The Hard Road of the Japanese Documentary Maker

A scene from Kazuo Hara’s new documentary, “Sennan Asbestos Disaster.”

In “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On,” a 1987 documentary that takes many abrupt twists and turns, one of the most surprising comes about a half-hour in. The Japanese director Kazuo Hara has followed his subject — a self-righteous, self-promotional and occasionally dangerous political activist named Kenzo Okuzaki — to the home of a fellow World War II veteran.

Mr. Okuzaki is seeking confirmation that a friend of his, a private, was executed in the field by a Japanese officer. The fellow veteran gets up to leave. There’s a shout of “I’m talking to you,” and then Mr. Okuzaki tackles the veteran, riding him to the floor and commencing to beat him about the head. Mr. Hara keeps the camera running, and the audience is treated to an uninterrupted three-minute shot of the fray, until men arrive to pull Mr. Okuzaki away.

The scene is emblematic in several ways of the work of Mr. Hara, 73, one of Japan’s pre-eminent documentarians, whose new film, “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” — his first documentary in 17 years — receives its North American premiere Sunday at the Japan Society in Manhattan as part of the annual Japan Cuts festival.

He has been attracted to subjects that push against, or well past, the clearly marked boundaries of propriety and obedience to authority in Japanese life. In addition to his portrait of the obsessional and violent Mr. Okuzaki — Vincent Canby called that film “alarming and significantly lunatic” in his New York Times review — there is the brutally close-up view of life with cerebral palsy in his 1972 debut, “Goodbye CP,” and the intimate, invasive meditation on his feelings for a former lover in “Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974.”

Asked about the roots of his work in the radicalism and artistic experimentation of 1960s and ’70s Japan, Mr. Hara said, speaking via email through a translator: “I learned that the postwar democratic movement was to ask individuals, ‘How will you live?’ My subjects in my films are sovereign individuals. And I am proud to say that my works have sought to answer how they live.”

Mr. Hara’s approach requires its own doggedness, a less combative version of the passion displayed by Mr. Okuzaki. One reason for the long gap in Mr. Hara’s output (his last feature was his only fiction one, “The Many Faces of Chika,” in 2005) is that “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” took eight years to shoot.

In “Sennan” his subjects are everyday men and women who, with modesty and good cheer, band together to take a shocking step: a lawsuit against the government, which they claim knowingly allowed them to be exposed to asbestos poisoning. Over 3 hours 35 minutes, Mr. Hara lets them tell their stories while following them to organizational meetings, rallies, spirit-raising get-togethers and eventually to court. Plaintiffs, already ill, begin to die before the tortuous case can be resolved.

In Japan — where, Mr. Hara said, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “is trying to destroy postwar democracy at its very roots” — audiences have not responded wholeheartedly to the film’s depiction of collective action and the quest for retroactive justice.

“Instead of supporting the film’s content to fight against authority, the majority of the people expressed either a sense of defeat, saying that there is no way to win against them, or they showed disinterest,” Mr. Hara said.

“In terms of audiences who watch documentaries,” he continued, “I believe that compared to Japan, other countries have a much younger audience. Perhaps it’s because there are more people interested in politics and are participating in activism abroad, but they speak out much more assertively during audience Q. and A.s. It’s rare to see these instances in Japan.”

In America it’s rare to see Japanese documentaries, despite the high profile of many Japanese feature filmmakers and the general explosion of interest in nonfiction films around the world. Even dedicated American filmgoers are unlikely to know of any beyond Mr. Hara’s earlier works, and perhaps Kazuhiro Soda’s “Campaign” (2007) or “A Man Vanishes,” the mesmerizing 1967 investigative piece by Shohei Imamura, who was a producer of “The Emperor’s Naked Army.” Mr. Hara puts the blame, in part, on the documentary makers themselves. (The other ones, anyway.)

“Perhaps the No. 1 reason is that the way that many Japanese documentary filmmakers make films, they generally do not have the strategy to be shown abroad,” he said, using strategy (senryaku) to refer to a combination of skill, planning and ambition on the filmmakers’ part. “So many of them are content just screening within Japan. The quality of many documentaries is unrefined; they’re immature. Many of them are not at a level that can compete on a world stage. There hasn’t been enough training to combat these things.”

But there are also particular challenges to overcome in making documentaries in Japan, he said.

“Japanese people have a very strong tendency to hide and to not reveal their shame,” he said. “It takes an incredibly long time for a person in front of the camera to decide how much they will reveal themselves and their weaknesses and sufferings. This is the most difficult part about making documentaries in Japan.

“A lot of people abroad seem to compliment that the Japanese have strong endurance, but personally, I feel that many people are bowing down to the authorities. In other words, they have lost the spirit to resist against the powerful. It is the mission of my documentaries to break these ideas.”

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