The Creative Treatment of Grierson in Wartime Japan

Depicting Labor

Land and Rail

The Pulse of the Workplace

Words / Sound / Rhythm

Filming Life

Co-organized by National Film Archive of Japan
With the generous support of Kinoshita Group

Explorers of the Documentary Method

The thought of Japanese wartime documentaries likely conjures up images of sensational propaganda films. In actual fact, however, at least in the years preceding Japan’s plunge into the Pacific War, an extensive range of practices were being adopted by filmmakers of the time. One particularly discussed topic raised in the search for novel documentary approaches was that of the “creative dramatisation of actuality.”

The phrase was first coined by Paul Rotha, an instrumental player in the British Documentary Film Movement that began in the late 1920s, in his book Documentary Film (1935). Translated by Atsugi Taka and published in Japan in 1938, Bunka eiga-ron (as the book was known in Japanese) amassed a vast readership and proved hugely influential among Japanese film circles. In his book, Rotha identified “the creative dramatisation of actuality” alongside the “expression of social analysis” as fundamental documentary principles, with the former in particular circulating widely in Japan as a result. (Internationally, the phrase “creative treatment of actuality” proposed by John Grierson, leader of the aforementioned movement, is perhaps the more famous.)

But what kind of methodology was it exactly? What new horizons did filmmakers of the day perceive within its words? In an attempt to consider these and other questions, this program presents, from five different angles, eleven Japanese films from around 1940, together with five British works from which their makers drew theoretical inspiration (albeit often without having had the opportunity to see the actual films themselves). It also looks at one Soviet film that served as a reference point for both Japanese and British filmmakers alike.

With visual documentation and “reality”—notably in the form of news reels—attracting increased attention against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the government defined the genre of bunka eiga (culture films) as distinct from mere entertainment by dint of the social role they would play in helping to spread national policy. Many filmmakers uncritically jumped on the bandwagon, while those of a leftist persuasion took advantage of the occasion to try their hand at the documentary method. (Indeed, more than a few members of Prokino [The Proletarian Film League of Japan] were active within the bunka eiga industry at the time.) These circumstances gave rise to conflicting views on how best to capture the “reality” of Japan in its present moment, with talk of the “creative dramatisation of actuality” in particular provoking heated discussion.

The films focused on in this program all represent an earnest attempt to use the documentary method as advocated by Rotha. Striving to commit themselves to social phenomena through the act of visual recording, the filmmakers adopted a multi-faceted approach involving careful research during the planning stages, a lengthy period devoted to filming, and the incorporation of the opinions of those filmed into the production process. At the same time, they experimented with new techniques in a bid to express reality “as it really is”: these included staged re-enactments (thereby merging documentary with fictional form); experimental use of rapidly-evolving cameras and recording equipment; and commissioning composers for specially produced soundtracks.

While some of these documentary methods are still used today, others are now obsolete; indeed, to our modern sensibilities, there are works that may scarcely appear to be documentaries at all. Nevertheless, we intend to treat them here as their makers did: as documentary explorations in quest of the “creative dramatisation of actuality.” Of course, having existed within the political limits of wartime Japan, their compatibility with propaganda as national policy, no matter how unintentional, must certainly be acknowledged. But with this in mind, and by carefully reviewing the intricate layers of thought, subject matter and technique that comprise them, we are perhaps better equipped now than ever to reexamine the true relationship between the wartime regime and filmmakers’ practices of the day.

This program was co-organized by the National Film Archive of Japan with the generous assistance of those who provided footage and the copyright owners of each film. Without their kind support, collating these rarely-before-seen-treasures would not have been possible. We would like to extend our greatest appreciation to all involved for their invaluable cooperation.

Morita Noriko
Program Coordinator

Photographs courtesy of National Film Archive of Japan: People Burning Coal, Turksib, Hakumo-sen, Train C57, Unknown People, Kobayashi Issa, Living by the Earth, Village Without a Doctor, Renovating Farm Houses, Record of a Nursery
Photographs courtesy of BFI National Archive: Shipyard, Housing Problems