Towards a Theory of
Ogawa Shinsuke’s

Ueno Koshi


In 1966, the year Ogawa Shinsuke directed and independently produced his first film, The Sea of Youth (“Seinen no umi,” 1966), I started to write the current events column for a manga journal called Garo. Although I’m five years younger than Ogawa, we both became active around the same time and lived through the same period. At the time, however, I hadn’t seen The Sea of Youth, and didn’t even know that the film existed. The first Ogawa film I watched, The Oppressed Students (“Assatsu no mori,” 1967) was made the next year. I think I saw it sometime between the first and second struggles over the construction of Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on October 8 and November 12, 1967. The venue was probably the Yotsuya Public Hall. This is in the far recesses of my memory but I remember the smell of an old waxed floor and the light peeping through the auditorium window and the black shades. At the time this public hall was often used for screenings of independent films and independent theatrical performances. This was the first of what would later become regular independently-organized screenings of Ogawa’s films. When I saw The Oppressed Students, however, I didn’t watch it as a film. To me, it was a record of the student struggle at a small provincial university called the Takasaki City University of Economics. In fact, when I wrote about this film in a column for Garo, I quoted it as material to think about the present state of the student struggle, not as a film in its own right. This was no doubt because I was strongly attracted to the images of the students who appeared in this film.

This was not only true of The Oppressed Students but for A Report from Haneda “Gennin hokokusho,” 1967) as well. Even when I watched the Sanrizuka series beginning with Summer in Narita (“Nihon kaiho sensen—Sanrizuka no natsu,” 1968) I watched it as a record of the Sanrizuka struggle rather than as a film. Of course by this time I had heard of Ogawa Shinsuke’s name and knew of the existence of Ogawa Productions but maybe it was because I went to see these films at non-theatrical venues, I never consciously watched each work as a film. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in films at the time. The first film criticism that I wrote was in 1968 but even before then, although I wasn’t what you would call a cinephile, I would duck into a movie theater any time I was free. Despite this interest in film I had very little sense that I was watching a film when I went to see an Ogawa Shinsuke or Ogawa Production film. While quite moved by the films of Suzuki Seijun or Kato Tai, I never placed Ogawa films on the same level.

This must have been because it was the end of the sixties, a time of struggle (the revolution of ’68?) and Ogawa films conveyed the atmosphere at the front lines of the struggle. More than anything Ogawa Shinsuke films were cool. Even now that these films have come to be valued as films, Ogawa Shinsuke films are cool. At the time it wasn’t because of the way Ogawa films were made or edited, but because it was footage of the actual struggle. This changed with Narita—Heta Village (“Sanrizuka—Heta buraku,” 1973). By change I mean the feel of the film was very different from those up until then and for me, the “film” that had been hiding in the background suddenly became part of the foreground. This was certainly related to a change in times. This film was made in 1973, and a year earlier, the Red Army incident had made clear the miserable dead end to which the era of struggle had sunk. Those directly involved in the struggle, sympathizers of the struggle, and those trying to garner something out of the experience could do nothing but put the incident behind them and struggle to find a new direction. The fact that Ogawa Productions moved to Magino Village in Yamagata Prefecture at this time was no coincidence.

The 1960s were a time when political and artistic radicalism competed and formed a loose solidarity, but this happy period ended around 1971-73. In 1973 Oshima Nagisa disbanded his production company, Sozosha, which had been a comrade of film production. Of course, both personal and collective circumstances were involved, but faced with the dead end of sixties radicalism, people were seeking a change of direction.

