Tunnel Visions

07/08/2013

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Fortress1

Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer in Sanrizuka

As Donald Richie points out, Japanese cinema lacks the pedigree of an innate realist tradition, and the documentary film, he further argues, “has nothing like the influence it has had in other countries.” In that backdrop, where reality is hardly the privileged mode it is elsewhere, the output of the film collective known as Ogawa Productions (Ogawa Pro, for short), then, comes as something of a shock. Uncompromising in their radical politics, confrontational, and produced on the sparest of budgets, the films represent the life’s work of not only the eponymous documentarian Ogawa Shinsuke, but an entire group of his devoted collaborators.

In the social upheaval of 1960s Japan, the group set out to record what was going on, independently, outside of television and government-sponsored films. Their complex and fascinating story – told in Abé Mark Nornes’ book Forest of Pressure and in Barbara Hammer’s film Devotion (2000) – represents one of the singular waves to come out of that time of political foment. In his history of the postwar Japanese documentary (almost entirely taken up by Ogawa Pro), Nornes describes how the collective took form, took on increasing challenges, and eventually became a way of life for those involved, as they ate, breathed, and lived for their films.

If the documentaries of the group were merely programmatic, they would not be nearly as affecting as they are – that comes as a result of how fearlessly in-depth they are, how they burrow to the center of the plight of ordinary people. Ogawa Pro’s strategies or, more appropriately, their tactics, are centered around maximum immersion into whatever environment they were documenting, whether it be alongside urban students protesting; rural farmers fighting for their land; or life in a quiet, rice-growing village in the North. The term ‘direct cinema’ barely seems to encapsulate what the films show and where they situate the viewer. Bracing and enthralling, meditative and at the same time bewildering, these are the ultimate action films, reproducing (on a shoestring) experiences in a kind of unique sensory collage. The filmmakers literally put their lives on the line to produce them, fueled by conviction and empathy for the ordinary people pulled into warfare.

Ogawa Shinsuke, searching further afield for a niche in the left-wing spectrum, set up shop in Sanrizuka, a collection of villages that were to be bulldozed to make way for the new Tokyo airport at Narita. This move incurred a new level of involvement with the subjects that he and his crew were documenting. This involvement would grow over the years as they spent more time with the people of Sanrizuka. They formed a dedicated collective of filmmakers, agreed to name it after Ogawa (or so the story goes), and gave their namesake sole directorial credit, even though the films are as collaborative as one can imagine. The hierarchy and misogyny that the group members accepted under their leader is explored (and problematized) both in Nornes’ book and in Hammer’s documentary.

The collective of young filmmakers that formed around Ogawa in 1966 made their first two films as a unit, Sea of Youth (1966) and Forest of Oppression (1967), about the unrest within a large student population that was burgeoning in its political consciousness and its desire to rise up against the government. It was from 1967’s A Report From Haneda, however, that the group began working in the radical, independent newsreel-style documentaries, diverging from the path set by trailblazing documentarian Tsuchimoto Noriaki and, at the same time, increasing the unilateral control that Ogawa Shinsuke himself would exert over the group’s work as a whole. Following this film, the collective would begin its transformation into more of a commune, moving to rural Sanrizuka, outside Tokyo, and making the famous series of protest documentaries about the villagers there.

A Report From Haneda (1967)

Less an Ogawa creation than a collaborative project made by a number of documentary collectives, A Report From Haneda is a film about the student protests in Tokyo that were trying to prevent prime minister Sato from boarding a plane at Haneda Airport to visit Vietnam. It was done mainly under the Jieiso banner (the nascent form of Ogawa Pro, which didn’t yet exist), and included input from Tsuchimoto and his team. A crack selection of cinematographers fanned out into the street protests, documenting some truly harrowing conflict, as the riot police had been basically instructed to deliver any violence necessary to beat back the protesters. The finished film was fired off in a month, and stands at about one hour in length. It wavers between eye-popping documentation, sober discussion, and a confused assemblage of mountains of evidence.

