By Nicolás Carrasco
Renowned documentary filmmakers Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi were in Colgate University (Hamilton, New York) on June this year as part of the Flaherty Film Seminar, where they screened their first three films as part of the program curated by Shai Heredia. For more than half a century, the Flaherty Seminar has been firmly established as a one-of-a-kind event that seeks to encourage filmmakers and other artists to explore the potential of the moving image.
Among the most vital and controversial filmmakers active today, and working for almost five decades, director Kazuo Hara and his wife and producer Sachiko Kobayashi are best known for a series of passionately confrontational and transgressive documentaries that boldly attack the repressive moral of Japan. Their debut Goodbye CP (1972) shed light on the intense stigma Japan attaches to the disabled and people who have cerebral palsy. Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 is about the director’s relationship with his ex-lover and mother to his child, Miyuki Takeda, who was also a radical feminist. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1986) chronicles WW2 veteran Kenzo Okuzaki as he exposes shocking war crimes and their cover-up. Rejecting any kind of detached or “objective” point of view, Hara instead deliberately inserts his camera into the middle of the action to capture, and sometimes even to instigate, revelatory confrontations that lay bare repressed secrets and unsettling truths, generating a discomfort that forces the viewer to question what exactly a documentary can and should represent.
During the last days of the Seminar, Desistfilm talked with them about their first years of collaboration, their relationship with the Japanese New Wave, their working methods and these first three films.
Desistfilm: First of all, Hara-san, I really want to thank for acceding to do this interview. I want to start asking: What made you go from being a photographer to a filmmaker? What were your influences at that time?
Kazuo Hara: The biggest influences, as I explained before, were the student protest movements that were happening in Japan. At that time, different arts were imagining a possible revolution, a possible big change. And whether that was through performance, or through fine arts, through music, different sorts of arts… New forms of expressions were happening all over Japan.
In the film world, at this time, there were about five film studios that were operating. The way things were structured for theatrical releases, back then we called them “Program pictures”, every week there were new runs of films and that’s how it worked. The film industry at the time was also looking for changes. Around that time, you may know, the Japanese industry also had a New Wave, which is often compared to the French New Wave, and out of this, the most famous director being Nagisa Oshima, who was an Assistant Director at the time and in the process of becoming a director. Through that there were new themes and new expressions happening in film. And as I mentioned earlier, some of my biggest influences were the student movements that were happening, but in addition there were also civil movements happening all over the country. One of these examples was the Narita Airport struggle. One of the persons who were famously associated with it was Shinsuke Ogawa of Ogawa Productions, who made documentaries regarding the struggle, which was also known as the Sanrizuka Struggle. And they were documenting this kind of history that was happening at the time.
Ogawa Productions, in documenting this Sanrizuka Struggle with the farmers, moved in to the village with the farmers, and this was sort of a very new way of producing films, where they really just lived in the villages: this was something that the world hadn’t really seen before, this way of production.
Nagisa Oshima is a filmmaker who was working from inside a very large film studio and tried to break things from the inside, but there’s another filmmaker, Kaneto Shindo, who established very early his independent production company and started making films through it. The other thing he started doing was thinking about how to make films on a low budget, and that meant that both the content of the film as well as the setting and location were limited to one place. And also, that meant that the actors all lived together and ate together and had this kind of “live-in style” he started using as a filmmaking style. That kind of filmmaking style definitely was for us something like “oh, there’s that way of filmmaking too”, and that was a kind of influence for me as well.
Sachiko Kobayashi: Back then, in Japan, there really weren’t any public universities that had filmmaking programs or departments. There was one place called the Nihon University but the tuition was incredibly expensive so it was really difficult to go to.
So, how then do people learn filmmaking? The most common way that people chose to do it was to go into big film studios and apply to be an Assistant Director and pass that test and then work up towards being a director. So then, myself being a woman, I had issues with my legs and I also was coming from a very rural university, so this kind of option of taking this “test” for a big film studio really wasn’t an option for me. An option for people like myself, for people who were coming from rural areas but who really wanted to study film or wanted to be on locations, on sets for the films, one person that some of us approached was that the film director that we’ve spoken about earlier, Kaneto Shindo: he was also a really famous screenwriter, one of the most famous screenwriters even today from Japan, and he had started a union for screenwriters and at the same time had established a screenwriting lab. So then, while I worked during the day I started going to this screenwriting lab afterwards at night. The tuition was incredibly low and everyday there were new teachers coming in and out, some of them including Nagisa Oshima as well as Kiju Yoshida, filmmakers who were actually making films at that time.
