Documentarists of Japan, #17: Otsu Koshiro (2/2)


KT: In the Minamata Disease—A Trilogy (1975), there are quite a few interview scenes where the camera is pulled back a little and the director Tsuchimoto himself gets into the picture. Did you discuss this angle a lot with Tsuchimoto?

OK: Tsuchimoto would be listening to what they had to say and then pursuing certain points in the conversation, and I would be there filming it. One reason for shooting like that was that the atmosphere was really good. The fishers’ homes were colored by time and history in a way that was totally different from the new style of houses we were seeing in Tokyo then. I wanted to capture that atmosphere, so I pulled the camera back to get a wider picture.

Another reason for that was that until then, it was usual for the interviewer and staff to hide behind the camera and not come out in front. In documentaries up to that point the staff would disappear behind the picture, just running the equipment, saying whatever they wanted on the narration. To put it bluntly, it sank into propaganda. We hated that and wanted to deal with issues from inside the picture. So of course we thought it would be good to let the subject (the director) who’s asking the questions come into the frame. If the director had something to say, we wanted him to say it inside the film instead of hiding in the back and recording it onto the narration afterwards. We were hoping to probe for answers through conversations, not propaganda, so we felt a need to show the director as a proper subject in the film. To present him as an autonomous subject, not just as an interviewer.

KT: All of the Minamata Disease films have very impressive outdoor shots. There’s one moving shot that follows a small covered truck on the fish distribution route from Kumamoto to Kagoshima. It leaves quite an impression since it comes right after that tense indoors scene.

OK: I was always thinking about how to put the outdoors shots into the Minamata Disease films. In the medical world things always get really confined, right? It would have been possible to just complete it within that world, but Minamata Disease is a sickness that was released within a certain environment. So I wanted to depict the environment people lived in—the sea, villages and towns. The fact that the patients were so trapped and shut off is also because of that rural environment, a land that’s surrounded by the mountains and the sea. I wanted to present “the Japanese village” in that form, so I also knew that I wanted to film as much as I could outdoors. I also wanted to avoid the oppressive visual atmosphere that comes from filming inside.

KT: This probably came out of that context, but there was one bird’s-eye shot of the village from the top of a hill. You’re shooting with a map of the village inserted in the foreground; I think you must be trying to show the outdoors as openly as possible. In the next scene there’s a very well done hand-held shot where you just walk through the village.

OK: Up until the previous films [Minamata—The Victims and Their World (“Minamata—kanja-san to sono sekai,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1971) and Minamata Revolt—A People’s Quest for Life (“Minamata ikki—isho o tou hitobito,” Dir. Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1973)], I was concerned less with setting things up than with how to digest what came to us. But in the Minamata Disease, if we didn’t set everything up ourselves nothing would have happened. Minamata—The Victims and Their World was the opposite of that. For example, how can I depict one village from the top of a hill? Some of those houses are victims’ homes but others are not, and some are near the ocean or the river, and each of those hamlets are at risk of getting the disease. And inside them you see some people with the disease and some people without it. We wanted to show that kind of mechanism, I guess, in the film.

In other words, we were consciously trying to cut into the situation with the camera.

KT: So the film crew was very proactive in its search?

OK: We always included shots of Tsuchimoto going in to show that the films were going in to the situation. So Tsuchimoto represented the camera of the entire crew as he was listening to someone’s story. I wanted to bring out Tsuchimoto and the staff’s investigative stance. Basically if the staff didn’t actively try to make things happen nothing would come to the fore. We couldn’t just wait for something to appear. I think that was a special characteristic of the Minamata Disease—A Trilogy. In order to find out what kind of illness Minamata Disease was, we had to investigate, shouldering the burden of the victims’ suffering, not from the perspective of medical specialists, until a complete layperson could understand. It was no longer an era when we could just wait for things to happen; that sort of thing lasted until the time of Minamata Revolt—A People’s Quest for Life.

KT: It seems that from around then Tsuchimoto, and also Ogawa, began to get more involved and engage reality more subjectively.

