Yutaka Tsuchiya & Karin Amamiya
- 9 September 2002
Japan has a fascinating legacy of documentary cinema, a fact perhaps not too surprising given the rather turbulent nature of the country's fortunes since it first began experimenting with the film medium way back in 1896.
However, from the very first minute-long actualities produced by the Lumière company and filmed by Japan's first recorded cinematographer, Tsunekichi Shibata, typified by 1898's Une rue à Tokyo, through wartime propaganda pieces like Malayan War Record (Marei Senki, 1942), more intimate shorts such as Susumu Hani's dyptich of Children in the Classroom (Kyoshitsu no Kodomotachi, 1954) and Children Who Draw Pictures (E o Kaku Kodomotachi, 1956), the self-reflective improvisation of Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu, 1967), politically charged films from the likes of Shinsuke Ogawa - whose seminal cycle of films beginning with The Frontline For the Liberation of Japan (Nihon Kaiho Sensen, 1968) attacked the construction of Narita International Airport - and the retrospective accounts of war veterans as contained in such works as Kazuo Hara's astonishing The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun, 1987) and Minoru Matsui's more recent Japanese Devils (Riben Guizi, 2001), perhaps the one most significant factor that all of these films have in common is that they are nigh on impossible for people outside of Japan to see.
Whether lost due to the ravages of time, or within the vagaries of the global film distribution system, or more simply, overlooked by the Western-centricity of film culture and history and the increasing insularity of national television network programming (in which domestically productions have a tendency to predominate), the views of most casual viewers outside of the country are more likely to have been shaped by filmmakers from outside of the country - and this is not only the case for Japan, of course. Sure, most of these titles mentioned above have screened at film festivals at one time or another, but documentary hardly has the same pulling power of feature fiction, and very few of these titles are currently available in any subtitled form.
In a world swamped by information overload, increasingly focused on the here and now, keeping track of recent developments in documentary production is even more of a Sysiphean task than it ever has been. Fortunately, one of the most consistently enlightening and entertaining Japanese documentaries of recent years, The New God (Atarashii Kamisama, 1999) has been made available in subtitled format from Uplink. The film, which paints a complex yet colourful picture of the current state of the nationalism movement in Japan, is a work which never feels the need to resort to shock tactics or heavy handed proselitising to get its point across, throwing out an open challenge to the viewer to go away and think about the issues it raises.
The film's director, Yutaka Tsuchiya, as well as working actively in film criticism in Japan, is also one of the leading lights of the underground video documentary group, Video Act (see also our interview with director Tokachi Tsuchiya). The group meets every couple of months to screen a selection of politically motivated video shorts covering a multitude of contemporary issues, organised around a central theme. A session in June of this year was entitled People Who Deny History, And People Who Confirm It (Rekishi o Hitei Suru Hito, Shomei Suru Hito) and featured pieces on such issues as the infamous Nanking Massacre, the use of military comfort women by the Japanese Imperial Army and a humorous look at the well-publicised issue of Japanese school history textbooks.
Maintaining close connections with similarly minded video activist groups around the world, such as the Amsterdam-based Next Five Minutes and Paper Tiger Television in the US, Tsuchiya is positive that organisations such as Video Act still have the ability to democratise the film making process. In an interview with Aaron Gerow in the magazine Documentary Box he said "I think it's high time to stop thinking about oppositional relations like 'anti-mass media' or 'alternative something-or-other'. There's absolutely no power in seeing ourselves as minor compared to some major thing, or as 'mini-media' in relation to mass media."
Midnight Eye recently met up with Tsuchiya, and the subject of his film The New God, Karin Amamiya, to get the lowdown on what exactly it is they are both trying to do.
Jasper Sharp: The New God is just about the most interesting film I've seen from Japan in a very long time. Can you give me some background on how it came to be made?
Yutaka Tsuchiya: I started making it in 1998, four years ago. The biggest catalyst then was a comic book called "On War" (Sensoron) by a man named Yoshinori Kobayashi, which was fairly popular at the time. The comic tells stories about the 'truth' of Japanese history, for example claiming that the Nanking Massacre never really happened, or that comfort women didn't exist. It sold very well among young people.
Michael Arnold: I heard that soon after its release it sold 500,000 copies...
