Documentarists of Japan, No. 8
Our second interview of this issue is with the famous director of photography, Tamura Masaki. We have always felt here at Documentary Box that the word "documentarist" does not apply only to the director, but also to many of the other members in the staff without whose creative input a documentary film could not be made. We thought Tamura, who was cameraman on most of Ogawa Shinsuke's great work, was a perfect choice to help us see a different perspective on documentary filmmaking. Since Tamura will be serving on the jury for the Asian program, New Asian Currents, at this year's YIDFF, we asked one of the jurors from the YIDFF '93, the filmmaker Kanai Katsu, to interview him.
Kanai: When I see your camerawork, Tamura, I notice a certain perseverance and wonder if it's not because you were born in Aomori. Would you mind telling us a little about yourself?
Tamura: I don't know if it has anything to do with being from Aomori. Do you mean what they always say about the perseverance of people from northern Japan? I don't think it's uniquely a northern trait. Anyway I grew up in Aomori City. I do films now, but when I was in high school, I was desperate to join the world of either television broadcasting or theater. At the time, things weren't going so well with going to a university, so when I heard there was a television school, I immediately rushed to Tokyo. I'm glad that I came to Tokyo, but when I entered school and started making TVs, I realized that I had made a big mistake and that I was in a school for making television sets. There was nothing else I could do, so I quit part of the way through. Thinking that I had to do something, I started looking around and found a want ad in the newspaper for an animator at a puppet film production company. I didn't know anything about film animation but luckily not very many people responded to the ad. That's how I began to learn about animation. Puppet animation that is, not like the animated cartoons popular today.
Kanai: How many years did you stay with that?
Tamura: I was there for two years. Something happened and the company went bankrupt the second year. That really small company was professional though, so when they made something, technical and lighting specialists from the film world would come and join us. Later on I realized that these people were from the independent film world.
Kanai: The Free Filmmakers Association?
Tamura: Yeah, that's right. People from the red purge. Anyway, that's where I learned lighting and technique. When the company went broke I decided that I wanted to stay in the film industry»-from that time on I knew that I really wanted to keep making films. So I asked around but the only person I knew in other film-related areas was the lighting person. The cameraman was from the puppet animation production company, so while acting as his assistant, I also helped out with the lighting. At the time I wanted to shoot something else besides animation, so I asked the lighting person but I was told that my build and my personality weren't suited for a career in lighting. At the time it was a really physically taxing job»-all the equipment was cumbersome and heavy. I think that must've been the reason. Despite that though, he introduced me to the photography manager of the Free Filmmakers Association and from there I was dispatched to Iwanami Productions.
Kanai: So you weren't an employee of Iwanami?
Tamura: No, I had a non-employee contract because Iwanami only recruits university graduates.
Kanai: Even in their photography section?
Tamura: For their regular staff, yes. I heard that those who apply to work at Iwanami Bookstore who don't make the cut are moved into film production. I don't know if this is true for all employees.
Kanai: But wasn't Iwanami a huge presence in your life, surrounded by great colleagues? At the time Iwanami was a real force in documentaries, especially their avant-garde documentaries.
Tamura: Iwanami Productions' vitality overlapped with the period of high economic growth and therefore with the PR film. The avant-garde spark never really caught fire.
Kanai: Before that there was Hani Susumu.
Tamura: I learned of Hani later on. When I was there I didn't know Hani. When Hani started making films again at Iwanami it must have been the second of the two years that I was there. When I showed up at Iwanami, I got the impression that it was a really lively company going in all sorts of directions and I was kind of overwhelmed. At the beginning there was nothing for me to do, for months even, but they still paid me - it was really great. I showed up everyday. I had a lot of spare time, so when someone was working on something I would go into the projection room and look at the film rushes. They were of dams, shipyards, and steelworks somewhere, and construction sites, the sea, mountains, and all sorts of things. I thought they were really impressive even if they were PR films. At that time I had no idea that I wasn't supposed to look at other peoples rushes without permission. I was reproached for it once. I started out just watching these rushes but I really wanted a job working on them. And then I was told that I would be working with an assistant cameraman and was introduced to Suzuki Tatsuo. Oh yeah, the guy who reproached me was the director of the first film I worked on.
Kanai: Suzuki was still the chief assistant cameraman at the time?
