Sennan Asbestos Disaster ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村 (2018) Director:  Kazuo Hara Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Sennan Asbestos Disaster   Sennan Asbestos Disaster Film Poster

ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村 「Nippon Kuni VS Sennan Ishiwatamura

Running Time: 215 mins.

Release Date: March 10th, 2018

Director:  Kazuo Hara

Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Writer: N/A

Starring: N/A

Website IMDB

Following on from their first – and only – fiction feature, The Many Faces of Chika (2006), Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi returned to documentary filmmaking with the release of Sennan Asbestos Disaster in 2018. It is a heart-breaking and infuriating document of the bitter legal battles between people who found their lives blighted by asbestos and the Japanese government who failed to protect them despite knowing the dangers the material posed. 

The case was launched by a support group for victims of asbestos-related illnesses in the Sennan area of Osaka. The plaintiffs ranged from ex-workers who handled the substance to those living near the factories, the products of which were poisoning the air with cancer-causing asbestos fibres.

What isn’t in doubt is the government’s culpability in failing to protect workers. Officials knew that asbestos was hazardous to human health before 1975, the year when the first set of laxly enforced regulations over using the material were introduced. Despite medical advice proving links between asbestos and various illnesses, the government still allowed the industry to carry on, presumably because it was a cheap and efficient material useful for Japan’s post-war economic boom.

Learning about their indifference to human health was completely bewildering to this Western viewer. Generally speaking, in the West, there has long been an acceptance of the risks posed by asbestos and the need to remove it. Also in place are compensation schemes for workers whose health was damaged have been set up. Not so in Japan where it took until the 2000s to ban the substance and the government fought hard to deny compensation to people affected by it. Kazuo Hara and his crew follow this group of plaintiffs at this late stage.

From footage shot over the course of around ten years, we see the subjects endure the torturous endurance trial of winning a case in lower courts only to have the government appeal and for the case to be relitigated by another branch of the judiciary until the battle finally reaches the Supreme Court. 

The more complicated aspects of the case aren’t explored in much detail and courtroom action is kept offscreen save for scenes where the results of a trial are dramatically relayed to plaintiffs and a media scrum outside courts via lawyers/legal aides who sprint towards cameras with banners giving the verdict held aloft. Instead, the main focus of the three-and-a-half hour running time is dedicated to listening to the victims, a collective who have joined together in a David and Goliath fight for recompense.

This is a different documentary approach for Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Koabayashi where exploring the lives of individuals typically formed the basis of their films – their last one being A Dedicated Life released 23 years earlier. Here, each of the victims in the collective to talk about their lives and their struggles. Hara gives them the time to show their individuality and they take the chance to speak on camera with some candour that allows us to glimpse the lives of people drawn from backgrounds we rarely see. We get the social history of the Sennan area and living with the asbestos industry from first-hand accounts, field trips to locations, via archive material and on-screen text. As we get more information we see the way that the health of the plaintiffs has deteriorated due to the hazardous material.

Human’s lives should be saved. We can’t do any social activities without our lives. How does Japan continue without its citizens?

This is where the heartbreak comes. We witness people living reduced lives as cancer, breathing problems, and immobility are piled upon other infirmities that come with ageing and we see the strain on relatives who have to cope with this suffering. The film, recorded over nearly a decade, becomes a poignant final goodbye as many of the interviewees start to die off, some people within days of the final verdict. That the Sennan residents eventually won in the Supreme Court provides some sense of justice but this is tinged by the sense of wasted lives and time and how inhuman the Japanese government was in delaying an inevitable decision.

There is almost a Kafka-esque quality to the way that the government behaves, an adversary wedded to an absurd level of bureaucracy and a cruel intransigence over paying compensation that reaches almost parodic levels as witnessed in a week-long string of meaningless meetings where junior ministers and functionaries with no power meet the victims, take notes, and inform them that nothing can be done. By this point, the film’s long duration had worked to relay the plaintiff’s frustration over delayed compensation and it was infuriating to watch how unreasonable the government could be. However, the film shows an answer to that callous treatment: collective action.

The victims we meet are drawn from working-class people and Korean immigrants. Individually it would be impossible for them to hold the government to account but together they show solidarity and that allows them to stand up to the state.

Differences in how to campaign and how to reach the public are constantly shown so this film becomes a roadmap of how to fight the state. It also offers an insight into how social mores are used to stifle the voices of ordinary people. This is a debate that is had the world over where people tend to fixate on how something is said rather than the content. A fascinating figure emerges in one of the support groups leaders, Kazuyoshi Yuoka, the grandson of an asbestos factory owner who battles for the victims. His commitment to the cause, matched by many lawyers and supporters, show that unrelenting pressure and engagement in civil affairs is needed to keep governments and big business in check and while their victory might not be complete or satisfactory to everyone, it is at least inspirational seeing people organise together. While all are suffering in their own way, the support of the group allows everyone to reach a collective victory of sorts. Were it not for this campaign and the film, this history and these lives would have remained in obscurity.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster played as part of a season of films made by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi

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