OK: Yes, that’s true. You can see that starting to bud in Minamata—The Victims and Their World, but in that case he wasn’t yet conscious about using it that way. The film as a whole criticizes the situation as reality. That tendency became clear beginning with the Disease Trilogy.

Until then documentaries would wait for something to happen and then construct things as events inside that. The idea was that there was a hidden truth somewhere, and that if we went searching for it, eventually it would float up from the other side and talk to us.

At some point along the way, though, things stopped appearing unless we actively tried to dig them out. That shows how stagnant things had become. Even if it wasn’t an upheaval, from about the late 60s to the beginning of the 70s things were changing pretty violently. If you just waited around the situation would change and a lot would happen all around you. But I think that around ’74 or ’75 the circumstances started to develop to a point where if our side didn’t make a move, nothing would come up. It was that different.

KT: It became harder to hold a third-person position on things, didn’t it.

OK: From around that time, issues of what position a person took—subjectivity, or how things would change depending on where you stood—came to the fore. Things went in a more and more subjective direction, and it turned into a method of mixing subjective and objective positions as you pushed things along.

KT: That’s still an important issue today.

OK: People still believed that “the truth exists” up to about the beginning of the ’70s, around the time of Summer in Narita. You tried to express things based on how realistic they were. Ontologically speaking, the idea was that “reality exists.” Somewhere people got the idea that if a person chased [reality], it would have something to tell them. So it was very objectivist. But that way of thinking started to collapse in the 1970s. You started to consider how things would respond differently depending your stance. If you change your own point of view then something different might appear. So when you ask, “Is that the truth?” it might not be. A kind of relativism developed, or a parallel way of thinking about things.

KT: That became more and more obvious.

OK: This extreme subjectivity became another problem as the years went by. It’s very dangerous. Put that on a world-wide scale and you get all sorts of people thinking, “what I see is the truth and everything else is wrong!” The potential to fall into a very self-righteous state of mind is always hiding in there.


KT: It takes you right into a dead end. You have to break through that perspective. You’re handling your own subjective ideas, but the reality is in fact beyond that. I think Hara Kazuo’s films make you consider that point. You worked as cinematographer for the “Image” section of Hara’s A Dedicated Life (“Zenshin shosetsuka,” 1994). How did you come to undertake that job?

OK: Until then Hara had always run the camera and done the interviews all by himself. I think producer Kobayashi Sachiko and one more staff member were usually with him, but Hara himself basically controlled how the film would proceed. I thought that was very interesting in itself. But in A Dedicated Life he came up with the idea to turn that upside down. He wanted to use actors to create an imaginary world based on Inoue Mitsuharu. Up to then he may have been able to pursue his own world running the camera by himself, but when he tried to objectively imagine another person’s “world,” I think he saw that it would be difficult to create conditions like that while still peeking through the camera. He had been my assistant on some TV work some time back, so he told me about his plan and asked me to join.

KT: Wasn’t the goal of that film to depict the protagonist, Inoue Mitsuharu’s, tendencies to fictionalize things?

OK: What’s interesting about Inoue is the fact that he takes fiction and truth, or reality, and mixes them all up, to the point that some even used to call him “Mitsuharu the Liar” at one time. He looks at things through his own filter. That is part of an author’s right, you could say. It’s one method that’s always at their disposal. So nobody really knows the truth. Some people say, “If Mitsuharu said it then it’s a lie,” and that might be true, but we wanted to trace what he said and create a scene based on it. To achieve that, I tried messing up the color in that one section.

I thought that everything there was a fiction that Mitsuharu had created with Hara as his accomplice, so I wanted to change everything, including the interviews, into a different color from what Mitsuharu’s world had looked like up to then. By the way, there’s footage from a PR film at Gunkanjima Island, I think, that was taken by the coal mine. We used that in the film in black and white. The original was also black and white, so we just used it as is. You could say that this is a document with a certain historical value. On the other hand, the “Inoue Mitsuharu’s world” that we were trying to create was a world of images seen through his eyes.

