Documentarists of Japan, #21: Matsukawa Yasuo (2/2)


HT: Next I’d like to ask about your film Hiroshima: Record of the Atomic Bomb (“Hiroshima: Genbaku no kiroku,” 1970). The film shows portraits of the deceased in time with the ticking of a clock, and when the camera pulls back from a picture of a baby the frame fills with photographs. That impressive first scene clearly expresses your feeling that you can’t replace the humans who were in Hiroshima with some abstract number. What kind of connection did you have to Hiroshima?

MY: My late wife was from Hiroshima. My first trip there was when I went to ask permission to marry her, and the second trip was when I was in the middle of a filming assignment. There were no bullet trains then. It was far away, and the odor of the postwar still seemed to linger in the housing developments along the riverside. The articles I saw at the Peace Memorial Museum really stimulated my imagination. It reminded me of Resnais’ Night and Fog (“Nuit et brouillard,” 1955). This hasn’t been made public even to this day and it never became an actual film, but I also wrote a script for a fiction film called Hiroshima’s Sayings (“Hiroshima no kotowaza”) then. The talk about Record came up all of a sudden; it was really a bolt out of the blue. At that time I was about thirty something, thirty-nine I guess, and probably at the most energetic stage of my life. A lot of my colleagues were also at a very active point in their lives—Kuroki Kazuo, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Matsumoto Toshio, Higashi Yoichi. Anyway I was really nervous about the idea, and there was no way I could give a lighthearted answer about the film proposal. I also wanted to be respectful of my documentary predecessors, who filmed the disastrous conditions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in September, 1945 only one month after defeat. If then-Nichiei producer Kano Ryuichi, along with Okuyama Dairokuro, Aihara Shuji, Ito Sueo, Suzuki Kiyoji, Miki Shigeru and Yamanaka Masao hadn’t filmed then, the American records would have been all that remain. After all, America did prohibit filming in October and confiscate all the film. But the Japanese crew members secretly made their own copies. In April of 1970 an American-made documentary on the atomic bomb was also shown on television. It started with shots of the B29 flying and the rising mushroom cloud and was edited together with a number of newsreels that seemed to fit the subject. This isn’t the B29 that flew over Hiroshima or the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima, I thought. That cinematic lie really upset me.

HT: In Hiroshima: Record of the Atomic Bomb, you depict the scene of the explosion with a red sphere and a model of the city.

MY: I wanted to do it in a blatantly realistic fashion. I thought it would be considerate of the staff that filmed at that time if I could achieve a sense of realism in the film. This is a very significant event, one that stands out in history alongside Auschwitz.

HT: The film is composed of the footage shot in Hiroshima after the bombing as well as images of articles, still photographs and footage shot in 1970 Hiroshima. One particularly impressive passage is when you cut back from a shot of children playing on a school campus to images of children receiving treatment when the same school was used as an emergency hospital after the bombing. It really emphasizes the tragedy of the children at the time, who probably were just as healthy and playful as the children in 1970.

MY: I’m sure you’re familiar with collage. It’s a technique in Cubist painting that involves taking ready-made goods like newspapers, cloth and printed material and pasting them together on a surface. Within the picture space of the canvas, if you take the space of a newspaper—which connects to the daily routine of the breakfast table and office—as well as the space-time of things like clothes and curtains, instead of blurring borders they produce a catabolic effect from the shock of the different substances colliding with each other. Unlike an American documentary which, as we were just discussing, tries to blur the connection between different things and converge them in a single “filmic” space, I was convinced that the catabolism caused by the collision of different substances arouses a sense of imagination toward the core. But at the same time, I was careful not to turn this film into the kind of “experimental” movie a film buff would make. I was very particular about the “cameraman.” As I show and explain with my comment that “this film was begun with five cameras that accompanied an academic research group,” I wanted to emphasize that the eyes of the cameraman exist 100% behind the images in the film. In many cases that existence is covered up, but in this film I wouldn’t allow it to be forgotten. The “proof” of reality supported by the cameramen’s existence is connected to the film’s honest “truth.”


HT: The film Uneasy Questions (“Fuan na shitsumon,” 1979) depicts the activities of city dwellers who realize they aren’t eating decent food and decide to build a farm and create an agricultural group named the Tamago no Kai. Were you always very concerned about food and agriculture?

