Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary by Abé Mark Nornes

By examining the evolution of postwar Japanese documentaries – and in particular, the singular output of the Ogawa Pro film collective under the leadership of the charismatic, if autocratic and impractical filmmaker Ogawa Shinsuke – Abé Mark Nornes’s book, Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary aligns closer to a socio-ethnographic study of the rise and fall of the Japanese New Left movement from some of its most visible participants than a critical biography on the inner workings of the independent, politically engaged film collective and its polarizing leader. Indeed, Nornes suggests this pliability in the introduction, disentangling Ogawa’s self-cultivated mythology as hardscrabble peasant, student activist, and university dropout from his actual biography as upper middle-class Tokyo native and college graduate with a degree in economics. Born in 1936 (rather than 1935 as he had claimed, perhaps as a way of appearing more senior than his colleagues), Ogawa’s early exposure to documentary filmmaking was in the form of educational films disseminated by the Civil Information and Education section of the Occupation as a means of promoting western democracy in postwar Japan. Struggling to pursue his craft during the waning days of the studio system, and under the constant threat of a red purge, Ogawa left the PR film studio, Iwanami Productions and, with the instigation of several student activists who had been participants in his documentary Sea of Youth – Correspondence Course Students that explored the challenges and stigmas associated with distance learning, formed Ogawa Productions as a means of promoting action through information.

It is interesting to note that Nornes creates a distinction between the genesis of Ogawa Pro and that of his Iwanami contemporary, Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s independent film production studio (Tsuchimoto had shot the highly influential series of films on Minamata and the long-term effects of industrial pollution on its residents), citing Tsuchimoto’s seminal role in the formation of Zengakuren at Waseda University in 1948 as a prelude to his career in activist filmmaking, suggesting that Ogawa’s career trajectory was as equally influenced by cultural and political synchronicity as it was by a desire to exert creative independence.

This confluence is perhaps best exemplified by the Sanrizuka series that documented the local farmers’ protracted (and ultimately, failed) struggle against the construction of the Narita Airport. Far from facile attributions of tradition versus modernity, Nornes incisively places their struggle within the broader context of hegemony, nationhood, and cultural identity (the need for a second airport near Tokyo was essentially created by the US military as part of enforcing the ANPO security treaty, and their struggle became emblematic of the broader resistance to the treaty itself and its implication of the Vietnam War, attracting student activists to their cause). Having lived in the village and learning their way of life over the course of several years, Ogawa not only eschews the myth of objectivity in shooting a documentary, but also redefines the concept of embededness as a means of engaging with the subject. By differentiating between the converging factions at Sanrizuka, Nornes proposes that series’ final installment, Sanrizuka: Heta Village is also its most potent and well-realized film specifically because it transcends political immediacy, dissolving the notion of otherness to create a cultural portrait that is both tactile and ephemeral:

Heta Village represents a climax to the Sanrizuka Series and a keystone to Ogawa’s career because the director finally perfected the documentary aesthetic he had been searching for. Before this, he conducted his search – his practical experiments with all their theoretical implications – while necessarily tending to the practical and on-the-ground politics of the struggle. Only by staying with his taisho [subject] for so many years, by following their struggle and living with them as neighbors, did Ogawa reach a point where he could shuttle the spectacle and details of the political struggle to offscreen spaces without committing an unforgivable ethical compromise. Those years of living and filmmaking enabled the collective to see beyond the urgent contingencies of the confrontation with power and reach for a more profound understanding of the conflict that continued in the fields of Sanrizuka and the jails of Narita. As filmmakers, they built this new understanding into their cinema. Sanrizuka: Heta Village is ultimately about – and literally embodies – the diverse ways of being human.

Ogawa’s ability to disengage from the political dimension of “activist” filmmaking is also reflected in his decision (spurred in part by personal anxieties) to relocate Ogawa Pro from Sanrizuka to Magino, a remote village on the brink of extinction where the remaining members retreated to a life of farming rice and silkworms and compiling almanacs – a move that, as Nornes argues, exposes an underlying dichotomy in the regressive social attitudes within the organization that contributed to the attrition (especially with respect to the women’s roles, often remaining uncredited in the films and being relegated to performing housework in the commune):

In retrospect, it would appear that the critiques of the Old Left were an honest attempt to renovate the relationship between art and politics but without substantially rethinking social politics. Indeed, looking at the way Ogawa Pro actually functioned, it was obviously an autarchy. For all the rhetoric about collective production, there was a crystal clear hierarchy with Ogawa in the unquestioned seat of power. The structure was relatively faint during the Sanrizuka Series, but after 1975 and the move to Magino, the isolation amplified the hierarchical roles. Those who could not keep up with the debate were swiftly purged. This structure may also be seen as an analog of the nation-state itself. The authoritarianism that all these factors point to may have left Japanese critical theory and documentary filmmaking of the early 1970s an inflexible discourse incapable of meeting the challenges of a social world undergoing massive change.

As Nornes further argues, Ogawa’s increasing preoccupation with the daily rituals in the farming village (perhaps exacerbated by Magino’s isolation) serves as a broader reflection of his disconnection from film as a vehicle for social change towards film as an art form, a paradigm that would supplant activist cinema as the preferred mode of expression by a new generation of filmmakers such as Naomi Kawase. In this sense, the Magino series not only reflected Ogawa’s exhaustion from political engagement, but was also a symptom of the collapsing movement itself:

Ogawa Pro was not isolated from the changes that were transforming Japanese documentary from a collective spirit to a private film. And neither were the farming communities isolated from the urban filmmaking centers. Indeed, these sweeping changes in Japanese society deeply affected the filmmaking of Ogawa Pro’s Magino period.

…This was, after all, precisely the time of Japan’s bubble economy and farmers were quite well off (especially in contrast to the hard case poverty of Ogawa Pro). Farmers were enjoying a measure of prosperity, a participation in the fruits of modernity to a degree never experienced in the past. The Magino Village they portrayed on film was primarily one of Ogawa’s own prodigious imagination. The film was widely criticized for this, especially in the hinterlands. The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches was made at the end of an era; it is a film that could never be made today. As Iizuka Toshio points out, the people that really loved the film were – like Ogawa himself – lovers of the cinema, not the village.

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