The film begins with a roving camera moving over masses of photographs from the protests (Nornes likens it to a police helicopter’s view from above), going in and out of focus on faces, injuries, and scenes of destruction.  The camera settles on a picture of Yamazaki Hiroaki, the murdered student, and zooms in until his pupil becomes a sunspot, a sun.

What follows is a description of Yamazaki’s injuries, his fractures and lacerations. The filmmakers establish early on that these were inflicted by the cops, who themselves report that the young man was run over by a car in the chaos of the protest. The television reporters who were there agree with this statement. The narration suggests, “collusion between media and the police killed him twice” – the media have created a fictional death to append the real tragedy, and thus killed him themselves by the dishonor incurred by the falsification.

We see footage, silent and immediate, of riot police rushing the protest. They flood past the camera hitting people with their batons. Each way the camera turns there is someone being bludgeoned. Ogawa, who pieced the different crews’ material together, then replays the footage, slowing it down to one frame per second. The images’ incoherence is heightened by lingering on blurred frames, but so too is the astonishing fact of fear. If each blur represents a sudden movement, it is accentuated just how many sudden movements are occurring, and in a way that normal speed could not plausibly communicate. To an insistent drum beat on the soundtrack, the frames alternate: blur / strike / blur / strike. Thus the optical printer issues its own “second death” to the proceedings.

An activist being interviewed talks about ethics over logic – why else would they fight, tooth and nail, a force that is stronger, larger, and will ultimately, always win? In many ways this film prefigures the Sanrizuka series that would follow it. Just like in those films to come, the airport is a symbol of authority, of the squashing of human rights. And, like the rural peasants battling the police, the students are doomed to be shaken off. Their struggle isn’t in vain, since documents like this remain – indictments of the abuse of power, produced shoulder-to-shoulder with those fighting for the rights of the masses.

One of the centerpieces of A Report From Haneda shows Ogawa and his collaborators discussing the feasibility of secretly filming the imprisoned protestors. Their report on Yamazaki is already more detailed (and, as the medical examiner proves, more truthful) than any police report. When the conversation falls onto interviewing the injured students, there falls into relief a fine line: the filmmakers do not want to shoot any footage that could be used as evidence by the state, a means to identify people whom they could track down and terrorize. The filmmakers want to aid the student struggle, but showing their faces may put them in jeopardy.

Gradually eyewitness accounts of Yamazaki’s death come out. Students talk about fear, guilt, awe, at having been in the battle that killed him. We see glimpses of the anthropological burrowing that would come to full florescence with Heta Village and the later films made during the sixteen years spent in Magino village in Yamagata. We see shards of the student protesters” lives in oddly reconstructed scenes; a jazz band performing in a darkened apartment, activists in their headquarters gathering up evidence before the police arrive.

As a coda to the initial shots of violence in the streets, there follows footage of streams of protestors marching in a vigil at night. Of course they are also surrounded on all sides by riot police, unbelievable numbers of them, like an authoritarian river. The helmets blur into dots of light as the camera looms high above in this most surreal image.

Summer in Narita (1968)

The following year Ogawa Pro was firmly entrenched in Sanrizuka, one of several communities that were slated to be replaced by the construction of Tokyo’s new airport. The farmers provide most of the commentary in this film, documented in the field, during tense stand-offs with the riot police. So we learn a bit about them, and get some of the background of their struggle. The land they reclaimed from swamp decades ago has become strategic battleground. They see that land as a mandate from the Meiji emperor, from a time when agriculture was valued. Now the land is being surveyed for destruction. Their work will be erased, all of it sold off for the growth of industry, Japan’s next big wave. The government has to do what it does in a legal and nominally democratic way. When it is necessary, though, it will tip the scales so that the poor people slide off.

The Airport Corporation announced the location suddenly, fully expecting all the farmers in the flat, rural region to be bought off quietly. The Japanese government figured that the peasants of Sanrizuka, who have only been farming the land for, at most, a few generations, would feel less of an attachment to those in villages that had been there for centuries. They were dumbfounded when the people of the village rose up with the force that they did. The government’s oppressive response was met with an equivalent fervor from the peasants, and the stand-off escalated to violent proportions.

