Documentarists of Japan, #24: Oh Deok-soo (2/2)


MT: Were you married at that time?

OD: Yes. I got married in 1971. What is more, I had two children. I don’t really know what inspired her, but my mom sent us thirty kilograms of rice from Akita (laughs). It was our saving grace, and it brought tears to my eyes. Rice and soy sauce and miso. I still remember, even now. Since we were on strike for six years, when the dispute was resolved and I was trying to decide whether or not to go back to work, I was given about five million yen in settlement. At the age of thirty-seven or thirty-eight with five million yen in my hand, I was like Hamlet fretting over whether to be or not to be a Toei employee again. It was during that time that I started spending time with a group of young zainichi. When, in 1972, the North-South Joint Statement was issued (July 4 Proclamation) in the homeland and the issue of reunification was being discussed, a magazine titled Madan (Agora), in honor of July 4, was published. As a zainichi publication that bridged the North-South divide, it had a refreshing feel to it. At that time, in the midst of publications like Kim Il-sung’s A History of the Partisan Conflict and an overwhelming amount of other such propagandistic literature, there were two publications that stood out. One was Ri Kaisei’s (Yi Hoe-song) Akutagawa Prize-winning novel The Woman Who Fulled Clothes (“Kinuta o utsu onna,” 1971) and the other was the magazine Madan. At that time I was sick of South, North, Communist, and whatever else, and so it really seemed like a breath of fresh air to me. My interactions with the group who followed this school of thinking started during the dispute. I was living in Takadanobaba, and it just so happened that the editorial offices for Madan were right near there. The building which housed Kim Dae-jung’s offices was on Waseda Avenue and the editorial offices for Madan were in the same building. Having only been aware of Mindan (The Community of South Korean Residents in Japan) and Soren (League of Koreans in Japan) up until then, visiting their office I realized for the first time, “There are zainichi who think like this too.” I was thrilled and began spending time with them. When the dispute was finally resolved, Madan had already folded. So, there was talk of us starting another magazine that would be a voice for second-generation zainichi. . . . Although the strike had ended, I didn’t feel like going back to Toei for some reason. When I thought about going back to being an assistant director again at my age, I decided that I would rather try to give expression to “zainichi” through film. So, without returning to Toei, I took a portion of the settlement money and published the periodical Jansori (Grumblings) with this group of young zainichi. It was pretty well received.

The first time I depicted “zainichi” on film was in Against Fingerprinting (“Shimon onatsu kyohi”) which was shot in 1984. Starting around that time, I somehow came to be referred to as the “zainichi” film director, and that bothered me the most (laughs). I wouldn’t mind being known as the director of Zainichi, but being labeled the “zainichi” director makes it seem like I only direct movies about “zainichi,” and that is extremely frustrating.

MT: Was it leaving Toei and then your new friendship with that group of zainichi that inspired you to turn to documentary?

OD: Those were probably the main things. More than twenty years have passed since then, but if I had remained at Toei, I would most likely have had a certain stability in my life, but I probably wouldn’t have made Against Fingerprinting or Zainichi.


MT: Did you ever think about making documentaries when you were at Toei?

OD: It didn’t really occur to me. Of course, even now I want to make feature films.

MT: For example, seeing Oshima’s The Forgotten Imperial Army, were you ever interested in that kind of documentary?

OD: No. It’s not that I dislike the film The Forgotten Imperial Army. How should I put it . . . I feel that Oshima’s wings were spread, so it wasn’t a sure thing. This is also the case in Diary of Yunbogi (“Yunbogi no nikki,” 1965) and Band of Ninja (“Ninja bugeicho,” 1967). In his films like Death by Hanging or Violence at Noon or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence there is something coursing through them that is consistently Oshima.

MT: I would like to ask you specifically about certain films. You said that even now you are interested in making feature films, but could you give us your thoughts on, for example, feature films made by other zainichi directors or films about zainichi by Japanese directors?