YT: Some people protested against the book, telling people not to read it and so on. At the time I understood how they felt, but I also thought that they wouldn't be able to change the feelings of the young readers just by protesting like that. Why were they reading it? Why did they think Kobayashi's comic was so cool? As long as they weren't asking questions like that I was sure the book would keep selling. I wanted to think about that, and I wanted to hear what younger people had to say about the comic, so that's when I met Amamiya and Itoh from the band The Revolutionary Truth (Ishinsekiseijuku).
MA: Did you interview a lot of young people?
YT: No, I didn't have much of a chance to meet a lot of people like that. The first ones I met were Amamiya and Itoh.
MA: Amamiya-san, how do you feel about the comic's popularity?
Karin Amamiya: I really liked it. At that time I was the type of person who read Sensoron and admired the suicide squads (tokkotai) (laughs).
JS: Were you familiar with the music of The Revolutionary Truth before you made the film, or did you first learn about it through this meeting?
YT: No, I didn't know about them at all. The first time I met the two of them I didn't even know they were in a band.
JS: Amamiya-san, how did the band first get together?
KA: We were in another right-wing group at the time and we wanted to find a way to reach more young people, so we decided to make a band. At first it was in a band with other members of that organization.
JS: What was the height of the band's popularity?
KA: Popularity? (laughs) We didn't get popular at all. The audiences would always get pissed off at us and walk out.
JS: Did you ever have a record deal?
KA: No way. We were even kicked out of all the live venues.
MA: Did you make CDs by yourselves?
KA: Yes, we did.
MA: Are you still selling them?
JS: Were there other right-wing bands active at the time, doing the same sort of thing that you were doing?
KA: No, I've never heard of any others.
JS: The band is no longer active. Is that a result of the film? How did the film influence the band in general?
KA: The break up didn't have anything to do with the movie, but the film did have an influence on us in ways. It made me realize how dependent I was on right-wing ideology, and as I started to realize this I became unable to continue that sort of activity.
JS: Tsuchiya-san, how has the film been received by audiences, both in Japan and abroad?
YT: Domestically, fewer people than I expected understood the film on political or social terms. Most thought of it as a story about friendship between the three people, or about Amamiya's change and growth as an individual. When it played at theaters most of the people who came were young, and young women in particular said they really sympathized with Amamiya's position. They didn't know what was the difference between right wing and left wing, but they said they understood how Amamiya felt. The film drew a response from people who are somehow dissatisfied with life in today's society, or had this feeling of listlessness, as if there wasn't much of a sense of reality in their day-to-day life.
Overseas, the reaction was different depending on the country. In Berlin, some took what I just mentioned as negative - people thought a simple romance about this lonely girl who's saved by the director's love was a waste of 100 minutes (laughs). Others liked it because it took social and political problems and dealt with them from more personal points of view, instead of dealing with it in a more difficult manner.
In Europe the situation with the nationalists is very different from Japan. The neo-nazis there have a very real presence compared to the right wing in Japan. People in Berlin didn't think the right wing in The New God were threatening at all. That difference of context was very interesting.
JS: This is something that I am very interested in. As a British viewer, the way nationalists are portrayed in Britain in the media - they are like thugs or football hooligans who use nationalism as an excuse for violence. For me living in Japan now, I find things like the nationalists' black vans that drive around to be quite frightening. I was wondering if you could give me an idea of what you think nationalism means in Japan.
YT: There are lots of different people who drive in those black trucks, or gaisensha, around the cities, but I don't think they have any real connection with people on the street. People might think they're noisy, or just see them as a kind of 'style,' but their words aren't really reaching the people. Most just aren't interested in what they're saying. I think the problem lies more in the hearts of the young people like the ones in The New God, who look up to the suicide squads and so forth.
MA: Amamiya-san, do you have any comments on that?
KA: A lot of people just act like they're thinking about those issues, but some are just doing it because they're bored. They feel a sense of solidarity by creating enemies, talking crap about America, China or Korea. In one sense those groups are like clubs for strange people who just have nothing better to do. People do it just to kill time.
JS: Unlike Britain, the nationalist movement here in Japan doesn't seem to be that violent. You haven't had anything like the race riots that happened two years ago in northern England, where a whole town (Oldham) was divided between the British Asian and white communities. Your film, rather than just demonizing people or ignoring them actually enters into a dialogue, and I think that's why it's so strong. It diffuses the problem by discussing it.
