Kazuo Hara by Ken Jacobs

The pioneering filmmakers discuss morality and dissent in Hara’s highly subjective documentaries: “It takes a toll to discover what binds your heart to the subject.”

BOMB 147 Spring 2019
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Miyuki Takeda and her son view Okinawa from the deck of a ship in Kazuo Hara’s Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974. Images courtesy of Shisso Productions, Japan. 

Kazuo Hara has been pushing at the margins of documentary film since the 1970s. Both a witness to Japan’s mass protests in the ’60s and a student of Shinsuke Ogawa’s budding style of hypersubjective filmmaking, he has spent his career seeking out the disobedient, unruly, and rude. Far from exploiting these rebels, Hara is most often awestruck by them. And sometimes we in the audience get the sense that he may have let the subject run away with the film entirely. 

At the beginning of Hara’s A Dedicated Life (1994), novelist Mitsuharu Inoue tells his students: “One tragedy is enough in itself.” For Inoue, this tragedy reveals itself as illness, quickly leading to a succession of hospital beds, second opinions, and invasive surgeries. Hara remains alongside, film rolling, with the belief that tragedy, no matter how singular, is always a sufficient story—a world unto itself. He extracts meditations on creativity, fandom, deception, nuclear horror, and the demise of the Japanese literary left. But this is not to suggest that Hara is in any way patient—to the contrary, all his films share a certain jitteriness, a frantic glare, a twitch. 

In the earlier Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), Hara tirelessly follows the volatile antiwar activist Kenzo Okuzaki as he tries to uncover a series of horrific war crimes by verbally and sometimes physically accosting the supposed perpetrators. Instead of discouraging the filmmaker, this predilection for violence seems to draw the camera closer; in a particularly heated scuffle we find our view swooping into the fray—not to break it up, but to get a better sightline. Like the willful and at times crazed Okuzaki, Hara seems bent on prying people open, using them to access society’s deepest and darkest institutional allegiances. State-sanctioned atrocities, abhorrent labor conditions, and sexual violence are tragedies best observed through the individual.

In the following conversation with filmmaker Ken Jacobs, an artist equally versed in cinema’s dangers and allures, the two discuss morality and dissent after watching Hara’s Sennan Asbestos Disaster (2016), which follows the now-ailing workers of Japan’s postwar asbestos factories. 

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Former factory workers and their relatives call for reparations in Sennan Asbestos Disaster, 2016.

Ken JacobsYou put us through a lot with Sennan Asbestos Disaster. There’s no singing or tap-dancing. It somehow seems like the least “artistic” of your films but so interesting in terms of meeting people and doing a deep report on their behavior. They don’t respond to their troubling situation as we might expect—or at least, as Americans might expect. We see what’s disturbing and hurting them, but they tend to smile and laugh. It’s very misleading.

Kazuo Hara Their behavior feels off. They are living in the lowest social class, subjected to discrimination and affliction, and they have every right to be angry with the government and society at large—yet they, and Japanese people as a whole, have forgotten how to be indignant. I find this frustrating.

KJ In contrast, some of your other film subjects are so indignant, so angry. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) is essentially about one man’s vengeful anger.

KH Right, because that was in the Sho¯wa era [1926–89, during the reign of Emperor Hirohito], when people still had some ability to protest and resist authority. Now, with the Shinzo¯ Abe administration and their attempt to dismantle the pacifist clause of the Japanese Constitution, activists like Kenzo Okuzaki, whom we see devote his life to resistance in The Emperor’s Naked Army, no longer exist in Japan. I feel the populace’s ability to express political criticism has steadily decayed. So, with Sennan Asbestos Disaster, my message is a call for public outrage.

KJ Why is it more difficult for the Japanese to protest now?

KH The people who have power in the current government are trying to reconstruct a system that would make it possible for Japan to wage war again. And they’re creating new rules in the process, restricting our society even more.

KJ If you’re going to dance, you need a partner. Who does Prime Minister Abe want war with?

