Documentarists of Japan, #24

Oh Deok-soo

Interviewer: Monma Takashi


Monma Takashi (MT): First, I would like to ask about your upbringing, and how you started working in film.

Oh Deok-Soo (OD): At that time my hometown and the town where I was born, Osarizawa in the Kazuno district (presently Kazuno City) of Akita prefecture, was a fairly old copper mining town which Mitsubishi Industries had moved into. There was a theater there called the Kyowa-kan, which always played movies. The Osarizawa copper mine was abandoned more than ten years ago and is now an educational park called Mineland Osarizawa. Because it was Mitsubishi, they had pretty good access to the main distribution lines, and so while the other theaters usually played second-run films that had opened in Tokyo a month earlier, movies came to the Kyowa-kan almost as soon as they were released. I couldn’t get enough of the movies, as I practically devoured the foreign films and Japanese movies in the golden age of period dramas.

When I was a high school student in the late 1950s and early 60s, the Nikkatsu movies of (Ishihara) Yujiro and (Kobayashi) Akira were popular. It is around that time that I started swiping money from my parents to go to the movies. Now, when I think back on that time, because I was zainichi (resident Korean) my daily life was pretty grim even when I was at school and hanging out with my friends in the community. I don’t like the word “discrimination” very much, but I somehow always felt like an outsider. But, going to the movie theater never failed to make me feel better. It left me with a sense of resolution. I think that the inside of the movie theater felt like a private oasis. You can say it was my own Cinema Paradiso (dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1989). These experiences represented the beginning of the relationship between my confrontation with zainichi issues and the movie theater.

At the time, the neighboring town of Hanawa, which now has a population of about forty thousand, was inhabited by around twenty thousand people and had as many as three movie theaters. Now there isn’t even one. The Hanawa Theater, the Dai-ichi Theater, and the Chuo Theater. The distribution of films was clearly divided between them with the Chuo Theater playing Daiei and Shin-Toho releases, the Dai-ichi showing Nikkatsu, and the Hanawa showing Toho and Shochiku. The memories of my youth, from the 1950s and into the 60s, are filled with watching movies almost every day at the Kyowa-kan in Osarizawa or at one of the three theaters in Hanawa.

MT: At the time, about how many zainichi lived in Osarizawa?

OD: Let’s see, because there were a number of people who returned to the homeland right after the end of the war, around the time of the Korean War it seems there were 120 or 130 zainichi there, if you include those living in Hanawa.

MT: What about in your grade level at school?

OD: There weren’t any others in my class, but at Hanawa Elementary School, where I was enrolled, there were about three or four students in each grade.

MT: Then, there wasn’t much of sense of community, was there?

OD: Not really. I didn’t know about the communities in Osaka and the Kansai region until much later, but there wasn’t a community like in Tokyo’s Mikawashima or Edagawa. Presently, the number of zainichi living in Akita Prefecture who have kept their Korean nationality has dropped beneath one thousand. Akita is a zainichi “depopulation” zone. But, when they came to check out the Kosaka mine in our district of Kazuno to use as the site for the Manchurian coal mine location in Gomikawa Junpei’s The Human Condition (“Ningen no joken,” dir. Kobayashi Masaki, 1959) and when Aratama Michiyo and Nakadai Tatsuya came to shoot on location, the town went wild . . .

MT: So, that’s where the location for the Manchurian coal mine was!

OD: It was there. And so the director Kobayashi Masaki also came. I also went to watch. I wanted to see Aratama Michiyo. She even stayed at an inn in Hanawa.

As there were quite a few mines on the Akita side of the Ou Mountain Range—such as the Kosaka mine, the Osarizawa mine, and the Hanaoka mine, where the massacre of the Chinese took place—there was work which drew zainichi there as well. Also, a camp was constructed there. In that sense, there was a kind of community. I’m digressing, but the zainichi there were from Ulsan in Gyeongsang nam-do, Korea. Because Mr. So-and-So from the same village or from a neighboring village was there, others thought they would go see for themselves, and so they crossed the Sea of Genkai.

MT: So, the zainichi there were from the same hometown . . .

OD: Yes. And they could understand each other’s dialect (laughs). And they shared a common food culture and so on. So there are quite a few people from the Ulsan area of Gyeongsang nam-do in the three prefectures through which the Ou Mountain Range runs.

