Documentarists of Japan, #20: Takamine Go (2/2)


NI: In Okinawan Dream Show you captured the stench of death in the Okinawan landscape and in Okinawan Chirudai you portrayed Okinawan time. It was like you were moving from documentary to feature films, or perhaps like you were between documentary and fiction; Chirudai was a bridge. Next you made Paradise View. That was a synthesis of your visions of landscape and time—maybe “synthesis” sounds strange, but that’s how you’ve put it somewhere in writing. Then, in Untamagiru you brought together your Takamine World as a story. If we were to divide Okinawan film history into pre-Takamine films and post-Takamine films, I’ve always felt that Paradise View and Untamagiru would serve as the punctuation points. What were the conditions that took you to Paradise View and Untamagiru?

TG: I made Paradise View because I was taunted by someone who said, “You’re an independent filmmaker because you can’t make a feature film.” So, an “I’ll show him” was the direct cause of my making the film (laughs). Still, after Okinawan Chirudai the desire to experiment with filmmaking kept on growing. I gradually became more interested in thinking about what I could do within this kind of landscape. Once you start writing scripts, you head in the direction of feature fiction film. So I could no longer get by with the kinds of actors I had used before, the siblings of people with time on their hands who worked on the crew. I had to ask real actors to appear in my films. The one place I wouldn’t budge was in my insistence that the film had to be made in Okinawa. This wouldn’t be a personally fabricated story. It would be one that floated in the landscape, like mabui. It would be a story in that kind of Okinawan landscape. If I didn’t go to that kind of Paradise View place, I felt my films would reach an impasse. Afterwards, I would either quit or film. In Paradise View I wanted to see if I could film a feature film on Okinawan mabui . . . something like a spiritual core, not a spiritual concept of Okinawa arising out of its historical experience, but connecting with the unsettled things in people’s hearts. So, I took mabui as my keyword, and I was able to make Paradise View. But in fact, there is the problem of how one portrays something like mabui that can’t be seen. On the other hand, it is not so much a matter of showing something that can’t be seen, but of something in the head . . . of getting the audience to make something in their minds. That kind of thing, I think. So there is a story, for the time being, but it’s not like I was dictating it to the audience. Nor is it a song of praise for Nature. Nor is it a song of praise for the Okinawan landscape that has that kind of mabui. Setting aside good and bad, I wanted to see if I could shoot a film of the region of mystery inside human existence as it is immersed in the Okinawan landscape. This grew out of Okinawan Dream Show. There are all kinds of unknown things floating around in the landscape. When you think about that, you feel like there are a number of things that seep into a movie and it is in anticipation of this phenomenon that you make a film. Is that way of putting it too abstract?

I’ve been going on about mabui, but the character played by Kobayashi Kaoru is a mabui-less (soul-less) man. Kobayashi and I disagreed on how one would play a mabui-less man, but we never seriously discussed mabui-lessness. I just gave him directions on how to act. Somehow the instant we agreed on mabui-lessness, it would vanish.


NI: When I watch Paradise View or Untamagiru I find fantasies about the land of Okinawa rising before me. If we call that mode of rising “magical realism,” it seems to be a kind of portrait that shares something in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That is what seems to compose “Takamine World.” Takamine films seem to endlessly call forth a kind of different being, or differentiation effect, within this land called Japan.

I have the four chi to capture a sense of this Takamine World—they form the title of the special Takamine series within the Ryukyu Reflections program at this year’s Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. The first chi is “blood” (as in bloodlines), the next is “earth,” the third is “wisdom,” and the last is “foolishness” (laughs). So the title is “The World of Takamine Go: Blood (chi), Earth (chi), Wisdom (chi), Foolishness, and ‘chi.’”

TG: To clarify further, the first three chi (blood, earth and wisdom) come from my film producer friend, Nishimura Takashi, saying that there are three chi in Takamine films. I added the fourth chi, “crazy” (laughs). There is also one more—the simple phonetic chi (in hiragana). That’s because I thought “enough already with the logics of earth and blood.” Besides, the hiragana chi is cute! (laughs).

