Release Date: N/A
Duration: 84 mins.
Director: Ian Thomas Ash
Selected to play in the Perspectives Japan section of the Yamagata International Documentary Festival, Ushiku gives an alternate view of Japan by allowing people stuck in the country’s notoriously difficult refugee system a chance to speak out.
Winner of the Asian Perspective Award at DMZ Docs and Nippon Connection’s Nippon Docs Award, Ushiku is the latest documentary from Ian Thomas Ash, a Tokyo-based American filmmaker who often tackles taboo subjects – see his 2013 documentary A2-B-C about the effects of radiation on children in certain areas around Fukushima. For his latest work, he travels to the Ushiku refugee centre in Ibaraki Prefecture to get first-hand accounts from inmates who have spent years locked up in the hope that they can become part of the 0.5% of applicants who get accepted by their host nation – the lowest refugee intake out of all the G7 countries.
The first half of the film takes the form of interviews with refugees done at the centre from 2019 and through 2020, the original run-up to Tokyo hosting the world with the Olympics. Probably due to legal concerns and safety concerns for both the interviewees and their families back in their country of origin, their surnames and many details on why they fled to Japan are omitted. We only get their given names and learn of their current plight. This lack of background centres the issue at the heart of the film which is the harsh treatment of the subjects at the hands of authorities as we see what should be a safe haven is revealed to be a site hostile to foreigners and a place of mental torture as revealed by the subjects who detail the effect of being indefinitely detained while they petition the system in a long process that has had the a negative effect on their well-being.
The testimonies here may lack the luridness and shock of physical abuse and deprivation that you might get with other immigration services but they still paint a disturbing picture of an almost Kafka-esque sort of system where the state holds these individuals at great cost and gives them basic material comforts and surface-level niceties while letting the constant physical confinement slowly drive them crazy. Most of the interviewees have been at Ushiku for at least five years and their seemingly endless detention has led to hunger strikes and suicides. If someone dies, that is swept under the rug. Ushiku is effectively a black hole in which these people have been disappeared to. To compound issues, the Japanese government uses the hostile environment technique wherein, even if a detainee gets a temporary release (which typically lasts only two weeks), they are unable to work or access medical systems, thus making life in the country even more impossible.
Thomas Ash was able to gain access to the detainees to hear these stories through charity work but while he had permission to interview his subjects, filming them was restricted and so he resorted to a hidden camera that gives us a view of the subjects. Any ethical concerns about Thomas Ash exploiting his subjects are quickly removed as he gets their agreement to film from the start and they come to see him as an ally.
Due to the design of the visiting rooms, it is a medium shot for each person as director and subject face each other, separated by a glass screen. The close confines of the space become an uncomfortable experience that gets across the negative feelings of the inmates whose are trapped. We see it most potently in the physical deterioration of the subjects, the pain and frustration etched on their faces and in the sluggish movements of their bodies that have been weakened by hunger strikes or medication used to control their emotions.
The most powerful piece of evidence is a video that cleaves the film in two and frees the audience from the meeting room only to plunge them into a cell where one detainee, Deniz, a man driven almost to suicide and kept on a course of sedatives, is being restrained by a gang of guards who apply excessive force while berating him. There is the accusation that the incident came about after guards attacked him in his cell and when a guard lets slip a mistake about the sequence of events, it seems all but confirmed, a shocking moment which makes one even more aware of the human rights abuses going on.
If there is any bright spot to a film where lives are being wasted, it is the sense of camaraderie amongst detainees and their supporters. The plight of Deniz is often on the minds of many in the interviews and an older inmate named Claudio, an artist whose works convey the suffering experienced by people locked away, uses his talent to draw the attention of politicians to Deniz’ case. It is this and Thomas Ash’s film and relentless exposure of what is going that allows the inmate to gain a temporary release and the film to get a truly cinematic moment as he is reunited with his wife in a moment of relief for both the subject and the viewer who can finally step outside the facility and see the sky again.
Perhaps the most ironic part of the film comes at the end as Covid-19 rips through Japan and detention centres are emptied out. This procedure gives the lie that this whole system is necessary as the detainees walk free but back into that hostile environment and an uncertain fate. However, in documenting this system of detention and its effects on human beings trapped in it, the film draws attention to an issue that the Japanese government would rather people forget about as it pushes “Cool Japan” and “omotenashi.” This film offers a chance for these refugees to take some measure of control over their lives and the way they are treated by a systems that seems unchangeable and unforgiving and perhaps, with public pressure, politicians might be forced to make the refugee system more humane.