Monday, October 5, 2009

Top Ten Best Japanese Documentaries

It's been about a year since we started our monthly top ten lists during that time we've covered samurai films, yakuza films, films that were too controversial for Japan and the world and films that changed the course of Japanese cinema; but through all our lists we've focused our attention on fictional films. We thought that it was about time that we turned our attention to another genre of film, one that looks to the real world for inspiration for their source material - documentaries. Although a few of the films on our Top Ten Japanese Documentaries list question the difference between a film based on fact and a film based on fiction there's no doubt as to the huge contribution that Japan has made and continues to make to the world of documentary filmmaking.

10. The New God - Yutaka Tsuchiya (1999)

Video Act! is a Tokyo-based collective of over 50 filmmakers whose goal it is to "support the spread and distribution of independent videos" that specifically highlights the "reality of Japan which you can hardly get from the corporate media". That means that the vast majority of their output can be categorized as left-leaning films on subjects ranging from workers' rights, gender issues and environmental causes - important subjects that need to be addressed, but didactic video documentaries might not be what many viewers would call engaging. One of Video Act's most prominent members, filmmaker Yutaka Tsuchiya, turned that perception on its head with his 1999 documentary "The New God". At first glance it's subject, Karin Amamiya the lead singer of the now defunct ultra-right wing punk band The Revolutionary Truth, and her brief allegiance with ultra-left wing members of Japan's Red Army living in exile in Pyongyang, North Korea seems like pretty standard Video Act! fare, but something much more compelling than political polemics is going on under the surface. Despite her earnest anti-foreign views Amamiya's personal charm and innocence permeates the film and director Tsuchiya is obviously smitten."The New God" ends up being an utterly unique experience - a punk rock documentary with a crisis of political faith and a very sweet love story at its core. A huge success in underground circles in Japan "The New God" made Amamiya a media personality and an author with nearly two dozen books to her credit. CM

9. Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa - Sumiko Haneda (2004)

While the inclusion of 83-year-old documentary filmmaker Sumiko Haneda on our list of the top ten Japanese documentaries is a bit of a no brainer the decision as to which of her almost 90 films should be represented here was quite the task. Well known in Japan for decades for her films about kabuki and Japanese dance (the six-part film on kabuki actor Kataoka Nizaemon, and the 3-hour documentary on folk dancing "Ode to Mt. Hayachine" amongst them) Haneda is still a marginal name in North American documentary circles. That changed during the summer of 2008 when her 2004 film "Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa" toured throughout North America and Europe as part of the "Wreath for Madame Kawakita" programme put together by the Japan Foundation and the Kawakita Memomorial Film Institute. The concept behind "Into the Picture Scroll" is simple: shoot close-up footage of portions of the twelve 400-year-old emakimono that tell the tale of young general Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his mother Tokiwa who was murdered on her way to be reunited with Ushiwaka at Kurama Temple in the Hiei Mountains northeast of Kyoto. Haneda does just this and with narration by Kyoko Kataoka the centuries old story of Yoshitsune comes to life with the same vibrancy and excitement as a modern day manga or anime film. Here's hoping that the enthusiastic reception that "Into the Picture Scroll" received around the world last year will spark screenings and retrospectives of this remarkable woman's work. CM

8. Lessons from a Calf - Hirokazu Kore-eda (1991)

Hirokazu Kore-eda has become one of the most important Japanese filmmakers of his generation, best known for dramas like 1998's "After Life", 2001's "Distance", and 2004's "Nobody Knows". What has distinguished his work, and specifically this trio of films, was his use of documentary techniques in telling fictional stories. From the casting of non-actors, inclusion of improvised dialogue, subject interviews incorporated into the film's narrative - Kore-eda refuses to draw a firm line between cinematic fiction and perceived reality. This unique way of filmmaking can be traced back to Kore-eda's early career with Japan's TV Man Union, an independent TV broadcasting comapny. Kore-eda worked as an assistant director on a number of television documentaries before helming his very first directorial effort, 1991's "Lessons from a Calf". The 47-minute documentary follows the fifth grade class at Nagano's Ina Elementary School as the adopt and raise a female dairy cow who they name Laura. Kore-eda's camera witnesses the children's reactions and growing connection with the calf before the school year, and their friendship with the calf, ends. Fans of Kore-eda will immediately be able to see the creative similarities with "Nobody Knows", the story of a family of children forced to fend for themselves after their mother abandons them in in their Tokyo apartment. As companion pieces the two films give us an honest and moving portrayal of childhood as well as making us question what exactly the difference between documentary and drama is. CM

