Documentarists of Japan, No. 6

Kamei Fumio

With an introduction by Makino Mamoru

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema, the "Documentarists of Japan" series has been putting a spotlight on some of the figures who helped build the foundations for contemporary Japanese documentary. While we usually present original interviews with filmmakers in this series, this time we have the unique opportunity to publish the transcript of a mid-1970s talk by the legendary Japanese documentarist, the late Kamei Fumio, describing the conditions behind the production of his classic films Kobayashi Issa (1941, screened at YIDFF '89) and Inabushi (1940). The film historian Makino Mamoru, who originally recorded the talk, provides an introduction.

The Editors


There is probably no one who would object to naming Kamei Fumio as one of Japan's greatest documentary film directors, in either the pre- or the postwar era. Yet when it comes to his films, the assessment today is inconsistent: if there are some who support them, there are others who reject them. Kamei Fumio was that unique an existence, one who single-mindedly pursued his individuality as an artist while remaining deeply entwined with social movements from era to era.

Kamei was born in 1908. In the 1930s, he studied film in Leningrad in Soviet Russia (now St. Petersburg), but fell ill and had to return home. After recovering his health, he entered Toho's precursor, P.C.L., in 1933 at the age of 25, and it was there that he began to distinguish himself as a documentary filmmaker. He eventually became a supervising director in the second production unit, producing documentaries that were, at that time, called "culture films." He first displayed his ability in 1937 by organizing and editing feature-length documentaries. It was then that he mastered montage theory and technique and gained attention with the film Shanghai, a report on the 15-year Sino-Japanese War which had already started on the Chinese continent. In an era immersed in a sacred war mentality, Kamei thoroughly maintained a gaze both objective and realistic.

After his next film, Beijing, the controversial Fighting Soldiers ("Tatakau heitai") was met with anger by censorship officials, who complained: "These aren't fighting soldiers, they're tired soldiers!" The scene of a soldier collapsing, wounded and left behind in the march, was very symbolic. The release of Fighting Soldiers was blocked in the end: with the 1939 Film Law having been enacted by the state authorities, it had become an era where artists experienced difficulty expressing their will.

After having been left off the rotation for a while, Kamei's next production was a PR film for tourism in Nagano Prefecture. The project turned into the "Shinano Trilogy," with Kobayashi Issa as the first film, Inabushi the second, and Town and Country ("Machi to noson") the third. Or, at least it was supposed to be that way. The first and second films were completed, but the third was stopped after filming started. Kobayashi Issa was a 27-minute short that poetically narrated the harsh reality of mountain farmers.’While the power of the images etched within it brimmed with the force to move viewers' hearts, the Ministry of Education revoked its approval of the film. The Directors Guild of Japan selected Kobayashi Issa for an award, but withdrew it due to the Ministry's stubborn interference.

In October of 1941, two months before the start of the Pacific War, Kamei was arrested for violating the Peace Preservation Law. He was released when his indictment was suspended after spending one year in detention, but remained on probation, with his everyday life placed under police observation. Under the provisions of the Film Law, he became the first to be stripped of his directors license.

Kamei returned to directing after the war ended, but his troubles did not end. Kamei's film for Nichiei pursuing the Emperor's war responsibility, A Japanese Tragedy, was subject to an exhibition ban by the Occupation's GHQ. The scene in which a shot of Emperor Hirohito, garbed in a military attire, slowly dissolves into him in normal clothes left a deep impression on many.

Kamei then made several dramatic films with a documentary touch, but eventually returned to documentary and founded the independent production company, Japan Documentary Film. It was from this point that Kamei came into his own as an artist. He questioned the status quo in one film after another, such as in Record of Blood ("Ryuketsu no kiroku," 1956), about the farmers' struggle against expandsion of a U.S. Air Force base, It's Good to Live ("Ikite ite yokatta," 1956), the start of his trilogy on the reality of atomic bomb victims, and Men Are All Brothers ("Ningen mina kyodai," 1960), which took up the issue of discrimination against Japan's "untouchables," the burakumin. I first met Kamei Fumio when I was dragged into working for no pay on the completion staff of It's Good to Live. I was mainly charged with surveying the film record of the atomic bomb blast that Nichiei had saved, and selecting out important scenes. I remember that when a producer friend of mine first turned to me to ask for my unsalaried assistance, Kamei, sitting next to him, muttered: "I could never ask somebody that."

I only worked with Kamei on that film. I really got to know him after 1972, when he severed all connections from the film world and opened up an antique shop called Toyojin in Shibuya. The ship made of water buffalo bone I bought after being invited to the store's opening still decorates by study. I would often make time and visit the store to talk with him. Sometimes, I'd take along a tape-recorder and record our conversations. At other times, when one of his films was being shown at small gatherings and he'd be invited to introduce it, I'd go along and run the tape recorder. The talk reproduced here is an introduction Kamei once gave at a screening of Kobayashi Issa.