MT: And your parents?

OD: From Ulsan. For example, they say that most zainichi in Osaka are from Cheju Island. And so in Blood and Bone (“Chi to hone,” dir. Sai Yoichi, 2004) starring Beat Takeshi, Yan So-gil depicts mostly Cheju Island. Because of hometown connections, our fathers went there in search of work, started households, and lived their lives.
MT: Ulsan is now a large industrial zone, right?

OD: It’s really incredible. First of all, it has become a stronghold of the Hyundai Group. Also, it has extensively absorbed the surrounding cities, towns, and villages. It now is a city with a population of between about 1.2 and 1.3 million.

MT: Did it used to be a lot less?

OD: That’s right. When I went there for the first time thirty-five years ago, it was a town of eighty thousand. I visited my mother’s mother, that is, my harumoni (grandmother), when I was twenty-nine years old.

Now, I am sixty-three. When I visit my friends and former teachers in Osarizawa, we talk about old times. I spend my days calling my friends and getting back at them. I’m going to speak in Akita dialect now. Back at school, I was always mocked, “Your handwriting looks like worms crawling, all those circles, with all those triangles and squares. It’s really a joke.” When I thought about it later, I realized that Hangul has circles and squares but no triangles (laughs). So now I call them, “Hey you, what was that you used to say? There aren’t any triangles!” “Gee, I’m sorry” (laughs). It would be an exaggeration to say that I was traumatized, but we can never really let go of the past. Bullying really is a bad thing (laughs).

MT: You stayed in Hanawa through high school, right? Did you go to university in Tokyo because you wanted to pursue film?

OD: Of course. I considered a number of different options, such as entering the Film Department at Nihon University’s Faculty of Art. But, I completely failed all of the entrance exams the first year I took them. Because of that, I decided to enter Waseda University’s Theater Department to do film. As a high school student, I pretended to be tough; it was a given that boys didn’t do things like join the chorus or theater club. However, after I entered university and saw the theater troupes at Haiyu-za, Bungaku-za, and Mingei perform with my own eyes and helped out a bit at Haiyu Shogekijo, I realized that this is the toughest business out there, and my attitude toward theater changed. After that, I became a theater junkie. While I was a university student, we put on Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, even though there was no way that nineteen and twenty year-olds like us could possibly understand the temperament of the American South. Although it was well-received, I don’t think I could watch it for one minute today without dying of embarrassment.

MT: Did you ever act?

OD: Of course not! I was more inclined to direct. Then, when I was a third-year student, we put on Molière’s Tartuffe. We were able to stage a surprisingly interesting production. Some of the cast members are now professional actors. Akaza Miyoko was one year behind me. Famous actors from my own class include Matsumoto Koshiro, who is with Korai-ya, and Kobayashi Katsuya of Bungaku-za. Also, although he didn’t become an actor, the manga author Yamazaki Juzo, who wrote Free and Easy (“Tsuribaka nisshi”), is also a close friend.

But, when I graduated university, the theater business was so harsh. I didn’t think I could get by in the film world either. It was right after the Tokyo Olympics. Around 1965–66 the big five film production companies had suspended their cyclical hiring practices. Through a connection, I was able to apply to Nikkatsu, but the acceptance rate was around 30 to 40 percent and so I was rejected outright. After that, I did some construction work and such to get by.


MT: How did you happen to become Oshima Nagisa’s assistant director?

