The occupation had ended in 1952, but America’s influence on Japanese society continued in other ways not least among them defence. 1960 saw the biggest protest movement Japan has ever experienced against the renewal of the security treaty with the Americans that underpinned the pacifist constitution, though the treaty was eventually signed anyway in defiance of public opinion. Student protestors and radicals came to feel oppressed by American imperialism and objected to the hypocrisies of Japan’s role in America’s foreign in policy in Asia. For these reasons, those on the political left came to feel a solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against colonialism and began to travel to Palestine in order to learn and share support often filming what they’d observed for those back home.
R 21: Restoring Solidarity is a collection of 20 such films kept safe in Japan and later handed to the director, Mohanad Yaqubi, after a screening of his previous film, Off Frame. Film number 21 is the film itself intended as a message of solidarity in the overarching contemporary voice over narration in Japanese. The films themselves are in several languages, many of them subtitled or dubbed for audiences in Japan, some shot by Japanese activists in Palestine and others produced by news organisations or other observers. A few feature upsetting footage of bodies and rubble, tanks on the streets, and shoes without owners while others record children singing cheerfully about peace or displaced students talking about their hopes of one day restoring their country.
A lengthy sequence contains an interview with an old woman recounting how her village was slowly erased to a British reporter, a more obvious parallel with Japan occurring with the direct allusion to the devastation of the atom bomb in ruined landscapes now devoid of all human life existing only as the symbol of societal collapse. The old woman tells the reporter that they should leave the town the way it is as a reminder of the evils which have gone before. Yet also included in the archive is footage from a programme with a British voice over which seems to be much more propagandistic in tone, raising questions of the purpose and objectivity of the videos and the role they were intended to play.
Perhaps the most interesting segment features a short film starring a collection of children who come across an abandoned missile launcher and start playing with it only to be confronted with the realities of conflict on coming across the body of another child. The children then appear in military uniforms, radicalised to avenge their friend by fighting for their country. The reels also include direct to camera statements and interviews from prominent people that may also in their own way contain a degree of artifice. Yaqubi frequently cuts in with images of the reels themselves or restoration process reminding us that what we’re seeing is a constructed image that’s being reconstructed before our eyes and quite literally repurposed but also “restored” and repaired as an archive of struggle.
The voice over reminds us of the struggles still ongoing, the indifferent self-interest of global powers that led to the early ‘70s oil crisis which threatened to derail the Japanese economic miracle and itself fostered a desire for closer relationships with Middle Eastern nations. A reporter for a Japanese newspaper, however, states that he thinks most people in Japan would be broadly in favour of the Palestinian cause if superficially knowing little of it while political support can be fickle and lacking in depth. As the voice over suggests, video is and was a powerful way of keeping memories alive but also of expressing solidarity with an otherwise distant cause in the shared struggle against colonial oppression.
“If there were no live streaming platforms, I don’t think I’d know anyone” a middle-aged grandmother turned unexpected online star admits, laying bare the sense of isolation and impossibility she feels in her life in rural China. Daphne Xu’s largely observational documentary Huahua’s Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations (花花世界, huāhuāshìjiè) follows Huahua as she goes about her ordinary days, Xu’s camera filming her as she films herself so, she claims, that those like her “won’t lose hope” gaining their own kind of courage in witnessing her optimism and positivity.
Huahua’s most popular activity is her furious dancing, often wearing a distinctive floral headband if adding a beauty filter to her videos as a means of altering her realities. Reality might not, however, be that far away. During one particular dancing video she suddenly stops and picks up a box of oranges currently on sale at her store and begins peddling them to her followers who often support her monetarily by sending hearts online. As Huahua admits, live streaming is a learning curve for a woman like her who is illiterate and was given little education. While driving home from a nearby commercial area, she emphasises the importance of early education for all children while suggesting that kids from the city learn faster not just because their schools are better resourced but simply because they interact with more people. Children in rural areas might go days without seeing anyone and only have regular contact with the same few family members and acquaintances limiting their ability to learn from each other which also in its way informs her appreciation for live streaming in the community it has given her access to which she might otherwise be denied.
Meanwhile, she’s clear on the importance of education for women in particular explaining that she’s dedicated to supporting her daughter’s studies so that she will have a better future than she has had not least because she will be financially independent which means she will be at less risk of becoming trapped in an abusive relationship. Huahua’s relationship with her husband seems to that extent to be unhappy, Huahua complaining that she has to cook his meals after working all day while no one cooks for her. During a later live-streaming session, she characterises him as violent but says that she gives as good as she gets suggesting that this is the way she mediates the power differential in their relationship. Then again, she also uncomfortably remarks that women who are killed by violent partners or continue to suffer domestic abuse bring it on themselves by being too “weak” to fight back lending a darker shade to her messages of no-nonsense self-sufficiency in implying that her drive is largely fuelled by a desire to be free of male violence and subjugation.
On her live streaming platform, she is very much in charge but also offers a fairly egalitarian sensibility in which each of her viewers is free to contribute as little or as much as they want whenever they choose without needing to think about hierarchy. China’s live streaming networks are also subject to a heavy degree of censorship, but Huahua declares herself unafraid to speak her mind and frequently uses profanity which might otherwise incur a ban given the prohibition against “vulgar” behaviour. Her followers seem to appreciate her frankness along with her willingness to offer advice and commentary on the things that might be bothering them.
It’s the idea of exchange which might in the end be the most valuable. Huahua’s videos are as much about sharing as they are showing off, allowing her to connect with others in the otherwise isolated environment of rural China. This sense of openness seems to have rubbed off on her daughter who dreams of studying languages and eventually becoming a diplomat channeling her mother’s “optimism” into an international career. She does though worry about the declining opportunities available in her community in which a new commercial development offers no promise of employment but in fact its reverse. “There won’t even be a place for you to buy jianbing” her teachers somewhat dismissively warn, speaking of an age when everything is automated. They even have robots to mix cocktails, what will the local people do to support themselves in the future? Like Huahua they may need to find alternative means not only to make money but to create new worlds in their own image free of geographical and social constraints.
Huahua’s Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations screens March 18 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image as part of this year’s First Look.
New York’s Museum of the Moving Image has announced the complete programme for this year’s First Look which takes place March 15 – 19. As usual there are a number of East Asian films on offer including a documentary following a streaming star in rural China, the latest drama from Koji Fukada, and an experimental film featuring restorations of footage shot in Palestine in the 1960s and 70s dubbed or subtitled in Japanese for sympathetic audiences in Japan.
Experimental documentary featuring pro-Palestinian footage dubbed or subtitled into Japanese and intended for a sympathetic audience in Japan which felt oppressed by US influence and identified with the Palestinian’s struggle for self-determination.