“Life Ridiculing Art”


Still from 'A Dedicated Life'

Kazuo Hara, Private Eye

While filmmaking of any kind has an innate element of introspection, the analytical form of the documentary often tries to resist this important point. Of the directors who put their lives before the camera, most fall into one of two categories: those, like Jonas Mekas and Ross McElwee, for whom autobiography is the primary format; and still others who include themselves but abstain from doing so in a self-examining way. In the case of Japanese documentarian Kazuo Hara’s work, the reflective, egotistical presence of the filmmaker is often just as essential as the things that are happening onscreen. He usually isn’t ostensibly the subject of his own work, but he never fails to cross through the beam of his own critical gaze. In the bigger picture that extends beyond the frame, the observer is never just that, a fact of which Hara continually reminds us. Meanwhile he pushes subjectivity beyond its useful limits and breaks it down, digests it and displays its contents for us to see.

In the early 1970’s Hara, along with Shiroyasu Suzuki, pioneered what is known as the “private film.” This runs somewhat opposite to the work of Shinsuke Ogawa and his team of filmmakers who at that time were living literally as a rural commune and making movies about the political upheaval in Sanrizuka, outside Tokyo. But they are not so dissimilar; while the name “private film” denotes the work of a single director who controls all the creative aspects of a project, the films of both Hara and Suzuki are still very much about engagement with the world, rather than the navel-gazing of social disconnection. By virtue of the methods the films are implicitly personal.

Still from 'Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974'

Extreme Private Eros (1974)

The films themselves show, in explicit relief, aspects of Japanese life kept so painstakingly submerged in that predominantly reserved culture, and Hara does not shy away from posing difficult questions to those around him. Indeed his career as as a filmmaker is a sort of effrontery in itself, an instigation against injustices in his own culture that he answers variously with cruelty, cowardice,  or judgment – all of which are expressed in his work by being directed upon the people he chooses to film, mirrors that reflect upon himself and upon society in general.

Hara tends to focus on compelling outsiders, presenting their stories in a way that is unashamedly confrontational. But his raw, unalloyed approach is not only harrowing but also undeniably intimate, forcing the viewer to feel, in an abbreviated way, his subjects’ marginal and sometimes tortured existences. As a result they become not so strange anymore, each expressing a certain longing for freedom and individual selfhood, a desire that the director is perhaps channeling by working with them. And while he vacillates between exploitation (which is certainly one aspect of his work with cerebral palsy victims in Goodbye CP) and complacency (the most extreme example being when he follows a vengeful WWII veteran in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On), with the latter he never comes off as dispassionate or detached. All of it is in the interest of communicating the extremity of the people’s situations, which is amplified by Hara’s techniques, and which he is bent on showing us with utter frankness, even if it destroys them.

In Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 Hara examines Miyuki Takeda, a radical feminist and former lover of his, in her life following their separation. Of all his films this is the most overtly self-conscious, as much about himself as it is about his subject. Looking at Takeda as someone who openly flouts social norms, Hara is coming face to face with his own limitations of thought and how they are challenged by this extraordinary woman. The repulsion with which her unorthodox lifestyle fills him remains a sort of attraction, his almost belligerently invasive filmmaking process feeding his unwillingness to let go.

Still from 'Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974'

Extreme Private Eros (1974)

At one point Hara even states that he is only making the film as an excuse to keep in contact with Takeda. He follows her to Okinawa, where she is living with their three-year-old child and her recently moved-in girlfriend, with whom she fights incessantly. Hara seems to delight in watching their protracted battles and reconciliations, happily aware of the untenability of the relationship, even trying at one point to re-seduce Takeda. But she proves too restless for him, taking up briefly with an African-American G.I. and later bearing his child.

There seems to be the awareness, in Hara’s view, that Takeda’s wish to eschew patriarchal control and a tied-down way of living has taken her beyond the realm of productivity, picturing her as a kind of misguided missionary on Okinawa, as she foists her radical opinions onto the women there, who seem to be the least receptive that she could hope for. When she adopts another mixed-race baby (while still pregnant with her own), insisting on doing all the child-rearing herself, it seems she might have bitten off more than she can chew. But, willful and strong (if misguided) she continues to stand on her own. She is an object of fascination for Hara, but one whom he ultimately wants to see falter under the burdens of social pressure. She awakens in him a self-awareness that keeps him fixated on her travails and exhaspirations; as he sees it, her strengths are his own deficiencies.

And by his continued involvement in her life, he is undeniably wrapped up in her exploits. Her leafletting on the streets of Okinawa results in her and Hara getting assaulted by gangsters, and her eventual decision to move back to the mainland. She also returns some of the jealousy earlier fueling Hara’s examination of her when she meets his girlfriend Sachiko, who would go on to be his longtime production partner. So her confusion is also his own, and he seems at pains to draw these parallels, to underscore the similarities he has with her. However he must experience her dedication and removal from society vicariously, mainly through looking, unable to live it himself. This overriding fact is the most overt expression of self-criticism in any of Hara’s films, the fullest glimpse he makes into himself. The rest of the time his personality is shrouded by what he is looking at, aligning his preoccupations and agendas behind the subject matter.

