Documentarists of Japan, #21

Matsukawa Yasuo

Interviewer: Hyugaji Taro

This installment in the ongoing Documentarists of Japan series features veteran director Matsukawa Yasuo, who has been involved in close to 100 documentaries. While his visual world encompasses a wide range of themes and subject matter, there are many pieces about arts, crafts and artisans that reflect his own early interest in becoming a painter. He has garnered numerous awards during his long career, including the Grand Prix in the Art Film Category of the Vergamo Film Festival in Italy for The Satirical Animal Scrolls (“Choju giga,” 1966, YIDFF ’93) and first place in the Kinema Jumpo Best Ten 2002 list for Izumo Kagura (“Izumo Kagura,” 2002). This interview focuses on the epoch-making works from his large oeuvre and was compiled from a series of interviews conducted by Hyugaji Taro, who served as assistant director for more than ten of Matsukawa’s works.

—The Editors


Hyugaji Taro (HT): You once told Noda Shinkichi that you wanted to become a visual artisan. You also said that a creator’s ideas and thoughts affect his filmmaking methods in concrete ways. I feel that I learned that lesson through practical experience during the ten years that I worked as your assistant director. Today I’d like to talk about you and your films. How did you first become involved in the film world?

Matsukawa Yasuo (MY): When I was still very young and unsure of myself, I wanted to become a painter. I intended to apply to art school for college. However, I had an elementary school friend whose father was a watercolor painter, and his father used to intimidate me by saying that in order to become a decent artist you had to practice sketching until you had a pile of drawings taller than you were. I didn’t think I’d be able to handle that and my father, who hadn’t objected before, objected to me becoming a painter as well as a policeman, teacher, doctor and priest. Incidentally, my father had dropped out of a career as a professional painter to become a schoolteacher.

So I entered a literature department. In my third year of college, I made a slide show for the May Festival. If I think about it, I made so many slides for that—under the title “Modern Painting and Humanism”—that it was basically like a short film. It was about an hour long and it dealt with the Mexican mural painting movement. Among the friends I had then, people like Matsumoto Toshio, Fujiwara Tomoko and others who worked on the slides eventually became professional visual artists. I think the fact that I made the slide show actually . . . that led into my decision. Around the same time, I guess, for one winter I took a part-time job at a herring fishery in Hokkaido. I was supposed to go out and fish for herrings, but I would get seasick just standing close to the boat (laughs). I ended up on shore, stenciling the name of the fishery on boxes with the women and children instead. However, after I got back I wrote a detailed account of the week I spent there. I didn’t intend for it to be a scenario at the time; I just recorded what I saw. Later, after I entered Shin Riken Eigasha, I showed it to the president and he was very impressed. He really went overboard on the praise. The year after that the herrings stopped coming completely. It’s the same today.

HT: You also entered the Shingeki-style Budo no Kai company. Were you interested in theater?

MY: The Budo no Kai was a Shingeki theater troupe started by Yamamoto Yasue. It was in the Hongo district, near my university. I applied half for fun and ended up joining. My parents always enjoyed the theater. They used to be in a club called the Tomin Gekijo (Tokyo Residents’ Theater) and we occasionally received tickets and went to shows . . . I went so often that I was probably among the top ten student Shingeki fans. I also wrote some criticism. When I was a child, my parents wanted me to be a Shingeki actor. During the war they put me on stage at the Tsukiji Shogekijo (Tsukiji Little Theater). Kitabayashi Tanie played an old woman for the first time and Kubota Mantaro directed. I had no interest in acting when I was in the Budo no Kai, but I did want to try directing. Incidentally this troupe followed the style of the Moscow Art Theater, which meant that directors also had to act. Sure enough I quit once I met my wife, who was studying with the troupe (laughs). We needed money for the marriage so I became a copywriter for a short time. Then Matsumoto Toshio told me that Shin Riken Eigasha was accepting applications and said I should apply, so I entered Shin Riken Eigasha. I guess I got into film because he dragged me into it. I went on strike at Shin Riken Eigasha and didn’t last a year. After that, again, Matsumoto told me that Nichiei Kagaku Eiga had an opening, so I went there. That didn’t last half a year (laughs). Finally I worked as union chairman. I never stayed anywhere long enough to receive bonus pay.

