Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Kazuo Hara, 2017)

Sennan Asbestos Disaster posterIn these troubled times, many may find themselves wondering what the purpose of government really is. Is the primary duty of the state to look after its citizens or to maintain “order” and what exactly is the limit of the state’s responsibility towards those most in need of its care? Director Kazuo Hara had made a career of examining the lives of those who dared to defy the system, but his latest film Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Nipponkoku vs Sennan Ishiwata Mura) focusses not on an individual but on a group of ordinary people attempting to stand up to governmental bureaucracy after having been betrayed by successive administrations who put economic prosperity ahead of citizens’ welfare.

Asbestos was hailed as something of a wonder for its highly useful properties including sound insulation, fire proofing, strength and durability. Increasing in use throughout the industrial revolution, the harmful affects of asbestos were first discovered in the early 20th century but its use across most of the world was not banned until the turn of the millennium following long campaigns by those whose health had been adversely affected by breathing in its fibres leading to long term respiratory issues and even a risk of cancer.

In Sennan, in the South West of Japan, asbestos production was the dominant economy stretching back into the Meiji era. Concerns had been raised about the possible harmful effects of asbestos before the war and then again afterwards, but successive governments chose to do nothing while workers remained unaware of the risks even while noticing that many of their friends and family members were dying young often of respiratory conditions. Most only became aware that asbestos was dangerous in 2005 following a national scandal known as the “Kubota Shock” in which a well respected manufacturer of machinery was forced to admit that as much as 10% of its workforce had died of asbestos-related conditions.

Hara follows a collective of Sennan residents who have come together to file a class action law suit against the government for failing to ensure safety standards in asbestos production. Led by Kazuyoshi Yuoka whose grandfather owned an asbestos factory before the war, the group members are mainly older men and women who worked in the factories during the economically straitened days of the immediate post-war period. Though many point to the otherwise progressive nature of the factories which were desperate to attract workers and keen to foster a community spirit as well as offering other benefits including access to education, it is true that many of the employees were among those already facing other kinds of oppression aside from the economic – the uneducated rural poor, women, and a large number of minorities including zainichi Koreans. This information is important because it exposes the truth that the state decided these people were expendable and could be sacrificed in the name of the economic prosperity that was deemed necessary in order to rebuild the nation after its crushing wartime defeat.

Unlike the protagonists of Hara’s previous films, the Sennan campaigners are ordinary people – those assumed to have very little social power pressuring their government to take responsibility for having wilfully abandoned them. Unsurprisingly, the government is not very keen to do so. The legal case drags on eight years during which many of the sufferers die while their children or spouses continue the quest for justice. The case itself is wider than it first seems, extending not just to factory workers but to those exposed by general proximity such as famers owning land near asbestos plants and in one poignant case a woman whose parents took her to the factory while they worked when she was a child.

Forming a tightly knit community, the campaigners present a united front but come up against the wall of bureaucracy. As time wears on it’s difficult not to feel a small amount of sympathy for the junior civil servants the government trots out to deal with angry protestors, forced to repeat the same tired phrases without explanation while the group insist on seeing someone with a bit more clout, but even when the case is finally proved, progress is slow and the ritual apology as hollow as it always is. Yet even if some are angered by the perfunctory nature of professional atonement, others actively embrace it and appear grateful even for this small shred of attention from the authority. It’s here that Hara wavers in his sympathy, admiring the kindhearted solidarity of the protestors but lamenting their tendency towards feudal deference when they should be raging against a society which is often content to exploit and discard them, remaining accidentally complicit in enabling a gradual decline of democratic freedoms.

Nevertheless, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is the chronicle of a (partially) successful campaign in which a group of concerned citizens working within the law eventually force the government to concede an error, even if that concession may turn out to have no wider application. The victory, however, can’t bring back lost time nor ease past suffering and only serves to draw a line under one chapter of a struggle which is sadly far from over.


Sennan Asbestos Disaster was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Kazuo Hara, 1987)

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On PosterThe relationship between a director and a subject can often be a complex one. Who is really leading who and towards what end is a difficult enough question at the best of times, but when your subject is an unhinged crackpot with a definite agenda, a natural love of the camera, and an unpredictable violent streak, it’s an inescapable conundrum. Kenzo Okuzaki, a Pacific War veteran with a deeply seated grudge against the emperor for his refusal to acknowledge his war guilt, first came to the attention of director Shohei Imamura but a second stretch in prison for firing pachinko balls at the object of his wrath put paid to his directorial hopes. 10 years later Imamura passes his subject on to Kazuo Hara who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of his mercurial campaign for truth and reconciliation.

