The Japanese documentary maker Kazuhiro Soda is very easy to interview. Not only is he very urbane and charming, he also speaks perfect English. But it is a bonus to find that the quietly spoken Director is a deep thinker who is keen to talk philosophically about documentary as a form and about his deliberately observational method. He has even issued a Dogme-style mini manifesto setting out ‘ten commandments’ that he feels documentaries should follow.
His moving film Inland Sea – which played recently in the documentary section of the Sydney Film Festival – is a close-up portrait of a tiny fishing village called Ushimado which may be slowly fading into history.
We started by asking the director how he became so fluent in English. It turns out he has been living in the United States for some time, and the adventure of going to America set him on the path to his international film career.
“I was studying religion at university in Tokyo and I had nothing to do with film but I got a whim that maybe I have been wanting to make films. I wasn’t a cinephile as such. I was young, only 22. And I booked a ticket to New York with only one suitcase and I joined the film school there. Whatever I learned at the school was about features. But my first short film while I was a student was selected to be shown at Venice International Film Festival and I thought maybe this could be my career. Then I joined NHK (the Japanese equivalent of ABC) and I was thrown into the deep end. And I learned quickly, and I fell in love with documentary filmmaking. It was so wild to be able to point your camera at real people, not actors, and make a story at the same time.”
In some ways you could argue that, whereas documentary used to the be the ‘poor relation’ to fictional cinema, it is now an equal partner. Soda feels this is very much the case and partly this it to do with our contemporary recognition of the sheer complexity and contingency of life.
“Yes, documentary has also changed, and it has been used too much as a tool to send a message and there is this confusion between journalism and documentaries. But I think it is quite different from either journalism or propaganda. Actually, it is a different form of art, it is much closer to fiction than that because it can go deeper. Things are complex. I don’t believe there is a unitary truth for example. Still, journalism can get to the ‘truth’ but I don’t think that it is that simple.”
So, in that sense, the filmmaker is not looking to find a measurable or finite truth, as some journalism might, but rather exploring ways of seeing.
“I am dealing with real life like journalism does. In my film there are things that the characters say that you may or may not believe but it is not my job to fact check. I don’t check back in that sense. If I was a journalist, it would be different.”
We also discuss some of the debates around ‘fly on the wall’ positioning for the documentary and the idea of deliberately putting yourself in the frame as an identity. That, and the idea that documentary subjects addressing the camera and thereby breaking the fourth wall, relies upon the idea that the situation is only ‘real’ if it is filmed in a certain way.
“My definition of documentary is that my films are observational but they are about the world and I am in the world too. In one sense it is impossible not to affect the world because if I am there and pointing my camera it is bound to affect things. And this dynamic is the most interesting, actually. Sometimes people ignore my camera and sometimes they don’t and that is natural. Why should I hide or pretend? They know they are being filmed, and that is the truth of the situation.”
Soda’s approach has always been ‘organic’ in the sense that he does not either know, or want to know, what sort of end product would be the ‘right’ film to come up with. This loops back to his concern to go in without too many prior assumptions which is part of his ‘ten commandments’.
“Yes, this is an important topic. Unlike some documentary makers I don’t do a lot of research before going in. As you know I have ‘Ten Commandments’ of documentary making, and some of them are: You should not meet with subjects beforehand, you should shoot the footage yourself, do not use titles/explanatory captions or music and [where possible] use long takes.”
Perhaps the most important one for him is his rule No 7. – do not set up a theme or goal before editing and do not editorialise. We return to the idea of trust, which can be seen as basic to getting close to a particular situation or set of lives without either ripping them off or lapsing into mere voyeurism. Soda decides to go to a situation open-endedly, and to rely on his ability to connect with people and on patience to capture the material. After that, it is a matter of letting basic human instincts guide you.
“[For Inland Sea], it was hard to get there [Ushimado], it is a remote location and that means you have to be patient. They do not know me but as soon as I get permission I start shooting and as a human being it is possible to get trust. For example, I only met you a few minutes ago but I know already something about you and that I can probably trust you, that is the fundamental human setting in a way. We all have that in-built human sensitivity and of course we communicate through words. But I think we are also using so much more nonverbal cues in our communication. We sense other people, we assess them and that is something I rely on when I am filming. They sense my feelings and as the camera is rolling this relationship is unfolding and then things happen.”
The great advantage of an open-ended approach and a long engagement is building enough footage that will contain the micro elements that are so revealing.
“What is fascinating to me about filmmaking is that words are part of it but also it is about time, about the timing of when things are said, and the tone of how they are said and facial expressions and gestures and everything can be recorded in film. And this is the way we see the world on a regular basis. This is how we recognise the world phenomenologically. And the film is close to our perception of reality, but I can reconstruct my experience in a cinematic reality too and the audience can share it immediately.”
Part of what makes Inland Sea so moving and so urgent (even though it is so seemingly languid and unhurried) is that the way of life is actually going to disappear. Was Soda drawn to filming that region partly because it might be disappearing? In which case the film is partly about preserving as well as recording?
“Yes, definitely, the town where we visited is near where my wife’s mother lives actually and it is an ancient village dating back over a thousand years. And it remained unchanged by the various modernisations of Japan. For example, it does not have wide enough streets where the cars could pass so it has these little alleys, and no one can use a car to get around. And that is precisely why it is like it is, but it is also true that [young] people are moving out now. But the way that people interact in the village is totally different from modern Japan, in that everyone knows each other so well. They know each other’s daily schedule. It is such a tight-knit community and that is disappearing. And, also, being a fishing town, many are going out of business. The price of fish is going down and no one wants to carry on with the business. The main fisherman in the film is 86 and he is one of the last fishermen like that. Maybe in ten or twenty years there will be no more little fishermen like this in Japan. It is unimaginable for us. I mean we are the country of fish! So, that was an initial thought that I had and the genesis of the desire to make the film actually.”
Does this have a larger resonance with Japan’s national psyche, reflected in things like its extremely low birth rate? The director feels that Japan is still in, some ways, going through a period of adjustment.
“Actually, there is something there. People do not seem to have this hope for the brighter future maybe. People think their income will shrink, we won’t have enough money to support ourselves. And people are discouraged to have kids. Maybe we are in a long period of shock after the boom economy shrunk. When I was 22 I thought I can do anything. I was confident, I thought there is a brighter future. And that is not only for Japan but for all humans on this planet. But maybe this lack of hope is more realistic, closer to reality!”
At this point we should just note that Soda’s warmth, and his infectious laugh, goes some way to balancing this apparently bleak observation.