Documentarists of Japan, #23: Sato Makoto (2/2)


AMN: One thing I find deeply fascinating is the fact that you used cameramen Tamura Masaki and Otsu Koshiro, both of whom are deeply associated for their work for Ogawa and Tsuchimoto.

SM: That’s right (laughing). I was just in Israel with Otsu for the Edward Said film I am making now.

AMN: What is the difference between working with Tamura and Otsu? Was there any strategy behind these choices?

SM: No, there was no clear strategy regarding those decisions.

AMN: After watching Self and Others (2000), I thought Tamura was the perfect choice for cameraman. Because it is a documentary about still photography, you have this cinematographer who has always emphasized time and the flow of time in his work. That was brilliant.

SM: I had wanted to work with Tamura for a long time. Another way of putting it is, I didn’t think that film would have been made possible with any cinematographer other than Tamura.

AMN: Why is that?

SM: I knew from the start that the key to the film’s success wasn’t just about how to go about shooting the motif of still photography. Capturing the absence of Gocho Shigeo was a big obstacle for us, and I couldn’t think of anyone other than Tamura to pull that off. Self and Others was the kind of film where the crew determined the style as we went along. I had been discussing the film with the soundman, Kikuchi, from the time I first came up with the idea to make it. I wanted to do something that was completely different from the standard documentary without the usual biographical critiques where some photography expert comes out and talks about the subject. We talked about wanting to make a film in which subtle discrepancies between the visual image and recorded sound, like of voices and things, would create nuance and stir the imagination. We wanted this to be the basis for the film’s montage.

AMN: His still photography often captures the very instant of a meeting between subject and object. But in your film very few people appear. That contrast was marvelous. It reminded me of A.K.A. Serial Killer (dir. Adachi Masao, et al., 1969). How were you thinking about landscape? With the absence of the main character, as well as anyone else, the camera faces primarily toward landscapes.

SM: What I was thinking about was not a film about Gocho Shigeo, but a film about the landscapes that he saw. At that point Gocho had already passed away seventeen years earlier, so we would go to places where he may have been to shoot the landscapes that he was no longer able to see. In other words, the landscapes of seventeen years ago and the landscapes of today are totally different, and that is what we wanted to capture. Tamura thought it was an interesting idea and agreed to go with me to these places. When we got there, regardless of the fact that it was completely different from the “image of absence” that I had in mind, Tamura was immediately intrigued. He would lithely take his camera and capture, for example, the wind that was blowing there at the time, the clouds trickling in, the cascading waves. Tamura’s camera is able to capture the feeling that a specific place has. I’d go to the location repeatedly and think about Gocho Shigeo and how to translate that visually, and then Tamura would intuitively grasp an image completely different from my directorial intent. I think that is the most impressive thing about Tamura’s camerawork. That is the logic behind his cinematographic framework.

Gocho’s voice, which you hear at the end of my film, is something that I found during my first research visit to his family home. It was recorded onto a cassette tape. I remember hearing that voice and thinking, “With this tape, I might be able to construct a film.” The quality of the voice and the recorded words were amazing. Abstracted words like greetings and numbers were recorded; even a question projected into the void asking, “I wonder how my voice is being heard?” To me it almost felt like it had been scripted by Terayama Shuji. It was so full of feeling and seemed like a mysterious puzzle that had been thrown out for someone to catch.

But then Tamura said, “Don’t let me hear that until the very end,” and I understood why. It meant that he didn’t want to be tied to the image of that voice during the shoot. Gocho Shigeo was a man that none of us in our crew had ever met, and we had only seen a handful of photos of him. And yet that voice alone was so intense that it conjured up Gocho’s fleshly form and appearance as though he were still present. What we cannot see, like the nuances of voice and speech—basically what is hinted at by sound—reinforces the idea of a person’s very absence leaving behind hints of his former existence. What we can see, like the wind, the waves, and the way light pours out, are developed images that we just arbitrarily imagine. These are ideas that became very important to me when thinking about how an individual’s aura is felt in my films. Following Self and Others, my film Memories of Agano (2004) dealt with that as well. I think that they are both films that work out within a very delicate balance.

AMN: The dynamics of sound and image are definitely an essential part of documentary.

