YIDFF 2023 Perspectives Japan

Men with Movie Cameras—Shooting the Great Kanto Earthquake
Inoue Minoru (Director)

Interviewer: Markus Nornes

The danger of archival images

Markus Nornes (MN): First, I’d like to ask about your career as a director. How did you get started in the film industry?

Inoue Minoru (IM): I didn’t mean to get into film at first. I’m Catholic and I was going to become a priest. But I liked movies and had been in film clubs since high school. Takaiwa Jin, whom I met at that time , asked me to come to Tokyo to help organize screenings of his latest film. I never thought I’d be on the production side of things. I met various directors and thought filmmaking seemed interesting. That’s how it started. Making documentaries seemed to be less popular so I decided to jump into what was more unusual.

MN: I research Japanese documentary film history and have seen a lot of footage of the earthquake. Could you talk about the story behind it?

IM: Footage from the Great Kanto Earthquake is well-known and production companies have lots of “summary cuts,” or digest versions of it. But they’re not really unique as sources of information. When using archival footage, we often don’t know how it was shot or how it ended up where it did. The most iconic example of this is footage of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Two things bother me about those film images from the Great Kanto Earthquake, one of which is my own personal mistake. Immediately after the earthquake, the twelve-story tower in Asakusa (Ryounkaku) was still half-standing. They later demolished it with dynamite. But, when I was an assistant about thirty years ago, I mistakenly used that footage assuming it showed the tower collapsing in the earthquake. When I showed it to my superiors they said, “You idiot! What do you think you’re doing?”

MN: Convenient to have something so dramatic.

IM: If you show a stereotypical edit then it ends up standing in for the Great Kanto Earthquake. My mistake will get passed on to the next generation and I regret it. There’s a risk in dealing with archival footage.

I was also asked to produce a short informational film about earthquakes by the Japan Science and Technology Agency right after the Great East Japan Earthquake. We interviewed a geologist from Tsukuba University and the topic of the Great Kanto Earthquake came up. The items the geologist showed me on the topic—laying them out on a desk—included paper documents, photographs, and postcards. But there wasn’t any film. When asked why they didn’t use film the reply was, “Film is unreliable.” For material to be usable by an academic researcher, it must be based on reliable data. They say film isn’t a reliable source. I do understand this perspective, but as a filmmaker, I also wonder about it. Moving images can show things like how fires burned and spread, the way infrastructure was set up, and the movement of people fleeing and rebuilding. Yes, films might be flimsy as sources, but it would be a waste if they couldn’t be put to good use.

These were the two major concerns I had at first when the project came from the Documentary Film Preservation Center (DFPC): my own mistake and not making the best use of film today. What these two concerns have in common is a lack of evidence. I felt that if I could figure out what was missing and use that as material for a film, it would be worthwhile to do.

MN: I find your second concern somewhat ironic. I mean, in your film, you used footage from Shirai Shigeru’s Nanking (1938) and those images are very poetic. Documentary aesthetics really changed over the fifteen years since the earthquake. Images of the earthquake were really just filmed as records.

IM: Regardless, we only use them today as shortcuts to summarize. As a filmmaker living today, I feel I have to do better.

Collaboration of private and public institutions

MN: I knew about Shirai Shigeru through Ministry of Education and commercial film productions, but I was not really familiar with the others. Were they well-known?

IM: We could only identify three. There were several others according to research by Tochigi Akira and Osawa Kiyoshi of the National Film Archive of Japan (NFAJ). In Shirai Shigeru’s case, he has a book and there is even a recording of him speaking about it in detail. The other two were discovered through NFAJ research.

MN: I met Tochigi this past spring and he told me they were researching, restoring, and preserving films of the earthquake as part of their 100th anniversary project. Was this an NFAJ project?

IM: It was a DFPC project. They’re an organization that does the intermediate work that helps pave the way for the NFAJ to preserve short documentary films. Preservation is essential but films get put away in cold storage and don’t get used. Films are assets so they’ve been producing films that use archival footage to see how to best utilize preserved material.

MN: What was the role of the NFAJ?

IM: For them, the 100th anniversary of the earthquake was a major occasion, and it was an experiment in how to share these historic films (which are also their property) in the present age.

MN: The other organization is the Kobe Planet Film Archive (KPFA) which has had a long relationship with the Yamagata Film Festival. How did this connection come about?

IM: The DFPC had borrowed films from KPFA in the past but there had not been any collaboration between them. Unlike the NFAJ and its focus on preservation, the major advantage of Yasui Yoshio (the Director of the KPFA) is that the process for borrowing things like films and cameras is relatively simple. The NFAJ is a public institution so there’s a lot of red tape.

