YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Oda Kaori (Director)

Interviewer: Erikawa Ken

Underground and the making of Gama

Erikawa Ken (EK): I believe that your film Gama was made with the support of the Toyonaka Performing Arts Center in Osaka. Could you talk a little about this?

Oda Kaori (OK): For the last three years or so, I have been working on a project called Underground. I was initially approached by the Sapporo Cultural Arts Community Center (SCARTS) and undertook a project to create a four-panel video installation on the theme of the “underground.” With research funding from the Toyonaka Performing Arts Center, I also did some research in Toyonaka, but I didn’t end up finding the kind of underground space that I wanted to capture there. Just when I felt I had come to a dead end, I learned that the city of Toyonaka had a surprisingly deep connection with Okinawa City. They’re even sister cities. From there, I was allowed to continue my research in Okinawa, which is how the Okinawan underground spaces called “gama” (limestone caves) came to my attention.

EK: Will the film Gama also be included in the Underground video installation?

OK: I don’t think I will include it in its entirety.

EK: But for Underground, you plan to put together a new work using footage like what you already mentioned from Sapporo, and from Gama, and from other spaces?

OK: Yes, that’s right.

EK: How do you see the end goal for Underground?

OK: I’ll shoot for another day or two after the end of this year’s Yamagata Festival and call it a wrap. I plan to edit the footage in the remainder of 2023, looking at a completion date in 2024. It will probably be longer than 90 minutes, but I don’t think it will exceed two hours. In addition to Sapporo and Okinawa, I’ve also shot footage in Yubari, Shimane, Saga, Hyōgo, and Kyoto, among other locales–all underground.

EK: I look forward to seeing that. As for Gama, you shot it on film?

OK: We shot on 16mm and had the film developed, then scanned it and edited digitally. The projection is also digital. There aren’t many venues left that can project film.

EK: Takano Yoshiko was the cinematographer. I believe that in the past you’ve shot your own films yourself. How was it to entrust the cinematography to someone else?

OK: I was thinking about how I might approach production going forward, and I thought that this would be a new kind of experiment for me, a big challenge. I also wanted to disrupt the stereotype of the male cinematographer and put together a female technical team, so I looked for a female cinematographer. Someone on my crew mentioned Takano’s name. I had also seen Kokudō 20-gōsen (Off Highway 20, 2007, dir. Tomita Katsuya) and had been impressed, so I made an offer and she accepted. For Gama, I told her how I wanted her to photograph it, what I wanted in the image, but I left the specific details of framing and so on to her judgment. Now, I find it interesting when multiple perspectives and ways of feeling come into play in filmmaking. At the same time, I’ll also continue to shoot films on my own.

Distinctive images and sounds

EK: I’d like to delve into the film itself. I was surprised by the opening image, which is a shot of the sea that is so white you can hardly see the waves breaking. Did you intend something with that white sea?

OK: There’s no meaning in the whiteness itself. I just thought that I wanted to start with a scene of the sea, and with circumstances where you don’t know quite what you’re looking at. I guess the white screen is an effect of the weather and shooting the exterior from inside the cave.

EK: Also near the beginning, we see what look like golden particles coursing and swirling through the darkness. What were those?

OK: Inside the gama it’s very moist and there is a lot of particulate and debris. Normally you wouldn’t realize it, but if you shine a flashlight and create a little airflow, then film out of focus, you get an image like that.

EK: I see. It really felt like the kind of visual you would create (laughs). We also hear a metallic sound in the gama. What is that?

OK: That was a sound we created by clinking coral fossils together. It’s not a sound you would ordinarily hear in the gama.

EK: You don’t use any music, do you?

OK: I haven’t really thought much about the use of music when creating images. I have of course recreated sounds that are actually there in reality and used those. In Underground I am thinking of trying my hand at creating music.

Matsunaga Mitsuo and the woman in blue

EK: I think it’s fair to say that Matsunaga Mitsuo is the protagonist of this film. How did you come to know him?

OK: When I started to shoot in Okinawa and in the gama, I decided that it would be good to have a guide, both to hear stories and for safety purposes. I got introductions and also searched online myself and came across Mr. Matsunaga’s home page, where I learned about his activities retrieving the remains of people who died in the war. What we’re doing with the Underground project is to document the tracks of human lives and to follow those tracks. I wasn’t sure if retrieving human remains quite corresponded to this, but to the extent that it pertained to underground space, I thought it could be a starting point. So I contacted him and asked him to be our guide.

EK: Matsunaga’s personality comes across on the screen, but at what point would you say that you perceived his personality, or felt a kind of fascination towards him?

OK: From the first time I met Mr. Matsunaga he was himself, the things he said were very valuable and he gave us guidance. But at the same time he was completely down to earth, which I liked. He wasn’t putting it on.

EK: How long has he been a guide in the gama?

