Making Films about Social Welfare:
Moving Forward and Back Again

Yanagisawa Hisao

Filmmaker Yanagisawa Hisao passed away suddenly on June 16, 1999, at the age of 83. A participant at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival since its inception in 1989, Yanagisawa was also a juror for the Asia Program in 1993. He also appeared in the fourth issue of Documentary Box in the "Documentarists of Japan" interview series.

Yanagisawa had planed to make a new film about nurses. Sadly then, it was Going with the Wind (1989), which was his last film as a director.

In December 1992, the Nanyo 8mm Club held an Ogawa Shinsuke memorial screening entitled Documentary Film Festival in NANYO, at which there was also a screening of Yanagisawa's film The Night and Dawn Inside Me accompanied by his lecture. Here, we have reprinted the transcript of the lecture which was first published in March 1993, in the YIDFF Network publication Network News No. 28 (transcribed and edited by Kimura Yuko).

We would like to thank Yanagisawa deeply for his contribution to the YIDFF and we pray that he may rest in peace.

Maintaining Your Resolve

There are three Japanese film directors whom I particularly respect. One is Kamei Fumio, who started making documentary films before the war. He's the one who made films such as Kobayashi Issa, Shanghai, Peking, and Fighting Soldiers ("Tatakau heitai"). Another director I respect is Tsuchimoto Noriaki, who made the "Minamata" films. Finally, the third director is Ogawa Shinsuke.

Ogawa made a number of films, from the Sanrizuka films to the ones he made in Yamagata. I didn't meet him that often, but whenever I did he always told me two things. One thing he said to me without fail was "I want to go on making films until the end." Also, he would turn to me and say, "Maintain your resolve (kokorozashi)." "Ah, resolve" I would say, nodding, but truth be told I wondered after he died just why Ogawa had kept on telling me to keep up my resolve.

Once I had seen Ogawa's films I thought that perhaps this is what he had meant by "resolve." In the first place, it was a question of what your position is. It's not an easy question to answer but it seems to me that all of Ogawa's pictures take up the position of people who have been excluded or discriminated against. He speaks from the position of the disadvantaged without being swayed by ideology, whether socialist or capitalist. I think Ogawa's advice about "resolve" included that sense of "keep solidarity with the weak."

I think another sense of "resolve" was "make films from an independent position." It's difficult to make films independently. It's relatively easy to make moving pictures if you get money from the state, local governments or large companies. Films seem to be based on extravagance, so if you've got the money, you can make them. But no one will give you money without setting conditions. They always want to have a say. That's why Ogawa told me to "raise the money yourself so they can't tell you what to do." The problem is, it costs between 25 and 30 million yen to make a film. Raising even that amount of money by yourself is difficult. From Sanrizuka on, Ogawa Productions made all their films by raising the money themselves as a group, taking nothing from the state or from local governments. I'm sure that he was telling me to do the same thing.

Another thing about film: there's a set of conventions to the way films are made, so over the course of ten years or so you can get to know how to use them. Once you have that experience you can freely arrange the material in the way you want to make people cry at one point and laugh at another-it's not all that difficult. Film isn't the kind of thing that only experts can make. Anyone can do it. However, the fact film has a form means that it can be without form. I think that's what Ogawa was saying when he urged, "Let's focus on creating a new film form." The documentary film is said to narrate the past and describe the present. Only Ogawa went beyond that, not simply describing the present, but using that as a springboard to leap into the future, to demand that we make films in order to open up the future. I feel that about all of Ogawa's films.

One more thing that Ogawa dedicated his life to was joining forces with directors from Asia to make films. You might ask, "Why Asian filmmakers?" If you look at films such as City of Sadness from Taiwan and Yellow Earth from China-there are films by many other directors-then you find running through the heart of them the question, "What's happening to our people, our nation? How should we live?" Unfortunately, there are no films like that in Japan. There are just films where a girl meets a boy and they hit it off, or she's heartbroken, or they have an affair-that's all. I feel in Ogawa's demand that we should cooperate with film directors from Asia a sense that unless we passionately pose the question of the meaning of our people, nation, and selves, unless there is something definite like that underlying what we are doing, then cinema cannot be interesting. That's how I've always understood Ogawa. I was stunned when Ogawa died. Since I had lost one of my three teachers, I was at a loss for words. That's how deep the connection was between Ogawa and myself.