Kazuo Hara: Even Oshima was there?
Sachiko Kobayashi: Yes, he was… When I remember what they ended up teaching us, they ended up saying “you know, you shouldn’t be really here inside and just writing at your desk”. There was also a very famous poet and filmmaker, Shuji Terayama, and Terayama had a very popular book called “Throw Away your Books, Rally in the Streets” which was very popular, so we were sort of following that attitude, we were told to throw away our scripts and go out into the streets and use our bodies. At that time, when you went out into the streets, there was so much happening, there’s so much action, there’s so much energy, and there’s a festivity in a way, there’s some sort of power, it felt like things were burning in the streets at the time.
Kazuo Hara: These kinds of backgrounds were basically at the forefront of what we were working from, and at that time I was in my twenties and I was very sensitive to the climate around us. That’s when I was thinking “OK, what do I need to do?” So once we decided we were going to make films together, we started to think about what our themes were going to be and for about a year we discussed what that’ll be.
Desistfilm: I wanted to ask about filmmakers that I think are closely related to your work: Toshio Matsumoto and Koji Wakamatsu, even if they worked in fiction.
Kazuo Hara: As you probably know, Toshio Matsumoto was working in the same era, but he was more part of the experimental film movement, especially in relation to the Art Theater Guild (ATG), which had their own production system, including a theater, and they had a way of creating films that really gave the artists a way of creating: the filmmaking side would bring about 50,000 dollars and then the ATG side would bring 50,000 dollars to make a 100,000 dollar-movie. And that was sort of their style. And through that Toshio Matsumoto made some theatrical feature films, including the most famous Funeral Parade of Roses. A lot of young filmmakers were being able to make films like this in this way, or were also very much inspired by these films. In addition, there were other filmmakers such as Kazuo Kuroki who made this film Silence Has No Wings. So films like these were really inspiring us. In this sense, Oshima was inspiring us through fiction. Along with this experimental movement, there were also documentary films that were inspiring us at the same time.
Regarding Koji Wakamatsu, back then he was working within this sort of structure of “pink films” that were prevalent at the time. Generally speaking, the rules of a “pink film” were that they had to be less than 60 minutes long and they would have to have at least 6 sex scenes in the film. And the budget for these films was about 30,000 dollars. So Wakamatsu was operating in this “pink film” industry, was making many films and so, as they were softcore porn movies, they required naked bodies and sex scenes, but through collaborating with Masao Adachi, who was very important in this movement, they found much more radical and political themes to include into the films, and today these film are being rediscovered and talked about.
Desistfilm: What was your initial interest in people with CP (Cerebral Palsy)? How did you get to know Yokota and the Green Lawn Movement?
Kazuo Hara: At the time, as a photographer, I was going around to many places where a lot of people who are disabled were around. Some of them had severe cases and some were lighter, some of these disabilities were a mental thing and not necessarily physical. There were different kinds of people that I met by visiting different schools and locations that I found. Through this, I was actually learning a lot.
Regarding Hiroshi Yokota, he had a severe case of CP and so most of his life was spent in confinement at home. And it was through a Buddhist monk (Osaragi, who also considered himself a revolutionary who forced and basically abducted these people into his temple to live together) that he learn a lot of theoretical things related to revolutionary thought. So what you see in the film, when Yokota’s talking, it is all coming from this one monk.
I felt that Yokota was also the most intelligent of the group and then there’s also Yokosuka-san, who is sort of “second-in-line” in terms of the leadership that they had over the group. Yokota, even though he was the leader, he was also the first person who decided to leave the commune that this monk had created, and that was because Yokota’s wife had insisted that they leave and basically once the leader left, then everyone else followed suit and the commune, this revolutionary center that Osaragi was trying to create, fell apart.
When Yokota’s commune fell apart, at the same time, I was really thinking about what kind of movies I wanted to make. I knew I wanted to make a movie. And so this will to make a movie as well as this commune falling apart were happening at the same time and they both came together. What I decided was not to make Yokota’s thoughts the main theme of the film, but rather really get inside the problems and ideas around disability. In thinking about that I had to think about the physical body. There’s a particular term in Japanese that alludes to the idea of freedom and non-freedom within a body, so I felt that is where the main focus should be, so I started really focusing on this idea of where freedom lies for a physical body.
