagers and farmers of the town of Nakagawa (what would one day be known as Zushi City) were ordered off their ancestral lands. By 1940 the the affected populace were forced to relocate their homes. Many needed to leave behind the graves of their ancestors while many others disassembled their houses and reassembled them piece by piece on new lands outside of the Naval munitions base.
At the end of WW2 the U.S. military took over the Ikego base and proceeded to dump the munitions that the locals had been told were crucial in Japan's war effort into the sea. Ikego, like so many U.S. military bases was kept active due to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, populatly known in Japan as the ANPO Treaty which gave the U.S.A. blanket powers to operate military installations on Japanese soil. It was from Ikego and other bases like it in Japan that the U.S. launched its war in Vietnam, but once that conflict ended in the mid-70's it was thought that the base would close and the land be returned as per the terms of the Treaty. Instead the U.S. kept the base operational and built extensive housing for military personal stationed at the nearby Yokosuka Base. This move was met with fierce protest from the locals in Zushi City, but their arguments against keeping the base fell on deaf ears. To this day Ikego and Zushi City are literally divided by a fence, one side of which belongs to Japan and the other which belongs to the U.S.A. It's this divided world that is explored by filmmaker Toshi Fujiwara in his spawiling documentary "Fence".
With its total running time clocking in at nearly three hours Fujiwara has structured "Fence" very much like Ikego itself - he's split it down the middle. The film being made up of two parts, the first titled "Lost Paradise" and the second titled "Fragmented Stratum", but despite a greater emphasis on the protests against the military housing on the base in the "Stratum" the two halves create one fascinating whole, and not just because of the specifics of the Ikego Base's existence. Fujiwara and his crew go into the homes of the elderly villagers who decades before were forced to move their homes by the order of the Japanese military. Through lengthy visits and conversations he (and we in the audience) see these senior men and women as more than just standard documentary talking heads, and their stories go well beyond the impact of the Ikego Base and its fence on their lives.
Throughout the two parts of "Fence" we meet again and again the same group of people, all in their 70's and 80's, who lived through the displacement of the original town of Nakagawa and by the end of "Fragmented Stratum" we feel as if we know all of them as friends - Keiji Kishida who remembers having to only relocate across the street when the order came from the Imperial Navy, Kisa Aikawa whose husband was killed in a road accident after the war and who had to take on the man's role in the household, going so far as to work construction alongside other workmen in post-war Ikego, Kiyoaki Hayashi whose family has lived in Ikego for 340 years, and the Suzuki's, mother Chie and son Kyuya who tour Fujiwara around their home, a monument to traditional Japanese craftsmanship. Each interview segment is edited using fades to images of the local flora and fauna of the Ikego Hills, giving "Fence" the feeling of time spent in a rural, unrushed world.
While the gently paced 167-minute running time of the two films that make up "Fence" don't always drive home the specifics of the United States influence and presence in Ikego the way many agit-prop documentary filmmakers might, Fujiwara presents us with some beautiful, simple, but very telling moments that leave no doubt as to where he stands on the issue of U.S. military bases in Japan. One simple scene in "Fragmented Stratum" shows us the three high school girls who've accompnied Fujiwara on his interviews with the elderly townsfolk. They stop to read a warning sign posted on the fence of the base in which Fujiwara points out that the Japanese reads that the land is loaned to the U.S.A., but in English it clearly states that the Americans own the land.
The length of "Fence" may seem daunting to many viewers, as will its detailed focus on the lives of the people of Ikego and how their traditions butt up against military might, but it's very important to note that Fujiwara's film(s) come from a very long tradition of political documentaries that take a specific town or locale as their subject. One just needs to watch Shinsuke Ogawa's "Summer in Narita" and "Magino Village: A Tale", Noriaki Tsuchimoto's "Minamata: The Victims and Their World" and Sumiko Haneda's 3 plus hour "Ode to Mt. Hyachine to see from where Fujiwara is coming from. Still in an age of documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and films such as "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Cove" the soft touch of so many contemporary Japanese documentarians such as Fujiwara and his peers like Kazuhiro Soda and "Live Tape" director Tetsuaki Matsue might seem at first to be far too vague and loosely constructed. So many audiences are used to being told what to think and what to feel and in terms of documentary films this expectation is even stronger. What Fujiwara does with "Fence", though, isn't just to serve up the political and social dilemma that is the Ikego military base on a platter and have his voice over narration instruct us on when and how to feel outraged or moved. Yes, Fujiwara does appear onscreen next to his subjects and these older men and women's stories are enlightening and in many cases moving, but unlike so many of his U.S. documentary counterparts Fujiwara isn't telling us what to think about Ikego. Instead he is inviting us to explore the area along with him, to sit on the veranda alongside Aikawa-san or to talk a stroll with Hayashi-san and Kishida-san and simply observe and absorb. The feeling of place and the evocation of the rhythms of the lives of these villagers is key to the success of "Fence" as a documntary. This is a film (or films) that will reward you for again and again for the effort it takes to search it out.