June 7 – 18, 2013
Kids today may think that they and Douglas Gordon invented duration as a style of moving-image art, but sit through more than 100 fascinating, exquisitely boring minutes of silkworm farming in The Magino Village Story: Raising Silkworms (Ogawa Productions, 1977) and tell me that the Japanese artist-activists of the Ogawa Productions film collective weren’t there before you, testing your patience and demanding your full attention with their long-form experiments in documentary rigor, decades ago. The retrospective of films by Shinsuke Ogawa and his collaborators screening at Anthology Film Archives from June 7 to June 18 provides a rare opportunity to see, mostly projected on film, a dozen or so examples of the work of this influential collective, producers of some of the most interesting ethnographic documentaries made anywhere in the world in the last part of the 20th century.
Operating somewhere on the spectrum between leftist political movement and masculinist back-to-nature cult, Ogawa Shinsuke and Ogawa Productions were responsible for about 25 films between the late 1950s and the early 1990s, when Ogawa died. Together with Markus Nornes, the pre-eminent North American scholar of Ogawa’s films, Anthology has selected some highlights of the group’s output, from the time of the Ogawa group’s consolidation in the radical student movement on and around Japanese university campuses in the late 1960s, through their participation in the long battle, into the early 1970s, against state and corporate forces over the construction of the Narita airport outside Tokyo, and the group’s re-radicalization, in the late 1970s and 1980s, into a Romantic-nativist conclave that decamped to the rural northern end of Japan, spending more and more time farming and less and less time filming. (At least one unfinished film was left behind in the form of partially-cut footage: Red Persimmons , which Anthology will show near the end of the series, is a gorgeous piece of salvage ethnography about the harvesting and hand-processing of the persimmon variety native to the area of Yamagata, and is based on material produced in the mid-1980s by Ogawa and turned into a finished film 15 years later by a Chinese acolyte, Xiaolian Peng.) At every fascinating turn, Ogawa Pro (the shorthand used in Japan) represented, in both senses of the term, the complex art of what folks like to call “community,” and present the history of social documentary with one of its best examples of the participant-observer. In both their choice of subject and their methods, Ogawa Pro were deeply committed to a communitarian ideal, and their body of work serves as an object-lesson in political cinema. This retrospective provides American viewers with a chance to spend quality time with films that deserve to be much better known in this country by documentarians, cinephiles, students of Japanese culture and history, urban farmers, and activists of all stripes, especially on the scale—hours and days at a time—that the films and their subjects deserve, an undertaking that can be difficult if your access to this remarkable archive is limited to poor-quality copies of the few films that have circulated in North America in recent decades, or the glimpses of the group’s work one can find in the work of other filmmakers’s tributes.
Among the most important lessons to be taken from a sustained engagement with the Ogawa Pro archive is, perhaps paradoxically, the inconsistency and discontinuity native to any organic political form. This dialectical method of social representation is clearest from a panoramic perspective, one that takes in earlier and later phases of the group’s work. Between the future-oriented work of the 1960s and 1970s, and the increasingly nostalgic, reconstructive work of the group’s final decade and a half, the history of Ogawa Pro seems to be the symptom of a stark contradiction within the very idea of the group in modern industrial societies. And in almost any of the films, one finds a complex image of the dynamics of conflict inherent in the world-building activity of any truly political entity.
Take, for instance, the opening several minutes of Ogawa’s 1967 film, Forest of Oppression: A Record of the Struggle at Takasaki City University of Economics (or, as the title is less poetically translated onscreen, The Oppressed Students). The pre-title sequence outlines, in fairly conventional documentary exposition, the story of the first months of the student protests against top-down pressure on campus culture at Takasaki City University that took the form of local politicians’s interference in the admissions process. Using standard-issue techniques of voice-over and visible evidence, the film presents a straightforward account of recent history. Immediately after the title, however, the film shifts radically in style, replacing the plain speech of the narrator with the sounds of students calling out demands over a loudspeaker, drumming, and other location noise; and the image track becomes equally percussive. The lines with which the film begins—“To put it plainly, what you hate is Power. What’s the good of shifting blame onto someone else?”—state the challenge seemingly posed by the democratically-inclined students to themselves; but they could just as easily be read as the conundrum the film identifies in the heart of a revolutionary documentary practice, one that attempts, as many of Ogawa’s counterparts around the world did in the late 1960s, to shift political power by both denouncing its traditional forms and giving it new voices and outlets.
