Noda Shinkichi Retrospective: A Festival of Things and Life

Co-organized by National Film Archive of Japan

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All works produced in Japan, in Japanese.

Shifting Things, a Gaze on Life

YIDFF’s retrospective programs on Japanese documentary history from the earliest days to the present and special programs on specific filmmakers have met great acclaim. However, there are still documentarists who have not yet been given full consideration and who remain almost forgotten, their films sleeping in the depths of the archives. With this year marking the thirtieth anniversary of his death and the hundred and tenth anniversary of his birth, Noda Shinkichi is one of those who can hardly be said to have achieved a defined place in film history.

The sheer variety of Noda’s works has made it more difficult to get a full picture of his oeuvre. Noda joined P.C.L., the predecessor of Toho, in 1937. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, he took part in the Toho Labor Dispute, and became a freelance filmmaker, working on educational films, corporate PR films, documentaries about participation in movements for social change, independent experimental films, and films about folk culture, among others. Including work for television, he directed over one hundred titles in his lifetime. He took part in art and film movements, wrote vigorous criticism, and even published two poetry books.

Nevertheless, Noda’s creative work is unquestionably run through by a common thread. The poet Kuroda Kio once described Noda’s films as “sustained songs in the shared space between things and life.” Noda’s visual works have a unique perspective on the relationship between things and life, transcending the boundaries between human and non-human, living and inanimate. For example, Maruzen Oil’s PR film Marine Snow: The Origin of Oil (1960) documents the long period of time during which the remains of microorganisms are eventually transformed into crude oil. The visual poem, A Town Not Yet Seen (1963), peels back the veil of an ordinary town to closely observe its inorganic facets. His magnum opus, Snow as Flowers: Niino’s Snow Festival (1980), is a record of festivities that interpret the snow flurries in winter as a sign of the abundance of life that will soon come forth in spring. The images of the intertwining of nature and artifice, of the living and the dead, illuminate a world apart from our human-centered way of thinking.

Noda’s decision to make these kinds of films can be attributed to multiple factors. Kuroda pointed out that Noda’s poetry also contains songs that look at the shifting forms of things, and these songs echo through his poems and images—Noda studied under the renowned poet Nakahara Chuya and other poets in the prewar era. Also his later experience as a soldier in the war, where he narrowly escaped death on the battlefield, must have had an inescapable influence on his view of life and his perspective on things.

Noda’s poetry also blossomed in his images, through the subjects he worked on in his wartime culture films and postwar PR films, the remote areas he visited for shooting, and his encounters with the local people. Furthermore, the accumulation of heated debates he had within art movements established the theory and expression of his subjectivity as a filmmaker. Noda, who was a core member of the Kiroku Eiga Sakka Kyokai (Documentary Filmmakers Association) and Eizo Geijutsu no Kai (Association for Film Art), argued with Matsumoto Toshio and others and sought not just to record “facts” but to transform his own life by facing up to real things and develop a method of documentary filmmaking that could transform reality. The films Noda left behind eschew the dualism of subject and object, and capture the world as a circle of transmigration. His gaze included a fundamental criticism of the foundational knowledge and underlying structure of modern society.

Unfortunately, Noda’s films have rarely been shown outside of Japan. However, I would like to emphasize finally that the above described gaze of Noda’s was also formed out of encounters with world cinema history. Noda’s writings deal extensively with the possibilities shown by documentaries by Kamei Fumio, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, and others, while also making sharp critiques of the state of documentaries in his own time. They additionally confirm his strong attraction to a wide range of films by directors he admired such as Buñuel, Resnais, Olmi and Angelopoulos. In order to search for traces of these fertile memories of film history, Noda’s films must be revived. We would like to share his gaze on things and life by showing it to the world on the screen in Yamagata.

Tanaka Shimpei
Program Coordinator

Noda Shinkichi

Noda Shinkichi was born in 1913 in Yawatahama City, Ehime Prefecture. His father was the nanga “Southern School” painter Noda Seiseki. He studied under Nakahara Chuya and others and wrote poetry, while studying French Literature at Waseda University. After graduating in 1937, he aspired to make “culture films,” documentaries at the cutting edge of 1930s Japanese cinema, and joined the P.C.L. Film Studio (which would be reorganized as Toho Eiga Co., Ltd. the same year). There he met Kamei Fumio and other filmmakers affiliated with the studio. He made his directorial debut in 1939 with Postal Worker (“Yubin jugyoin”). In 1940, he was conscripted and sent to the front where he would survive the perils of war.

Returning to Toho after Japan’s defeat, Noda was elected to the labor union and fought in the Toho Labor Disputes that came to a head in 1948. Following this, he worked on contract as director for Toho Kyoiku Eigasha (Toho Educational Film Co., Ltd.) before going independent in 1952, working in PR and educational films as well as documentaries produced in solidarity with the struggles against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and other social movements. His film Marine Snow: The Origin of Oil (“Marine snow: Sekiyu no kigen,” 1960) received high praise at both domestic and international film festivals. Noda also took part in various art and film movements, organized the Kyoiku Eiga Sakka Kyokai (Association of Education Filmmakers, later known as Kiroku Eiga Sakka Kyokai, or the Documentary Filmmakers Association), and would go on to form the Eizo Geijutsu no Kai (Association for Film Art). Serving as the editor of the society’s journal, he shaped the polemic that set the stage for the theories of subjectivity and method of Matsumoto Toshio and other documentary filmmakers while also vigorously writing film criticism of his own. Starting with the poetic film A Town Not Yet Seen (“Mada minu machi,” 1963), he began making independent films in an experimental style. He also directed television documentaries, including for Nippon Television’s Nonfiction Theater (“Nonfiction gekijo”) and Wonderful World Travel (“Subarashii sekai ryoko”) series. In 1967, he founded the Suginami Cine-Club with Sasaki Kiichi and others and became involved in organizing independent screenings.

Starting with The Feast of the Gods on a Winter’s Night: Toyama’s Shimotsuki Festival (“Fuyu no yoru no kamigami no utage: Toyama no Shimotsuki matsuri,” 1970), Noda began using independent film to visually document Japanese festivals, traditional performance, and other folk practices that were at risk of disappearing with modernization. He also oversaw a documentary series on folk customs for the Kanagawa News Eiga Kyokai (Kanagawa News Film Association). In 1974, he formed the Eizo Minzokugaku wo Kangaeru Kai (Society for Reflection on Ethnological Film) with folklorists Noguchi Takenori and Miyata Noboru and the filmmaker Kitamura Minao. In 1978, they founded the Japanese Ethnological Film Society. In 1980 he completed Snow as Flowers: Niino’s Snow Festival (“Yuki wa hana de aru: Niino no yuki matsuri”), a film seven years in the making.

As an author, he published Nihon documentary eiga-zenshi (“A Complete History of Japanese Documentary Film”) in 1984. His other writings include Aru eiga sakka: filmography-teki jidenfu na oboegaki, (“A Filmmaker: Filmographic-Autobiographical Notes,” 1988), Nakahara Chuya: Waga seishun no hyohaku (“Nakahara Chuya: The Bleaching of My Youth”, 1988), and Eizo: Tasogare wo akatsuki to yobiuruka (“The Image: Can the Dusk Be Called Dawn?”, 1991). He also published two volumes of poetry: Naraku tenten (“Adrift in Abyss”) in 1978 and Angu shoka (“Benighted Songs”) in 1982. He died in 1993.