NI: Tsuru-Henry (1998) contains all four of the first chi, but it never resolves itself to just one, it doesn’t get fixed. It may be that Tsuru-Henry goes to that last hiragana “chi.”

If we move concretely into the content of Untamagiru, the story has a circular structure, but on the other hand it cuts across the border between time and space—for example, an Okinawan play appears as a play within a play, Okinawan folktales and traditions are filmicly reinterpreted, the characters reside in this world and the one beyond and the past and the present exist equivalently. Nevertheless, contemporary issues are written within. The background period is the time just prior to reversion. The opening shows Chief Nishibaru declaring (and asking), “With the Sato-Nixon Communiqué the reversion to Japan is decided. Okinawa is truly at its turning point. Will we return? Will we be independent? Be decisive!” Even with the season of politics that would hide that kind of Okinawa in the background, this is not necessarily a story that gets trapped in that issue. There is also a feeling of freedom in the actors.

TG: My films are deeply indebted to Okinawan performing artists. I have each of them do their specialties in the films. Of course, with any art there is the pleasure of the art. But it is not a performance of a one-sided art. Their art possesses, for example, a real attraction for the way it makes one feel “the earth” or “people.” For actors, the person himself is still present in a performance, so they give us the feeling of an unforced Okinawan. Their use of Okinawan language and movements is natural. These days it is popular to use Okinawans to portray Okinawans. Teruya Rinsuke’s watabu show (an Okinawan comic monologue, literally “I’ve got a fat belly”) is a perfect example. I hear that Rinsuke’s watabu show is being made into a film, but it’s almost parallel to the movement of a film because watabu show was already imagined within a story. I used to listen a lot when I was young. It was a flash of inspiration that made me want to try that in Untamagiru. Within the film, I had the song and stand-up comedy of the watabu show function as a kind of kyogen (classical Japanese comedic theater) filled with explanations of the background of the story, the state of its progress and explication of the times. It felt like the watabu show was completely absorbed within the movie. That kind of feeling is fiction, or perhaps a happy meeting, but it makes one feel the fecundity of the medium of film.

I hate that just because I make films in Okinawa they are seen as movies for the study of Okinawan issues. There is that tendency in foreign film festivals, and even in Tokyo to some extent. There are those who will watch movies to learn about Okinawan issues. And it is not that you can’t learn about Okinawa from my films. But it’s a real problem when your entry to a film is mistaken. Of course, as a medium, film is a mirror of reality and it can be used as a weapon to strike at such things as a critique of politics or the State, providing information and so on. It may have that characteristic, but in my case . . . the same weight should be given to the fact that movies should be freely made in Okinawa. This is a sound argument. But in Okinawa one often finds this desire to learn. The mass media inevitably tends to take up the relationship between the center and the margins, portraying the center as the place where fiction is produced while the margins is not so much a place where belief is generated, but a place that provides information. But I think that it is precisely in Okinawa that a variety of problems can be taken up—of course the fact that 75% of the American military bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa makes me feel an anger verging on despair. Well, even in Okinawa there are probably people who want that 75%. But speaking for myself, I would like to freely make whatever films I’d like in my own voice, without worrying about whatever film category—feature fiction, documentary or independent—they are supposed to fit in.


NI: You quote the Okinawan play Untamagiru as a play-within-a-play, and by doing so your story acquires another time. As a result, reality is submerged within the fictitious world of a play—although, of course, movies are themselves fictitious—and reality melts into a dream. At the same time, you have a structure in which the dream is reflected back into reality.

One more special feature here is your use of music. First you have Okinawan folk songs. Then you have the powerful rockers Condition Green as actors and musicians. You also have the opera singer Kaneshima Reiko making an appearance. The result is a variety of sounds mixing together without a concern for nationality. Untamagiru is not the only example of this. What led you to do this? I imagine this is already set at the script-writing stage.

