Pickles and Komian Club (丸八やたら漬け, Koichi Sato, 2021)

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)

Storytellers (うたうひと, Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai, 2013)

Many tend to forget the folktales and fables they were told when young or at least until they themselves have a child yet it’s often through mystical stories that we first begin to learn about the world and our place within it. Third in a series of documentaries by Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai focussing on the Tohoku region in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Storytellers (Utauhito) follows folklore scholar Kazuko Ono of Miyagi Minwa no Kai as she travels the local area visiting friends in order to hear the various stories they remember from their youth. 

Yet as she explains during a trademark Hamaguchi backseat monologue in a car he and co-director Sakai are driving, folktales may have different meanings and interpretations to different people and in different eras in their own particular context. As an example she cites the tale we’ve just heard recited by an elderly woman titled The Monkey’s Bride in which a farmer with three daughters unwisely promises a wife to a monkey who agrees to help him with his rice paddy. The first two daughters refuse, but the third agrees because her father made a promise only to trick the monkey, who has been nothing but kind to her, into drowning himself in a lake. As a child, Kazuko like many disliked the story feeling sorry for the monkey who had acted only with humanity and does not seem to warrant being killed in such an unkind fashion. But then she began to reconsider how her grandmother from whom she first heard it may have read the tale as a woman married off at 16 who constantly tried to run away and only wanted to escape cruel treatment at the home of her in-laws. To her the daughter in the story was brave, doing that which she could not in freeing herself from a forced marriage after being sold to pay her father’s debt. Looking deeper again she began to wonder if the monkey wasn’t also a metaphor for the rich landowners who oppressed peasant famers with only poor quality paddies who were often forced to sell off their daughters in return for financial assistance. 

Other stories meanwhile speak of the ingenuity of the poor, a little girl rewarded after responding to an ad promising vast riches for anyone who manages to bore the story-loving lord, she managing it quickly by making him repeat a lengthy nonsense phrase at regular intervals. A story apparently meant to encourage young couples to find “clever” ways of sorting out marital disputes similarly finds a husband returning from the city selling his wife’s lover whom she hastily shut in a water jar, getting one over on him and her, getting his hands on 10 ryo, and even getting the jar back too. Such stories tell us something about the world in which they took place, female adultery in this case not so much of problem able to be solved with some comedic shenanigans rather than the point of a sword, while we might equally find it an absurd way to deal with marital infidelity. Then again there are also a series of thematically similar stories cautioning against marginalised members of society who create problems in order to gain fame and fortune through solving them such as two bizarre tales of magical instruments which cause people’s bottoms to sing an absurd and annoying song which only the holder of the object can stop allowing them to leverage their new talents for unearned wealth and status. 

Even so it isn’t perhaps the tales that matter so much as their transmission, many of the elderly storytellers recalling memories of their grandmothers from whom they first heard how the shrimp got its curved back or of eagles who tried to fly to the edge of the ocean. Each of the storytelling sessions begins in ritualised fashion, Kazuko and the other party introducing themselves to each other though they have all been friends for years or sometimes decades and already know each other well. As in the story of the girl and the lord, we’re reminded that tales like these expect call and response, an exchange between the storyteller and the listener that transcends the story itself. A now elderly man recounts that he’d forgotten most of the tales his eccentric grandmother had told him before joining the folktale group in his 40s, but also advances that the stories she gave him were intended to foster a sense of wonder in the world along with a confidence and security that would allow him move freely through the darkness. A lesson in oral history in which these ancient tales are shared and retold before reaching new generations is perhaps a sign of hope that something has and will survive in the simple act of speaking and listening even as Kazuko explains that in order to hear the story she must also change herself so she too may keep moving forward . 


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)

Dear Pyongyang (Yang Yong-hi, 2006)

“Whether she accepts my ideas or not, I’m glad because she’s all grown up” the father of documentarian Yang Yong-hi insists implying perhaps that he has more respect for his daughter’s questioning nature than she had assumed he might. Deeply personal, Dear Pyongyang is Yang attempting to parse the disconnect between her loving parents’ lifelong faith in the Great Leader and her own upbringing in a much more open society which has encouraged her that she should be free to live her own life and make her own decisions rather than as her father would have it devote herself to a “fatherland” which remains unfamiliar to her. 

