After riding onto the film festival circuit with the Japanese New Wave, Kazuo Hara has established himself as a key figure in Japanese non-fiction cinema, with Errol Morris calling him “an undiscovered genius of documentary.”1 Undercurrents of social revolution, countercultural noise and the rise of feminist activism bleed into his work as Hara punctuates his filmography with the confessions and stories of the socially disenfranchised. This picture of Japanese post-war society stands in stark contrast to East Asian hierarchy culture and aesthetically pleasing images. Hara’s heroes include Kôichi Yokozuka: a photographer with cerebral palsy in Sayonara CP (Goodbye CP, 1972), Miyuki Takeda: a feminist single mother in Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974 (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, 1974) and Kenzo Okuzaki: a Japanese veteran obsessed by the war crimes of his former commanders in Yuki yukite, shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987). More recently, the camera has turned to Yasutomi Ayumi: a transwoman and professor of economics who campaigned for a seat in the House of Councillors with the left wing Reiwa Shinsengumi party in Rei wa ikki (Reiwa Uprising, 2019). Hara’s latest work is a six-hour contribution to the national discourse on Minamata disease with Minamata Mandara (Minamata Mandala, Kazuo Hara, 2020), developing the precedent set by mentor Noriaki Tsuchimoto in Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai (Minamata: The Victims and Their World, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1971). Telling these stories reveals the violence of privacy, as ostracisation from the broader community encourages silence. It’s easy to ignore the things we don’t want to look for.
Initially, I made Hara’s acquaintance when I had the pleasure of translating his Q&A at the 2019 New Horizons Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland. The audience remained enthralled for nearly two hours, with Hara concluding, “After so many years, I still learn from my films, thanks to the audience.”
Your documentaries were made during the countercultural period in Japan. How do you, as a documentary filmmaker, perceive the truth?
I don’t approach film as a product that can be sold. Humanity is in a constant process of finding one’s freedom. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there was the All-Campus Joint Struggle League (zenkyōtō-undō), in which young people wanted to start a rebellion against the government. Similar to how it happened in the USA and Europe.
Everybody was trying to find answers: where they belong, how we should live. Finding the right way was on everybody’s mind. Making documentaries is searching for the “right way” with the camera. This is the motor that drives my films. The most important thing is finding the right protagonist, pointing a camera towards them and always thinking: who do I want to be? I sacrifice myself to the film and focus on portraying their way of life. In Japan, and the world at large right now, we have horrible politics. The cabinet of Shinzō Abe has made it more and more difficult to keep on living. Even though we’re trying to catch up economically, we waste our money on wars, corrupt our institutions with nepotism while taking taxes from the poor. This is the politics of cruelty, here and now! Japanese filmmakers are trying to show the real Japan, how we live and what we do. We show reality, how we really see it. But we also challenge it, this is the truth of film.
In opposition to truth, Japanese filmmakers coined the term yarase (a prearranged and faked situation). How would you define this?
In the film industry, we use this word in a negative context. For example, people expect nothing but the truth in NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai, Japan Broadcasting Corporation) programs. But, this is a director pointing towards a certain scenario. Everything is staged for the show, simply fake. In the phase of TV that we’re currently in, you can’t really make a documentary without an element of yarase. Despite that, there are few people who are capable of making a decent live-document without it. Those who work in a similar fashion to me don’t identify ourselves within the scope of this technique. I’d say we are challengers. You can’t film with the camera without intruding into someone’s life. In other words, the one who’s chosen for the documentary must be aware of the fact that there’s a camera nearby. That person must be aware of the person who’s behind the camera as well. If you realise that and mutually agree on each other’s movements, it results in a theatrical effect. This is not a negative notion, but rather a progressive one. We, as filmmakers, take this performance as the modus operandi of our films.