Kamei Fumio breathed his last breath on February 27th, 1987, at age 78. He had fought with the declining state of his health in his later years to complete the feature-length film, All Living Things Are Friends - Lullabies of Birds, Insects, and Fish ("Ikimono mina tomodachi ¹ Tori mushi sakana no komoriuta"). This work about environmental problems related to the destruction of the Earth was his farewell message recorded on film. The time I visited him in the hospital one week before his death and recorded his high-spirited voice turned out to be our last meeting.

Makino Mamoru


A Talk by Kamei Fumio

Kobayashi Issa was produced as a so-called "sponsored film" for tourism in Nagano Prefecture. We planned to make 3 films: this film, Kobayashi Issa, as well as Inabushi and Town and Country ("Machi to noson"). At the time I was asked to make them, most tourist films were close to, for instance, today's 8mm films that are haphazardly shot by amateurs who have never made a film before, although they did include a bit better film technique. While it was a tourist film, I still thought I'd give it a chance; I was young and didn't often get such chances. My strong ambition prompted me to bring to life the opportunities that fell in front of me, so I thought I would make a documentary film on Japanese rural villages. That was my aim.

For all that, I was not necessarily deeply knowledgeable about farming villages, so I read some articles printed in three magazines — I forget the titles — written by someone from Fukushima Prefecture which were research on Japanese rural villages from the position of historical materialism. I read them and was very impressed: I learned that the farming village is not just rice cultivation, it is, you see, both economically and historically the condensation of everything that is the fate of Japanese farmers.

As I said before, I made not just Kobayashi Issa, but also one other film, Inabushi. Well, Inabushi, as you may know, is a form of folk song. In terms of the structure of the film — well, in the Tokugawa era, there was a lord in Takatoo in Ina who, being a profligate spender, needed money. So he declared that the rice which the Ina valley farmers made should be mostly paid as rent for the land. Just at that time, you see, a new highway, the Kiso Highway, had been constructed, and there was a post town. Trade on the Kiso Highway began to flourish. The post town on the highway was right where people in the mountains had no rice fields, so the lord made money by shipping Ina rice there and selling it. This combination of the rural community and commerce appeared in the space between two regions — in the relation between Ina and Kiso. But from the standpoint of the farmers, the fact that the rice they sweated to produce was being used by the lord for his various forms of womanizing was extremely tragic. There's a pass named Gonbei Pass between Ina and Kiso. Well, there are those who say that the start of Inabushi was in the songs people sang while crossing the pass leading horses loaded with rice on their backs. Not all of that story or what I told is true, but the most important thing in the Inabushi song is the lyrics, like the line:

Forfeiting rice to Kiso, to Kiso
The Ina farmer's tears of rice

So I did the film using the song, taking these as important words to develop the theme. In the end, the Inabushi song born of the trying life of the farmer is now sung throughout Japan, riding the airwaves and becoming the song geisha sing at assignations. Thus, the film's content was about a song of labor that had changed into a geisha's song. That was the theme of Inabushi.

The theme of Kobayashi Issa then asked what was tourism in Shinshu. The idea was that tourism, in the end, is all that farmers can rely on when they are poor. The subject of the other film, Town and Country, centered on the fact that to bureaucrats, the most important industry for Shinshu or Nagano Prefecture was to raise silk worms, produce cocoons, and sell lots of raw silk to America. What surprised us when we went there was that radios, which had just been developed, were in every farmer's home in Nagano. What they'd listen to was less popular songs than market news — and the market news from New York at that. Since, in the end, the raw silk from Nagano sericulture was being sent to America and New York, everything about the American economic environment had an effect on the farm economics of Nagano Prefecture. Because of that, Nagano farming could not get on its feet some years because of the depression in the U.S. When the farmers went off to sell the cocoons they toiled to make, they were yelled at and got no money. The scene of them throwing silk into the river on the way back home was the start of the film. The conclusion was ultimately that it was dangerous if farming in Nagano Prefecture was not an autonomous industry; the talk of forming an industry that succeeded only by depending on the U.S. was dangerous. I filmed all three films, and released two, including Inabushi, but Town and County disappeared before completion. For censorship or other reasons, I couldn't do any more films, so I sent the film off as it was without editing it. With regard to the three, I did plan them as a trilogy.

