Documentarists of Japan, #13: Tsuchiya Yutaka (2/2)

G: I thought The New God was very interesting. How did you come to meet the two protagonists and make the video?

T: The direct catalyst for the film was Kobayashi Yoshinori’s Sensoron (“On War”), which sold like mad. Four or five hundred thousand copies were sold. Friends and acquaintances of mine were all against Sensoron, and attacked it with tactics like questioning the veracity of its sources, writing books against it and taking it to court, all kinds of things. I think that they were all right in doing these things, but they could do all they wanted and it still didn’t take away the fact that Sensoron sold half a million copies. I really wanted to think about why the book sold those half a million copies. People can use the same kinds of source-based arguments to attack the Left, but I wanted those people to think about those half a million copies too. My idea was that people these days have a hard time finding a way to connect with society, and that that lack of a connection point gets expressed in all different ways. It’s not Ryoko, but things like wondering if your existence is really meaningful or not are a manifestation of a lack of connection to society. It’s that aimless, tedious “endless mundanity” without connections to society.

G: To quote [Japanese sociologist] Miyadai Shinji.

T: That’s right. And in that “endless mundanity,” everything turns into uncertainty about what we should be doing. Some people just go for enjoyment: there are all sorts of ways to distract yourself. Some people don’t like feeling low and worrying all the time about this, so they take anti-depressants all the time. This is where we are now, but during the past war when you never knew if you might die tomorrow, the narrative of dying for society was absolute, and if you believed in it, then nothing was boring. You knew who you would die for, and you knew that you were needed. I think it’s easy to see how people could admire an era with a myth like this.

G: Sensoron also includes long sections about how the war was fun, so that comes across here too.

T: Right. I understand the emotions that make a story like that easy to transmit, so I thought I’d look for people who felt that way about Sensoron. There was a Sensoron night in Shinjuku, organized by members of the Issuikai and members of the Jishu Nihon no Kai, both nationalist organizations. There was an opportunity for discussion, and Ito and Amamiya appeared then. I thought “That’s them!” and asked if I could cover them.

G: You can cover them through interviews and research, but you actually gave Amamiya a camera and asked her to film herself. Why?

T: First of all, Amamiya has an amazing desire to please people, so when the camera was rolling she’d say too much and exaggerate things. I wondered where on earth her real self was, and didn’t feel confident that I could film her and do her justice. She’d had a number of failed suicide attempts, and she’d also make those dolls—there’s a lot to Amamiya. I didn’t feel confident that I could capture this in interviews, and I don’t think much of her would have come out in them. So I thought I’d try giving her a camera. Then she could think for herself in her own room, and say what she wanted to say without any questions to prompt her and in her own room. In the beginning, it was an experiment to see what would happen. I went into it thinking that I didn’t have to use her footage, but then it was really interesting, and I thought I could definitely use it.

G: To a certain point, the work contains elements in the line of Amamiya’s video diary, so has something of the personal documentary style that’s popular with young filmmakers today. But in other places, there’s the sense of being fed up with that searching for self that you mentioned earlier, though I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a critique of personal documentary. So I wondered if The New God didn’t contain a rethinking of film and video that are about the search for self-identity.

T: I think that’s part of it, of course, but it’s more a critique of ways of thinking that desire a search for self-identity than it is of personal documentary or films searching for self-identity. It’s a critique of solitary-confinement-like conditions that don’t try to relate to society. Life itself is connected to society and to politics, so I wanted to ask why people don’t put these together. When Amamiya is at home and says something like “I don’t have anything to say. I’m tired,” she’s not saying anything specifically about politics this or politics. But to put it a bit abstractly, when she says “I’m tired,” there’s politics rolling around in even those very mundane things. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to say.

G: Towards the end, when you ask for the camera back, Amamiya says “I need this camera” and “Why does it have to go away?” This is similar to the people who make personal documentaries. Basically, as long as you have a camera you can define yourself, even without the state or the emperor. I think that kind of existence becomes one a theme here.

