Co-presented by Yamagata University, Tohoku University of Art and Design
With the decline of the film industry during the 1960s and 1970s, television achieved rapid growth as it began replacing movies as the most favored mass medium. This time period also marked the advent of the television documentary, with individual channels competing with one another to air the greatest number of ambitious programs. The works that we are showing in this section represent only a small segment of such shows.
The fact that such television works were extremely commonplace in their day may surprise some viewers. Did the profusion of liberated, experimental programs at this time result from the rapid economic growth or from the political order of the day? There may well be many possible explanations for what motivated this kind of programming—each of them as plausible as the next.
The days of competition and challenge in the area of television are now long gone, with present-day programming now based exclusively upon satisfying the desires of viewers and sponsors while strictly adhering to the self-imposed limits of such compliance.
Is there no choice, then, but to sigh with nostalgia for the permanent loss of the good old days, when television was filled with a sense of youthful passion? I would say not. Instead, I regard the present day as providing an important opportunity to watch these programs again and again in order to rediscover the value they hold.
By continually appreciating the literature and film of decades past, we have been able to reach new understanding while ensuring their continuity for future generations—and in the process, creating completely new trends.
And so is the case, I would argue, for television.
The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival is hosting the first full-scale Japanese television documentary retrospective. Any number of excellent documentaries have been produced and broadcast on television. Many of them would still seem fresh to us today, but the way things are, except for a very small number of exhibitions and screenings at film libraries, there is almost no chance to see older television documentaries. This retrospective represents a groundbreaking attempt to shine a new light on the history of Japanese television documentary.
This year’s retrospective focuses for the most part on giving a comprehensive overview of 1960s and 1970s television documentaries. That period was the “season of politics,” when the ANPO protests, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and on-campus student protests raged. The period of high economic growth changed both the urban and the rural landscapes of Japan at a furious rate. Behind the cameras, there were always conflicts and changes. How did the pioneers of the television age face these realities?
Nihon no sugao (The True Face of Japan; 1957–1964), which has been called the breakthrough of Japanese TV documentary, started soon after NHK TV started broadcasting in 1953. Yoshida Naoya and Ogura Ichiro came from radio and pursued the specific possibilities of television, which are different from those of film. Ogura’s Kibyo no kage ni (In the Shadow of a Strange Disease; 1959) is recognized as an early response to Minamata disease. Nihon no sugao was followed by two series: Gendai no eizo (Modern Images; 1964–1971) and Aru jinsei (A Life; 1964–1971). Kudo Toshiki, one of the mainstays of NHK documentary, came to prominence in this period with programs such as Waga gun Waga machi 1967 nen natsu (Waga Town, Waga Country Summer 1967; 1967), Tomigaya Kokumin Gakko (Tomigaya National Elementary School; 1969), and Shinjuku—toshi to ningen ni kan suru report (Shinjuku—A Report on the City and Its People; 1970). The programs were widely admired for their sound and image montages of the rapid and uneven transformations in Japanese cities and rural towns.
At NTV, Non-Fiction Theater (1962–1968), led by Ushiyama Junichi, invited distinctive film directors such as Oshima Nagisa and Tsuchimoto Noriaki and produced work after work with a real sense of an authorial point of view. Oshima focused on disabled ex-servicemen of Korean nationality who had fought during the war as Japanese soldiers in Wasurerareta kogun (The Forgotten Imperial Army; 1963) and on old landholders fighting against the construction of a dam in Hankotsu no toride (A Rebel’s Fortress; 1964). Tsuchimoto first confronted Minamata disease in Minamata no ko wa ikiteiru (The Children of Minamata Live; 1965) and dealt with Japanese settlers on the Asian mainland who were repatriated after the war and who were being ordered to evacuate a harbor in order that it could be redeveloped in Shimin senso (Civic War; 1965). These works, and others such as Ushiyama’s Minami Vietnam kaihei daitai senki (War Chronicle of a South Vietnam Marine Battalion; 1965), of which the broadcast of the second and the third parts was cancelled, are particularly notable for portraying people who had been forgotten in the midst of Japan’s postwar high economic growth.
At TBS, in addition to Camera Reportage (1962–1969), Gendai no shuyaku (Leaders of Today; 1966–1967) and Masukomi Q (Mass Communications Q; 1967–1969) were also active in producing experimental documentaries. Hagimoto Haruhiko and Muraki Yoshihiko were the main figures in that movement: their Anata wa . . . (Do You . . . ?; 1966) and Hanoi Den Hideo no shogen (Hanoi: Den Hideo’s Testimony; 1967) used sync sound to make documentaries in the form of live broadcasts, developing a theory of documentary as part of a larger theory of television. Their book Omae wa tada no genzai ni suginai—terebi ni nani ga kano ka (You Are No More Than the Now: What Are the Possibilities of Television?; 1969) was a classic work of television theory that is still relevant today.
Even local TV stations made excellent documentaries in those days. In particular, Kimura Hidefumi at RKB Mainichi Broadcasting Corp. (Fukuoka) made documentaries in a distinctive style that paid close attention to the specificity of the local region. His Kugaijodo (Pure Land, Poisoned Sea; 1970), an adaptation of Ishimure Michiko’s book about Minamata disease, drew attention for its audacious use of actors. In Makkura (Pitch-Black; 1973), a program about a Chikuho coal mine just before closure, Kimura went as far as throwing himself in the river on camera. Watching these programs again, we can still be astonished by their expressive style, which freely breaks established forms.
From its inception in 1953, Japanese television expanded rapidly during the period of high economic growth. While learning eagerly from the existing media of film and radio, theater, and literature, the pioneers of television searched for new possibilities specific to television itself. In this retrospective, we can perceive the filmmakers’ sharp critical spirit and follow their experimental explorations. How should television documentary confront the age? What questions should it ask? Have that free critical spirit and ambition been transmitted to the current generation of television makers? I would like to reconsider those questions by revisiting the work of the pioneers of the medium.