Documentarists of Japan, #17

Otsu Koshiro

Interviewer: Kato Takanobu

Otsu Koshiro has walked side by side with some of the most important figures in Japan’s documentary world—Ogawa Shinsuke, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Sato Makoto and others. His filmography reads like a historical outline of documentary film in Japan. On this occasion we learned about Otsu’s views from the other side of the camera in a discussion that not only covered technical matters but also moved through a range of other topics. We asked Kato Takanobu, the final member of Ogawa Productions who also has strong ties to the Yamagata Film Festival, to take the role of interviewer. It seems that the starting point of Kato’s life as a cameraman was when he worked as Otsu’s assistant on A Movie Capital (“Eiga no miyako,” Dir. Iizuka Toshio, 1991). The resulting conversation between the two men, talking together as professional, accomplished cinematographers but also as a reunited master and pupil, unfolded into a stimulating discussion.

—The Editors


Kato Takanobu (KT): Could you explain what lead you to do film?

Otsu Koshiro (OK): Well, it wasn’t “film or nothing” for me, and I didn’t spend my youth immersed in the movies. But I did like them, and in high school I was in a cinema club that had about 2 or 3 members. It was basically a fan club. We weren’t making films, we would just go to the theater and watch them. I was very interested in movies when I was in college too. That was right about the time that Masumura Yasuzo’s films started coming out, and I was impressed to see films by directors who had such a dry tempo.

As for my decision to go into movies, at first I tried to get a job in journalism, working at a publishing house or a newspaper. I wasn’t really interested in radio, and I didn’t feel like going into television, which was still very new at the time.

I graduated from college in 1958, but at the time most businesses were violating human rights to do investigations on employees’ political backgrounds, and I didn’t want to have to deal with that. I applied for some media-related work, mostly in newspapers and journalism, but those didn’t work out. Finally I ended up with [publisher] Iwanami Shoten. I lasted until the final entrance test but in the end I didn’t pass. At that time, though, if applicants made it to the final tests they were given a chance to take the entrance exam for [film company] Iwanami Productions. So I went to take the Iwanami Productions test and made it through.

So I was interested in film, and when I was about to join Iwanami Productions they were still a new company, and they didn’t make feature fiction films. The company was finally starting to grow out of culture films (kulturfilm) and move into documentary. I took an interest in the new things they were trying to do.

KT: When you entered Iwanami Productions did you want to work as a cameraman from the start?

OK: No, what I really wanted to do was direct. I came from a humanities and arts background and I couldn’t handle machines at all. I didn’t even know which way to turn a screwdriver. Mechanically I was totally tone-deaf.

However, at the time the policy at Iwanami Productions was to make people with arts backgrounds work as cameramen. They wanted to train cameramen who could be thrown out on location all alone and still put a project together. The plan was to take people from the arts and shove them into the photography department to scramble around for a while, and after few years they’d train them as cameramen.

KT: As you said, Iwanami was a new company then. I doubt this happened often, but in that situation the photography and directorial departments spent a lot of time arguing, didn’t they?

OK: Well, most of the people in the directorial department were very young.

Back then, in fiction film the system was one in which people might still be an assistant director after 15 or even 20 years. To put it nicely that gave people a lot of experience, but it basically made people slave over the same job for years before they were finally promoted. Nikkatsu was a new company, but even their people were probably working as assistant directors for 10 years. But at Iwanami, people would advance maybe two or three years after entering the company. Of course those would be small-scale projects, or there would be a supervisor standing by, or it would be only location work (no editing or post-production), so there were a number of conditions.

In fiction film there would be a script and they would make storyboards based on that. The director was in charge of making any changes. There would be a sort of vague image of what to do and the director’s intentions would always come out in front. But in a documentary you don’t know what’s going to happen or how to deal with it. Basically everything depends on the situation. In conditions like that cameraman has more responsibility on his shoulders, so his word carries more weight on the set.

So there was a lot of frank discussion between the technical department—the photography and sound crews—and the directors. It wasn’t a vertically organized system. The directors and young assistants in the photography department went out drinking together all the time. In part that was because the company itself was young and there were few employees.

Eventually this all led into a study group called the Ao No Kai. We started this group at Iwanami, and in the midst of everyone going off in their own directions, two people who stuck their heads in were Ogawa Shinsuke and Higashi Yoichi. By that time Kuroki Kazuo and Tsuchimoto Noriaki were already established directors so their status was a little different.

