Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary

picture: Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary
21 October 2007


"Usually film directors aren't that interesting. They're usually concerned with getting what they want, to do what they want to do," said Japanologist Donald Richie in an interview on this very website published back in 2003. After almost ten years of writing about film and talking to and interviewing countless directors myself, I can almost see what he means. Most nowadays don't have much to say beyond trotting out well-rehearsed anecdotes and one-liners for an evermore puff-piece driven media, and Japanese directors in particular seem increasingly reticent when talking about their work in any depth. And why should these characters be interesting, anyway? After all, outside of the relatively brief periods actually spent on location, most of their time is taken up with the day-to-day mundanities of seeking funding for future projects, putting the finishing touches to their work in the editing room, or spending their time locked away writing scripts.

There are exceptions of course. When I think of my own filmmaking heroes, someone like Nick Broomfield immediately springs to mind, dodging death threats while poking his nose and his camera into the dark nooks and crannies of contemporary society where the mainstream media rarely dare to peer. Looking further back, I think of Werner Herzog dragging steamships up mountains, or marooned in the middle of the jungle with his crew and hundreds of native Indian extras, all the while locked in a psychological battle of wills with his manic lead Klaus Kinski. I think of Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu camped out in the Golan Heights with Palestinian freedom fighters before filming The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War; or of Richard Stanley clutching his Bolex tightly, charging on horseback across the plains of Afghanistan alongside the Mujahadeen to battle against the Russians, and submitting himself to bizarre Voodoo rituals in Haiti; of Robert Flaherty traipsing across the ice floes of northern Canada to catalogue a vanishing way of life in Nanook of the North, or isolated on a Pacific island with Friedrich Murnau, thousands of miles from Hollywood, for almost a year while awaiting the arrival of the finances and film stock needed to shoot Tabu.

Now these are interesting filmmakers, and the type I want to read about. They are all people whose personal lives and the narratives that developed around their work are just as, if not more, interesting than the stories contained within the films themselves. Most, you'll notice, have worked exclusively in documentary, and those that haven't exclusively practiced within this field can at least count a handful of non-fictional works alongside their fictional endeavours. As such, their lifestyles are intrinsically linked to the often extreme subjects they seek to cement on film. One simply cries out to know what went on off-frame during the shooting of their works. So why is it then that documentary is considered such an un-sexy field to write about? And why also have the documentary traditions of countries outside of Europe and North America received so little attention?

To the above roll call of names, I would also add Shinsuke Ogawa, the subject of this fabulous new book from Abé Mark Nornes, whose previous publications include Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima, and The Japan/America Film Wars: WWII Propoganda and Its Cultural Contexts, a collection of essays which he edited with Yukio Fukushima. It should be pointed out right away, that Nornes's latest is not strictly about Shinsuke Ogawa, who died on 7 February 1992 from cancer of the colon, but about Ogawa Pro, the collective that bore his name. This is an important distinction; it is not often made clear where the dividing line between the man and those who congregated around him has been. Certainly Ogawa alone could not have immortalised the turmoil faced by Japan's more rural communities against the threat of a new, more economically-driven modern reality without the support, assistance and sacrifice of the loyal entourage that gathered around him, as becomes very clear in the opening chapters of this fascinating chronicle.

Shinsuke Ogawa is not an entirely unknown quantity in the West. His films have been covered in some detail in books by, among others, Donald Richie, Noel Burch, and David Desser. (It is Desser's English-language title for Ogawa Pro's pre-Narita documentary Assatsu no Mori: Takazaki Keizai Daigaku Toso no Kiroku, which is translated here as Forest of Oppression: A Record of the Struggle at Takasaki City University of Economics, that Nornes draws upon for the title of his book, feeling that it perfectly encapsulates the heated environment in which the films were made.) The Magino Village Story (1982) won the critics' prize at Berlin film festival while in 2000 the experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer presented a tantalising glimpse of the dynamics within Ogawa Pro in her 82-minute documentary Devotion.