OD: The film was from 1993, I think. Perhaps it is because the screenplay for Sai (Yoichi)’s All Under the Moon (“Tsuki wa docchi ni deteiru,” 1993) was so solid, but, in any case, the film really floored me. Wow, you can make this kind of film and have it be commercially successful. Without fully understanding who or what “zainchi” are—that is to say, I thought that if you don’t fully understand—you can’t make a good film. But that isn’t the case. Regardless of how much we understand or don’t understand, the audience uses their imagination when they watch. As the fifty-year anniversary of the end of the war approached, the position of zainichi within Japanese society was increasingly becoming reduced to the simple binary of victim-perpetrator of discrimination. Although it is taken for granted, this binary in which the zainichi are the exploited and the Japanese the exploiters can no longer be easily observed. Zainichi are, without a doubt, not Japanese, but they are no longer Korean either. They have become what is called “Half-Korean” or, in derogatory language, Pan-Jokppari (Half-Jap). All Under the Moon presents a schematic in which the zainichi exploit the Filipino new-comers. Because the filmmaker had such a solid insight into zainichi, I was, to be honest, dumbfounded. I was completely in awe. The preview was held at the Ginza Gas Hall, and at that time I told the director Sai, “That floored me.” I couldn’t sleep at all that night, running the scenes one by one through my head. Now, there are all kinds of films like We Shall Overcome Someday (“Pacchigi,” dir. Izutsu Kazuyuki, 2004) and Through the Night (“Yoru o kakete,” dir. Kim Su-jin, 2002) and Blood and Bone, but All Under the Moon was a masterpiece; you can’t beat that. That’s what I felt about the film. And there is one more film which caused a big sensation, the movie Go (dir. Yukisada Isao, 2001). Of course I was also floored by this as well. Kudo Kankuro, who wrote the script, likes rakugo (Japanese comic storytelling), and I found it pretty amusing that the students at the Korean high school were listening to rakugo on their walkmans. That is to say, up until Sai’s All Under the Moon, the portrayal of zainichi was limited to the exotic. They were represented as an unfortunate people who suffered discriminatory oppression, and, of course, we cannot ignore this perspective when we think of the need to educate people who are ignorant of zainichi issues, but it is inexcusable that this was the only possible way of narrating zainichi. That is to say, be it Korean school, the Korean language, or Korean culture and customs, most of these things are not a part of zainichi daily life. Even for the Japanese this is the case with crested hakama or when in the summer they wear yukata to go watch a fireworks display. Or they wear kimono on Coming of Age Day. Considering there are 365 days in a year, these things are not an aspect of daily life. Isn’t it true that an extremely conveniently way of depicting zainichi is to dress them in chogori? For example, in Asian Blue (“Eijian buru,” dir. Horikawa Hiromichi, 1995), they probably did this because it is easy to recognize, but when the zainichi are returning to the homeland, they are all wearing chogori. How ridiculous! If you watch the newsreels from the time, you can see that they are all wearing khaki colored clothing or work pants. Of course one or two people among them wore chogori. In the representation of zainichi, for better or for worse, they have always been portrayed as an exoticized group. It was Sai’s All Under the Moon and Yukisada’s Go that broke out of this. I have a deep respect for these two films, and to be honest, as a filmmaker, I am a bit jealous. I often say to the younger generation, “Show me a film that will make me sick with envy!” I guess it’s because I haven’t come across many films that do this recently. In that sense, these two films are masterpieces that I can highly recommend.


MT: What first motivated you to begin making Against Fingerprinting?

OD: When I was in my second year of middle school, my father brought me to the Family Registry department at the Osarizawa Town Hall, and a full set of my fingerprints was taken. This is expressed in the film, but is just not right to take the prints of the delicate fingers of a young girl. At the local government offices throughout all of Japan, which supposedly began in the post war period as a democratic country that valued human rights, they fingerprinted zainichi children, that is, every foreign child, once they had turned fourteen and then every three years after that. As one who experienced this, at the time and even now, the feeling is too awful for words. In the 1970s, a fifty-something year old man named Han Jong-seok didn’t care so much about himself, but he contended that it was just not right that his sons and daughters would have to undergo fingerprinting, the most common crime investigation tool of the police, at the counter of the family registry division or the foreign registration division of local government offices that were there ostensibly to serve the needs of the residents. Hoping that they would put an end to this practice, Han refused to be fingerprinted, and so he became the individual who instigated the battle over fingerprinting in the 1980s.