Tamura: When I worked for him, it was his last film as chief assistant.
Kanai: Who was in charge of camerawork then?
Tamura: A person called Aoshima. He quit the industry and came to work on documentaries.
Kanai: At that time the five major commercial companies were having difficulties and Iwanami took the lead and became really influential in documentary production. They were really dynamic. Cameramen like Kanau Mitsuji and Suzuki Tatsuo generated that dynamism and quite a large number of cameramen really shone. Even in fiction film: Kanau went to Ishihara Productions. It seemed like they had something different from regular feature film cameramen.
Tamura: I think it might be related to Iwanami's photographic technology or equipment. For example, right at that time, the five major film companies were supposed to be coming out with Cinemascope, but the majority of films were still black and white, they used blimps on their NC Mitchell cameras, and they still used a Japanscope lens which wasslightly lower quality than the lens used at Iwanami.
Kanai: At Daiei they would attach an anamorphic lens in front of the master lens in order to make it into Cinemascope. We filmed with both lens together. I used to do that.
Tamura: Quite an acrobatic technique.
Kanai: Right. At the time lights were, as you mentioned before, large and cumbersome and not very strong. And the film ASA was really low, so we used a 2.8 f-stop on the set. We used a crane, f-stop 2.8, and a 100mm lens. Using the anamorphic and the master lens at the same time was a pretty tough job.
Kanai: With the Mitchell, it's not single lens reflex, so the cameraman can't see. Whether it's in focus is something you deal with at the rushes (laughs). Iwanami's technique had more to do with sensibility than technology. People at the five majors were stuck in the established way of feature film production. This isn't very nice but, they weren't very flexible (laughs).
Tamura: They're still like that (laughs). Using a telephoto lens with a Mitchell is pretty difficult. Iwanami used an Arriflex with a single lens reflex, so it was pretty easy.
Kanai: With documentaries, if you don't blaze your own trail as you go along, things just don't work. Many cameramen are pretty flexible in this way. I think it's a question of a new sensibility rather than of technology. If the people before you create a new vision, it's only natural that those who follow will naturally incorporate it. I think what opened things up was Suzuki Tatsuo's camera on Silence Has No Wings ("Tobenai chinmoku"). It was the apex of the new sensibility of the cameraman. Up to that point I had been doing camera work too, but when I saw that film I thought about quitting. When I thought about chasing after butterflies in a thicket without stirring an inch, I realized that my body just wasn't built for that. When I returned home that New Year's and I watched the Bolshoi Circus on TV, I thought guys with that kind of body could have a cameraman's sense, could become a cameraman and follow those butterflies. My body's really stiff so I thought I'd better quit and become a director instead (laughs). Did you work on Silence Has No Wings?
Tamura: Yeah, I did. I mentioned before that I worked on Suzuki's last film as chief assistant cameraman. When that was over, Suzuki made his first film as a full cameraman which I worked on as well. Then thanks to Suzuki's introduction, I worked on Kuroki Kazuo's My Love Hokkaido ("Waga ai Hokkaido"), on which Shimizu Kazuhiko was the cameraman. I learned a lot from this film: it was shot over the span of a year in Hokkaido in color and Cinemascope. Iwanami's ma lens at the time was excellent, the best. During that time, Suzuki was doing really great work on documentary series, especially his films with Tsuchimoto. Unfortunately, their respective work ended and there wasn't very interesting work at Iwanami. Someone from the B or C crew would call Suzuki over to shoot this or that. Sometimes I would get called in and we would shoot something together. Things continued this way until I left. I shot this and that for two years and then my contract ran out. Those two years were a kind of stage in my life. Anyway, the company became a minor one and perhaps more importantly, everyone got tired of PR films. After that, people who'd been with Iwanami for a long time left about then, even full employees. At the time, there was a real stimulus, especially from Europe. A lot of things happened afterwards, but everybody had experienced that stimulus and after about two years, everybody got together and made Silence Has No Wings. Suzuki was born with that sensibility or camerawork: it was really good, perhaps because of his athleticism. Doing that with a Mitchell camera would, of course, have been unthinkable. At Iwanami, using Arriflex cameras was taken for granted. Were small-size cameras used at the five majors?
Kanai: For documentaries, Mitchells were only used in the case of special scenes.
