A Dedicated Life (全身小説家, Kazuo Hara, 1994)

“Human beings have things they don’t want to share with others. This is the truth, but what we choose to tell from the truth is fiction” according to the elusive subject of Kazuo Hara’s probing personality doc, A Dedicated Life (全身小説家, Zenshin Shosetsuka). “Full of lies and contradictions” as a friend later describes him, Hara had apparently planned to follow controversial author Mitsuharu Inoue for a number of years only for his subject to be diagnosed with terminal liver cancer shortly after filming began. 

Even as the film opens, however, we can intuit that much of the life of Mitsuharu Inoue is performance, an adoring audience of his students and followers screaming in pleasure as he performs a striptease while dressed as a geisha to the classic enka hit Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki. Seconds earlier he’d told them that he longed to belong to a theatre troupe and that his grandfather had been a famous kabuki actor, a claim that later seems to be entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Inoue commands almost cult-like adoration from the mainly middle-aged women who surround him, one after another confessing their undying love for the genius author in successive to camera interviews and only occasionally hurt or frustrated in the often callous way he seems to have treated each of them. As we later realise, somewhat casually, Inoue is also married to patient and presumably very understanding wife who tenderly cares for him throughout his illness. 

To begin with, Hara presents us with a vision of Inoue at face value as a fun loving libertine living it up with his students/disciples who can also be cuttingly cruel in his criticism, humiliating one of his female followers at the podium by tearing apart her assignment in front of the class, later doing the same thing to a male author at a dinner party. After making a good recovery from his first battle with cancer he vows to go in harder with his students, reminding them that he can be friendly and charming one minute and unceremoniously cut them off the next should they disappoint him. Nevertheless, they apparently remain devoted to their mentor or at least the image of himself he seeks to project. 

Those who’ve known him many years appear to know that Inoue is a habitual liar and that even his much praised autobiography is largely an act of autofiction. An author friend and Buddhist nun later suggests that Inoue perhaps had something deep inside him he didn’t want to share and lying was his way of taking control over his life, his cultivated persona an avant-garde literary act. Having presented him as he is or claims to be, Hara eventually begins to undercut Inoue’s image by interviewing friends, relatives, and acquaintances who frequently debunk his sometimes outlandish claims while also hinting at the half-truths and mysteries at the centre of his family history. Following Inoue’s sister Tazuko who remains as clueless as her brother realising they’ve either misremembered her grandmother’s name or it was wrong on the family register, Hara uncovers a melancholy tale of marital failure and maternal abandonment once again embellished by Inoue who alternately gives differing accounts of his youthful attempt to reconnect with the mother who left him behind which are themselves disputed by the recollections of others. 

His grandiose claims go seemingly unexamined by his followers, eating up his tales of how he founded the first Communist Party in Japan only to become disillusioned by the movement and be kicked out after writing a story criticising the Party (a friend from the time describes him as more of an errand boy who was never really “serious” in his politics), or the tragedy of his first love which ended with a Korean classmate sold to a brothel where he later lost his virginity in a not quite consensual chain of events he claims left him feeling violated while she laughed from an upper window witnessing his defeated retreat. In a break from his usual observational shooting style, Hara adds a series of dramatic reconstructions tinted in a pre-war blue the unreality of which stands in stark contrast to the almost too intimate scenes of Inoue’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent operation as his liver is lifted from his belly and taken away as if presented for the camera. In a revealing moment, Inoue remarks that an alternative medical practitioner he’s just consulted going by the name “Redbeard” just like the movie is not convincing, lacking credibility because he failed to fill the gap between his words perhaps hinting at the techniques he himself uses to convince himself and others of his self-created image. Hara does not so much try to dissect it as to look quizzically at its contradictions, admiring the beauty of the enigma if in reflection of its intrinsic sadness. 

A Dedicated Life streams in the US & Canada until July 2 as part of Japan Society New York’s Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara & Sachiko Kobayashi

DVD rerelease trailer (no subtitles)

Sayuri Ishikawa’s Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki

Minamata Mandala (水俣曼荼羅, Kazuo Hara, 2020)

“An Individual can never win against the government” according to a man seeking justice, “Challenging the government means risking your life”, yet he continues to fight. In his 2017 documentary Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Kazuo Hara had charted the protracted efforts of workers from the factories in Sennan to get justice from the government that failed to protect them. 15 years in the making, Minamata Mandala (水俣曼荼羅) addresses another of post-war Japan’s great industrial scandals as victims of the “Minamata disease” struggle for recognition in the face of continued governmental intransigence. 

