Documentarists of Japan, #19

Tokieda Toshie

Interviewer: Imaizumi Ayako


Imaizumi Ayako (IA): The first time you contacted me at Iwanami Productions you were about the age I am now. You had finished most of the filming on Encyclopedia of Child-rearing (1984) and they said they wanted my help in putting the film on laserdisc. That’s how we started working together. At the time, you were also busy with the Bunkyo-ku (one of Tokyo’s 23 districts) film Hill (1985). You might wonder why I remember that so well, but that was also the year you reached retirement age. My first impression of you was that you reminded me of a poem by Ibaragi Noriko that I read in high school. It’s called, “When I Was Most Beautiful.” There’s one part that goes like this: “When I was most beautiful, my country lost the war. Can you imagine something so stupid? I rolled up the sleeves of my blouse and paraded through the mean streets.” I saw you as that gallant girl in the poem. And now we’ve known each other for twenty years. Today I’d like to ask about when you first became involved in film.


Tokieda Toshie (TT): During the war there were no books, you couldn’t listen to music freely, and you couldn’t go to art exhibitions. So the films that appeared before us after we lost the war really stood out. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who devoured movies as a way to satisfy my hunger and thirst. They showed us things we didn’t know about during the war, such as the resistance movement, dazzling foreign lifestyles, free romance between men and women . . . the films were like a guide for living. Around that time, an older ex-classmate of mine got a job as a scriptwriter. Nowadays being a scriptwriter isn’t such an unusual job for women, but back then it was considered much more glamorous. It was like becoming a stewardess (laughs). Every once in a while that classmate would visit our dormitory and talk about movie directors or actresses we admired. At that point I wasn’t thinking of actually working in film though. I was in the Japanese Language department at college. At girls’ school during the war I’d only been able to study properly for about a year and a half. Apparently the professors at college were overwhelmed with such poor students. They just told me, “do whatever you want,” so I chose to write my graduation thesis on film production. Back then there wasn’t much film theory per se, but looking back on those movies now, they did exhibit a few important characteristics. As entertainment, they were a way for workers to gain strength for the next day. They made profits for the film studios, and they reached a high level of artistic quality. The level of artistic quality was proportionate to the profit they made . . . Back then there was a magazine called Bunka Kakumei (“Cultural Revolution”), and I had a part-time job at their editing office at the Sanbetsu Hall in Shinbashi. The Nippon Eigasha (Nichiei) desk wrote a column for the magazine, and my job was to go to pick up the manuscripts from them. Before long I started to pick up manuscripts from Toho directors as well. I ended up visiting Toho Studios often during the disputes there . . . which were essentially a red purge.

I was the daughter of a company employee (salaryman), so I didn’t know anything outside of the businessman’s world. When I went to Toho Studios, it had a very free atmosphere, and the bonds between directors, sound technicians and photographers were very strong. Knowing nothing about other areas, I started to feel drawn to the world of filmmaking. At school lectures, they only taught us about Japanese classical literature and such. Modern literature was very limited. There was too much of a gap between what I needed and what I received there. It seemed like I was watching film throughout that period, and I was also active in the student movement. Thinking about it now, during the war we weren’t cut off from just film, but from all kinds of culture. There were no books to read, no concerts to see. Even after the war there wasn’t much paper available, so only a few books were being published. Under those conditions film really stood out. When I was about to graduate, I spoke to Iwasa Ujitoshi at the Nichiei desk and started working part time at Nichiei. As for my other options, well, I had a teaching license but didn’t think I was cut out for education. I graduated in 1950 so my other ideas were either being a writer for a women’s magazine or writer for a literary magazine. As far as I could see, those three were all I had to choose from. So I decided to work part time at Nichiei for the time being and think about my options. That ended up being my entrance into film.

IA: Young people who hear what you just said are likely to think it was a matter of course to just move into a career through a part time job, but 1950 was still only 5 years after the war had ended. Most people didn’t know about the realities of film production.