YT: Well, from the start, if I thought Amamiya was the kind of person who just uses ideology as an excuse for violence I wouldn't have been able to talk to her. If she became defensive about her right-wing identity and didn't open up to dialogue we wouldn't have been able to communicate, but as she herself said she could have ended up in Aum Shinrikyo, or some self-enlightenment seminar - she just happened to join a right-wing group instead. I can really understand that. I thought Amamiya would be able to really talk, so that's why I wanted to work with her.
JS: How widely has the film been screened in Japan? I know it had a theatrical release at Euro Space in Shibuya, but I was just wondering to what extent it was shown?
YT: At Euro Space it was screened once a night at the late show for about 12 weeks starting in August of 2000. After that it ran for about two weeks in Sapporo, Hokkaido, about two weeks in Nagoya, one week in Osaka, and I think two weeks in Hiroshima. Recently it also ran for about four weeks in Okinawa. We've done other special and festival showings too.
MA: When was it shown in Okinawa?
YT: From about March to May of this year.
JS: As the film was made four years ago it's had quite a long shelf life. How much time did it take from production until the film was shown in theaters?
YT: It was completed in June of 1999, and the first screening was four months later at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in October. After that it went around to the Berlin Film Festival and other places, but it took about a year and two months until its general release the following August.
JS: Amamiya-san, in the film Itoh says he felt like slashing the screen after hearing about Tsuchiya's earlier film, What Do You Think About the War Responsibility of Emperor Hirohito? Were you worried about how you were going to be portrayed in a film by a "left-wing" director?
KA: Ah, yes I guess I was a little worried (laughs).
MA: What did you think about the result?
KA: It was good. I thought the film was going to make me look a lot worse, like a really awful person.
JS: Obviously you filmed a lot of it, so I was wondering if you had much say in the editorial process as well?
KA: No, Tsuchiya did all of the editing.
JS: Tsuchiya-san, could you share a little on the background and history of Video Act; when you started it, and what its aims are?
YT: In New York there's a group called Paper Tiger Television that makes programs for public access TV. During the Gulf War they made something of an anti-war campaign video. There were some efforts around December 1991 to bring the video to Japan for dubbing and screenings, and to invite people from Paper Tiger for events. I was interested in that sort of thing and went to these meetings, and from there a network of video activists in Japan started to develop. That became the People's Media Network, in 1991. The technology was getting cheaper and people in the group were able to get their hands on editing equipment and, one way or another, make their videos, but the problem from there was how to get them distributed and seen. So there was some talk about organizing a kind of distribution system. In summer of 1997 some of us went to New York to check out the situation there, and we decided to start something in Japan when we came back. We thought we could get more exposure for the videos by creating a kind of window for sales, so in September of the following year we formally established Video Act.
JS: The concept of Video Act reminds me of the approach to distribution that Shinsuke Ogawa and Noriaki Tsuchimoto took. Their films were never shown in conventional cinemas. They actually had to go around themselves to screen the films to the organizations, student groups and unions that were relevant to the films. Video Act seems to have people coming to the meetings who were already interested in the issues you're addressing. Do you think it's easy to break through to a wider audience?
YT: Yes, that is a big problem and something we always have to consider. In Ogawa and Tsuchimoto's era, they had to carry the film to a large space where many people could see it together. That was the only way they could show their films. Most homes now have their own video deck though. I think if we, how should I say this... we can't broadcast on TV, but people should be able to watch the videos as easily as they do TV. That's sort of the philosophy behind it. We need to advertise the fact that these videos exist, and we're still making a catalogue - that we update and distribute yearly - and the web site, but at least people can see these videos without going out to a screening, so the window to access these videos has widened.
JS: The two directors I mentioned were involved in more direct action politics, and they believed in film as an instrument for change, actively seeking out and screening their work to the relevant people. However, despite their efforts, Narita Airport, for example, has been built. If you watch those films they're very interesting, but perhaps they didn't really achieve much. How much do you believe can film be an instrument for change?