TG: My intention is to have most of the film’s images included in the script, but most of the casting was concurrent with the production of the script. In fact, maybe the casting preceded script writing so that we’d see a person and think “I wonder what they can do?” It might have been like that sometimes. Katchan and Eddie of Condition Green had terrific looks, even though they weren’t professional actors. But during the Vietnam War, they earned their chops in rock and roll battles with American G.I.s on BC Street in Koza. There’s no way they’d fold in a movie or in front of a camera. Eddie’s acting was quite remarkable. Far better than I expected. There are even some scenes where he “ate up” Kobayashi Kaoru. But Kobayashi sensed Eddie’s gallantry and they were able to establish a relationship of mutual trust.

The story is that Untamagiru uses his superior powers to help an Okinawan independence guerilla group obtain weapons. The guerilla unit sings the “Internationale” in Okinawan to raise their spirits. I had Teruya Rinsuke translate the Japanese lyrics into Okinawan and the troupe sang it to the accompaniment of Rinken on sanshin (Okinawan shamisen). In 1991 I went to the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in New York and I met someone there who was studying the “Internationale.” This was the first time he’d heard of the “Internationale” in Okinawan and he immediately asked me to appear in a movie about the “Internationale.” I sang it in a field of sunflowers, but I have no idea what that was all about.

Now that I mention it, I wonder why we never sang the “Internationale” in Okinawan during the student movement days before the reversion? Was it courage? If I’d had it I might have been a little different. To be anti-Japan, anti-reversion while thinking of stories in Japanese. Was there anyone who thought about Marx in Okinawan in those days? And the significance of that would be . . .

NI: That’s true. That scene where the “Internationale” is sung in Okinawan really sparked my imagination. Untamagiru was praised for its filmic power of imagination with respect to the situation in Okinawa. It showed us that reality could be consumed by the imaginative power of film. That is probably the power of film, but that one scene in which the “Internationale” was sung in Okinawan tore open a hole in reality making the audience gasp.

I talked about this with you before but just about the time that Untamagiru came out I happened to overhear a group of older women talking about Untamagiru on a bus and they said it was a fake (laughs). In other words, it wasn’t the real Untamagiru, the one that is performed on stage. One old lady who had seen it was scolding another, saying “that’s a lie!” I burst out laughing when I heard that. What was happening was that reality was getting consumed by imaginative power. In fact, that was achieved in the old ladies’ sentiments. Your films provoke something at the roots of reality that cannot be captured in a word like “fantasy” or “Okinawan dream.”

TG: That is one of the things I worry about in almost all of my films. The reversion of Okinawa to Japan was in 1972. Almost all of my movies are set in the period before reversion, like the late 1960s. It seems as if I still haven’t been able to digest the reversion. As if I haven’t understood it yet. There were all kinds of protests at the time. Were there concrete and clear reactions to reversion to Japan and Japanification? You kind of doubt it when you see the figure of “75%.” Of course, there were Okinawans who participated in the protest movement. But although the American bases may have been forced on us by the American and Japanese governments, it was Okinawans who accepted them, or at least recognized them in the end. So having a signing ceremony didn’t give me much of a feeling of being Japanese.


NI: Tsuru-Henry is also set against the backdrop of a time before reversion when Okinawa was not Japan. The worlds of Tsuru-Henry and Untamagiru are different; Tsuru-Henry has a more chaotic condition, like it has entered a narrative maze. But if we were to say that the two movies were different, where would we locate that difference?

TG: Right. If we see Untamagiru and Paradise View as attempts to find the natural spirits in the depths of the landscape, Tsuru-Henry is in all ways a tale of a parent and child who are lost in the maze of reality and a play-within-a-play. But as the author, I don’t think there is that much of a gap. For example if time moves in circles. This idea takes its clearest form in Untamagiru. There is also the idea of transmigration. In other words, it is like the head and the bottom are entwined like a Moebius strip, linked, turning round and round. How should I put this? That Okinawa exists in that kind of world? When you look at history, it looks like the same things keep happening. There are all kinds of things in cinematic narratives, so they are not necessarily unitary. Things that cannot be cleaned up are allowed to remain in disarray.

