Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2003
Okinawa—Nexus of Borders: Ryukyu Reflections

The War of Images Has Begun

Nakazato Isao

When all of the long and short films in the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2003 program are added up, there are more than seventy that relate to Okinawa. What was the intention behind selecting these films, shown in the Okinawa special program? That question is answered in “An Intersection of Okinawa Images: Memory, Documentary and Dreams,” the introduction that Ito Shigeaki, in collaboration with Hama Haruka and I, presented in the YIDFF official catalog, as well as the essay “Okinawa as Representation: Mirrors and Windows, beyond National History, for Poetics of the Archipelago” that I wrote for the Okinawa special catalog. So there is probably no need to dwell on it here. But, at the very least it seems necessary to reflect on the position of the Okinawan special program within the context of eight Yamagata International Documentary Film Festivals.

If one were then to ask why there was an Okinawan special program, one could say that there were two reasons.

First, it has something to do with discovering what lies beyond the paradigm of reviewing Japanese documentaries in chronological order. Up until now, YIDFF has put together special programs such as: The Dawn of Japanese Documentaries (–1945) in 1989, The Post-war Flourishing of the Japanese Documentary (1945–1960) in 1991, Japanese Documentaries of the 1960s in 1993, Japanese Documentaries of the 1970s in 1995, and The Pursuit of Japanese Documentary: The 1980s and Beyond in 1997.

While it could be said that the Okinawa special program is “next” in this chronological sequence, it is also “other.” A not inconsiderable number of Okinawan documentaries have been presented in these programs. However, in the end, they have been situated in the context of “Japanese Documentary Film.” In fact, Japanese documentary filmmakers have made most of the films that were exhibited. It’s not that there were no documentary films made by Okinawan documentary filmmakers; neither is true that there haven’t been any superb films made by Okinawans.

Why was this the case? It seems to me that it was because even these superb images were not free from the politics of the gaze and the ideas of the Japanese nation and the Japanese people. With few exceptions, the documentaries chronologically categorized as “the Dawn,” “Flourishing,” “Vigor,” “Grappling” and “the Pursuit” were all responding to the framework of post-war Japan.1 Even when Okinawa was represented, or a documentary used Okinawa as a vehicle to offer a glimpse of what lay beyond, I must say that the Okinawa that was depicted only reflected Japan’s mirror image. In a sense, that is all that one could expect.

The Okinawan special program is probably a response to questions concerning the direction that the genealogy of Japanese documentary film should follow after “The Pursuit” in the 1980s. However, this is not to say that it is an extension of the sequence that included “The Pursuit.” Rather, through its distinct gaze and the powers of its imagination, Okinawa would mediate and transform the very genealogy of Japanese documentary film. These qualities were necessary to the Okinawa program.

Second, the achievements of events such as In Our Own Eyes / First Nations’ Moving Images—The Indigenous Peoples’ Film & Video Festival (YIDFF ’93), Media Wars: Then & Now (YIDFF ’91), and Imperial Japan at the Movies (YIDFF ’97) are cast in a new light through their intersection with Okinawan spacetime. Their relationships multiply significantly. This is especially true in case of Imperial Japan at the Movies and Media Wars: Then & Now.

In this year’s special event, Okinawa (1936) and People of the Sea: Okinawa Island Story (“Umi no tami: Okinawa jima monogatari,” 1942), shown in Part 1 Oriental Ryukyus: Showa Era Pre-war Perspectives on Okinawa, vividly portrayed the politics of the gaze during the era in which the “South” was subjected to the imperial view, as well as the conditions under which archetypical visions of Greater East Asia arose in Okinawa. Part 2, The Battle of Okinawa: The Final Conflict between the U.S. and Japan, screened graphic wartime footage shot by U.S. military camera units, as well as propaganda films using this same footage to enhance fighting spirit and national prestige. Documentary and feature fiction films in Part 3, The Battle of Okinawa in Relief / A Chronicle of Memories, showed the massacre of Okinawans at the hands of Japanese troops and the Battle of Okinawa’s strategic use of local people for a gruesome endurance contest in “defense of the imperial land and national polity,” intervening in the “Japan-U.S.” relationship of Media Wars: Then & Now and resurrecting the battle of images and violence between two opposed nations.

This can all be summarized as follows: In Imperial Japan at the Movies and Media Wars: Then & Now, in the arena of another war—the war of images—the way of distinguishing between “we” and “they” is highlighted through Okinawa. The question of inside and outside in the “Genealogy of Japanese Documentaries” becomes complex and interconnected through the mediation of the place called Okinawa. In other words, the “boundary” known as Okinawa opens to the outside, while it deepens the inside.

The Okinawan special program is divided into ten parts, each a combination of several thematic categories. This, however, does not mean that each category is subsumed under a single point of view. Instead, each part is characterized by the way in which images created from different perspectives and motifs were linked in a multi-layered fabric. Therefore, even in the same thematic category, the phenomenon of a reciprocal critique between films has emerged. Colliding, merging, and transgressing just when it looked like a detour—a film illuminated from an unexpected direction. Intertwining and overlapping, creating an archipelago of images. A new map of images came into being with the help of an imagination geographically native to Okinawa. We named this map the “Nexus of Borders.”

The more than seventy films, ranging from one filmed in the 1930s to the latest work produced for this special program, depict fighting and fleeing, detouring and transgressing, encountering and possessing. In the tempest of images, connected, intersecting and emerging, we came to realize anew the reality of the “Images of Okinawa.” Of these images, the cinematic practices of Takamine Go and the Ryukyu Islands Historical Society created a tremendous stir in the most unique way.

