Documentarists of Japan, #23

Sato Makoto

Interviewer: Abé Mark Nornes


Abé Mark Nornes (AMN): Let’s start with school. You studied philosophy at the University of Tokyo. Did you actually go to your classes?

Sato Makoto (SM): Nope. I hardly ever went.

AMN: Japanese seem to have a strange pride about skipping classes.

SM: Well, for me it wasn’t so much pride as it was just playing hooky. I had already started visiting Minamata in my third year of college.

AMN: In mid-semester?

SM: Yeah, in the middle of courses (laughing). I think the first time that I went was in my third year. I joined the film crew of The Innocent Sea (dir. Katori Naotaka, 1983) in my fourth year and was basically in Minamata for half the year.

AMN: Why philosophy?

SM: I had already been reading bits of philosophy here and there in high school so I decided from the start that I was going to study philosophy in the faculty of letters. In reality, I didn’t study very seriously at all. They don’t take you seriously in that department unless you are proficient in German and French. I didn’t take any language courses and I spent all my energy trying to do things outside of the campus, so I really didn’t go to very many classes in college. Nowadays I regret not having done more of that coursework. All those basic things they teach you, like the logical structure of things and how to approach things philosophically, they eventually become very necessary. Wouldn’t you say all those things are aspects of filmmaking?

AMN: I couldn’t agree more.

SM: This is a bit embarrassing, but in our third year we had to choose an area of focus and I chose Hegel. That was because Hegel was about the only thing I knew (laughing).

AMN: In those days, did you have much interest in the arts?

SM: Let’s see . . . the arts. Well, in college I wasn’t involved in filmmaking but in theater. I used to put on student productions with friends, but that didn’t go so well. At the same time I was personally very concerned about a lot of the social issues of the period. I went to college during the late seventies and early eighties, and during that time, if you wanted to go out there and do something about social ills, it seemed like Sanrizuka and Minamata were the only places you could go. Both movements had already passed their peaks by then, but the ’78 occupation of the airport control tower in Sanrizuka happened during that time, as well as the frequent sit-ins in front of the Environmental Ministry as part of the struggle for the rights of unrecognized Minamata disease victims. The citizens’ movements were still very palpable in those two places.

The initial reason I got involved with the Minamata campaign was actually through the theater. There was a man named Sunada Akira who used to do these one-man performances. He had gone to live in Minamata for ten years and decided to use the accumulation of that experience in a one-man show at the Mokubatei in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, which was an old theater usually used for naniwabushi (a sung narrative popular during the Edo period). It was based on a story written by Ishimure Michiko. The production put out a call for help, looking for people who were both involved in theater and concerned about Minamata. That’s how I came to be involved with the movement.

AMN: How exactly did you get involved in the Minamata movement?

SM: I went to Minamata to help out with Sunada’s performance, but separately, I also attended workshops geared towards students and local residents at the Minamata Disease Center Soshisha. It was a program designed to foster interaction with Minamata disease patients by visiting their homes for a day or two and helping them out with their farming, and that kind of thing. Even though I was born in Aomori, my father was an office worker and I grew up in a Tokyo apartment complex. I led an entirely urban existence and really had no connection at all to life in a small fishing village. There was a part of me that was actually more stirred by and attracted to this provincial life of the fishing village than to the world of the Minamata movement. It was during that time that Katori Naotaka, who later directed The Innocent Sea, came to Minamata by himself because he wanted to make a film. He would say, “In any event, I am going to make this film,” but no one ever took him seriously. So then Katori approached me saying, “I’m going to shoot this film in Minamata probably next year and I need some people in Tokyo to help out with production. How about it, Sato?” So it was with this casual intent to lend a hand that I first stepped into the documentary world. I actually think a lot more people than you’d expect fall into this field quite casually like I did. At the time, Minamata appealed very powerfully to my romantic sense of purpose and I was strongly attracted to it. It was like I could smell the action coming off the crew who returned from Minamata. The movement in Tokyo was sluggish, but out in Sanrizuka and Minamata they had their own problems, and it seemed like in those places things were really moving. There was still so much to be done. I would be utterly captivated by passionate accounts of how you could truly feel like part of the movement when you’re out there. So naturally, I was drawn to Katori’s offer to help him shoot a film in a place like that. Also, Tsuchimoto Noriaki was still doing his series on Minamata at the time, but I had been too afraid to try to get into his group.