I’ve been working in this way since my debut, Sayonara CP (Goodbye CP, 1972), but it’s more profoundly developed in Yuki yukite, shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987). I pointed Kenzo Okuzaki, the protagonist who’s a war veteran, in a certain direction. At first, he followed my instructions and visited each suspect of the war crimes in New Guinea. But, with time he slowly started taking the investigation into his own hands and applying his own perspective. He takes the case to extremes and becomes willing to murder his former army sergeant, who appears to be responsible for these crimes. I did not ask him to do so, I never said anything about killing anyone. This is Okuzaki and the result of his own pursuit, the expression of his disposition. My only question was about what happened in New Guinea. I challenged Okuzaki in a way that motivated him. Cautiously, I pointed him towards the case and asked him to find the truth. He delivered. I nudged him, that’s it. Once you have a protagonist, and they have the message, the crew must operate around the events that shape their life. Filmmakers have to find their place with the camera. This process of finding one’s place might be negatively perceived as yarase, but we’d rather think of our work as consistent documentary execution. It’s about directing.
Your filmography is adjacent to an avant-garde approach, why did you decide to render reality in this way?
The world of documentary is a very broad one, objective documentary doesn’t exist. The creator see’s the story and is responsible for their own strategy in actualising it. The director first tries to delineate the main idea in order to (cautiously) depict it. Staging is directing, in a way. If we don’t direct, we won’t be able to understand these people. When you direct someone or something, you have to prearrange certain things so that what you anticipate will eventuate. This practice may resemble the fiction film, but they are disparate methods.
Your films deal with social issues, wouldn’t it be easier to use more conventional filmmaking techniques?
No, I really don’t think so. Older filmmakers have shown that one simply cannot remain neutral and detach oneself from the events that they’re filming. Documentary filmmakers reveal the nature of things. One of my senior colleagues, Shinsuke Ogawa, made a film about the people of Sanrizuka village. In the mid ‘60s, they started a battle with the government over land appropriation for the Narita International Airport. This was called the Sanrizuka Struggle (Sanrizuka tōsō). In this picture, there was a group of farmers who represented a revolt. They bonded over mutual trust, shared poverty and tragedy. This enabled them to start their fight with the airport authorities and civil servants. In this environment, Ogawa found himself with a camera alongside reporters framing this as a battle between farmers and Japan’s territorial trade laws. The journalists may have genuinely believed in their objectivity, yet they showed the incident as a warzone where everybody kills everybody. That is why you must always question where you’re putting yourself in the scenario. You can’t be neutral, this is obvious when you start figuring out which way to go.
This is Ogawa’s lesson that we must learn for ourselves: what point of view do we want to take? Only after that, can we start the process of creation. Which perspective should we use? Always the one aligned with the struggle against power. Why? For those who may be called weak, who stand against the government, who lay claim to freedom and the right to use it! I think revealing the essence of things is feasible once you’re aligned with the disenfranchised. The classic documentary form that you’re referring to becomes futile. Times are rapidly changing, so are the ways of thinking about filmmaking. I live in the “here and now” and my films are made in the “here and now,” always with the question of how I should capture it.
How does this “here and now” appeal to the audience, both in Japan and abroad?
My films aren’t particularly well-known. You’ve probably heard of Michael Moore. When he saw my films for the first time, he was shocked. He’s from Detroit and made a documentary, Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989), about a car company from there and decided to conduct an interview with the CEO of General Motors without making an appointment. Moore did some thinking about the justice of this confrontational approach, whether it works for the sake of the film. When he edited it in Washington, there was a small theatre nearby that programmed a lot of indie films he hadn’t seen before. One of them was Yuki Yukite Shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Kazuo Hara, 1987) and this was something that truly shocked him.
In this film, Okuzaki tries to prove that cannibalism occurred in New Guinea during World War II. Okuzaki was a soldier and when he was confronted with false testimony from other veterans he started becoming violent. Physical violence. Beating, kicking, being aggressive and removing people as if they were objects. He has done many bad things in order to extract the truth from people. Moore saw it and it was the first time he’d seen this film practice. He was surprised and thought that I had my own style, Kazuo Hara style. That brought me some ease.