Even in Narita—Heta Village the period’s change in consciousness is implicit, as it must have been for those watching the film as well. What had been up until then the record of the Sanrizuka struggle became Ogawa Shinsuke films in their own right. This may seem obvious now, but there were times when this wasn’t the case, and we shouldn’t forget the fact that Ogawa Shinsuke made films during this period. Of course, a filmmaker struggles in each film to create a relationship to the subject, thinks about the meaning of documentary film, probes the definition of a film, and hopes the film will be watched properly as a film. But at the same time, the selection of a subject is affected not only by individual will but also largely by the atmosphere of the times. It was at this time that films which highlighted the equation of choosing and being chosen first became possible. Actually when Ogawa Shinsuke and others made A Report from Haneda, bringing their cameras to the second Haneda struggle to follow up on Yamazaki Hiroaki’s death during the first Haneda struggle, they intended to make a newsreel, not a film. Now, however, it only exists as a film. When viewed as a film the author is probably dissatisfied, but the audience on the other hand may find it interesting. This however has become so self-evident that it is questionable whether this is really the best incarnation for the film.


Despite this, if you watch each Ogawa Shinsuke film from the early period on, there is a clear transformation even before Narita—Heta Village. For example, narration (narrative voice-over) which is unquestioningly used in The Sea of Youth, continues in restrained form in The Oppressed Students, but is thrown out in A Report from Haneda. In documentary films up until that time, it was normal to have narration. So when Ogawa Shinsuke made The Sea of Youth, it was natural for him to use narration. I had forgotten this aspect of his films, but a few years ago, when I was attempting to write a commentary on his entire oeuvre, I re-watched this film and was completely surprised. I had come to think that it was typical for Ogawa films not to have narration.

Narration explains what appears in the screen from outside of the screen. It both explains the situation taking place and places it in a context. It explains as well as constructs the context of the film. It constructs at the same time it unifies the whole film. Where does narration, with its great power, come from? Of course it comes from the filmmaker, but narration suppresses the thinking and stance of the filmmaker, and masquerades as one of the audience. In other words it acts like an objective third party that calmly overlooks the events. The audience is led by the voice-over until at some point, the voice-over begins to feel like it comes from within and the audience begins to agree. Narration works on the screen from the outside, unifying and directing the events, which develop within the screen. In this way narration has a great power, an authority that Kamei Fumio used to the fullest in A Japanese Tragedy (“Nihon no higeki,” 1946). In this film, the postwar values of the narration transform the meaning of wartime images 180 degrees. I am opposed the use of this kind of easy narration. I only came to this conclusion after watching postwar documentaries including Ogawa’s.

In order to make a film, many different powers are at work, but narration in the documentary film is perhaps the greatest of all. Ogawa Shinsuke rejected the power and authority of narration when he became involved in Sanrizuka. In place of the transcendent voice-over, he increasingly layered various noises and voices from the location. The narration that does remain in The Oppressed Students stands out, and is even more obvious in A Report from Haneda. The first film of the Sanrizuka series, Summer in Narita, is rich in multiple layers of sounds from the roars and murmurs of the farmers to the voices heard through microphones and walkie-talkies, and from the beating on drum cans to the crying of patrol car sirens, but at the same time the moments of silence in between the sounds leaves a strong impression. In the moments of silence we see the watermelon and mulberry fields wide open before our eyes. If you were actually looking at the spot on location you wouldn’t be able to approach it in a disinterested manner. Perhaps this is an experience that can only be achieved by the mediation of film.

And it may be obvious, but this was probably brought about by the experience of filming after moving to and living in Sanrizuka. As long as you look in from the outside, you can only see the subject in terms of events and problems but if you live there it’s inevitable that the framework of events and problems disappears. The people who live there and the place where they live exist prior to the event. That said, it is not enough for a documentary film to approach a problem from the inside. It is necessary to have an outsider’s eye from within the inside. Perhaps in the end this returns to the camera and microphone, but it is important to analyze the nuanced steps on the way there. And so it remains to analyze continuity and discontinuity in Ogawa’s films to figure out why we, the audience, are moved by the way that the films born out of this process seem to begin suddenly, at any time.

—Translated by Sharon Hayashi

Ueno Koshi

Born in Tokyo in 1941. Researched Lu Xun’s literature at university and graduate school. Has worked as a critic since 1966, and as a film critic since the initial issue of Cinema 69 in 1968. Major publications include The Complete Films of Suzuki Seijun, The Era of the Body: 1960s Culture, What a good sound, eh? (Ee oto yanai ka), All About Film and Tomatsu Shomei, Photographer.