When they left the commune and left Osaragi they still had a network happening amongst them and the feelings amongst them of wanting to struggle and fight for disability rights, these ideas were still very much present amongst everybody, so then what happened was they went out to Kanagawa, which is a prefecture right next to Tokyo, and they established the Green Lawn Kanagawa chapter.
So, there’s still this willingness to fight amongst all of them but I felt that it was necessary to also find new priorities and new ways of looking and for that, there needed to be a new kind of movement, a new movement for disability issues. And because I found that to be really important, I said “why don’t we make this film and find these important things through the film together” and I spent half a year trying to convince Yokota to make this film together.
There were many documentaries at the time, whether film or TV, around disability issues. Many of them already existed. But all of them basically had a message of saying “people with disabilities are human too”. This came from the idea of these so-called “healthy people” talking about “weaker people” to say “you know, we should all be nicer, warmer, more kind towards each other, and that these so-called “healthy people” should be supporting these people with disabilities. There was a term in Japanese at the time called “human documentary” which is sort of this idea of a humanist approach and that was sort of the message that was prevalent with all of these films. But I really hated this humanistic approach. I couldn’t help thinking “it’s not that we’re talking about dogs or pigs or frogs or snakes”. I wanted to break this tradition of self-satisfaction that occurs through these ideas.
A lot of ideas regarding disability issues —and this is true all over the world—a lot of these societies are thinking about productivity, especially in societies that are capitalistic. People with disabilities are regarded as not having value because they can’t provide labor and are not productive, that idea is creating class issues, basically because we’re regarding the body as productive labor. So, a healthy person is seen as valuable because they can produce.
Within this ideology, within this class ideology, people with severe CP are at the very lowest of this class hierarchy. So what we decided was that we needed to change this perspective, to not looking at bodies through the idea of labor, but rather to say “in fact, a body like Yokota’s is actually the most beautiful, these bodies are the most beautiful and we have to change our values and perspectives in order to see it this way”. That would be what would change the world. Then we said “Ok, we’re now going to go out into the streets”, as I explained earlier, but these streets that we’re talking about were streets that were made for the “healthy”, that got rid of what they saw as unproductive, disabled bodies. In order to go out and re-insert them into the streets, we needed a type of revolt.
Desistfilm: Regarding your first three films, what do you think should be the relationship between the movement of those bodies and the movement of the cameraman? What is the relationship between the subject in front of the camera and the person holding it?
Kazuo Hara: I have this deep innate desire to become a camera myself. There’s a desire for me to want to be one with a camera and to regard my own body as a camera, to regard that my body is what is seeing things. Whenever I’m making my films, I want to include this feeling and this notion. In talking about the themes or the protagonists of the film I’m about to make, the first thing that I start to think about is how I’m going to be using the camera, and what that camera movement will be. It is through thinking about what the camera movement will be that I actually start to see how the film might become.
Regarding my camera work, because I see the camera as my body, the camera is also the movement of my body. In Goodbye CP —and obviously I’m not making this movie out of hate—I’m making this movie out of is this idea of… this discriminatory dichotomy that is created between this idea of healthy and disabled and the fact that we’re being controlled by it. And I have this rage against what those structures are. In thinking that the camera is my body, by inserting my camera into this structure and trying to break free of this structure, I’m also inserting myself and my rage into the system. I know that all of this sounds very theoretical, but this is something that I physically feel when I’m making my films. Also in Japan in the 70’s there was this idea of the camera as violence and so I was thinking of using the camera in this way. I think at that time I was using the phrase “turning the camera into a physical body”.
Desistfilm: Regarding Extreme Private Eros, what made you interested in making a film about Miyuki Takeda and how did you decide that Kobayashi-san was also going to be part of the film?
Kazuo Hara: Basically Miyuki is the kind of person who just has to act upon anything that she decides that she wants to do. That’s just her nature and her character. And so when she thought that she wanted to give birth herself, she came to me and said “Hara, can you please shoot me giving birth?” What I think was her intention behind asking me this is the fact that because she herself is the one doing the action of giving birth, she can’t see herself objectively doing that. I think she wanted to see that image of herself doing it and to record it for herself.
There was the student movement, and then, inspired through this movement, there was the Women’s Liberation movement that really started to kick off maybe two to three years later. And Miyuki Takeda really jumped into what’s regarded as one of the most radical feminist groups that were appearing at the time. It was through this experience that she then came back to me and said “will you make this film?” Knowing the experience she was coming from, I obviously knew that she would criticize me and our past together from her Women’s Liberation perspective. Knowing that, I was wondering “Is this experience something that I could take on?”, but I told myself “This is something I must do, and the camera is also there with me, that will help me push through this”. That was the kind of film that I was going to make, this idea of using the camera and making a film as I took this kind of harsh criticism in. I thought maybe this film could be a new kind of film.