The reversal had begun in the late 1960s and continued into the early 1970s, but the ratio of first-generation and second-generation zainichi was inverting. As the number of people who had experienced life in the motherland decreased, the Japan-born second-generation, particularly the young people, rose up and joined the anti-fingerprinting movement. Watching all of this activity and reflecting it back onto my own experience, I felt that, as a filmmaker, it would be a crime not to properly document it. It was August 29, 1984 when the Tokyo District Court handed down Han Jong-seok’s guilty verdict, and that day I started the cameras rolling. At the beginning, I didn’t know whether or not I would ever be able to turn this into a finished work, but I thought that, regardless, I should just start filming. I called up Shinoda Noboru, the cameraman for Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (“Sekai no chushin de ai o sakebu,” dir. Yukisada Isao, 2004) who died on June 22 last year, and said, “Let’s just start shooting.”

MT: Then, OH Kikaku was started as the production company for this film.

OD: Yes. Even though we didn’t have any financial backing. We put the cart before the horse (laughs).

MT: In the film, there are interviews with many different people, but the one that left the strongest impression on me was the interview with the high school girl. You yourself, the director, are holding the microphone and asking her questions. There is the moving scene in which she cries. I think that that scene stands out the most.

OD: That film is not a documentary but really a propaganda film made under the rubric of documentary. After the film, the fingerprinting age was raised to sixteen years old, but power is such that once you have hold of it, you never want to let it go. They weren’t going to let go of such a convenient apparatus that easily. It might be strange to refer to it as their “vested right.” But, it turned into, “If fourteen years old is no good then make it sixteen. If every three years is not acceptable then every five.” Right? “If taking a full, round fingerprinting is objectionable, then we’ll only take a flat print. If thick black ink is offensive, then we’ll use a thin clear liquid.” The only thing that they refused to put an end to is the “taking.” Then we made Against Fingerprinting Part 2 (“Shimon onatsu kyohi pato 2,” 1987), but this time they said, “From now on, we’ll only fingerprint once in a lifetime.” As it was, they would, by no means, give up the act of “taking.” One of the reasons for this was that those in power had a good understanding of what the zainichi represented to them; the system of fingerprinting was devised as part of a management policy toward the Koreans, who the Japanese had colonized for forty years as a suzerain. Although it is an unwelcome equal opportunity, aren’t the Japanese themselves very closely monitored with the copies and abstracts of the family registries and the national resident registry network system? You feel sorry for them. . . . What does it mean to be monitored by the state? At the time, there wasn’t a consciousness of this as a problem, but if people can take this away from the film, I think it is a good thing.

MT: When you watch the film now, you can see that in it.


MT: As for your tour de force Zainichi, hadn’t you originally planned to complete it by the fiftieth anniversary of Liberation in 1995?

OD: Even now, I can’t stop thinking about this. There are the movies that I mentioned earlier, like All Under the Moon and Go or the more recent movies Through the Night and We Shall Overcome Someday and many others. I am going to speak in abstractions, but what in the world is “zainichi?” Recently when you try to determine who “zainichi” refers to, you get caught in a web. Does it refer to nationality? Lineage? Roots? All of these things? As time passes, it gets harder and harder to say.