Another example would be Martin Scorsese. Two of my films, Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974 (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song, 1974) and Yuki Yukite Shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987), were screened in New York. Scorsese is a cinephile and wrote me a letter asking if he could borrow a copy of Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974 (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, 1974) because he wasn’t able to see it at the cinema. Of course, I sent him a copy. After some time, I received another letter from Scorsese, saying: “I’ve seen your film. No one has ever made a film like that. No one has ever seen a film like that.” Okuzaki was no doubt a shocking character, but even though my characters might be aggressive and violent, a guy like that deconstructs plenty of stereotypes. Some people had very positive responses to the film, some say it’s incredible. Others had the opposite response and considered it a mistake. Despite this, it’s been over 30 years since the premiere and both of these films are being screened at international film festivals.
Actually, I do think that the recognition of these works has significantly increased. I’m not entirely sure if they’re recognised and appreciated in Japan, but they were met with appreciation abroad.
Your films deal with plenty of taboos, has anyone objected on moral grounds?
The dynamics of taboo and audience is always a delicate matter. We expected right wing protests during the theatrical release of Yuki Yukite Shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987), as they may have believed it to be anti-emperor. The right wing ended up identifying with Okuzaki’s words. The thing with taboo is navigating where it exists. It’s almost impossible to gauge from a superficial glance. As an individual, one has to test it to ask if it’s there. Find it and reconstruct it in our reality. Step by step, you start to make a film. Then screen it in the cinema, then you can look at how taboo connects ordinary people. Are they cognisant that this taboo exists? It slowly becomes clearer and less difficult.
The task of filmmakers is to connect audiences with the taboo and point to what is behind it. We point to places where that taboo exists. You could say that we undermine the taboo, but I was also attacked because of it. It’s very difficult to explain in a simple way.
What about censorship?
Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974 (Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, 1974) has a birth scene that shows female sex organs. If I just shot the genitals, I would have been arrested immediately. The birth scene had to be shot from the front, so we had our little pink film (pinku eiga). Due to my stupid mistake, the picture becomes blurred when the baby’s head is crowning. That was extremely fortunate, because we could have this scene in the film and I wasn’t arrested. However, people in the film industry started some sort of movement against our film. They didn’t want it to be screened and at that time there were many people who were interested in seeing it. Pressure was mounting for the cinemas. Some of them showed my film, some didn’t. For this reason, the Eiga Rinri Kikō (Film Classification and Rating Organisation) got involved to classify the film’s contents. They decide on restrictions, which can be problematic because the regulators need commissions.
If there are too many restrictions, we can’t know what the taboo is. If you don’t explain or expose what the taboo is, then it’s very difficult to tell what the taboo consists of.
How did the audience react to the birth scene?
In Japan, it used to be common to have a natural home birth that the families participated in. It wasn’t odd to watch it. The growth of medicine meant that people started to give birth in hospitals and this gradually became the new normal. When I made my film in the ‘70s, many feminist groups were advocating changing the way we think about natality. For many women, giving birth means love. It’s deeply connected with the notion of nature. It’s true that hospital births are safer from a medical point of view, but it’s also connected to power and control. Japanese feminists started to point out that by having a birth in the hospital, we partially decide to be controlled or stifled. That’s why, in my film, the protagonist decides to have a birth on her own. Freedom is about learning the risks that come with different forms of oppression and control. This is where the problems arise.
Women empower each other by talking about their options for birth, if they want to look at their newborn without being surrounded by strangers. It’s a matter of privacy and what feels natural. Those who agree with this premise can understand the essence of natural home birth and hold the film in high esteem. But, there were many people (mostly men) who adhered to conservative family conventions and were hostile to women transgressing their traditions. Men of this ilk told me that they didn’t like my film’s heroine. Cinema can be polarising, but I always try to figure out why one doesn’t like it. My films show the bigger picture, a broader sense of understanding. I want people to be able to grasp the meaning of it.