OD: Ogawa, a friend who was ahead of me at Waseda University, was in production at Haiyu Shogekijo. From time to time he would call me up to do some part-time work at the theater. I let Oda, who worked as a manager in TV and film at Haiyu Shogekijo, know that I would like to get a position working in film. It seems he called up Oshima’s sister, Eiko, for me. At that time, Oshima was planning on filming an adaptation of Takeda Taijun’s Violence at Noon (“Hakuchu no torima,” 1966), an intriguing short story, as the follow-up project to his Pleasures of the Flesh (“Etsuraku,” 1965). I am not sure how Oda put it, perhaps he said, “I know a great kid” (laughs), but he sold them on me. Even before then, I was Oshima’s biggest fan, completely enthralled with his work watching the entire series of his films beginning with A Town of Love and Hope (“Ai to kibo no machi,” 1959), followed by Cruel Story of Youth (“Seishun zankoku monogatari,” 1960), The Sun’s Burial (“Taiyo no hakaba,” 1960), Night and Fog in Japan (“Nihon no yoru to kiri,” 1960), and Pleasures of the Flesh. Oshima contacted me himself. Well, really it was his sister Eiko, so I am still indebted to Eiko (laughs). And so, I went to visit Oshima’s office, Sozosha in Akasaka for the first time. I was all puffed up. Even now I can vividly remember it. At the time, he was the legendary Oshima to me. He was articulate, quick to anger, and violent, but he gave us quality movies. And he had a sense of the zainichi issue as an issue, talking about it, writing about it, and portraying it for us in many different places. When I entered the room, Oshima sprang to his feet and gave a deep bow saying, “I’m Oshima.” I was really bowled over. What was I supposed to do? When I thought about it later on, it seemed to me that this was just another one of his performances. . . . But, this I know. He was a completely different Oshima than, for example, when he was going head to head with Ohashi Kyosen on TV or acting the rowdy drunk. My first experience with him was as the well-mannered Oshima Nagisa, and so I was extremely impressed. Well, really there are all kinds of inside stories I could tell you. Because the pay was really just chicken feed, I wondered if I could put up with it. But really I was so thrilled just to be working on the legendary Oshima’s Violence at Noon. About half of the shooting schedule was set in the Saku district of Nagano prefecture. If I had to say what I learned from Oshima at that time, it is the awe-inspiring quality of the movie set. You will laugh, but the second thing is that I learned for the first time, working with Oshima’s crew, about framing. In Violence at Noon, there is a scene in which Toura Mutsuhiro hangs himself. There was an enormous tree deep in the mountains, and the art director, Toda Shigemasa, said the scene wouldn’t work without this tree. When you looked at it, it had a really nice shape. It was way deep in the mountains. When he hangs himself, he drops down from up high with parachute harness ropes attached on both sides and a dummy rope wound around his neck. When we were shooting this scene, I forgot Toura’s “matching” rubber sandals. At that time, the third assistant director was in charge of the props. So, we were already deep in the mountains and about to shoot the hanging scene. “Deok, the sandals!” “Okay!” I started to look for them, but in fact I had taken the location bus up there and forgotten the sandals back at the inn. “Idiot! How can we shoot the scene without the sandals?!” But there was nothing that could be done. It was my first time working in film, my first time working with the Oshima crew, my first time on location, right!? I was clueless. “I’m sorry!” I said and raced down the mountain. I should’ve asked the bus driver to take me down there, but I didn’t even have the sense to do that (laughs). It was June at the time. We were shooting a summer scene during rainy season. So it was really muggy. I was running along the footpath between the rice fields, my eyes tearing up. Then I ran all the way back up the mountain hugging the sandals against me. Anyhow, I was pretty pathetic and such. You know Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short story The Hand Car (“Torokko”)? At the end when the boy Ryohei goes home, he runs crying the whole way, right? (Laughs) I was that boy. When I arrived back at the set, they were shooting a different scene somewhere else. I ran up, “I’m sorry to keep you waiting!” And just when I thought that Oshima was going to explode in anger, he said, “Deok, we’re done with that.” Because the shot in which he suddenly falls was in silhouette, you couldn’t tell about the sandals, and in the shot of him hanging there, he wanted to pan in from below, so they just cut his feet out of the frame. And that was it. I realized, “Oh, I see. The framing!” I was such a moron! (Laughs) I really learned many different things from Oshima, but mostly I learned the awe-inspiring quality of the movie set and that movies have a frame. Even now Oshima and his sister, Eiko laugh at me, “Deok, you’re such a fool!” Yamatoya Atsushi wrote about a similar experience in some magazine. All of us who have worked as assistant directors on feature films have one or two such stories. Mine just happens to be a really pathetic one.

MT: You were an assistant director on Oshima’s Violence at Noon and A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs (“Nihon shunka ko,” 1967) . . .

OD: That’s right, on those two.

MT: A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song is a film that takes an extremely close look at Korean issues, right?