On Being Able to Think

Originally, I was an assistant director on Shochiku "chanbara" sword-fighting films. I like watching sword-fighting films but I don't like sword fighting itself. Making films about killing people didn't suit me. Around the same time I saw Kamei's Kobayashi Issa, which made me realize that documentary was more interesting, so I switched over to that. But I couldn't make the films that I wanted. If you ask me what kind of films I was making: for example, I was asked to make a film saying that Suntory brand whiskey is the best in the world. It's not so hard to make films like that but in my heart of hearts I knew that Suntory whiskey is not the best in the world. I knew that scotch is better!

I kept on making films like that. If you're the type who can keep doing that kind of work just to make money, you can live well, owning your own house and a car. I hate to admit it, but I really liked going drinking in bars in the Ginza district. At that time I made a PR film for the Mitsui Mine Company's mine at the headwaters of the Jintsu River in northern Gifu Prefecture. It took about ten months to make the film and right after it was finished I realized that the mine was the source of the Jintsu River "itai itai" disease (a disease caused by cadmium poisoning from industrial waste). I'd just put all my effort into making a publicity film for the place that caused the Jintsu River "itai itai" disease. I thought to myself at the time, "You've just committed your second offense."

I call it my second offense because I was at the Nihon Eigasha (Nichiei) during the war, working on many films as an assistant director. I suppose you could say that I had collaborated with the war effort. At that time, the only film director to oppose the war was Kamei Fumio. After the war the man who was called the noblest person in Japan [the Emperor] came to inspect the damage caused by the great air raid on Fukagawa, in the Shitamachi lower class part of Tokyo. I went along with a camera as an assistant director. Perhaps it's too much to ask for, but I suppose as a result of the kind of education that he received, the Emperor didn't seem to be particularly moved. Searching my conscience, I asked myself, "Did we really fight the war for this person?"

I came to my senses at that point, though it was a bit late in the day. In reality, graduating from a university is not just gaining credits and then receiving your diploma. It occurs when the university says, "You have the power to think." That's why they let you graduate. That's the best way to think about it, isn't it? I now realize that I didn't think at all during the war. That was my first offense. I think the second offense was to make a publicity film for the company that caused the Jintsu River "itai itai" disease.

To give a new example, there's a company called Nihon Kokan (NKK) in Tsurumi that makes everything from pig iron to ships. I spent a year making a documentary film about the place. When you went in the gate, on the left were about ten fire trucks and on the right a large shed. I wondered what was in the shed but they didn't show me inside. When I was told there was no use in photographing that place I agreed and didn't go near it. One day a high pitched siren sounded and the fire trucks rushed off. The next moment the shed doors opened. Since I'm nosy by nature I went to take a look: it was piled high with coffins. They took safety very seriously at the factory as it was a huge place, but accidents were unavoidable. I realized what a heartless place a corporation truly is for keeping coffins on hand.

An Encounter with Educational Therapy

It was because of this kind of thing that I grew to hate public relations films. In my last year at Iwanami Productions I refused to make anything that they suggested and just drew my salary. I was told that if I carried on like that they wouldn't renew my contract next year, so I quit Iwanami. What was I to do? I was in a pinch. I couldn't go to the Ginza, I couldn't spend money freely. I had a tough time of it for two or three years after leaving Iwanami Productions.

At that time Ogawa Shinsuke was making the Sanrizuka films, and Tsuchimoto Noriaki was starting to film in Minamata. I wondered if I could follow in their footsteps since both of them had so much courage and energy-if the riot police turned up they would fight back. Some people say that they didn't really resist but I think that they did. I'm a coward so if the riot police turned up I'd run away. Perhaps you already know this but everyone would gather in Shimizudani Park in Tokyo and hold demonstrations. At times like that I would tell the leaders of the demonstration, "I'm running if the riot police come," and was told, "It's okay to run, but come out for the next demonstration." I replied, "That's a promise. But if the riot police come I'm out of here." The demo started and the riot police came. I'd say, "They're here, I'm gone!" and the leaders would give me permission. I sure was a coward.

