Yamagata and Film

Excavating the Strata of Time

The program Yamagata and Film was born in 2007. This was the year in which administration of the film festival was transferred from Yamagata City to a private non-profit organization. At the time, many raised worries and concerns as the festival became independent of the city government.

What was the mood as we launched Yamagata and Film amid these changes? To be honest, I do not really remember. In the aim of proceeding even more enthusiastically forward into the future, we decided to reaffirm our appreciation of the festival’s steadfast bedrock and home, Yamagata, through the medium of film. Reaching out into the world and excavating the ground are things that are in fact linked. Such was some of our thinking, at least.

Yamagata and Film started as “Films about Yamagata” and has also been known as “Film and Yamagata.” In recent years, it has also come to focus on films and film affairs originating from Yamagata, broadening scope to focus on films from Yamagata. On October 29, 2017, Yamagata City was recognized as a City of Film by the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. It is safe to say that the perspectives and sensibilities that constitute Yamagata and Film were at the origin of the process that led to this designation.

People have been enjoying this film festival and this city together for three decades now. As the festival now attempts to take a new step forward, we find ourselves confronted with an unusual global situation, a situation that has caused the festival to go online. It is possible that this approach will bring the films to people who in the past have not been able to come to Yamagata, and we have put together a program with that in mind.

The birth of an international film festival in Yamagata led to many unexpected encounters between people and films. We felt first of all that we wanted to reintroduce the film A Movie Capital, which documents the early days of the festival: the films that reflected various aspects of a world starting to undergo intense shifts, and the excitement, commotion, and joy with which filmmakers from many different countries were greeted. This film captures the fresh energy surrounding the beginnings of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival as public officials, professionals, and city residents worked feverishly to make it a reality.

Long before the start of the festival, in the mid-1950s, staff from the public relations department of the Yamagata City government went out into towns and villages to capture the daily lives and countenances of people on film. They showed the results to the public as newsreels in efforts that anticipated the Yamagata of A Movie Capital. This was a time when Yamagata did not yet have a television station. This surprising series of films, discovered several years ago in a public relations department warehouse, is well worth watching.

Since the last YIDFF, Yamagata has also witnessed circumstances in which things previously taken for granted ended up disappearing. Many people from around the world who took part in the YIDFF came to know and love the Komian Club and its Maruhachi Yatara-zuke pickle store, which offered a miraculous venue for social interaction. The new documentary Pickles and Komian Club gathers the thoughts and words of people who were startled by the sudden announcement during the pandemic that this venue was going out of business. It makes its world premiere at YIDFF 2021.

Around the same, the Tsuruoka Machinaka Kinema movie theater also suddenly closed for reasons related to the pandemic. This too was a huge shock. The theater has now come under new management and preparations are underway for a reopening. We take this occasion to present The World’s “Top” Theater, a collection of filmed testimonials concerning the Green House movie theater, which over forty years ago was the origin of a large fire in Sakata, a city neighboring Tsuruoka. The theater was destroyed in the fire, but those in the film describe it with deep affection even after all this time. We offer this screening with a cheer of encouragement for the new Tsuruoka Machinaka Kinema (where test screenings will start on October 15, 2021 ahead of a reopening planned for next spring). We hope this will be an occasion to rethink the connections between regional identity and film (theaters).

Many of Japan’s surviving sokushinbutsu (Buddhist monks who underwent live self-mummification through ascetic observances) are concentrated in the Shonai region of Yamagata Prefecture. High priests, mostly in the Edo Period, entered deep meditation in buried underground chambers in order to save all living things suffering from pestilence and famine. The film The Buddha Mummies of North Japan, which depicts the sokushinbutsu as well as the thoughts and rituals of people who continue to revere them to this day, is a product of an encounter and collaboration between an overseas researcher and a film director living in Yamagata, and is a valuable research achievement.

These various filmed images bring up stories and documents from beneath the ground on which we stand.

Takahashi Takuya
Program Coordinator