Eight films by Takamine Go from his early work Sashingwa (Dear Photograph) (1973) to Private Images of Ryukyu: J.M. (“Shiteki satsu mugen Ryukyu: J•EM,” 1996–) were screened as a part of a “Special Program within the Special Program.” They disclosed a world in which the cinematic grammar and the fantasy that emerged from the land of Okinawa could not be contained within the category “Japanese.” War Stories Told in Shima Kutuba (“Shima kutuba de kataru ikusayu,” 2003) made of six parts totaling six hours and Nanamui (2003) moved people in a way both quiet and strong. They presented a pattern of “discord” seen in memories of the Battle of Okinawa and the records of priestesses in the Miyako Islands, against the triviality and obliviousness stirred by the waves of globalization. These films provoked the imagination of Filipino director Auraeus Solito (Basal Banar—Sacred Ritual of Truth, screened in the YIDFF 2003 International Competition) and expanded the horizon of the Okinawan geographical imagination to new archipelagos. (Solito stayed on to participate in the Okinawa screenings.)

The way that films were screened in the small space of a converted kura warehouse promoted a uniquely exciting atmosphere and a sense of closeness, including the collaboration between Takamine Go’s Okinawan Dream Show (1974) and Oshiro Misako’s live performance of Okinawan folk songs and the informal and anarchic yet intimate screenings of War Stories Told in Shima Kutuba and Nanamui. Is it too much to describe the way that the warehouse, a space that embodies the wisdom of local people in storing goods to survive the harsh northern winters, illuminated the images that were restored in the film about the priestesses of a subtropical island who survived and maintained their practices, through the human memories of many deaths and waves of modernization, transforming it into a time and space laden with cinematic tricks?

The Okinawa special of YIDFF was transferred and screened in Okinawa from October 31st to November 7th. For this screening, the content of the program was rearranged in order to enhance its unique features, while still taking advantage of the philosophy of the Yamagata screenings. Strong focus was placed on the reality of the unprecedented numbers of films that were to be shown in Okinawa. Reality and images stood face to face with a more vivid intensity, and the experiences of the Battle of Okinawa, American occupation and reversion to Japan were once again put to a test in a way that avoided rhetorical excess. The audiences were immediately struck by the quantity of the films. Then, through the polyphonic presentation of images, they gazed back into their own past as they pondered the events of today. In this kind of situation, even reality was judged by images.

Consider the following: In The Voice of Okinawa (“Okinawa no koe,” 1969) children at Cape Hedo—the northern tip of Okinawa known as the cape of homesickness—dream of the “motherland” on the other side of the 27th parallel. High school students in Eighteen in Okinawa (“Okinawa no 18 sai,” 1966) are torn between their admiration for the motherland and their rejection of it. In a scene from History of the Reversion Struggle (“Fukkikyo toso shi,” 1977) the flag of Japan and the communist flag coexist. The struggle of Okinawa is represented in the blood feud of Okinawa Yakuza War (“Okinawa yazuza senso,” 1976) and the experience of Okinawan colonization is depicted in Hill of No Return (1992). The wartime memories and the crisis of the Okinawan dialect in the contemporary world are shown in War Stories Told in Shima Kutuba. The images ask the question “Who are you?” Then, they return to a focus on history by asking “Where did Okinawa come from—where is it going?”

What was the “Okinawa Special” all about? What kind of cinematic practice can contain the journey of films from Yamagata to Okinawa? Questions were asked about the story of a nation and its people from the perspective of Okinawa as a “border” that is both in and not in Japan. The struggle of memory fighting against oblivion became clearer, and voices and gazes in images opened a door to the outside. I can now say, after looking back on the cinematic journey between Yamagata and Okinawa, that it was also an experience of Okinawa itself being judged by the layers of images that represent it.

Images of tropical “healing and tourism” expand, hiding the contradictions and the struggles that Okinawans face. Nexus of Borders: Ryukyu Reflections was a deconstructive cinematic practice that raised its voice, in a very unique way, against the typical images that surround Okinawa, at a time when such images have become consumable commodities. The war of images has already begun. This attempt gave me a strong premonition of a cinematic journey that begins where it left off.

—Translated by Christopher Nelson

1. These terms are taken from the YIDFF programs’ Japanese titles: Nihon dokyumentari no reimei (dawn) in 1989, Nihon dokyumentari no koryu (flourishing) (1945–1960) in 1991, Nihon dokyumentari no yakudo (vigor)—1960 nendai in 1993, Nihon dokyumentari no kakuto (grappling)—1970 nendai in 1995, and Nihon dokyumentari no mosaku (pursuit)—1980 nendai iko in 1997.


Nakazato Isao

Born in Minami Daitojima in Okinawa. Chief editor of Edge, probing Okinawa’s liminality and Okinawa as edge through printed words and images (photographs, film). Authored Okinawan Beat (Borderlink) and Round Border (APO), and co-authored Okinawa and Memory / The History of Japan (“Okinawa no kioku / nihon no rekishi,” Miraisha). Co-wrote the script for Tsuru-Henry (“Mugen Ryukyu: Tsuru Henri,” 1998) with Takamine Go, and participated in the exhibition Yesterdays on the Hilltop (Oka no ue no yesterdays). Co-coordinator of Nexus of Borders: Ryukyu Reflections at YIDFF 2003. Coordinator and organizer of Ryukyu Denei Retsuden (October 31–November 7, 2003), the YIDFF in Okinawa program that was the largest film festival in Okinawa to date.