MN: I know what you mean. (laughs)

IM: So, this film had two major institutions backing it, the KPFA and the NFAJ.

MN: Is the camera featured in your film also from Yasui’s archive?

IM: Behind the film images there is a camera and a cinematographer. In front of the camera is a lens. I wanted to start from that material fact. When I researched cameras of that time period, I found out that Shirai Shigeru used a Universal camera with a 200-foot film magazine. Since this Universal camera was the symbol of the film, we looked for one. The NFAJ and the College Art Archive and Museum at Nihon University had their own but could not loan them. Then we asked Yasui. He sent us a camera and inside the box there was a note that revealed that this camera had actually been at the disaster. A film company in Osaka heard about the earthquake and went to film it.

MN: You must have been really surprised to see that.

IM: I was stunned, and I felt that I had to do this film. I feel like this film has all kinds of connections. Each and every one seemed to say, “You have to make this film.”

MN: Earlier you said that behind the film image is the lens, film, and camera. Well, that camera was indeed behind Men with Movie Cameras.

IM: Yes, that’s right. (laughs). Archival footage is filmed records, and the main focus of my film is how those records are made. To put on film what is behind the film.

About images not shown

IM: One thing I learned through making this film was our predecessors’ pronunciation of the word “camera” which differs from the one we use today. And before that they called the camera the “machine.” Very material and physical. Shooting a film one hundred years ago with its hand cranking and gears was almost industrial. Film standards haven’t changed, and you can still shoot with them. Film and industry are closely related, and I think that people at that time understood this as a matter of fact. Going out to film meant you carried a heavy camera and tripod. It was like being in the world of Modern Times (1936).

MN: It’s amazing that the cinematographers didn’t escape but went to film the earthquake. One surprising thing in the footage is that people weren’t running away. They were calmly watching the fires. Even so, they went into very dangerous places.

IM: Especially Iwaoka Tatsumi who was filming on the day of the earthquake on September 1. I believe he was filming very close to the fires. I’ve been at the site of actual fires and even the heat from a single burning house is so hot that you can’t get very close. Yet he went right into the thick of it with roaring flames on both sides of the street. It must have been an adrenaline rush. I don’t have any proof about their motivations, but their courage is visible on screen.

MN: It really does come out in the film. Did they have any issues with the local police or government officials?

IM: I believe so. The most famous film is the Report of the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire (1923) made by the Ministry of Education and compiled after the disaster. If you look closely, most of it is filmed on or after September 2. And it’s mostly focused on the recovery efforts. It was necessary for the nation to deal with reconstruction and especially important for the Ministry of Education to make a record of it. But natural disasters inevitably bring human disasters, like theft, discrimination, and killings. They didn’t deal with those things at all.

MN: From documentary record to PR film.

IM: It’s understandable that it ended up that way since it was made as propaganda. Films are made with an orientation and have a message, a perspective, and an impact. Films of the earthquake had two orientations. One was propaganda, that is, films about the recovery. The other was spectacle, that is, films with sensational images.

Films with an orientation are usually not objective. I believe we have to think about how films of the Great Kanto Earthquake were seen and consumed if we are to understand the basis for the marginalization of film in academic research.

MN: In Shirai Shigeru’s book where he talks about his film Nanking (1938), he wrote that he witnessed the massacres but avoided filming them. It’s incredible that he experienced two massacres. A cinematographer always has to decide what to capture, especially when shooting with film. Film is limited and there are ethical issues and risks as well. Did they really not film any of the violence or killings?

IM: We looked for footage of the killings but there wasn’t any. Not even images of the bodies of those who were killed. The absence of these images is really bizarre. Violence was very much in the atmosphere at the time. Shirai Shigeru attests to this and you see it in many other places like Takehisa Yumeji’s famous pictures, Miyatake Gaikotsu’s articles, Yumeno Kyusaku’s books, and Kon Wajiro’s writings. But film? There’s nothing. One reason might be that the cinematographers weren’t there. Another reason might be what you said that it was a personal, ethical choice not to film it. Or they did film it but it was later confiscated. Maybe they got caught in the fires and never made it back.

We really thought about the meaning of this absence. You could say that our film is about this absence. In making a film, what is not shot far outweighs what is shot. We think about things like where to put the camera, what angle to shoot, how to capture something. Underlying this, there is a lot one can imagine like what was beyond the frame or what happened in the moment when the shutter clicked.

