Documentarists of Japan, #15

Kubota Yukio

Interviewer: Kobayashi Shigeru

Since our interview with director Haneda Sumiko in Documentary Box #1 (September 29, 1992), our interview series focusing on documentary makers in Japan has reached its fifteenth installment. In that time, we’ve largely spoken with directors, but we have tried to avoid looking at the industry exclusively from their perspective. We’ve talked with cinematographer Tamura Masaki (Documentary Box #8) and producer Kudo Mitsuru (Documentary Box #10), and have continued to examine the art from a multitude of viewpoints. For many years we had hoped to interview sound specialist Kubota Yukio, but due to editorial oversight this had long remained an unfulfilled wish. Then director Kobayashi Shigeru kindly agreed to take on the role of interviewer, at last making our wishes a reality. In commemoration of this modest achievement, we’d like to take this opportunity to express our deepest appreciation to these two gentlemen.

— The editors

1. At a newly-opened radio station

Kobayashi Shigeru (KS): Today I’d like to talk to you about sound. There’s a great demand for your services these days, but let’s begin by talking about how you started out. In September 1954 you entered the audio department of Radio Sasebo. Was this your initial break into the business after graduating from university?

Kubota Yukio (KY): I had just come out of the electrical communications division of the engineering department of Kyushu University. I wanted to do something technical, so I got a job at the newly opened Radio Sasebo, part of Nagasaki Broadcasting. As far as technical jobs go, there’s only sound recording. And since all that sound recording for radio involves is getting audio on tape, it is incredibly simple.

KS: Things like recording announcers in the studio,...

KY: ...and heading out to locations and recording various sounds, that sort of thing, for putting the program together. In those days we used a densuke, a hand-wound recorder that used 6mm magnetic tape. I used to strap it onto the back of my scooter and zoom off to get material. After about a year, the simplicity of the job had worn a bit thin, but fortunately I was given the opportunity to become a director. It was a small radio station out in the country, so we had that kind of freedom. I ended up doing everything from planning to reporting, right through to the final production stage. I did that for about a year and a half. I covered all sorts of events and goings-on in the Sasebo region of Kyushu—I suppose that in a sense you could say that I was making documentaries back then too.

There was also what was perhaps a special project, where I did a series of interviews around the Sasebo River region, from its headwaters to where it meets the sea, talking to the people who lived there, even the homeless people who lived under the bridges. And then I’d compile it all and make a program out of it.

KS: This was before television, so you were virtually making a documentary film without pictures, right?

KY: Actually, TV in Tokyo had just started up around that time. After working as a director for about two years, I suddenly found myself shipped off to Osaka to become a salesman. You see, I’d set up a union and started organizing (laughs), so they thought they’d get rid of this troublemaker by exiling him to Osaka. The problem with sales though, was that on a fundamental level, I just really wasn’t cut out for it.

KS: Well, I do get that kind of impression (laughs).

KY: Everyday, every morning I’d be out pounding the pavement, making the rounds of the sponsors. We were a little radio station, so no-one would even give me the time of day. It was so boring that I used to take the money we had in the sales division for “miscellaneous expenses” and head off to the zoo, or go for a walk by the seaside. I did this for 3 months, and every day was torture. So then I thought I might as well just do movies, which I’d wanted to do from my university days, so I moved to Tokyo. Then I got the job with Iwanami Productions.

2. In the audio department of Iwanami Productions

KY: At first I wanted to be a documentary director. But the executives told me “We’ve got enough of them already. But we do have room for you in the audio department,” and voila (laughs). I decided “What the hell, nothing wrong with that,” and took the job.

KS: They knew beforehand that you had experience in sound recording. Iwanami Productions was prominent at the time, and it had some great directors who are still working today, plus Tsuchimoto and Ogawa Shinsuke were very young at the time, right? I’ve heard that the young assistant directors there created the Ao No Kai [a group formed by young directors within Iwanami Productions to revolutionize corporate PR filmmaking—the eds.] as a vehicle for their own development, and I understand that you were a member, even though you were part of the audio department at the time...

KY: Right about the time I started at Iwanami, in order of age they already had Hani Susumu, Haneda Sumiko, Kuroki Kazuo and Tsuchimoto Noriaki working for them, and soon after I joined, Higashi Yoichi and Ogawa Shinsuke came on board. They were all directors, and as I got to know them I quickly realized that they were all very talented. So rather than becoming a director myself, I developed a desire to work alongside these people, and I decided to do sound. In the decades since then, I’ve worked with all of the directors I’ve just named, and I still do.