So what I wanted to do was to change the color in that world—to leave color in, but change it. In the end, though, Hara put it all in black and white. I argued against that. I used several filters to deepen the color, but there was still color there. It was a world that developed through Inoue and the staff’s combined subjective filters. I wanted to show that this wasn’t a “black and white” world that had once been objective and real.

There are also some “made-up” photos in the film, for example pictures from Inoue’s childhood or photos of a girl he had liked back then. But the photos of that girl were produced as part of the movie and actors were used in them. So I was shocked that they were used in black and white, as if it was to say that the girl was once part of the real world. If we had black and white photos of something that did exist once it would have been OK to use them, but in this case we’re supposed to be wondering if that girl actually did or didn’t exist. It may have been just part of Inoue Mitsuhiro’s one-sided imagination, an image he created himself. To him it’s real, of course. From the instant he says something it becomes real, regardless of the objective truth. But I didn’t think the photo should be in black and white as if that world really existed. The way Hara and I interpreted things was totally different. Well, I still do see him regularly... but anyway, things like that happen.

KT: So you had some disagreements over how to deal with fiction.

OK: That’s right. After all, fiction is fiction. Fiction is about creating things by passing them through a filter. That’s not the same as thing as lying. Fiction is something that has to pass through a thick filter of imagination before it seeps out at the end. I think that’s different from an author subjectively cutting up things that really did exist. I wanted to show that difference.

KT: I see what you mean. Hara was the author in this case, but I sensed that the position he took was a little uncomfortable.

OK: The reason I don’t really like that film is that I have this feeling Hara was lying somewhere along the way. Even if you don’t say he lied, he still avoided probing into things deeply enough. He was sort of deceptive. For some reason I still get stuck on that. If you could clearly see that it was Inoue Mitsuharu’s imagination, something different from reality, then it would be fine. But Hara kept using Inoue, getting him to say, “This is real.” I feel like he took one creator, one person’s imagination, and disgraced it.

It’s fine if someone makes up a pack of lies during an interview, as long as that’s clearly shown to be part of the individual’s nature. The author can mold the work in such a way that the lies come up somewhere else later on. But Hara adjusted it afterwards in a different kind of way. It was as if he created “Mitsuharu the Liar,” and I’m disappointed with that.

KT: It’s still a fascinating film.

OK: Well, the way part of it is put together to show the contrast between fiction and reality is interesting. I think it did step into a certain world there. But as a whole, somehow it leaves this embarrassingly unpleasant aftertaste.


KT: Now that we’re talking about documentary and fiction, how about Alexander Sokurov’s Dolce (2000). It’s neither drama nor documentary. He created an unusual square frame and shot the whole thing through that...

OK: No, that was done in post-production. It was a standard size frame during shooting. Sokurov probably was trying to decide how to do the subtitles when he figured he’d put the picture in a perfectly square frame. That’s Sokurov’s style though. He really builds his own world.

What’s interesting about Sokurov is the way he totally constructs the filming conditions. It usually takes about half a day to set up a shot, the lights and everything. The majority of that time is spent seeing how much light he can cut out. From the start, he had this really Russian image, and it seems he’s got an extreme fear of greenery. And then he went to Amami Oshima Island and everything was overgrown with greenery. I think he pretty much went crazy or something. If there was even a little bit of greenery in the picture he’d try to find a way to cut it.

KT: The color really is very subdued.

OK: What he really likes—this is pretty interesting too—is gray. His clothes are like that, everything is like that. I said he brought the gloom of St. Petersburg into Amami Oshima. He brings everything into his dim world with the lights cut. That drains the color out of everything and takes it into a neutral gray tone. It takes about half a day to create an atmosphere like that, because you’re always chasing the light around.

KT: He uses almost no bright light.

OK: Right, none. We put black curtains a short distance away from the windows to cut out the light. If you put one directly on the window no light will come in at all. But in the time it takes to set it all up the direction of the sunlight changes. You have to keep chasing after the correct angle of sunlight and curtain setting. I started to get desperate after a while, yelling out, “There’s too much light coming in right there, just block that part off!”