7. Wings of Defeat - Risa Morimoto (2007)

In 2005 Risa Morimoto was attending a family get together and it was there that her cousin made a casual comment, one that would have a profound impact on the New York-based filmmaker - her late uncle had been trained as a tokkotai, or as they have become more commonly known, a kamikaze pilot in the waning years of the Second World War. Morimoto couldn't reconcile the kindly Japanese man who she'd grown up knowing with the image of a suicidal fighter pilot, so in order to help process this new piece of family history Morimoto grabbed a camera and headed back to Japan to speak to her family there. While her aunt and cousins couldn't elaborate much more on Morimoto's uncle's past what she discovered were a handful of elderly men who had hidden, due to shame, anger, and fear, their past as kamikaze during WW2. The conversations between Morimoto, these men, and even American war veterans who survived kamikaze attacks form the basis of her remarkable documentary "Wings of Defeat". Yes, the film provides a wealth of historical background on the desperate position that Japan found itself in at the end of the war, but what makes "Wings of Defeat" such a special film is that it provides a medium through which these men can finally share their experiences, their emotions, and in some cases their outrage with a world that has sadly become all to familiar with the phenomena of young men and women who sacrifice their lives as suicide bombers. CM

6. God Speed You! Black Emperor - Mitsuo Yanagimachi (1976)

Societies both past and present have had love/ hate relationships with their youth. On the one hand youth represents beauty and the possibilities of the next generation, but on the other hand all those hormones and bravado can prove troublesome if they're not channeled properly. In Japan, a nation that prizes conformity and consensus above all else, unruly youth present a special problem, so while street gangs might frighten law-abiding citizens worldwide in Japan their boogeymen status attains new heights of moral outrage. For his debut film veteran director Mitsuo Yanagimachi decided to pull back this curtain of fear and indignation to explore the inner workings of one of Japan's bōsōzoku, or "violent running gangs", the Black Emperors motorcycle club. Sure there's plenty of black leather, swastikas, and noisy mufflers, but after two years filming the members of the Black Emperors the biggest revelation, although not terribly surprising, is that instead of sociopathic criminals the gang is mostly made up of goofy teenage boys who are looking to prove themselves to each other even more than piss of their elders. The real legacy of "God Speed You! Black Emperor", besides providing the name for a Canadian indie rock band, is its grainy black and white cinematography. Released in 1976 it had a profound influence on the look of a whole new generation of independent filmmakers, specifically Sogo Ishii, the director of such punk rock films as "Burst City" and "Electric Dragon 80,000V" and Shinya Tsukamoto and his seminal film "Tetsuo the Iron Man". CM

5. Campaign - Kazuhiro Soda (2007)

There are certain hallmarks of style that distinguish a film as a documentary: the construction of a coherent narrative around unscripted or historical events, interviews with participants, experts, eye witnesses, voice over narration to provide exposition and opinion, and lastly a soundtrack or score to set the mood. These techniques have defined the genre, and it's these very techniques that Japanese born and now New York-based filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda jettisons for his documentaries, or as he likes to refer to them, "observational films". After having made dozens of television documentaries for major Japanese broadcasters like NHK Soda became disillusioned with the ways these techniques dictated not only the way that "reality" in film was being presented, but also how we in the audience responded to it. For his first "observational film" "Campaign" Soda simply followed his old college roommate, Kazuhiko Yamauchi, with a camera as he runs for municipal office in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture. The end result is an unprecidented and intimate look at the Japanese political system. With no previous political experience under his belt Yamauchi attempts to win over the local constiuency with old-fashioned foot work, lengthy meet-and-greets, and hours of shouting declarations on street corners. Without the cinematic baggage of narration, explanation, interviews, and music "Campaign" asks us to make up our minds about Yamauchi, his single-minded pursuit of political success and the often absurd world that he must navigate to make that dream possible. With it being honoured with a prestigious Peabody Award "Campaign" has singled out Kazuhiro Soda as one of the most vital documentary filmmakers working today. CM

 4. Minamata: The Victims and Their World - Noriaki Tsuchimoto (1972)

In 1956 doctors were struggling to diagnose what seemed like a new disease in Minamata, a small seaside city in Kumamoto Prefecture. Those afflicted with this mystery illness, many of whom were local fishermen and their families, exhibited symptoms of numbness, convulsions, muscle weakness, difficulty speaking, paralysis, and even insanity. As the disease was localized to Minamata physicians assumed that this was a contagious outbreak, but soon their investigation brought them to a much more shocking conclusion. It turned out that these patients were suffering from severe mercury poisoning; it's source: the local Chisso Corporation chemical plant. For nearly 40 years run off from the plant was contaminating the wildlife around the city and through fishing the dinner tables of the townsfolk. Dubbed Minamata Disease the outbreak was not only one of the worst environmental disasters in Japanese history, but globally as well, and its nearly 2,300 victims became the unwelcome face of the dark side of Japan's industrial and economic miracle. Throughout the 1960's documentary filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto chronicled the legal battle between the families of those afflicted with Minamata Disease sufferers and Chisso Corp. that culminated in a landmark decision that granted compensation to the sufferers. Released in 1972 "Minamata: The Victims and Their World" was immediately controversial in a country where the status quo is honoured above all else, but Tsuchimoto didn't let this deter him. Before his death in 2008 at the age of 79 Tsuchimoto would return repeatedly to Minamata, making it and its people the subject of another 15 documentary films. CM

