This last weekend I traveled to Berkeley to participate in a symposium on the Japanese documentarist Hara Kazuo, sponsored by the Pacific Film Archive and the UC Berkeley Center for Japanese Studies, and put on to mark the publication by Kaya Press of an English translation of some of Hara's writings entitled Camera Obstrusa: The Action Documentaries of Hara Kazuo. Hara-san was in attendance, along with his partner Kobayashi Sachiko. On Saturday, the PFA showed two of his films, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 and The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On. The Q and A sessions did not provide much that was new, but they did reiterate some important points. For instance, while some in the audience insisted on reading these films through a social or political politics (i.e., that The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is about exposing Japanese war responsibility), Hara emphasized that these works are mainly about dynamic individuals and his complex relations to them. It is that interaction that is the reality recorded in these films, not just the history of the war or 1970s gender politics.
These issues were really brought out in the symposium on Sunday. Markus Nornes reiterated some of the points he made in his excellent piece on Hara in the anthology Rites of Realism, particularly his argument that Hara's films are an important development in Japanese documentary's continued concern for the human relationship between subject (shutai; the documentarist) and object (taisho; the people being filmed), particularly in how they seek to record the performance of identity through intersubjectivity. Akira Lippit offered a brilliant analysis of Hara through analyzing the tensions involved in the word "subject," which has multiple meanings, including "to subject someone to something," "to be subject to someone" or also "subject matter." Hara's work, he argues, weaves between but never settles on any of these possibilities.
My paper was a bit different, in that I took up his most recent work, a fiction film entitled The Many Faces of Chika (Mata no hi no Chika, 2004). I wanted to ask, first, whether his entry into fiction film as a documentarist differed from that of predecessors who did it in the 1960s like Kuroki Kazuo, Higashi Yoichi, or Matsumoto Toshio, or in the 1990s like Koreeda Hirokazu or Kawase Naomi. Second, I wanted to consider whether those differences also signified a marked shift in Hara's work and how he conceived the relationship between film and reality.
Perhaps I'll write this up later, but my theme was in part framed by Hara's own comments during the event. When asked during his visit about the current state or future of Japanese film, Hara-san was repeatedly pessimistic, lamenting the lack of such "subject matter" as Okuzaki Kenzo, as well as of the strong, active kind of filmmaking Hara exhibits in his "action documentaries." Hara now teaches at the Osaka University of Arts, but complained about the sort of private documentaries young people like his students make which, instead of going out to attack an "object/taisho," just passively record it hoping that the object/experience will somehow save them. Hara made this a matter of weak character, but I consider it a question of a different epistemology and politics.
Both Hara-san and Kobayashi-san were thrilled, however, to hear someone talk about The Many Faces of Chika. While I think even Hara himself was not completely happy with the results of his first foray into fiction film (he is eager to put what he learned from the experience into practice in a new fiction film he is planning on juvenile crime), the two were disappointed at the lack of reaction when it came out in Japan. Kobayashi-san, who toiled for several years on the script for The Many Faces of Chika, came up to me after my talk, visibly overjoyed that someone had put a lot of effort into seriously analyzing her work. That kind of reaction made my work worthwhile.
The Japan-made DVD of The Many Faces of Chika, by the way, does have English subtitles. It's a difficult work to talk about, but it is a must-see for Hara fans.