TT: That’s true. As a part time employee I was asked to do anything and everything. If we were using a rabbit in a film, they’d tell me to watch after the rabbit (laughs). At the time Nichiei had started delaying salary payments. I entered in April and the company went bankrupt in December. One time I went on an errand to deliver a director’s small salary. I went into the house and said, “excuse me please.” They responded, “Oh sorry, we’re having a quarrel right now so can you come back later?” (laughs) It was just a small thing, but that was a world I didn’t know about until then. Another time, we went out to distribute handbills protesting the layoffs, and some of the group wasn’t fast enough to run away from the police. I had to go pick people up from the police. People my age from the photography and recording departments were there as well. That was something I hadn’t experienced before, so it was very interesting for me.

IA: If you had come from a strict family, maybe you would have been told to become an educator or to find a more socially acceptable career instead of taking some part time movie job, especially since you went to college.

TT: Actually my parents wouldn’t say that. My mother had no work experience at all. Our parents were part of the generation that lost its confidence as values and morals shifted after the war. So whatever I did, they at least tried to watch over me and what I was doing. After I entered Iwanami Productions, occasionally I would have to walk home late at night on unlit streets, carrying a flashlight. Sometimes I wouldn’t come home at all. Even with their young girl working in conditions like these, they kept watching over me. Among my classmates from school, some of the women became educators, magazine writers or stewardesses but about half of them got married, and at the 10-year class reunion they asked me, “Oh dear, are you still working?” That’s how they would talk about it. When I try explaining what I’ve done, it always ends up being about how I had to put a lot of effort into doing things back then that are perfectly normal now (laughs).


IA: You entered Iwanami Productions in 1951, one year after the company had been founded. Many people had gathered together at Iwanami then to make socially influential films.

TT: I graduated when I was twenty years old, and entered Iwanami Productions when I was twenty-one. Kobayashi Isamu, Yoshino Keiji, Oguchi Teizo, Hani Susumi and Haneda Sumiko were all at the company then. Iwanami Shigeo’s oldest daughter Yuri, who managed the company’s accounts, would bring the salary bag to me every month at payday and say, “Thank you very much for your work this month.” I would respond, “thank you” and take the money. It felt like I was working at a small store (laughs).

IA: Iwanami Productions started with fewer than twenty people but had well over one hundred employees by the time you left.

TT: The difficulties of working with a few people are quite different from the difficulties of working with many. At the beginning everyone knew what everyone else was doing, and I didn’t know anything at all so it was very interesting for me. When I was twenty-seven, I directed the Iwanami film, Town Politics (1957). Kobayashi Isamu and Yoshino Keiji strongly felt that they wanted to avoid using an established filmmaker. It seems that they wanted to try a totally new approach to filmmaking instead.

IA: The early employees at Iwanami Productions received detailed instruction from Kobayashi about everything from etiquette and daily manners in the office to proper behavior on location while shooting.

TT: The photography of Nakaya Ukichiro’s “ice crystals” was shot by Yoshino, and the extreme slow exposure film helped Nakaya’s research greatly. As a result of that experience, Kobayashi was convinced of the power of cinema. Only later did I start to understand why Kobayashi said we shouldn’t call our films “culture films” or “science films,” but simply “documentary” films instead. Before Japan lost the war, Kobayashi was caught and arrested through the Maintenance of Public Order Act because of his publications, in what was called the Yokohama Incident. From that experience he learned that books and text could be censored or crossed out, but you can still find a way to communicate even if you say less . . . in other words he believed that there were ways to express what needed to be said without getting censored. I think that was accomplished in some of the Iwanami films and Iwanami Photographic Publications books. But looking back on it now, the atmosphere of those early days didn’t last forever. I have a feeling it was only that way until the office moved from Jinbocho to Suidobashi. When the Japanese economy entered the high growth period, Iwanami Productions also started putting effort into producing more commercial PR films. Basically that was just done for the profits, but you could say it happened against the background of a shift in interest from working on deep-rooted culture to working on new technology unconnected to tradition.

IA: When I started frequenting Iwanami in the 1980s there was some feeling of past tradition, but most of the early members had already left the company, with freelancers filling in and smoothing things out. The news of that situation broke to the outside when the company went under. However I think you could say that one consistently positive trend in the company was that there was no discrimination against women.