YT: Right, hmm... well instead of just Ogawa and Tsuchimoto I think that was a problem of the movement itself in the 1960s and 70s. That is a pretty difficult question. Did it change? I do feel like I have to drag that question along when I think about it. At the time, it was kind of a festival (matsuri) atmosphere; people just wanted to act up and protest. I almost have a feeling that the people participating in those protests didn't really expect that they would change anything either. But I guess I am a little jealous that in those days people could gather together to protest things they thought weren't right, in that sort of festival mood.
JS: In your filmmaking technique now, you don't seem to come from any one strong viewpoint. In The New God it seemed like you were coming to terms with your own views during the course of the film as well, like your opinions were changing.
YT: It's dangerous to be convinced that you're just plain right about something. You have to be aware that you could be totally wrong, or that you or the situation might change along the way. I'm a little bit like that myself actually, thinking that I'm always right and the other person is wrong. Maybe that's why I'm able to see how dangerous it is. People who are full of self-confidence and totally sure of themselves are frightening.
MA: Returning to Ogawa and Tsuchimoto for a moment, Amamiya-san, have you ever seen those documentaries from the 60s and so forth? The Narita protest films or anything?
KA: I've seen a little bit.
MA: How would you compare Tsuchiya's work to those documentaries in the past?
KA: The older films seem a lot more direct. But they never bother to question if those people were using the movements as a way to try to fulfill their lives.
JS: I think that basically with documentary, if you come across with one point of view you're turning away more viewers than you are attracting them, which is something that The New God doesn't do.
YT: Well, society is always brought into documentary film, but nobody can say, "this is it!" with confidence. You can't say anything absolute about society as a whole. Nobody would believe you. Documentary has to deal with that or else it won't have any 'reality,' so to speak.
MA: There was an interview in Documentary Box recently with cinematographer Koshiro Otsu...
YT: Yes, I think I read that.
MA: As you know Otsu worked with filmmakers like Ogawa and Tsuchimoto in the 60s and 70s, and he said that up to a point things were happening all around them and they could sort of passively wait for things to occur, but after a certain time they found they had to be more aggressive about finding their subjects, put themselves into the frame and make something happen themselves. In that sense how do you think documentary has developed since then, into the 90s and 21st century? The relationship between the filmmakers and subjects and so forth.
YT: Well yes, overall I think what Otsu-san said is true. If you went into town then, somebody would be doing something, you might run into a riot. But there's nothing like that any more. It looks like nothing's happening at all now, doesn't it? Society isn't moving; it's stagnant. That's how it appears. Since the world doesn't seem to be moving, people turn to more personal, internal issues. So someone like Kazuo Hara starts making his "action documentaries," and searches for a 'hero,' or an outstanding person who does the moving. Once he finds that person it's basically taken care of. It won't work without someone like that, so he looks for a character around whom to create the story, in a sense. That's one approach you can take. Now there are a lot of young filmmakers making films on the subject of family. Usually a family that already has some kind of 'story,' for example the brother is withdrawn from society (hikikomori) or something - a family with some kind of problem. Somewhat like Otsu's time, once you go inside that family there's already something happening. So another current method is to take up family issues like that. Since the world seems stagnant, people turn towards interesting characters or families as subjects instead. Actually I don't like that much - if society is static or stagnant you should take action yourself and deal with that stagnancy as an issue.
JS: Amamiya-san, I'm interested in your visit to North Korea. Why did you decide to go there? Was it just for the film?
KA: No, I was invited to go. The person who went with me was a former Red Army faction leader, and we were pretty good friends. I was kind of a North Korea otaku, you could say. I was really fascinated by it. The country is so close to Japan, but it seems so far away. I wanted to go and see what it was like.
MA: So you had wanted to go for a long time?
KA: I wanted to go but didn't think I could, but then I was invited, so I went.
JS: He was extreme left, and you were strongly associated with the right wing. How did you become friends with this person from the Red Army?
KA: Actually a lot of right-wing and left-wing people are really good friends since they're all anti-America.
JS: On a practical point of view, how easy was it to film in North Korea? I'd never seen anything about North Korea before. That's the first time I'd ever seen it on film.
KA: There were certain areas that were OK to film in, and others that weren't. As long as you respect them it's all right. But if you didn't you'd get caught.
MA: Get caught...?
KA: I was OK, but one of the people I went with didn't follow the rules, and he got caught.