As the opening titles explain, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and fell under colonial rule until its independence was returned with the collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of the war only to be partitioned in 1948. During the colonial era, many Koreans had settled in Japan, divisions also emerging between them as those who supported the North chose to take North Korean nationality even if in reality from the south. Yang’s father was one such person, having grown up around ardent Marxists on Jeju Island. A member of pro-North organisation Chongryon, he devoted his life to activism campaigning for the rights of other Zainichi Koreans while proselytising for Kim Il-Sung thought. He even sent his three sons “back” to North Korea as part of a repatriation program in 1971 incorrectly believing that the North’s economy was improving, the nation would soon be reunified, and relations with Japan would become normalised. Had he known it would mean an almost permanent separation, he may have made a different choice. 

Six years old at the time and kept behind as the only daughter, Yang attended North Korean schools and was in a sense indoctrinated with North Korean propaganda yet she was also coming of age in Japan where she was free to listen to the Beatles and watch movies while it gradually became obvious to her that the place her brothers had been sent to was far from the paradise they’d been promised. She herself was able to meet with them in 1983 as part of a school trip but even then she was only permitted to see them for short periods of time agreed with North Korean authorities. Permitted to travel back and forth with some regularity she finds herself noting more each time how the images in her mind don’t line up, fixing her gaze on a incomplete tower construction long since abandoned as an ironic symbol of the North’s false prosperity. 

In actuality Yang cannot show much of this in her film for obvious reasons and in the time she spends with her brothers and their families, their lives seem comfortable enough save the odd power cut. Her young nephew has even benefitted from the CDs she used to send his father and is an accomplished piano player. Nevertheless, her mother Yon has been sending heat packs en masse to each of the brothers as well as other friends and relatives after receiving a letter telling her that one of the grandchildren had been suffering frostbite because of the extreme cold. Yon had always sent care packages to her children, so shocked on receiving the first photo of them from the North and noticing how much weight they’d lost that she tore it up rather than let their father see it, but boxes have increased significantly in size as the families grew and she became more aware of the reality of the situation in Pyongyang. Still she and her husband remain loyal to the Great Leader, unable to discern the level of cognitive dissonance in the evidence of their eyes and their faith in North Korean communism. 

It’s the disconnect that Yang can’t understand or forgive, finding it particularly galling that her parents have been supporting whole communities with their care packages but everyone attributes the largesse to the goodness of the Great Leader even though the packages wouldn’t be necessary if the system itself had not failed. Her ideological opposition to her father manifests itself in her desire to change her nationality though opting not for a Japanese passport but a South Korean one that would allow her to travel more easily if also ironically preventing her from visiting her brothers and extended family in the North. Finally he seems to relent, admitting that the “circumstances have changed” and he wants her to have more opportunities in her working life. In any case, even if she lived in the South she would be free to visit him in Japan in a way his sons are not, his exclusion of her from his instructions that his sons and grandchildren should devote their lives to the “fatherland” perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that she need not follow his path but should seek her own. Then again perhaps it’s also an acceptance that his life’s work has not turned out as he’d hoped and has in fact robbed him of the company of his children through literal and ideological divide. Even so this moment of compromise allows Yang to begin to bridge a division she thought unbreachable, able for the first time to see her father as just that, longing to hear his thoughts and have him listen to hers only to be immediately robbed of the opportunity. At times raw and filled with a sense of melancholy regret, Yang’s incredibly personal documentary is partly a treatise on the destructive effects of cognitive dissonance and blind faith, but also on the freedom to be found in mutual acceptance. 


Dear Pyongyang streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

US Trailer (Japanese & Korean with English subtitles)

The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Haruyo Kato, 2005)

A series of quotidian observations of an ordinary life, Haruyo Kato’s moving personal documentary The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Cheese to Ujimushi) sees the director returning to her hometown in order to spend time with her mother, Naomi, who is suffering with a terminal illness, and her elderly grandmother. Yet hers is not so much an exploration of sickness or old age as what it means to live in the shadow of death through the tiny moments of the everyday which ultimately construct a life as her mother tries to find joy in ordinariness and the director an acceptance of the abruptness with which a life can end. 