T: It might very well be about whether you’re needed or not. I could say “Okay, I’ll buy you a camera” and give it to her as a present, but that wouldn’t make her happy at all. She has the camera, then I watch what she’s taped, edit it and show it to someone, so ultimately there’s an element of appearing in front of people. So it doesn’t work at all just to give her a camera; it’s about having a camera that films you, being able to say things using that camera and having someone who will watch it. Those connections feel necessary. I think that everyone naturally finds pleasure in this. Simply put, it’s about wanting to stand out.

G: One more aim in handing over the camera is to not force your opinions and thoughts on the work, but to listen to their ideas. In that way, you can understand each other’s differences and unique voices, and begin from there. This method is perfect for that, isn’t it?

T: Yes.

G: But then political filmmakers, for example Joris Ivens (YIDFF ’99 special retrospective), say that even though there are a number of positions regarding the problem of the state, you can’t shoot that problem objectively but must take up a position. In Ivens’s case, this makes for films that border on propaganda, of course. When you look at The New God from this perspective, it’s inevitable that doubts will arise as to why you didn’t shoot the two more critically. How would you respond to a critique like this?

T: Well, quite frankly, my positions or thoughts aren’t that firm anyway, and I don’t see any need for them to be that firm. When you say something like “Anyone who opposes the emperor must be like this” you’ve just tied yourself down. This reminds me of when Ito, the right-winger says in the film: “Actually, I’d like to say this, but as part of the Right I can’t talk like this in public.” If your position was already set, life would be utterly boring. People’s opinions change. So the way I made the film is exactly the way I think. I even wonder myself sometimes why I’m so opposed to the emperor system, and I don’t have any clear answers. I say it in the film too, but I think that there’s a tendency to want to say that present-day Japan is bad because of the emperor system. But then activism will just go bad too, if we don’t keep asking ourselves why it doesn’t do to have the emperor system.

G: How has audience reaction been to The New God? Has it been what you expected?

T: A lot of people have taken it as I hoped they would. But I’ll admit that in the beginning I was a bit worried about how people who think as I do would take a work in which two nationalists are yelling “Long live the emperor!” I wanted to make something that would whittle away both prejudices against them and the words so often used to categorize people like them or the nationalist movement in general. It seems as though I’ve succeeded, though, and that everyone understands their feelings.

G: Your comments on Without Television in the Video Act catalog contain the words “Where is the exit?” Could you be able to talk a little more about that feeling of being in a closed space with no exits? I think it would help to better understand the work.

T: Earlier, I mentioned how the average person can manage somehow to live fairly pleasantly. When you drop out from that, even a little bit, it’s really hard. People who have somewhat odd thoughts and people who ask why society is the way it is, also people who don’t fit commercial standards of beauty like fat people or women with small breasts, anyone who can’t be a part of the bigger group or who’ve dropped out of it have a really hard time living. That’s one reason. Then—this came up earlier too—people just give up from the start when every day is boring, nothing changes, things just go from one thing to the next thing, : when whatever you do tomorrow comes, nothing ever happens day after day and it looks like this will stretch on forever.

Also, society is definitely not going to change just because you say something. Independent music is a good example of this—even people who are making music on their own end up being products in a commercial world. People in the indies scene realize that they can become commodities, and that working on that level means money, so they reject going major and stay where they are. That just brings in commercialism again, and everything becomes packaged, and people think that you can’t do anything about it. When the people who’ve realized this and dropped out have a hard time, they wonder where the exit is.

I kept wondering where that exit is too. I still don’t know, but I think that communication is an important part of it. If we talk about things, we’ll understand. Even in Ryoko, when life got really hard, when she had no sense of existence and didn’t feel needed at all, she’d call up a messageboard service. She knows it’ll just lead to sex, but it’s good to be wanted by someone. And if she’s getting money into the bargain then she can tell herself that she’s not just being taken advantage of, that’s just the way it is. She can think like this, and reassure herself. But by talking and writing letters as in Ryoko, you can get past that difficult period. Moving on to the next stage means first creating a space for communication. You might call it creating media or an environment. But there’s no one answer waiting after that. What comes next is all over the place, and I think that the exit is a kind of social structure where all of that is connected and begins to communicate. The world that comes together when independent individuals can communicate with each other is pretty close to an exit.

