Open City Documentary Festival

7 – 13 September 2022
in London

Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Kazuo Hara: Shoes Still On


In an essay originally produced for our festival brochure, Julian Ross looks at films by Kazuo Hara, one of our two ‘In Focus’ directors for the 2018 festival.

An out-of-focus shot of a woman giving unassisted birth. This is the image that first comes to my mind at the mention of eminent documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara’s name. The moment is a charged one. Miyuki Takeda is the woman in labour and the subject of Hara’s Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974). Sat on her knees holding a microphone beside Takeda is Sachiko Kobayashi, the film’s producer and sound recordist (and a long-time collaborator on all of his films), but also Hara’s pregnant partner. Quietly confused beside her is Takeda’s first son, who is also Hara’s child, born from their recently broken relationship. And of course, there’s the violence and extreme privacy of the birth itself. Overwhelmed by the intensity of this moment, Hara fails to keep the shot in focus; the blurred image becomes a visual register of his inability to overcome his personal investment in what is taking place in order to operate the camera. Despite not physically appearing, his presence is felt.

Private, intimate moments are forcefully exposed in Hara’s documentaries. Hara sees the role of the camera in documentary as something that “necessarily accelerates action [and] brings action to a boiling point.” For Hara, the camera is not a silent observer but a participant, an ally for his desire to “step into somebody else’s world with [his] shoes still on.”[3] His approach is forceful – indeed, in Japan it is expected for a person to take off their shoes when they enter the home. And the confrontation is not only targeted at his subjects but also at his viewers – he barges into your comfort zone too. As physical fights in the infamous The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) ensue between Kenzo Okuzaki, a Pacific war veteran, and the now elderly former officers he confronts about their alleged war crimes, Hara refuses to intervene in an urge for us to respond. His decision not to act, once again, draws our attention to his presence, and confronts us with documentary ethics. We might not be able to see him but we know he’s behind the camera, provoking us, with his shoes still on.

[1] See Lúcia Nagib, 2011, World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism, London, Continuum, Chapter 6.
[2] Hara Kazuo, 2009, Camera Obtrusa: The Action Documentaries of Hara Kazuo, trans. by Pat Noonan and Takuo Yasuda, New York, Kaya Books, p. 165. Originally published in 1987 as Fumikoeru Kamera: Waga Hōhō, Akushon Dokyumentarii, Tokyo, Film Art.
[3] Hara Kazuo, 2009, p. 14.