Asia is One (アジアはひとつ, NDU, 1973)

“They came to beat us into a splendid Japanese future, to conquer us” according to an interview in a small Taiwanese mountain village towards the end of the Nihon Documentarist Union’s Asia is One (アジアはひとつ, Asia wa Hitotsu). Having documented Okinawa on the brink of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty, the collective return to examine more widely its legacies of oppression and exploitation under Japanese imperialism venturing first to its smaller islands and then all the way out to Taiwan from which many migrant workers had come to work in harsh conditions in Okinawan mines during the colonial era. 

One man describes himself as having been tricked in coming to the Marusan mine in 1933 in the mistaken belief he could work there for six months and then return home. “I thought it would be better to die than live there” he goes on, originally too afraid to attempt escape having seen others rounded up and punished but later managing to get away by blowing up a boat. A Japanese man who worked at the Noda mine in Iriomote, meanwhile, reveals that they were refused days off and sick workers were often cast out. Many simply died because they could not afford to pay for medical attention. Workers were paid in company script which could be spent only on the compound, the mine owners fearing workers would abscond if they were paid in cash. By his reckoning, however, the Taiwanese workers had it better because they were working on a contract basis and could get a better rate of pay. A third man, Masuda, meanwhile describes long days and early mornings, being unable to eat if they didn’t have money for the canteen, and the watchmen locking their bedroom doors at night to prevent them escaping. The conditions were so bad that one man took his own life by blowing himself up with dynamite tied around his waist. 

Even so, the second man then living in a nursing home, does not blame the mine owner, Mr. Noda, describing him simply as a “capitalist” and remarking that he was often kind and generous giving workers money for medical treatment etc, blaming instead the foreman. “It’s the people working under the capitalists who are bad” he explains, bearing out the extent to which oppressed people will often oppress others like them in order to feel less oppressed but also letting the system off the hook in failing to acknowledge that if Mr Noda had really been good and kind he could have improved conditions in the mine while still remaining “a capitalist”. Hsieh King-Fu, known as Dr. Seh, whose father worked as a doctor at the mines recalls a mass outbreak of malaria among the Taiwanese migrant workers leading to a shortage of morphine. Having bought supplies from a local pharmacy himself a rumour later circulated he was injecting them deliberately to get them addicted so he could drag them away so endemic had the sense of betrayal and exploitation become. 

Meanwhile since the reversion the islands have been fostering deeper connections with Taiwan which is after all geographically closer than the Japanese mainland. An older man explains that he’s instilling Taiwanese agricultural techniques in the local population and has successfully been cultivating pineapples on the island for the last 40 years. Fishermen too remark on how much easier it is to trade with Taiwan rather than the mainland because it’s simply closer meaning they can also trade live fish with a longer shelf life. Meanwhile an official details a potential agreement between the Ryukyu government and Taiwan to recruit workers developing new ties independently from those of mainland Japan. 

Yet in travelling to Taiwan itself, the documentary collective encounter surprising reactions to the legacy of Japanese colonialism in a small village inhabited by the indigenous Atayal community who still play the Japanese national anthem every day at noon. Many of them can still speak fluent Japanese having been forced to learn it during the colonial era and have almost a fondness for Japanese rule. “We owe everything to Japan” one woman states, uncomfortably grateful for her “civilisation” and thankful that the Japanese educated them out of some of their more “barbaric” customs such as the admittedly oppressive practice of beheading. Like the Korean man who obtained three names during his travels through the Japanese empire, many of the villagers have names in their indigenous language, names in Mandarin, and names in Japanese. “I’m still terrified of imperialism and oppression” one man admits though adding “I guess imperialism is different now” in lamenting that the emperor has never visited him but observing that he looked “free” on his last tour to Taiwan before going on to talk about a seal he received from the emperor after executing prisoners, by beheading, as a conscript soldier during the war. Asia may indeed be one if ironically, united in the destructive legacy of Japanese imperialism, but perhaps also finding new ways to repair itself which take less account of concepts such as sovereignty, diplomatic recognition, or man-made borders. 