Kato structures her tale as a series of vignettes each preceded by a title card featuring two words joined by an ampersand until such time as her mother passes away at which a single word remains only later joined by others. She begins and ends with the sky, but otherwise captures the small moments of everyday life that might otherwise be forgotten such as her mother cooking, attempting to grow vegetables in the field behind her home or appreciating the cosmos flowers blooming near by. Poignantly they decide to plant more the following year though uncertain if Naomi will see them bloom. 

Meanwhile, Naomi uses her remaining time perfecting old hobbies such as learning to play the shamisen or painting in preparation for an exhibition alongside others from the retired teachers association. She spends time with her two young grandchildren and witnesses the birth of a third, the family coming together to celebrate grandma’s birthday. They do not talk very much about death save discussing Kato’s childhood trauma having lost her father young contributing to her sense of despair regarding her mother’s illness and declining health. We see her undergo various hospital treatments and gradually become weaker though trying to live as normal a life as possible. 

Kato asks her grandmother if she fears death but is told that once you reach a certain age it no longer frightens you, she hoping only that it be peaceful and as painless as possible for herself and those left behind. One of Naomi’s regrets had also been that in dying first she would be abandoning her elderly mother while grandma too struggles to accept the loss. Poignant pillow shots capture the anxieties of ageing in her scattered mobility aids and the false teeth sitting in a glass, or otherwise find her too trying her best to live while reflecting that Naomi at least got to see her four grandchildren and lived a full and happy life. On her death she had said she wanted to become dust of the cosmos, while grandma after thinking for a moment answered that she’d like to be the earth which is perhaps a touching metaphor for a life of a mother and a daughter. 

Yet the reality of Naomi’s death is echoed in its absences. Kato flipping through an old day planner as the number of appointments gradually declines before all of a sudden the pages are blank save for the boxes where her mother had penned in the days of the week, the book thereafter one of constant emptiness that reminds her of all the life left unlived in the terrible abruptness of its ending. She and her siblings later attend a sumo match in her mother’s place, reflecting that the camera flashes are like twinkling stars and wishing she could have come with them to see it. 

Kato and her grandmother rewatch the home videos she had shot of her mother, reflecting on lost moments and their own memories as they each try to find acceptance and accommodation with loss. At her funeral, Naomi’s youngest grandson had attempted to crawl over her body, too young to understand the meaning of death and bursting into tears at the adults’ reaction, a confused mixture of horror and bemusement as they gently lift him away. It’s in these small, forgettable moments that Kato eventually finds meaning in life a sense of everyday happiness now unburdened by fear or anxiety and existing only as fragmentary memories of warmth and humour and given in a sense a second life in their constant replay through the art of Kato’s gentle filmmaking. 


The Cheese & The Worms streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

A2 (Tatsuya Mori, 2001)

“Japanese society is definitely worse than it was five years ago” according to director Tatsuya Mori, returning to the subject of Aum Shinrikyo following his 1998 documentary A, “It is definitely warped.” In A2, he wonders if the legacy of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway has affected society in unexpected ways as its rage and fear is channeled in the wrong direction in its pathological hatred of the new religion sect without attempting to understand why the attack happened or why people continue to follow the cult’s teachings given its violent history. 

Five years on, Aum has rebranded as Aleph and distanced itself from the teachings of Shoko Asahara but is still holding out on coming up with a plan for compensating victims and their families while some members directly involved in the attack remain on the run (the final fugitive was apprehended only in 2012). The government has decreed that those who had no connection to the incident should be allowed their constitutionally guaranteed rights to practice their religion, but as Mori follows them the current members face constant harassment in the local communities in which they attempt to settle. As someone later puts it, there is no real solution, once Aum is rejected they have no option but to move on to another town where the same thing will happen again with no real progress made. 

