Open City Documentary Festival

across London

Tsuchimoto Noriaki: Film is a work of living beings

The work of Tsuchimoto Noriaki (1928-2008) occupies a central place in the history of documentary filmmaking in postwar Japan. Mainly known for his films about the struggles over the Minamata mercury poisoning incident and his staunch support for the victims affected by it, Tsuchimoto’s is a rich and original body of work which stands out for its commitment and ethical stand. His films from the 1960s were powerful and critical portraits of Japan’s rapid economic growth and the effects of modernisation. From the early 1970s onwards, he dedicated much of his career to making films about the fishing communities afflicted by the environmental disaster in the Minamata area. In the 1980s, Tsuchimoto also turned his attention to the threat of nuclear power and pollution and, following his interest in international issues, made films about society and politics in Afghanistan. Throughout the 1990s, he continued his work documenting the effects of industrial and agricultural pollutants in sea waters off the coast of the northern island of Hokkaido. Tsuchimoto developed a very personal and independent method of working based on a continued engagement with the social issues of his time, making films based on mutual trust and empathy with the communities he filmed.

This retrospective includes several of Tsuchimoto’s early films from the 1960s, which chronicle an increasingly modern Japan and changing Asia, and the main trilogy of films made between 1971 and 1975 with the patients of Minamata disease, as well as several other films on the subject. It also includes some of his early PR films, and the important works he made about student activism and struggles or about the threat brought to small communities by the forces of “progress” and the uses of nuclear power. Organised by Open City Documentary Festival, this retrospective programme will take place throughout September in various venues across London (ICA, Birkbeck Cinema and Close-Up Cinema), with a series of central screenings coinciding with the festival dates.

This programme is organised with Ricardo Matos Cabo, with thanks to Marcos Pablo Centeno, Max Carpenter, HARUKA Hama, HIRASAWA Go, Keiko Homewood, ISHIZAKA Kenji, Andrea Lissoni, Nico Marzano, MATSUMOTO Masamichi, ONO Seiko, SATO Tokue, Jelena Stojković, TAKASAKI Ikuko, TSUCHIMOTO Motoko, YAMAGAMI Sakiko, YAMAGAMI Tetsujiro.

Presented in partnership with The Japan Foundation London and the support of the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation.

In collaboration with Athénée Français Cultural Centre Tokyo, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI), Courtisane Festival, ICA London, Kanatasha, Kiroku Eiga Hozon Center, Museum of the Moving Image in New York, National Film Archive of Japan, SIGLO, Toho Stella, and special thanks to Tsuchimoto Motoko.

An Engineer’s Assistant + On the Road: A Document

Thursday 1 September 2022, ICA, 6.45pm

Minamata—The Victims and Their World

Thursday 8 September 2022, ICA, 8.30pm

Tsuchimoto Noriaki: Study-Day

Friday 9 September 2022, Birkbeck Cinema, 10am-5pm

Minamata Revolt: A People’s Quest for Life

Saturday 10 September 2022, ICA, 5.45pm

The Shiranui Sea

Tuesday 13 September 2022, ICA, 6.30pm

The World of the Siberians

Saturday 17 September, ICA, 4.20pm

My Town, My Youth + The Minamata Mural

Sunday 18 September, ICA, 4pm

Discover Japan: Tokyo Metropolis + Exchange Student Chua Swee-Lin

Saturday 24 September, Close-Up Film Centre, 4.15pm 

Pre-history of the Partisans

Saturday 24 September, Close-Up Film Centre, 6pm 

Umitori – Robbing the Sea at Shimokita Peninsula 

Sunday 25 September, Close-Up Film Centre, 6pm

Tsuchimoto Noriaki – Sketch of a Partisan

By Ishizaka Kenji

I am very excited to have been offered the opportunity to take part in this London retrospective of Tsuchimoto Noriaki. I teach at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image (JIMI), Japan’s only university dedicated to the production and study of cinema, and am also in charge of programming the Asian section of the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). In my research, I have long specialised in the history of Japanese documentary, writing books and essays on directors such as Ogawa Shinsuke and Hara Kazuo.