For example, there’s Kuroki Kazuo who directed Pickpocket (“Suri,” 2001). He made numerous films for Iwanami like Reportage: Fire (“Ruporutaju honoo,” 1960), and he had Ogawa Shinsuke and Higashi Yoichi working with him as assistant directors around the time that My Love Hokkaido (“Waga ai Hokkaido,” 1962) was made. Therefore, thanks to those projects and the Ao No Kai, I knew them all very well. Even when I left Iwanami to work freelance, those relationships endured, and still do to this day.

KS: When you were at Iwanami, what was actually involved in the sound recording process? There was asynchronized sound recording at the time, right? Working under those conditions, what was involved in getting sound?

KY: We did a lot of corporate PR films. Filming factory production, dam building, that sort of thing. These days synchronized sound recording is taken for granted, but back then we were mostly working with silent cameras, so naturally we couldn’t record sound at the same time.

There was one film called Ashita no tekko (“Steel of Tomorrow,” dir. Kariya Atsushi, 1962). When we were filming that one, first we had to get the entire production process on film using a silent camera. We needed to use a fair bit of lighting, and on some occasions we were using as much as 800kw. Filming everything from start to finish took over a month.

On the other hand, the sound team could cover everything in one day. You see, with steel production they were doing the exact same things everyday, the exact same stuff from start to finish. So the sound team came in around the time they finished shooting, looked at the rushes, and went to the factory for the first time to start recording.

KS: So it’s like working on the structure, the sound and the images in parallel?.

KY: After we got back, it was a process of looking at the edited visuals and adding the sound as we went along.

KS: Then you add effects, record the narration, and mix it together. I suppose that essential process is still the same today.

After Iwanami you went freelance. Can you recall any particular film from that period, documentary or drama, that stands out for you?

3. Troublesome sound-only recording for feature films

KY: After quitting Iwanami in 1964, I started working on feature films. On one hand there were of course similarities with making documentaries. When I started working on feature films, we didn’t use synchronized sound recording, or ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording)—we started using a style called “Only” [A technique where only sound is recorded—the eds.]. When doing synchronized sound recording, you can’t use a silent camera because they’re too noisy. But synchro cameras were expensive to rent, and the cameras themselves were heavy, and there’s no way you can go out and film handheld with them. Cameras back then were especially like that.

So on these low budget independent productions, we started using the “Only” method. First we’d use a light handheld silent camera to film the scene. Then we got them to perform the same scene one more time so that we could record the sound. Afterwards we’d take a pair of scissors to the 6mm sound tape and start matching the audio to the pictures. Naturally it was the audio department doing this rather than the editing department. I think we did about 10 films using this style of recording.

KS: So at first the dialogue would only be captured on film in the movement of the actor’s mouths.

KY: We’d record the sound on location, on the same day.

KS: You could say it was ADR done on the spot, right?

KY: That’s right. If it’s done that way, you only need one sound operator to do it all, you see. When you’re recording, the actors are performing but the camera’s not rolling so you’re free as to where you put the microphone, and in terms of audio it enables you to get the best results possible.

The problem is, the actors have to give exactly the same performance as they did when the camera was rolling, otherwise you’re in trouble. With the way people talk, if they’re doing the same scene, the tempo is more or less the same. But even though they’re saying the same lines, you often get differences in punctuation and emphasis. For example, when someone says “I love you,” there are times when they’ll just say it all in one breath, and there are times when they’ll pause for effect after they say “I.” Taking something that’s been said in one breath and trying to edit it into two parts is impossible. It ruins the sound. So the audio department can’t help but feel anxious about that punctuation. Of course we’d record sound when the camera was rolling as well, but the tape will be full of camera noise, and the dialogue goes over the top of that.

So we’d listen to the initial tape numerous times, then do our best to get the actors to give a reading of their lines which came close to their original reading. It was very hard on the actors too. Long solo performances were especially difficult.

KS: Ah, so things like long monologues were a problem?

KY: Oh, it was terrible. Tahara Soichiro and Shimizu Kunio’s film Oh, Long Lost Lovers (“Arakajime ushinawareta koibitotachi yo,” 1971) was an absolute nightmare. Two out of the three main characters were mute. Ishibashi Renji had the other lead role, so he ended up doing most of the talking, sometimes for 5 to 8 minutes at a time. Then when you try to record the dialogue again after all that... I mean honestly, you really had to feel sorry for the guy.

KS: So it was on-location ADR (laughs).

KY: You know, this way of doing it may have been primitive, but it was much more preferable to recording afterwards in a studio. If you record sound somewhere other than where you filmed, the feelings of the actors will differ wildly. If you do it on the spot, it’s easier for them to recreate the same emotions that they had when they did it the first time around. To trace the origins of that “Only” style, I get the feeling that it was extension of what we used to do when we were making corporate PR films for Iwanami.