G: A lot of people say that searching for self-identity comes from feeling a lack of self. Many of those searching look for a self through consumption or working with images, but in your case you’re less interested in society on a large scale, and more interested in a smaller “society” that appears through language and communication. One interesting thing about Ryoko was how you don’t just present your letters from Ryoko, but give them to someone else to read, then listen to their comments. This works well as creating a space for discussion.

T: Yes, that’s what I was trying to do.

G: We’ve gotten on to talking about generational issues. Many other filmmakers are also concerned with the same issues, from fiction filmmakers like Anno Hideaki (Love and Pop) and Aoyama Shinji to personal film and videomakers. I’m curious to hear what you think about these other filmmakers.

T: We’re not really in touch, and I haven’t seen many of their films.

G: In Shady Grove (1999) and Helpless (1996), Aoyama Shinji keeps filming the emptiness of the younger generation. In Helpless, for example, the protagonist Kenji’s father has died, and he has no way to define himself. Ultimately, he can’t escape from Japan, and lives on in that closed space. But in the end he takes charge of a girl, and by protecting her gains somewhat of a future. Your works take a different tack, so since you’ve said that you have barely any contact with other filmmakers, I’m wondering if everyone isn’t just dealing with the same generational issues on their own.

T: Yes, I think you’re right. As a generation, we do share similar feelings, and I do watch other works and think “Oh, we’re thinking about the same thing.”

G: But to continue with politics, other filmmakers say that they’re not making political movies. Yet you frankly acknowledge that what you’re doing is political. I think we need a change in the definition of “political.”

T: I don’t really understand how people can say “No, I’m talking about something other than politics.” I think it has to do with how much importance you place on what happens after you’ve made the film. It doesn’t just end after you make a good film and everyone watches it and tell you so. After finishing the film, you have all sorts of people watch it, screen it here and there, and think about asking a right-wing group to have a screening too. It all comes together through activities like his, and if someone says “It makes a difference” then I’m the happiest of all. For that to happen, a work has to be interesting, and it has to be accepted as a matter of course. As a work, I’d like to take it to film festivals and the like, but I also want to think about what happens after that. You can call it social or political, though to put it simply, it’s just about wanting to change the world. I wish that there were more filmmakers or directors out there with a strong desire for reform, to change things through one’s work.

G: To wrap things up, there’s a bit of dialogue that appears in both Ryoko and The New God. Someone says “I’m not worth anything” or “I’m not needed,” and the response is “People are needed.”

T: In Ryoko, I wanted to tell her that she was needed, but it just seemed like empty words, so I didn’t. I mean, in Love and Pop Asano Tadanobu says “There’s someone out there who needs you,” but that just sounded pretty bad, like a lie. You have to decide for yourself whether you’re needed or not. That’s what I wanted to say in Ryoko. It’s not good to try to prop yourself up through dependence on things like messageboard services, you need to have the confidence to tell yourself that you’re needed. I was obsessed with messageboard services myself at the time, so we were coming from the same place. It’s not like I was handing down morals from above or anything. Ryoko ends with the decision to try to talk, which is also my point in The New God. “Don’t depend on the emperor, go out and do it yourself.” All in all, I wanted to say that we should have confidence in ourselves and do things on our own steam. But this “self” that occurs when you try hard to have confidence in yourself is such a shaky construct. And I got the feeling that it was just an imaginary self anyway. I felt like I just wanted to think that we each have something called the “self,” and that I was just running after that imaginary “self” in the same way that Amamiya talked about the imaginary emperor.

Ultimately, it comes down to not living your life in dependence on something else, but to try to become a person who can do things on their own. And the world where people like that can communicate well about things including their lack of confidence doesn’t start with the emperor system (laughs). That’s what I was trying to say.

G: To conclude, I’d like to ask about what lies ahead for you. Do you already have plans for your next project? Are you already in preparation?

T: Not at all, in fact I’m wondering what to do next. I’d like to make something that actually has a script, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. The New God has finally given me a glimpse of what comes next. If I go back to step one and start over again, though, I’d just be repeating myself, so whatever I do will center around whatever happens next. But that’s the hard part.

G: Thank you very much.

T: Thank you.

—Translated by Sarah Teasley