I have no intention of doing film theory in my movies. For example, my use of the Untamagiru play within my Untamagiru film is not meant to narrate the film nor critique it. It is used as a spectacle, a single episode. The play is shown in the film so Untamagiru decides to show himself among us. It is fatal when he reveals himself, so Chief Nishibaru stabs him with a spear and he appears to die. When Rinsuke cradles Untamagiru in his arms to witness its final moments, he discovers “a shining brain” within its split skull (laughs). Then Untamagiru starts to feel strange, rises to his feet and walks off into the darkness holding his head with the spear still stuck in it. This Untamagiru appears in a different place with a different name. This happens in a structure in which time and space appear to shift, but as far as movies go it is not that unusual a story. As the author, I could call it fiction, but in Okinawa that kind of story doesn’t feel like a fabrication. Of course, it is a lie in the realm of reality, but what I desire is that movies do not reject such “lies.” We might call the reality of film a transparent screen through which such lies may pass.

Tsuru-Henry was a very stimulating work for me. There were so many story lines woven together that even I occasionally lost track of the narrative. We have a word in Okinawan, machibui, meaning a “tangle.” It is used to describe such things as the mass of roots that drop down from the branches and around the massive trunks of old banyan trees, or messes like my hair. As it grows longer it fuses into one thick trunk. So you can’t really call it a tangled beard because in time it becomes a trunk that can support an entire tree. Well, maybe this is a little strained. But I’m comfortable with a machibui that cannot be undone.

My aim was to make the story chaotic, to beckon viewers into the world of the machibui. Okinawa’s present condition . . . our everyday . . . we live everyday with something that is chaotic. I particularly think that Okinawa’s present way of life is the very essence of machibui. Positively embrace the play-within-a-play, you know? The scariness of literally falling into the script that they happen to picked up, and being unable to leave that world . . . For example, we hear about actors who became caught up in their roles, unable to extract themselves. I’m talking about something akin to that. But unlike that case of the solitary actor, this is not an individual problem. In Tsuru-Henry a mother and son enter into such a world, unable to get out—that’s terribly frightening. Well, sometimes they get out and go back in. And woven in with that story is a play-within-a-play. Tsuru-Henry feels like it is a one-woman show starring Oshiro Misako. The song she sings (“The Ballad of the White Cloud”) as the female Kadekaru is exquisite. I love it when I am inspired by the performers. I can do whatever it takes when working with an actor for the first time, but I really want to pair up with those actors that I know to a certain extent.


NI: I’d like to end with a discussion of Kadekaru Rinsho: Songs and Stories.

TG: Most of my films, especially my feature fiction movies, feature performers from the Okinawan art world . . . although some actors from Tokyo have also appeared in main roles. It was the performers of Okinawa who invited this. There are no actors in Okinawa who specialize in movies, so I draw my actors from the Okinawan theater, from singers of island songs and folk songs. Teruya Rinsuke came from the world of Okinawan stand-up. Miyasato Eiko used scythes he made to create a form of karate. And then there are the hard rockers from Koza, Condition Green. The fact that these artists from the Okinawan world of performing arts come into these films gives the movies a concreteness or coloring. Since you have seen the true faces of Okinawa—since you have the feeling you have seen Okinawans—you have the realistic sense of having filmed in Okinawa. So, some might ask, aren’t others who live in Okinawa also Okinawan? There is a difference somewhere. We live in a time when if Okinawans do not play Okinawans, we cannot become Okinawans. Okinawan performers do not have to do that to be Okinawan. And I think that’s magnificent. Nevertheless, I can’t help feel the bitterness of the movement to eradicate the Okinawan language for the sake of reversion to Japan.