The only direction Sokurov gave Shimao Miho was to ask her to talk about something. They just jumped in headfirst of course with no rehearsals. In that sense it’s an excellent documentary. Later his only instruction was that Shimao Miho play Shimao Miho as much as she could. Afterwards he’d just stare at the monitor and grumble (laughs). He’s talking in Russian: “Not like that!! That’s good! That’s good!” And Kojima (Hiroko, interpreter) translated it all faithfully. “He said it’s good! That was good!” Like that (laughs). Anyway, he wanted Shimao Miho to talk in her own words, not to just use straight language and talk about things as they were. His preparations couldn’t end until that started to come out and she spoke through her own “filter,” the vague, flickering words of her medium-like language. “Mother, father, love, me”... the theme became more abstract and complicated. Sokurov had to wait a long time until he was satisfied [with what he heard].

KT: You used filters quite a lot in the film.

OK: They were almost all the kind you can get at [discount electronics store] Yodobashi Camera. I used an ND halftone, along with some vaseline and things like that.

KT: There’s one shot when Shimao Miho is looking out a window and the letters on the wall behind her seem to appear and disappear. What was that?

OK: That was an illusion. We weren’t photographing her directly; we were shooting her reflection in a mirror. The thing in the background is a folding screen with Shimao’s own handwriting, and it’s real. We put the mirror in front of the screen.

KT: Muting the light takes a lot of work, doesn’t it.

OK: That’s why we only did one scene a day. With one scene sometimes we would go through two tapes. We would just leave the camera running. Of course we’d change the framing now and then, but when I zoomed in I wouldn’t do it on auto, I did it all by hand, so slowly that I myself couldn’t even tell I was moving in.

This ties into Hanako (“Hanako,” Dir. Sato Makoto, 2001) as well. Up to then, we’d take the extreme highlights out of the image when we were shooting with video. We used flat lighting with as low contrast as possible and no backlight. In that sense we used only techniques that avoided the weaknesses of video. But working with Sokurov really opened me up to new ideas I guess, since we were shooting in a place that was borderline black.

It would have been extremely hard to get the same tone with film. You probably could try it with 400-speed film, but with the light so low the grain would become a problem. I haven’t compared PAL with NTSC directly, but as far as scanning lines go PAL has more, and a tighter picture. In fact we might not have been able to do it without PAL. So I guess you could say I learned a great deal from this project.


KT: You gained experience with PAL then and were able to use that knowledge on Hanako. Did you choose PAL this time too because of the scanning lines?

OK: We used PAL because Yamagami (Tetsujiro, producer) suggested it. He wanted to use PAL to do a video transfer at a processing lab in France. Money probably was an issue as well, since you can do it there for about half the price of doing it in Japan. In France you could do a 50-minute film for about 2 million yen. If you tried the same thing in Japan I think the price would go up to about 5 million yen. (Those aren’t exact figures though.) As far as how good they look, there’s probably not that much of a difference in the technical quality of the labs. I looked over some videos that had been transferred to film and thought they looked really promising, so that gave me some confidence in the technique. It sounded interesting, so we tried it.

Economically speaking we started pretty much from zero as usual, but there’s this camera, the DSR-PD150, that I had used before and liked. It was pretty well made and I knew that we could do quite a bit with it, so we decided to give it a shot.

KT: It sounds like you turned the financial restrictions around and had some fun shooting.

OK: There’s always a possibility that we’ll have to do a project without funding, and young people who make a work probably have to start from a point where they can’t use any money even if they want to. In that sense this film was like an experiment to see how far I could go using only materials that were close at hand. That was really interesting for me and I became really involved in what I was doing. We planned to print the film in 35mm from the start, so we tried using a small handycam as we would a 35mm camera. For the first time in a while it was a really stimulating photographic experiment.

KT: You did very well for such an experimental approach.