OK: Since 1988. Thirty five years? I don’t think he’s been doing this continuously the whole time though.

EK: His way of talking . . . he seems to have made a kind of “art” out of it.

OK: He does have a particular way of speaking, doesn’t he? (laughs)

EK: I thought that the red tape on his helmet works to good effect visually. Was that something you added?

OK: No, that was already there, but I also thought it worked well.

EK: In contrast to that red, there’s the woman dressed in blue (Yoshigai Nao), whose presence is a big part of this film. In some scenes she looks like a ghost, like someone from the war, crawling through the gama, while in other scenes she looks more like someone on a tour listening to Matsunaga’s stories, or like a tourist walking the streets of Okinawa. I felt a little confused about what to make of her presence. Do you have any thoughts about this?

OK: It was my aim that she might be all of those things, or I wanted her to become them. That’s why I called her the “shadow.” In other terms, I think she could be called something like the collective unconscious, or collective memory. The idea that as living beings, or as humans, we all have something shared deep within us, something at our roots, is a theme that has been with me since I made Cenote (2019, YIDFF 2019). I think that the shadow that Yoshigai becomes has the function of embodying this. I’m about to begin editing Underground and don’t yet know what kind of processes will change my thinking, but for now I can say that during the filming of Gama the shadow took on this kind of role.

EK: It seems to me that the main point of this film may be the creation of this woman in blue. Did you put much thought into this to get to this point?

OK: If my initial interest had been to know more about the Battle of Okinawa or to engage with Okinawan issues, I probably would not have introduced a character like Yoshigai’s. But Gama is just a story of a shadow traveling around memory in underground space, and while I really felt that I wanted to document things, I also knew that if I were drawn in by Okinawa in particular some contradictions would come out of this as an Underground project.

EK: So from a relatively early stage you had the idea of having Yoshigai perform the part of a shadow?

OK: Well, first I met Mr. Matsunaga, who showed me various gama. I listened to his stories, and at the stage where I decided I wanted to film him, I started to imagine what kind of film this would become. I thought that if I just put Matsunaga in front of the camera and had him talk, this wouldn’t conform to the shape of the Underground project. So at that point I decided to include Yoshigai as well.

EK: The second half of the film turns to the subject of retrieving human remains, and the phrase “human remains also have human rights” comes up. Could you talk a little about that?

OK: I believe it was a woman named Gushi Yae who said those words to Mr. Matsunaga. She was the one who got him started retrieving human remains. I can only speculate about what she meant, but I think the message is that it’s a human right of the people who died during the war to have their remains returned to their families. On the other hand, there are also remains there in the ground that date to earlier times, and there are some who feel that some who feel it best not to rashly dig everything up.

EK: There’s a scene in the latter half of the film where the woman in blue sits on the beach and clinks coral fossils together. The coral looks like the human bones that have been retrieved in earlier scenes in the film. Was this your intention?

OK: It was. I knew that there were actual cases during the war where coral fossils were made to look like bones when no remains were available and were sent to the families of those who had died. They actually do look like bones.

The reality of Okinawa

EK: In the same scene, we suddenly hear the roar of a jet. Was that a coincidence?

OK: Yes. You don’t see the jet on screen, but it flew over us while we were filming. I think it took Yoshigai by surprise.

EK: After that scene, there’s a shot of Matsunaga driving, and we see the long fence of a U.S. military base passing endlessly by outside the car window. There’s the roar of the jet that drowns out the clinking sound of the corals, the endless fence around the base, and then at the end of the film we hear the sound of a jet again, during a beautiful shot of the sea. This seems to express how Okinawas have continued to suffer all these years even since the war ended. But then the film ends without making any particular statement of protest. Is this because you felt that such kind of protest was beyond the theme of the film?

OK: Everything we shot, we shot while being guided by Mr. Matsunaga. What I wanted to do with Gama was to present as fact what we experienced and what we were shown. But there was also the fact of bases being built on ground containing human remains. Even though the film is about underground memory, I think it has connections with the present.

EK: Is there anything else you want to say about Gama?

OK: It’s important to emphasize that this is a film I made because I met Mr. Matsunaga.

EK: I can see that. Thank you.

Compiled by Erikawa Ken
Translated by Ryan Cook

Photography: Umeki Shigenobu / Video: Sato Hiroaki / 2023-10-08

Erikawa Ken
Editor and movie theater executive. After working for Film Art, Inc., Erikawa became a freelance editor. He authored Osaka aikan scrap (Edishon Kaie, 1989). Having been an editor of Eiga shinbun for over ten years, he took part in the launch of a citizen-run theater, Cine Nouveau. In 2005–2016 he was involved in the Osaka Asian Film Festival. He was Chief Editor of Daily Bulletin for the first and second editions of the YIDFF and served as a juror for the YIDFF: New Asian Currents in 2019.