Chief among the reasons for building the new airport in a region so far from the city was that the Haneda airport, as talked about in the previous film, was largely being co-opted for political purposes. It had become virtually a landing-base for the United States’ airplanes on their way to Vietnam. Once again the airports are a symbol of imperialism, brutality in tarmac, uprooting people and the environment.

The farmer-activists have been going through the hard work of convincing many of their neighbors that their land and livelihood is worth fighting for. Some around them have already been bought off. One community leader laments, “no matter how righteous you think your beliefs are, it’s always difficult to communicate them to people.”

While Ogawa’s crew wear their own riot gear for entering the fray, the television crews, who are there too, wear civilian clothes, and film from a safe distance. Student activists from the city have joined the fight, and their help has been accepted by the farmers, who still maintain organizational leadership. From the perspective of the films, particularly Summer in Narita, the peasants allow outside sympathizers onto the frontlines with them, but not completely into their ranks, refusing to let their very urgent cause to be shrouded by doctrines or factions. So the differences between the two camps remain well-defined.

The peasants are fighting for the land, are a part of it, and have nothing else – all this is the source of their willingness to die before leaving the land. They utilize weapons drawn from the ground itself – stones and fertilizer – to fend off their attackers. There is one cut-away shot, during a discussion of the battle, to the farmers’ implements sitting in a shed, suggesting that, while these would make excellent weapons for the otherwise unarmed peasants, they are a last resort, as they are needed for their utilitarian use. This serves as a reminder that, fierce and strategic as these people are, they are still farmers, and have work that needs to be done.

“This isn’t Marx or Lenin,” says an activist, pointing to the concrete reality of their fight. “You feel it in your body.” The same could be said for Ogawa’s films – ethic over logic prevails, producing a highly uneven experience. The films are disorienting, even “indigestible,” as Noel Burch puts it. But they establish, as well as any American Newsreel film of the 60s, how disorienting such battles are, how saturated with vitriol and indignation they are, how precariously they swing between harmony and outright murder.

Summer in Narita (1968)

The cause that brings the farmers out to demonstrate is what brings the students there, and indeed, what brings Ogawa Pro there as well – there’s an immediate solidarity there. Members of the Youth Auxiliary often blend with the formations of farmers, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two camps. At times the battle resembles a sea of humanity – and in subsequent films, it would grow even larger and more violent. The camerawork expresses the number of bodies wired for fight or flight, indeed, is one of those bodies, confronting an opposing menace, sometimes running for dear life, but all the while trying to capture and assimilate information.

More than once, a camera is targeted, with a baton pointed right at it. At one point, the cameraman is bludgeoned and arrested. Ogawa and his remaining crew confront the detectives as to why, and they get shrugged off, but they keep the replacement cameras coming onto the scene. Documentation will, it seems, not stop until every last crew member has been imprisoned. Ogawa and his team swim, like fish, in the confusing maelstrom, able to evade the desperate police while trying to bring focus to the dramatic moments in the battle.

The film is punctuated by unforgettable images, and we sometimes wonder how they could have been captured so succinctly, or even how they were captured at all. We see a shot of an empty road, then a dramatic whip-pan to the other end of it to show a clutch of riot police blocking the path, posed like a group portrait. In the muddy road, a wall of policeman parts to let a line of schoolchildren on bikes pass through. Life amidst chaos, chaos amidst life, which has been surrounded but not yet consumed by conflict.

The disproportionate amount of force being wrought upon the peasants is, in the first place, incredible. But even more incredible is how the ordinary people rise to the occasion. Summer in Narita draws to a close with a dramatic helicopter shot over the land, where trees stand tensely, awaiting conflict, girded by rice paddies. The camera does a spin, looking down, pinwheeling the geometry of the agriculture into one, unified mass. All this land is connected, all of it in peril.

