緑の牢獄 「Midori no Rogoku」
Release Date: March 27th, 2021
Duration: 101 mins.
Director: Huang Yin-yu
Starring: Yoshiko Hashima, Louis Leslie Kimura,
Getting its world premiere in the Indie Forum section at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021, Green Jail sees Okinawa-based Taiwanese documentarian Huang Yin-yu continue to trace the flow of people between Taiwan and Japan by using personal stories to illustrate a wider historical picture.
In some ways, it bears a strong resemblance to his 2016 work After Spring, the Tamaki Family in that it touches upon issues of immigration and discrimination, and it also features an elderly woman as the central figure but the tone in Green Jail is markedly different due to the tragic history it uncovers.
The Green Jail of the film’s menacing title refers to Iriomote island and the mangrove swamps that cover what is the second largest island in Okinawa Prefecture. This island had a coal mine that operated between 1889 and 1959 and thousands of workers from Japan’s colonies, especially Taiwan, were drawn by the promise of money. However, once there, it was hard to escape and life was brutal with accidents, disease, beatings, and drug use rife. All that now remains visible is mining equipment and ephemera that lie half-submerged in the swamp’s waters, caught in some of the film’s highly atmospheric shots. This is a slice of wartime history that would have been swallowed up by time and the landscape had director Huang Yin-yu not found long-time island resident Yoshiko Hashima and recorded her testimony in the final years of her life.
Living alone, her family rarely visiting, 90-year-old Hashima is surrounded by memories. She is uniquely positioned to talk about the “Green Jail” since she was the adopted daughter of Yang Tien-fu, a foreman responsible for recruiting Taiwanese miners. Director Huang records her in everyday life activities like shopping and visiting a beach and chasing off chickens who invade her property. Throughout this, Hashima’s voice over recounts how Yang became her father after winning her as part of a bet and took his family to Iriomote to improve their lives and worked his way up to a position of responsibility. What followed for the family were years of shared hardship with the miners, both in terms of physical toil and the mental toll that came with travelling between Iriomote and Taiwan.
Around Hashima’s recollections, Huang Yin-yu arranges an array of artworks, archive footage, photographs, and voice recordings of Yang Tien-fu and other miners who narrate their own stories of everyday life, hardships, hopes, and more. It all compellingly brings the past to the present and gives context to the arc of Hashima’s life and places it within wider narratives of immigration.
There are creative leaps such as the scripted dramatisations of life for the miners. Glimpses of workers in bathhouses, escapees from the mines haunting the forest, and fights are deployed for haunting effect. One gets the sense that this is probably the only way to recapture these small scale stories that history has forgotten. What is most compelling is the voice of Yoshiko Hashima, whose personal story allows us an entry into this history and whose voice steers the film as she unpicks the thread of her melancholy situation.
As we listen to Hashima’s story of people caught up in the seeming arbitrary flow of history, a distinct note of an identity crisis emerges. The family faced hostility from Japanese on Iriomote island for being Taiwanese, and from Taiwanese for having lived in Japan. Politics force them to move constantly and a sort of exile awaited them in Iriomate where they changed their family name from “Yang” to “Hashima” to blend in and opt to mix Taiwanese customs with Japanese as a sort of existential statelessness evolved. We see how it came to affect Hashima and her each of children who are now scattered across Japan, one son having disappeared, and so we understand the present-day circumstances we find her in.
To emphasise this point of statelessness, we get some insight from a tenant living on Hashima’s land, an American named Luis who relates a similar story of moving to Japan in his teenage years due to his own father making a fateful decision to emigrate. Through somewhat fluent Japanese, he speaks of his own sense of being an outsider and his search for himself. While Luis has youth on his side and a hope for renewal, Hashima is in her twilight years. With family snapshots of kids who don’t visit, memories of discrimination, this forms a tragic note of hardship and loss that comes with immigration.
One might say that it forms a sad counterpoint to Tamayo Tamaki of director Huang’s earlier film whose family often visit and who is able to return to Taiwan for one last visit, but Hashima herself is defiant to the end. Though her situation and history is sad, she has the strength to recount it and keep living her days. It is thanks to this strength that she can tell the world a bit of Japan’s past that was threatened with fading into obscurity as well as marking her place in history through a universal story of a search for a better life through immigration.