For years the Komian Club had been a familial haunt for visitors to the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival becoming almost an artificial hub where filmmakers and spectators could meet on equal terms. However, the 135-year-old family-run pickle store was left with little choice other than to close given the decline in demand for pickles among younger consumers and the additional strains placed on their business by the conoravirus pandemic. 

Pickles and Komian Club (丸八やたら漬け, Maruhachi yatarazuke Komian) is as much about the film festival and the wider Yamagata community as it about the building at its centre. The loss of the store leaves many feeling quite literally displaced, not only lacking a new place to gather and mourning the atmosphere of the traditional building, but reflecting on the absence of these kinds of structures in the urban environment which places value only in the land on which new structures more profitable to the modern economy may be built. We’re told that the pickle store had been approved as an intangible cultural asset because of its luxurious interior, but this does not apparently provide much protection under Japanese property laws. The store’s owner Yoshinori mentions the possibilities of someone buying his storehouse and moving it to a new location preserving all of its period features but is eventually forced to sell to developers who plan to knock it down to build build yet another generic apartment block. 

As he explains, in Japan property depreciates over time and the value that it has is essentially sentimental rather than financial. Few people are interested in preserving these traditional buildings along with their classical architectural styles because there is no real financial incentive to do so. The best that can be done is to salvage what one can that could be re-used or incorporated in another structure such as the heavy wooden beams and ornate friezes. Yoshinori sells one of his giant wooden pickling vats to an old friend who runs a traditional Japanese inn which is then repurposed as a bath. His friend worries what the decline of traditional culture might mean for his business, inns largely being the repository of the traditional in the modern society. But the repurposing of the vat which in essence turns something used for industry into something used for leisure is an example of one way to bring something of the past into the present finding new uses for old technology. 

While the pickle store could not be saved, other owners of similar properties have been able to breathe new life into old spaces, turning a small outside guesthouse into a cinema which the local community can enjoy or renting out part of the premises for local events taking full advantage of the calming atmosphere such traditional buildings can offer. Though as an architecture student later makes plain what’s needed is further action at the legislative level to ensure that older buildings are better protected and less likely to be torn down because of an economic imperative that has no interest in tangible history. Seeing the buildings stripped of their assets then roughly broken apart is a heartrending sight as is the giant empty space they leave behind robbing the area of its unique atmosphere in favour of the generically urban. 

One interviewee makes the point that in choosing to focus on documentary film the festival in a sense made an investment in its future by choosing the unique over the flashy, building a friendly atmosphere of openness and equality rather than the red carpets and VIP areas which can often define some other events. In a sense it’s this loss of traditional spaces which damages the fabric of the community in further distancing one person from another while robbing it of the architectural history that gives it its sense of place.  Even so the presence of the festival providing a place in which filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world can gather is a potent symbol of alternative community bolstering the local, while the young are also busying themselves finding new ways to incorporate the traditional into their modern lives or breathing life back into that which had been thought old-fashioned but might now be reappreciated for its quality of serenity in an ever changing society.

Pickles and Komian Club Storytellers streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

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