I don’t know all of the historical details, but all the way up until now, in the one thousand years of history between the peninsula and Japan, there were travelers, castaways, and potters, beginning with Chin Jukan who was abducted during the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who came to Japan from Korea. If you include all of these people in the search for zainichi roots, it gets to be pretty outrageous. At least in the modern history of Japan, Japan secured a provisional victory in the Russo-Japanese War, in which the two countries fought over territorial rights to the Korean peninsula. The Treaty of Ulsa made Korea a protectorate of Japan in 1905, and with colonial rule beginning in 1910, Korea was annexed. There were all kinds of people who came to Japan to earn a living, to make a name for themselves, to get an education, or because they were forcefully relocated. With Japan’s defeat and Korea’s liberation in 1945, most returned to the homeland. However, for some there were things beyond their control; that is, they wanted to return and thought they would some day in the future, but they had a wife, they had children, they had built a house, or they had a business, and it was not as easy as just packing up a suitcase and leaving. So, they missed their chance to go home. These people became what we know as zainichi. I think that a strong deciding factor was the 1950 Korean War. Even though Korea was the land of their birth, it was near impossible to return to a war-torn country. Setting aside differences in ways of thinking, I think that everyone thought of returning home with the defeat of Japan, which meant the liberation of the motherland. While in the sixty years since the end of the war, they kept thinking that they would return home any day, now sixty years of liberation have elapsed, the generations have rapidly shifted, people have passed away, gravesites have been erected, and with this the thought of going home . . . As time has passed, it has become a question of reality rather than desire. There are probably fourth- and fifth-generation zainichi that will move there, but it is no longer “returning home” but rather out-and-out “immigration.” In the film Zainichi, I lift a line from Chekhov’s Three Sisters (“Tri Sestry”): “Someday people will know why such things happen, and what the purpose of all this suffering is.”2

MT: That’s at the beginning of the film, right? Zainichi and Chekhov seemed like an unlikely combination.

OD: When I was a third year student at university, I saw Chekhov’s Three Sisters. I thought, “That is a great line. Someday I’d like to use it” (laughs). Forty years passed before I finally did (laughs). Just like in this line, my father and my mother came here by boat from Korea across the Sea of Genkai. From the port they boarded a local train and traveled for several days. They could’ve gotten off at Hiroshima or thereabouts, but they passed through Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto and through Nagoya and even past Tokyo and Sendai and beyond Morioka until they came to Kazuno in Akita. But why? It’s a mystery. And that is where I, the person that is me, was born . . . if it can be called a mystery. When I look back and analyze my life trying to figure out why I was inspired by filmmaking, I think that it has to have something to do with this. For one thing, I have made promises to all kinds of people to make films. But another thing is, similar to the spirits of the dead who give the prologue in a play or a performance, there are spirits that constantly shadow me, like the spirits trailing those people in the poster for Zainichi. When I make films, I always sense that they are urging me, “Make something good” (laughs).

MT: About how much did it cost to make the film?

OD: I think it was about one hundred million yen in total. Because it took too long to make. The anticipated release date was 1995, fifty years after the end of the war, but it took more than two years beyond that. My wife scolded me, “Get your act together! It’s not just your thing! Do you have any idea how many people you’ve put out both in terms of money and labor?” If she hadn’t said that, I’d probably still be working on it today (laughs). I said earlier that I learned about framing from Oshima. Here I learned that you cannot cut corners when making a film. Of course, when people see a film in which no effort has been spared, they watch it carefully. For example, the review of the film that Tsuchimoto Noriaki wrote for Kyodo News was outstanding. It was extremely polished; it was such an exceptional review that I felt if someone was willing to delve that deep into the work in writing about the film, it didn’t matter whether or not it was a favorable review. And then many members of the general audience commented that the film depicted “the history of postwar Japan” through the figure and experiences of the zainichi. To me, this was the highest praise I could receive. Tsuchimoto wrote that as well, and I received similar letters from many different people. While it unquestionably portrays “zainichi” and though it can be said to be perhaps only one page in the history of Korea, it is the modern history of Japan itself.

MT: It is Japanese history because it is an element that structures Japanese history.

OD: It is Japanese history. Certainly if you can approach Japanese history from this angle, you can also approach it from the angle of “Okinawa.” There are also the “handicapped” and “women” angles. So, if it is women’s history, I think it is also one of the histories of Japan. The newspaper journalists and general audience members that saw the film both sensed this through the film Zainichi. This response pleased me the most.