As I said, I regard the camera as my body and so therefore both the camera and my own body was going to be criticized, so I felt that the images that will be projected would also be part of my body. I felt that this kind of approach in documentary would be a rather experimental approach. So I had high hopes in that sense. But there is that scene where I appear in the film crying. And why that occurred is because in that moment I was actually very much overcome with jealousy. But I was also the cameraman of the movie. And to be a cameraman you need to know about focus, you need to be thinking about aperture. Because I wasn’t looking through a viewfinder, I was using the lens adjustment. And the other thing is that film runs out very quickly. Each reel would run out 2 minutes 46 seconds in, so I also had to calculate the time and how much time I had left on my film. In order to be a cameraman I had to think a lot. But because I was overcome with jealousy, I realized that I couldn’t think these logistical things through the film. And I felt myself being pulled apart.
So the reason why I appeared, —it’s actually a funny story—, is that coincidentally, a friend of mine who had wanted to make a film was sitting in the corner of the room at the time, because he had asked me whether he can come visit and watch how I make the film. So because my friend happened to be there, and because I was so overcome with jealousy and I realized I couldn’t continue doing this, I passed the camera onto him. And that’s when I appear.
I thought “this is going to be a great, experimental approach to have this film as the way I take this all in”. But then, the thing I realized was that something as simple as jealousy could break apart this higher goal that I had. And I started to feel this feeling that everything could easily fall apart just from something as simple as jealousy. I was really struggling to reconcile this idea. Then I realized what had just happened was a part of a triangular relationship, in which she had another man. Then I started to think “what would happen if the opposite thing happened here?” At that time, I was in fact already with Sachiko, so I wondered “if I bring her in, would Miyuki also be fine with this?” And I started to think about that kind of triangular relationship. Theoretically speaking, filmmaking-wise, I was also thinking that this jealous feeling appeared because I was really trying to fully embrace all the energy that Miyuki was throwing at me, and thought that perhaps I needed someone else’s energy to come in and sort of disperse that. So I went back to Sachiko and said “please, be part of this film, for this film’s sake”.
Miyuki’s jealousy does indeed happen once Sachiko comes in. So plot-wise, there’s that moment that happens afterwards where I shoot Miyuki’s back as she storms away and then there’s also me looking back at Sachiko, who is left hanging. So you see me in between these two women, sort of in limbo, looking back and forth. Speaking film-wise I believe that that’s the moment where in some ways a chapter ended, where the content changed from there on out, the idea of this triangular relationship sort of ends. The film then becomes more about the idea of a commune, of children and women really coming about.
Sachiko Kobayashi: Hara always tells this story, and as you see Hara takes up so much time and space with so much talking that I, up until now, have remained fairly quiet but… While I admit that Hara is telling this story despite knowing some of the things I’m about to say…, which is, the fact that there was a relationship between Miyuki and I even before the film actually started. Before making Goodbye CP, when I first met Hara, I had two things I was surprised by: one was the fact that he knew more about disability than I did and about the relationship between body and liberation. The other thing is that I had never met a man like Hara who had actually been thinking about feminist issues and ideology on women. I was really amazed by his ability to be thinking about all these things. But when I first met him, he was still with Miyuki and when I met Miyuki, I realized that all these things that Hara had told me about his ideas about feminism and gender issues, all these things, he had in fact learned from Miyuki. So although I had thought “I have never met a man like Hara”, even more so, I thought “I have never met a woman like Miyuki”. I thought, and even today I have said she’s probably my favorite woman. I remember thinking from the very bottom of my heart how amazing this woman was.
I had heard that Miyuki left with their child and, to be honest, at that time we weren’t hanging out very often, so we didn’t have that much time spent together. I was doing my own thing at the time. One day Hara appeared at my apartment and said “Miyuki left me”. I think at that point we may have already started working on Goodbye CP. And so even though he said that Miyuki had left, it wasn’t that she had gone very far. She was still also in Tokyo. But then suddenly I heard that she actually left for Okinawa, which is very far. Back then, you actually needed a passport to go to Okinawa. It was a big deal to go there.
