Currently underway at the Japan Society is a season of films made up of the works of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi, all of which can be streamed in the US (and in some cases, Canada) via their virtual cinema.
Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi are a husband-and-wife team of filmmakers who emerged out of the Japanese New Wave.
Hara started out as photographer with an interest in disability after working at a school for disabled children. Kobayashi was an aspiring screenwriter living with the effects of polio. They met when Hara had his first photographic exhibition in Ginza in 1969 with the subject being the pupils at the school he worked at. Their relationship grew quickly from being acquaintances to becoming artistic collaborators with the founding of Shisso production and the making of their first film – with Hara as director and Kobayasi as producer – before culminating in their marriage in 1973.
Influenced by the social unrest at the time and inspired by New Wave figures such as Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, Hara and Kobayashi began to explore the lives of the underprivileged and iconoclasts through deeply humanist and challenging documentaries done in cinema vérité style. Their films are a realm where the camera not only documents what is going on but also acts as a tool to render their subject more open to intimate involvement with the filmmakers. The end result is that the “protagonists” expose their private lives in moments that move the film away from any sense of objectivity and moral judgements. Boundaries of various kinds disappear and viewers are left with a document that is quite revealing on both a personal and societal level but also challenging in how we regard the subjects and their position in society.
The film of Hara and Kobayashi have gone on to be highly regarded around the world with many documentary filmmakers citing them as inspirations. To understand the impact of their works, Japan Society has put together a career-spanning online retrospective that celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the founding of Shisso Productions. This retrospective series includes nearly all of the pair’s films, starting with their first production, Goodbye CP (1972) and culminating in their latest, MINAMATA Mandala (2020).
Highlights include The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which follows a veteran named Kenzo Okuzaki who enlists his wife and some others to join him in a crusade to expose war crimes that took place in World War II; Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 sees Hara turn the camera on his own life and document the fallout of his marriage/divorce with radical feminist, Miyuki Takeda; and the rarely-seen The Many Faces of Chika—the pair’s only narrative feature. Also featured are their most recent works such as Reiwa Uprising, which charts the political fortunes of candidates in a newly established leftist political party, and MINAMATA Mandala, which was shot over 15 years and documents the legal and medical battles endured by the residents of Minamata, a city where some of the populace suffered the infamous neurological disease due to industrial wastewater from a chemical factory causing severe mercury poisoning.
In order to get a better sense of the season, the curator, K. F. Watanabe, gave an interview.
I first encountered Kazuo Hara’s films via a BBC broadcast of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On in the early 2000s. What was your first encounter with the works of Kazuo Hara?
It was much later than you, in 2014, my first year working at Japan Society. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On was included as part of a two-part film series in tribute to the critic Donald Richie, who had just passed away, guest curated by Kyoko Hirano, the former director of the film department at Japan Society for many years. We screened a 16mm print. I was blown away.
Documentary filmmakers have so many approaches, from observational to participatory. Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi’s approach is called “action documentaries.” Can you give an overview of what this is and how its approach?
Pat Noonan—who translated Kazuo Hara’s excellent book Camera Obtrusa (2009, Kaya Press) with Takuo Yasuda—describes the approach this way: “[Hara] uses his camera to create a type of ‘action’ that entertains while forcing his subjects to expose societal and historical truths they would rather ignore.” So, it is a type of boundary crossing enabled by the apparatus of the camera that Hara describes as “invading the realm of privacy.” Hara goes on to use the term to distinguish his approach from observational documentary filmmaking as it was practiced by Shinsuke Ogawa: “I try to forcibly generate action with the camera,” he writes, “I try to wrench it into existence. With deliberate force.”
Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi are given equal billing in this season.
Yes, this is important. Kobayashi is integral to all but one of the films as a collaborator and producer—essential and influential roles that are often easy to overlook. The series is also marked by the 50th anniversary of the establishment of their independent production company Shisso Productions, so it is only appropriate to give recognition to its two founders and filmmakers. I must mention that this was especially encouraged to me by my JAPAN CUTS programming colleague Joel Neville Anderson, a PhD who has written about and interviewed Hara and Kobayashi a few times. We had the pleasure of welcoming Hara and Kobayashi to Japan Society to screen their film Sennan Asbestos Disaster at JAPAN CUTS in 2017. Her importance to the production of these films become more apparent to me then, especially during the Q&A. Looking back on the early films such as Goodbye CP and Extreme Private Eros, this becomes very clear.
In recent years there have been an increasing number of screenings of Hara’s works but this seems like the most comprehensive thus far. Is that the case?
I haven’t looked into it, but I believe so. Many smaller retrospectives and screenings focus on the early films, but this series includes the recent documentaries and even their newest one MINAMATA Mandala, which is just making festival rounds now.
Can you explain Hara and Kobayashi’s impact on documentary filmmaking and their place in the Japanese film world?
I’m not qualified to say with much authority, but they are among the most significant and singular Japanese documentarians in the history the practice, standing among greats such as Noriaki Tsuchimoto and Shunsuke Ogawa in terms of importance while carving out their own unique approach and methodology that has doubtlessly influenced generations of filmmakers. The Emperor’s Naked Army alone is enough to include them in world documentary history books. Today, their documentaries continue to show us parts of Japan we don’t get to see anywhere else.
In terms of selecting the works, what were your criteria and were there any limitations?
We were lucky in that nearly all the films were licensed and sourced from only two companies, Janus Films and Shisso Productions, so that made things easier. We wanted to be as complete as possible and I believe this is nearly complete except for My Mishima from 1999, a film they made with Cinema Juku workshop participants, and TV work.
From Goodbye CP (1972) to Extreme Private Eros: Love Song (1974) to Reiwa Uprising (2019), this season offers different perspectives on Japanese society.
Yes, their career stretches 50 years, so you get to see very different eras of Japan and its politics, society, and counterculture.
What do you hope viewers will take away from this season?
As with everything we organize, I hope viewers can discover something new to them, something that inspires them, something that opens new perspectives and sparks interest in watching more—more Hara/Kobayashi films, more Japanese documentaries, more Japanese films. With this particular retrospective, I hope it brings greater appreciation and understanding of Hara and Kobayashi’s work, especially in what it reveals about and how it relates to our current social and political climate.
Here are links to where you can rent the films:
Here are the prices:
Rentals: $10 / 20% off members
Bundle 1: $30 / 20% off members
Includes: Goodbye CP, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, A Dedicated Life and Sennan Asbestos Disaster – Available in the US and Canada.
Bundle 2: $20 / 20% off members
Includes: The Many Faces of Chika, Reiwa Uprising and Minamata Mandala