AMN: You were afraid?

SM: Yeah, I was intimidated. I didn’t think they would give someone like me the time of day. I had only been to Minamata once as a student and had no prior experience in activism up until then. I had no experience in filmmaking either and didn’t even have a clear political vision. I was convinced that there was no way that someone like myself, who was just casually attracted to the movement, could ever be accepted as part of Tsuchimoto’s film group. By then, Tsuchimoto’s Seirinsha Productions already consisted of a proper crew and there was no need to hire students, even for an assistant director position.

AMN: As opposed to Ogawa Productions . . .

SM: Right, nothing like Ogawa Productions (laughing). Like the, “Hey, you like films, kid? Then make me some dinner,” style of recruiting. No, it was nothing like that at Tsuchimoto’s group because he had a very definite theory of how his crew should be. Because I was involved in Minamata, I would of course come across Tsuchimoto at various meetings, sounding off his incisive analyses of the current situation from a cinematic vantage point, but it was like ships passing in the night. He just seemed like such a distant figure, and the members of Tsuchimoto’s group were really pioneers on the cutting edge. The crew of The Innocent Sea was like two generations behind them. Katori Naotaka was a complete unknown then who wasn’t afraid to push his luck. That’s why he was able to come out to the location where Tsuchimoto was shooting his films and declare, “I’m going to make a film too. I’m going to rent a house and live here.” When production actually started and the yearlong residency in Minamata began, I was there for about six months of it. Technically, I was part of the Tokyo production crew so I was in Tokyo half the time, but there was really nothing to do there. I wasn’t interested in going to my classes at university either, so I would go hang out in Minamata, helping out the local fishermen, helping harvest mandarin oranges and drinking shochu with the villagers while listening to their stories. I would come back reporting, “I heard this guy’s story and he’s given us permission to shoot,” etc.


AMN: I see. So it was a very natural move to go from there to Niigata where you shot Living on the River Agano (1993) in that kind of collaborative mode.

SM: You could say that. The first thoughts that come to mind when I start thinking about making a film are basically about living conditions, like what kind of house am I going to rent and where. When we were shooting The Innocent Sea, the first house we lived in stood in the shadows of a cliff by this small river that ran along the border of Meshima and Fukuura. The house wasn’t suitable for communal living and was basically just a bunch of connected rooms with no private space. When I was there, it was a group of four of us, and since it was that kind of open space, we always had a lot of visitors. It was a typical bachelor dwelling like the ones commonly found at Ogawa Productions, so needless to say there was a lot of drinking going on late into the evenings. The more we’d get to know people in the village, the more they would start swinging by the house with a bottle of shochu when they saw that we were still up. That’s really similar to what went on in Ogawa Productions, I think. And that was really lots of fun; living in a place like that and talking to so many different people. You really expand your network of relationships.

AMN: It presumably deepens your relationships too.

SM: Yes, it really deepens and strengthens them. I think that my origins as a filmmaker are deeply connected to my experience of living in that house in Fukuura, leading an Ogawa-esque communal lifestyle without any personal privacy. I was laid back about it then because I was just a student, but in reality it’s actually quite difficult. It’s ultimately best to each have our own private lives, and then to be able to come together as a collaborative unit. Every time I’ve made a film, I’ve rented a house at the location. Even to make a TV documentary in Nagai City in Yamagata Prefecture, I rented a house there for six months. I never rent houses with private apartment-like rooms. I always rent tiny old houses with tatami matting and no partitions other than a sliding paper door. They’re the very image of the Ogawa Productions’ house in Magino, and strangely, that kind of house is what I have always rented. I think that probably by renting that sort of house, I sort of solidified my decision to start filming.

AMN: Were you thinking about Ogawa Productions at that point?