Then I heard about the fact that Miyuki had come up to him and asked him to film her giving birth. A lot of things had happened with Goodbye CP and by the time that this talk had happened, Goodbye CP was getting screened a lot. So then I thought if I went around to all these places where Goodbye CP was getting screened and said “you know, we just made a film about body liberation, I want now to make a film about women’s liberation,” I felt I could maybe find some funding. More so than Hara, Miyuki understood just how much of a hard time to find funding for this film.
Desistfilm: Were you aware of Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving?
Kazuo Hara: Back then, we were learning a lot about experimental films from abroad, but I don’t think we came across an opportunity to see it.
Desistfilm: Regarding The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, what kind of agreement did you have with Kenzo Okuzaki?
Kazuo Hara: The first thing that we had agreed upon with Okuzaki as we were talking about the film was “let’s go to New Guinea together.” When we were talking about what kind of film in Kobe, we found out that the reason why Okuzaki really wanted to go to New Guinea is that, a year before the war had ended, Okuzaki became a prisoner of war. And the reason he became a prisoner of war was that he went out to go steal some food from the indigenous villages in New Guinea. Then he was shot with an arrow in his finger. That’s why he’s missing a finger. That was how he became a POW of the US Army. He believed that his survival only happened thanks to the indigenous people of. So the reason he wanted to go back to New Guinea was to go thank them for that. That was something that we were talking about before shooting the film.
I started doing some research on what was going on in New Guinea and what was going on with the guerrilla front there. I had a friend who knew a lot about the situation there and found out that it would be incredibly difficult to get permission to go there so I reported back to Okuzaki to say “I don’t think we can do this”. But then of course Okuzaki’s response was like “national borders mean nothing to me”. So he said “you know what, lets go make a film where you can come with me right up to the border and then I’ll cross the border and wave at you as I cross”.
Sachiko Kobayashi: New Guinea at the time was divided between the East and the West. There was a border running in between. It was actually quite easy to go to Papua New Guinea at the time as a tourist. However, to go into the West, which was an Indonesian colony, was very much impossible.
Kazuo Hara: Okuzaki was saying “you’ll watch me leave and cross the border and the film crew can stay behind where it’s safe and I’ll go where it’s dangerous”. As a filmmaker, I had my pride. So then we said “you know what, if you’re gonna go we’ll cross the border with you”. And then Okuzaki responded “oh great, we can do that, that’s great”.
From very early on in the filmmaking process, Okuzaki wanted to establish a new religion, and he would have made himself the god of that religion. We thought, “well, god, that has to be an almighty kind of figure. Can Okuzaki be one? And, what kind of god would he be?” We thought that he would be such a strange kind of god. And so we thought “you know what, that actually might make a very interesting film”. Those were the things that we were thinking about in the last scenes of the movie.
Desistfilm: At the masterclass you said that you were interested in these extreme subjects because you consider yourself a weak person. I want to ask you both what you think of this.
Kazuo Hara: As you know, I’m a documentary filmmaker, which means the process is very long. So, when the camera is rolling I’m very concentrated, but unlike a fiction film shoot where you only have a short period of time to really concentrate and do all the work at once in terms of shooting…with a documentay film, while my films seem to have a lot of extreme scenes in general, that’s communicated through the editing. The actual process is a lot of mundaneness. Within this mundane living, once or twice we’ll have moments where we’ll go out and shoot.
What am I doing when I’m not shooting? To be honest, I’m doing nothing. I’m pretty lazy. I will say that there is sort of a flipside to this because even though I’m doing during an ordinary day, I give it my best when it’s time to be shooting. But that said, I have to say that I’m not an exceptionally strong person, I’m pretty lazy. If I get into a fight, I’m weak. In fact, I’m a ball of complexes. There’s a part of me that says “I shouldn’t be this way. I must be stronger.” When I think about how, I think that I need to meet a stronger person and train under them in order to get stronger and bring myself to grow. It boils down to my own father complex.
Sachiko Kobayashi: Regarding Yokota, he can be weak and even physically and sometimes emotionally as well. But to me he’s really a poet from the depth of his heart. I can’t even explain with words just how wonderful he is. And Miyuki too: in the film she comes across as being very, very tough, and strong, but she actually is a very, very sensitive person, much more sensitive than I am. She’s a very kind person as well. So with both Yokota and Miyuki, and even Okuzaki, I just really love all of them. I truly love all of them. So I want to make films about people I really love. Most recently we made a film called Sennan Asbestos Disaster and Hara keeps talking about that film being about regular people, but actually they too are very wonderful people individually and so, even though they may not come across as individualized, strong characters, they actually all have something wonderful about them and I love them all dearly.