But much of the discussion regarding Ogawa Pro's situation within the broader cultural and political landscape of Japan has been cursory and left one simply begging for more information. Though still unavailable on DVD even in Japan, the films and the behind-the-scenes history have long warranted a decent study in the English language, in fact in any language, and as such Nornes's informative work is highly welcome.

But first, a quick overview of the Ogawa story: After a couple of films cataloguing issues relating to the student and civil unrest that was occurring in Tokyo following the extension of the Japan-America Joint Security Pact (or Anpo treaty), Ogawa Pro's filmography falls fairly neatly into two halves. The first consists of the monumental seven-title series released between 1968-73 and beginning with The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan - Summer in Sanrizuka, which chronicled in gargantuan detail the struggle between local farmers against the government's decision to build Tokyo's new Narita international airport on their land, a time described by Nornes as "one of the most traumatic social struggles in modern Japanese history." The peak of the protests, captured in the film Sanrizuka - Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971) ("the Seven Samurai of social protest documentaries") saw the farmers' ranks swelled by hordes of sympathetic students and members from radical leftist groups; a grand total of some 20,000 protesters amassed against 30,000 police. It's no exaggeration to say that Japan was effectively in a state of near civil war at the peak of the Narita protests.

The second half of Ogawa's history saw the whole collective decamping up north to the small village of Magino in Yamagata Prefecture where for 16 years they lived communally as farmers growing their own rice, while cataloguing the history, folklore, and daily practices of the enduring local rural communities, and in the most meticulous of detail: the results include two extraordinary discursive works, notably Furuyashiki Village (1982) and The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches - The Magino Village Story (1986).

The question that springs to mind when watching all of these films is how did Ogawa achieve such an expansive vision? How, in both cases, did the group manage to integrate themselves so wholly and so comfortably amongst their subjects? How did so many filmmakers and staff become drawn together to devote such a large portion of their lives to such idealist motives? And why did Ogawa and his team's withdrawal from the frontline of political activism represented by Narita to the rural hinterland to which he had no prior attachment come at the time when it did? "Something happened" politically in Japan in the mid-1970s, Nornes observes, but exactly what that "something" was is trickier to isolate.

My first encounter with Ogawa Pro's work was at the 2003 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, for which Nornes works as a coordinator. Founded in the picturesque northern town surrounded by mountains close to Magino village where the collective spent their final years, the festival, which incidentally has to count as one of the most exhilarating and friendly ones I have ever attended, was founded by Yamagata city council in honour of Ogawa's achievements - a remarkable sea change since the group first moved to the area, where they were treated with suspicion by the locals and kept under police observation due to their left wing ideals. For 15 years it has admirably adhered to the director's initial intent of providing a nexus for filmmakers across Asia (primarily, but not exclusively) to meet and showcase and discuss their works.

The two Ogawa films that screened the year I attended adequately captured the two different sides to the collective. Three Day War in Narita (1970), which presented eye-popping images of the local farmers clutching sticks and bags of manure to hurl at the approaching riot police with their shields, helmets, and tear gas, was riotous, incendiary stuff indeed. Magino Village, filmed some 15 years later, was an altogether more meditative affair, with its mesmerising single shot at the opening of a rice grain forming in the flower lasting well over five minutes. Over the entire 222-minute running time of this film, we see the filmmakers pouring over temperature charts, relief maps, and chemistry sets so as to discover the optimum growing conditions in this forbidding environment for farmers. One never imagined that rice cultivation was such an exacting science, nor the extent to which this amazing group threw themselves into their work. Other highlights include the discovery of ancient remains from the Jomon Period (between roughly 12,000 BC to 400 BC) in one of the fields, and a fictional reconstruction of an ancient legend.