SM: At the time of The Innocent Sea, I was only an assistant director and wasn’t thinking about them at all. A group of young filmmakers that physically moved to an area in order to cover it over an extended period of time was definitely a rarity back in the early ’80s; especially one that was focused on a social issue like Minamata disease. The people of Ogawa Productions, as well as Tsuchimoto and the people of Seirinsha, all helped us out in various ways. The biggest help was the fact that they let us watch all the films that they had made themselves. That was the first time I got to see all of the Ogawa Productions films. From morning to night we watched the entire Sanrizuka series, one after the other.

AMN: Did you watch them chronologically?

SM: Yes, in order starting with Summer in Narita (dir. Ogawa Shinsuke, 1968). When we were in Tokyo, we borrowed cameraman Higuchi Shiro’s family home in Makuhari as a makeshift editing room. When you parted the sliding paper doors there was quite a lot of open space, so we set up a screen there and watched films all day long. We watched all of Tsuchimoto’s films on Minamata, as well as the entire Sanrizuka series by Ogawa Productions in a concentrated spurt before we started filming. We would argue over cinematic approach and methodology and discuss things like how certain scenes were shot and Tamura Masaki’s camera technique. To have watched the entirety of Tsuchimoto and Ogawa’s monumental achievements in independent filmmaking over the course of three days with the crew was truly an intense film experience.


AMN: Since Ogawa and Tsuchimoto have immediately come up, could you talk a bit about your relationship to these two filmmakers?

SM: Considering we set up a communal living situation on the site while filming Living on the River Agano, it’s pretty obvious that in terms of approach and crew methodology I was influenced by Ogawa. And yet the person that I trusted and deferred to the most at the time of shooting was Fukuda Katsuhiko (former member of Ogawa Productions). I also consulted with soundman Kikuchi Nobuyuki (another former member) from the start.

AMN: That doesn’t surprise me.

SM: Fukuda’s ideas of how a film crew should operate, along with his very critical view of Ogawa Productions, were in a way one of my guiding principles while making Living on the River Agano. At that time, the people of Seirinsha and the organization of Tsuchimoto’s group seemed to be far removed from my consciousness. But in actuality, the subject of my film is the same world of Minamata that Tsuchimoto had tackled. So when it came to the question of how to approach and analyze the subject of my film, it was impossible not to be conscious of Tsuchimoto’s technique of capturing the reality of Minamata from the inside, through his balanced analysis of the government and the situation on the ground. And yet in terms of filmmaking methodology, I tended to think more like Ogawa, despite all its flaws and failures that had been pointed out to me countless times by Fukuda and Kikuchi. And so I tried to come up with our own working organizational structure. Another time, Iizuka Toshio came to visit once, right after he had quit Ogawa Productions. I was never really smitten with Ogawa Productions to begin with, but I was always conscious of Ogawa’s presence in Kaminoyama city, just on the other side of Iide Mountain when we were in Niigata. I would think to myself that we should avoid becoming like Ogawa Productions at all costs. But looking back, I do recognize that ultimately we ended up doing very similar things and it caused a lot of problems among the crew over power structure and hierarchy.

AMN: And we cannot forget the issue of money, can we?

SM: The biggest difference in terms of our production styles was the fact that we never borrowed money to fund our films; we only collected donations. For example, you can ask to borrow one hundred thousand yen and of course get a loan, but you won’t be able to pay it back. But if you ask to be given one hundred thousand yen, no one will give it to you because it’s too much; so the upper limit for donations becomes ten thousand yen. So, for example, if you want to raise ten million yen, you’d need to solicit donations from one thousand people, which is an awful lot of work. I thought it was an impossible endeavor, but the director Yanagisawa Hisao and his assistant director Kobayashi Shigeru had actually succeeded in funding films in this way. This genuinely good-natured director who was adroit at cultivating relationships, had at that point already funded four independent films by going around bowing his head and writing letters, collecting lists of names and doing the rounds at organizations, asking each person to donate ten thousand yen. In the case of Ogawa Productions, they borrowed money for their films by capitalizing on the charismatic persona of Ogawa himself. Under the shelter of his influence, his crew would take out loans, which they ended up not being able to repay. They were borrowing money with the foreknowledge that they would not be able to repay it, so needless to say, when Ogawa died he left behind a debt of about a million dollars. So our thinking at the time was to avoid ending up like Ogawa by not borrowing, and to try to raise money through donations as much as possible. That’s why it became necessary to set up a Production Committee, like a sort of citizens’ organization (dedicated to raising funds).