By the following year, when the group made The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan: Summer in Sanrizuka, Ogawa had shifted its attention from the urban campuses and the leftist student movementout of which it had grown to the mass—one might even say proletarian—struggle against the construction of the airport at Narita, in farmers’ fields east of Tokyo. Quickly, the group’s style of film and of politics alike rearrange themselves from movement manifesto to the patient chronicle of the cross-class coalition that dug into the mud of Narita to resist the corporate leveling of traditional cultures. (Particularly interesting in the films of this phase, especially in contrast to the radical newsreel movement of the same moment in the United States, is the prominence given—without the films ever directly addressing the matter of feminism—to the place of women in the protest movement, as individuals and in groups, as planners and organizers of various aspects of the protests, as bodies on the line. A more complicated view, to put it mildly, of the group’s gender politics is presented in the eyewitness accounts of the roles of women within the group, in Nornes’s essential book about Ogawa, Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary, and especially in Barbara Hammer’s great documentary, Devotion: A Film About Ogawa Productions , which is also showing in the Anthology series.) Summer in Sanrizuka is, like much of Ogawa’s work, at once a careful study of political theory in action, and a grainy, worm’s-eye-view of the way the grass roots work: in a characteristic scene, farmers talk amongst themselves at a meeting away from the battles between the state-corporate forces attempting to expropriate the farmers’s land and the student revolutionaries who’ve arrived in the Sanrizuka region to support the farmers’s cause. On the one hand, the students know “bugger all” about farming, and are trampling the farmers’s fields! On the other hand, the farmers are buoyed, even entertained, by the students’ fight, which eventually compels the farmers to abandon their practice of nonviolence. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ogawa pioneers a kind of fighting cinematography in this period, a style most fully developed in one of the group’s masterpieces, the epic Sanrizuka: Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971), a moving portrait of the movement’s consolidation and decline, literally, under the ground of Sanrizuka.
In the subsequent Ogawa productions about the Narita protests, the students and other semi-professional revolutionaries gradually fade from the scene, and the films become increasingly enmeshed in the lives of the farmers and the land itself. The filmmakers’ meticulous attention to the details of mapping and planning, a constant in the Ogawa Pro films, turns from protesters’ hand-drawn maps of their possible routes of attack to scientists’ charts of climate and crop yields. Where the violent interaction of classes provides the mise-en-scène for the first decade of the group’s filmmaking, the latter part of its career is dominated by the peaceable intervention of man into non-human life. But the group loses none of its rigor or its poetry in this topical displacement, which takes them from the area around Tokyo further and further north into rural Japan, where the group made its home for the last years of its existence.
Ogawa Pro’s turning-point work might be The Magino Village Story: Raising Silkworms (1977), the film in the series (besides Hammer’s retrospective, highly conflicted documentary) most focused on the cultural roles of women on both sides of the camera. Essentially an instructional film for all involved, whose non-human protagonists are made no more exciting by being blown up from 8mm to a fuzzy 16mm, Raising Silkworms turns the most particular arcana about how the other half lives (what kind of mulberry leaves do silkworms prefer at which larval stage? What color is best in silkworm excrement?) into the source of the most dramatic allegories of work and life. Although I fell asleep three times before the silkworms had even begun to produce their cocoons, I found myself riveted by what the film describes as the little worms’ “struggle toward the smell of mulberry leaf,” at the end of which they chew themselves a little window and project themselves upwards on an invisible thread of silk that the viewer has to take on faith exists, just as one does when Kimura Sato, the film’s instructional guide, tells Shiraishi Yoko (Ogawa’s wife) that the silkworms would do a happy silent dance when her mother entered the room.
Such a quietist vision of organic community, rooted in the spinning of tales about the past, seems out of keeping with Ogawa’s earlier, noisier films—a vision that, by the time of the posthumously-completed Red Persimmons, comes to seem anti-modernist in the extreme. And then one notices that, even in this didactic process film, Ogawa Pro discover a scene of radical empathy, in the lesson the silkworms give the sericulturalists, and, in turn, the sericulturalists the filmmakers, about the importance of treating the mulberry leaves as living, breathing beings, even after they’ve been plucked. Just like that, the film has made one see living itself in a new light, made the viewer open to the idea that perhaps one could, or should, care about everything. And boredom, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, becomes a worm that spins the thread of revolutionary experience.