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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 39-78

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The Postwar Documentary Trace:
Groping in the Dark

Abé Mark Nornes


The 1998 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival featured a major retrospective of Japanese documentary films from the 1980s and 1990s. This was the last installment in a biennial series that painstakingly covered the one-hundred-year history of nonfiction filmmaking in Japan. Previous retrospectives confidently displayed a national heritage and its sure but steady growth, but the title of the 1998 edition suggested a less than optimistic attitude: “The Groping in the Dark: Japanese Documentary in the 1980s and Beyond” [“Nihon Dokyumentar no Mosaku: 1980 Nendai Iko”]. Nowhere was the cautious uncertainty more evident than in the accompanying symposium. On the stage were four filmmakers representing various generations in Japanese film history. In the middle sat Kanai Katsu (who started filming in the 1960s) and Ise Shin'ichi (from the 1980s). On either end were Iizuka Toshio (1960s) and Kawase (Sento) Naomi (1990s).1 Iizuka served as assistant director to the late Ogawa Shinsuke from the 1960s until [End Page 39] Ogawa's death in 1992 and has since become a director in his own right. Kawase had recently returned from the Cannes International Film Festival, where her first feature (shot, incidentally, by Ogawa's cameraman Tamura Masaki) surprised everyone by taking a special jury prize. The media—of which a sizable contingent sat at Kawase's feet in Yamagata—was calling the Cannes coup for Suzaku [Moe no suzaku] an indication that a new generation of filmmakers had attained international recognition and that Japanese cinema had entered a new era. This claim has far more to do with Japan's anxiety about its place in global cultural production than with any sense of film history. However, as I hope to demonstrate, it is right on the mark, at least from a certain perspective.

The seating arrangement at Yamagata was a piece of history writing in and of itself. It did not take long before the generational structure bared itself onstage. Any “groping” that evening would be between those on either end of the platform. Iizuka and Kawase would have it out over the question posed by moderator Yamane Sadao, one of Japan's finest critics. Taking a cue from Fukuda Katsuhiko (an ex–Ogawa Productions member who stayed in Sanrizuka after the collective left), Yamane suggested that in the mid-1970s something happened that transformed Japanese documentary, leaving it in its present, seemingly precarious state. As in any serious discussion of documentary in Japan, the words shutai (subject) and taisho (object) constantly came up. They are rarely, if ever, defined, yet they are repeated like the mantra of postwar documentary; functionally they generally demarcate historical articulations of difference to construct a periodization for postwar documentary. The artists onstage quickly staked out the territory. Iizuka laid out the generally accepted view that the filmmakers of the 1960s and early 1970s had a political commitment and took their engagement with the world seriously. They assumed a subject (shutai) that was thoroughly social, one that required visible expression on film and at the same time acknowledged its delicate relationship to the object (taisho) of the filming. Younger filmmakers, argued Iizuka (in an obvious critical swipe at Kawase), are too wrapped up in their own little world. They focus on either themselves or their family without reference to society, without engaging any political position or social stance. Kawase responded defensively, though perhaps not convincingly, that her own documentaries about her aunt and the search for [End Page 40] her lost father had the kind of social resonance Iizuka claimed for his own work. In the end the two offered only implicit criticism of each other. For all the groping, which included contributions from the floor by Tsuchimoto Noriaki (the Minamata Series) and Fukuda, almost everyone felt they had been left in the dark, especially on the question, “What happened to the exhilaration and passionate engagement of the Japanese documentary world of the 1960s?”

This essay provisionally accepts Fukuda and Yamane...


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