Tamura: At the time I thought that Mitchells were special: at Iwanami, we would go and borrow a Mitchell if we ever needed to shoot something like a synchro scene. For a Cinemascope camera, we altered an Eyemo. The excellent lens that I mentioned before was a Japanese Kowa Prominar made for America. That's what we used at Iwanami: unlike the separate units that you used, ours came in one piece.
Kanai: When they're all in one piece, they're heavy and the balance gets thrown off.
Tamura: Heavy and large.
Kanai: When you do a hand-held shot, the front goes like this and the center of gravity is completely different.
Tamura: The Cinemascope camera for hand-held shots had a large lens which is kind of like an adapter, but since the Eyemo is small, if you support the lens then it's actually quite stable. There were people at Iwanami who took these things into consideration when remodeling the cameras.
Kanai: The success of documentaries is not completely based on the dictum that "Necessity is the mother of invention," but it is true that, depending on things like where one shoots, one does have to keep inventing ways to shoot or create equipment adaptable to the situation in order to shoot it well. In this way, documentary cameramen are quite different from cameramen who work in commercial film companies.
Tamura: That's probably true. Come to think of it, this is probably obvious, but the puppets we used for animation were about 15 to 20 centimeters tall: their bones and joints, the sets, the furniture and utensils inside of the rooms in their houses, the scenery - everything had to be made by hand. All by only a couple of people. When all of that was nearly finished, the professionals would come and join in, and filming would begin. That was how it was. So I did all sorts of things like painting and working with wood and metal. I've always liked to do these sorts of things, so it was really interesting.
Kanai: All of that must have come in handy when you moved to Ogawa Productions.
Tamura: Yes, it did. The things that were necessary or wanted were made for the next Iwanami film. Of course they already had large things like cranes and dollies, so it was more of a demand for lighting and electronics. There were technicians who would rebuild equipment and respond to requests like for more convenient equipment. I closely watched and learned from this process.
Kanai: Did you do anything with Ogawa Shinsuke at Iwanami?
Tamura: The last half of Kuroki's film My Love Hokkaido. At first Higashi Yoichi was supposed to be the assistant director but for various reasons Ogawa was brought up in relief and replaced him. That's when I met him. At the time we were both assistants, and while I knew about him, we hadn't worked on anything together.
Kanai: So when Iwanami lost its momentum - I'm not sure if this happened before or after - several excellent directors like Kuroki, Tsuchimoto, and Higashi left. Of course, it's only natural that Iwanami would lose its vitality if these directors left. Anyway, this group of directors went on to make their own films as independent productions. Ogawa Shinsuke's Sea of Youth ("Seinen no umi") was the first wasn't it?
Tamura: Yes, he made that after he left Iwanami.
Kanai: Were you part of the project?
Tamura: I worked on it.
Kanai: Ah, you worked on it. I saw it at the last Yamagata Film Festival - I had missed it. When they bring out the signboard the first time, it's really unique and interesting.
Tamura: That scene was shot at the very end. Not having any idea of what would be good as a conclusion for a film, or rather as a conclusion for the act of shooting, we were at our wits' end. Then we got the inspiration to start with it. It came just like that.
Kanai: The next film that really surprised me was The Oppressed Students ("Assatsu no mori").
Tamura: I didn't work on that.
Kanai: Who was the assistant cameraman?
Tamura: I think it was someone named Kawana but I don't really remember.
Kanai: Was it Otsu Koshiro for Sea of Youth?
Tamura: Otsu and Okumura Yuji.
Kanai: Is Okumura about the same age as Otsu?
Tamura: They're probably about the same.
Kanai: Finally, the name "Tamura Masaki" appears as a cameraman and the first thing you worked on was Ogawa's Sanrizuka series.
Tamura: The first one I shot myself was Winter in Narita ("Nihon kaiho sensen: Sanrizuka").
Kanai: How long did it take you to make?
Tamura: Two years, close to two years.
Kanai: What was it like going from being an assistant to becoming a full-fledged cameraman and working as a team with Ogawa?