KH Japan is buying and stockpiling massive amounts of American weaponry and sending its Self-Defense Forces into Syria. But I don’t think it matters who the conflict is with exactly. They just want war.

KJ For economic stimulus?

KH Well, Japan lost the Pacific War, right? There are people who want to return to rule under the prewar Meiji Constitution.

KJ To before the nukes. But this national aversion to outrage, this smiling at atrocity instead of crying, is shocking to me. Might it come from having faced America’s atomic bombing—an unnecessary act, gratuitous in terms of winning the conflict? The Japanese people were used for an experiment. Just before the peace treaty was signed, the US wanted to test things out in wartime circumstances, in the real world, to show these weapons to the Russians, the communists.

KH And it’s more than a dispositional passivity. I’m interested in knowing at what point in Japanese history the ability to be disobedient was lost. Before the Tokugawa Shogunate, there was Hideyoshi Toyotomi [shogun from 1537–98], who ordered the katana-gari (sword-hunt). This was a mass confiscation of weapons from farmers. Ever since, the combative spirit of the populace has dissipated—that’s my theory. Yes, there have been small riots since that time, but in a larger sense, the Japanese haven’t experienced a major turn of power, a real coup d’état. I question this; it makes me anxious.

More recently, right after the 2011 Tohoku Triple Disaster in Sendai, when victims were lined up waiting for food rations, foreigners saw this and complimented them, saying, “How orderly the Japanese are.” Such comments were broadcast in the news! People abroad might interpret the Japanese as obedient and docile, but this is nothing worthy of praise. It’s exactly in difficult times like those that we need to harbor civic unease and act.

KJ But hasn’t Japan had wars, quite a few even, since the Shogunate?

KH Even in wartime, this is the way. When I showed Sennan Asbestos Disaster in South Korea, the reaction from the young audience was total irritation and impatience—not with the film, but with the people of Sennan themselves. During the Chung-hee Park administration [1963–79], hundreds of thousands of Koreans demonstrated, overturning the government. Now, in Japan, even with so many of us against the current administration’s policies, you can’t gather such powerful numbers.

KJ Okay, so you’re drawn to documenting Japanese citizens with either a lack or a surplus of anger, which brings us back to The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On—one of the greatest film titles, by the way, a whole movie in itself.

KH (laughter) Just the title, eh?

KJ Perhaps. But the subject of that film—Mr. Okuzaki, an activist as you call him—is crazy, even murderous! He punishes someone: he shoots Captain Koshimizu’s son on the pretext that his father sinned during the war, having committed cannibalistic acts in New Guinea, where higher ranking soldiers ordered the slaughter of lower ones. And Okuzaki talks about carrying out this punishment against Koshimizu’s son for God. He’s out of his head!

KH Understanding this is complicated, so we must start at the beginning. In Japan, showing any kind of rebellion toward the emperor is unthinkable—a huge deal, utterly taboo. Despite this, Okuzaki’s first act of disobedience was to fling a pachinko ball directly at the imperial court, which got him arrested and thrown in jail for over thirteen years. While he was imprisoned, the authorities gave him a psychiatric test, but the only diagnosis was “slightly paranoid,” which is basically everyone.

KJ Well, I diagnose him as quite mentally ill.

KH I understand what you mean, but I personally disagree. I don’t consider trying to kill someone necessarily proof of mental illness. Okuzaki had a short temper, true, but he was also a professional merchant, an autobody salesman, and he was very logical, calculating in his actions to influence people. He was a realist and understood what he was doing. But there are two sides—his inability to manage anger and his deliberative reasoning.

KJ Oh, so he’s only part-time nuts. (laughter)

KH Early on in the film, we see Okuzaki strike someone with his fist. Let’s interpret this incident of violence a little bit. Japanese people have a low tolerance for aggression. If they’re punched, it’s absolutely shocking. These retired soldiers had stubbornly protected or subconsciously buried their heinous war secrets. A strong force, the shock of physical assault, breaks their protective wall down, which is just the effect Okuzaki aimed for. 