In the study group we would go and borrow Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), for example, and watch it together. That was Ogawa’s specialty since he had some experience in college film groups. We were able to use the Iwanami screening room for free just by filling out a form. We could watch films and discuss them freely as a kind of extension of our work, so as a group we were really fortunate. When we borrowed something like Kamei (Fumio)’s Kobayashi Issa (1941), Tsuchimoto and Kuroki came to watch and discuss it with us.

KT: Did the discussions after the films tend more towards concrete topics than abstract ones?

OK: They were very concrete. We were all new at it but we still took it very professionally, so we debated details about the cuts, scene order and framing of the picture among other things.

We would draw on topics like Eisenstein’s collision montage theory for our discussions. For example, what was the best way to connect a long shot with another long shot, we asked. Back then it was considered standard to close in from a long shot to medium, bust and then close-up, but why can’t you just go from a long shot to a close up? It might be cool to skip the mid range and go straight from a close-up to a long shot too. We were still very green, but we had free discussions about all sorts of things. The effect of ideology on the feel of a film, the relationship between art and politics, abstract issues like that. It got very theoretical when we started debating what made a movie like Kobayashi Issa interesting. What in Night and Fog is interesting and why? Of course we’d also ask Kuroki, Tsuchimoto, Fujie Takashi (who later went to France and switched to sculpture) and others to come and critique their new films with us. It was a very free atmosphere. Later on most of the members left Iwanami Productions and began working freelance, so this atmosphere carried into the Ao No Kai. I suppose we grew up a bit and we kept doing film research under Ogawa’s leadership like always, but we could always discuss things ranging from one person’s specific production problems to politics and film, film and art. We had our hands full of things to debate seriously.


KT: So you went from those discussions into actually making films. The first film you worked on as cameraman was The Oppressed Students (“Assatsu no mori,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke, 1967). Is that correct?

OK: That’s right. The first film I did as cameraman was The Oppressed Students. Before that I worked on Sea of Youth (“Seinen no umi,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke, 1966). Photography on that took more than three years and I ran the camera for about two months the first year.

KT: In The Oppressed Students, expelled students go to the Takasaki City University of Economics students’ hall and hold a stand-in. Were you trying to capture the sense of being closed in from the start? The camera doesn’t go outside for most of the film.

OK: We actually weren’t able to go outside. At the tip of the school grounds was a hall run by the student council. After they were expelled those students couldn’t enter the grounds through the front gate. You can see it a little in the film, but they opened a hole in a hedge in the back to go in and out. None of us came in through the front gate either, and we just stayed in the student council room. If we went out into the grounds I’m sure we would have gotten it, including from the right wing. There were some pretty strange characters there. So yes, there was an undeniable sense of being closed in. Sometimes when things like that are forced on you they get reflected in the work.

One other point there is the photography style I used. This is the first film where we succeeded in taking a camera into a situation and shooting with natural light. In the past the film was a problem, and it was standard to compensate with light or else the picture might not be exposed properly.

KT: That was a problem of film speed?

OK: Yes, film speed was part of the problem. Color film in particular was very slow. I think it had only gotten to about ASA 100 by then. Around the time of The Oppressed Students we were shooting in black and white so we were able to use film speeds from about ASA 80 to 400. Worst of all the grain (in 400-speed film) was really poor. Well, looking back on it now that roughness is kind of interesting in itself. Films like Uchida Tomu’s The Straits of Hunger (“Kiga kaikyo,” 1965) made good use of it. Anyway if you don’t use the camera right and you’re shooting in a dark place with no good main source of light coming in, then the grain ends up really rough. When you try to watch that on a TV with poor reception the picture gets all murky. So on this film we used ASA 200 double-X, a medium-sensitivity film that reproduces dark tones well.

To make a form appear solid in the picture you had to use three-point lighting; a key light, fill light and backlight. That was considered the main lighting principle back then. So if your subject was against a window you would have backlighting coming in, but if there’s no window behind the camera as well there wouldn’t be a fill light to balance it out. Then you had to figure out if or how you could set up the lighting correctly. In nature, lighting like that doesn’t exist though. In those days film sensitivity and lens ability weren’t that great either, so at the least you’d have to use 1kW, at most up to 10 or 20kW of light.

But when we were filming The Oppressed Students we couldn’t use any lights at all. There might have been one time when we used a 300 or 500-watt eye-lamp. If we used a light you would be able to tell that we were filming, so we devoted ourselves to using natural light as best as we could. Today you would call it shooting with available light. I took advantage of those bad shooting conditions and tried to give the film more a realistic look. My method of photography probably looked pretty fresh then.

KT: Now that technique is very common though.