The main thrust of Okuzaki’s current activities lies in uncovering the facts behind the deaths of two enlisted men who were executed in New Guinea three weeks after the war was over. Okuzaki believes the men were murdered and lies the blame at the feet firstly of the officers on the ground and ultimately at those of the emperor who created the circumstances in which all of this horror was allowed to bloom. To assist him in his investigations, Okuzaki ropes in the families of the victims – one a Shinto priestess who is convinced she sees her brother in her dreams and on her altar, and the other a conflicted brother who just wants to know the truth. The truth, however, may be hard to hear, as one of the men Okuzaki corners tries to tell them. Like most of the others questioned about the events of almost forty years before, he advises the family that it’s better not to know while emphasising that their relatives died through no fault of their own.

What is probably obvious to Okuzaki but not to the relatively less cynical family members is that an issue is being skirted. The soldier makes out that he doesn’t want to go into the deaths because the men were executed for desertion – something which is absurd in itself when the war was already over, and that he did not want the family to experience the shame and social stigma of being related to “cowards” who failed in their “duty”. Such notions are already out of date by the late ‘80s, but evidently still weigh heavily on the minds of veterans. Wanting to spare others the pain and shame of discovering the truth about what happened in New Guinea is a frequent excuse offered by those questioned, but perhaps a way of deflecting their own reluctance to speak of such deeply traumatic, extremely difficult events.

Getting them to open up is not Okuzaki’s first thought. Okuzaki himself is a strange man with a disturbing aura and a tendency to self-aggrandisement. When we first meet him he’s acting as a go-between at a wedding of a man he met through his “activism” which is to say a fellow combatant in Okuzaki’s campaign against “The Establishment”. A wedding speech might not be the most appropriate moment to embark on a personal history that involves going to prison for murdering someone you “did not want” to murder as well as a litany of anti-establishment acts including the pachinko ball incident and distributing “pornographic” pictures of the emperor to shoppers at a Tokyo department store. Nevertheless, Okuzaki is extremely proud of these “achievements” which exemplify how he alone has continued to fight the good fight in the post-war world. He sees his original conviction as karma not for his actions in the Pacific but the wastefulness of his life afterwards. He now believes he was saved from New Guinea in order to educate the young about the horrors of war and ensure none of this ever happens again.

Problematically, his main weapon in this fight is violence. Okuzaki’s manner is one of extreme politeness, bordering on obsequiousness, but he is also direct and aggressive, becoming violent when his subjects decline to answer his questions. The relatives are there to shame the officers into speaking the truth through being directly confronted by the human costs of their actions, but Okuzaki’s personal bluster hasn’t thought through the various ways in which his tactics might make it more difficult for them to speak. After all, Okuzaki is a veteran of New Guinea himself, if these men could feel comfortable talking to anyone about their experiences, you’d think they could turn to someone like Okuzaki if only he were not so frightening a presence. Uncomfortably enough, the violence does seem to work and Okuzaki gets his answers through intimidation which leaves his quarry broken and compliant. Despite claiming to work for world peace, Okuzaki believes that his violence is justified by the worthiness of his aims, which you have to admit is an oddly familiar mantra.

His subject’s propensity for violence places Hara in a difficult position, as do his frequent attempts at engineering the situation including roping in his wife and a couple of male friends to pose as relatives of the deceased when the original couple tire of Okuzaki’s exploitative antics. Okuzaki quite obviously has a very clear aim for what he perhaps sees as a propaganda exercise for his ongoing cause which might stand in deep contrast to that of his director who is, after all, a bystander reconstructing narrative after the fact. Okuzaki emerges as a symbol of a nation’s repressed trauma, skittering between officious politeness and belligerent violence while offering a bizarre, quasi-religious philosophy about god’s plan for us all. Hara remains caught between conflicting impulses, unwittingly complicit in Okuzaki’s personal war against war while trying to maintain control in the face of his constant manipulations. As a portrait of a madman The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On excels, painting Okuzaki as a product of his own mad times while refusing to back away from the bitter truths his madness is so keen to expose.


