Documentarists of Japan, #13

Tsuchiya Yutaka

The 13th installment of the “Documentarists of Japan” series features Tsuchiya Yutaka. Tsuchiya, who started out making video art, not only makes his own videos but is also a video activist involved in the distribution and screening of works. He also finds time to lend his dry manner to talk sessions, and receives intense support especially from young fans, for whom his down-to-earth attitude may be part of his appeal.

Screened at YIDFF ’99, Tsuchiya’s new work, The New God, has since shown domestically and abroad, where it has set off waves of discussion and opinions with each screening. Editor Aaron Gerow was able to catch Tsuchiya in Yamagata during the festival last fall.

The Editors

Gerow (G): First, I’d like to ask about your background. Even now, so many young people interested in cinema insist on film, but you’ve chosen video [as your medium]. How did you get into working with images, and why did you pick video?

Tsuchiya (T): All I did in university was watch movies. I just loved film. At the time, I wasn’t getting along well with the people around me, so even though I was in school, I was a real introvert, and didn’t have many friends (laughs). It was the height of the economic bubble, and so many people were busy enjoying themselves and not thinking about social issues, but I couldn’t get into that. That world felt so foreign to me, but there weren’t many people that I could talk to about this, so movie theaters were the freest places I knew. I was able to get away from that gloomy feeling when I was in the theater, so I spent all my time there.

When you watch films, you start to read film criticism, right? Among film critics, I love Kogawa Tetsuo—you know how he connects a film to the social and political problems in its background. That kind of writing really fit with my feelings at the time. In his criticism, Kogawa connected the freedom of the movie theater and the unpleasant gloomy feel of society. So in a way, that helped me to wake up to social problems.

And then, while I was watching films, I started to want to make something. I didn’t even think about using film or video in particular—it just happened that I had access to a video camera, so that’s what I used. Thinking about it afterwards, the fact you can start making things right away if there’s a camera in front of you comes out in my later work. Anyway, I started making video art, and my first works addressed issues like how I was being tossed about by the media, and my worries about losing myself in media. My third piece was called Identity? (1993). It’s about three minutes long, and shows my face as it slowly morphs and changes shape, from my face to those of well-known TV newscasters like Kume Hiroshi and Chikushi Tetsuya. By making this work, I wanted to move beyond the self that existed only as a reflection of the media. But I wasn’t able to overcome that in the piece itself, and in the end it questioned identity and that was it. After I finished the piece, I felt like something was missing, like I’d had enough of finding myself. From there, I wanted to be more active somehow, and the next thing I shot was What Do You Think About the War Responsibility of Emperor Hirohito? (Part Shinjuku).

G: Filmmakers of your generation tend to turn out a lot of films and videos about searching for their identity. A lot of them don’t try to connect this to social or political issues, which you do, and that makes you a bit unusual. What led you to think about social issues?

T: My upbringing, I suppose. I grew up in Gunma Prefecture, where my family owned a farm, and my father also worked in construction. He installed glass in new buildings. It was a really hard life—he’d get up early in the mornings and get all filthy working around the farm, then rush off to his job as soon as he was done. After work, he’d be busy around the farm again. Then he’d be reading the paper and say things like “I work so hard, and what are the politicians doing? What’s (then-Prime Minister) Tanaka Kakuei doing?” So I learned to hate people with importance, power and money (laughs). Somehow, my father’s words made me realize the contradictions of a society in which people who work as hard as they can get peanuts, while those who don’t really do much of anything get rich. I think that’s the base for it all.

G: Even young feature film directors with an interest in social issues seem to feel distance from the Left, and say that they have nothing to do with politics themselves. In the beginning, what did you think about the New Left of the 1960s?

T: When I really didn’t know a thing, I’d watch movies by Terayama Shuji and think “Man, they were really on to something . . . .” They were just really cool. So I used to think that I might have been happier if I’d been born in that generation. I think I was a little in awe of them all. But once I knew a little bit more, I got disillusioned. Groups opposed to the emperor system just had their own internal emperor systems, there was pointless intersect fighting going on, and people from the student radical generation talk a lot but never really do anything. They’re fun to talk with, and we’re seeking similar goals, so I’m not averse to them or anything. But I don’t like joining groups and having to do things this way or that way. I feel like I need to work towards those goals by myself.

G: So you felt like you had to do something, and this led you to make videos and found W-TV (Without Television). Can you talk about the background of these?

T: It all came about because I wasn’t content with just showing my works in some festival, maybe winning a prize, and having that be the last time they were screened. And then maybe I could make some money off of selling a work to a museum. But that’s not what I’m after—when I show my films, I want to interact with people, get shaken up and shake them up and for us all to change in the process. Everyone’s got a VCR, so I decided just to package my videos and sell them. Dubbing is so cheap, so I started out with my tapes priced at 500 yen a tape, and took them around to stores by myself to ask them to take my tapes on commission. My aim was rather what happened by selling or distributing the tapes, hence the choice to distribute them like this.

