Thursday, March 1, 2012

REVIEW: On The Road: A Document

ドキュメント 路上 (Dokyumento rojou)

Released: 1964

Noriaki Tsuchimoto

Running time: 54 min

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Tokyo, 1964. It's a momentous year, not only for the Japanese capital but for the whole country. It's been only 12 years since the MacArthur's American Occupation has ended and most Japanese still remember the horrible destruction of WW2. 1964 is a year to put all that behind them though. This year the world will be watching Japan as the Olympic Games come to Tokyo. Prior to this most prestigious of moments Japan's government, spurred on by an economy fed by the U.S. war in Korea, has reconstructed and redesigned it's largest city. They've also readied a new form of transportation, the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, that will revolutionize how Japan functions. 1964 is the tipping point between the impoverished post-war years and the great Economic Miracle that will see Japan rise to the position of second largest world economy.

These big, over-reaching ideas are god for the history books, and they were good PR for Japan in the mid-60's, but what did life feel like, look like and sound like in the year leading up to Tokyo taking the world stage with the Olympics? The task of capturing the feeling on the streets fell to Noriaki Tsuchimoto, a filmmaker commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police to make a film about traffic safety and infrastructure. The thing is that Tsuchimoto, a man who would go on to epitomize Japanese documentary filmmaking with his series on the environmental mercury poisoning disaster in the town of Minamata, saw this as a chance to show his city in a state of severe flux. The end result is his 1964 film "On The Road: A Document".

Tokyo circa 1963, just prior to the fanfare of the '64 Olympics is seen through an everyman cab driver who's not so much concerned about the sweeping changes in Japanese history he is living through. Instead he's concerned about having his license taken away due to one to many speeding tickets and about how this will effect his young wife and baby. His fellow cabbies work themselves to exhaustion, and in one case a cabbie delights in sharing the x-rays of his stomach cancer with the other guys. Life doesn't speed forward for these men, but progresses a few inches, speeds for a bit, stalls and often stops. Tsuchimoto's camera does much the same thing. Shot mostly in handheld 16mm "On The Road" focuses on the minutiae of this cabbie's life: hub caps, running meters, traffic signs, and whatever can be glimpsed through the rearview mirror. Meanwhile the surrounding Tokyo landscape bristling with cranes, steel girders and power lines and of course unbelievable traffic jams. Tsuchimoto nor his cabbie protagonist know that everything around them is being fused and beaten together into a modern, shining Tokyo. To them, in front of and behind the camera life is of the moment, now, and often a little less than what they'd like it to be.

Of course Tsuchimoto has more than a few tricks up his cinematic sleeve to give his film this cinéma vérité immediacy, many of which involve tweaking reality to increase its realism. Many shots and even entire scenes in "On The Road" have their audio and some dialogue rerecorded and laid in over the action. The scene where the cabbies look through their friend's stomach x-ray had to have been partially staged. Still it's this polishing of reality that gives us the even more intense feeling of life lived on the fly.

"On The Road: A Document" would make a very interesting double bill with another film which famously captured, or infamously failed to capture, Tokyo's moment of triumph in 1964. That film would be Kon Ichikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad". Both films share a lot in common beyond the moment time in which they were shot. Both films were commissioned by the authorities to highlight the power, influence and ingenuity of modern day Japan. Both Tsuchimoto and Ichikawa took that dictum and bent it just enough so that they could tell human stories; not just the stories of happy Tokyo road workers making the city a better place to live, or skilled Japanese athletes competing against the world's best. Had Tsuchimoto or Ichikawa played it straight and safe with their projects we wouldn't still be discussing them today. In the end "On The Road: a Document" is a time capsule look at on of the most important moments in 20th century Japan as seen from the bottom up.

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