YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Hatano Shuhei (Director)

Interviewer: Narita Yuta

It started with the camera

Narita Yuta (NY): Please tell us again briefly about the process you used in filming and creating this work.

Hatano Shuhei (HS): I didn’t set out to make a film, at first I had simply chosen to make a habit of shooting everyday, starting in early April, 2020. Each night I would pick what I wanted out of the day’s footage and put it on my timeline, repeating the same thing the next day, for thirty days. The point was to send a status report to my friends, now that we couldn’t meet up. Once I’d been doing this for a year, it took shape as about an hour’s length of footage, representing a single year. I hadn’t used simultaneous sound so I was sending silent footage each month. When I looked back and considered making it into something, it occurred to me I might have a film if I cut a whole lot out, and so that’s what I began to do.

NY: So you might call it private, something to send to your friends, as you had no inkling at the start that you might collect it into a single work.

HS: Right. At first, all I really knew was that I would film.

NY: And so there are versions of it based on what you sent to your friends too. Were these cut together in daily chronological order? Or was it organized more by month?

HS: I didn’t use all of the material I shot, but I did arrange it in the order of the day it was shot, and sent something usually around five minutes or less each month.

NY: Did you set out to film a certain amount each day?

HS: I really had no clue. I simply decided to always have my camera on me. I learned as I filmed that it made me more, perhaps observant, that there were things I discovered just because I had my camera and I would think, “Oh yes,” and point my camera at them and turn it on.

NY: Parts here and there throughout have a film-like texture. Did you use a filter or something, or were these actually shot on film?

HS: I shot those using actual 8mm film.

NY: So you used both 8mm film and digital in filming. How did you separate their roles?

HS: I was already very comfortable with 8mm.  I had a camera lying around for quite a while that already had film in it, like maybe as many as ten years? And when I used it again and then developed the already-expired film, it developed unevenly, which I liked too. I started shooting without a plan in mind, I guess it basically just started with this camera I had. The only limits I set were shooting handheld, in 4:3, with a 50mm single focus lens, and no simultaneous sound. Without limits it wouldn’t have gone anywhere since there was nothing in particular I had in mind to shoot. To my way of thinking, what your camera is like changes what you shoot. So 8mm is different from digital. Physically, your shutter is only moving when you’re pressing that button, and you can do things like stop-motion. Of course it looks different from digital too. It wasn’t so much that I had something I wanted to photograph or any specific idea, but that I started from the camera itself.

NY: As if you let the camera choose your subject.

HS: Right. Whenever you find that you want to do something new, it makes a bigger difference to change your tools than to choose a new subject. Once I had the camera, it gave me a sense of what the limitations would be, or how I planned to film, with the first element being 8mm. I used digital and film distinctly in the same spirit you might paint using different kinds of lines, or different shapes and colors. And since I didn’t know what I was going to shoot, editing too was a process of simply splicing one thing to the next, with no view of the big picture. I didn’t even know how it would end. Once I had all the footage and looked at the whole thing again, rearranging the order a bit and stuff, that’s this eighteen-minute version.

NY: I’d like to dig into that a little bit more if I may. I found that far from being merely footage strung together in chronological order, starting from the middle of the film there was a gradual increase in editing tension, brought to a climax with major events that were surely deeply moving for you. Because it has an overall shape, and is not in fact merely cut together in a straight line, based on what you told me just now it makes it seem that this would have emerged in the editing process. At what point did you detect the structure?

HS: Things that were rotating kept entering my frame as I shot. Of course the camera itself was rolling, but also my daughter whirling around, a top spinning, other things. I slowly came to realize that this was an axis of the film that the images had come to fall into place around. So that became one more limitation to impose, describing yet another circle by shooting each day for a year, from one spring to the next. You mentioned the end of the film—of course life and death are also circular. That was how, when I had gradually realized that the theme of going around or revolving would likely emerge from what I was shooting, once I had decided to cut it down to eighteen minutes I structured it so that the theme of circularity would emerge, so it would be stressed.

Sound, text, images

NY: I’d like to ask you about the sound. I was impressed by the sound of dripping water that wanders across the entire work. How did you choose to place it that way?

HS: I made that on the day of the deadline.

NY: I’d never have guessed!

HS: I had an eighteen-minute work. It wasn’t quite a year before the Yamagata deadline, but it was ready some time ago. I had originally planned to leave it as a silent work in its final form, but then I changed my mind and decided I could flesh it out more, with text or some kind of sound. But somehow I never got started. I think that period of not handling it was also good, since time had a maturing effect. It feels raw when you’re filming and editing something every day, and time alters how you come to see it. I think there might have been about a year? in which I wrote the text. I would jot down things that came to mind. I wondered what to do, when to finish it, until I decided I had no choice but to use Yamagata’s deadline as my deadline.