Even so, in one particular community the locals become almost friendly to the Aum members they are also keeping under close and intensive surveillance. Though instructed not to interact with them, some residents explain that they personally would prefer to be on friendly terms, others jokingly even offering them food or alcohol over the fence and almost sorry to see them leave when their rental contract finally expires. Through their admittedly hostile interactions, they’ve come to accept the members of Aum as distinct from their association with the sarin gas attack and no longer harbour the same sense of fear they once held for the unknown quantity of the new religion organisation. 

On the other hand, the fear and anxiety which has become linked with Aum has been hijacked by right-wing nationalist groups seeking to manipulate it for their own gain as they step into the vacuum created by a lack of action with their own ideas for potential solutions to the Aum problem. Their solutions are not as extreme as one might assume, but advocate for Aum’s forced disbandment with no practical plans for how that might happen. As Aum members admit, as a new religion organisation they often attract those who are vulnerable and looking for solutions to their own mental anguish. Faced with the intense harassment they face in smaller communities, these members are often pushed towards taking their own lives while the press has sometimes also attempted to manipulate their image for personal gain one man claiming he was essentially abducted and taken to hospital on the grounds he seemed malnourished but was prevented from leaving after getting the OK from a doctor as the police had already issued a statement about him which the press had printed without verifying. 

The current Aum members frequently complain that they have been misrepresented by the press while Mori himself is on one occasion accused of being an Aum sympathiser when challenging potential inaccuracies or asking if those participating in anti-Aum activity might be better off trying to understand them instead. This seems to be the direction in which some of the protests have drifted, local societies putting up signs to encourage thse who might want to leave the organisation to reassure them that they will be reaccepted by mainstream society, that their friends and relatives with whom they have severed ties are waiting for their return. The members, however, are often so disconnected from “worldly” matters that they may not know what mainstream society is, Mori’s brief questioning of an official revealing that she is unable to recognise the names of even the biggest contemporary pop stars. “Ultimately harmony can’t be achieved, can it?” Mori asks somewhat rhetorically, worrying that the psychological strain placed on the followers not only in the austerity of their religion but their treatment by wider society cannot but lead to further damage while opinions on either side are unlikely to soften. 


A2 streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The New God (新しい神様, Yutaka Tsuchiya, 1999)

Yutaka Tsuchiya opens his 1999 shot on video personal doc The New God (新しい神様, Atarashii Kamisama) with a lengthy scene of performance art in which a young woman dressed in a suit explains why she was drawn to nationalist ideology while seemingly ignored by the other passersby in the street, a woman behind her even continuing to hand out flyers as she speaks. On the left himself, Tsuchiya was nevertheless struck by the raw emotion in the song of right-wing punk band Revolutionary Truth as performed by charismatic lead singer Karin Amamiya whom he eventually ended up marrying despite their conflicting views. 

In any case, it’s clear even from the film’s opening that Karin is becoming disillusioned with the version of nationalism to which she has hitherto ascribed, a feeling which is intensified after she is invited to visit North Korea in the company of a former member of the ultra-left organisation Japanese Red Army. During her time in Pyongyang, recording video diaries with Tsuchiya’s camera, she is extremely attracted to the quality of unity she sees as integral to the North Korean system while otherwise unable to process the simultaneous truth that oppression and unity are not synonymous. Children are not abused in North Korea she naively explains having been invited to tour a day care centre, reflecting on her own difficult childhood in which she experienced bullying so severe it has left her with lasting trauma which prevents her from fully connecting with the world. 

It is indeed this sense of dislocation that pushed her towards nationalism, taken in by the idea of nation as family while looking for a place to belong. To be fair to her and to her bandmate Itoh neither of them express particularly extreme views aside from their historical revisionism and their idea of nationalism seems to be inclusive rather than exclusive in which they have no particular problem with minorities or people who are not considered to be ethnic Japanese. In fact, they seem to subscribe more to a patriotic small-c conservatism in which hard work is regarded as a virtue which should always be rewarded in full. This is the reason they give for their views on the controversial Yasukuni shrine which houses the souls of those who died in war including those later convicted of war crimes, believing that the soldiers like everyone else “worked hard” during the war and their sacrifice shouldn’t be ignored. 