The lack of sync sound in these early films makes it all the more difficult to create an understandable whole. Like the individual blurred frames of celluloid that, themselves are inchoate and represent very little, the discreet sounds have to be considered as part of a mosaic to make sense, and a larger, more inclement picture becomes apparent, with a surprising clarity. Ogawa Pro’s films are never burdened by having one single, important message to get to. They meander but are never aimless. They have a point – that is, a reason for existing. But each moment on celluloid comprises the message, packed with urgency, rhetoric, combat.

Ogawa and company on location at Sanrizuka

Ogawa and company on location at Sanrizuka

The farmers are highly organized, and in a more practical way than the students shown in Ogawa’s earlier films, like Forest of Pressure or A Report From Haneda. But they are workers, tired from a day’s labor. They construct towers and barricades, line the trees with barbed wire. They are a state unto themselves, and make similar constructions. Metal barrels become their alarms and their war-cries. Farm implements become weapons – but more often, it is stones that are their ammunition. One activist says, it doesn’t matter whether or not the farmers are violent towards the cops. Either way, they will be arrested and accused of violence. So they may as well keep the blighters at a distance by firing rocks at them.

By the time subsequent films started to emerge from their Shinjuku office, Ogawa Pro become a sort of factory of evidence of the Sanrizuka struggle, a sort of factory churning it out. A more boiled-down version of the film made before it, Three-Day War in Narita is an example of a newsreel-type film shot and released quickly, under duress. The group had become more influenced by foreign documentaries, and was galvanized by visits paid to them by both Joris Ivens and two representatives of the Black Panthers. Ogawa Pro received new equipment, among it a Nagra tape recorder, so sync-sound became possible. Their work thus became more immediate, closer to its moment, fired out with the speed of developer chemicals.

Once again, the peasants are fending off the surveyors. Blocking the unarmed presence of the surveyors results in a flood of riot police. The police detectives (some of them undercover, as Ogawa identifies them) take pictures of the protestors, as though they could hunt and terrorize farmers in the same way they do urban students. These are people fighting for their livelihoods, though; they have nowhere to hide, nor would they ever even consider it.

The surveyors are like an alien presence, as they measure and snap pictures dispassionately. However, a seven-day surveying mission is pared down to three days because of the peasants’ resistance, and the representatives are quickly shepherded away.

The film begins in the same way as Summer in Narita : farmer Umezawa on a tirade, protecting his melon field. Each farmer has his separate imperative, which becomes the collective cause. Alone, none of them would react violently or risk their lives. Ogawa Pro focuses in on dramatic moments, sound bites, and interview articulate mouthpieces. One farmer activist relates their struggle to historical peasant resistance. This is different, he says; there is a farmers’ revolution in the works here. Their plight isn’t isolated.

Narita: Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971)

Farmer Ryuzaki, who is pregnant, was apparently kicked by one of the aggressors during a sit-down strike. The difference between this and earlier footage that the Ogawa Pro members made of protests is that the demonstrators address their enemies face-to-face, with their simple, angry appeals. So Ryuzaki directs her outrage verbally at the very man who injured her. The very human and rural-accented heroes stand in contrast to the stone-faced authorities. There is a shot of peasants crouched on the ground, watching a helicopter circle overhead, the soundtrack invaded by its buzz-saw shriek.

One of the Sanrizuka leaders says they must draw their resolve from the Vietnamese peasantry, an outgunned population that defeated imperialists. As a defense, the peasants smear themselves with excrement, more to symbolically exploit the intruders’ fear of filth than to actually ward them off. Meanwhile, the frontlines are indiscernible – people are crowded here and there, but it all seems fair game for the battle. It’s hard to get a sense for where the advancing army is coming from, since it seems more that they are closing in on an increasingly small section of land. The camera is never on the outskirts of the activity, though. It situates itself in the confusion of people, runs with them, crouches with them.