I was still dashing down line after line of text the day before. I thought I should get started with recording it and I got into my car at night where it was utterly silent and spoke the text. At first I put a lot of expression into it. But you can hear how it ended it up with the tone very subdued, calm. With inflection in the voice, the whole thing merged with the images became too feathery and you didn’t feel like you were absorbing it at all as you watched it. I lowered my voice and made it so that, it’s not that it’s unemotional, but it’s calm and unobtrusive. The images go by so fast, so that when I placed on the sound, I thought having both my voice and other sounds was a lot of information. I didn’t want to make it hard on the viewer, force them to try to digest everything. I also carried a sound recorder during the pandemic so I had been picking up stuff here and there on that too. And when I put it on the images, it just felt best to start from silence and then have the sound of water start slowly dripping. There’s a bit of room between the images, the voice, and the other sounds—in fact they’re sort of in opposition to each other, so I thought I’d insert the dripping sound first. I did actually have a lot of water sounds already recorded, but there’s water in the images too, so it made sense to use it as a thorough bass.

NY: I found the sound in this film wonderful. I love how you looped the sound, added delay and reverb, with the voices and natural sounds slowly developing into a groove. I know you love music deeply, evidenced for example by your film about Jad Fair and Tenniscoats (Enjoy Your Life,2012). Is there anything you focus on or are conscious of when thinking about the sound?

HS: No, I’m not yet deliberate enough at all in terms of sound, I have much much further to go, whereas text is something I’ve had my mind on for a long time. I talked about this earlier, but the text isn’t subordinate to the images, it’s more like they’re independent of one another while still influencing each other, not only complementing but also functioning independently. That’s my goal for the text. The tension in a film shouldn’t converge in one element, it should be diffused–in a good way. Calling it messy might sound funny, but basically the core of the artwork shouldn’t be singular. I want it to have multiple orientations, at least that’s my aim. So that’s how I work in terms of text and thinking about its connection with the images, and I hadn’t thought I was as deliberate in terms of sound. This time I only had one day so I just dived in and cut, cut, cut. I did stuff like made some parts silent, since uninterrupted sound turned out to be annoying. My approach was, instead of putting the sound on in a fluid manner, I wanted to viewer to feel like they detect cross-sections, as if I was cutting up millions of pieces of recording tape and splicing them back together like crazy. I was floored by what sounds I found and where, when I played it back. It wasn’t gentle or relaxing, and in fact I would feel jolted, finding myself gasping in unexpected surprise. That was my approach, or rather than an approach it was total impulse. I approached the sound based on feeling.

NY: In this work, which records a year from 2020 to 2021, it would seem like you suffered both a death and celebrated a birth during that period. If it’s not too much to ask, do you mind telling us about each of them?

HS: I know it appears so in the film, but no one close to me actually died then—that part anyway is 8mm footage I took of my grandmother’s funeral. She passed away when I was in my 20s, and the truth is that I added that footage to the film.

NY: You used footage from outside the year!

HS: Just that part. You see the shadow of a hand across the projected film image of her funeral; the projector stops and only the hand remains. My intention there was not so much to say that someone had died, but rather that there were people around me who had left me, and that I would never be able to touch them again. We felt very close to death during the pandemic, I think. People dying every day. In light of that, my idea was to use the phrase “memory can sing” to express the feeling of looking back on memories of someone close to you who is longer here. No one close to me died during that year, I was just recalling an older memory and how I was no longer able to be with that person.

NY: You’ve mentioned previously that I Remember (2021, YIDFF 2021) was also inspired by the passing of your grandfather.

HS: When I work, I feel like I am mainly in conversation with the dead. Watching Noda Shinkichi today (YIDFF 2023 Noda Shinkichi Retrospective) I was reminded of how our society isn’t made up exclusively of the living. This is especially the case during the Obon festival–although there might be places that don’t do it anymore–when the living act and make arrangements on behalf of the dead. I think about this often.

Past and future work

NY: Often your films deal with heavy subjects—in this case COVID-19 and death, although neither are directly depicted—and yet compared with everything you’ve done so far it feels almost leisurely and humorous. I found it to have a casualness to it, in a good way, like you were playing, purely, with sounds and images. Did you intentionally choose a bright style for the film?