SM: Yes, that’s right. That is why I get so hung up on photography. A non-moving image leaves itself wide open to noises and voices. With the lack of motion comes the stimulation of imagination. There is so much power in the movement of images. Even the blink of an eye can hold a great deal of power. However the photographs of Gocho Shigeo stare back at us without blinking. We experience time completely differently from how we do in an ordinary human encounter. Through the experience of this inescapable and awkward sense of time, we are left pierced by his incisive gaze. This is a form of expression specific to still photography, and when I incorporated that into my film, it gave birth to a mysterious new sense of time that arose from the increasing weight that sounds and voices carried when there was no movement. That became the main direction of my films, and I think I gradually wandered off from the documentary path.

AMN: What about Otsu?

SM: I made Artists in Wonderland (1998) and Hanako (2001) with Otsu, and the upcoming Out of Place (2005) will be our third film together. The funny thing about Otsu’s camerawork is that his rushes always leave a bad impression. Instead of doing close-ups or coming up with elaborately photogenic compositions, he always maintains a moderate position. It must be that he is trying to maintain a fresh perspective on the overall atmosphere of every scene, but in the rushes the series of middle shots all start to look the same to me. But as I get deeper into the editing, all those middle shots suddenly start appearing very fresh and vivid. It’s difficult for me to grasp the essence of Otsu’s camerawork until I have thoroughly gone through the editing process. It was in the making of Artists in Wonderland that I became fully aware of the strength of Otsu’s cinematography.


SM: The budget for Artists in Wonderland was on a much larger scale than anything I had worked on before, so I was able to spend quite a lot of time during the location scout going around to various facilities for the disabled. As the director, I spent a great deal of time worrying about how to make a film that isn’t about showcasing the talented artworks of a handful of disabled people and saying, “Oh look at the great art they are creating despite their handicaps.” I was concerned about how to go about shooting the site of artistic creation, and also wanted to give people an opportunity to think about what “talented” really means. That was when I first heard about Shige. For a human being to be compelled to create by forces beyond one’s control—not because the act has a certain meaning or because it’s work or because some teacher tells you to do it, but because you wouldn’t be able to live without it—that to me is the fundamental basis of creative expression. The act itself has no meaning. But because it is an act without meaning or value, when the created work is distanced from the creator and displayed somewhere, it is able to move people who have no connection to it at all. For example, the art that the mentally disabled are doing has no intrinsic meaning. It is called “obsessive activity” and is basically just repetition. Likewise, Shige just writes the same letters over and over again. The proper thing to do as an educator is to tell him to stop, and from the standpoint of physicians, the point is to come up with the best approach to preventing the obsessive activity. So from the medical standpoint, Shige’s gigantic memo is clearly just garbage. And to make matters more difficult for them, it deals with sexuality rather than portraying an ideal world. Shige is going ahead and doing something that we aren’t supposed to look at or talk about in front of other people. But if you ask me if I have thought about those kinds of things, the truth is I have. All twenty-three year old boys are thinking about getting closer to girls.

AMN: It’s so utterly typical!

SM: Right. It’s something that everyone is thinking about but is always confined to something you do in secret at home. That is why when people who don’t know anything about Shige encounter his artwork for the first time, it is possible for them to feel an intense impact and see themselves reflected in the work. His artwork is completely outside of the bounds of the commonsense logic of art and education, like the idea that pictures need to have a certain form or that when communicating something it needs to be in sentences rather than random letters. This is actually very similar to what modern art was concerned with. Modern art was also about artists who had some compelling need to create, and expressed themselves not through standard artistic means but by breaking that very mold, like in the case of found objects, extraordinary sizes and in some extreme cases, even in the form of absence or negation. These kinds of art had an intense impact on a certain group of people, but as for the other 90 percent of the population who reacted to it with incredulity, it seemed that much of modern art amounted to nothing more than self-satisfaction for the artist. However, some of these works contain the sense that they were created by an urge for expression that the artist was unable to control. I think that Artists in Wonderland and Hanako might have been most appreciated by modern artists because they can relate to it.