KS: “Only” recording developed in the absence of synchronized sound recording, but didn’t recording dialogue that way also enable you to record the cleanest possible sound? And aren’t there advantages for expressing emotion through sound?

KY: That’s right. I don’t think it was just us in Japan doing it that way either. At least that’s the feeling I have.

KS: Wow (laughs)! You really sound like quite the connoisseur.

4. Documentary film sound and
feature film sound

KS: Now I’d like to go back to the documentary side of things. Your acquaintances from your Iwanami days began their careers as fully-fledged directors. Some made documentaries, some made feature films, but because you had these friends working in both fields, it seems like you were able to straddle both worlds.

If I may digress for a second, I hear that you were responsible for the title Sea Of Youth (“Seinen no umi,” 1966) (laughs). If it had been Ogawa Shinsuke I get the feeling it would have been something more stuffy (laughs), along the lines of his Summer In Narita (“Nihon kaiho sensen,” 1968, “The Front Lines of the Japanese War of Liberation” in Japanese).

Sea Of Youth, it’s a 56-minute black and white favorite of mine, and it marked Ogawa Shinsuke’s directorial debut. You had worked together since you were young, then Ogawa went independent, and from the beginning you handled sound for him, everything from location recording to putting on the final touches in the studio. It was that kind of production, wasn’t it? Do you have any particular recollections of that time?

KY: I think it was about one year before that, after Ogawa left Iwanami, and he was planning a corporate PR film. It was about a sake maker in Kyoto, but even though I say it was a PR film it was actually became more of an interesting little documentary. About one week before filming began, the three of us—Ogawa, cameraman Suzuki Tatsuo and I, went to meet the producer of this film. We went up to the second floor of the office building, and Ogawa went into one room by himself while we waited next door. About 15 or 20 minutes later Ogawa emerged from the room with quite a pained expression on his face, and he kept saying to us “Let’s just get out of here NOW!”, so we did. It was his script, and he was to direct it, but somewhere along the line someone had decided that it was to be made on half the budget, and he just flat out refused.

It was a cold November night, and all three of us were devastated. Ogawa burst into tears in the middle of the road. Suzuki and I took turns trying to console him. That’s where it all started. I think it was then that Ogawa made a decision: “No more PR films!”, “Let’s make real documentaries!” And within a year we had made Sea Of Youth.

KS: From what I understand, it seems that from then on Tsuchimoto and others regarded you as their first choice when it came to sound. If you look at the films of just one of those directors, your name features in the credits of around one film a year. But when you look at the works of all of those directors you were acquainted with, the name Kubota pops up so frequently that it looks like you were working on a number of films at once, which must have been quite taxing. But on the other hand, I gather that it must have been quite a lucrative endeavor for you?

KY: Apart from that work I was still making PR films, so there was never a time when there was no food on the table.

KS: It seems that quite often, even if you weren’t out working in the field, you’d be in there for the editing stages. Kuribayashi Toyohiko, a correspondence school student who appeared in Sea Of Youth, seized the chance to take your place and started working as a sound recordist. So then the sound he had recorded on location would be molded into the finished article by you in the studio. Is working with sound that someone else has recorded still interesting for you?

KY: Oh, it’s interesting all right. Especially when you’re watching it in sync with the images, a lot of things become apparent. You can learn so much from watching a film before it’s been edited, even if the sound has been recorded by someone else.

KS: I’ve worked with you before, and I remember times when you’d pull some sound out of nowhere and use it in the film. Is that the kind of audio that you don’t realize is necessary until you’re in the studio?

KY: Not having been on location lets me can consider everything from a calmer perspective, so there’s that aspect to it too. The person on location might think “We absolutely can’t cut this scene,” but I can watch it numerous times from an objective stance back in the studio, and if I decide a scene isn’t necessary, I say so.

KS: But if you do it that way, the job takes on an editorial aspect, doesn’t it?

KY: Yes. When you come in on a project during the editing process, you begin to see all kinds of different things.

KS: You know, I know exactly what you mean (laughs). So if I understand correctly, it was often a case of “leave it to Kubota, even the editing.”
You told me once before about a feature film, where a siren goes off...