For his part, Tsuchiya listens patiently to their sometimes confused ideology while internally questioning his own as someone who identifies as left-wing progressive and believes that the war was wrong and the emperor system is responsible for the majority of ills in contemporary Japan. Yet as someone else puts it left and right are in themselves fairly meaningless labels as is the concept of nation. Karin gets on fairly well the guys from the Japanese Red Army but finds their impassioned speechifying off-putting while later disillusioned with her nationalist organisation after her speech about her experiences in North Korea fails to elicit much of a reaction from those she now decries as being part of a social club less interested in serious politics than getting together for drinks and chat. The issue for her is that these people don’t really care about Japan and aren’t sufficiently interested in changing society for the better. 

The implication is that Karin and Itoh were drawn towards nationalism because of their marginalisation, Karin mercilessly bullied and disconnected from her birth family, while Itoh later admits he became a nationalist to escape being a “nerd”. What Karin craves is the sense of extended family one might feel in a society such as she feels North Korea to be, the emperor a father figure of paternalistic feudalism. She feels herself to be worthless, admitting that she feels best when’s she’s needed and is attracted by the sense of purpose found in activism while politics is for her an escapist fantasy that allows her to evade the need for self-examination. The pair of them also feel a sense of ennui in a stagnant society, decrying their “boring” lives in insisting that “this suffocating peace” has endured too long as they direct their ire ironically enough towards capitalism and Japan’s geopolitical relations with America. 

Opposition to American imperialism unites both left and right, implying that they aren’t so different after all. Tsuchiya advances that the difference between them is that he thinks the emperor system is at fault, while Karin and Itoh feel it to be a solution. He doesn’t understand why they need to locate a sense of pride in something external like nationhood or emperor rather than learning to find it from within, while Karin seems to long for authoritarianism out of a lack of self-confidence essentially hoping to be freed from the burden of choice. Even so through spending so much time listening to each other the trio have discovered a sense of mutual understanding which does not require them to agree or even to share common ground though they do more than expected, becoming as Tsuchiya hopes a path to a better society in which such meaningless labels existing only to divide one person from another are no longer relevant. 


The New God 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)

The Weald (杣人物語, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

@KUMIE Inc.

“I wish I were younger” comes a common refrain among the cast of elderly men and women living a traditional life in the mountains and forests of rural Japan in Naomi Kawase’s 1997 documentary, The Weald. Arriving in the same year as Kawase’s Caméra d’Or-winning narrative feature Suzaku, The Weald (杣人物語, Somaudo Monogatari) continues many of the same themes in her fascination with nature and moribund ways of life while taking on a meta existential dimension as her interviewees muse on loss, loneliness, and a lifetime’s regrets. 

What they almost all say is that they wish they could be young again with all the possibilities of youth. A lumberjack dreams of becoming a timber dealer, while another man jokes that he was once handsome though you wouldn’t know it now. One heartbreakingly laments that he’d like to start over because he’s never felt true happiness in his life. Then again, another believes that “happiness depends on your way of thinking” and that a man who’s learned to be satisfied with a small portion is in his own way rich. For another man happiness lies in having people speak well of him after he’s gone, knowing he must then have lived a good life. 

Then again life has its sadnesses. A carpenter reveals his private grief in having lost a son, unable even to watch his daughter’s wedding video because it’s too painful to see him there. “In a city he wouldn’t have had a motorbike” he sighs, reflecting that he was unlucky to have been born in the country and needlessly blaming himself for something not in his control. The last man, meanwhile, speaks movingly of his late mother’s descent into dementia and his own decision to give up on marriage while still young to dedicate himself to her, only to be left on his own in the end. He wonders if he was right to sacrifice his life for her while longing to be reborn in the hope of seeing his former girlfriend, his face dissolving into an old photograph in which he is young and handsome as if to grant his wish. 