AMN: You know, it’s striking that when most people start talking about documentary in Japan, talk always turns to the work of Ogawa and Tsuchimoto. Sometimes Hara Kazuo and Suzuki Shiroyasu, but always Tsuchimoto and Ogawa.

SM: In my case, I started filmmaking amidst a vortex of direct influences from Tsuchimoto and Ogawa. Because I was inside Tsuchimoto and Ogawa’s intense sphere of influence, I feel I wasn’t able to see the diversity of Japan’s larger documentary scene, which spread out like the skirt of a mountain, far beyond my limited scope. At that time I didn’t have the opportunity to view any other documentaries, and didn’t realize that Japanese documentaries were diversified until much later. For me, it seemed like the first task when starting to make my own film, was how to tackle Ogawa and Tsuchimoto who were spread out before my eyes like a huge wall. Also, at that time I think I was receiving subtle suggestions about the possibility of moving beyond the Tsuchimoto-Ogawa paradigm from Fukuda Katsuhiko, who had by then ventured into making his own films after struggling within the communal vortex of Ogawa Productions.

AMN: Did you think about Tsuchimoto and Ogawa for films after Living on the River Agano? These later films use different methods, staffs, and approaches to documentary.

SM: Yes, yes. After Living on the River Agano, I became naturally able to come up with completely different methods from Tsuchimoto and Ogawa. Even though it was tiny, I was able to establish a base by then, too. I became aware of the fact that if I continued in the same style, it was inevitable that I would end up like Ogawa Productions. And to be honest, that style of moving into a place to do the shoot was so exhausting that I knew it wasn’t going to last.

AMN: And it must only get tougher as you get older.

SM: Right. I remember thinking after the first screening of Living on the River Agano that I never wanted to make a film in that way ever again, or rather, I just can’t. It had been three years of communal living with so many problems with the crew along the way. I remember thinking then for the first time what an amazing achievement it is for Ogawa to have continued in that communal method of production for so long. It occurred to me that within that communal living situation, Ogawa himself must have been so incredibly lonely. Not because of former crewmembers like Kikuchi and Fukuda criticizing him, but on a totally different dimension of isolation. Having lived in groups for over twenty years of his life, I began to imagine that it must have been Ogawa himself who was most tormented by the recurring question, “Why am I doing this?” So that is how I came to feel justified in taking an approach with the crew and filmmaking that was completely different from Ogawa.

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Sato Makoto

Born in Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan in 1957, and raised in Tokyo. Encountered documentary film when he visited Minamata as a student, and worked on Katori Naotaka’s The Innocent Sea. While touring Japan with the film, met people who lived by the Agano River in Niigata and decided to make a film about them. Lived with seven crew members for three years and in 1992 completed Living on the River Agano, which won a number of awards including the Prize for Excellence at YIDFF ’93. Head instructor at the Film School of Tokyo since 1999, and professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design from 2001. Served as juror for New Asian Currents at YIDFF 2001. Resided in London for one year from August 2002 with support from the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Recent publications include Mirror Called Everyday: The World of Documentary Film (1997), The Horizons of Documentary Film—To Undestand the World Critically (2001), Where Film Begins (2002), and Dozing London (2004; all works published by Gaifusha).