After the war, the script for Kobayashi Issa was published in a book Kobayashi Kiichi edited called Nihon no teiko bungaku ("Japanese Literature of Resistance"). Well, many of you who see the film now will probably ask how this is resistant, but that's hard to understand without considering it in the contemporary context — it's relation with the social context. First there was the Manchurian Incident and then the Marco Polo Bridge Incident had just occured in 1937 — so it was a time when Japan was trying to emerge from a depression by engaging in a war abroad. Because of that, the attitude towards all sorts of things was out of kilt. For instance, there's the [literary] magazine Bungei shunju, or, at one time, the [liberal] journal Kaizo. In those days, you'd be marked by the secret police just for reading those; they labelled Kaizo disgraceful. It was an era when you'd be called left-wing even for reading something like Bungei shunju.

There were also actions against motion pictures so cruel you can't even talk about them. Kobayashi Issa at least passed through censorship. Japan at that time, however, was heading towards war, so the military had most of the cultural side in its hands. Accordingly, they instituted compulsory screenings at movie theaters, making theaters always attach one of what were called "culture films" ¹ that is, actualitiés or science films — to the bill. It was supposedly wrong to have only fiction films with laughs and entertainment; they had compulsory screenings because citizens needed to know more about science and other things. However, in reality these were not really science films: the purpose was to force exhibition of propeganda important to the Japanese government or military, such as what the Japanese army was doing in China or why it was fighting a war. The name "culture films" was used for what was compulsorily screened, a genre of film that was always shown at movie theaters in combination with dramatic films. Some bureaucrat authorized which films were or were not culture films, making them "authorized culture films." We called Kobayashi Issa a culture film and sent it in for authorization, but even though it passed through censorship, it did not get authorized. They said it was not a culture film. We showed it at the Toho's Nichigeki theater, selling it aggressively as an unapproved culture film. Luckily, the reaction was good and the studio made a considerable profit on it. When it came to handing out awards at the end of the year, the Directors Guild was going to give them to two films: this film and another about leprosy named Spring on Lepers' Island ("Kojima no Haru," dir. Toyoda Shiro). Well, a board member of the Directors Guild told me I would receive the award and asked me whether I wanted a watch or something else as a prize, so answered that I wanted a watch. Then a week later I got a message saying that the award was off. Asking why, I was told that the Ministry of Education had scolded the Directors Guild for doing the shameful thing of giving an award to an unapproved film. So I ended up not getting the award in the end.

What was wrong with the film? Later on, when I got arrested, I had the chance to ask that of a detective from someplace like Metropolitan Police Headquarters. He said that as a whole, there was nothing really bad about it. It was just that to paint a dark picture of rural villages — and particularly of the farmers themselves ¹ was unpardonable at a time we were trying to wage a war. Furthermore, it was clear that religion was crucial in the case of war. That's the case with the Yasukuni Shrine, but someplace like Zenkoji Temple [in Nagano] is also extremely important in the sense that it provides a resting place for the war dead. It seemed that to treat Zenkoji by making fun of it was inexcusable. When I happened to film Zenkoji, I heard that at that time they had a plan to build a new building to house the ashes of the dead right behind the mountain there. They said if they housed the ashes of war dead from all over the country — getting part of every soldier's ashes — then people would keep coming there. They were making that plan so that people would come to Zenkoji Temple and not just Yasukuni Shrine. In order to do that, they said they were collecting donations, getting money for tiles — a certain amount for each tile placed on the roof. In this way, things like temples were important in times of war. The reason the government has recently proposed supporting Yasukuni Shrine and the like is because they are an essential part of the remilitarization of Japan.

Well, in this way, making a tourist film as a film about farming villages from the perspective of historical materialism was extremely difficult at the time. But I gave it a try and the fact that I made it is probably the reason it is seen as important in film history. Seeing it again now after so many years, this is what I myself think is fundamental about the film, more than how it is as a film itself.

— Translated by A. A. Gerow


Makino Mamoru

Born in 1930. Shifted from exhibition activities to the field of film production after the war (around 1947). While usually engaged in editing independent films, also worked as a directorial assistant on dramatic films such as the first film of Mingei's Uno Jukichi. With the start of television, entered the film department of KRT (today's TBS) and then turned freelance, taking charge for many years of directing and organizing mostly educational programs for NET (Asahi TV today).

In the field of documentary film, was responsible for producing, directing, and writing many films for companies such as Mainichi Film, Gakken Film Division, Kyodo TV (Fuji TV), NTV Film, and Asahi TV Film. In the meantime, organized and directed the feature-length documentaries The Turbulent 20th Century (released by Shochiku) and Scars of the Century (released by Toei).

At the same time, continued independently undertaking theoretical surveys and research on Japanese film history. Has published reprints of many of the materials he has collected, such as Kinema Junpo and Ken'etsu Jihyo, to provide documents fundamental to film history. Left film production four years ago with the films The Relief Disappearing in the Light — Nakano Prison and Children in War — Group Evacuation of a Public School. Continues to pursue research on film history while engaged as a researcher at the Kawasaki City Museum.

Chair of the Japan Association of Image Arts and Sciences Film Documentation Research Group.