Active between 1968 and 1973, the Nihon Documentarist Union or NDU was a collective of documentary filmmakers emerging from the then declining student movement and “Zenkyoto” struggle committees whose members were often university drop outs disillusioned with the system. The group’s 1971 documentary Motoshinkakarannu (沖縄エロス外伝 モトシンカカランヌー, Okinawa Eros Gaiden: Motoshinkakarannu), shot in black and white and using asynchronous sound, takes its name from a word in the Okinawan language used to describe a business which can be started without seed money, effectively an ironic euphemism for sex work. Visiting the islands immediately prior to their return to Japan, the collective examines among other things a legacy of exploitation along with the effects of economic dependency on one or another colonising force.
“How come Okinawa changes so much?” a street singer asks playing a sanshin while reflecting on the islands’ complicated history. An old lady born in 1889, the tail end of the Meiji era, reflects on cultural change when speaking of the tattoos on her hands which she’d so wanted as a child believing not to have them was not to be accepted as a woman and therefore unable to marry. But tattoos are taboo in Japan and the practice was eventually banned by the police leaving her stigmatised in her own community and forced to wear gloves in order to hide the markings of her culture. “Now in the contemporary society you can’t get married if you have a tattoo. Things can change 180 like that” she adds reflecting on the rapid changes which have taken place within her lifetime in which even ancient traditions can be abruptly ended by outside forces.
Meanwhile, another woman prepares to adjust her currency exchange business once Okinawa reverts to Japan and the American presence decreases. While some are in favour of the reversion more because they want the Americans to leave than actively desire to return to Japanese sovreignity, others wonder what the effect will be on the local economy given that workers are already being laid off from jobs on American bases. The documentary captures several labour protests held outside military facilities by anxious workers. “Okinawa is sacrificed again under military control” one leader insists while another later adds “for 20 years Okinawa was denied normal employment opportunities due to its militaristic colonisation” each emphasising the unanswered questions in the reversion agreement of what is supposed to happen to these now redundant workers, where will new jobs be coming from and what are they supposed to do until they arrive? Many of the protestors are extensively masked appearing somewhat like the invisible man with their heads wrapped in fabric and sunglasses covering their eyes presumably because they fear negative consequences from their employers if they’re caught at the demonstration.
The documentary team muddy the waters a little by challenging one man that as he’s a cook he could easily find new work, but as he points out it’s not just about him and he believes the labour movement will be beneficial to the islands’ future. Many feel betrayed that the local Okinawan police force continues to protect the interests of the Americans in attempting to suppress their protests, but conversely there is also anxiety regarding new industrial investment from Japan with the CEO of Toyo Oil, directly labeled a war criminal in the embedded subtitles, trying to argue that he is an environmentalist and would not go ahead with the plant if it were to produce pollution. Such worries are perhaps at the forefront of the minds of ordinary Okinawans given the numerous mainland scandals of the postwar era such as the Minamata disease and Yokkaichi asthma among many others, while an old man’s hand-painted sign also protests that the oil refinery is to exist on land stolen from local farmers. The anxiety seems to be as the camera pans ominously across a new industrial zone that Okinawa will become a dumping ground for problematic industries the mainland isn’t willing to place on its own soil, the people of Okinawa once again sacrificed for Japan’s gain.
Then again others are worrying about a collapse in the local sex industry which they suggest caters almost entirely to American personnel. The documentary collective spend some time with a collection of American servicemen who discuss with them the US civil rights movement, but also appear to have a more regressive view of the sex industry than many in Okinawa making what seems to be a moral judgement as one flat out refuses to believe the women have no choice but to pursue sex work claiming they’ve chosen an “easy” solution to their problems rather than taking a more nuanced view of the economic realities of the islands and the complex networks of exploitation which support them. Then again as Akemi, the sex worker with whom the documentary opened, hints perhaps the filmmakers are no different. “They’re filming me because they want to show “Motoshinkakarannu”. They don’t know what it is, but they want to use the title.”
Motoshinkakarannu streams worldwide (excl. Taiwan and Japan) until June 3 as part of Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections.