by Matteo Boscarol
New Trends in Japanese Documentary. An exclusive interview with Fujiwara Toshifumi
I’ve watched a couple of documentaries dealing with the disaster that hit Japan on March 11th, but in my opinion, your work stands apart from them. I think you adopted a broader perspective. Among other things, I felt No Man’s Zone was a visual essay on the impact that images of destruction have on our society.
Yes, you’re right but obviously it was something that was inside me from before the disaster and grew up over the years.
It was also like watching two documentaries, one with the row images and interviews from the area hit by the tragedy, the other one more reflective, with the narration and the editing giving a philosophical frame.
We’ve tried to create two separate layers very deliberately. One of the reasons is that it is a French-Japanese co-production. The cameraman and director are Japanese, and the editor is French…so why not have two layers to incorporate a certain distance within the contest. Originally, we thought of a French voice and the narration was different from the final one. It was more like a fictional story. The idea was that of a French woman and a Japanese director corresponding through the Internet. We collaborated with some French writers, but they didn’t get the right ideas because it was also supposed to be quite critical of the French culture itself. It turned into something rather awfully colonialist. So it didn’t work and I rewrote the whole narration.
In this way, it should be able to reach a foreign audience. The Japanese media didn’t do a good job, but at the same time, the international media excelled in misinformation, especially the Italian media.
Even here in Japan, it’s turning this way. Now the Japanese anti-nuclear movements are paradoxically against the people of Fukushima.
There’s a scene that particularly impressed me and even reminded me of some parts of Ogawa Shinsuke’s Heta Buraku. It’s the one when the camera is following an old lady wandering and speaking in her garden.
Thank you for the compliment. It is probably because my cameraman, Takanobu Kato, was working with Ogawa. He was one of the last people to leave the production. It was important that he was with me because, being trained under Ogawa when his production was in Yamagata, he literally lived there raising rice and so on. As such, he knew how to shoot rice fields, and other details of life in the countryside.
In the same scene through the memory of the old lady, there are also references to a wider sense of time, historical and natural cycles, reaching as far as the period after the Second World War.
– I would say that it goes even farther back in time; in fact, she recalls her father having been a silk worms teacher. It was before the war when Japan biggest export was silk itself.
The images of movies of this kind focus usually on destruction, but we tried to suggest what was there before the destruction. What was destroyed and also what the people of these areas have lost is much more important.
What triggered you to go to Fukushima a month after the Earthquake to start to shoot?
I was disgusted by the way the images were shown on TV. The live footage didn’t show us how the people used to live, and didn’t give people a chance to communicate. Their lives up there were so different from the lives of journalists in Tokyo; moreover, the images are just raw material without any good editing. My intention was to make a film that would look distinctly different from what we watched on television, which was usually shot very hastily with a hand-held camera. One of my first commitments was to shoot as beautifully as we could. That’s why, when possible, we used a tripod. Already, I’d hated lots of contemporary documentaries because their shots aren’t beautiful. They shoot them too easily. Even though we did it in 10 days, we tried to do it as well as we could. Beautiful editing also was important.
And the voice of Khanjian Arsinée for the narration is very beautiful indeed.
Her voice is incredible. She’ s Armenian, but she grew up in Lebanon so her native tongues are Arabic and French. She moved to Canada when she was 17, in French-speaking Quebec. I liked her voice because she is not totally native in English [the narration is in English] and so we cannot clearly identify the nationality of her voice.
You went to Fukushima with your cameraman and one assistant—is that right?
Yes, it’s better to have a small crew also knowing that the TV people often annoy them…
How did the people there react to you and your crew?
Again, we were only three and we were not wearing any protective gear or masks, so they were extremely polite to us as they usually are to everybody else. You know, the people of Tohoku have a tradition for hospitality. Also, we were not asking abrupt and stupid questions like “what do you think of that and that…?”.
The problem of how to approach and relate to the people affected by disasters is a crucial one for the art of documentary. At the last Yamagata Documentary International Film Festival, there was a debate on this topic.
I was there myself, and I think the largest problem of these documentaries is that they’re more about the filmmakers going there and not necessarily about the places and the people living there.
The general problem is that many filmmakers went to Tohoku, but they made films about their own confusion and panicked state of minds, while they forgot to make documentaries about the damages of the quake and the people who were directly touched by the tragedies. They are too self-centered and unconsciously self-obsessed. An even larger problem that I observe is that the audience in Tokyo takes comfort in seeing these movies, being reassured that the filmmakers are also confused. I find this tendency very problematic for being too masturbatory. They are forgetting the original function of cinema, which must be something open to create links and communications; under such circumstances, we should be mediums to make a bridge between those who experienced the tragedies and us who didn’t. That is one of the reasons why we tried to make “No Man’s Zone” an open film text, instead of sharing the personal experiences (if not self-excuses) of filmmakers. We wanted it to ask direct questions to the audience. Of course, my cameraman worked with Ogawa and I made a film about Tsuchimoto. Thus, I was influenced by others and different generations of documentary’s filmmakers, I’ve kind of skipped the generation of the so-called private documentaries.
Like Kawase Naomi?
I like Kawase and what she does; she is of my generation, but we do different things and that’s ok with me. I could say that I do documentaries like in the 60s, except that there is no more politics involved. Japanese leftist politics disintegrated in a very rapid way after the 70s.
Do you think March 11th will change something in filmmaking?
In my opinion, it should. But I haven’t seen the change yet. After all, only 9 months have passed. One thing for sure is that we have to try to do something different, different from what we were doing before. Actually, before the quake, I was working on a movie but now I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to complete it. It’s about Japan before March 11th.
It’s a different period, it’s like being after a war in a way.
We should consider March 11th almost as important as August 15th, 1945.
A few months ago, I talked to Sono Sion, and he said that the tragedy was paradoxically “good” because it suddenly uncovered many problems affecting the Japanese society. For instance the relationship between urban centers and countryside, that is Tokyo-Tohoku…
I totally agree with him. We (in Tokyo) are just parasites, which is repeatedly stated in No Man’s Zone. The nuclear plants have been there for almost 40 years, and what is awful is that even now after 9 months in Tokyo, people don’t want to admit that we’re responsible.
And even now [this interview was conducted during the Christmas period], it’s like nothing has happened at all.
At the Tokyo FilmEx this year, a lady in the audience from Fukushima was quite surprised after watching the movie. She walked outside and found the streets in full illumination for Christmas.
Can you tell us something about the music used in the film?
It was composed and performed by a free jazz American musician who’s been living in France for many years. His name is Barre Phillips and we’ve worked together before [Independence, 2002]. Again, we decided on a non-Japanese composer, one of the best that you can get, and also one that was not so expensive and not too commercial. The funny thing is that he recorded the music in a chapel of an ancient monastery in the south of France. In No Man’s Zone, there are a lot of Japanese traditional views with images of Buddhas and small gods, so I thought it would be interesting to have the music recorded in a Catholic chapel. In this way, the music and the narration can maybe suggest something universal. That’s why I wanted someone else and not myself to do the narration in English. It would otherwise have become just a documentary about my experience. This nuclear accident is asking tremendous and huge questions to all of us, to our civilization and how we have related ourselves to nature and to the universe, how we perceive our lives. We actually have to think about the philosophical and even the religious aspects of it all, I would say, and it’s stated at the end of the film, that Japan, embracing western civilization, has accepted its idea of a nature existing for us, to serve humans. It’s actually a very Christian concept. It is not even Jewish or Islamic; it’s a particular belief of Christianity to say that God created everything for us.
Tokyo, December 2011.