OD: Yes. As it was, I don’t know why, but I was hardly consulted at all for this film, not even asked what I thought. In this way, it was a bit different from Yun Yung-do in Death by Hanging (“Koshikei,” 1968). I haven’t heard how Yun Yung-do’s input affected the making of Death by Hanging, but really it’s not about zainichi or any other issue. Oshima takes up zainichi as his material—when I say it like that, it sounds trivial—and creates something like an Oshima world, or the world that Oshima would like to depict. This is the same in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (“Senjo no Merii Kurisumasu,” 1983) in which Johnny Okura plays the role of a zainichi civilian army employee. But where in the world does Oshima’s penchant for zainichi come from? I have never discussed this in detail with Oshima himself. It’s just that recently Oshima has written in the opening passage of a short essay that at least one of his staff members is always zainichi. Although he wouldn’t say so himself, I was one of, not “The Three Brothers Dango,”1 but “The Three Brothers Zainichi of the Oshima Crew.” I was the eldest brother, Yun Yung-do the middle, and Sai Yoichi (Choi Yang-il) the youngest. It seems that there were others as well.

MT: Wasn’t Park Pyong-yang an assistant director for In the Realm of the Senses (“Ai no koriida,” 1976)? He appears under the stage name Ri Saburo in the credits.

OD: There was also Ri Saburo. In the essay Oshima writes in his idiosyncratic way that Oh Deok-soo, the director of The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan: Zainichi (“Zainichi,” 1997, hereafter Zainichi), was also his assistant director. I have never heard specifically from Oshima himself what he was trying to express about the zainichi issue in his films, including in The Forgotten Imperial Army (“Wasurerareta kogun,” 1963). On A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, something I thought was a little cold of him was that he could have asked me, “Hey, Deok. How does this look?” when Yoshida Hideko was dressed in chogori. But, he never asked my opinion about anything like that.


MT: You entered Toei after that, right?

OD: When I was working on Oshima’s films, the filming would be completed in about one or two months. And so when it was over, as is often the plight of the freelancer, you needed to find part-time work or something to carry you through until the next job. But then sometimes your part-time work would overlap with a film job and you couldn’t make a smooth transition, right? So, instead you would end up waiting in your room for a telephone call for the next job. In that sense, it was a psychologically difficult situation. At that time, before I went to Toei, Daiei TV asked me to work as an assistant director on The Guardsman (“Za gadoman,” 1965–71). Daiei was one of the first to start making TV movies. I was an assistant director on a number of episodes of The Guardsman, and I found it extremely interesting; but while I was working there a fellow alum from Waseda called me up and asked if I was interested in working as an assistant director at Toei. I was asked to help out on a show called A Lone Wolf (“Ron urufu: ippiki okami,” 1967) starring Amachi Shigeru. It was a TV production. I went there with a contract to work as an assistant director on that project alone, but it was different from Daiei’s rationalized TV studio. A production division had been set up which was made up of company employees or people who had regular employment at the company, and they would gather in the production division room and discuss all kinds of things. They would write the scripts, critique the films, and such. I thought, “This is a great environment!” I had only experienced Oshima’s individualistic style of production and the rationalized system of production for TV programs at Daiei’s subsidiary Daiei Television Studio, and so it felt really fresh to me. Toei set up something like an Assistant Directors’ Division Committee or the Production Division Committee that established companies like Shochiku had, and I was invited to join in this kind of thing for the first time. When I introduced myself, Ito Shunya acted so haughtily, “What are you doing here at Toei?” I still owe so much to Ito’s kindness (laughs). I never returned to Daiei Television Studio but ended up entering Toei Tokyo Productions (a rationalized division of Toei where they made TV programs). I became a Toei guy through and through, staying with Toei all the way until I quit because of the labor dispute.

MT: You worked on Key Hunter (“Kii hanta,” 1968–73) and Playgirl (“Pureigaru”), right?

OD: That’s right. I mostly worked as a “chief” (assistant director). I also co-wrote scripts and such. Other shows that I worked on include Judo Dreams (“Judo icchokusen,” 1969–71) starring Sakuragi Kenichi; The Young Detective (“Keiji kun,” 1971–72, parts 1–2); and Wily Thief Larero (“Kaito Rarero,” 1968). And Giant Robo (“Jaianto robo,” a.k.a. Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, 1967–68). Also Playgirl. But, Key Hunter was the primary one. Everyday Sonny Chiba (who is of the same generation) and I argued constantly about how things should be on the set. So, with the limitations of television production, worried about whether or not we would finish in time for the broadcast each week, working on a set with a sponsor is a little different. I am not trying to suggest that TV shows are no good, it’s just that production always ends up being rationalized. If you went to shoot on location at a field at the base of Mt. Fuji, then come hell or high water you could not come back without having rolled the cameras. Of course, this was completely different than the set of the feature films we made at Oshima’s place. In that sense, as a contrast it was an incredibly interesting experience at that time.