In the case of the food art in Hanako, the only problem was that her chosen medium was food. If it had been clay, it would have been an impressive sculpture, or if she had worked with flowers, it would have been a flower arrangement; but working with leftover food creates a problem. That is because you have to get past the common rule of most normal households of: “Don’t play with your food.” What I found most interesting was the fact that Hanako’s mother, Chisa, thought that her daughter playing with her food was fascinating. There is a certain social expectation that households with disabled family members should be upright and pure of heart, striving nobly in their day-to-day struggle. Outsiders look at them and say, “Oh, how hard things must be for you! Hang in there because I’m here to support you!” From the point of view of the family, it’s like, “What do I need to hang in there for?” I wanted to challenge the consensus view of people with disabilities by taking an action that is considered by society to be an illness (obsessive activity), and turn it into a fascinating act of creativity that is capable of moving others. I saw this as an opportunity to destroy or overcome the borders that define society’s basic assumptions regarding the disabled. It is possible to turn two negatives into a positive and reverse the situation. Of course the artists themselves have no idea that what they are doing is an act of expression; they just can’t help but do what they do. And that carries a certain power. Modern artists all start out creating because of some uncontrollable impulse, but soon they start to get worried about what their next concept should be (laughing). The instant various calculations come into play, expression is corrupted. It’s a moment in which everything brilliantly goes to rot. That is the dilemma of modern artists and the reason that they are both enchanted by and fearsome of people who can continue to do the same repetitive tasks with such a purity of intent.

AMN: This is not so different from the creation of documentaries, isn’t it?

SM: I sometimes think that my filmmaking is very similar to what I’ve just discussed. Talking to you like this, it seems like my themes have changed over the years and it may appear that I have evolved and progressed as a filmmaker. But if I really think about it, at the end of the day what was most interesting and fun for me was actually my first film, Living on the River Agano, and the same film was also what was most difficult and trying for me. Since then I’ve played around with a lot of different theories, but ultimately I think I’ve pretty much been doing the same thing. The range of films I want to make keeps getting more and more segmented and I have strangely become more specialized. Meanwhile, I feel more and more distanced from the most important thing, which is the compulsion to create, the uncontrollable urge. When I am shooting yet another film, it’s like I am taking on another homework assignment. There’s harmony and division within the crew, and while talking to others the idea for yet another movie comes into being. It may just be that my standards are progressively slipping (laughing), but nevertheless I can’t live without continuing to make films. It’s similar to the modern artists’ dilemma in that the very first creative effort always seems to retain more passion and strength.


AMN: Memories of Agano (2004) is very much about absence—people, fields, stories, songs and buildings receding into absence. In this sense, Memories of Agano may be a sequel to Living on the River Agano, but it also looks and feels like a sequel to Self and Others. In fact, when you started out to make Memories you had planned to concentrate on another still photographer, right?

SM: When we first started making the film, the rough title was Memories of Agano: Remnants of Meiji. By remnants of Meiji, we meant the glass photographic plates of the Niigata landscape from the late Meiji to early Taisho era (1910s) left behind by photographer Ishizuka Saburo. Using those old black and white photographs as a motif, we started out making the film with the same concept as Gocho Shigeo in Self and Others. As always, the crew is invaluable when first starting to conceptualize the film, and to be perfectly honest, the first person I consulted when starting to plan Memories of Agano: Remnants of Meiji was Tamura. I always write letters, and I had written to Tamura for help when making Self and Others. He always responds with, “Let’s meet up for some idle talk.” We basically just go out drinking and it ends up being a very long discussion in which we patiently wait for something to ripen. 90 percent of it is just alcohol consumption (laughing), but a lot of ideas are spun out during those sessions. So with Memories, I consulted with Tamura again because films depend entirely on who you work with.

AMN: Especially with the documentary.