G: I was particularly impressed by the “Please copy and distribute this as you like” label on the cover of each tape package. However involved you are in political activity, money’s necessary in this capitalist world, so even people who are making political films and videos have to sell their work at pretty high prices just to get anything back. And here you’re saying “Please copy this . . . .” It must be difficult financially.

T: There’s no reason why I’d make a profit from selling a 500 yen product for 5000 yen either. It’s impossible. But say I strategically give people the permission to dub my tapes as much as they want, then eventually, I get a lot back in terms of promotional value. Those who buy it will say that they want to use a tape in a class, and buy it at library price. Then I say “Okay, make it 30,000 yen.” So it doesn’t really make an impact.

G: As a filmmaker, one thing you’re after is using media like these videos to communicate with your audience or to foster communication in greater society. How do you see your relation to the audience?

T: In getting my videos out by making them free to copy, I’d hoped to get a lot of feedback, listen to peoples’ opinions and respond to them. But as it turns out I lose track of the videos once they’re sold, so I don’t get as much feedback that way as I hope. A lot of exchange goes on at screenings, though, and I meet a lot of people there, so I’m thinking to work more with small screenings. The screenings of What Do You Think About the War Responsibility of Emperor Hirohito (Part Yasukuni, Aug. 15, 1996) have been interesting. When I show them at places where many of the audience feel as I do and oppose the emperor system, everyone gets really angry. They ask why even though there should be many more people out there who oppose the emperor, I insist on just showing those who support the emperor and say that he wasn’t responsible for the war. Some people say the film made them feel ill. I love it when this happens. What I’m showing are the opinions I found at Yasukuni Shrine on August 15th [Ed. note: the day World War II ended for Japan in 1945]. When the people I interviewed said things like “I believe in the emperor,” not just their words but their expressions as they speak spark imagination as we see them. I want to make people think: that’s where dialogue begins. “You and I have the same opinion, but what I wanted to say is this . . . .” Even people with right-wing beliefs can get stuck, or have to say things like this sometimes: it’s the kind of world where, if they say that yes, the emperor had responsibility for the war, it means negating themselves. But we can discuss that.

Ito, the protagonist and right-winger in The New God, was very moved by Yasukuni, and by the fact that there are people out there who think so deeply about this country. There are all sorts of reactions when I show it to both sides, so it’s been really interesting. With Yasukuni, there’s no point if I don’t go speak at the screenings. As soon as the screening is over, I want to ask the audience “What do you think?”

G: Besides making works through organizations like W-TV, you also founded Video Act, an organization for reproducing videos, last year. How did this come about?

T: In December 1991, the founding members of the People’s Media Movement invited Paper Tiger Television (a group who produce shows for an American public access channel), to come to Japan. We had a gathering devoted to “Taking Control of Television,” and the People’s Media Movement grew out of that. The group has about four hundred members now, everyone from independent videomakers to labor activists, citizens’ movement activists and people involved in the internet, pretty much anyone interested in using some kind of media to express opinions and change society. When the videomaker members in the group get together, they always say production isn’t much of a problem. Small cameras have good image quality now, they’re inexpensive and it’s possible to get access to editing equipment. But we were always at a loss for place to show our work once it was done. You can hold a screening, but you’ll most likely know everyone there (laughs), and they’ll just watch and say “well done.” If we package our work, it can circulate among the same people, but again it won’t really spread outside that group. So we wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to do something about distribution. Each of us going around by ourselves to stores and selling our works on commission, putting up flyers and sending direct mail is really inefficient. If we put this ad and that ad together and have someone send out direct mail, we can join efforts. So it made sense to put together a catalogue and share the effort, and that’s how Video Act was born. Video Act is mainly a distribution outlet, but we also put out a newsletter and have screenings about twice a month. I’d like to be able to provide information that we’ve gathered and act as an information center on independent video too.

G: Is Video Act in touch with any organizations overseas?

T: Before starting up Video Act, we visited public access channels in New York, and researched the environment in which independent videomakers work. There were relations between Korea, Japan and the West Coast of the U.S. from long before Video Act: for example with a group of video activists in Korea called Labor News Production.

Founding Video Act only strengthened these connections. Last year, Video Act was invited to Amsterdam to Next Five Minutes, a gathering of independent media and video activists. Shu Lea Cheang and Geert Lovink were there, along with others.

G: What impressions do you get from your overseas trips? Does what you find seem very different from what’s going on in Japan?

T: People overseas really enjoy their work. They’re not doing it out of a feeling of obligation or tragic heroism, and there’s no sense of “I must do this!” In Japan, if someone says “I’m an activist and involved in this or that,” they get thought of as a bit strange. But people overseas don’t usually seem to make much of a distinction between artists and activists; they just work together. In Japan, there’s still such little exchange between artists and activists. I’d like for the situation to open up so that people can enjoy what they do a bit more and be socially involved at the same time.

G: Do you think that overseas contacts have changed video activism in Japan at all?

T: Yes. Japan’s history of video activism isn’t very long, and we need to open ourselves up instead of shutting up inside ourselves and rarely venturing outside, as happens so often in other movements. Contacts with other countries can help this to happen.