OK: There are two or three places on the completed print where you can see traces of the video, but those were parts where we used a camera that we had in the tests, one that was inferior to the PD150. The parts where we used the PD150 turned out very well. But if you don’t use the camera extremely well, though traces of the video remain and you can see scan lines. Shooting outside was particularly difficult. Indoors you have an amount of control over the light, so you can keep the naked sunlight out. But outside there’s always some light that you just can’t manage. With the PD150 you can compensate for that, but if you’re stuck with an amateur camera you’re at a disadvantage because you can’t run all of the functions manually. There are some parts where you have to rely on automatic settings, so you’re bound to sell yourself short somewhere.

KT: It looks like you shifted the color to an amber tone as well.

OK: I gave it that color intentionally. I did it because I think the world that (Imamura) Hanako carries with her, the world that surrounds her, isn’t a blue, cold world. It’s a warm, amber world. If I used a gelatin filter I could have gotten the pale amber tone that I was originally thinking of, but I would have had to do everything by myself, and fitting (the filter on the lens) takes a lot of time. If you just leave it on it’ll get scratched, and scratches are scary with a small video camera like that. Magnification of the picture is a lot stronger on a small video camera, so even the smallest scratch or piece of dust turns into a lethal size on the screen. So I went searching for an easy to use, warm-tone Kenko brand glass filter. I think the closest gelatin filter would be an 81C or D. The amber tone was a bit heavier that I was aiming for but I decided to leave those adjustments to the developing lab. What’s interesting is using that filter, the color becomes warmer and at the same time the picture feels a lot softer. You lose the harsh look of video and get a tone that’s closer to film. You should look into it when you have to use video to make a film for theatrical release. I think it’s worth a try for regular video work too.

KT: It looks like you worked with photography and editing equipment that even an amateur could easily obtain. Maybe that idea deserves some consideration.

OK: I was very aware of that. Except for the PAL you could easily buy all the equipment at Yodobashi Camera, and I try everything out that’s in that price range. For example, you can get the PD150 for a little over 300,000 yen. At that price it’s easy enough to just buy one. The filter cost around 2000 yen (laughs). The tripod was 13,000 yen.

KT: In offline editing you could also get about the same equipment as pros use for around 400,000 or 500,000 yen. When things are that easy to get, the only thing left is how to shoot.

OK: Yes, from there on it becomes a question of the creator’s originality and creativity. It’s not really an issue of making something cheaply because you have no money. You can turn the situation around and do good things with equipment that’s just lying around. It’s different from skimping on things; it’s a question of whether or not you can build your dreams without money. Hanako was my experiment at that, and I think it went pretty well.


Editor: Earlier you said that you wanted to go into directing because you weren’t interested in cinematography, but have you ever had a chance to direct a work of your own?

OK: I’ve been asked to direct before, but when a cameraman directs you have to take extreme care in what you’re doing or else you’ll make a lot of mistakes. Basically you’re biased to the image. You could make a great picture but the film as a whole will turn out sort of weak.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to complete this as a film or not, but I’ve been following Ono Kazuo around with my camera. I’ve known Ono Kazuo since Landscape of the Soul (“Tamashi no fukei: Ono Kazuo no sekai,” Dir. Hirano Katsumi, 1991) ten years ago. He trusts me and privately we’ve spent some time together, filming a little now and then. Recently Ono has gotten ill and he’s been away from the stage, but he decided to return to public performance in commemoration of receiving the Oribe Award Grand Prix in 2001, and he’s been regaining his health bit by bit. In September and October of last year (2001) I went by his training studio and filmed him, his attitude and his training conditions. I want to show his process of returning to the stage with the fierce desire to dance he has and his strong hopes for life.

KT: We look forward to its completion. I’d like to thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today.

—Translated by Michael Arnold


Kato Takanobu

Joined Ogawa Productions in 1989. Moved into freelance cinematography and lighting after the group’s breakup in 1992. Notable documentary works include A Movie Capital (“Eiga no miyako,” Dir. Iizuka Toshio, 1991), The Sound of Tiny Wings (“Chiisana haoto,” Dir. Iizuka Toshi, 1993) and Manzan Benigaki (Dir. Ogawa Shinsuke and Peng Xiaolian, 2001). Also active in various video productions.