Documentarists of Japan, #19: Tokieda Toshie (2/2)


IA: How many films did you make about Bunkyo-ku?

TT: About six.

IA: It seemed to me that you spent a lot of time building up a trust relationship with the Bunkyo-ku supervisor before you started making the film. How did you approach the project?

TT: At first, I received a request: “Bunkyo-ku is an area with a lot of intellectuals and very proud residents. I’d like you to make a high-quality film that’s better than one of those other movies.” So I asked, “Well, can you give me a concrete example of what a good film would be?” “I don’t really know any good examples.” “How about a example of a bad film?” “The film about Chiyoda-ku was a bad film.” The Chiyoda-ku film was actually done by Iwanami Productions too (laughs). We did interviews with the head of the district, filmed His Majesty the Emperor visiting an elementary school . . . They just told us to make it however we wanted, and the result was Edo Life Recollected in Drawings. We didn’t use narration-style narration either. We had Ito Soichi speak in a regular speaking voice, which became a new experiment for us. First I had Ito listen to me speak while watching the rush footage. Once he was satisfied with what I was trying to say, I’d ask him to do it in his own voice and intonation, and we would record it. In order to make Ito relax while speaking, Sakuma Toshio from the recording department kept offering to bring him cushions and drinks. (laughs) When you sit far away from the screen you start to speak as if you’re looking far away, so we had him sit close to the screen and speak as if he was having a conversation instead.

Film narration in the 50s always had this feeling like it was trying to lecture you on something, and I always wondered if there was a way to narrate with a more natural speaking voice. I’d been experimenting with that idea since the 60s, but this film is when it really took shape.


IA: I remember you well around the time you were making Literary Figures of Bunkyo (1988). Making a film on Mori Ogai must have been very difficult. Day after day you kept saying you wanted to create your own “Mori Ogai,” and you spent a lot of time in the Dangozaka library. Then one day you showed up at the office looking very happy, saying, “I got it!” You had drawn this big thing with Mori Ogai in the center on a piece of paper larger than a tatami mat . . . how would you describe that?

TT: People, groups, literary figures, and their place and connection to Ogai.

IA: You wrote this thing out by yourself, realized something in the process, and decided to go with that. That was how you started making Literary Figures of Bunkyo.

TT: At that point I was no longer an employee of Iwanami Productions, so I could drag my feet and nobody would complain. I read Ogai’s complete works, and, well, took my time thinking things through. I planned the project myself so I can’t complain (laughs). But thanks to that I was able to see Ogai’s time a lot more clearly; for example, he didn’t have gas installed until after he bought a piano. He was still cooking with a charcoal grill and oven when he had a piano in the house.

IA: I watched the film at the company screening. It left a lingering good feeling when it was over. The narration and Ishihara Shinji’s nostalgic music fit very well with the images. Sound engineer Sakuma Toshio’s audio was wonderful too.

TT: In most cases if you were to make a film on Ogai you’d go to Tsuwano for research, or possibly even visit Germany, but this film was limited to what was available in Bunkyo-ku. We had to do that for budget reasons as well. Even now I think I could have made it differently if my scope had been slightly broader. However, I thought that if you really have something you want to do, it should be possible to do it, regardless of the limitations. I just realized that a little late. I had accumulated a lot of ideas about Bunkyo-ku over the years and I’d looked over Higuchi Ichiyo’s postcard beforehand, so when the plan was set I was able to proceed rather smoothly. For example, in the Edo Period, “businessmen” (the low-ranking warrior class) who had business at Edo Castle commuted from Bunkyo-ku. I say “commute” but of course they were just walking. I tried walking that path once and sure enough it took an hour to get to Edo Castle. I realized, “A-ha, even in those days businessmen spent an hour commuting to work.” (laughs) Everybody was still walking in Ogai’s day too. If Ishikawa Takuboku went to Ogai’s house he had to walk. After walking myself I was able to understand that sense of distance better. I learned to feel the land and developed an understanding of the atmosphere of that age, through my body. I think I was able to do the work without rushing because I was freelance then. I told the staff, “you can use as much film and brainpower as you want, but let’s economize on the rest.” (laughs)


IA: How did you create the soundtrack for films in those days?