I had spent two years worrying about what I would do with my life when a doctor, who was famous for his work with mentally handicapped children in western Japan, happened to invite me to visit the Biwako Gakuen academy in Omi, where he worked. "What's interesting about a school for mentally retarded kids?" I thought, but he asked me so often that in the end I thought, "Why not?" and went for a visit. It's in a different place now but in those days the school was located at on the banks of the Uji River which flows out of Lake Biwa in western Japan. As I walked up the row of cherry trees that led to the school, I encountered a mentally handicapped child for the first time in my life. He was taller than me, with somewhat sinister features, and when he folded his arms and glared at me I thought, "What a sinister kid." To tell the truth, I was half-afraid. When I went up to him he stared me in the eye and demanded, "Why have you come here, sir?" When I was asked like that, all I could say was, "I've just come for a visit." The kid suddenly raised his voice and said, "It's no good just visiting, sir. You have to work." Embarrassed that the kid had me pegged, I stayed for a while.

Happily, I became friends with the boy that I first met that day. Some time later, that same kid didn't come home all night. Since the Uji River flowed through the neighborhood, everyone was anxious so we divided up and searched for him. He came home by himself, toward evening the next day. Two days later, he said he was going out again. When we asked him where he was going, he told us that there was a statue of the goddess Kannon on the other side of the river. Asking if we couldn't go too, we went off to see it together. We took books and such with us but he took nothing. Just a packed lunch. In front of the statue of Kannon was a small building with a water wheel. He sat down in front of that water wheel. It was about noon. Looking at the wheel even while he was eating, he sat like that until four o'clock. So we said things like, "It's getting late. They'll be worrying about us again." I asked," By the way, why do you find this water wheel so interesting?" The water wheel was scattering droplets as it turned. He pointed to the drops and said, "Sir, there's nothing so beautiful in the whole world." It's embarrassing to admit it, but only when the kid pointed it out did I suddenly realize how beautiful it was. Since the sun moved from east to west, the water droplets took on a myriad forms. Once he'd said that there's nothing so beautiful, I looked for myself: it truly was beautiful. I thought, "Ah, so this child is sensitive to beauty such as that."

Another thing that comes to mind is the brick laying game. There was a contest to carry bricks from one place to another and then pile them up. That kid would pile them up so far and then knock down all the bricks. Then he would start over again. Of course, that meant that he lost the race. He looked so downcast that I said to him, "You worked so hard to pile up the bricks. If you'd kept on piling them you'd have won." He said to me, "Sir, that's no good. You have to build the bricks up neatly. It's important to build them neatly. It's no good piling them fast." I thought," Ah, so this child sees the world in that way, something that I just can't share." During that time the doctor established an institution for severely mentally and physically challenged children. I'd neither met nor even seen a severely disabled child. I was invited to come see so I did. We went to a place in Amagasaki, but it was closed off with iron bars. The kids would grab and devour the lunches that their mothers took in to them. When the mother looked like she was about to leave and lock the door, the kids would cling to their mothers and start kicking and screaming. So this was severe mental and physical disability: I couldn't even think of them as human. The doctor wanted to educate those inhuman beings, give them "educational therapy."

When I asked him, "What is educational therapy?" he replied, "he replied, "I understand what it means in theory but I don't know whether it will work in practice. That's why I'm building a school and giving it a try." I thought that was truly impressive. But at the same time I also thought that I had some ethical problems with filming severely disabled kids when I didn't know what would happen to the children in the future. Nevertheless, I was invited to shoot a film so I just started shooting haphazardly. Then one day it was decided to build a pool in the garden behind the school, using rocks brought from the river that ran through the neighborhood. The work consisted of piling up earth to create a foundation and then building concrete walls on top of it. We ended up with about seventy volunteers and eight or nine severely mentally or physically disabled children, as well as some teachers and nurses, working together on the project. It was a completely new experience for the disabled kids. As a result of that experience, of working in a way that you could only call perfect, the children gradually changed. I gradually realized that this is what is meant by "educational therapy."

To Become Independent and Make Films

It took about three years to make Children Before the Dawn ("Yoakemae no kodomotachi," 1968). When I was going from place to place screening it, I happened to visit the Nishitaga Public Hospital in Sendai, northeastern Japan. The director of the hospital asked me if I had seen a case of muscular dystrophy. When I replied that I knew the word but I had never seen a case, he took me around the ward. Muscular dystrophy is a disease that usually kills you by the age of nineteen. Children with the disease are incredibly cheerful. They were so cheerful that it motivated me to make a film to try to discover where that optimism came from. This is where Ogawa's imperative to be independent and raise the money yourself came in. The goal I set myself was to raise twenty-five million yen.