3. A - Tatsuya Mori (1998)

Japan is certainly a nation familiar with tragedy. From the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 through the Allied bombing of WW2 that culminated in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the country has endured some monumental suffering. The sarin gas attacks by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult on March 20th, 1995 traumatized the nation in a new and disturbing way though. These weren't impersonal natural disasters or the actions of a foreign aggressor, these were Japanese releasing poison gas in order to kill other Japanese, a concept that just didn't mesh with Japan's post-war peace. How could this have happened? Who were these Aum Shinrikyo followers? Why did they attack their fellow citizens, innocent people? These questions plagued the Japanese for years and they looked to one film for possible answers. Tatsuya Mori, who up to that point had made his living acting in independent films and making TV documentaries, somehow won the trust of the last straggling members of Aum Shinirkyo and was given unprecedented access to this secretive new age cult. Mori's camera is a silent witness to these last devotees as they meditate, chant, and watch the news reports of the trial of their leader Shoko Asahara and five of their comrades. Viewer's of Mori's documentary "A" may not have found answers they were looking for though. The members of the cult, including its media spokesperson Hisroshi Araki, are maddeningly evasive not only with the Japanese media camped out outside their compound, but with Mori himself. We soon realize that their vague statements that Asahara's motives were beyond simple human understanding and their contemplative silence masks a group of people equally as traumatized as the people of Tokyo. Without their leader on hand to dictate to them their thoughts and feelings "A" becomes a portrait of betrayed faith and profound spiritual crisis. CM

 2. A Man Vanishes - Shohei Imamura (1967)

Up to this point on our list we've highlighted films that have challenged the public's ideas and expectations on everything from war, politics and religion. They were also films that played with the technical and narrative conventions of documentary filmmaking, but none of the films that we've listed addressed the core assumption of the genre like Shohei Imamura's landmark 1967 film "A Man Vanishes". The film chronicles the investigation into the disappearance of plastics salesman Tadashi Oshima by his wife Yoshie. She interviews his family, friends and co-workers to try and piece together what may have lead to her husband vanishing. Was it because he embezzled money from his company? Was it because he got his mistress pregnant? Could Yoshie's own sister Sayoko hold the key to the mystery? As a straight documentary "A Man Vanishes" would be riveting enough, but Imamura seems to have other plans. He has actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, the star of Imamura's films "The Insect Woman" and "Intentions of Murder" accompany Yoshie on her interviews and when it becomes obvious that all their leg work won't bear any fruit this lonely women turns her attention to Tsuyuguchi. While most documentary filmmakers would be concerned that this kind of potential romance could damage the objectivity of their film Imamura, who appears on screen with Tsuyuguchi, seems delighted with this turn of events. "A Man Vanishes" becomes less and less about the missing Oshima-san and more about Tsuyuguchi, Yoshie, and her sister Sayoko, but the real surprise occurs when all of them meet in a tea house where Imamura reveals that the whole film was a fiction... or was it? Even though Imamura based the film on an actual missing person's case and included the players in the real life drama his point is crystal clear - no one can be truly objective and the relationship between filmmaker and subject will always be a fiction. CM

1. The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On - Kazuo Hara (1987)

We live in a world saturated by information, images, sensation, so much so that we find ourselves easily jaded. All of the above documentaries do a wonderful job enlightening, educating, entertaining, and challenging us, but none can equal the power of the number one documentary on our list to bridge the gap between the screen and our psyches and shake us out of our complacency with its shocking revelations. Originally planned as a Shohei Imamura film the "A Man Vanishes" director handed the story of Kenzo Okuzaki over to documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara. Okuzaki, a 62-year-old veteran of the Pacific War, is focused on one thing and one thing only: truth. Approached by the families of two soldier who served with him in New Guinea Okuzaki sets out to discover why they were formally executed several days after Japan's surrender, a time when their superior officers had no power to do so. One by one Okuzaki tracks down his old unit members and commanders to get them to admit exactly why these men were killed and he uses any means necessary, including deception and violence, to secure their confessions. Whether it's loyalty to the families of the executed soldiers or his own survivor's guilt this one man Truth and Reconciliation Court manages to pry stories from his old comrades about the final harrowing days of the war that will leave even the most jaded viewer shaken. The stories about why the two soldiers were executed varies from man to man, but their recollections of the lengths to which they went in order to survive in the jungles of New Guinea remain nauseatingly similar. It's for these horrific reminiscences as well as for the truly elusive nature of any kind of absolute truth "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On" is a worthy companion piece to such Japanese classics as Kon Ichikawa's "Fires on the Plain" and Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon", but its basis in reality as opposed to fiction is what helps this documentary surpass both of these landmark films. CM


Erin said...

Great list! Whenever I talk to people about Emperor's Naked Army their reaction is without fail, "that's a documentary?!" So fascinating.

Cathy Munroe Hotes said...

Enjoyed your list --- mine would have included Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad. Totally agree with you re: the Minamata doc & A Man Vanishes

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

An excellent list of films, and I've love to see them all. One excellent documentary that I'd consider for your list is Isao Takahata's 1987 documentary, Yanagawa Horiwari Monogatari.

. said...

Nice list, although Ogawa Shinsuke should be on there.

Unknown said...

Thanks for providing list of documentary films..
list of documentary films