Opened in 1908, the Chisso chemical plant was among the most technologically advanced in Japan yet it routinely expelled wastewater directly into Minamata bay. The factory had already paid compensation in 1926 and 1943 for damage done to local fisheries before a change in its production process led to the release of methylmercury into the local water system from 1951 onwards. Though some had noticed unusual behaviour in animals, it wasn’t until 1956 when a little girl fell ill with strange symptoms including difficulty walking and speaking that a widespread “”epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system” was discovered in the local community and subsequently came to be known as the “Minamata Disease”. In order to cover their tracks, Chisso began discharging wastewater directly into Minamata River spreading the pollution further along the coast with additional cases arising in other villages on the Shiranui Sea. 

Hara’s justice seekers, however, take aim not directly at Chisso which still exists and is a dominant economic force in the area, but local and national governments whose continued failure to protect them has greatly exacerbated their suffering. The greatest source of their discomfort is the unfairness of criteria set down in 1977 for legal certification of Minamata Disease in order to gain access to compensation. According to contemporary researchers, the criteria, inspired by Hunter-Russell syndrome discovered after an industrial accident in the UK in the 1940s, were simply wrong leading to the vast majority of applicants being rejected. Hara shifts between the stories of various victims and a pair of scientists determined to prove that the root of the disease lies not in peripheral nerve but brain damage and that the criteria is therefore useless in certifying cases of Minamata Disease. The applicants, meanwhile, intensely resent the implication that they are not genuine, that they are undergoing a collective delusion, faking their symptoms, or suffering from an unrelated illness not the responsibility of Chisso or the government. 

One campaigner whose hair was found to contain high levels of mercury at two years old recounts his ill treatment at the hands of the legal system which implied application of the criteria could be affected by “personality” factors while passive aggressively listing his occupation as “time waster”. Though his case may at first seem mild, it’s also true that as he’s suffered from Minamata Disease his entire life it’s difficult for him to assess how severely it affects him as evidenced by the accidental severing of the top of his thumb which he barely noticed because of his reduced sensitivity to pain. Like other sufferers, he is often privy to the usual hollow apologies from politicians (including one from then Minister of the Environment Yuriko Koike), though another source of frustration is that those in power often refuse to attend meetings with Minamata patients sending underprepared underlings in their stead. One particularly heated meeting quickly goes south when a rookie civil servant allows his handwritten memo reading “no apologies” to be seen by a woman recording the proceedings from the front row while his embarrassed colleagues are able to offer little other than the standard platitudes insisting the Minamata issue has already been dealt with through the previous settlements. 

Rather than focus on the court cases and medical investigations, however, Hara is keen to remind us of the costs to the victims of industrial poisoning, one of the scientists later breaking down as he explains that the main effect of the disease is sensory deprivation leaving even those mildly affected unable to enjoy their lives fully. A rather poignant song written by a congenital sufferer reflects on her tendency to fall in love too easily and be forever disappointed while longing for a freedom and independence denied her because of her disability. For the campaigners, meanwhile, Minamata Disease has robbed them of their right to a personal life as they devote all of themselves to fighting for justice while acknowledging that even when they win it brings little improvement into the lives of those forever affected by industrial pollution. Just as Hara had expressed frustration with the Sennen campaigners he felt were overly feudal in their deference to authority, some find it difficult to support those who ultimately opted to accept a paltry settlement while simultaneously understanding the desire not to have to fight anymore especially as even those born with the disease are now approaching late middle-age. Ending on a poignant freeze-frame, however, Hara reminds us that the damage can never be undone nor can there be adequate compensation for the tremendous loss of potential even as the government continues to vacillate in the abdication of its responsibility. 

Minamata Mandala streams in the US until July 2 as part of Japan Society New York’s Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara & Sachiko Kobayashi

Clip (English subtitles)