  Title / Length / Format / Crew / Production
* indicates TV program

1983_ The Innocent Sea (“Mukonaru umi: 1982 Minamata”) / 81 min / 16mm / Katori Naotaka (Director), Kakesu Shuichi, Sato Makoto, Shiraki Yoshihiro, Sugita Kazuo, Higuchi Shiro / Film Kobo

1992 Living on the River Agano (“Aga ni ikiru”) / 115 min / 16mm / Kobayashi Shigeru (Photography), Suzuki Shoji (Sound) / Living on the River Agano Production Committee

1994 *Diary of Our Birth (“Wagaya no shusan nikki”) / 45 min / Video / Iwata Makiko (Photography), Miyazaki Masao (Co-director) / TV Tokyo “Document Human Theater”

1995 I Want the Sun (“Otentosama ga hoshii”) / 47 min / 16mm / Watanabe Sho (Producer, Photography), Sato Makoto (Editing) / I Want the Sun Production Committee
*Children at a Small Park (“Chiisana koen no kodomotachi“) / 45 min / Video / MX TV
Tsugawa Town: Legend of the Will-o’-the-Wisp (“Kitsunebi densetsu no machi Tsugawa“) / 15min / Video / Kobayashi Shigeru (Photography) / Green Cinema

1996 *Reading Tokyo in Photographs (“Shashin de yomu Tokyo”) / 90 min / Video / NHK / Kobayashi Shigeru (Photography), Daishima Haruhiko (Producer) / NHK
Minamata Disease: Video Q&A (“Minamatabyo bideo kyu ando e”) / 30 min / Video / Excerpts from: Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s Minamata Series / Siglo
*Rainbow Bridge: The Long Challenge of Local Independence Connecting Agriculture and the Kitchen (“Niji no kakehashi: Daidokoro to nogyo e no nagai chosen”) / 45 min / Video / Matsune Hirotaka (Photography) / TV Tokyo
Essence of Nadya (“Naja no mura”) / 118 min / 16mm, 35mm / Motohashi Seiichi (Director), Sato Makoto ( Editing) / Sasuna Film
Sunday at a Nursery School (“Hoikuen no nichiyobi”) / 20 min / 16mm / Toyokawa Nursery School Fathers Association

1998 Artists in Wonderland (“Mahiru no hoshi”) / 93 min / 16mm / Otsu Koshiro (Photography), Kubota Yukio (Sound) / Siglo

1999 *10 Years Between a Japanese NGO and Banana Village (“Nihon enu ji o to bananamura no junen”) / 60 min / Video / Uryu Toshihiko, Yamada Takenori, Yanagida Yoshikazu (Photography) / NHK
Letter from a Goddess (“Megamisama kara no tegami”) / 30 min / 16mm / Kasama Film

2000 Self and Others (“Serufu ando azazu”) / 53 min / 16mm / Tamura Masaki (Photography), Kikuchi Nobuyuki (Sound) / Eurospace
Where is Grama Zheng’s Homeland? (“Chon obasan no kuni”) / 90 min / 16mm / Han Tadayoshi (Director, Photography), Sato Makoto (Editing) / Siglo

2001 Hanako (“Hanako”) / 58 min / 35mm, 16mm / Otsu Koshiro (Photography), Tsurumaki Yutaka (Sound) / Siglo
The Pleasures of Expression (“Hyogen to iu kairaku”) / 40 min / Video / Otsu Koshiro (Photography) / Siglo
The Markets Greatest Strategy (“Shijo saidai no sakusen”) / 25 min / 16mm / Miyatake Yoshiaki (Photography) / Aomori Art Museum

2002 Nojiri Hoei, Scholar of the Stars (“Hoshino bunjin: Nojiri Hoei”) / 48 min / Video / Yanagida Yoshikazu (Photography), Takizawa Osamu (Sound) / Poluke

2004 And Life Goes On (“Watashi no kisetsu”) / 107 min / 16mm / Kobayashi Shigeru (Director, Photography) / Sato Makoto (Editing) / And Life Goes On Production Committee
Memories of Agano (“Aga no kioku”) / 55 min / 16mm / Kobayashi Shigeru (Photography), Kikuchi Nobuyuki (Sound) / Kasama Film
The Japanese SDF Dispatch to Iraq Seen Through Arab Eyes (“Chuto repoto: Arabu no hitobito kara mita jietai iraku hahei”) / 43 min / Video / Najib El-Khash / Siglo

2005 Out of Place (“Auto obu pureisu”) / 137 min / 35mm / Otsu Koshiro (Photography), Kurihara Akira (Editing) / Siglo

Works directed by Sato Makoto unless otherwise noted.