Meanwhile, an old lady meditates on loneliness in a solo life of busyness firstly claiming to feel none but then revealing the emptiness of her days with no one to cook for. “I don’t know the meaning of life, I just live day to day” she explains, insisting that it’s pointless to worry and better just to get on with things. “I am satisfied to live each day peacefully” she adds, immersing herself in the moment. She like the others is uncertain why Kawase is filming her, telling her to come back later when she’s 18 again because old people are no fun. Another man later tells her not to waste her expensive film on him in case she needs it for something more important, the elderly residents either maudlin or amused but each mystified as to why someone is so keen to listen to their stories.  

Implicitly in these stories of the elderly, Kawase hints at the effects of continuing rural depopulation with fewer young people around, an elderly couple explaining that they have come to depend on each other even more as they aged only for the wife to fall ill and need care from her husband 14 years older but in better health. They go about their lives in the same way they have for decades, wandering the forests and practicing traditional skills which may all too soon be lost. 

In keeping with her earlier documentary work, Kawase often films in extreme close up or layers dialogue on top of another scene as when old lady wanders aimlessly trough the forest while her meditations on loneliness accompany her. What she seems to have discovered in the wisdom of those who agreed to speak to her is that happiness and suffering go hand in hand while youthful regret tinged with nostalgia can in itself almost be lonely. Even so many have managed to find meaning in their lives whether it be being present in nature or the love for one’s spouse and family while longing to be reborn eager for their next lives whatever they will be. “I wish only the best for everyone” someone adds before returning at last to spring and all the brief joys it will deliver. 


The Weald 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)

Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Makoto Sato, 1992)

Image ©️ Murai Osamu

With a crew of seven including himself, director Makoto Sato spent three years embedded within the small communities along the Agano River capturing a disappearing way of life but also the resilience of the elderly residents many of whom are unrecognised victims of Minamata disease caused by the chemical discharge from the Showa Denko chemical plant. 

“Kids don’t care about our rivers and our mountains” 80-year-old Miyae Hasegawa reminds her husband on the phone to their oldest daughter as she once again tries to convince him that he’s too old for the intensive labour of farming their rice paddies. Like many, the Hasegawas’ children have fled the rural village for more comfortable lives in the cities while their parents attempt to preserve their traditional way of life. “Gradually we realised that these rice paddies were their entire existence” the film crew later reflect, almost pitying them as they witness these quite elderly people bent over still harvesting the rice in their 80s while discovering on trying to help them that the work is far more difficult than they could have imagined not, presumably at least, very used to physical labour at least of this kind. 

Even so, “humans are cruel” Yoshio Hasegawa laments to his son having had too much to drink, somewhat ambivalent in having become proficient at catching salmon by hook. After all, the fish are only trying to live but humans keep pulling them out of the water. Later we watch him hook fishing at the river, the camera cutting to black as another man takes a fish he’s caught on a hook and bashes its brains in. Ironically, as the voiceover explains, Miyae had worked on the construction of the Kanose hydraulic dam in the 1920s which later powered the fertiliser plant which then became Showa Denko. After completion of the Yogawa dam in 1963, the fish ominously disappeared from the river and with them the traditional practice of fishing by hook.  

Many in the small communities along the water had welcomed the arrival of modernity that the Showa Denko plant had represented, some still remaining loyal to the company despite knowing what they know unable forget that they had benefitted economically from the factory’s existence. Ebana, meanwhile, who had worked for Showa Denko for 34 years now runs regular patrols of his local area monitoring for the possibility of landslides behind the plant. He was the only employee to sue Showa Denko as a victim of Minamata disease though the company’s attempt to transfer him out of the area when he did so put others off following his example, as did the degree of animosity towards him as others feared for their own economic stability or resented him for betraying his employers. Though the chemical emissions from the plant which flowed into the Agano have been acknowledged as the cause of the disease, the government introduced increasingly strict criteria for official recognition as a Minamata victim leaving many along the Agano unrecognised and therefore ineligible for support or compensation. Those involved in the ongoing legal case were required to make an arduous journey to Niigata once a month by bus or car, a heavy imposition on a community which is often elderly and suffering physical disabilities caused by the illness. As one elderly woman talks of her arched hand which she cannot straighten, a man shows her his burned foot after treading on the heated rail for his bath and being unable to feel it because of the loss of sensation caused by the Minamata disease. 