Asia is One streams worldwide (excl. Taiwan and Japan) until June 3 as part of Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections.

Motoshinkakarannu (沖縄エロス外伝 モトシンカカランヌー, NDU, 1971)

Active between 1968 and 1973, the Nihon Documentarist Union or NDU was a collective of documentary filmmakers emerging from the then declining student movement and “Zenkyoto” struggle committees whose members were often university drop outs disillusioned with the system. The group’s 1971 documentary Motoshinkakarannu (沖縄エロス外伝 モトシンカカランヌー, Okinawa Eros Gaiden: Motoshinkakarannu), shot in black and white and using asynchronous sound, takes its name from a word in the Okinawan language used to describe a business which can be started without seed money, effectively an ironic euphemism for sex work. Visiting the islands immediately prior to their return to Japan, the collective examines among other things a legacy of exploitation along with the effects of economic dependency on one or another colonising force. 

“How come Okinawa changes so much?” a street singer asks playing a sanshin while reflecting on the islands’ complicated history. An old lady born in 1889, the tail end of the Meiji era, reflects on cultural change when speaking of the tattoos on her hands which she’d so wanted as a child believing not to have them was not to be accepted as a woman and therefore unable to marry. But tattoos are taboo in Japan and the practice was eventually banned by the police leaving her stigmatised in her own community and forced to wear gloves in order to hide the markings of her culture. “Now in the contemporary society you can’t get married if you have a tattoo. Things can change 180 like that” she adds reflecting on the rapid changes which have taken place within her lifetime in which even ancient traditions can be abruptly ended by outside forces. 

Meanwhile, another woman prepares to adjust her currency exchange business once Okinawa reverts to Japan and the American presence decreases. While some are in favour of the reversion more because they want the Americans to leave than actively desire to return to Japanese sovreignity, others wonder what the effect will be on the local economy given that workers are already being laid off from jobs on American bases. The documentary captures several labour protests held outside military facilities by anxious workers. “Okinawa is sacrificed again under military control” one leader insists while another later adds “for 20 years Okinawa was denied normal employment opportunities due to its militaristic colonisation” each emphasising the unanswered questions in the reversion agreement of what is supposed to happen to these now redundant workers, where will new jobs be coming from and what are they supposed to do until they arrive? Many of the protestors are extensively masked appearing somewhat like the invisible man with their heads wrapped in fabric and sunglasses covering their eyes presumably because they fear negative consequences from their employers if they’re caught at the demonstration.

The documentary team muddy the waters a little by challenging one man that as he’s a cook he could easily find new work, but as he points out it’s not just about him and he believes the labour movement will be beneficial to the islands’ future. Many feel betrayed that the local Okinawan police force continues to protect the interests of the Americans in attempting to suppress their protests, but conversely there is also anxiety regarding new industrial investment from Japan with the CEO of Toyo Oil, directly labeled a war criminal in the embedded subtitles, trying to argue that he is an environmentalist and would not go ahead with the plant if it were to produce pollution. Such worries are perhaps at the forefront of the minds of ordinary Okinawans given the numerous mainland scandals of the postwar era such as the Minamata disease and Yokkaichi asthma among many others, while an old man’s hand-painted sign also protests that the oil refinery is to exist on land stolen from local farmers. The anxiety seems to be as the camera pans ominously across a new industrial zone that Okinawa will become a dumping ground for problematic industries the mainland isn’t willing to place on its own soil, the people of Okinawa once again sacrificed for Japan’s gain. 

Then again others are worrying about a collapse in the local sex industry which they suggest caters almost entirely to American personnel. The documentary collective spend some time with a collection of American servicemen who discuss with them the US civil rights movement, but also appear to have a more regressive view of the sex industry than many in Okinawa making what seems to be a moral judgement as one flat out refuses to believe the women have no choice but to pursue sex work claiming they’ve chosen an “easy” solution to their problems rather than taking a more nuanced view of the economic realities of the islands and the complex networks of exploitation which support them. Then again as Akemi, the sex worker with whom the documentary opened, hints perhaps the filmmakers are no different. “They’re filming me because they want to show “Motoshinkakarannu”. They don’t know what it is, but they want to use the title.”