The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Yuki Yukite, Shingun) was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (極私的エロス 恋歌1974, Kazuo Hara, 1974)

Extreme private eros 1974If you’re going to use your camera to interrogate the world, perhaps it’s only fair to let the world interrogate you by means of your own camera. Kazuo Hara’s second documentary is about as personal as its possible to get – a detached, rational examination of the interplay between the director and his subject who happens to be his former lover and the mother of his child. A thinly veiled excuse to maintain contact with a woman who had abandoned him and taken his child with her, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (極私的エロス 恋歌1974, Gokushiteki Eros: Renka 1974) is both a tiny snapshot of a nation in flux, and a timeless exploration of the end of love.

Hara and his former lover Miyuki Takeda had lived together for three years and even had a child when she abruptly announced that she no longer wanted to live under the authority of a man or as a member of a “traditional” family and intended to leave in order to live a life of complete independence. Although the relationship was officially over, Miyuki maintained contact with Hara and visited him more or less weekly so it was an additional shock when she suddenly announced she was moving to Okinawa. However, Miyuki made a strange request of her former lover – that he film her attempt to give birth without assistance. Hoping to remain close to her or perhaps to attempt to understand better the reasoning behind her erratic behaviour, Hara agrees.

In Okinawa, Miyuki has moved in with another woman, Sugako, but the relationship between them appears strained and ill defined. Hara’s arrival, he eventually realises, is yet another disruptive influence in this already fraught environment but it’s unclear whether his camera is a deliberate or accidental witness to a series of extremely difficult, not to mention private, conversations taking place in front of a third party in which Miyuki berates her silent roommate for rejecting her desire for a full and exclusive relationship in favour of continuing to sleep with her friend Tommy.

When the relationship with Sugako breaks down, Miyuki takes up with a black GI, Paul, who later becomes the father of the child she intends to birth alone. Though interviewing Miyuki alongside Paul (who speaks no Japanese) is a mild and dispassionate affair, interviewing Miyuki alone about her new lover and the basis of their relationship sends Hara into a spiral of jealousy and despair in which he eventually cedes control of his camera to an assistant and appears on screen breaking down in tears. Wondering if Miyuki is as accidentally jealous of him as he is of Miyuki, Hara muddies the waters by inviting his own new lover, Sachiko – who is also pregnant with his child, to assist him in the making of the documentary. Hara gets his wish. Miyuki is indeed jealous, angrily barking at Sachiko while running down her former lover in every conceivable way, and yet the two women eventually end up bonding, once again excluding Hara from his own attempt at narrative.

The perspective is indeed Hara’s – his weary voiceover and occasionally passive aggressive, exasperated intertitles making plain his own confusion and continued searching for the central question of what exactly he’s trying to achieve, but Miyuki wrestles with him for overall control and to assert her right of ownership over her own story (or at least the presentation of it). Miyuki’s quest seems to be one of total independence – she rejects the world of the patriarchal family, later rejecting love entirely and resolving to live without a man or woman, but remains firmly within its standard ideological parameters in recasting herself as the embodiment of selfless motherhood. She rejects the ideas of traditional Japanese femininity, insisting that her children are raised to be aggressive rather than meek or gentle or kind and going so far as to reject these supposedly feminised qualities as she sees them in her own son as reflections of those same qualities she eventually found unappealing in Hara. She becomes obsessed with the idea of mixed-race children, perhaps as an extension of her desire for a non-Japanese idea of individualism, but later tells her new born daughter that Japan is good and America bad, and pens a damning letter of advice to the women of Okinawa warning them off deceitful GIs.

Miyuki is a woman with scant respect for boundaries and so Hara is granted near unrestricted access to the entirety of her existence as she pursues her various desires and contradictory convictions. Hara’s camera is both unobtrusive and powerfully present, privy to extremely private thoughts and conversations and only occasionally inserting itself into the narrative but unafraid to embrace taboos while perhaps also conflicted in its own defiant pursuit of emotional honesty at all costs. In attempting to capture his subject Hara illuminates both himself and his society, exposing painful truths and unwelcome prejudices but perhaps allowing them to fester unresolved in a future which is both open yet also uncertain.


Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Trailer (English subtitles)