At first I asked the Ministry of Health and Welfare. I told them that I wanted to make this film and asked them to give me the money. I knew it went completely against Ogawa's advice, but I asked because I didn't have any money and I thought I had no choice. However, they told me that this kind of thing has to be done privately and the Ministry of Health could have nothing to do with it. They didn't give me a penny. There was nothing else for it: I got a haircut, polished my shoes, put on a smart suit and went round the two hundred or so companies that had made public relations films. I shouldn't have counted my chickens before they'd hatched: I was refused by all of them. They told me, "That's not our job. We have no intention of giving money for a project like that."

Well, what was I to do? I gathered about ten of my friends and we collected as many directories of university graduates, churches, and other "Who's Who" type publications as we could. Then I made a hole through the stack with an eyeleteer. We selected people to ask by seeing where the hole went. I'd neither spoken to nor even seen them, but I sent the people I'd selected by chance a prospectus for the film anyway, and, even if it was in my bad handwriting, wrote a letter by hand saying that I really wanted to make this film. I'd write that it was truly selfish of me to ask but please help in any way you can.

In all, we sent out about 55,000 letters across Japan and got 13,000 replies. Some of those people sent only a hundred yen but others sent 100,000, even 500,000 yen. Over three years we put together twenty-five million yen. It was wonderful to realize that such generous people existed and I was truly grateful. Over the next three years, I made The Night and Dawn Inside Me.

At this time too I was reminded of Ogawa's words. Where should we stand, what position should we take? For example, Ogawa dealt with farmers' problems in Japan, treating the farmer's problems as his own. I found it impossible for me to decide inside myself how to treat the problem of muscular dystrophy as my own problem. I made the film a long time ago and looking back I'm not at all sure that I managed to achieve that perspective. Anyway, just as Ogawa's films are shown all over the country, that film too is still being shown all over the place. It's said that a documentary is no good if it doesn't have legs-if it doesn't stay in circulation for a long time. In that sense, I think my film had legs. After making that film I flattered myself that I'd caught up with Ogawa. At least part of me thought that way. When I saw Ogawa's later films, I realized that far from being overtaken, he was still way ahead of me.

Welfare from the Perspective of the Disabled

While The Night and Dawn Inside Me was being shown around the country, I decided to make my next film about a subsidized workplace for people in wheelchairs. At the time the dominant idea, since there was a severe labor shortage, was that it is necessary to build "welfare factories" for people in wheelchairs working at subsidized workplaces, places where they could earn wages working as subcontractors of large companies, the profit being used to support factory operations. When I started I was sure the welfare factories were a good thing. But then I started to have doubts about it. When a normal business decides to put people to work, they have to buy land and build a factory. Then they have to find workers. But in the case of welfare factories, the company gets the local government or a social welfare organization to buy land and build a factory; it only has to set up the production line there. The companies can ensure a supply of labor as simply as that.

If you were to ask me whether the "welfare" in welfare factories was truly helpful to disabled people in wheelchairs or whether it was rather welfare for companies, I would have to say that I think it's less welfare for the disabled than welfare for business. Also, when the local governments build welfare factories, they completely ignore the advice of actual people in wheelchairs who study factories all over the country and then give advice on and build models of ideal arrangements of beds, doors, and so on. Given these problems, I don't very much like the film (Pampering Is Not Allowed ["Amaeru koto wa yurusarenai," 1975]), when I see it now. It seems to me too accusatory-that's the kind of film I made.

Welfare Means Respecting the Desire for Self-Determination

After Pampering Is Not Allowed, I went to Aichi Prefecture and worked alongside mentally disabled adults. Most people think that disabled people have no intelligence and can't do anything for themselves. I thought it was worth trying to make the film to find out whether that common opinion was true or not. I went there and patiently, without trying to push them in any particular direction, asked the people there what they really wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. Up to that point they had used the community center, but one day it was decided that they would move into an empty factory. Their supervisor told them that they would be working in the old factory and asked them to draw up a blueprint of how they wanted to use it. It took about a month to draw up the blueprint.

It would cost about five million yen to remodel the factory that way. I asked the disabled people what they were going to do. "I have no money; your parents have no money; so how will you raise the cash for the redevelopment?" They said they would do anything, even collect junk, to raise the money. Their determination inspired the people around them and it was decided to remodel the factory. We employed one carpenter but the patients did everything else, from sweeping under the floorboards to cleaning the windows. The remodeling took about three months and then they were ready to start work. When I asked them what kind of work they wanted to do, some said they wanted to work in agriculture, others in carpentry, others said they would help with the filmmaking-everyone began by taking on a share of the tasks.