My relationship with Tsuchimoto was particularly special; during the last ten years of his life prior to his death aged 79 in 2008, Tsuchimoto welcomed me, thirty-two years his junior, into his home, where over the course of numerous meetings he spoke to me at length about his life in the world of film. These substantive exchanges resulted in a book, Amidst the Sea of Documentary: Dialogues with Tsuchimoto Noriaki (Gendai Shokan), which was published right around the time of his passing. Though it has sadly yet to appear in English, I hope to speak to you all at greater length about the book, Tsuchimoto’s last, in my capacity as its co-author when our paths cross in London.

Tsuchimoto was a major figure of 20th century Japanese cinema. As per the title of one of his early books, Film is a Work of Living Beings, his works consistently sympathised with the plight of the vulnerable and suffering, most notably victims of Minamata disease. Not only have his films lost none of their relevance, but they also continue to serve as a warning for humanity’s future, making shining a light on them from various angles as important as it has ever been.

Like other children of his generation, Tsuchimoto, who was born in 1928, grew up a militantly patriotic youth. When World War II ended with Japan’s defeat in 1945, the mood of militarism that had until then gripped the country dissipated overnight, and he came to distrust those adults who latched slavishly onto American-style democracy, in time becoming a devoted communist. After rising to a leadership position within a radical national student organisation, in the early 1950s he joined a so-called “Mountain Village Operation Unit” under the orders of the Japanese Communist Party – which was then advocating armed struggle – and was eventually arrested and imprisoned for his part in a failed plot to blow up a dam. His origins as a filmmaker are inextricably linked to the landscape of Japan’s postwar society; throughout his life, whenever asked about his profession he would declare himself “a partisan revolutionary first, a filmmaker second”.

In time, as Japan shifted gears from postwar reconstruction to rapid economic growth under the umbrella of the United States, Tsuchimoto, who’d cut his teeth at Iwanami Productions, released his early films An Engineer’s Assistant and On the Road: A Document, socially conscious works that railed against the prevailing social mood of the time. The same can be said of his Minamata series, which began with a work produced for television in 1965, back before terms like “environmental pollution” and “ecology” were household words. It was a subject Tsuchimoto would continue to tackle for the next forty years; indeed, his Minamata series is as much a historical record of the disease itself as one of his own maturation as a filmmaker. Asked why he had continued to make films on the topic over such a long period, he once responded, “Because Minamata has kept me thinking all this time.”

Tsuchimoto was surrounded by like-minded comrades. These include, to name a few from the world of film alone, fellow student revolutionary Oshima Nagisa; Imamura Shohei, whom he studied alongside at Waseda University; Teshigahara Hiroshi, his comrade-in-arms during his time in the Mountain Village Operation Unit; his senior director Hani Susumu; Kuroki Kazuo, Ogawa Shinsuke and Higashi Yoichi, his fellow “Blue Group” members at Iwanami Productions; cinematographers Segawa Junichi, Otsu Koshiro and Suzuki Tatsuo; and young crew members who would go on to become established names themselves, like Koike Masato. Unique and fascinating connections can be drawn between Tsuchimoto and any of these figures so instrumental within Japanese cinema.

A later generation of artists have also been inspired by the filmmaker’s work. Hara Kazuo (1945–) picked up where Tsuchimoto left off by continuing to document the state of Minamata in the 21st century, causing waves as recently as 2020 with Minamata Mandala, a substantive work over six hours in length. In 2011, John Gianvito (1971–) released Vapor Trail (Clark), a similarly ambitious work decrying the soil contamination caused by chemical agents left behind at a U.S. military base in the Philippines, causing serious health problems among the local population. Both films end with a written message dedicating the work to Tsuchimoto’s memory.

There remains much more I want to say, but the rest will have to wait until I meet you all in London. I am very much looking forward to it.

(Translated by Adam Sutherland)

ISHIZAKA Kenji (Tokyo, 1960) is a Senior Programmer of the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). He also holds the position of dean/professor at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image (JIMI) and has written several books, including Amidst the Sea of Documentary: Dialogues with Tsuchimoto Noriaki (2008), published by Gendai Shokan.