Tamura: It was the most . . . what should I say? Otsu was the main cameraman for Summer in Narita ("Nihon kaiho sensen: Sanrizuka no natsu") and I participated as assistant and cameraman for the second camera. It was really easy. Otsu was always there, I could shoot things the way I wanted, like film places that Otsu couldn't survey or in ways different from Otsu's kind of thinking. It was really fun. So I said I wanted to shoot in the same way but by myself and that's how I got into Winter in Narita. Once I started though, I realized that there was a really big difference between filming with ease on location and actually having to do a whole film. I was really in a bind because I hadn't put any thought into it. In thinking about how to shoot it and put together the film, I felt like I had no self-training like reading up enough beforehand. I only managed to film the interesting events on the spot as a kind of sport. Naturally, I was scolded by Ogawa. Luckily, because of these scoldings and beatings, I was able to improve.
Kanai: Narita: Peasants of the Second Fortress ("Sanrizuka: Dai ni toride no hitobito") was the next film?
Tamura: There were two or three shorts ones before that one that were also shot at Sanrizuka. Filming these and Winter was really good training. Later on Kuroki mentioned that it seemed like I was "sketching everyday."
Kanai: I still remember the old women in Second Fortress chaining themselves to the posts, but the work on which you really blossomed as a cameraman was the next one, Narita: Heta Village ("Sanrizuka - Heta buraku"). I really thought it was great. Otsu in The Oppressed Students keeps going with close ups until the last scene when he suddenly pulls back. The close ups lead you to believe that the student movement is getting stronger and then in the last scene, he pulls back to show a scattered demonstration march. It's very calculated and has an interesting effect, but it's completely different from your Heta Village where you go out and go through each and every name of the rice paddies and fields. It's really convincing because of your camerawork. I've always thought that it was natural for the person making the film to possess subjectivity, but with super-subjectivity, chance has to be on your side - especially for a documentary film. Like when you went to interview the old farm woman at her place.
Tamura: When we talked on the verandah.
Kanai: When the old lady says, "Have you come to take my funeral picture?" the wind blows in and the reflection of the landscape in the screen door glass gently shakes. Those images really stay with you. In Heta Village those chance moments were on your side and that's part of what makes the film so interesting. In Ogawa's films, in the "Sanrizuka" series about the opposition movement, for the first time the basis for the opposition against the Narita Airport comes out. For the first time, the leisurely flow of village time comes out. An old lady who came as a bride from Choshi in Chiba attaches a red carrot to the end of a white radish penis. The incremental changes in the flow of time are presented really well. It suggests that rushing so much to build an airport only creates pollution. Ogawa's way of thinking about Sanrizuka becomes apparent and your camerawork . . . at the time I thought that you must've been born on a farm when I watched that film.
Tamura: My grandfather was a farmer.
Kanai: Your camerawork really transmitted the feelings of the farmers.
Tamura: Yes, but at first my films had a lot of close ups. From Winter to Second Fortress.
Kanai: Since it's a conflict, one would want to shoot it in close ups.
Tamura: That's right. Filming during those conditions makes you excited and because your subject is full of tension, they can stand a close up. In Heta Village that excitement is contained. It was shot after the conflict had subsided.
Kanai: I think that was a masterpiece, one of the peaks of documentary film.
Tamura: It was slightly relaxed, something you could pull back and watch: objective without being distant. Perhaps it was because I was immersed in their lives, in their sense of time.
Kanai: Then you began working as a cameraman on feature films like Higashi Yoichi's Satori and Kuroki's Assassination of Ryoma ("Ryoma ansatsu") and continued making feature films for a while. How do you think the sensibility and techniques you cultivated as a documentary filmmaker helped you in terms of making feature films?
Tamura: One can really never tell about these things. At the time I didn't really think about the difference between documentaries and feature films - I wasn't conscious of a difference. It was just fun to shoot films.
Kanai: Satori was Higashi's first feature film and Kuroki's Ryoma didn't have much money, so they were both very documentary-like and everybody had to be creative along the way. In that sense, I felt the camerawork was quite original.
Tamura: Really? The feature films I made after things settled at Sanrizuka were with directors I knew from the time I was at Iwanami. To put it oddly, it was less a case of not knowing how to do feature films, than that I rebelled to the degree I didn't know. Sometimes not knowing is actually a strong point. Whatever you did was okay.
Kanai: Among the films I've seen, clearly you were the most impressive in the ones made with Yanagimachi Mitsuo. Like in A Farewell to the Land ("Saraba itoshiki daichi") where the back of the apartment is taken away. Did you take that wall off?