TT: In my work environment, there was no discrimination between the sexes. Iwanami Shoten (publishers) even recognized the female chief editor’s maiden name. The film world was relatively open; I don’t think there was much discrimination against women to begin with. In other ways it may have been seen as a step down from other professions. However while relationships in the workplace were like that, once you stepped outside there was quite a different reaction. For example, the company would send funds to us while we were shooting on location. First a telegram would arrive, and someone would take that to the bank and pick up the money. If I went to do that the bank would say, “We can’t hand such a large sum of money over to a young lady like yourself. Please come back with someone more responsible.” (laughs) I was stuck. So I would call the manager of the inn where we were staying and ask him to come . . . it sounds like a joke when I think about it now. When we were shooting on location at an iron foundry, there were no toilets for women, so when we were moving the lights I had to borrow a bicycle and ride about one kilometer away to an office building. As a result, holding off going to the bathroom became a habit.


IA: You were shooting with 35mm film back then, is that correct?

TT: Yes, 35mm black-and-white film. In my films, we switched to color in 1958 with Table Manners. I started using 16mm in 1961 with This is Tokyo. We couldn’t develop Eastman color film in Japan back then so we had to send it to Hawaii for processing. Every time we did that we’d get a letter from the lab: “Why do you folks always shoot to the very last holes on the reel?” (laughs) We were shooting at a ratio of only 2.5 to 1. But sometimes when I had 16mm, for example on This is Tokyo, I shot about 6 to 1. We had to be careful about wasting film until the beginning of the high-growth period, in the mid 1960s or so, but on Land of the Dawn (1967) I was able to use film freely.

In Report on Nursery Schools (1953) there’s a scene when a girl is trying to cross a crosswalk, but the oncoming traffic is so strong that she can’t. After a long, nervous wait, finally there’s an opening and she crosses the road. We were using Eyemo cameras then, and we had to wind the spring by hand to get the film rolling, which meant we couldn’t do any long takes. With an Eyemo, you couldn’t take the shot of a girl crossing the street in only one cut. I still remember how frustrating that was. Until we had cameras with electric motors we couldn’t film long takes.

In order to document the town council in Town Politics, we had to run an audio recorder simultaneously, and we needed to cover up the sound from the camera. I sewed together some blankets by myself to make a camera cover. All of the staff on that film were about twenty-seven years old. We were a bunch of know-nothings stuck together in a rented house, arguing as we filmed. We probably spent more time arguing than filming, actually. Once we got to post-production, it was all, “I want to say this,” “I want to say that” . . . and we weren’t able to pull it all together. Finally, with advice from Kano Ryuichi of Nichei, we were able to finish it. People called us “Iwanami University” back then; we were learning while we worked.


IA: I’d like to ask about three more of your films, Land of the Dawn (1967), Edo Life Recollected in Drawings (1977) and Literary Figures of Bunkyo (1988). First I’d like to ask about Land of the Dawn, which was produced in 1967. The Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966. How did you come to make a film like that at a time when Japan and China still hadn’t repaired diplomatic relations?

TT: It began with Iwanami Shigeo, who felt bad about the war and wanted to do something to benefit China. After the war, he once donated an entire collection of Iwanami Shoten’s publications to a university in China. As there were no diplomatic relations with China, it took thirteen years of proposals before the film was finally produced. The Sino-Japanese Cultural Exchange Association, led by French literature scholar Nakajima Kenzo and other Japanese intellectuals, continued relations through various kinds of exchanges with China without formal diplomatic relations . . .

IA: So you didn’t go to film the Cultural Revolution itself, it just turned out that your shooting in China happened at about the same time?

TT: That’s right. Kobayashi Isamu had wanted to do this project for a long time, following Iwanami Shigeo’s wishes. Since there were no diplomatic relations, for over twenty years after the war, and seventeen years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, nobody had seen the real China. There was one film made by an Italian team, called Behind the Great Wall (“La muraglia cinese,” 1958), but that didn’t show the real lifestyle of the Chinese people. Watching it as Asians, the film seemed to be stuck in a point of view that emphasized an attraction to a foreign culture. For our film, I got to go to a country I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise and I just wanted to record everything I saw. But China is really big (laughs). We brought a huge platform by boat from Japan and tried to use it to take extreme long shots in a farming village. Usually, if you put together seven or eight platforms you can get enough height to take extreme long shots. But even when we put the platforms on the bed of a truck and shot from up there, the view didn’t change a bit (laughs). Fujise Suehiko, the cameraman, said, “the effect of the lens is totally different when you use it in Japan!” The first 5,000 feet of film we shot was all useless. The scene was so vast; you couldn’t tell what we had filmed in any of the shots. That was a truly strange experience. We had brought a 600 mm telescopic lens as well, but we couldn’t get faraway objects to come any closer. The Chinese staff insisted, “Telescopic lenses are for when you are filming the enemy. Filming (so far away) that you can’t be seen is a very hostile approach.” We debated that point day after day.