MY: Not initially, I just had some time on my hands. That was around the time my second daughter was attending day care, so it must have been the early 1970s. Another father who was picking his child up at day care told me about a special poultry farm that made chickens lay eggs that would become hens that yielded a lot of eggs. The farmers needed to be sure the newborn chicks were of high quality, so they were very particular in their inspections. The criteria for judging which eggs passed and failed were much stricter than usual and they ended up with a lot of duds. They were never life-threatening problems, just insufficient size or weight and so on. The citizens’ group decided to collect all the dud eggs for themselves, and that’s how it all started. The father, an assistant at Tokyo Metropolitan University, stacked all the eggs up in his own car, brought them over and divided them out. The word spread among their friends at nursery schools in Tokyo and about 350 families got involved, including the people in the food movement. At that point I was a little annoyed watching my wife playing make-believe that she was an egg seller. However, the poultry farmers decided that they couldn’t produce good chicks without using a certain antibiotic. The group didn’t want eggs injected with chemicals; they wanted eggs to eat, so they asked permission to build a special breeding annex in one part of the farm to raise chickens to lay eggs for us to eat. The annex cost about 100,000 yen and the members raised the funds bit by bit to pay for it. That lasted a while, but then the farmers decided that they couldn’t avoid giving the antibiotics to just one section of chickens and shut the group out. There was talk about giving up for a while but then someone offered to lend some land and somehow they pulled it off. In order to build that farm in 1973 they had to clear a wild pine grove off of the land. I owned a used Bolex camera which I had bought cheaply, so I decided to go ahead and start filming that project.

HT: When did you become serious about making it into an actual film?

MY: I didn’t have any money then but I had a lot of time, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to just fool around. But more than that, one day we uncovered a large amount of buried pottery. That’s when I got serious about the film. In the Yayoi Period, Chiba and Ibaraki (Prefectures) were the most prosperous regions in the Kanto area. I knew there was a possibility to come across pottery while digging, but I never expected that it would really happen. Once it did, I knew I had something I could make into a film.

HT: I get the feeling that there was some enthusiasm about building a commune or utopia by yourselves.

MY: At first the title of the film was going to be “Declaration of the Utopian Struggle.” The people who excavated the pottery were architecture students from Toyo University and many of them had a vivid curiosity. It was an age where the instructors were still people who had filtered into assistant positions at Toyo after participating and getting arrested in the struggles at the University of Tokyo. The whole group was very lively and enthusiastic. There was even talk about how meaningless it would be if they couldn’t harbor a few radicals. One of the people in the group wrote his graduation thesis on the construction of the Tamago no Kai and won an academic award for it. His research was on the possibilities of other, alternative kinds of “science.” I was the only one from a literature background, and most people in literature believe that utopia as such doesn’t exist. I remember the science people saying once that they acted because they believed they could achieve their ideals. I wanted to watch and to document what these young people were doing. While filming I started to wonder if utopia really did exist, and eventually I started to support that idea myself.

HT: You asked Segawa Junichi to participate when you started filming in earnest.

MY: Segawa filmed the last year of construction. Just around then, Segawa and I were working on Constructing Asuka (“Asuka o tsukuru,” 1976). When I mentioned the other film to him he was really interested. I didn’t have any income at the time though, so he was paid with vegetables and eggs.

HT: Your relationship with Segawa seems to fit the word “comrades” to a tee, but not just in an ideological sense . . .

MY: You’re absolutely right. We both lived very free lives. You could say it was somewhat immature, but we were also both very susceptible to curiosity. Our attitudes really matched well. Later on, we also started The Past Returns (“Mukashi ga kita,” 1993) as an independent film together. I was sure he would be interested in that project even before I consulted him on it.

HT: After the ending credits there’s a cut of chickens laying eggs. The ending really seems to work up to that point.