Still from 'Goodbye CP'

Goodbye CP (1972)

An earlier film in which Hara documents a struggle that is both personal and political, Goodbye CP shows the daily life of people afflicted with cerebral palsy. Ignored by mainstream society, their struggle is as much about being noticed as being accepted, and it is about getting support from the people of Japan. Hara in particular focuses on Hiroshi Yokota, whose extreme bodily contortion forces him to drag himself around on his knees, and his constant, strangely fluid movements frequently knock his own glasses to the ground. The director is committed to showing the incredible difficulty with which this man executes mundane tasks and, in spite of the painfully long amount of time it takes for him to speak a sentence, makes him the sole narrator of the film. Like Extreme Private Eros, the film has an unfinished quality, shot on black and white 16mm, and also with asynchronous sound that makes it feel almost like a journal or travelogue coming from its subject.

Yokota hands out pamphlets, conducts a poetry reading, and boldly announces himself in a crowded subway station. The faces turn blank when they approach him, look through him as though he were a current of air. Another man with severe cerebral palsy exhibits his love of photography, snapping pictures of Hara as he films. This emphasis on the subjects doing the much of the viewing, as well as the interpreting, serves the film’s conceit of total intimacy, showing the loneliness of being left out of the mobility of a modern society. This spell is broken at points when the filmmaker’s presence once again comes to the fore, as when Yokota’s wife objects to the camera in her home and Hara refuses to turn it off.

Although he is putting another human being on display, it would be wrong to assume that Hara is not also risking himself in the process. Simply by tackling such subject matter, and investing so much of his personal vision in it, Hara is taking a great risk. He is putting himself here in the role of the intruder, suffering the criticism and bad consequences that result from that. And he is also performing the duties of an illusionist, masking his own intent by making the film appear more like a private statement from Yokota. He wants his perspective to be the same as his subject, to experience his struggle in the same way, but the most the film could ever be is a confrontation in its own right, a statement against the need for conformity that grants Yokota pity in the best of times, and outright invisibility at the worst.

Still from 'A Dedicated Life'

A Dedicated Life (1994)

Viewed alongside previous efforts, A Dedicated Life is a strikingly mature, even autumnal work. It is a look at the final years of the author Mitsuharu Inoue, a teacher and writer of fiction, and also one who lives an ongoing fiction, constantly generating spectacle wherever he goes. In the film he lectures, attends discussions and regales others with his inimitable personality at dinner parties, all the while going in for treatment of his rapidly developing cancer. He also spends a great deal of time writing and, sensing an imminent end, enters his most creatively prolific period.

Hara sees in Inoue a compelling subject because so much of him is already laid bare, partially digested to Hara’s sensibility before the cameras even begin rolling. He creates a portrait of a singular man, the details of whose life are largely fleshed out by interviews with people who feel touched for having known him. Inoue also speaks directly and candidly about his own mortality, with Hara even providing black and white dramatizations of moments from Inoue’s childhood.

When the film begins Inoue is getting made up for a kabuki performance, and reveals that it has always been his dream to have a theatre troupe of his own. On stage he acts out the role of an aging but florid geisha, and even his friends agree that it is quite grotesque. He is the center of attention at every point in the film, surrounded at all times by acolytes. In what seems a rehearsed, time-worn dichotomy, his air is at times cerebral and at other times brash. And he is disarming in his foolishness, his everyman’s uncouthness – but all this too is calculated.

What terminal disease spells, in terms of a legendary life or a storied career, is either the examination and revelation of the truth underlying it all, or the burying of the facts for good. So death can be an uncomfortable, embarrassing prospect for someone who has so much guarded and a legacy to maintain. He talks about having worked, in his youth, as a medium, speaking to widows of coal miners killed on the job, as though he were their dead husbands. He shares this story with a class of his, partly to illustrate where his interest in creating fiction began, and partly to convince those around him, in an innocent and entertaining way, that deception is something in his past, now channeled strictly into writing. But then there are the hidden aspects of his life that remain for the filmmaker to expose – both the artifacts beneath his monolithic life and the inconsistencies of its very surface that crack apart and fall away as soon as they are prodded.

Still from 'A Dedicated Life'

A Dedicated Life (1994)

As the film progresses, Hara returns to and in calls into questions parts of Inoue’s autobiographical recollections that he had previously taken as fact: that Inoue was born in Manchuria and that his father disappeared from his life shortly thereafter. His communist and left-wing revolutionary credentials are not what he makes them out to be. He plays up his humble beginnings, saying he grew up destitute and abandoned by both parents, not for credibility among his cohort, but to seem more inviting, more relatable – someone who has suffered and who has dreamed. People see the man as observant, entertaining – someone who sees their essence and recognizes their innate beauty. He browbeats and shrilly pushes their limits, forces them to grow. Like any tough teacher, he can be by turns a burden or a comfort, and given the rigor with which the Japanese like to inject most aspects of their lives, these two things are one and the same. Thus his students treasure him.