IA: The scenario is credited to Yoshihara Junpei, but did you have a scenario beforehand?

TT: It was decided from the beginning that we would shoot in Manchuria, which had been a Japanese colony. We wanted to focus on the farms and industry there, so Takamura and Yoshihara and I spent a month wandering around China, doing research for the scenario. We discussed it for about a week afterwards. We did the research in June, when the Cultural Revolution hadn’t yet started. The Chinese Communist Party announced the Cultural Revolution on August 8. We took off for filming from Haneda, entering through Hong Kong on exactly August 8, and then we stayed in China for six months filming. At the time I remember thinking that there’s a tendency in journalism for people who know nothing about the daily life to observe only “incidents.” When the news was only reporting this and that about the wall newspapers . . . well, for example I’d request to do some filming at lunchtime, but they’d say, “lunchtime is nap time, so please don’t.” I’d return to the hotel and look out the window, and sure enough there would be people snoring away under the trees. It was quite a difference. (laughs)

IA: You didn’t go to film the Cultural Revolution, but instead to film the daily lifestyle of people in China. What difficulties did you have when finishing the film?

TT: I was determined to avoid montage editing. I wanted everyone to see it just the way I did; I wanted to show what I saw as is. I didn’t want to avoid filming certain things. Until then I had been living in Japan, and I didn’t know about Socialism. Then when people suddenly said, “starting today we’re going to be Socialist!” everyone suddenly started acting Socialist, thinking that everything would improve as a result (laughs). When I went to China I realized that even if the system changes, people and environment don’t change that easily. It was still poor because it had been a feudalistic colony for so long, and it’s not easy to recover from such a negative inheritance. But the media would only report the sudden incidents.

IA: Did you have any restrictions from the Chinese side while shooting?

TT: They told us not to film the border or military facilities, and not to film the joint venture companies. They said it was a matter of courtesy towards the foreign corporations and wouldn’t allow it. In addition to those three, they told us to consult with the local people. These weren’t really my main interests anyway, so I just agreed. But there were other problems as well. One time we went location hunting to plan for the next day’s shoot. When we brought all of the equipment to the site—a factory—the next day, the sayings of Chairman Mao were hung on all of the machinery. I told them, “Maoist philosophy should be realized in practice. This stuff is in the way of the lighting so please take it down.” I guess I said too much (laughs). The workers stood in front of me sobbing, saying that they had spent all night preparing it. What a mess.

IA: Did the Chinese side have any comments about the completed film?

TT: They said the music was too dark and the last scene with the Red Guard moving far away wasn’t good. Chinese film sensibility at the time had it that the Red Guard should be going forward, always progressing (laughs). It was the same as with the telescopic lens. We had to keep telling them, “just leave the strategy in Japan to us.” Eventually we had to accept each other’s differences. We also had disagreements with the distributor, Towa, about whether to refer to the area as former Manchuria or the northeastern area of China that was invaded by Japan. I was ready to turn in my resignation, but Kobayashi Isamu supported us in the end.

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Tokieda Toshie

Born in Pusan, Korea in 1929. Entered the film world in 1950, working part time at Nippon Eigasha. Joined Iwanami Productions the following year, and worked as an assistant director. Made directorial debut in 1953 with Report on Nursery Schools, and became freelance from 1984. Honored with numerous prizes and awards throughout career, including first place in the annual Kinema Jumpo Best Ten Documentary Films for Edo Life Recollected in Drawings (1977) and Literary Figures of Bunkyo (1988) from the Bunkyo-ku series, and I Hate Hospitals (1992). Worked on over 100 films at Iwanami Productions.