You mention the matter of privacy, was your personal history with the protagonist (Kazuo’s ex-girlfriend) a conflict of interest?
When I filmed it, I was barely in my 20’s. I thought that each of us had some kind of interior privacy and within that there is a sense of values. This may be mediated by external authorities that shape us and reconstruct how we think or feel. Especially when it comes to vulnerable people, who ultimately support this kind of system. You may try and fight it, but what matters is how you fight.
That’s why I turned the camera onto myself. I started to look through the depths of what’s inside me, my weakest attributes and what was vulnerable to change and power. It’s experimental and transparent because I made it, but also because it was about me. About searching for the things that we don’t want to look for.
We couldn’t fight with the government, but thanks to the film we could express ourselves. Seize the zeitgeist, the times of social revolution. We could depict the literal fighting with authorities, but it’s more convincing when you show what’s inside human beings. When you want to fight the power and change the world you live in, you need something drastic.
What about the images of violence in Yuki yukite, shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987)? Okuzaki literally assaults his suspects in some scenes.
This is subtler than it may appear. At the end of the film, Okuzaki wanted to kill his former commander who was responsible for the war crimes. He made up his mind and asked me to accompany him with the camera. I hesitated and didn’t know whether I should film it or not. Eventually, I decided that I didn’t want to take part in it. But, I never gave him an answer. It was a dead end for me, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t respond to him, because I didn’t really know if I wanted to record it or not. I also didn’t feel like I could do it. Okuzaki thought that I didn’t care. He was a little bit disappointed, then went on his own to kill that man. When he finally told me about it, I realised that I’d lost my chance to have any impact on it.
The film has two scenes featuring explicit violence. There’s no ambiguity, it’s talked about as a mistake. Something wrong, forbidden. Many people think this way and it’s not wrong to condemn it. I agree that violence is wrong, but Okuzaki is violent for a reason. When he hits his former superior, he accuses him of not telling the truth. Okuzaki wants him to admit to his crimes and prove him guilty. This guilt is also derived from violence. He tries to defend himself, hides behind the facade because he knows that silence or lying will result in more violence. This instigates a visceral kind of fear, which Okuzaki uses to disempower his former commander.
He can’t remain silent because of the brutality of his war crimes. This is the meaning of violence. In the end, Okuzaki surrounds him and pins him to the ground. As a result, he can’t run away. Okuzaki realises the effect of the violence he uses, it enables him to reveal the truth. That’s why it’s crucial for me, as a filmmaker, to distinguish between these two kinds of violence. Sure, I could simply leave the camera and watch one kill the other from afar. What’s more important, to me, is delving deep into the core of an idea. Analysing it without putting the final dot at the end of the sentence, without easy and definitive solutions.
Your latest release, Minamata Mandara (Minamata Mandala, 2020), runs for over six hours and addresses Minamata disease. This was initially discovered in Japan in 1956, what drew you to this subject matter and why did you gravitate towards long form cinema?
I was born in 1945, the year Japan lost the war and we were introduced to democracy. From this point forwards, my growth and democratisation waltzed hand in hand. Synchronised. I think this is why Japanese democracy is embedded in my mind. But, this was also the moment our economy experienced rapid growth. Once again, we started becoming a wealthy nation. But we also started to wonder if democracy was intrinsic to us, the Japanese. There were many people who raised this question and I was one of them. Our government is a conservative construct that only heeds their own interests. Despite many failures, it won’t collapse because people eventually support it.
Is Japan the nation that cannot fight the power? The emperor? Can’t they resist? Form a rebellion? This is something that I was thinking about very often. It irritated me. There are a few reasons why I decided to platform the Minamata disease. I was encouraged by people who have suffered the malady for a long time. But, at the bottom of my heart, I felt a certain way about them. The most ordinary folks and the endurance they possess. This notion is built on premises that I sincerely dislike, namely that their struggle doesn’t end with disease.2 I wanted to show how these people have to fight for a sense of happiness, for themselves and their families. I cannot tolerate the fact that Minamata patients have to advocate for themselves in the courts and then be treated as if they don’t belong in the broader community. They really have to struggle.