Tamura: Yeah, we had it removed.
Kanai: You took the wall off and showed the rice fields continuing into the distance?
Tamura: Yeah. we removed the wall on the location set and made a window because that was the side with the rice paddies.
Kanai: That was an excellent scene. It was taken from an angle that a feature film director or cameraman couldn't have chosen. And Himatsuri was great too.
Tamura: An unknown strength.
Kanai: Especially the wind. When you used a helicopter to create wind. Anyone would be surprised, thinking, "How'd they do that?" Things like the wind really distinguished the film.
Tamura: It's been used here and there recently.
Kanai: If somebody tries to do it now, people just think, "Ah, it's a helicopter" - it's no good the second time. It doesn't surprise anyone. I'm not sure if it's because of the techniques, talent, or sensibility you learned making documentaries, or whether it was your flexibility, but your films with Yanagimachi turned out really well.
Tamura: In Farewell to the Land, rice growing was very important: it was set in a rural area, so rice was in every shot. I wanted to show different periods and aspects of rice cultivation in a four year story, but I had to shoot everything in about a month and a half. Later when I shot scenes of rice growing in Yamagata with Ogawa for A Japanese Village - Furuyashikimura ("Nipponkoku Furyashikimura"), I already had some experience with filming rice cultivation so things went really well. I had already closely investigated the landscape and differences in rice growth in the stretch from Kashima to Kasumigaura in Ibaraki. And about the wind, there's a scene where the wind comes snaking through the rice paddies into the distance. It starts on this side, but in the end we had a helicopter fly above the rice. The course it was to take was predetermined, of course. In order not to destroy the rice, we got a small helicopter to do the job. It takes a long time to figure out when and how natural wind blows. We couldn't wait that long, so we made running wind with a helicopter.
Kanai: That makes sense. I understand the inspiration. So you already had the foundation for the forest in Himatsuri?
Tamura: The forest in Himatsuri was big, so we used the biggest possible helicopter. We had it fly around in circles above the woods.
Kanai: Then there's Furuyashikimura, which I really like. What was it like making a documentary after such a long time?
Tamura: What was it like? For a film released by Ogawa, it was a long time, but it didn't feel that way. First, I don't really make such a distinction between documentaries and feature films. I'm not really sure why. And actually, in that time, I had been going to Magino in Yamagata every year to shoot. I mainly shot scenes of rice cultivation. Otherwise, I shot really concrete things like climate and mountain trees and water. If you made a mistake one year you had to wait for the next: that's what it's like filming nature. We did that for about seven or eight years. And of course we filmed the villager's stories, which was something we weren't able to do in Sanrizuka. That was Ogawa's idea. In that time, the sensibility I gained was put to work in other films.
Kanai: When you made your own rice paddy, soil was a big factor. The same paddy is really different from place to place depending on the soil.
Tamura: It's extremely variable because the large paddies are made of smaller ones put together.
Kanai: After that kind of research, you built a machine to do experiments with fog currents. What was the fog called?
Tamura: In Furuyashikimura, it's called shirominami or "white south." Furuyashikimura is a mountain village and cold air always comes over the mountain at the beginning of the summer. It always comes over the same mountain to the south.
Kanai: It was really interesting the way you used dry ice for the experiments. Also, you know I was born as a farmer and raised rice since I was little, so I was surprised at the eroticism of the fertilization scene that was filmed with a microscope. The time we went there, Ogawa said that if it was filmed indoors it wouldn't be natural. He said it would be filmed in the rice paddies. You used quite a bit of frame-by-frame photography in the rice paddies, I imagine.
Tamura: The most important stage for rice is flowering and pollination. That's the case for any plant. The first time we shot it, it wasn't frame-by-frame but just slow speed. For a blossoming flower, slow speed seemed like common sense but when we looked at the take it was completely uninteresting: there was motion but no life in the rice. Subtle reactions in the rice to changes in weather, temperature, and the condition of the soil became apparent after several years of repeated filming. Maybe this is exaggerating a bit, but these conditions affected each grain of rice and individual traits of each grain of rice become noticeable. This is why Ogawa was attached to real rice fields. In order to capture that feeling in the end, frame-by-frame photography was more suitable.