For someone who has woven an elaborate story surrounding his own past, Inoue comes out looking not like he was intent on lying to everyone but on muddling history to the point where his friends and colleagues would have no desire to separate fact from fiction. It is their own proclivities that cause them to believe certain things, for they want him to be the things he says he is even if he is not. Even when Hara begins to sort out the truth no one is interested in it.

Again there is something of an inverse effect happening as a result of Hara’s observational methods, a twofold mystery: it is Inoue’s public life, his appearances and masks, that dominate much of the film, while peripheral characters in his life are the ones who let down their guard and reveal their hidden selves to the director. Just like Extreme Private Eros, which is an exhibition masquerading as a diary (and which is in turn, beneath the surface, a very profound personal critique), so too does A Dedicated Life point to the act of soul-baring as a form of distraction, of dilatory relief from the reality underlying outspokenness or sincerity.

Still from 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On'

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Filmed over a number of years, and with equal parts sensationalism and formal tact, Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is the stuff of nonfiction filmmaking legend. Following former World War II soldier Kenzo Okuzaki, an agitator and activist who spends his time tracking down and tormenting those higher-ups he knows are responsible for atrocities but who have gone unpunished. His aim is to have them admit to wrongdoing, even if it means dredging up painful memories in the process. Stranded in the wilds of Papua New Guinea at the end of the war, Okuzaki’s detachment had run out of provisions and, ragged and starving, had turned to cannibalism. Soldier friends of his caught deserting or otherwise deemed worthy of disapproval were executed, and possibly eaten. These are the people whose memory he is intent on preserving, to whom he needs to give peace before he can finally rest.

Okuzaki had previously been jailed for murdering a real estate broker, attacking Emperor Hirohito and later defaming him with leaflets. At the time that Hara comes into his life, he is driving a slogan-plastered car and making protestations over a loudspeaker on the emperor’s birthday, continuing to denounce that sacred cow well into old age. Compared to Inoue, Okuzaki presents a very different sort of protagonist, one who has nothing to hide and nothing to fear. He has been through the worst, and is entirely prepared to risk arrest and persecution. Indeed, those things are calculated points on his self-assigned mission. He even telephones the police himself at one point in a confrontation, inviting them to take him away should things get out of hand. Hara perhaps began the project in the roll of director, but his position soon deteriorates to that of a shocked bystander, aghast but also enthralled by what this man proposes, what he demands of the rest of humanity. The filmmaker is too captivated to fall short of seeing the story through to its conclusion – his subject’s dedication becomes his own.

Still from 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On'

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

When his meeting with the captain is imminent, Okuzaki decides that his two companions lack the commitment to keep going and enlists his wife and one of his fellow soldiers to impersonate them. For a man so bent on exposing the truth, this seems to be an acceptable level of deception and, as this is a personal – some might say megalomaniacal – quest, it matters little who else is sitting in the room with him. One gets the sense that he has, in his own way, repudiated the two others, reserving the very meatiest conversations for his own satisfaction, which is not to be shared. Sure, they have suffered, but not as profoundly as he has. Hara films the man obediently, even as the man physically intimidates and even assaults his targets in an effort to get them to talk about what happened.

Why did the old veteran wait until nearly forty years later to try to seek out and extract the truth? For one thing, he hadn’t an audience for whom he could justify himself. This is not investigative reporting; Okuzaki seems to know much of what happened in New Guinea during and immediately following the war. But what he knows differs from what official documentation says, and the admission of guilt from the commanding officers is paramount, more important than determining or disseminating the truth. The man has an audience in Hara and, following the editing and release of the film, in Hara’s audience. He believes in God and in divine retribution, but ultimately sees himself as the sole vindicator of the dead, a voice in a world of silence and conformity, one that speaks up loudly against state, family, honor, and many of the other primary tenets of Japanese society.

All of these things Hara too seems to be against to varying degrees, although there does seem to be, if the four films mentioned are considered chronologically, an inward gradient as he focuses on people further from mainstream culture (the cerebral palsy sufferers) and finally an accepted, celebrated entertainer (Inoue). The style of documentation that he favors in his early films is baldly sensational, appallingly coercive, and as iconoclastic as his unusual subjects. It is all of those things, and it is captivating partly because of what its transparently provocative parts expose about the filmmaker. There is something touching about how he depicts the lives of others, essentially flaying his own personality in the process, at times saying more about himself than about them. He seems well aware of the duality of disclosure and sophistry, critically linking both as he himself exhibits them. In that sense he places himself in a position that is at least as vulnerable as that of his subjects, suffering, celebrating, and reacting in sympathy with them. There is no sadism in his films that is not accompanied by an equal degree of masochism.

Still from 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On'

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

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