Nornes, like Burch, seems especially struck by the way that chaos and confusion are imparted through the audio, often more so than through the camerawork, which is often professionally steady. Like in many of Haile Gerima’s films, a profusion of voices, too numerous to make sense of, crowd the soundtrack, with comments and exclamations becoming a scattered cacophony that gets corralled into a near-symphony. This is part of Ogawa’s “tactics without strategy” (as Nornes puts it); without being able to convey the experience of being in such a situation – even a details-packed seven films could not begin to do this – Ogawa Pro instead try to bring the viewer face-to-face with a large, aggregate totality. Thus they plant temporal confines on a dense nest  of smaller realities. Rather than presenting only data (free of sensory elements) or trying to achieve representations of the situation in Sanrizuka, the films synthesize a new experience that rushes over us, bearing with it the effects of the situation, both that which is political and that which is ‘of the ‘air’ – what people think and sense. The acuity of particular moments is sacrificed for the verisimilitude carried (as by a river current) within their version of the cinema-effect.

This assemblage of immersion reaches its hottest pitch in Narita: Peasants of the Second Fortress, where the frame is so thronged with people that it gives the impression of a 360-degree pan without ever doing one. There is the feeling of being ensconced by moving bodies, and also a sense of the expanse of human forms flooding the pastures and hills all around.

If Three Day War was the initial exploration of a new level of immediacy, it is safe to say that each film, in a different way, utilizes the breaking down, the crumpling of the distance between the subject and the audience. Nornes writes of that film, ” the viewer is confronted with a confusing situation, action fragmented with little explanation and no steady ground to stand on.” He hastens to add that, “inextricable though it may be from the arc of the Sanrizuka Series, there are other ways to conceptualize the relationship between film and spectators that are more easily brought into focus with the next film of the Sanrizuka Series.” That one, Peasants of the Second Fortress, would expand on the new-found closeness, the repositioning of the spectator, while incorporating more and more details of the peasants’ experience.

By the time this film was begun, the struggle had escalated – or, more accurately, descended – further when the farmers began to dig trenches in their fields to create a sort of fortress against the police. In the conflict, now entering its fifth year, an estimated 1,200 people had been arrested, and more than 5,000 injured. In this dispatch, the peasants have become quite the organized force in their own right, broadcasting stations giving them messages via loudspeaker, flags and banners proclaiming their resistance.

The film begins with a protracted (roughly 10-minute) conversation of a crowd of peasants about their strategy for defending this fortress, as they have literally dug themselves into the earth that they are defending. They realize that the tactics of the police will be extreme, and so talk seriously about how to respond with extreme measures of their own. They march wearing helmets and long coats, carrying long, wooden spears, as helicopters slice and stir the air around them.

There is a heavier reliance on close-ups than ever before; we will focus on a person’s face for minutes at a time while they are engaged in work, rather than seeing the whole picture of what they are working on. We also see the very, very long shot being utilized, something that would define their crowning film in the Sanrizuka series, Heta Village.

Narita: Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971)

The peasants reinforce the barricades of their fortress with the natural materials around them, such as tree branches and leaves, and bamboo to use as long, sharpened poles. As a landscape, Sanrizuka had never been fully tamed, and its still quite bosky qualities present an advantage to the farmers. The living trees are used as hiding-spots before the final retreat to the fortress. When the personnel of the Airport Corporation begin to fell the protective trees, the peasants form a giant human chain, effectively becoming the final barricade to be mowed down.

Meanwhile a wall of bonfires shows how close to scorched-earth the conflict has become. The people chain themselves to the constructed barricades. One old woman complains “it’s cold” as she chains herself along with another. “Stop grumbling,” her partner replies.

The resemblance to medieval warfare brings home, in a concrete way, how this struggle really is age-old. It is the same struggle in which the peasants have engaged the government for time immemorial, while it has just changed shape – but only just. Clusters of men carrying rectangular shields look like playing-cards on a battlefield.  Small skirmishes erupt here and there, at very close range, dense with people from both sides. It is entirely unlike the all-out destruction of WWII, and lacks the guns and napalm of Vietnam’s horrible guerilla warfare.

There are endless conversations about strategy, and even about the democracy of asking farmers who have joined the movement to hole up in the fortress and fight until they are pulled out. “If you’re talking about protracted struggle,” one old woman suggests, “think of those in the tunnels. Next time we’ll ask our leaders to stay in the tunnels for 1 or 2 months.”