After six months, we had managed to sell a few things so that a small profit had accumulated. We told the patients that since they had earned the money they should divide it amongst themselves. We gave money to groups of four or five people and told them to divide it amongst themselves, which they did. Money even went to the three or so severely mentally challenged youngsters who lived there. The severely disabled kids hadn't actually done any work but they were given money because they were felt to be part of the group. It was the first wages they'd received in their lives, an average of about 1,500 yen each. The point is that I also realized something for the first time: "welfare" begins with respecting the desire for self-determination. No matter whether they're mentally disabled or whatever, I realized that respecting their desire for self-determination is the only possible starting point for welfare.

Once I'd finished that film (Not That Way, But This ["Sotchi ya nai, kotchi ya," 1982]), I set out once again to travel the country with it. During that time I came across a "city welfare bank" in Morioka, northern Japan, where about twelve people were involved in recycling activities. That organization also respected the desire for self-determination of the welfare recipients, allowing them to decide where they would go for help once they had gathered a certain amount of recycled things. They allowed them to decide all kinds of things, but one of the ideas that came up was to dismantle and remodel an old farmhouse to create a buckwheat noodle restaurant.

What happened next was the problem: they buried the proposal, saying it was impossible, but some people protested. Some claimed that if everyone planned it out and worked together they could do it. However, the members who most vigorously argued for the buckwheat restaurant were the mentally disabled members, but they were driven out of the group by the others. There is that tendency: they say they respect the desire for self-determination, but there are times it doesn't turn out that way. Anyway, that's the way I've been making films about welfare. As I said before, welfare begins with respecting the desire for self-determination.

The next thing that caught my attention was discrimination. I think of myself as a pretty democratic husband, but if I say that to my wife, she says, "Who the hell are you to say that?" Even though we think we're democratic, that's not always the case. There's prejudice, sexual discrimination. Right now I'm thinking about making a film about nurses. The main theme of that film will be discrimination: the way that doctors are treated as superior beings. Fundamentally, the nursing profession is creative and requires specialized training, but there doesn't seem much prospect of achieving that at the moment.

That's an example of the dual structure of discrimination, isn't it? For example, people who claim, "My child has a mental handicap but his body is strong" or "His body is weak but he's all there in the mind"; the Minamata patients who developed the disease later in life, who would discriminate themselves from people who were born with their disabilities. There's discrimination against disabled children even within the "hisabetsu buraku," where outcasts defined as such from feudal times still suffer discrimination from society at large. I realized that discrimination always has two, three, or more layers, and that there's no easy solution. I've come to realize that overcoming prejudice is extremely difficult: even I can't say that I never get tired and think, "I've had enough of handicapped kids."

Using the Past and the Present as a Springboard for Opening Up the Future

To return to the topic of Ogawa Shinsuke, in addition to the films you saw today there's another called Magino Village-A Tale ("Sennen kizami no hidokei," 1986). It's a film in which Ogawa unhurriedly records the growing of the rice crop through the eyes of the farmers. I wondered why he made that kind of film. But once you start watching the film, you stop wondering. First he digs into the ground, bringing up older and older objects one after the other. Next comes a reenactment of a folk tale, using actors. Then he creates a scene where farmers who resisted the political pressure of the feudal clan were put on trial. The film ends with everybody marching together. That's the basic outline of the film, I think.

In that film, I feel that Ogawa truly managed to use "the narration of the past and the present as a springboard for opening up the future." From that point of view, I can't match Ogawa. I wanted to overtake him just a little, but perhaps that's not even remotely possible. It's truly a great pity to lose such a superb documentary filmmaker, but I also think that a new generation will appear inheriting his sense of "resolve." He would be embarrassed to hear me say it, but Yoshida Hiroshi * is a member of that new generation, I think. I guess in the end Ogawa's "resolve" means "have a clear and critical eye, and commit yourself to reform." I'm getting old so I don't know how many more years I will continue to make films, but I've chased Ogawa this far so I guess I'm just going to keep on chasing him. I apologize for boring you with such a long story. Thank you very much for your time.

—Translated by Michael Raine


*Prize winner at the All-Japan Amateur Film Concours, organized by the Nanyo 8mm Film Club in 1991.