SM: Yes. That’s why I knew that Memories of Agano would be a completely different film under Tamura than Living on the River Agano, which was made with Kobayashi Shigeru. Tamura’s response was very lucid and he said, “I’m not sure I am the one who should be shooting this. I think you know who you should be working with.” Of course I realized I should be working with Kobayashi, but the idea of working with him again was very nerve-wracking for me. I had lived with him in our communal living situation while shooting Living on the River Agano, and there had been many clashes and fights. I felt it would be very taxing to team up with him again. And besides, ten years had passed since we had last worked with each other, and during that time both of us had made several different films. I thought that in those years our approaches to film had started to deviate somewhat. Whereas I had grown increasingly interested in ephemeral things like auras, sounds and absence, Kobayashi had been consistently pursuing very concrete and visible things like the physically handicapped and coal mines. Yet Tamura insisted that I should face Kobayashi one more time, so I wrote him a very long letter. It turned out to be a good opportunity to reflect on the last decade because at the same time there was a retrospective being screened at Cine Wind in Niigata to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Living on the River Agano. Kobayashi and I talked it over at length and eventually decided to work together on it. Just as we started up in May of 2003, Kobayashi suffered a stroke. I went to England for a year and during that time our funding fell through so I had to put together a budget again and reapply to the Agency for Cultural Affairs for grant money. I came back from England about two years ago, and things really started picking up again and we decided to shoot the film.

AMN: What I find interesting is the way Self and Others is trying to express something about absence, right? And so is Memories of Agano. Your approach to documentary is increasingly indirect.

SM: Yes, that’s true. Kobayashi Shigeru’s camera always develops a rich relationship with the photographed subject. Since in actuality, the cameraman is always the one who has the loudest voice and is in control of the set, it’s only natural that the atmosphere of the set gravitates toward him. However, this time around the subject of our film was not the people of Agano, but the places and climates that they used to inhabit. This makes it more difficult to cultivate relationships with what you are shooting. Kobayashi and I both found this to be very stimulating and interesting when working together again on this film. Kobayashi had fully matured as a cameraman after having gone through the experience of falling ill and recovering after being told that he may be paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the fact that in this film, his camera’s subject was the landscape, he boldly challenged himself to start a dialogue with it. Not only that, this was not just any landscape but the landscape we had inhabited together for three years and stared at to the point of exasperation. So naturally, our illusions and fondness for this place was extraordinary. Kobayashi’s shots would be overflowing with his feeling for the landscape and I would focus on how to dry those emotionally drenched shots in the editing process. We would play catch with each other in this way, and it all felt very fresh.


AMN: What about with your new documentary on Edward Said, who is no longer with us?

SM: On my second location shoot in Israel, I consciously shot a lot of landscapes. I also visited a lot of refugee camps and the interview format with refugees was unavoidable. When you ask people questions like, “Since when have you been forced to leave Palestine and live as a refugee?” it is inevitable in the editing process that the film becomes very journalistic. Said’s mantra of “two people in one land,” the idea of two different tribes of people living together in one country, is a logic that appears to work out only from a very distanced perspective. Unless we pull away from the individual problems of what to do about the settlements in Gaza, or the questions of accountability over the bloodshed in Jenin, there is no room to entertain the possibility of coexistence. And that is why somewhere along the line I feel a need to distance myself from the journalistic vantage point in order to concretely outline the actual borders that exist between the two peoples. Of course, there are both visible and invisible borders. The visible borders are things like the overtly visible wall Israel is building now to divide the country, but the invisible borders are what Said directly focused on as problems. Countless invisible walls exist between people. As one of the ways of overcoming an invisible wall, Said suggested, for example, the idea of “two people in one land” in which instead of drawing up physical boundaries between the two, both sides retain their pre-existing walls and coexist. I think he was an advocate of that possibility. That is why I am beginning to think that it is impossible to talk about Said’s ideas by taking the journalistic approach and visiting one refugee camp after another. While incorporating into the film’s foundation the direct testimonies and voices of people remembering Said, I want to continue exploring the theme of absence by capturing indirectly the things that resurrect in the mind his former presence.


AMN: Finally, I’d like to turn to your documentary criticism, especially your book The Horizons of Documentary (“Dokyumentarii no chihei,” Gaifusha, 2001). This is quite an ambitious work. I find the close textual analysis in this book extremely impressive. What was the occasion for embarking on this project?