Also, there are people in Japan and Korea who are interested in the same issues. I think that it will be easier for us to find solutions if we work together. Politically, we’re seeing a flow towards globalism in which everything merges together into one, centered around the U.S.. But I’m interested in a different kind of globalism, one in which we meet directly instead of through governments. I like the image of creating a community that can leave nations behind.

G: There are people working in all sorts of ways within video activism, but one standard definition of video activism is of using video as an alternative to a singular “truth” purveyed by dominant media, or to talk about things that dominant media leaves out. But your approach strikes me as different again.

T: That’s right. I’m not interested in telling people what I think about this or that issue. I’m saying that there’s this me here who thinks this, but that these relationships may exist too; there’s this self who might have these other kinds of relations. The way I make something is itself made up of everything I’m thinking now. I can’t just be a reporter or an objective human being standing by. In that sense, I don’t think there’s a very journalistic perspective in my work.

G: Your work isn’t about conveying some kind of objective truth, but about connecting self, society and what other people are thinking. Also, you often appear in the image yourself. But this brings up issues of style. For video activism, your works are experimental. How do you feel about this? One example I can give is the way that you often overlay two or three images in your works, instead of showing only one.

T: I’m not that interested in superficial image or in style as just a method, but I do care deeply about the structure of the whole work. For example, the form for Yasukuni was decided from the beginning, so in that sense I just put all the images into the monitor and ran them so as to link together a number of images.

If you take away those monitors, I could be talking about the same things but for me, it would be a completely different work. A lot of people say I should have gotten rid of the monitors and asked people’s opinions directly, but then it wouldn’t have been my video. So I do think about style in terms of structure or form, but when it comes to the overlapping images, pretty much all I can say is that it felt good to me that way.

G: As you’ve mentioned, the person being interviewed isn’t just being filmed, but also appears on the monitor. This brings questions of television and the media to the forefront. The simultaneous presence of multiple images seems like an important element of the work.

Another image that strikes me as very “Tsuchiya” is the series of scenes in which your interviewees are filmed as if posing for a commemorative photograph. The commemorative poses in front of Yasukuni Shrine are a good example of this.

T: Even if it’s not speaking, a face is pretty amazing, isn’t it. You can look at it and imagine all kinds of things about a person. If you have someone look at the camera with a structure, angle and timing that makes their image easy to understand, you won’t get the whole thing, but you’ll understand something. That’s one point. Also, it’s also partly because I like it when things are still but time is passing. I think that style looks good.

G: You’re right, I think the way you blend still and moving images is very important. These two ways of filming seem particularly related to the question of double or triple images. In Yasukuni, for example, you have a camera on your head, but you always have another camera going as well. You used this in Ryoko, 21 Years Old too. I wonder if using two cameras doesn’t bring out the complexity of your subjects.

T: In Yasukuni, I probably put the camera on my head for interviews because I wanted to include my presence as an interviewer as well. As a rule, the interviewer doesn’t usually talk, argue or say things like “Well this is what I think.” You can get more across when it’s clear how the interview was done. In news interviews, you see a microphone and the tag “News 23,” but somehow that feels fake to me. What’s the other person thinking when they ask the questions, and how did they approach their interviewee? I wanted to convey the subjectivity of the person asking the questions in Yasukuni.

G: Earlier, you spoke about yourself as being tossed about by the media. I’m wondering how you see your position. For example, is it in resistance to pre-existing forms of media.

T: 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. I think we should use mass media strategically at times, and do what we can when we can. There are a lot of people who say that mass media is bad. Subconsciously, some people want to hear a straight declaration of position. So in that light maybe we’re the mass media. Our general position is first off that we can do without the categories of mass or mini-media.

As for myself—I don’t know if you’d call it mass media—Ryoko, 21 Years Old aired on MXTV (Tokyo Metropolitan Television). I’d thought that I’d like to collaborate with a place like that, if I could build relations with them. But the version of Ryoko shown at Yamagata was the “director’s cut,” and it wasn’t allowed to air like that on television. I run into things like that, but still, the number of people I can reach by showing something on TV is completely different.

If possible, I’d like to keep what I want to say intact and still work with mass media. Before, I’d just take in the media, get annoyed by it and feel as if it was playing with me. But thinking of it in a different light, I can be part of the mass media and actually control it myself, if I try.

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Tsuchiya Yutaka

Born in 1966. Began making videos in earnest in 1990. In 1994, began producing and distributing the free, shareware-style video WITHOUT TELEVISION. Since 1998, has supervised the independent video distribution project VIDEO ACT!, and continues his activities to expand the network of media activists. Principle works include Identity? (1993), What Do You Think About the War Responsibility of Emperor Hirohito? <Part Yasukuni, Aug 15, 1996> (1997, Screened at YIDFF ’97 Japanese Panorama), Ryoko, 21 Years Old (1998, screened at YIDFF ’99) and The New God (1999). Screened at YIDFF ’99 in the New Asian Currents section, where it won the FIPRESCI award, The New God has also been shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival, is scheduled to be shown in Indonesia, Singapore, Brazil, Hong Kong, Korea, Sweden, Taiwan and Austria, and will open at Tokyo’s Eurospace theater this July.