Both these films benefit immensely from the input of cinematographer Masaki Tamura behind the lens. In Three Day War in Narita the rest of the crew are more than mere observers but active participants in the farmers' struggle, with the fearless cameraman pitching himself into the fray "like a fan moshing at a punk concert" to capture handheld the chaos and violence of the protests. In Magino Village you can almost feel the mud oozing between your toes as Tamura trawls his camera at ankle length around the paddy fields while the rice is planted. Nature has seldom looked so sensuous.

Though he shot most of the collective's work, Tamura was never a full-blown member of Ogawa Pro. Between films he worked on other more commercial projects, with such anomalous entries in his filmography as Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood (1973), Toshiharu Ikeda's Evil Dead Trap (1988) and Kaizo Hayashi's Zipang (1990) shot before his more characteristically grandiose depictions of landscape in Naomi Kawase's Suzaku (1997) and the films of Shinji Aoyama, most notably Eureka (2000). Nevertheless, when I attempted to interview him at Udine Far East Film Festival where he was a guest in 2005, he was mysteriously unforthcoming about his association with Ogawa. "He must have been a very charismatic man to get his staff and their families to all live and work under the same roof together in the middle of nowhere," I asked, to which Tamura merely gazed pensively into space before curtailing any further discussion with a long drawn out "Charisma. Hmmmm…." Then silence.

Tamura's silence in talking about the man at the centre of the movement who orchestrated such extraordinary cinematic documents speaks a thousand words. His former collaborators proved similarly tongue-tied in the Barbara Hammer film, which she describes on her own website as "the most difficult film or video I have ever undertaken." As Nornes details, this homage to Shinsuke Ogawa commissioned by Yamagata International Film Festival was besieged by difficulties, not the least being that few of his associates had a good word to say about this imperious yet enigmatic figure. One certainly gets the impression that there is a whole lot more to the story than is being presented.

In this respect, Nornes is in a perfect position to fill in the gaps in the story, having first met the director at the 1988 Hawaii International Film Festival. This encounter led to Nornes's involvement in the Yamagata Film Festival, a role in which he has worked ever since, and also developed into a close friendship until Ogawa's death due to an unhealthy appetite for oily foods and a lifestyle which, given the vision he presented of himself on film, was surprisingly sedentary. It's unusual for a film scholar to have such a close and easy relationship with his subject matter, which in turn mirrors the relationship Ogawa had with the memorable characters who appear in his films. Because of this unique access, the book's tone ranges from the factually informative to more personal, anecdotal recollections. There are also more academic asides, such as the discussion of the theoretical discourse surrounding the words shutai/taisho ("subject" / "object"), which Ogawa developed with Noriaki Tsuchimoto, one of the other outstanding figures in Japanese post-war documentary best known for his Minamata series detailing the effects of industrial pollution in the Shiranui Sea on the surrounding area's citizens. The nature of this relationship between the documenter and the documented is central to understanding Ogawa's approach to his craft, and is also echoed within Nornes's approach to setting his slippery subject in prose. The director's love of fiction film also shaped the way the stories unfolding in front of the camera were constructed in the editing room, while his obsessive recording of the minutiae of every aspect of traditional village life accounts for the wide-reaching scope of his later works. All of these strengths that one detects in Ogawa's films, is mirrored in Nornes's discussion of them.

Throughout this history, the role played by Ogawa's charm in the creation of these landmark documentary works is never thrown into any doubt. His genial, chatty manner and his ease at establishing a comfortable rapport with his subjects can clearly be detected in the lengthy one-take interviews that characterise the films. His remarkable personality was also clearly the key to him attracting so many talented filmmakers and researchers to live under one roof together in a state of complete poverty as a collective.

Other character traits seem less well suited to the work of a documentary maker. Ogawa, it transpires early on, was an inveterate liar. He habitually fictionalised his own biography in order to give his work more credence. For example, he claimed he was born in 1935 and grew up in rural poverty in the post-war period before studying ethnology at university. In reality he was born in 1936 in Tokyo, the son of a drugstore owner, and studied economics at university. While his later films also gives the impression of a hands-on farmer, in reality it was the other Ogawa Pro members who did all the manual work, while he sat around reading obscure texts about local history. Even as a filmmaker, it was left to the others to gather much of the footage that he assembled in the editing room. Though it is Shinsuke Ogawa's name that appears on the credits, we have to question what the word "director" means in this instance.