TT: We’d shoot the film and then add sound when we had a rough edit. Sometimes we’d go back to the location to re-record sound, removing the unpleasant noises and such. When we were filming children I had doubts about putting a narration explanation over the images of the kids as they opened and closed their mouths soundlessly . . . there’s quite a difference between saying “oh!” as if you’re interested, or as if you’re disappointed, for example. So there was a big difference in what was being expressed by the footage of the children that had sound and the footage that didn’t. In those days, the camera motor sound was really loud, so if you recorded sound on location the camera noise would cause problems. There had always been a rank between camera and sound as well, and the cameraman was always on top. They refused to let the recording microphone to come into the frame. It was that kind of age. However, I made a new rule for our staff and decided to let the quicker one win. If the sound was fast and the camera was late, re-shoot it. If it’s the other way around, re-record the sound later. So the sound and picture weren’t perfectly synchronized, but we edited it in order to express the children’s world. This was around Friends (1961). We were using a Densuke recorder and an Arriflex ST camera.

I’d always thought that sound and picture should be treated equally in a film. Especially when you’re filming children, there are a lot of times when you can’t express the children’s feelings with just pictures. That’s why I had the recording department come on location when we were shooting. I started doing this from a fairly early stage in my filmmaking. Cameramen used to tend to think about picture compositionally when filming, but that’s not what shows up on the screen. The cameraman’s interest and attitude to the subject is what comes through. Cameramen can’t avoid hearing the sounds on location too. I think the cinematographer, Yagi Yoshinori, also worked very hard on this.

IA: In Exploration of the Bunkyo-ku Board of Education’s Development (1975) you can hear children’s voices against the images of the alley and they really bring out the atmosphere of the town . . . that seemed to be your approach to sound. That’s a little different from simple synchronization, which today’s video cameras can handle automatically. When you actually think about what you’re trying to express in sound, you tend to approach the sound design differently.

TT: Also, in the late 1960s industrial PR films started to rely more and more on just the picture, but as a result you end up not seeing the subject as well. Take for example the often-used image of smoke coming from a factory. In the early high growth period, this would have been seen as a symbol of that factory’s productivity. But after a while that started to change to symbolize pollution instead. How are you supposed to follow up an image that can be read in two diametrically opposing ways? That becomes quite a problem. My inclination was to use sound. We tend to say we “add sound” to the picture. It’s common knowledge that the picture comes first and the sound is stuck on later. But back then I was honestly thinking about how to “add picture” to the sound instead (laughs). I wasn’t comfortable with the picture alone.


IA: You also made three films on Saku Hospital in Nagano Prefecture. The first one was I Hate Hospitals (1991). Could you speak a little about this film next?

TT: The title for that film came from hearing elderly men and women complain, “I hate hospitals!” I thought that was an honest expression of their feelings, so I decided to use it as the title.

IA: In I Hate Hospitals there’s one elderly woman who crawls around at home because she has problems with her arm and leg joints. There’s a scene in the kitchen when she makes miso soup . . . usually you would cut and edit a scene like that; show her turn the faucet, then cut the potatoes, put it all in the bowl and finish. However you didn’t cut the shot at all—you just filmed straight through. That shot seems very fresh now, at a time when people don’t really pay attention to others’ physical movement anymore.

TT: Sometimes it’s easier to understand a person’s pain and problems if you watch them for a long time.

IA: The narration later says, “I’m making three days worth of miso soup.” Suddenly the weight of those images becomes clear. You paid great attention to detail for the film’s title as well, borrowing the spoken words of the elderly. In this day and age we spend less and less time listening to the true feelings of the elderly. Apparently there was some debate as to whether or not to add subtitles over the speaking in the film, but you stood firm and said “no.” You said you wanted the audience to learn to understand what the elderly were murmuring instead. That was part of your message.

TT: If it were a three-year-old child instead, speaking in incomplete words, anyone would be able to understand what it was saying so there’s no reason to say that people can’t understand the words of the elderly. These are Japanese people speaking Japanese; it’s ridiculous to say you can’t understand what they’re saying just because they’re older.

IA: Methodologically speaking, there are some similarities between your Saku Hospital films and your films of children.

TT: Yes, there are some similarities between the elderly and children when they’re being filmed. They don’t try to present themselves . . . and they won’t actively speak about themselves. Filming children can be very difficult. They’re always running around here and there and it’s hard to keep up. But if you listen to what they’re saying you can more or less figure it out. I’m glad we filmed the children early. It taught us some very fundamental things.