Kanai: In the second half of the film when it turns to the village stories, links to the Pacific War come up.
Tamura: We got into Furuyashikimura through interest in the "white south" that I mentioned before. If you film the cold air and the physiology of the rice, the relationship between these people and Nature became clear. We then noticed there's a mountain village, but one where everyone is elderly.
Kanai: It's depopulated.
Tamura: Talk about the mountain and charcoal making was really interesting but as soon as we entered a long discussion, talk about the past would inevitably reveal discontent about the present. It was because all the young and middle-aged people lived in the city.
Kanai: In between Furuyashikimura and Magino Village - A Tale ("Sennen kizami no hidokei") you made several fiction films.
Tamura: I made about five or six feature films between Furuyashikimura and Magino Village. Things went pretty smoothly during that time: I was shooting one or two films a year. Yet for a long time I kept accumulating footage for these two Ogawa films like the "white south" material from Furuyashikimura born of a certain fascination. In that way, we made films like Magino Village. During that time I did several feature films but I would finish them one by one. Ogawa's would continue throughout.
Kanai: Magino Village used actors or Hijikata Tatsumi, but it didn't seem to have much energy.
Tamura: It wasn't energized. Directing actors wasn't his strong point.
Kanai: Take for example the Korean dancers in Hara Kazuo's A Dedicated Life ("Zenshin shosetsuka"). It's an imitation of Magino Village, but it has much more style.
Tamura: Style. Yeah, you're right.
Kanai: If you're going to create a dramatic scene, it needs something more, anything, even the style of someone from north Japan would do. Trying to do everything from old books just turns out unpolished. If you're going to do that, you might as well shoot it unrefined from the start. It's a really great idea to use actors but that part needs a little work. It's tiresome to watch. It's really too bad that Ogawa's last work just doesn't come together.
Tamura: And as a result, it became his last film. At that time Ogawa was limited.
Kanai: For that reason Furuyashikimura . . .
Tamura: Yeah, we heard a lot of stories in Furuyashikimura, too. We thought about getting the villagers to perform in the film, but only afterwards. In Magino Village, people from the village do appear.
Kanai: As an idea, it's really interesting. The problem is the content and how you film it.
Tamura: On top of that we got real actors to play the roles.
Kanai: No, I think that's fine. It just needs to be shot with a lot more appeal.
Tamura: In general, Ogawa's soft on farmers. There was a part of him that was often taken by the historical view that "farmers=poverty." It was like a brake on him. Whether fiction or documentary, his storytelling ability was weak. I wonder if an actual script had been made, whether it would have been better.
Kanai: By the way, you're on the jury for the Asia section of the festival. Could you say a word or two about Asian and Japanese documentaries?
Tamura: How should I say it? Isn't what defines the documentary being questioned again right now in Japan? That came up in another interview I did the other day, but it's not just that. Among everything else, it will be interesting to see what kinds of storytelling Asians use to connect with their works and in what ways those works guarantee that storytelling. But on the other hand, it might be frightening.
Kanai: Last year's Chinese filmmaker . . .
Tamura: Uhh, Wu Wenguang.
Kanai: His film 1966, My Time in the Red Guards was really interesting.
Tamura: It was really good.
Kanai: I'm sure there'll be an unexpected harvest this year. too.
Tamura: I'm looking forward to it.
Translated by Sharon Hayashi
Born in 1939 in Aomori Prefecture. Cinematographer. Began his film career in puppet animation, later moving on to extensive documentary work with Ogawa Shinsuke. Photographed most of Ogawa's films in Sanrizuka and Yamagata. Other works include: Assassination of Ryoma (1974) by Kuroki Kazuo, A Farewell to the Land (1981), Himatsuri (1984), Pao Janfu (1995) - all by Yanagimachi Mitsuo - and Untamagiru (1989) by Takamine Tsuyoshi.
Born in 1936 in Kanagawa Prefecture as the son of a farmer. After working as a camera assistant at Daiei's Tokyo studio, and as a freelance director of photography, he formed Kanai Productions in 1968. He debuted as a director with Deserted Islands (1969) and then independently produced and exhibited his Smiling Milky Way Trilogy from 1969 to 1973. Since then, has directed television documentaries while producing his film series "Books of Poetry in Images." Served as a juror for the Asia Program at YIDFF '93.