Around that time, an organization named the Nippon Design Center started up. They gathered together talented and capable people like Tanaka Ikko and Kamekura Yusaku, and I heard that they were going to start a film division. At the time I was a so-called “young director” who had only directed a few 8mm films. I brought my edited CV to them and got a job. There, Suzuki Kiyoji, who was an expert in time lapse photography, Sato Masamichi, who shot the first Japanese color film, and I worked together to make a film called A Grain of Barley (“Hitotsubu no mugi,” 1962). This was practically my first film, but it won the top prize at the newly created Japan Industrial Film Competition and the gold medal at the Tokyo Metropolitan Education Film Competition, and was the first feather in my cap as a film “professional.” Matsuo Ichiro filmed Trans-Japan Pipeline (“Nihon odan paipurain”) with Nakao Shunichiro, and Matsumoto Toshio made a nylon promotional film called I am Nylon (“Watashi wa nairon”) with Kizuka Seiichi. That was their first year of fresh and exciting productions. It was really interesting—one room of a new building filled with those illustrations and captions. It was a somewhat experimental film company, made up of a group of amateurs gathered from independent journalism and the film industry. We all put our bets on making publicity films. That’s also when I met Segawa Junichi. Miyajima Yoshio as well as everyone else . . . were dropouts from Toho. It wasn’t the kind of group you would expect to be together, but we stuck together and made a lot of new connections as a result. Although I had known him from the Eiga Geijutsu no Kai (Image Arts Society), I also did my first real job with Kuroki Kazuo here. I asked him to direct Japan on Ten Dollars a Day (“Nihon 10 doru ryoko,” 1962), which was the first feature film I scripted. After that Horiba Nobuyo, the president of Nippon Eiga Shinsha, asked me to try writing a feature script. That became the starting point for Silence Has No Wings (“Tobenai chinmoku,” 1966). However, maybe because I had been in the Budo no Kai, I felt drama was really unrealistic and I didn’t particularly want to work in the feature world.


HT: The Satirical Animal Scrolls (“Choju giga,” 1966) was the first film you wanted to direct yourself, as opposed to an assignment, correct?

MY: That was around the first time I refused a job. I think I was about thirty-five years old. My second child was about to be born, so I wasn’t really in the position to turn work down. But I was so lazy. After that the phone stopped ringing and I stopped getting jobs. One day Fujiwara Tomoko came to visit me and there happened to be a copy of Iwanami Photographic Publications’ “The Satirical Animal Scrolls” on the table. We talked about how unfortunate it was that I didn’t have work and she said, “why don’t you try something like this?” That was how it got started, and she volunteered to take the role of negotiator. We decided to make the film with Fujiwara Tomoko, Onuma Tetsuro, Sugiyama Masami, Sugihara Setsu, Tomizawa Yukio and Segawa Hiroshi. First we made a request for the filming at the National Museum and they turned us down point-blank. They said Disney held the copyright and at that point we were already too late . . . We went back many times over nearly a year to negotiate. Eventually we learned that Disney had the copyright for a picture book and it had absolutely nothing to do with rights for film adaptation. Fujiwara Tomoko and Sugiyama Masami’s tenacity in pursuing the issue that far is really what made it possible for us to make the film. I had some hostility toward Disney then. I figured that Disney would edit the material in a certain way and I decided there was no way I would animate objects in our film.

HT: So instead of making an unmoving object move . . .