MT: When it was shown in Akita City, my aunts went to see it, and they had the same thoughts about the film. Particularly because Lake Tazawa and Akita appear. Of course, whenever someone deals with the subject of zainichi, places like Osaka and Tokyo—which are extremely large in terms of their zainichi communities—are always discussed. But you immediately go to local regions of the country such as the market in front of Aomori Station or Chikuho (in Fukuoka Prefecture). That felt really innovative.

OD: You often see places like Osaka or Nagoya and sometimes Hiroshima. But in those cases until now, as is often done particularly by NHK TV, once they show a shot of Koreantown the image is complete. But I thought we’d try something different with this film. I wanted to show as much of the country as possible, not just because I am from Akita. The second-generation zainichi Ha Jeong-ung was one of our subjects, and he was from the Obonai area of Lake Tazawa. And from there we went to each region, like Aomori, Kanazawa, Kyushu, and all around. For this reason, the cost of shooting on location was by no means negligible.

MT: Most of the zainichi that appear in feature films speak in Kansai dialect or Hiroshima dialect or such. So, suddenly seeing zainichi speaking in Tsugaru dialect in front of Aomori Station, I was taken a bit by surprise. Is your next project going to be a similar kind of film?


OD: There are two projects. One is going to be educational in kind. Taking “zainichi” as my angle—it’s going to be different from Zainichi—I would like to make a comprehensive work that would be about a ten volume DVD set. I think I would like to be the producer of this project. I would like to present zainichi history in a way that isn’t overly ideological; it would depict the facts of Japan’s colonization of Korea, as well as the exploitation, the discrimination, and the abductions. But, that would not be it. I would take a broader view. I will probably expose myself to criticism, but I would like to try to properly make a film like this. It would be something like the visual “Textbook of Zainichi History: The Definitive Edition.”

And the other project is—I’m copying Ri Kaisei’s title here—Travelers of One Hundred Years (“Hyakunen no tabibito tachi”). I think that the people of the world, including the great migrations of ethnic groups, have traveled a great deal over the past thousand, two thousand years. The Israelis in particular. The “zainichi” can also be likened to being on a small journey; we are travelers. It might be a journey of indefinite length. In the past one hundred years, which has seen us as travelers who came into being in this modern Japanese history, from the 1905 Treaty of Ulsa until now it is exactly one hundred years. If you count from the 1910 Japanese Annexation of Korea, it will be one hundred years five years from now in 2010. This will be different from the educational project I was just talking about. It will be like a Zainichi Part 2. I am pushing a plan for making about a two-hour long documentary epic. In particular, I would like to place emphasis on the prewar situation. For example, this is just a rumor, but I have heard that there is definitive film footage in Russia showing Ito Hirobumi collapsing after being shot by An Jung-geun in front of Harbin Station in 1909.

MT: I haven’t heard about that. But, I’ve seen an image of An Jung-geun being taken away by the police.

OD: Well, they say that this is sleeping in a storehouse somewhere in Moscow. Though, there are lots of stories like this that are fabrications. I’d like to develop a network and try to meticulously collect this kind of rare footage. In a film that I saw recently, it was out of Manei (Manchuria Motion Picture Studio), Korean student soldiers were pledging their allegiance in the Imperial Palace Plaza. There are a considerable number of images like this. As I painstakingly collect these kinds of images, I am pressing on with the making of “One Hundred Years of Zainichi.” I cannot go to my grave until I have finished this.

(July 15, 2005)
—Translated by Mimi Plauché



1. “The Three Dango Brothers” (Dango san kyodai) was a song from the NHK children’s show With Mother (“Okasan to issho”) that reached the top of the pop music charts in 1999. —Trans.

2. Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters, in Six Great Modern Plays, trans. Elsaveta Fen (New York: Dell, 1956) 86.

Monma Takashi

Born in Katagami City, Akita Prefecture. Film Researcher, specializing in North and South Korean cinema. Currently teaching Asian (including Japanese) film history in the Department of Art Studies at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. Served as Coordinator for the Imperial Japan at the Movies program at YIDFF ’97. Author of the Japan as Seen in Asian Film (“Ajia eiga ni miru Nihon,” Shakaihyoronsha, 1995 and 1996) and other works.