Open City Documentary Festival

April 2024
across London
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Tribute to Haneda Sumiko

This screening celebrates the work of Haneda, one of the most prominent documentary filmmakers from Japan and one of the few women working in non-fiction cinema there in the postwar period. Born in 1926, in Dalian, China (then Manchuria, under Japanese occupation), in 1949 Haneda entered Iwanami Productions, a company producing educational and promotional films, where she would make films about the arts, education, and nature, including A Women’s College in the Village (1958), Ancient Beauty (1958), or The Cabbage Butterflies (1968). In 1976 she directed her first independent film, The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms, a personal project she had worked on for many years. Haneda led a prolific career and directed over 80 short and long films. In addition, she founded her own production company Jiyu Kubo with her husband Kudo Mitsuru and published books about her filmmaking. She made films about folkloric dances and changing rural traditions (Ode to Mt. Hayachine, 1982), portraits of aging artists such as Akiko-Portrait of a Dancer (1985) or the monumental Kabuki Actor Kataoke Nizaimon (1992-1996). Haneda received widespread recognition for her films about welfare politics and caring for the elderly. Other works deal with the legacies and histories of feminism in Japan, with films about pioneer women in labour unions, and about the life of writer and peace activist Hiratsuka Raicho. Later in her career, Haneda reflected upon her early life in China with films about the Japanese settlers in Manchuria such as Faraway Home – Lushun and Dalian (2011). She also participated in the creation of the Tokyo International Women’s Film Festival (1985-2012), the first of its kind in Japan.

A Women’s College in the Village
Mura no fujin gakkyu – 村の婦人学級
Haneda Sumiko | 1957 | Japan | 25’ | digital

This is Haneda’s debut as a director after four years working as an assistant director for Iwanami Productions. The film was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture with the aim of documenting the growing movement of women’s classes and community centres that developed all over Japan in the immediate postwar period. These programmes sought to educate and encourage women to pursue their studies, improve their life conditions and participate more in social life. Set in the rural area of Shiga Prefecture, the film offers a portrait of a group of local women who gather to share experiences and opinions about domestic life and work, to talk about their children’s education and about what they would like to do to improve their daily lives. The shooting was organised according to the rhythm of the women’s meetings as Haneda gradually won the trust and understanding of the local people. This meant that the initial script by the director was rewritten according to the circumstances and testimonies of each of the women. This method of allowing the subjects to shape and determine the construction of the film is something Haneda would continue to pursue throughout her filmography. The children of the village also appear in the film, reading their compositions about what they feel about going to school and about their own mothers. The result is a beautiful rendition of rural life in Japan at the end of the 1950s, when the country was going through rapid societal changes, focusing of the often-disregarded perspectives of local women and their aspirations.

The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms
Usuzumi no sakura – 薄墨の桜
Haneda Sumiko | 1977 | Japan | 43’ | 16mm

Haneda’s first independent film, a project she honed over several years, is a paean to a millenary cherry tree that can be found in the Neo village in the Gifu prefecture. The film deals with the history of this magnificent tree, the changing social life of the community living around it and the filmmaker’s memories. As Haneda wrote, this personal film became an act of self-discovery, both a gesture of celebration and mourning, which allowed her to find a new path in filmmaking.

“Trees are animate in Japanese culture, and Haneda treats the object of her research as the main hero and an independent creature, while social life, natural landscape, poetry, and intimate impressions are built around it. Everything is interconnected in this film—the voice over with the discourse on imminent changes, the languid pace of landscapes changing in different seasons, people caught by camera, thoughts on sorrowful loss and memories. It provides an authentic view of the lost traditional and leisurely Japan before the technological and consumer boom. People in this country truly feel their connection to the earth they live in and poetry they have composed about their motherland for many centuries.” (Unattributed, adapted from

With an introduction by curator Ricardo Matos Cabo

This screening is held in partnership with the Japan Foundation. With special thanks to Kiroku Eiga, Kanatasha and Il Cinema Ritrovato.

It is part of the symposium of Japanese Documentary Filmmaker Haneda Sumiko: Authorship and Gender Discourses (part II) taking place online on September 30th. The symposium brings together scholars and curators, including Prof. Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano and Prof. Anne McKnight, and will be accompanied by further online screenings of Haneda’s works. The event is free but registration is required.For more information, please click here.

The symposium is held in partnership with the Japan Research Centre (SOAS), Birkbeck School of the Arts, BIMI (Birkbeck Institute for Moving Image), the Japan Foundation, Meiji Gakuin University, and supported by the Great Britain SASAKAWA Foundation.