MY: Right. Instead, I wanted to gaze or stare into the scrolls without making them move. I suppose the first thing I did was make storyboards. In order to draw them I bought full-size copies of the scrolls. That cost about 20,000 or 30,000 yen and was our first major expense. The real scrolls are a treasure even among national treasures. You can’t so much as touch the box they’re stored in. So I drew a lot of sketches to show how I would shoot certain parts of the film: a panoramic shot of the frogs’ sumo wrestling, a close up of an eye, a close up of a foot . . . I drew a mountain of sketches like that, probably about 300 or so, and hung them up on the wall. Then my first idea was to use one long tracking shot of the entire narrow scroll from start to finish and follow that with close ups of the frogs and what not. Putting the pictures together like that seemed like it could take a lifetime.

HT: You couldn’t easily film the originals so you ended up with time to plan.

MY: Since we didn’t have a lot of time to examine the scrolls themselves, we did make-believe movie making for a few months. We put the film together on paper. The actual filming finished very quickly. We set up and filmed over three or four days, from five to nine o’clock after the museum closed at night. The shot size and everything was planned out beforehand, so we rushed through the work like an assembly line.

HT: Did the actual editing go according to plan?

MY: As a matter of fact, when we tried putting it together according to plan it didn’t quite work out. There wouldn’t have been any tension at all if it did. What was really frightening—and I’m not sure what started it—was that the shots started to wander. The six other irresponsible members of the crew started to wander too. I felt as if I had taken a cold shower, as if I was the only one serious about it, while the rest of the crew played mahjong. They’d say “Hey, this doesn’t work, Matsukawa” and then slap down the mahjong tiles (laughs). When things worked out well they’d say it was collaboratively directed, but when something went wrong they’d blame it on me. “Well, Matsukawa’s the director . . .”

HT: I think what you described as “gazing” or “staring” earlier could be considered one main characteristic of your filmmaking style. At the same time, in The Satirical Animal Scrolls you depicted the turbulence of the era, something that wasn’t drawn in the scrolls themselves. Even now, the film hasn’t lost that sense of actuality.

MY: That was the trick. I wondered if by staring at blank sheet you wouldn’t just start to see the rough texture of the Japanese paper and nothing more . . . Say you have a piece of paper or something that someone made 1,200 years ago. Even without some sloppy drawing on it, isn’t the paper itself a kind of proof of existence? That’s the kind of “gaze” I tried to use in the film. That’s a really important . . . it overlaps with the kind of perspective shown in Godard’s films. I tried to grasp the space of the paper itself, that other, different space, and look at the temporal difference. For example, there’s the space of the rabbit; one fictional world represented up by that extremely accurate drawing of the rabbit. There’s also the world of the paper itself, which stretches back to the place where the paper was made 1,200 years ago. Then there’s the space of us fumbling around in the 1960s, when we decided to make a film. If you look, there are a number of different “spaces” involved. I thought the scroll was wonderful in the way that it combines those various spaces—like a Cubist object—and imagines different spaces and transcends them. In other words, instead of stopping at the level of the Disney world with the rabbit and frog playing around, I wanted to expose the totality of those spaces. Mamiya Michio’s experiments with the film’s music were outstanding too. He called some total amateurs together, had them yell “wah!” and “gaa!” and forced those voices together with those of the chorus group to construct the music as an object. Without a doubt, we tried some very experimental things in that film. I’ve done similar things in other films. I think you could say that Godard’s work is what pointed me in that direction.

HT: Your trial and error in editing that film led into your later ideas with storyboard editing.

MY: That’s correct.

HT: But later you would draw the storyboards after filming. You’d watch the rush prints in a viewer and draw the storyboards shot by shot.

MY: Yes, this was the only time I drew storyboards before filming. I didn’t want to hamper the cameraman’s freedom to make his own discoveries while shooting. But the experience did teach me how to think with pictures.

HT: I remember drawing the storyboards for you one time that you were busy. I realized then that to draw is to look very carefully at something. You start to see every nook and cranny of each shot.