As for the length of the film, this was necessary to subtly depict the patients’ lives. I step into their lives, or even their minds, to capture the aforementioned endurance. I can’t grasp the vast amount of details without the long form. Perhaps the image of endurance that I seek isn’t a sudden, violent eruption. Instead, I want the subtle details to accumulate. I don’t see another way to do it, so the film emerged in long form.
Another key figure from the Japanese New Wave, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, made a film about Minamata disease with Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai (Minamata: The Victims and Their World, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1971). How did Tsuchimoto’s filmmaking technique and approach to the disease influence your film?
Shinsuke Ogawa and Noriaki Tsuchimoto were two directors who had a huge impact on me. I aspired to be like them. Even in my previous project, Nippon Asbest Village (Sennan Asbestos Disaster, 2016), I consciously worked on it as if it was a production from the Ogawa Pro filmmaking collective. Minamata Mandara (Minamata Mandala, 2020) was a more direct continuation of Tsuchimoto’s work. One may ask, why am I obsessed with the work of Ogawa and Tsuchimoto? They were pioneers. They prepared a methodology that opened up the world for us, so we can follow and develop their ideas. I firmly believe that this is because there is something inside their minds that wasn’t present abroad, which became characteristic of them.
Minamata disease has many side effects, but one of them is cerebral palsy. The latter was the subject matter in your first film Sayonara CP (Goodbye CP, 1972). Was Minamata disease relevant to your work on cerebral palsy back then? It feels like Japan hasn’t really changed much.
I was certainly thinking about Minamata disease when I was shooting Sayonara CP (Goodbye CP, 1972). For example, the patients’ children in Minamata Mandara (Minamata Mandala, 2020) were eventually born with physical disabilities. This resulted in social discrimination. When I was shooting people with cerebral palsy for Sayonara CP (Goodbye CP, 1972), I realised that there was a direct link between their deformities and discrimination. Both cerebral palsy and Minamata disease represent the same pattern of marginalisation that I needed to incorporate into my film. When I started shooting Minamata Mandara (Minamata Mandala, 2020), many patients made comments about Sayonara CP (Goodbye CP, 1972). Once they’d seen it, they’d identify with it, saying that they shared the same problems.
How have you changed as a documentary director, from your debut until now? What are your goals for the future?
Even though it’s been 50 years since I started working on documentaries, I think that my position as a filmmaker hasn’t really changed. It’s quite consistent. After Yuki yukite, shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987) and Zenshin Shosetsuka (A Dedicated Life, 1994), I kept looking for radical people like Okuzaki. But, there were none. Societal oppression became more and more severe. I realised that times have changed significantly: from Showa, to Heisei, to Reiwa, to now. Society has less tolerance for radical characters like Okuzaki. I had no choice but to change my standards for choosing the protagonists of my stories. Okuzaki didn’t choose his extreme way of being at birth. There was a time when he lived just like a common man, we see this in the film. The war made critical changes to Okuzaki. I wanted to explore how common people live their common lives and what kinds of experiences make them do radical things. Life before the extremes. What experiences radicalise you? That’s the meaning of my work. In Nippon Asbest Village (Sennan Asbestos Disaster, 2016) I depict the everyday lives of ordinary people. But, after an 8-year trial, they may emerge as radical as Okuzaki. This is what interests me. I doubt that I will really change in any direction, I’ve found what’s mine.
- Errol Morris, “Camera Obtrusa: The Action Documentaries of Kazuo Hara,” Screen Slate, June 2019 ↩
- Minamata disease is the result of methyl mercury poisoning from the corporate dumping of wastewater in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture. Patients from this fishing village have been fighting for recognition and compensation since 1957. ↩