Motoshinkakarannu streams worldwide (excl. Taiwan and Japan) until June 3 as part of Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections.

Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Paradise View (パラダイスビュー, Go Takamine, 1985)

“We’ll all be Japanese soon, so why don’t you marry one?” suggests the mother of a young woman on the eve of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan after three decades under American administration, having taken advice from a shamaness overly worried about her children’s “mixed blood” but assured that a union between her daughter and a Japanese man “would be fine”. Her daughter, however, is not so sure yet equally afraid to voice her concerns while lacking confidence in the local man she loves who has “lost his spirit”, become obsessed with black thorn ants, and begun eating soil. 

As Reishu (Kaoru Kobayashi) tells us, he’s been feeling listless lately and has come to the beach to gather sea salt in the hope that it will perk him up as it has before, Takamine’s camera catching him a lonely figure on the shore. Meanwhile, a funeral procession creeps into the frame and is eventually disrupted when one of the coffin bearers is bitten by a snake which had been hiding in the open casket that in any case contains only bones presumably about to undergo the bone washing ritual common on the islands. “The funeral’s ruined! Our ancestors will never forgive us!” the bitten man laments as the others try to get back on track. Casting the spectre of death over the proceedings, the funeral procession along with Reishu’s desire to find salt to cure his depression is also an early statement of intent from Takamine capturing the unique cultural character of a typical island village as distinct from that of the Japanese mainland to which it is to be “returned”. 

Reishu’s listlessness is itself perhaps also a reflection of the island’s liminal status caught between Japan and the US in a moment of transition. As he tells his grandmother, he’s quit his job at the American army base fearing that as the Vietnam War is drawing to a close and Okinawa is to be returned to Japan there won’t be much work on offer highlighting the extent to which the local area has been economically dependent on the Americans and their foreign policy in Asia. Later we see some of the village men handling weapons smuggled off the American base which they intend for the Okinawan independence movement but which later end up causing self-destructive tragedy. As for Reishu his new business plan involves buying an amphibious vehicle which is in one sense an attempt to hedge his bets, somewhere between being unable to make a choice and avoiding having to make one. 

Paradoxically, Mr. Ito (Haruomi Hosono) the Japanese language teacher to whom Nabee, who is love with Reishu and in fact pregnant with his child, is to be married is described as “more Okinawan than we are” by one of her brothers and both scandalises and confuses a local bar owner over his desire to perform an outdated wedding ritual she fears is unduly sexist and possibly for that reason no longer regularly performed by the local community. Ito speaks somewhat wistfully of the spiritual effect the Okinawan jungle has on him and says he fears being rejected by the vegetation if he does not make sure the ritual is done properly. Bearing all this in mind, there’s something a little uncomfortable in his desire to marry a simple Okinawan village girl which remains in its own way a small act of colonialism even as Nabee’s mother and brothers pressure her to accept the proposal as if a union with the new ruling power would help “purify” their family as the shamaness had suggested. 

What seems clear is that Nabee does not even really know Ito and is not in favour of marrying him, the proposal must have come by arrangement which does not otherwise seem to be the prevailing culture in the village. On discovering Nabee’s pregnancy, her mother encourages her to marry Ito anyway and discretely have an abortion after the ceremony but on the other hand the pregnancy itself is not a major issue as it might have been on the mainland though they worry what Ito might have thought about it. Both friends with Reishu, neither of the brothers quite has the courage to challenge him on his relationship with their sister the calmer of the pair later explaining that he can’t blame him because he was only messing around. As another villager tries to explain to a migrant from the mainland, the islands have a much looser idea of sexual propriety in which young people are free to be friendly with each other with no particular seriousness attached, while the mainlander is concerned and anxious on hearing one of the brothers repeatedly state he could kill Reishu for what he’s done only to be told he didn’t mean it literally and is probably just very annoyed with him to the point of mild physical violence. 