SM: The book was newly written because Ogi, the president of Gaifusha, asked me to write an easy to understand book that explains documentaries. The initial project was for a 200-page book analyzing about twenty documentaries that could be easily marketed to students. So after receiving the commission I started writing about Ogawa Productions’ Narita: Heta Village (1973), and that chapter alone ended up taking up half the book’s allotted pages (laughing). The way that I write is similar to my filmmaking in that I am rather verbose and have trouble making things black and white. But I believe social issues and human beings in general are very difficult to simplify into black and white categories, and tend to exist in a gray zone. It is the purpose of film to display the appearance of hopelessly contradictory things as they are, and it is the purpose of television and journalism to add explanation and analysis and reduce these things to information. In film, it is not possible to reduce because what is important is that the problem without resolution is portrayed as it is. For example, the question of why there is so much warfare in this world is not something that can be answered or resolved. There are just so many paradoxes lying around that we can’t really do anything about, and the more you observe these things, the more you lose sight of the possibility of resolution. It is the objective of film to present that as is. I think Amos Gitai once said something along those lines. I thought that in order to take the next step, it was incredibly important to critically reevaluate the filmmakers, their films and history. And Markus, since you have been doing research on Ogawa Productions, I am sure you will understand this well, but out of all of Ogawa’s films Narita: Heta Village (dir. Ogawa Shinsuke, 1973) is the most difficult to grasp. It’s quite possible that even Ogawa himself rolled out the film without fully recognizing its true power, and that those of us who came across it later are the only ones astonished by it. So in other words, it was only when I started getting into the analysis of those kinds of films that I came to realize this was going to be a very long book. I do think that for a book, its degree of comprehensiveness is still quite low though. While writing this book, I thought a lot about Self and Others. For me, the act of criticism ultimately comes back to my own films. As I wrote in the book’s afterword, I began my film career on the outskirts of the base of a monolithic mountain range of independent cinema created by Tsuchimoto and Ogawa, and knew nothing of Asian and foreign cinema—not even American and French films—when I started out. I began with a very limited scope and the only thing in my head at the time was how to get beyond the mountains left behind by those two. When the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival began in 1989, it opened my eyes to the various mountain ranges around the globe, with the foot of a mountain extending from Asia to the rest of the world. For once every two years in Yamagata, it became possible to experience the vast array of documentaries from around the world for the first time in Japan.

AMN: It was quite sudden, wasn’t it?

SM: Yes, it was very sudden and we were all a bit bewildered by it, but because of it we were able to humbly realize that what we had been doing wasn’t anything new and had already been done elsewhere for quite some time. It was my intention to write about my involvement with the Yamagata Film Festival and what it has accumulated over the years. After all, the possibilities of documentary were made that much wider by it. I felt that for the next generation of Japanese filmmakers, it was crucial that they looked beyond Tsuchimoto and Ogawa and looked toward the different worlds spread out before them in order to take the next step. I figured that if I compiled all of this into a book, then the text could potentially become a challenge for the next generation of filmmakers to overcome, by providing them with the basis for critically reassessing their predecessors. There was no book like that in Japan before. Writing the book was much more difficult than I had imagined, but in the process of writing I was able to listen to and read about the various directing styles and film theories of many different filmmakers. And as a director, it was beneficial to have dialogues with other filmmakers about their approaches to film, relationships with their cinematographers, and methodologies, things like that. Through these dialogues, I needed to come up with my own conclusions and viewpoints in order to put it all together in writing, which was an invaluable experience. This experience has provided me with fertile soil for my subsequent films and the basis upon which I may take my next step. It has also become a source of pressure in terms of not letting me make films that are too patently obvious.

AMN: Will you write more books?

SM: I don’t know about that. I might if someone asks me to, but since writing isn’t my real occupation, I have to say I would rather be making films. Now that all those theories of filmmaking that I was groping about for have been expressed in book form, I think the next step for me now is to experiment with those various approaches and methodologies in the production of my own films.

(January 8, 2005)
—Translated by Iyobe Kiwa


Abé Mark Nornes

Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in the US. Served as a coordinator for YIDFF since 1990. He co-programmed a number of major retrospectives, including Media Wars: Then & Now (YIDFF ’91), The Indigenous Peoples’ Film & Video Festival (YIDFF ’93), and 7 Spectres—Transfigurations in Electronic Shadows (YIDFF ’95). His Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era through Hiroshima was published University of Minnesota Press in 2003. He has forthcoming books on Ogawa Productions and the relationship of film and translation.