“This is my land!” a peasant yells at a policeman. When the policeman asks him for his certificate as proof, the man screams back, “who’s carrying a certificate at a time like this?”

In a rather dramatic moment, the Women’s Action Coalition advances to the frontline to protect the young peasants from being arrested. Face-to-face with the riot police, the old women scold them directly, taking on the inhuman army with humane perseverance. The peasants have been fully transformed: neighbors who previously talked with one another about water levels and orchard yields are now discussing strategic attacks and defense against the aggressors, rows of molotov cocktails sitting behind them at the ready. As the police and the Airport Corporation plow through with bulldozers, advancing upon the concentric fortresses, waves of peasants take them on in the surrounding moats of muddy water.

Down in the tunnels, things are – well, dark. The networks of passageways are bolstered by wooden planks and poles, and sophisticated air pipes ventilate the chambers. Ogawa Pro’s guide shows them the latrine, which had to be moved into the tunnels when it became too dangerous to be outside. The presence of Ogawa’s camera in the tunnel situates them closer to the peasants than the assisting student groups, none of whom, apparently, were allowed to enter the tunnels because of the risk factor.

The film ends with the most poignant image of any of Ogawa’s films, and the most stunning interplay of sound and perspective: a crew of diggers advancing one of the tunnels, several fortresses having been overtaken by the authorities. And so they dig, in an uncertain  progression.

The films became increasingly first-person from the Summer in Narita to Heta Village, containing commentary and voice-over narration from the filmmakers. While they represent some of the collective’s more unadorned documentaries, there would be an increasingly subjective element entering the films to follow. The somewhat hokey presence of folk singer Acid Seven reciting from a deceased man’s diary in Dokkoi! Songs From the Bottom (1975, made during a year spent in a slum in Yokohama) and, much later, the astonishing folk legends and histories enacted by the Magino peasants in Magino Village: A Tale (1986, Ogawa’s last epic documentary) show some of the ways that Ogawa Pro would meld their records of real life with various forms of cinema. Later down the line, sacrificing the immediacy of the Sanrizuka films meant attaining a heightened intimacy, an examination of the soul, the D.N.A. of a culture.

Narita: Heta Village (1973)

Narita: Heta Village was shot largely after the protests had subsided. The students have departed, and Ogawa Pro has hunkered down for a look at the inner life of the community, away from the outdoor stand-offs. Even though they are no longer engaging the authorities in outright conflict, the lives of the farmers have been heightened to a new level of stress. Not only is it a matter of time before they are forced off their land, but many of their younger comrades are in prison. An incident that happened in the intervening time before the film was made, in which three policemen were killed on a country road, not only brought the violence to a boil-over, but positioned a black cloud over the farmer’s movement. Their resolve remains, strong as ever, and we hear them talking in a heartfelt way about the pain of having sons taken away from them.

A woman fashions a protective phallic statue from a daikon radish, decorates it and prepares it for its ceremonial function. This forges a rather poignant link between this, more meditative film and its chaotic predecessors, as the woman making the benevolent deity was, herself, a protector of the camera crew during some of those fierce battles taking place in the fields. It is also interesting that the phallus is more of a “father figure” than a symbol of fertility, and this  lighthearted episode prefigures the story from Magino Village: A Tale when a farmer digs up a neolithic statue that is similar to that (but made of stone) and keeps it under his porch.

Citing the change in Ogawa’s method occasioned by Heta Village, Nornes writes that, “Ogawa’s new long take, established as a principle of organization starting with this film, demonstrates the contribution of technology (longer magazine, quieter camera, synch sound) to an aesthetic based on continuous sound. Time is constituted homogeneously, in long stretches…” (emphases his). Editing became more of a way to organize blocks of time rather than to create the effect of continuity within a scene. The observation that this film shows, lengthy in scale, would become mastered and fashioned into an inimitable style with the later series of films done in Magino village. It is as though, with growing involution with the community with whom they were staying, the group’s techniques grew more and more immersive in response.