MN: It must have required some consideration and adjusting to include the issue of the massacres. Was it a challenge?

IM: Not really. Because we knew that there was no footage. But that absence is something that weakens the film. So, as our objection to those who insist that there wasn’t a massacre, we filmed the requiem dance at the memorial dedicated to the Koreans who were killed. We tried to include the stance that there was a massacre on behalf of those whose images were not allowed to be retained. However, we refrained from emphasizing it too much because it would distract from the main point of the film.

Comparing the three great earthquakes

MN: There were three major earthquakes in modern Japanese history in the age of moving images and those images still exist. Did you compare films from the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Great Hanshin Earthquake (1995), and the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011)? What did you discover?

IM: Looking back to a hundred years ago, the films of the Great Kanto Earthquake have the power to remind us that those cinematographers actually went to the disaster zones. We even become aware of what was not filmed. The Great Hanshin Earthquake was twenty-eight years ago, when video was widely available. It was the age of analog video and shooting with one hand. Yet not everyone had a video camera and filming with one wasn’t all that common.

On the other hand, during the 3.11 (Great East Japan Earthquake) disaster, smartphones were everywhere and so there was an enormous amount of footage. This has to do with technological progress. It’s very easy to film today but there are still questions about our own attitudes when we record images and our responsibility toward them when compared to those a hundred years ago, or to those who filmed the Hanshin Earthquake twenty-eight years ago.

What’s more, digital can be manipulated. Just as I thought that the footage of Asakusa tower being demolished was from the Great Kanto Earthquake, there may be people decades later who look at doctored images and believe that a tanker ended up in the middle of Kamaishi (in the Great East Japan Earthquake). That worries me.

MN: While watching your film, I recalled a term used in film studies: “magnitude.” Beyond its reference to the intensity of an earthquake, there is a more symbolic meaning. The cinematographer must think about how they can convey to viewers the magnitude of the earthquake, its gravity and scale. I believe that is the duty of a cinematographer.

I sensed different strategies between the Great Kanto Earthquake and 3.11. One example was the frequent use of pans by Shirai and others at that time. During 3.11 most people used moving camera shots. Almost no one uses a tripod now. That’s a technical difference. Another is the bodies of the deceased, and the question of whether to show them or not.

IM: There’s no doubt that things like filming and expression have advanced over the past hundred years because of developments in technology. The wooden buildings from the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake are now earthquake-resistant structures so another disaster like that won’t happen again. At the end of the film, we included footage shot by someone during 3.11 but only because of the nature of the images. He wasn’t filming the tsunami but the people in the background, the crying children and panicked mothers. He was panicking while filming. There might be people who can film as if they were robots, but he was born there. He knew those people who were fleeing. Disaster reporting is peculiar.

When a disaster occurs someone has to go immediately to the disaster area, usually whoever is closest. But this often means that they are also victims of the disaster. It was his job to film in the disaster area, so it was part of his ordinary routine. However, what he filmed was anything but ordinary. Disasters exist in a space where the ordinary and the extraordinary are extremely close to each other. In this struggle between keeping with routine and breaking out of it completely are the suffering cinematographers, sound recorders, and directors. They have to make a choice to fully commit to one or the other. If they choose the ordinary, they might stop filming and try to save everyone. If they choose the extraordinary . . . well, they’ve already been thrown into it, haven’t they? He was engrossed in filming while his precious everyday life—his home, his mother—was swept away by the waves he was filming.

I think the Great Kanto Earthquake and 3.11 pose the same question, that is, what is a cinematographer to do in situations when there is a struggle in the experience of time, its appearance or grammatical tense, so to speak. A hundred years ago, I don’t think those cinematographers were making films just for show but were also thinking whether they would sell or, to borrow a modern term, whether they would trend. In that sense, it was ordinary for them. However, events are often extraordinary, aren’t they? That’s when you agonize about many things. I’d like audiences to sympathize with their struggles. If there’s violence in front of you, would you film it or not? We all have anxieties that well up from deep inside when we make choices and I hope that we might be able to commit ourselves to those feelings.

Compiled by Ono Seiko
Translated by David Baasch

Photography: Kimura Natsuki / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2023-10-07

Markus Nones
Professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan. His publications include The Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima (University of Minnesota Press [UMP], 2003), Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary (UMP, 2006), Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema (UMP, 2007), and Brushed in Light (University of Michigan Press, 2021). His films include The Big House (2018, co-directed with Soda Kazuhiro, et al.).