As Nornes records, the aftermath of Ogawa's funeral was soured by a wake of acrimony, as it was revealed that he had left a string of debts all over the place to be inherited by the surviving group members. In respect for the individuals concerned, Nornes does not go into full detail regarding the tangled mess of unpaid bills and unfulfilled promises Ogawa left behind. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in the discussions of a couple of earlier films for which other directors were appointed that Ogawa demanded much more from his collaborators than he ever gave back. Mareo Yumoto vanished without a trace after the bad experience he had making Dokkoi! Songs from the Bottom (1975), a portrait of the denizens of Yokohama's Kotobukicho slum district released between the Narita and Magino films. Shusuke Honma spent a fruitless couple of years with his family in a state of destitution while preparing for the first production of a vaunted new branch of Ogawa Pro in Kyushu about problems surrounding the nearby coalmines, before the plug was eventually pulled. Of the films that were made, Ogawa took the main credit, while his collaborators laboured in obscurity. Charismatic he might well have been, but more than a little monomaniacal too.

We should not let any of this detract from the achievements of Ogawa Pro. Aside from the amazing cinematic legacy the collective gave birth to, one of its most significant achievements was the way it managed to create its own independent exhibition network, with the films aired outside of traditional theatres, instead in municipal halls and university campuses spread across the country ("an ambitious attempt to create an alternate public sphere"). The group had international connections too, in among other places France and America, and screened films from these countries, such as those produced by the Newsreel group of filmmakers brought together by Jonas Mekas. Screenings were participatory affairs, with audiences drawn in by free food and encouraged to stay behind and debate what they had seen afterwards. Questionnaires were handed out and donations solicited to support Ogawa Pro's activities. For the screening of the masterwork Magino Village, a traditional structure made of dirt, logs, tatami, and thatch was built in Kyoto. Ogawa Pro was more than a production company; it was a filmmaking movement the likes of which have never been seen before and will never be seen again. It was perhaps inevitable that the whole enterprise would eventually implode.

As the title suggests, the broader documentary filmmaking environment from which Ogawa Pro emerged and in which it operated also falls with the scope of Nornes' opus. The opening chapter provides a fascinating and insightful overview of the development of the medium following the war, in which it is revealed that it was the US occupation Civil Information and Education Service who were responsible for what was subsequently to develop, being as it was they who poured substantial resources to ensure that schools, universities and other civic organisations were all equipped with 16mm projection equipment. Consequently by 1959 documentary short production had risen to 900 titles a year, five times the amount produced at the beginning of the decade.

Nornes also punctuates his ensuing narrative with neat sidesteps into what else was occurring in Japanese documentary over the post-war period: the significance of other documentarists such as Fumio Kamei, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, Masao Adachi, Kazuo Hara (The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On , 1987), Yutaka Tsuchiya (The New God, 1999), and Tetsuaki Matsue (Annyong Kimchee, 1999) is discussed in some length. In reference to the latter filmmaker, who is situated firmly within the jishu eiga (self-produced film) tradition of making films centred on oneself (cf. Naomi Kawase), Nornes ironically charts the trend in Japanese documentary, from "collectives making films about collectives" in the sixties, to "students making films about themselves" by the end of the millennium. One wonders where and how the field will develop from this point.

Forest of Pressure is undoubtedly one of the most important publications of recent years, simultaneously accessible, informative, and highly compelling as, in what has remained almost virgin territory in English language writing, Nornes delivers epiphany after epiphany. This is a landmark book that paints a vivid picture of the times and points to countless new research possibilities in the field of Japanese film history, and in documentary as a whole. One can only pray it finds the audience it deserves.


Forest of Pressure - Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary

picture: cover of 'Forest of Pressure - Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary'

University of Minnesota