MY: That’s absolutely right. You can see the trees in the background waving in the wind, or the plovers (chidori) staggering (chidoriashi) along (laughs). Then, like mahjong tiles, you start to see the cuts you want, the ones you don’t and the places where the cuts don’t connect well, and you’re able to fix them. As the line in Lautreamont’s poem says, “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” When you stare at the storyboards hung up on the wall, you start to notice new things. Like the poem says, you make connections you wouldn’t have made before. If you think in terms of just words and meanings you wouldn’t find them.


HT: Next I’d like to ask about A Lump of Clay (“Tsuchikure,” 1972, YIDFF ’95), the film you made about sculptor Kinouchi Yoshi’s workshop without any verbal narration. Afterwards you made a number of films without narration, such as Hands (“Hands: te,” 1975) and The Flower Labyrinth (“Hana no meikyu,” 1986), but I think A Lump of Clay very clearly demonstrates your idea that films should be made of images
and sounds.

MY: At first, I was asked to just write the script. However what I wrote didn’t take a scenario-like form; it was more like poetry. In fact the director, who came from the world of feature films, was rather perplexed by it. Kinouchi Yoshi liked my script though, so we decided to make two films instead of one. The “feature” portion took precedence, and afterwards we shot some footage of our own. The film I made is seventeen minutes long, but we only took twenty-two minutes of footage. Pretty incredible, huh (laughs). Kinouchi uses a sculpture technique called terracotta, or fired pottery, so he has to mold the clay into shape very quickly. You pinch the clay into the shape of an instant model, and that’s it. And even though it’s just a brief moment, the clay hardens in your hands suprisingly quickly. Watching him I thought, all right, I’m going to use the same technique in my editing. Even though it was a process of trial and error, trying this and that over and over, I didn’t put my money on one-time editing before or after this.

HT: This was the first time you didn’t use narration. Were you anxious about it at all?

MY: After working with so many talented cameramen, I had learned that images have a language that exceeds words. I started to think that I’d add narration reluctantly, only when I ran into something that absolutely had to be expressed in words. Choosing the right words to enrich the images is an extremely difficult task that requires a talent equal to that of a great poet. I won’t say that we should return movies to the silent era, but even if it is vague, the editing needs to “say” the information you want to express in a film in the same way that you hear sounds and music from the visuals. (Matsukawa’s note: I was a non-film buff with no interest in Ozu Yasujiro, but I’m saying something now, in the year of the Ozu Centennial, that is very similar to what the late director said himself.)

HT: In this and your later works we start to see more expressive hand movements. I remember that when you photographed the craftsman in Doll (“Ningyo,” 1992), you told cinematographer Kobayashi to keep shooting his hands, even if the doll he was making went out of the frame.

MY: If you put a teacup on a potter’s wheel in the middle of the frame as most people would, for example, the image will clearly say, “this lump of clay became a teacup,” but the hands that made that bowl don’t come into the picture at all. The fact that hands have a wide range of expressions of their own just disappears from the picture. At the end of the scenario, I wrote a director’s note: “You’re not filming a hand; you’re filming a spider-like monster in a hole as it does its secret work.”

HT: The montage shows Kinouchi moving from his daily activities to the point where he picks up the clay, with a shot of him sitting in a chair, to his hands, moving faintly as if holding something, the look of the room, him picking up the clay, a cat laying down, and a terracotta cat. Watching this, you can really feel his excitement building up.