In I Hate Hospitals, we really tried our hardest to watch and listen to the elderly. We’d crouch down to their eye level, speak into their ears slowly with a loud voice, and try to speak in their dialect. At first it was very tiring trying to adjust to their pace though.

In that film we were just looking at the elderly and their caregivers, but by the time of With the Farmers (1995) and Reach Out for the Elderly’s Care (1996) we were able to speak the dialect freely, and we wanted to learn more about the lifestyle as a whole. We went into the village deep in the mountains, rented a house and lived there for a year and a half. Up to then we’d only seen bits of farming villages and families, but over a whole year we were able to see their labor and lifestyle more clearly. At harvest time we went to the fields at 3 a.m., and we’d pick the crops and ship them out by the time the sun came up. We put lights on our heads and listened to the late-night radio broadcast. It was pitch black, and you’d have to rely on the faint sound of the radio and the sight of moving lights in the darkness to find people. Most of the workers were in their late 60s. The young people were all off working at jobs. So the “young women” of the group weren’t young and cute at all, they were all in their sixties or even their seventies. They were in charge of the farming and they also nursed. Several times I went out to gather nozawana greens with people their age, and after about half a day I’d be so exhausted I couldn’t do any filming. That must be what it’s like to work until your back and knees ache. The doctors and care staff kept an eye on the conditions of the caretakers and covered for them too. After examining the elderly patients they’d always check the caretakers as well.

There was one 91-year-old woman who was in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. At home she constantly injected herself with morphine, but she kept trying to get up, saying “I gotta go planting.” It was really impressive to see how this long, difficult farming work supported the elderly and gave them so much pride. At the beginning they would call me “Director,” but before long they’d be much more familiar, saying things like, “I saw that lady and couldn’t recognize who it was, but it was just you, director!” I started out just watching the nurses and care staff but by the end I was watching their patients closely as well. It felt like I was looking at myself in the future.


IA: Finally I’d like to ask you about your work in progress.

TT: In 1991 I started shooting a film called A Record of Housework (“Kaji no kiroku”). It’s a film that looks at Koizumi Kazuko’s mother’s work. It’s not much of a movie, more a filmed record. When I started, Koizumi’s mother was in her late seventies. Koizumi said that Japanese documentary film had no record of the lifestyles of common people and she asked me to make a visual record of her mother, who had lived through the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. That’s how we got started. Iwata Makiko was on camera and Imaizumi recorded the audio. The film is really just a record of various housework and chores. The 52m2 floor space house she lived in was financed and built through the postwar Housing Loan Corporation. After her mother passed away, Koizumi turned it into a museum of the Showa-era lifestyle. When I watch her mother working in the footage from A Record of Housework, it makes me think of a lot of things. Washing clothes in a wooden basin, scrubbing against a washboard—she washed it all by hand, but with one wash she’d get most of the dirt out. Manual labor was very efficient, not wasteful at all. You can really see that when you watch the film.

Bottles of beer and sake used to come in wooden boxes. Rice would be cooked in a kamado oven. When you prepare the fire to cook the rice, you’d break the wooden beer boxes apart. The wood was totally dry, so you could just snap it with your hands or against your knee. That action—breaking the pieces of wood apart one by one—isn’t a part of our lives anymore. Before working with needles back then, you’d count how many you had. After wearing out your kimono you’d make it into a futon, and take off the good parts to make a short coat. You’d be careful to use the extra heat from a grill. The way you set up work and used materials was efficient, with little waste. So there is a lot from the past that makes you think about what “old” and “new” mean, and what “efficient” is. Of course we can’t return to that age, but it might be good to at least carry on some of that knowledge today.

IA: You also filmed a lot of food like pickles and osechi ryori (traditional food served at New Year). When she made ohagi cakes, you should have filmed them, but you ate them first. And then after finishing them off, “Oh no! We didn’t film them!” (laughs) So you fooled around quite a bit too.

TT: We asked her to make the ohagi cakes again (laughs). Documentary films tend to show the “age,” so in fifty years that’s going to be quite a document.

—Translated by Michael Arnold


Imaizumi Ayako

Born in Fukushima City in 1948. Joined the Fukushima TV news department, and from 1972 began freelance film production. First worked with director Tokieda on Encyclopedia of Child-rearing (1984). At the end of 1996 opened the Iwanami Productions Harajuku office, overseeing production of medical videos and the Pleiades projects with the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. Continues as U.N. Limited, following the bankruptcy of Iwanami Productions.