MY: The film actually has four endings. It’s really unusual to repeat the ketsu (conclusion) like this, but the film just wouldn’t end, so it has several endings. The first is a traveling shot on a farming road of the Tamago no Kai members waving their hands. I intended that as a parody of the scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925) when the Potemkin, after the revolution, encounters other battleships. Next is the interview with the boy talking about his future, a close up of a chicken’s legs as it walks around the deserted farm, a child staring at the camera through a wire net and the credits. But even then it wouldn’t end, so finally I inserted that cut of the eggs. No matter how many times I filmed that shot, I couldn’t get it right. I used a variety of techniques to shoot it but the chicken would always turn its head or something when it laid the egg. I eventually got one that was so-so, so I decided to use that. We were able to “explain” that the chicken was laying an egg, so I gave the OK. We got into the final stages of editing and one day Segawa told the assistant, “I’m going to film the eggs,” and off he went. I guess he was still trying to get it right. When he came back he said, “I got it.” The shot perfectly expressed the birth of the “egg of creation.” It was a once in a lifetime take.


HT: In Yoshino Sakuzo: My Blue Heaven (“Yoshino Sakuzo Mai buru hebun Demokurashi e no toi,” 2002), which ends with news footage of 9/11, and Nakae Chomin: Planting One Seed of Democracy (“Nakae Chomin Hitotsubu no minshu no tane o,” 2003), which wraps up with the words “one seed of democracy,” I strongly felt your sense of crisis regarding contemporary times.

MY: Regarding Yoshino Sakuzo, in 2001 when the first television news of 9/11 aired, I immediately started documenting the television screen and living room at length on 8mm video. That wasn’t something you see every day. I knew something awful had happened, but I wasn’t really sure what it was all about yet. Filming that helped me decide the direction to take with Yoshino Sakuzo. I decided to depict Yoshino Sakuzo through the history of democracy and terrorism, or the history of assassination, in a sense. You never would have expected a subject like terrorism to appear in my work, would you? I hadn’t come up with ideas from that direction before, but this time the two subjects came together coincidentally. A year later I was offered the Nakae Chomin project. Nakae Chomin was also outside of my range of interests. I read several books on Chomin, and the older the book was the more eccentric Chomin sounded. Without exception, the books wrote about how he put on a bargain-sale happi coat and walked around the city, yelling in a loud voice, or how he did this and that with nude geisha. Chomin was probably described as eccentric like that because he confronted authority. I thought at least the stories were exaggerated. Many critical biographies start with the appearance of some “genius,” but I’m convinced that talent is born out of circumstances and the times. Among the books I read, I totally agreed with Nada Inada’s biography of Nakae Chomin, The Record of TN (“TN kun no denki”).

HT: Nakae Chomin was the first time you worked with an actor.

MY: One of Chomin’s best-known works is A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government (“Sansuijin keirin mondo”). The original text is written all in kanji, but Kuwahara Takeo did an excellent colloquial translation. The story is about three drunkards who tell their opinions freely from their different points of view. They all talk about very contemporary problems. When I was wondering how to prepare that, I thought of the actor Sakamoto Chori. He’s a friend from my days in the Budo no Kai, when we were very close. Sakamoto took a story by Miyamoto Tsuneichi about the life of an elderly, drunk cattle trader, reinterpreted into his own style, named it Tosa Genji and performed it solo all over the place. He’s done it a thousand something times already. I watched it with a great interest in Sakamoto’s methodology. I met with him for the first time in thirty or forty years and when I asked him to play the three drunkards’ roles by himself, he happily agreed. It sure isn’t easy though—he had to remember the lines for three characters . . . but he performed all that material excellently. I finished filming on the first scheduled day of shooting. That’s it, I thought. All that’s left is adding a few things.

HT: Coming here, it seems that your changes have become more intense.

MY: That’s surely due to the times and my own age. It’s like the night before the Meiji Restoration. But I’m already old enough to be in the audience . . . I realized that you’ve got to say what you need to say now; you have to put your foot down. You’ve got to say it now.

Compiled by Hyugaji Taro
—Translated by Michael Arnold


Hyugaji Taro

Born in 1965 in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Studied under Matsukawa Yasuo and Kuroki Kazuo after graduating with a degree in film from the College of Art at Nihon University. Directed Kuroki Kazuo: A Trip Through Contemporary Chinese Art, Parts One and Two (“Kuroki Kazuo gendai Chugoku aat no tabi/zenkohen,” 1998, NHK) and wrote and compiled The Story of Filmmaker Kuroki Kazuo (“Eiga sakka Kuroki Kazuo no zenbo,” Film Art). Currently in preparation for his first feature film.