HS: That was in large part because of this one super powerful being who had appeared in my life and this other one that then came into this world. And yet death was so ever-present during that time period, so I had this intense desire to look on things that were beautiful. So I think I was reacting.

Although I didn’t make it intentionally bright, there were notes I took that I’d post about things that came to me while I worked, about how I wanted people to feel about  what I was making, like: “I’d rather people found it super entertaining than say it was a ‘good film’” Just speaking about Yamagata this year, everyone has made really passionate films. Watching six or so in a day feels as tiring as running a marathon, but you find some films that have a buoyancy to them, that make you smile, that have a kind of clarity. I feel like there’s a common tendency to make films serious, heavy, or powerful in some way. It’s not that an alternate, lighter tone is being lost, but it’s fairly rare.  Perversely, that’s been the tenor of my feelings this time, watching the festival. I want to create something with lightness and lucidity. To smile is important, right? Isn’t it the most important thing in being alive? I would say laughter and also music. Things have a way of working out in the end as long as you have those. I don’t aim for weight in my work, in fact I find it more challenging to pursue a light tone. Because there is always hardship. So I plan to work on that more.

NY: How would you place that idea in the context of your older films? This one is indeed more humorous and light than your work so far, and yet I still feel that it contains many of the challenges and tendencies present in your earlier works, hearkening back for example to the reconstruction of memory in The Origin of Shadows (2017), the subjects of recording recollections and passing down of death in I Remember,  and especially the experiments with light and shadow of your short works. How do you see this film within your own body of work?

HS: I think this one has more lightness and humor than anything I’ve made so far, and though I don’t know where my work will go from here, I do hope this will be the first of more. And yet you never really know. As I said, the period we were living in itself brought those things to the fore.

You know, you can see The Pillow Book (a book of short non-fiction prose completed by Sei Shonagon in 1002) in the shot in this film and in fact I had started to feel like I was making my own “pillow book.” Additionally, as I filmed, I started to discover okashi (a Heian era aesthetic of delight, amusement, and joy) as written about in that book. And I had even begun in April, as the book begins, “Haru wa akebono . . .” (“Spring, dawn . . .”) Re-editing the film, I taped up the words I’d written down, and I got the idea to gradually take the work from okashi to mono no aware (a Heian aesthetic that recognizes the impermanence of all things). If this kind of lightness and humor that are new to me are okashi, then my sensibility–what my camera has focused on up until now–has probably been mono no aware.

NY: What’s so captivating about this work is how your editing and shooting choices gradually transform ordinary daily things and everyday scenes that should be familiar to us into the alien and unrecognizable. Specifically, I think almost anyone who sees it would find your exquisite editing tempo amazing and delightful. So I wanted to ask, did you have rhythm in mind on some level in your editing?

HS: I judged where to cut each shot basically through intuition. By that I mean the length was determined by the shot’s movement—however things moved within the shot and how the camera was moving. Then, once I had them spliced together, I would cut off a frame or prolong it if it felt wrong. But the principal criteria in determining the length of each shot were the movement of what was in the frame and the movement of the camera. It’s a film that does nothing but give chase to light and movement, so that’s where you can find the heart of the film’s rhythm.

NY: I have one last quick question. How did your daughter and your wife, the subjects, react to being filmed and put into the film?

HS: My daughter would say, “I wonder if this might be interesting?” and “Will people like this?” and things like that. As for my wife, she was unable to be objective, being so close to us. After our son was born, I thought about how long I would live, and there’s a part in the film where I say I wonder if I’ll live to see my son when he’s sixty, right? My wife said that as a mother that made her tear up. She’d tell me to stop always filming and do some housework or comfort our crying baby—but they were all in moments that would be gone if I had delayed. Because where we are in the present is made up of all the passing moments. So while we have that footage, actually I haven’t filmed our second-born at all! I believe it was the era itself that made it possible for me to film what I did, while my wife tells me now to film our second child. So that’s your answer.

Compiled by Narita Yuta
Translated by Jeremy Harley

Photography: Kimura Natsuki / Video: Kusunose Kaori / 2023-10-09

Narita Yuta
Librarian at The Yamagata Documentary Film Library. Narita researches the history of cinema, notably the history of pre-war Japanese film. His articles include “Nihon eiga to kowairobenshi” (Nihon eiga no tanjo ed. by Iwamoto Kenji, Nihoneigashi sosho 15, Shinwasha, 2011); “‘Think Good’ ni tachiau tameni” (Eureka: Miyake Sho tokushu, Seidosha, December 2022).