MT: Did you direct at Toei?

OD: I was never a director. Because of the labor dispute, directing was out of the question.

MT: You said that you quit Toei because of the labor dispute.

OD: Although Toei “admitted” people into the company, we were really nothing more than freelancers on contract, so we weren’t company employees. Toei was really conservative in their employment practices. For this reason, they would call staff to work only when there was a job. But, because it was TV, there were series that would require staff to work continuously. In that case, at the time there was something called a “cours contract,” in which a contract period would cover one cours, or thirteen episodes. For example, you would enter into a contract for thirteen episodes of The Young Detective that stipulated a certain number of months of work for a certain amount. Of course, there were also people who signed contracts for only one episode at a time. With this kind of employment system, we wanted not a project contract but at least a yearly contract, that is, a contract that would guarantee our position and salary for one year. The demands were similar to those of a company employee. And so we formed a union and fought to defend our status. Even though I had entered the company because I wanted to work in film, I gradually gravitated more toward focusing on the workers’ rights and the compensation demands of the labor union. Of course, I was still working on projects too. And finally we won yearly contracts. It was during company president Okada Shigeru’s administration. In that sense, it was a landmark event for the contract employees. It is referred to as the Toseiro (Toei Production Company Labor Union) Strike.

However, the time was bound to come when big business inevitably bared its teeth. Having won these concessions, we followed with demands for even more company employee-type benefits, like overtime compensation, though we didn’t go so far as to include severance pay in the demands. With these kinds of demands placed on the company, which had hired temporary contract employees as a kind safety valve, the profits of big business would ultimately disappear. It was in early 1970. Contract termination notices were sent with no warning. None of the contracts were to be renewed. This was to all of the members of the union. They arrived on Sunday morning by certified mail. We were shocked. They had already carefully laid the groundwork, outsourcing production and such. From that point, the dispute lasted about five or six years; basically we went on indefinite strike. Although we were on strike, during that period, I was doing all different kinds of odd jobs like writing scripts, writing stories for manga, hanging wallpaper, and working at a noodle shop.

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Oh Deok-soo

Born in 1941 in Kazuno City, Akita, Oh Deok-soo graduated from Waseda University in 1965. In 1966, he served as assistant director on Oshima Nagisa’s The Daylight Demon, and afterwards was involved in a number of other Oshima Nagisa films, also as assistant director. In 1968, he entered the Toei Tokyo production studios and worked on TV programs such as Key Hunter (1968–1973) and Playgirl (1964–1974). In 1979, he left Toei over the labor union disputes and used part of the settlement funds to start the magazine Jansori (Grumblings) with zainichi friends. The magazine received critical acclaim. He founded the production company OH Kikaku and in 1984 directed the film Against Fingerprinting, drawing attention to the campaign against the fingerprinting laws which were a symbol of the discrimination against and supervision of foreign residents of Japan. Later, he directed the film Zainichi, an epic and multifaceted history of zainichi history made in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. The film has been praised as a work of postwar Japanese history. Currently, Oh is in the preliminary planning stages of Zainichi Part 2.


Major works:

1976_ 1976 Light and Heat for these Children (“Netsu to hikari o kono kora ni”)

1983 Road for a Wheelchair (“Kurumaisu no michi”)

1984 Against Fingerprinting (“Shimon onatsu kyohi”)

1985 Now, School Lunch is in Danger (“Ima, gakko kyushoku ga abunai”)

1986 Now! Woman—It’s Time for Women to Change Society (“Nau uman—Josei ga shakai o kaeru toki”)

1987 Against Fingerprinting Part 2 (“Shimon onatsu kyohi pato 2”)

1988 Masaaki’s Song (“Masaaki no uta”)

1989 Chesa

1990 Mining Men Now 1997 (“Yama no otokotachi wa ima”)

1997 The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan: Zainichi

2003 Our Age (“Toki”) *feature film