Kadekaru Rinsho has appeared a number of movies for me. In 1994 I made a video of Kadekaru. I was saying that I was going to make a movie and I wanted to do something directly with Kadekaru. I spent about ten days with him. Just breathing the same air with him made me happy. You can get a good sound if you record island songs in the studio, but I wanted him to sing for me in the open air of Taketomi Island. As a result, you can faintly hear the sounds of birds and the wind on the audio track. But these are not negative noises; they give us the feeling that Kadekaru actually lived at this time. As for the “tales”—well, Kadekaru liked beer with tomato juice. Once he got started, he became this mushy old guy. As that transformation took place, you got a very casual feel, you know? Kadekaru spoke with his own dialect. I could barely understand him; I needed a translator. Kadekaru-an is a language with sudden leaps, abbreviations and self-references; proper names pop out like they are natural. All kinds of things would come out at once, in a machibui, so if you couldn’t understand him, you really couldn’t follow the thread of his tale. Recording that kind of speech was, itself, a real pleasure. I always had three cameras on stand-by and I had the cameramen film as they saw fit. Kadekaru was not frightened of the camera—he completely ignored them—so at the end of filming he let loose with a tremendous sneeze—“aachoo! The end” (laughs). I don’t have the confidence to speak of the profundity of his island songs, but it seems like no matter where you pushed on his body, island songs came out. His body was jammed full of island songs. You might say he was a concentrated mass of island songs. And his looks were better than Lou Reed’s. To have a performer who so naturally acquired the Okinawan air and sensibility . . . But Kadekaru Rinsho has already passed away. I’m so glad I filmed Kadekaru Rinsho.


TG: You know chain dramas? I did a little bit of that in Tsuru-Henry. It’s a drama that links film and stage plays. For example, on stage there might be a play, a princess or someone is attacked in a dream by an evil person and at the moment when all hope is lost a screen descends showing a film of a samurai rushing to her aid on a horse. Music and sound effects are produced on the wings of the stage and local musicians perform live. I want to make that kind of chain drama. I think the last one to do it was around the time of Taira Susumu. Our’s was the last generation to see them. Chain dramas came to Okinawa from Tokyo before the war. During the Meiji period maybe? But the fact that they were still popular in Okinawa after the war had something to do with the American military. The victor in war always comes with an information unit. They came with a camera and a projector. After a set period, the Americans usually sold their equipment to the people. One could often find cameras among the items for sale. That is to say, it was with the equipment brought by the Americans that we were able to make films for a while. I made my Okinawan Chirudai with a camera that was thrown away by the Americans. I found a synchronized motor cinematograph, used for dubbing, tossed carelessly in a leftover storehouse. The irony is that it was the Americans who preserved post-war Okinawan theater. It’s ironic because it is the Okinawan theater, using the Okinawan language that is the embodiment of Okinawa. School teachers at the time were deeply involved in the reversion movement and they issued a call for the eradication of Okinawan language, in fact for all things Okinawan. To them, Okinawan theater was useless. But the Americans were opposed to the reversion to Japan, so they patronized the actors of Okinawan theater. For a brief period, the actors in Okinawan theater were public employees! Of course, the Americans used movies as one element of their strategy to maintain their control of Okinawa, but the left us chain drama and Okinawan Chirudai.

NI: That’s true.


TG: My films owe everything to the people of Okinawan performing arts, so I want to make recording them my life work. You and I also have a number of plans in mind and are moving forward on them.

Sometimes I think about calculating the remainder of my life in terms of numbers of films. Since it takes about ten years, especially for a feature fiction film, I figure I’ve got one or two left. In my twenties I felt like my life in movies would go on forever. I even used to imagine myself becoming another Fellini (laughs). Ridiculous! These days, I have any number of plans and scripts, but considering the movies I’ve made to date, I might get two columns in a work on independent film. I might as well fantasize about a life not having made movies. But it doesn’t matter. From here on out I plan to abandon myself in movies, anticipating movies giving birth to more movies.

(May 25, 2003 in Kyoto)
—Translated by Alan Christy


Nakazato Isao

Born in 1947. Editor of Edge. Probing Okinawa’s liminality and Okinawa as edge from printed words and images (photographs, film). Authored Okinawan Beat (Borderlink) and Round Border (APO), and co-authored Okinawa and Memory/The History of Japan (“Okinawa no kioku/nihon no rekishi,” Miraisha). Co-wrote the script for Tsuru-Henry with Takamine Go, and participated in the exhibition Yesterdays on the Hilltop (Oka no ue no yesterdays). Co-coordinator of Nexus of Borders: Ryukyu Reflections at YIDFF 2003.