OK: At the time it was unusual. Anyway, when I was at Iwanami it was an absolute rule that you had to shoot from a tripod. However Suzuki (Tatsuo) had been doing hand-held camera work since 1960 or so. Nowadays it’s very common and cameras are made to be easy to hold, but back then we didn’t have cameras like that. If you held a camera by hand the picture would shake a little bit and you’d always end up with someone complaining that it was “hard to watch” or something. So we always used a tripod and proper lighting. That’s the way things were. However, as more filming started to be done with available light and, depending on the situation, with hand-held cameras, demand started to increase for people who could shoot sharp and lively images under those conditions. People started to get compliments for their technique with a hand-held camera. Suzuki Tatsuo became number one at that. His hand-held camerawork was really good.

KT: The scene in Silence Has No Wings (“Tobenai chinmoku,” Dir. Kuroki Kazuo, 1966) where he chases the butterfly is wonderful.

OK: He used a slightly wider lens when he went running after that butterfly. His choice in lenses is outstanding. Suzuki could use telescopic lenses to their fullest potential too, and there’s another part in the same film where you can see that. He went both ways. I worked with him before and learned a lot about different filming techniques from him. [Ed. note: Otsu worked as Suzuki’s camera assistant on Silence Has No Wings.]

KT: This was probably intentional, but in The Oppressed Students you also used a telescopic lens to spy on your subjects, so to speak.

OK: Because I couldn’t photograph them using standard methods. At that point the leader wanted out of the movement and one of the head people in the group went to persuade him to stay. I couldn’t just take the camera naked into that scene and photograph them, so I borrowed a room across the way and filmed them from there with a telescopic lens. But later on when the rushes were done the staff were all holding their heads saying, “We shouldn’t have done it like this...” I think Ogawa and Tsuchimoto also stopped using “hidden camera” techniques after that. That was some pretty bitter medicine, to be honest. There was a debate over whether or not to use the shot, but in the end we did use it. It was a strange cut. Let’s say we had a camera here with us as we’re talking, with a cameraman to do the shooting. If there’s no mutual trust—not necessarily a contract, but an agreement with the person being photographed that there will be a camera present—we probably shouldn’t be filming. The problem is whether or not that question was considered, and in this case it wasn’t. We weren’t serious enough about building a relationship between the camera and the subject.

For some reason there was this tendency to think it was meaningless unless we got something on film, but that was a mistake. You can’t photograph what’s inside a person. You wouldn’t see anything. There are times when you shouldn’t film, and times when you can’t film. Basically there are some places that we just shouldn’t barge into. I think this is a problem we should always be drumming into our heads, including when we’re working in television.

Say you have two people in front of you. There’s something like an “air” flowing between the two. I don’t mean the literal fact that they’re talking, more like the atmosphere drifting around them. Like the air you carry around with you when you’re alone. You could call it the “aesthetic” of the scene I guess. That’s really what we should photograph when trying to capture a person’s true being. It’s our job to see things that aren’t visible and to photograph what lies behind the things before our eyes, but I think the tendency among cameramen to think, “What I can’t capture in a photograph doesn’t exist” lay behind that stolen shot. That awful scene proved that the technique was wrong, so I totally stopped doing it after that.

Further along—and this was true for both Ogawa and Tsuchimoto—the problem becomes, what do you support? Where should you set your camera? Do you put it on the side of authority and power, or on the side that confronts that power? I think power now is starting to take a really ugly shape, and there’s a definite need to re-think those kinds of issues.


KT: After working on Summer in Narita (“Nihon kaiho sensen—Sanrizuka no natsu,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke, 1968) you left Ogawa and went to Minamata. What were the circumstances surrounding your move?

OK: I think there were two main reasons. One is that Ogawa was the closest he had gotten to the political side of things in that period. When making the Sanrizuka series, both his activities and his way of getting funding were getting closer and closer to political action, and I started to have doubts about that. We always had politics in consideration when we were making films, but I didn’t want to be influenced by them. Once politics grab you things start to change. I thought we should make films while maintaining a perspective on politics. That was one reason. (Ogawa probably sensed that danger too. You can see it clearly after Summer in Narita and in following films.)

The other thing was literally whether or not to use the title “Ogawa Productions.” I objected to using it. I thought we shouldn’t put an individual’s name on [the films] like that. What is this “Ogawa Productions” anyway, I asked. Up to then we used titles like “Independent Film Screening Organization” or “Film Division.” We were very particular about using a title that represents a group. This was also when people started to notice Ogawa’s growing charisma, or dictatorship I suppose. I thought it would be wrong for an organization that made films while intending to oppose the emperor system to create its own internal “emperor.”

KT: So you decided to part ways over a difference in so-called political views rather than over artistic or creative differences?