The fact that the river by which so many lived became actively harmful contributed to the rural exodus and decline of traditional ways of life along with skills which may then die out with no one to pass them on to. Boatmaker Endo had long since retired from making boats and had never taken on any apprentices but at an advanced age finally consented to teach a local carpenter how to make boats the traditional way, a special Shinto ceremony conducted as the next generation boat is completed. Meanwhile we also see a Shinto ceremony performed for the Mushi Jizo which protects people from disease born by insects such as the tsu-tsu living in the river which both gives and takes. Gently observational, Sato captures these disappearing ways of life with a poignant lyricality while equally addressing the politicisation of life along the river in a sense poisoned by modernity as the villagers must come together to fight for justice in a society which seems to have all but forgotten them. 


Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Aga ni Ikiru) streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

A Movie Capital (映画の都, Toshio Iizuka, 1991)

As the opening of Toshio Iizuka’s A Movie Capital (映画の都, Tokyo no Miyako) makes plain, 1989 was a year of turbulence all over the world but also perhaps also of hope as many of the directors invited to the very first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival often insist in positioning their art as an act of resistance against authoritarianism. In essence a visual record commemorating the festival’s inauguration, Iizuka’s film also has its meta qualities interrogating not only what documentary is and what it’s for but its potential as a means of bringing disparate communities together in an exchange of truth and solidarity. 

In fact, the film opens with a brief prologue dedicated to Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens, who sadly passed away just before the festival opened, contrasting Ivens’ 1928 work The Bridge with the box office hit of that year in Japan, Shozo Makino’s Chushingura. Jumping into the film proper we witness something similar as the tranquility of the Bubble-era nation is directly contrasted with the events of Tiananmen Square as seen in a video sent to the festival by a Chinese associate living in Hong Kong. In actuality, the first Yamagata featured no films from Asia in its competition section provoking a symposium in which a number of Asian directors, producers, and critics discuss why that might be. Ironically enough, fifth generation Mainland Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Horse Thief) was invited but unable to speak because, as his wife explains during an exasperating phone call, it’s not as easy for someone from China to travel abroad as it would be for someone elsewhere. The authorities haven’t granted him permission to leave and so he cannot even apply for a passport. 

Censorship and an element of personal danger to oneself or one’s family are otherwise cited as reasons documentary filmmaking has not taken taken off in Asia. The director of May 80 Dreamy Land which concerns the Gwangju Uprising is also unable to attend because he is currently on trial. Meanwhile, his representative Kong Su-Chang laments that he is among the older members of his small circle of documentary filmmakers who are of a generation without mentors having to teach themselves how to make films because there was no one there teach them. Filipino directors meanwhile cite the continuing influence of America along with wealth inequality as potential reasons the documentary has not flourished while asking if documentary and entertainment are in some way incompatible given that documentary is at its most popular at moments of crisis. 

Still as almost every interview states at one time or another, their primary goal is to make sure the voices of their subjects are heard and their faces seen determined to capture the everyday experiences of ordinary people as honestly as possible. While it’s obviously true that none of them were themselves included in the competition, many directors also claim that more important is the opportunity to meet other filmmakers in order to generate friendships and exchange ideas. They see their mission as making the world a better place to live hoping to challenge the status quo through their filmmaking while what Yamagata becomes to them is an opportunity to improve the fortunes of documentary filmmakers throughout Asia through mutual solidarity while the town of Yamagata itself also comes together as a community in order to celebrate documentary art even recruiting the marching band of a local primary school to help. 

One director’s suggestion that the future will become harder for dictators thanks to the democratisation of technology may in a sense be naive but in its own way true in the ability of ordinary people to record their own stories even if they face the same difficulties and dangers. Even so Iizuka’s assembled footage from the films which played that first edition alongside interview and Q&A footage not only help to give an impression of the open and enquiring nature of the festival, but also to interrogate itself and its art asking what it’s for and what purpose it can serve at a moment of geopolitical instability as the Berlin Wall falls and the echoes of Tiananmen reverberate while documenting not only a single event but its purpose and intention. 