MA: Really? On the same trip?
KA: A later trip, actually. I've been there three times now.
YT: That was after the film was finished...
KA: Yeah, right after. Actually I'm planning to go again this month.
MA: What happened to your friend? Is he in Japan?
KA: He just got back, after being stuck there for two years.
JS: So you still keep up quite a relationship with North Korea. It's not somewhere you've seen and forgotten. I was just wondering, after you spent so long waiting to go there, what your impression is now.
KA: The mysteries just get keep getting deeper (laughs). I understand it less and less. It's like reading a long mystery novel.
JS: The New God opens with a quote from Shuji Terayama, who obviously means a lot to you. Now, outside of Japan Shuji Terayama is still best known for Fruits of Passion, a glossy soft porn film starring Klaus Kinski. What does he mean to you?
KA: I think he had a really unusual sense of values. Most people will probably tell you that.
YT: For me I think the strongest impression I have of him is his line, "Throw Out the Books and Go Into the Streets." Those words themselves say the most to me about what kind of person he was. Just get out and do something, destroy all the old values. That's the image of him I have anyway.
KA: Also a little bit of jealousy, since the 70s looked like so much fun. Young people got away with so much.
JS: It's funny because he's one of those figures that hangs over all of Japanese filmmaking and culture since the 60s, but outside of Japan none of his films have been released with subtitles and no one knows anything about him. He's like an enigma for me.
YT: Hmm. I wonder why.
MA: I kind of liked him though. Once when I was living in Seattle I found a copy of the 2nd Terayama Shuji Experimental Film Collection tape that Image Forum put out. I didn't know what it was at the time and just decided to rent it... There's this short on the tape with all these naked young men fooling around, and one of them just walks up and pees on the camera. I thought, "Wow I've never seen a Japanese movie like this!" I was so impressed (laughs)! I became a fan immediately.
JS: Let's go back to the subject of America. Now, Japanese people listen to a lot of American music, watch American films, drink coffee at Starbucks and go to McDonalds. I was just wondering how is that any different from British people or German people or the French?
YT: In Europe I've only been to Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna, but the impression I got from those cities was that it was totally different from Japan, like they weren't really that interested in America after all. In Japan there's no tradition or culture like in Europe that young people can be proud of. They haven't created anything. If you talk about culture people think Edo period or something. It doesn't feel like there's anything our generation can call our own, so there's no self-confidence, in a sense.
KA: I really hate it that whatever country you're in you run into McDonalds and Starbucks. But you'd never find them in North Korea! [All laugh] Of the countries I've been to, only North Korea has no American influence. Coca-Cola's not allowed; if you were just carrying a can they'd really come after you, "American imperialism!" and so on. It's interesting to see how a country without any American business influence turns out.
JS: Amamiya-san, I'm just wondering what you've been doing after the film, and after The Revolutionary Truth broke up.
KA: After that I formed a band called Dai Nihon Teroru (Great Japan Terror), but that also broke up last year. Since then I've been concentrating on writing. I've published two or three books now. Recently I've been writing novels and essays.
MA: That's so disappointing! I was looking forward to seeing one of your shows!
KA and YT: (laugh)
MA: Weren't you also writing comics or something for Garo?
KA: Not comics, I wrote a column.
MA: Was there a CD for Dai Nihon Teroru as well?
KA: Yes, there was.
JS: Was it basically the same style of music?
KA: (laughs) Yeah, pretty much. I guess I didn't repent enough.
JS: Is that the end of your music career then, or are you planning to continue?
KA: Right now I'm concentrating more on writing.
JS: Tsuchiya-san, I hear you're in the process of making another film now. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
YT: Well, I'm not quite making it yet; I'm still at the planning stage. This time I'm thinking of doing fiction. In fact Amamiya-san is co-writing it with me. For the story, I'm thinking of using a lot of small cameras. Right now you know there are a lot of surveillance cameras hung up everywhere. They're in elevators, at intersections... If you watch TV you see a lot of shows using them that are stylistically like documentary, but made for laughs instead. With those things increasing the world is being more and more overtaken by the media. I'm wondering if it's possible to punch a hole in that system, break through that to see if there is some kind of "reality" on the other side... Anyway that's basically the concept we're thinking of.
