The Oyster Factory 牡蠣工場 Dir: Kazuhiro Soda (2016)

Oyster Factory  

Oyster Factory Film Poster
Oyster Factory Film Poster

牡蠣工場  「Kaki kouba

Release Date: February 20th, 2016

Duration: 145 mins

Director: Kazuhiro Soda

Starring: Shinsuke Hirano, Koichi Watanabe, Yukiko Watanabe

Website  IMDB

Earlier in 2018 I had the chance to see three of Kazuhiro Soda’s early films which he made as a student at New York’s School of Visual Arts in the 90s and was surprised to discover he started out making a comedy and dramatic short films with well-contained stories and acting. He is still based in New York but is now renowned for observational documentaries having produced works of the cinema vérité variety that look at communities in Japan starting with Democracy (2007). The Oyster Factory was one I first encountered in the 2015 run of the Vancouver International Film Festival. This 145 minute film looks at life inside an oyster factory and as Soda explores this environment he discovers wider issues about the generational divide through the lack of young people entering the industry and Chinese-Japanese relations as Chinese workers are brought in to help keep two oyster factories running.

Kazuhiro Soda, along with his wife and producer Kiyoko Kishiwagi, takes audiences into the town of Ushimado in Okayama Prefecture. Here he finds the Hirano oyster factory which is run by Shinsuke Hirano. It is one of a number of small places where local men and women have traditionally shucked oysters in modest conditions over many hours of trying physical labour but due to population decline and a lack of fresh blood entering the industry the workers are drying out. There has been a recent influx of workers from China flowing into the area and although Hirano has never employed any outsiders he finally decides to bring in two young men. We meet them as well as other workers at other factories and get a snapshot of the production chain and life in a fading fishing community.

With a handheld camera Soda gets close to his subjects and lets them be themselves. Although they are aware of his presence and interact with him, they are natural and so is he. There is no narration or music to influence us, we simply observe a set of characters over a series of long takes as they go about their days in the tranquil port town. Situations involving the mirthful fishermen and their families unfold quietly as Soda follows interesting characters and listens to them as and when they appear. While there is a lot of the daily grind and repetition, a given since we are watching people at work, there is some drama as the charmingly amusing and active fishermen have to rescue a man who falls into the sea. 

Through Hirano Oyster Factory, the outfit hosting Soda, we see the chain of oyster fishing from hauling in oysters to shucking them to market and we see that the industry is dominated mostly by middle-aged and elderly people, the ladies delightfully spicy in their language and the men a little more blunt. As such we get all sorts of views of the Chinese, outright prejudice from one chap to the older ladies offering gentle encouragement to new starters. The quayside is where we see charming elderly people who are open and amusing and tell a little about the area, Soda is also in on the act, engaged and friendly with the people, probing and he allows the workers to put their own personalities on film, some even teasing Soda about his constant filming of them in one amusing sequence full of miming and laughter. 

One person we follow at length is Koichi Watanabe from Miyagi Prefecture, a stout and good-natured “tsunami refugee” who has a wife named Yukiko and three daughters. Although not related to Hirano he takes on the responsibility of running the factory and we come to learn, through hearing his experiences and those of other people, how inheritance taxes make sustaining a family business tough and also see having seen the laborious process of shucking, understand why sometimes kids don’t want anything to do with oysters which makes it doubly hard. One cannot imagine Koichi’s cute kids sailing the seas to haul up their catch as they tumble around deck intent on having fun instead of learning.

Koichi’s conversations with fellow oyster farmers provide a lot of background not just to the local industry in and around Okayama/Hiroshima but also the situation in the Tohoku region both in terms of fishing and also in terms of the continuing fallout from the Great East Japan Earthquake as we understand Koichi’s reasons for being there and the plight of others who have fled Miyagi. On the opposite end we learn of the Chinese and part of the process of recruiting them. At 150,000 yen for travel and training it isn’t cheap for the factories to bring these people in and we hear tall tales of their behaviour but also get to see the Chinese at work. They welcome being filmed and are relaxed and natural and so we see the good-natured side of them which belies the fear some of the older people had expressed.

Perhaps the biggest sense the film managed to imbue was of longing. There is a longing for the vitality of an earlier age when the industry was a bigger draw but there is also a competing longing to escape. The wife of a fisherman about to take over a factory asks Soda about life abroad and in one revealing line she says, “It’s better to see the world than be stuck in Japan.” 

Communities which the young have fled are increasingly common. There is an oddly stifling atmosphere where time moves slowly and there is a tranquillity that can be experienced in the pace generated by the long sequences. This isn’t to say places like this are boring. They are not. They are full of lively people with experience and thanks to the film we get to know the community who teach us about life in their part of the world and that includes Shiro, a cat who hangs around the film crew and provides delight as he gets familiar with his new friends from America, sort of returning the gaze of the filmmakers.

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