KY: That was director Kumai Kei’s To Love (“Aisuru,” 1997), when we were filming beside a large building belonging to the agricultural co-operative in Matsumoto. The lead character, a young man, is standing beside this big warehouse-like structure, thinking of his dead lover. The camera is staring at him intently. It was a very peaceful scene, with birdsong and the faraway hum of cars in the background. After doing numerous test-runs the assistant director yelled “Action!” and just as everyone became mesmerized by the silent tension of the scene, suddenly this piercing screech filled the air. It was an unbelievably loud siren that had started wailing somewhere nearby. And I mean really wail.

It turned out there was a siren on the roof of the building we were shooting next to, and that’s what was making all the noise. The volume of noise that entered my receiver gave me quite a shock, but what surprised me even more was the way it stopped. It cut out abruptly after about ten seconds, and then all was silent. The way it stopped like that left a very distinct impression on me. That siren often rang out 50-odd years ago when Japan was under aerial bombardment by the U.S. Back then it used to go off quite frequently, but when the war ended we never heard it again. So when the siren rang out in such a short sharp burst like that, it had quite an impact on me. Then I started thinking “I wonder if we can use this in the film,” my instincts as a sound technician coming to the fore again. Of course I couldn’t record it that day while we were filming, so I went back on a day off and recorded the siren. And when editing had been completed, I searched for a place in the film that we could use it.

When you’re on location, the kind of sounds you come across have a bearing on the shape of the final product. So it’s definitely best to go on location.

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Kubota Yukio

Born in 1932. Entered Radio Sasebo after graduating from the electrical communications division of the engineering department of Kyushu University. Assigned to recording engineering department, Kubota is transferred to the direction division after half a year. Entered Iwanami Productions in 1957. Applied for the direction division but due to a lack of vacancies entered the audio department. Met Hani Susumu, Kuroki Kazuo, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, and Ogawa Shinsuke of the direction department, and left Iwanami in 1964 to go freelance. In 1978, won the Mainichi Eiga Concour award for sound for his work on Third / A Boy Called Third Base (“Saado,” 1977). Recipient of many awards, including the 1993 Japan Academy Award for Best Sound.


Selected Filmography

  1962_ My Love Hokkaido (“Waga ai Hokkaido,” Dir. Kuroki Kazuo)
  1966 Sea of Youth (“Seinen no umi,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)
  1967 The Oppressed Students (“Assatsu no mori,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)
Impasse (“Honoo to onna,” Dir. Yoshida Yoshishige)
  1968 The Inferno of First Love (“Hatsukoi jigokuhen,” Dir. Hani Susumu)
Summer In Narita (“Nihon kaiho sensen · Sanrizuka no natsu,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)
  1969 Eros + Massacre (“Erosu purasu gyakusatsu,” Dir. Yoshida Yoshishige)
People of the Okinawa Islands (“Okinawa retto,” Dir. Higashi Yoichi)
  1971 Minamata—The Victims and their World (“Minamata · kanjasan to sonosekai,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
Oh, Long Lost Lovers (“Arakajime ushinawareta koibitotachi yo,” Dir. Shimizu Kunio & Tahara Soichiro)
  1973 Narita: Heta Village (“Sanrizuka · Heta buraku,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)
Coup d’Etat (“Kaigenrei,” Dir. Yoshida Yoshishige)
  1974 Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (“Kyokushiteki erosu · Koiuta1974,” Dir. Hara Kazuo)
  1975 Warming Up for the Festival (“Matsuri no junbi,” Dir. Kuroki Kazuo)
  1976 Young Murderer (“Seishun no satsujinsha,” Dir. Hasegawa Kazuhiko)
  1977 Third / A Boy Called Third Base (“Saado,” Dir. Higashi Yoichi)
  1981 The Map and Story of Minamata (“Minamata no zu—monogatari,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
  1986 The Sea and Poison (“Umi to dokuyaku,” Dir. Kumai Kei)
Magino Village—A Tale (“Sennen kizami no hidokei,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)
How to Care for the Senile (“Chihosei rojin no sekai,” Dir. Haneda Sumiko)
  1991 The River with No Bridge (“Hashi no nai kawa,” Dir. Higashi Yoichi)
  1992 Living on the River Agano (“Aga ni ikiru,” Dir. Sato Makoto)
  1994 Scavengers (“Wasurerareta kodomotachi,” Dir. Shinomiya Hiroshi)
  1995 Deep River (“Fukai kawa,” Dir. Kumai Kei)
  1997 After School (“Hokago,” Dir. Kobayashi Shigeru)
  1998 Artists in Wonderland (“Mahiru no hoshi,” Dir. Sato Makoto)
  1999 Bicycles (“Jitensha,” Dir. Kobayashi Shigeru)
  2000 Darkness in the Light (“Nihon no kuroi natsu,” Dir. Kumai Kei)

Has worked on over 200 films to date.