Major Works:

  Title / Length / Format / Sponsor / Main staff

1953_ Report on Nursery Schools (“Yojiseikatsudan no hokoku”) / 20 min / 35mm / Fujin-no-tomo-sha / Yamanaka Sadao (Photography)

1957 Town Politics—Mothers Who Study (“Machi no seiji: Benkyo suru oka-san”) / 30 min / 35mm / Iwanami Productions / Fujise Suehiko (Photography), Katayama Mikio (Sound)

1958 Table Manners / 23 min / 35mm / Ajinomoto / Hirokawa Asajiro (Photography)

1961 This is Tokyo / 30 min / 16mm / Japan Tourism / Fujise Suehiko (Photography)
Friends (“Tomodachi”) / 61 min / 35mm / Private Kindergarten Federation / Fujise Suehiko (Photography), Yasuda Tetsuo (Sound)

1965 Ken-chan’s Musical Training (“Ken-chan tachi no ongaku shugyo”) / 55 min / 35mm / Nippon Gakki Co. / Kurita Naohiko (Photography)

1966 Suwa / 23 min / 16mm / Suwa City / Kurita Naohiko (Photography)

1967 Land of the Dawn (“Yoake no kuni”) / 110 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Fujise Suehiko (Photography), Yasuda Tetsuo (Sound)

1975 Exploration of the Bunkyo-ku Board of Education’s Development (“Bunkyo no ayumi o tazunete”) / 30 min / 16mm / Bunkyo-ku Board of Education / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography)

1977 Edo Life Recollected in Drawings—Kichizaemon and the Townspeople (“Ezu ni sinobu edo no kurashi—kichizaemon-san to machi no hitobito”) / 33 min / 16mm / Bunkyo-ku Board of Education / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1978 Understanding Children—From Real-life Documentation of an Educator (“Kodomo o miru me: Aru kyoikusha no jissen kiroku kara”) / 45 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography)
Ironworks and Computers (“Seitetsujyo to conputa”) / 21 min / 16mm / Fujitsu / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1979 Drawn the Water That Glistens (“Hikatta mizu o toroyo: Yoji no chiteki kokishin o saguru”) / 22 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1980 Conversations with Buildings—Cultural Treasures of Bunkyo (“Kenzobutsu tono taiwa: Bunkyo no bunkazai”) / 34 min / 16mm / Bunkyo-ku Board of Education / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1981 Opening Your Heart—Education Where You Both Grow Up (“Kokoro o hiraku: Sodachiai o motomeru hoiku”) / 21 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)
The Allure of Kabuki—The Stage (“Kabuki no miryoku: Butai”) / 34 min / 35mm / National Theater / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1982 Echigo Jofu / 43 min / 35mm / Agency for Cultural Affairs / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1983 The Allure of Kabuki—Kanjincho (“Kabuki no miryoku: Kanjincho”) / 32 min / 16mm / National Theater / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1984 Encyclopedia of Child-rearing (“Ikuji no hyakka”) / 120 min / Laserdisc / Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Osugi Ryuhei (Sound)

1985 It’s a Good Idea—The Quantitative World Expanded through Play (“Iikoto iikoto kangaeta: Asobi de hirogaru suryo no sekai”) / 21 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)
Hill—Scenes from within Daily Life (“Saka: Kurashi no naka no fukei”) / 30 min / 16mm / Bunkyo-ku Board of Education / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1987 Introduction to Noh—Everyday Tarokaja (“No nyumon: Tarokaja no hibi”) / 36 min / 16mm / National Noh Theater / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1988 Literary Figures of Bunkyo—About Kanchoro (“Bunkyo yukari no bunjin tachi: Kanchoro o megutte”) / 38 min / 16mm / Bunkyo-ku Board of Education / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1991 I Hate Hospitals: Networks Supporting Home Care for the Elderly (“Byoin wa kiraida: Rojin no zaitaku kea o sasaeru nettowaku”) / 137 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)

1995 With the Farmers: Fifty Years of Tackling (“Nomin to tomoni: Chiiki iryo ni torikumi gojyu nen”) / 77 min / 16mm / With the Farmers Production Committee / Kobayashi Shigeru (Photography), Suzuki Shoji (Sound)

1996 Reach Out for the Elderly’s Care (“Chiiki o tsumugu: Saku sogo byoin koumi-cho sinryojyo kara”) / 125 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Kobayashi Shigeru (Photography), Suzuki Shoji (Sound)

1997 Oka Shohei / 15 min / Video / Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Sakuma Toshio (Sound)