MA: The video you made for Video Act's Nippon Senso Watashi 2002 project, "Is War Real?" dealt with the same issue - is this "reality" or what. That was really interesting. The video features a number of shots of your own face in front of cellular phone ad banners and so on, and part way through the video the text on the screen changes from "Is War Real" to "Are You Real." Could you talk a little about your ideas on that sort of personal identity and reality? It seemed like your ideas on that subject have been developing since The New God.
YT: Actually, when I first started making videos I worked on that subject, your own identity within the media and so forth. Then I did the interview videos about the emperor's war guilt and The New God. I'm not really returning to the same topic, I'm sort of re-thinking those issues. It's difficult because it's becoming harder to tell what's "reality" and what's not. What people often say about September 11 is that with such a terrible event, you had two patterns of responses; people convinced that it was reality, and others who thought that even this couldn't be real. I actually had conflicting responses to it myself. I don't have all the answers about that, but to me it feels a little insincere when people in Japan today so easily say things like, "this is real, so we have to think about it more seriously." First we have to deal with the fact that we can't feel this as real.
MA: How do you think you and the world around you have changed since September 11?
YT: Simply put, I was really surprised at the fact that I didn't feel myself change that much, even when an event like that happened. I guess it shows the depth of our sickness, so to speak.
KA: I kind of hoped they'd send one flying into my place actually. Then maybe we'd be able to participate.
MA: There have been several new 'political' films coming out in Japan recently. For example Masato Harada's film on the Asama Sanso incident, The Choice of Hercules (Totsunyu Seyo! Asama Sanso Jiken, 2002), Junji Sakamoto's KT (2002), Tatsuya Mori's A2 (2001), Banmei Takahashi's Rain of Light (Hikari no Ame, 2001) and so on. Maybe this is just me, but it seems they came out all at once. Do you think there's anything to that?
YT: For Harada's Asama Sanso film and Takahashi's Rain of Light, I think it's simply because it's been thirty years now since that particular case. Other than that... I don't think there's such a deep meaning to it all, it's just because it's been thirty years. A2 is of course the sequel to Mori's A, and it seems that he just happened to finish it this year. If you do think about it though, maybe people are questioning things just a little now: "Is Japan OK like this"? But even with problems like the economy going bad and the rising unemployment rate, most popular culture - film, novels, etc. - don't seem to be dealing with it at all, and I think that is a little naïve.
MA: Amamiya-san, what do you think of Rain of Light and those other films?
KA: Well, it's been 30 years. People who were active in the Red Army and running newspapers back then have been calling up TV stations and setting up special programs and so forth, being really active. Even the people shown in Rain of Light who were killing all those people, have been coming out and giving stage addresses since they got out of jail, even opening bars that are doing really well. They were supposed to be fighting for communist revolution but now they're just using the group as a moneymaking organization. And the audience watches the films as entertainment, like a horror movie or something.
MA: Over the last few years in particular, the American news media seems to be spending a lot of time talking about the "explosion" of nationalism in Japan, using examples like the excitement surrounding Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The impression I get is that some people may develop something of a stereotype about how nationalistic Japanese people are. Also when a film like The New God is shown overseas people may come away with certain impressions about Japanese political history... what do you think about people looking at Japan from these images and criticizing it from the outside?
YT: Well, for example someone might hear about those right-wing trucks blasting through the city and think that everybody just passively sits by and watches it happen, but I think The New God shows that there's more going on than just that. When America looks at Japan people say it's getting more nationalistic, but things aren't that superficial. There's a lot happening behind the scenes. Actually I think Japan needs to stand up and tell other countries that there's more happening here, that it's not nearly such a cut-and-dried issue. Japan doesn't seem to, how should I say it, analyze its own situation as much as it should. The Japanese mass media do a lot of stereotyping too.
KA: It's been a long time since I started hearing that Japan's becoming more right wing. When I was right wing I really thought so, but after I got away from that I realized it's not true at all. There's a huge difference between what we hear and what happens in people's day-to-day lives. But when The New God was released, a rightist told us that there's no way this film would have been accepted 10 years ago. Maybe the right wing is more accepted than it was 10 years ago; maybe it's gained regular 'civil rights'. I think that's because there are more right-leaning figures in culture now.