In an interview by filmmaker Kanai Katsu, Ogawa Pro cinematographer Masaki Tamura said, “I was immersed in their lives, in their sense of time.” They had produced so many films about the farmers’ struggle, that the time now seemed right to slow down and show a bit more about the people’s everyday life. This is a life still inflicted with grief, tinged with politics – and the peasants of Heta hamlet seem to have come out of the worst of the conflict wiser in the ways of the world outside of their community. Ogawa speaks to elderly villagers, including one old woman who came there as a young bride. She talks candidly about the abuse she experienced at the hands of a deranged husband, her anecdotes painting the picture of a life composed of equal – and countervailing – elements of despair and integrity.

The collective’s treatment of the suicide of their young neighbor in Sanrizuka, Sannomiya Fumio, feels like an echoing of their investigation of Yamazaki’s death in A Report From Haneda. They talk to his family, and those who fought alongside him in the protests of Narita Airport, and ultimately demonstrate what the loss meant for all of them, and how he could possibly die for his convictions. What we know about the two dead men shows them not too dissimilar, both having been cut down in the quest for justice, lost to the pressure of revolution. The ethical problems of their intimate approach is never lost on the group, and is subject to continual discussion. When filming in Yokohama, the question arises: “how can you film a man who knows he is going to die?” According to Masaki, the answer is, of course: “if it is his dying wish.”

Narita: Heta Village (1973)

Sharing scant light in the darkness of the peasants’ tunnels, which were fashioned from the very soil they had spent their whole lives, Ogawa and his team brings the audience down to the very pit of their collective experience. And, sharing the joy of young Ryuzaki returning from his time as a political prisoner, they bring us into the warmth of celebration, and we see how crisis has strengthened the bonds of the community rather than tearing them apart. The different farmers we meet again and again in the Sanrizuka films show a dedication to one another, a desire to support and protect those who sympathize with them, that could be seen as a model for the collective way of life that the filmmakers would assimilate into their approach to their craft.

Sanrizuka: The Skies of May, the Road to the Village (1977) is the final chapter of Ogawa Pro’s coverage of the peasants’ battles with the authorities, an epilogue of sorts. The group returned to their home base, with the opening of the Narita airport imminent, for an update on what was going on there. In this, the only color film they made about the struggle against Narita, we see the transition from the muck and combat of the earlier Sanrizuka films into the educational, scientific approach they had begun developing in North at that point. This more conventional documentary element can be seen fully-realized in their examination of sericulture Magino Story: Raising Silkworms (1977), and the painstakingly-detailed life-cycle of rice in A Japanese Village (1982).

In The Skies of May…, the stories-high protest tower that peasants built is dismantled by the riot police, who sneak in at night and detain its only guardian. We also see the effect that the armed clashes have on the farmers’ crops (stray gas cannisters scorching the melon vines to their very roots, plants blown sideways by helicopter winds) and on their bodies (battle scars left from direct hits by ballistics). There is a strong, at times cloying, feeling of solidarity in the filmmakers’ efforts to document every little detail, to the bring the viewers up-close to the farmers’ highly organized and tight-knit community.

While highly engaging, the film also represents a dismal end to the story of the residents’ brave resistance, and to Ogawa Pro’s involvement with them. The group filmed it while split between their rural home in Yamagata and their Tokyo office, which remained active. So their final document of the area is ambivalent and somewhat nostalgic, as they probably felt some guilt for abandoning their subjects after a decade of being there with them. The scenes of fighting are handled masterfully, as are the details of everyday life – at this point the group had literally farmed the land for years alongside their subjects. Like in Heta Village, what emerges from the interweaving of the small details of life in the village with the wider, political picture (together forming a warp and weft) is a sort of contemporary mythology, an organization of life’s ongoing watersheds into an encompassing narrative. The village assumes the shape of an organism – rising, growing, stumbling as one, and, as a subtitle in the film reads: “dining on emergency rice under May skies.”

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