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Far away, too close: Nippon Connection 2020

Naomi Mizoguchi focused her camera on another voice that has been neglected and silenced for hundreds of years, which is the voice of Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan. Being iron-handedly assimilated by the Meiji government at the end of the 19th Century, the Ainu community has dramatically shrunk ever since. Furthermore, its unique existence had been denied by the contemporary Japanese government until 2008 which used to claim that there was only one ethnicity in the country. Yet to this day, its history and culture remain unfamiliar to many Japanese.

Years of NGO work with the Columbian indigenous people inspired Mizoguchi to return to Japan to look at the indigenous community there, which she knew little about, like every other Japanese from the main island. After a number of visits, she was asked by the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum to make a documentary, and recommended 4 elderly people in their 80s who devote themselves to preserving and spreading the endangered culture. The 80 minutes long documentary is loosely structured along the turn of seasons, while weaving in the natural sceneries, the oral histories and historical archives, the indigenous activities and rituals, as well as the protagonists’ daily lives oriented by the efforts to spread the nearly-lost knowledge (language, songs, cloth-making, canoe-making, planting, etc.) to the local people, school children, and tourists. The director actively quotes the Ainu vocabulary when depicting the natural scenery and never gets tired of typing explanatory notes, showing her respect for this community. The documentary enthusiastically examines an abundance of focus points, though not always stopping to ask questions or explore further. But as a commissioned piece for the Ainu Museum it fulfills its purpose.

Similarly, the expected documentary film format probably wasn’t the first priority for Listening to the Air (dir. Haruka Komori). Its main purpose was to document what happened after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and how the local people managed to recover from the disaster. Komori, a media art student at the time, went to the devastated area immediately after the earthquakes with her collaborator Seo Natsumi where they volunteered while recording what they witnessed. Later, they decided to move to the area to continue their work, which led to a series of photographs and videos. And the commitment still continues in various ways, with Listening to the Air being one of the latest results.

The film follows the announcer Hiromi Abe, who had lost her restaurant during the disaster and started to work at the local radio station, reporting the local events and interviewing the local people, providing a sense of support and accompaniment to many listeners during those following years of trauma. Led by a caring and optimistic protagonist, the simple but heart-warming documentary reveals a tenacious community that won’t be beaten down by misfortune, striving towards the future while not forgetting the past—an admirably inherent quality that endures in those familiar with natural disasters.

Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan

Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan

Hiromi Abe

While Listening to the Air expressed emotions contained within the physical context, The Journalist (dir. Michihito Fujii) relies on film language to express mood and atmosphere, with most of scenes happening at night, using dark color effects, and melancholy background music. The fiction is based on Isoko Mochitsuki, arguably Japan’s most controversial journalist today, who in the last few years has been investigating sensitive issues related to power abuse and corruption by the senior government authority. Producer Mitsunobu Kawamura simultaneously produced this film and i -Documentary of the Journalist (by Tatsuya Mori) about the same journalist. With Mochitsuki’s distinctively persevering and fearless personality and Mori’s experience in documenting eye-catching social issues, the documentary is no less dramatic than the fiction.

Producer Kawamura asked Fujii to direct the film acknowledging that he belongs to a younger generation which has little interest in paper media and politics. This could explain Fujii’s attempt to focus on the political thriller and distance the film from the Shiori Ito rape case and the US military base issue in Okinawa which played a key role in showing not only the journalist’s political stance but also her humanitarian concerns. The film has a young fictional government employee as the male protagonist (played by Tori Matsuzaka) who still maintains a sense of righteousness, paired with the journalist (played by the Korean actor Eun-Kyung Shim). It was reported that due to the topic’s sensitive nature, no major Japanese talent agencies wanted their actors to play the journalist, a claim denied by director. However, the producer did point out that advertisement of the film was never allowed on all forms of broadcast media including radio in Japan, which points to Japanese society’s position on soft censorship. Which is possibly why two distinct productions on the same issue needed to be shot at the same time: as two exclamation marks to address the urgency.

All three films take on the task of social engagement in order to poke into intractable social issues, with the agenda in Mizoguchi’s film in favor of the Ainu community, Komori revealing tolerance/acceptance when it comes to collective trauma, and The Journalist sugarcoating reality to a certain extent but still being boycotted by the mainstream media. These films have presented a number of caring and responsible female figures, either the directors or the documented subjects, which may still be the only kind of feminist portrait that the Japanese society would accept. But once they become powerful or aggressive like the journalist—the one in real life or the fictional character—they are no longer welcomed. They become a monster, a female gorilla, which is what Ghost in the Shell’s warrior Motoko is once called, although here not without fondness…

the journalist Erika Yoshioka played by Eun-Kyung Shim

the male protagonist played by Tori Matsuzaka on the left


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