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.
R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity screens March 18 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image as part of this year’s First Look.