MY: During his speech at the premiere screening, I was really happy when Kinouchi said that the Kinouchi in the film was the real him and the person standing on stage was a fake. Another things is the ki-sho-ten-ketsu (introduction, development, turn to a sub-theme, conclusion) structure in writing. To borrow what Kinoshita Junji said, put simply it goes like this: ki—the girls at the thread shop down the alley; sho—the older one is twenty and the younger is eighteen; ten—neighboring daimyo lords kill with arrows; ketsu—the thread shop daughters “kill” (seduce) with their eyes. I learned Aristotle’s definition of drama in my first aesthetics lecture in college and I still draw on it today. Maybe it stayed with me because it was seemingly so obvious, but even now I still find it very important. The definition states that drama must have a beginning, middle and end. It seems very obvious, but it’s really crucial to be conscious of this. Once a film starts it mustn’t stop. It has to keep moving ahead. As a craftsman who developed his intuitive sense after spending many years working on film, I’ve become able to recite that like a kind of spell. You need some kind of narrative device or mechanism or else the story won’t move forward at all. It’s really very simple to just put things together, but people don’t realize that putting things together doesn’t really make them connect. “Beginning.” The story starts there, and has to continue on, without coming to an end. “Middle.” It continues from before without stopping, and has to continue to the end. “Ending.” It ends there, and nothing can follow. Speaking from my own clumsy experience, if you do the sho or the ketsu twice it all falls apart.

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Matsukawa Yasuo

Born in 1931 in Tokyo. Graduated with a degree in Art and Art History from the School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo in 1956. Began freelance work after leaving Shin Riken Eigasha and Nichiei Kagaku Eiga. Won the Grand Prix in the Art Film Category of the Vergamo Film Festival in Italy with The Satirical Animal Scrolls (1966). Has received many prizes for his films, including Izumo Kagura (2002), which won the number one spot on the Kinema Junpo Best Ten list. His most representative works including Hiroshima: Record of the Atomic Bomb and Uneasy Questions are still screened regularly. Worked on nearly 100 films. Wrote the book Making Documentaries (“Dokyumentari o tsukuru”) and has done work in book design and illustration.


Selected Filmography:

  Title / Length / Format / Production / Main staff

1960_ The Story of Printing Paper (“Ingashi no hanashi”) / 20 min / 16mm / Nichiei Kagaku / Goto Jun (Photography)

1962 A Grain of Barley (“Hitotsubu no mugi”) / 30 min / 35mm / Nippon Design Center / Sato Masamichi and Suzuki Kiyoji (Photography)

1964 Japanese Swords and Armor (“Nihon no katana to yoroi”) / 20 min / 35mm / Nippon Eiga Shinsha / Shirai Shigeru (Photography)

1966 Silence Has No Wings (“Tobenai chinmoku”) (Script) / 105 min / 35mm / Nippon Eiga Shinsha / Kuroki Kazuo (Director)
The Satirical Animal Scrolls (“Choju giga”) / 30 min / 35mm / Group of Seven and Eizosha / Segawa Hiroshi (Photography), Ohashi Tetsuya (Sound)

1968 Now Is Then: Shino and the Old Man (“Ima wa mukashi Shino to okina”) / 40 min / 16mm / Tokai TV / Nakajima Hiroshi (Photography)

1969 Reviving Murals (“Hekiga yomigaeru”) / 45 min / 35mm / Nippon Eiga Shinsha / Sugisaki Satoshi (Photography), Kamiguchi Akira (Sound)
Helmeted Men (“Herumetto no otokotachi”) / 70 min / 35mm / Nippon Eiga Shinsha / Hayashida Shigeo and Shinomiya Kiyoshi (Photography), Fukuda Makoto (Sound)

1970 Hiroshima: Record of the Atomic Bomb (“Hiroshima: Genbaku no kiroku”) / 30 min / 16mm / Nippon Eiga Shinsha / Sugisaki Satoshi (Photography), Fukuda Makoto (Sound)

1971 Work Equals Weight Times Distance (“Shigoto ikoru omosa kakeru kyori”) / 30 min / 16mm / Recruit Center / Segawa Junichi (Photography), Ono Matsuo and Ohashi Tetsuya (Sound Design)

1972 A Lump of Clay (“Tsuchikure”) / 17 min / 35mm / Ryueisha / Kiyatake Ryuichiro (Photography), Katto Isamu (Sound), Ono Matsuo (Sound Design)

1973 Japan (“JAPAN”) / 100 min / 16mm / TV Asahi / Tateishi Kiyoshi and Dobashi Koji (Photography), Takegami Takao (Sound)