OK: Yes. I think it’s best to say that.

Even after Ogawa went to Yamagata, he’d call me up and tell me to watch a new film he had just finished or ask me for some advice, and we’d meet up when he came back to visit Tokyo, so we didn’t really separate on bad terms.

Anyway, Ogawa and Tsuchimoto were both anti-establishment, and they were both more or less pushed out of the film industry establishment. It was unavoidable. Looking at my experience at Iwanami, cameraman was, after director, probably the next most likely position to be bullied out of the industry.

I knew Tamura (Masaki) from before, but he joined us after he saw The Oppressed Students. Once he started working with us though, the regular production companies stopped hiring him. They thought he was a liability, so he was shunned. I was raised as a cameraman outside the production system, and had continued to work on films, and I thought that unless new people who were trained outside of the establishment were rotated in regularly the movement wouldn’t last. At the time I could have more or less made a living with outside work, so I told them, “If it’s OK with Ogawa, instead of calling an established cameraman why not give Tamura a chance? If that doesn’t work out I’ll stay on.” They said they’d do what they could and ended up hiring him.

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Otsu Koshiro

Born in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1934. Entered Iwanami Productions after graduating from the Law and Economics course at Shizuoka University’s Science and Literature Department in 1958. Wanted to direct but was assigned to the photography department. Worked as an assistant cinematographer for 5 years but couldn’t endure PR film production and left the company. Afterwards, went independent as a freelance cameraman. Has worked mostly in documentary film and TV production, with companies including Ogawa Productions, Seirinsha, Siglo and Nippon A-V Producions.


Selected Filmography

1967_ The Oppressed Students (“Assatsu no mori,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)
A Report from Haneda (“Gennin hokokusho,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)

1968 Summer in Narita (“Nihon kaiho sensen—Sanrizuka no natsu,” Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke)

1969 Pre-Partisan (“Paruchizan zenshi,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
Document: Nippon, Year Zero (“Nippon zeronen,” Dir. Fujita Toshiya, Kawabe Kazuo)

1971 Minamata—The Victims and Their World (“Minamata—Kanja-san to sono sekai,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)

1973 Minamata Revolt—A People’s Quest for Life (“Minamata Ikki—Isho o tou hitobito,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)

1975 The Shiranui Sea (“Shiranui kai,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
Minamata Disease—Part I: Progress of Research (“Igaku to shite no Minamatabyo—daiichi bu: shiryo-shogen hen,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
Minamata Disease—Part II: Pathology and Symptoms (“Igaku to shite no Minamatabyo—daini bu: byori-byoma hen,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
Minamata Disease—Part III: Clinical Field Studies (“Igaku to shite no Minamatabyo—daisan bu: rinsho-ekigaku hen,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki)
Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean?—A Rendezvous (“Kamome yo, kirameku umi o mitaka: meguriai,” Dir. Yoshida Kenji)

1978 Incurable Diseases: Fighting Against Aplastic Anemia—Now You Are in the Light (“Nanbyo: “Saisei furyo hinketsu sho” to tatakau—kimi wa ima hikari no naka ni,” Dir. Yoshida Kenji)

1980 Strike the White Ball (“Kirameki no kisetsu,” Dir. Yoshida Kenji)

1983 Namida-bashi (“Namida bashi,” Dir. Kuroki Kazuo)

1985 A Day at Omoshiro School (“Omoshiro gakko no ichinichi—Natori Hirofumi no kokai jugyo,” Dir. Nishiyama Masahiro)

1987 Yuntanza Okinawa (“Yuntaza Okinawa” Dir. Nishiyama Masahiro)

1989 Business Trip (“Shuccho,” Dir. Okishima Isao)

1991 A Movie Capital (“Eiga no miyako,” Dir. Iizuka Toshio)
The Sayama Affair (“Sayama jiken—Ishikawa Kazuo: Gokuchu nijunananen,” Dir. Koike Masato)
Landscape of the Soul: The World of Ono Kazuo (“Tamashii no fukei Ono Kazuo no sekai,” Dir. Hirano Katsumi)

1993 Islands (“Airanzu/Shimajima,” Dir. Semyon D. Aranovich, Otsuka Hiroshi)

1994 Einstein at Twilight (“Tasogare no Ainshutain,” Dir. Hachisuka Kentaro)
A Dedicated Life (“Zenshin shosestuka,” Dir. Hara Kazuo)

1998 Artists in Wonderland (“Mahiru no hoshi,” Dir. Sato Makoto)

2000 Dolce (Dir. Alexander Sokurov)

2001 Hanako (“Hanako,” Dir. Sato Makoto)