A Movie Capital streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Kyoko Miyake, 2013)

“I can’t let TEPCO ruin my life” the heroine of Kyoko Miyake’s personal documentary My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Nami no Mukou) eventually asserts, explaining that when you have no more tears to cry then you become defiant. Having lived in London for 10 years prior to filming the documentary, a lack of defiance was something that had initially interested Miyake, wondering if she’d simply been away too long no longer understanding why everyone in her family’s hometown of Namie in Fukushima continued to refer to the Tokyo Electric Power Company in such affectionate terms. Then again, as her aunt Kuniko points out before losing her patience, “anger won’t get us anywhere”.

Returning to Japan soon after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Miyake details her own relationship with Namie, rendered uninhabitable after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, during her opening voiceover describing it as a warm and nostalgic place marked by a sense of rural tranquility. Nevertheless through making the documentary she comes to question both herself and the town, wondering why it was that people were so keen to have the plant come when the prevailing wisdom of her own generation was anti-nuclear and wary of duplicitous heavy industry. As her aunt and her friends reveal, however, post-war Namie was a poor village where farmers often had to leave for city jobs over the winter to make ends meet. Some grew envious of other local towns which had become economically prosperous thanks to corporate investment while others remained sceptical. Those who refused to sell their land for the development of another nuclear plant were harassed into submission by those convinced of its benefits, while TEPCO was keen to invite the local community to inspect existing plants to prove that they were safe. 

An awkward and in fact incredibly sexist propaganda video targeted at local wives and mothers demonstrates that safety was still an issue as late as the ‘90s, a company representative ominously claiming that the plant has been designed to withstand a tsunami before adding “we will never betray your trust”. Many residents still want to believe in TEPCO’s promises, sure that they will somehow fix what is broken even while many of them are trapped in temporary housing with no idea when or if they’ll be allowed to return home. Aunt Kuniko tries to stay cheerful, bored with trying to kill time having previously devoted herself entirely to work. Miyake describes her aunt as a feminist pioneer who showed her how to be glamorous and successful while also having a rich family life. Ironically enough, Kuniko ran both a wedding parlour and a funeral home right next to each other with a bakery in-between. She wanted her children to take the businesses over, but her three sons have already moved on, one buying an apartment and starting a business of his own far away without saying anything at all about it to her. 

The tsunami disaster has deepened a generational divide with the young leaving the area to make new lives elsewhere while as one old lady puts it the elderly are left behind with nothing to do but laugh. These people haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their hometown, in a sense orphaned and free floating in a Japan struggling to find space for them as the heartrending echoes of plaintive folksong Furusato make clear. Forced to accept they may never be able to return, Kuniko looks for new premises but only for her funeral home conceding that there’s not much future in the wedding business, with all of the youngsters gone there’s no one left to get married. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety” she laments, regretting having been duped by TEPCO and the dubious promises they sold even as they positioned themselves as the driving force of the post-war economic miracle. The town felt proud by proxy that the energy they generated went into rebuilding the country, but as Miyake admits as long as the lights stay on in Tokyo no one cares about Fukushima or about the people still living in temporary accommodation caught in a never-ending limbo waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do now that everything they’ve ever worked for or built is lost in an instant. 

While her husband remains somewhat sympathetic to TEPCO, arguing that the problem isn’t nuclear power but safety, Kuniko begins to lose her patience taking part in protest marches against the plant while trying to salvage what she can from her old life. Miyake bookends the film with images of post-Fukushima Namie now an eerie ghost town, pastries still sitting in Kuniko’s bakery the area’s timelessness ironically mirroring Miyake’s description of it in her childhood memories as a kind of time-warp to post-war Japan from bubble-era Tokyo. An elegy for a community erased, Miyake’s quietly angry documentary takes aim at indifferent government and corporate greed, but finds also a stoical sense of endurance as Kuniko waters her abandoned flowers and prepares to start again. 


My Atomic Aunt streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.