1975 Hands (“Hands: te”) / 30 min / 35mm / Mainichi Eiga / Sugisaki Satoshi (Photography), Ohashi Tetsuya and Kurosu Akira (Sound)

1976 Constructing Asuka (“Asuka o tsukuru”) / 50 min / 16mm / Shiki Eiga Broadcasting / Segawa Junichi (Photography), Katto Isamu (Sound), Ono Matsuo (Sound Design)

1977 Enku (“Enku”) / 30 min / 35mm / Kagaku Eigasha / Naito Masayuki and Segawa Junichi (Photography)

1979 Uneasy Questions (“Fuan na shitsumon”) / 85 min / 16mm / Tamago no Kai Production Committee / Segawa Junichi (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)

1985 Hikiyama Festival (“Hikiyama matsuri”) / 30 min / 35mm / Hanabusa Eigasha / Ezure Takamoto (Photography), Kato Ichiro (Sound)

1986 The Flower Labyrinth (“Hana no meikyu”) / 30 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yahata Yoichi (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)

1987 Kana Tehon Chushingura (“Kana tehon Chushingura”) / 12 hours / 16mm / Hanabusa Eigasha / Segawa Junichi and others (Photography), Kato Ichiro (Sound)

1990 Living Flowers (“Hana ikeru”) / 54 min / 16mm / Iwanami Productions / Yahata Yoichi (Photography), Kubota Yukio (Sound)

1992 Doll (“Ningyo”) / 34 min / 35mm / Hanabusa Eigasha / Kobayashi Osamu (Photography), Katto Isamu (Sound)

1993 The Past Returns (“Mukashi ga kita”) / 45 min / 16mm / Noson Toshi Keikaku Kenkyujo / Segawa Junichi and others (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)
Village of the Moose (“Ooshika no mura”) / 67 min / Video / Tokai TV / Nakajima Hiroshi (Photography)

1994 Kagekiyo’s Clothing (“Kagekiyo no isho”) / 30 min / 16mm / Hanabusa Eigasha / Yahata Yoichi and
Kobayashi Osamu (Photography)

1995 Calm: Yamada Mitsugu’s Yuzen (“Nagi—Yamada Mitsugu no yuzen”) / 30 min / 35mm / Hanabusa Eigasha / Kobayashi Osamu (Photography), Kato Ichiro (Sound)

1996 Leaving Aomori—The First Year of Jomon—Japan (“Aomori hatsu—Jomon gannen—Nihon”) / 23 min / HDTV / Tohoku Shinsha / Yahata Yoichi and Obora Yosuke (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)

1997 Alchemy: Okuyama Hoseki’s Technique (“Renkin—Okuyama Hoseki no waza”) / 30 min / 16mm /
Iwanami Productions / Yagi Yoshinori (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)

1998 Mori Ogai: A Document (“Kiroku—Mori Ogai”) / 120 min / Video / Engine Network / Kuroyanagi Mitsuru (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)

2000 From Natural Science to Natural Philosophy: Imanishi Kinji (“Imanishi Kinji—shizenkagaku kara shizengaku e”) / 50 min / Video / Sakura Motion Picture / Kuroyanagi Mitsuru (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)
Michi no Oku (“Michi no oku”) / 94 min / 16mm / Nafuru Corporation / Kuroyanagi Mitsuru (Photography), Segawa Tetsuo (Sound)

2002 Izumo Kagura (“Izumo Kagura”) / 41 min / 35mm / Hanabusa Eigasha / Kobayashi Osamu (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)
Yoshino Sakuzo: My Blue Heaven (“Yoshino Sakuzo Mai buru hebun Demokurashi e no toi”) / 44 min / Video / Sakura Motion Picture / Yahata Yoichi (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)

2003 Nakae Chomin: Planting One Seed of Democracy (“Nakae Chomin Hitotsubu no minshu no tane o”) / 50 min / Video / Porque / Yahata Yoichi and Obora Yosuke (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound)