Kikoemasu ka, eiga no saundo (“The Sound of Film, Can You Hear It?”)
Tokyo: Wides Shuppan , 2004. ISBN: 4-89830-176-2
During the 1990s, research on Japanese film became increas-ingly concerned with the work of technical staff. Several notable studies emerged that delved into areas such as cinematography, art direction and editing, and the 2004 documentary Mr. Kumagai’s Lighting School (“Shomei kumagai gakko”) focused on Kumagai Hideo, one of the Japanese film industry’s most venerable lighting experts. In the field of sound recording, the highly regarded book Ee oto ya nai ka: Hashimoto Fumio—rokuon gishi ichidai (“It’s a good sound: Hashimoto Fumio, Lifetime of a Sound Technician,” 1996), co-authored by film critic Ueno Koshi and sound technician Hashimoto Fumio, set the standard for all works to follow. Kikoemasu ka, eiga no saundo, a new book by sound technician Kubota Yukio covering his own work, is a further extension of this particular theme.
Kubota’s thoughts on audio recording as elaborated within this book stand in direct opposition to Hashimoto’s approach. For example, a point of contention raised in one of the book’s interviews is whether to discard or retain the ambient (background) noise gathered while shooting on location. Hashimoto’s method of doing away with all sound except for the voices of the actors, raising the recording volume only when dialogue is spoken and swiftly lowering it again when it ends (a virtuoso technique refined through years of experience), leaves no room for the likes of Kubota who learned his trade outside the studio system. Formerly a member of “Ao no Kai,” a group of young turk filmmakers within Iwanami Productions that included Kuroki Kazuo, Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Ogawa Shinsuke, Kubota gained the steadfast trust of his contemporaries and went on to forge a career in documentary production; for him, “extraneous sound” was an indispensable element of a film’s composition. Kubota’s “audio philosophy” emerges through the gentle prose of his interviews and recollections of shooting on location.
Kubota’s approach remained unchanged even when recording sound for theatrical films. Take Kuroki Kazuo’s The Face of Jizo (“Chichi to kuraseba,” 2004). The majority of its scenes were shot in a studio, but inversely this proved to be quite a challenge for Kubota.
Kubota’s concept of sound recording is laid out explicitly in this statement. Acknowledged in its natural form, the extraneous noise that fills the world is essential to his technique. On a location shoot, he collects the various sounds that surround him as he moves about.
Furthermore, the unique system that supports his work includes something called a “visual cut chart.” He sketches every cut in the film, six to a page, arranged vertically. The actions and frame count of each cut are written adjacently. He devised this method to eliminate the need to rent a studio for assembling audio, which is usually done on a recording deck using a projection of the film as a guide. Kubota first spends days creating his visual cut chart, then edits the raw audio tape at home while calculating the duration and frame count. In doing so, the sound studio becomes necessary only for the final stage of matching audio with the rush film. Although it is a technique born of documentary filmmaking, a genre plagued by chronic financial difficulties, this is not the only point worth raising.
To distance oneself from the actual film footage and carry out the editing process in such a minimalistic way requires a precise ability to grasp each cut visually. Kubota’s exceptional drawing talent is evident amidst the simple lines of the visual cut charts featured in this book. Needless to say, this is not a skill fundamentally required of sound technicians. Even so, these drawings are what allow him to recall the minutia of a film and to move freely between images and sound. Perhaps this too reflects the mindset of “Ao no Kai,” whose members wielded their own specialized abilities while they strived to directly collectivize all aspects of filmmaking, without relying on the systemic division of labor demanded by the film industry.
Kubota, who experienced a distinct separation of location shoots and the postproduction sound process while working in France, says in one interview: “I think that being both on set and in the editing room is a good idea.” Quite often, audio captured by a sound technician of the sensations of a particular location’s environment is barely used in the postproduction stage because of the way the two disciplines have been divided. The above statement reflects the sincere sentiments of someone who jumped into filmmaking with this kind of “direct approach.” It also correlates perfectly with the greatest turning point in Japanese documentary filmmaking, when young PR film director Kuroki Kazuo took on the might of the veteran editing establishment in protesting the division of location and editing staff, and gradually went on to gain the right to put together his films as he saw fit. For that reason, it is unfortunate that although the interviews contain abundant detail on the evolution of sound recording equipment, there are not enough questions that delve deeply into aspects of postwar documentary film history, such as contemporary movements in PR filmmaking or the freshness of the ideas of the “Ao no Kai” (also, the compiler of the painstakingly collated filmography at the back of the book should have been listed). That being said, with the current preoccupation with film’s visual element in Japanese film discourse, this book takes on considerable significance for the way it highlights the impact of this “direct approach” the field of sound and underlines its importance, not only for documentary but for all contemporary Japanese filmmaking.
—Translated by Don Brown
Pierre Perrault and the Poetic Documentary
Toronto/Bloomington: Toronto International Film Festival/University of Indiana Press, 2004.
David Clandfield’s new book on Québécois writer and filmmaker Pierre Perrault fills an important gap in Canadian and Québécois film history. While Perrault has been fêted by French-language writers in Québec for decades, his work has been only analysed in a cursory fashion in English-language Canada (Peter Harcourt, Peter Ohlin and Clandfield himself are the exceptions to this rule). Pierre Perrault and the Poetic Documentary traces Perrault’s development as a filmmaker from his beginnings in radio for Radio Canada (the Canadian French-language equivalent to the BBC) on to his early work for the National Film Board of Canada/Office national du film. Clandfield pays particular attention to what is known as the Ile-aux-Coudres cycle, a group of films about an island in the St. Lawrence River, which first brought Perrault to national and international attention. Working with cinematographer Michel Brault, Perrault begins the cycle with a film called Pour la suite du monde (1962). Here documentary meets with cultural ethnography, as Perrault films the men of the island re-staging the whale hunt that had been practiced there for decades, but had subsequently become extinct because of the lack of market for whales. The islanders trap a whale and since they can’t sell it or eat it, they decide to sell it to a New York aquarium. Clandfield’s reading of the film draws attention to the tension between documentary and the reconstruction of cultural memory that lies at the heart of the film and to the ways in which documentaries can be as much about capturing the past as they are about the present.
Perrault’s films were profoundly concerned with questions of Québécois national identity, both in terms of how identity changed over time and whether, in the end, a transhistorical notion of Québécois national identity existed at all. The key film of Perrault’s in this regard is Un pays sans bon sens! (“Ridiculous Kind of Country,” 1970), which is an ethnographic analysis of what it means to be Québécois and how one can imagine at truly national identity. The film charts the course of a number of characters all of whom are on a quest to understand themselves and their relationship to the notions of nation and language. Here, Clandfield ably weaves together an analysis of Québécois politics at the time (and the rise of la révolution tranquille), the politics of making a film on Québécois sovereignty at the federally-funded National Film Board of Canada, and the ways in which the cinema can be mobilised in order to both document and question the notion of national identity.
Along with exploring Perrault’s best-known films outside of Québec, Clandfield ably analyses all of Perrault’s quite impressive oeuvre; some nineteen films in all. In these chapters, Clandfield examines the trajectory of Perrault’s career, his adherence to the principles of cinéma véçu, and his continuing examination of the relationship between documentary and history. Perrault’s subjects, from whale hunting to the relationship between Québec and France, from the history of the St. Lawrence River to attempts to document the Arctic muskox, all nevertheless concern themselves with the relationship between one’s imagining of the past and how this effects one’s understanding of self and identity in the present. While many of these films were commercial failures in Perrault’s eyes—especially his documentary cycle on the St. Lawrence—Clandfield argues persuasively that these films were nevertheless part of Perrault’s overall project, even if the films themselves seemed more and more out of touch with contemporary documentary practices in the 1980s and early 1990s. A greater reconsideration of these films—especially L’ouimigmag ou l’objectif documentaire (1993)—is needed and Clandfield’s book is a compelling first volley in this regard.
Clandfield’s book also offers a long interview with Perrault and some of his collaborators and translations of some of Perrault’s many writings on the cinema, which in many ways have been ignored to an even greater degree than his films. His writings on cinéma direct (“Cinema Direct and the Commercial Cinema”) and cinéma véçu (“The Cinema of Experience”—which is Perrault’s own term for the kind of documentary cinema he makes) amount to manifestoes on the documentary cinema, and should be part of the canon of key writings on documentary film. The book concludes with an engaging essay by film scholar Jerry White, who places Perrault’s work in an international context of documentary filmmaking. Overall, Clandfield’s book goes a long way towards redressing Perrault’s marginalisation outside of Québec and France. Furthermore, Pierre Perrault and the Poetic Documentary offers salient arguments as to why Perrault is not only central to an understanding of the emergence of cinéma direct and cinéma véçu, but also as to his critical importance, along with Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch, in the development of what is now called ethnographic cinema. For these reasons alone, Clandfield’s book is a major contribution to the history of documentary cinema.