Meanwhile, Chiru (Jun Togawa), a rural girl working as a maid, has also taken a liking to Reishu and is deeply worried for his safety having had a dream in which she saw a dog eat his soul which in their culture suggests he may soon be “spirited away”. Later he finds himself literally on the run after having been arrested when the independence movement storm the police van on which he’s being transported to rescue their comrades, another prisoner who waited patiently rather make his escape shot for his pains. Having lost his spirit he becomes increasingly listless, eating soil while wandering the forest without direction and vulnerable to the rainbow pigs who are it seems the real masters of this space. At the last point we see him, he’s staggering towards a fork in the road, heading towards what Nabee’s mother had described as a historical turning point, but seemingly choosing neither direction. With a dream-like, magical realist quality aided by Hosono’s etherial score and frequent use of traditional Okinawan folksong while spoken largely in the disappearing Okinawan language, Takamine’s laidback epic is a defiant evocation of local culture at a point of transition caught between two states while attempting to take hold of itself. 


Paradise View screens at Japan Society New York May 13 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections. It is also available to stream in the US May 14 to June 3.

Images: © Osamu Muranaka

Japan Society New York Announces Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Marking 50 years since Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections looks back to 1972 with a series of films either set or actually made around the time of this transitional moment each reflecting on the islands’ complex history and unique local culture. Running May 13 to June 3, the season will feature a series of in-person screenings and online streaming with two documentaries by Nihon Documentarist Union available to stream worldwide (excl. Japan & Taiwan).

In-Theater Screenings

All in-person screenings will take place in Japan Society’s auditorium, located at 333 E. 47th Street in New York, NY.

May 13, 7pm: Paradise View

Also streaming online in North America May 14 to June 3

Set immediately before Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, Go Takamine’s first feature is a magical realist exploration of a culture at a turning point of history as the village prepares for a wedding between a Japanese teacher (played by Haruomi Hosono) and a local girl who is already carrying the child of a man who has lost his spirit.

May 14, 4.30pm: Level Five

A computer programmer tasked with recreating the Battle of Okinawa explores the history of the islands while in dialogue with her late lover in the final feature from Chris Marker.

May 14, 7pm: Dear Summer Sister

Screening on 35mm

A teenage girl travels to Okinawa on the eve of its Reversion along with a friend in search of a boy who may be her half-brother and is guided around the islands by a grizzled war veteran in an uncharacteristically breezy summer adventure from Nagisa Oshima.

May 20, 7pm: Terror of Yakuza

Also known as Okinawa Yakuza War, Sadao Nakajima’s jitsuroku classic stars Sonny Chiba as a unhinged gangster whose hegemony is threatened on several fronts when Hiroki Matsukata’s loyal footsoldier is released from prison after knocking off the heads of two rival gangs only to find their space filled by encroaching mainland yakuza.

May 21, 7pm: Untamagiru

Screening on 35mm

Told mainly in the disappearing Okinawan language, Go Takamine’s second feature is an anarchic magical realist musical fable in which a day labourer is forced to flee to the forest after sleeping with his boss’ voluptuous daughter and unwittingly discovering she is an anthropomorphised pig only to gain superpowers thanks to a sympathetic tree spirit and subsequently use them in the service of the Okinawan independence movement.

Online Screenings

May 14 to June 3

Focus on the Nihon Documentarist Union (NDU)
Motoshinkakarannu

Available worldwide (excl. Japan & Taiwan)

Shot over 15 months from April 1969 to July 1970 Motoshinkakarannu takes its name from a euphemism for sex work in the Okinawan language and captures the islands on the brink of transition through the eyes of sex workers, yakuza, tourists, and American servicemen.

Asia is One

Available worldwide (excl. Japan & Taiwan)

Long thought lost until rediscovered in 2005, Asia is One examines a legacy of exploitation by mainland mining companies of the Taiwanese and Korean migrants working in harsh conditions in the mines.

Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections runs in person at Japan Society New York May 13 to 21 and online May 14 to June 3. Full details for all the films are available via the official website where tickets are already on sale while rentals for the movies streaming online are available via Japan Society’s streaming platform with passes for all three films available from May 14. You can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.