KJ But this allegedly righteous act, in the name of God, hurts people that he knows are innocent too. He shot and almost killed that man’s son.

KH It’s truly difficult, yes. In Okuzaki’s way of thinking, the emperor’s system was to blame for the war and its resultant atrocities. He wanted to destroy that system at any cost, but in order to fight such a powerful thing, he needed to invoke an even more mammoth power. For him, God was a necessary energy to channel into his fight—or at least, that’s how I understand it.

When the shooting of Captain Koshimizu’s son was covered in the papers, I remember reading Okuzaki’s statement: “I didn’t care if it was the son.” I was troubled by this, especially as I’d already finished the film and screenings had begun. Audiences began to ask, “Hara-san, didn’t you know that Mr. Okuzaki wanted to kill the captain? Why didn’t you stop him?” The truth is that he did reveal his intent to kill Koshimizu early in the filming, but I didn’t believe him. I was shocked when I first saw it announced on television. Other questions were posed too: “This incident was instigated because you were shooting a film, right? How will you take responsibility?”

These matters are very tough for a filmmaker. My subject was always searching for someone to attack, and the production of the film happened to create an occasion for him to learn more about the war crimes committed in New Guinea and turn toward those he deemed responsible. That he would actually pull the trigger was something far beyond what I could imagine. Though I will say, from what I can deduce, Okuzaki had acquired a modelgun [a highly detailed replica pistol common in Japan, where gun laws are strict] that had been modified to actually fire. He was doubtful about whether it really had the power to kill right up until testing it out.

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(i) Kenzo Okuzaki in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987. (ii) Police officers attempt to remove Okuzaki from his slogan-emblazoned vehicle while he ridicules them and the Japanese government from inside.

KJ Criticizing the emperor, questioning the whole system, protesting war crimes—that I can understand. As a salesman he had to be reasonable and persuasive, but his whole way of proceeding was unreasonable and self-defeating. He’ll not be understood.

But I want to turn to your film Goodbye CP (1972). My God, you’re either a sadist or very strong!

KH Well, in my own attempts at self-analysis, I’m actually a rather cowardly and fearful person. I desire to be stronger, which is part of an inferiority complex. I point my camera at people who are much stronger than myself, and by making documentaries from footage of these determined individuals, my wish is to reconstruct myself, train myself to become more courageous.

There’s a strong desire inside me to change, but who or what do I want to be? When I first held a camera, I thought about how great it would be if I could be one. I’ve had that in mind as I’ve continued to roll along—my body as camera. It’s ingrained in my senses, and when I see the movements of society, I always feel I’m looking through a lens.

There’s this debate about whether the camera is a weapon or not. For me, it certainly is. I use it to battle my own weakness—much as one would use a sword in kendo. The core principle of kendo is: brace for your own flesh to be cut, if you wish to break their bones. In other words, you need to be prepared to feel something intense yourself, if you want others to feel that intensity too. As for the charge of sadism, I’ll offer this: when shooting documentary film, the most important thing is whether or not you like the subject. If you do, any hardships in the process barely matter. If you feel hatred, you’ll never be able to spend years on the film or bear great amounts of debt or endure the cost of all that emotional energy. It takes a toll to discover what binds your heart to the subject. This requires the filmmaker to get involved in the subject’s world, and they never accept easily. There’s always a barrier. This is where the camera most clearly functions as a weapon, something the subject protects themselves from. When both sides struggle like this, the auteur gets hurt—and maybe the subject too. In extreme cases, it’s possible one side will not be able to recover from the damage, but it’s favorable to fight on.

If you think Goodbye CP is sadistic, then is Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 masochistic?

KJ Well, I think it’s a great movie, and that you’re a documentarian attached to your subject; you’re personally attached to a woman [Miyuki Takeda] who cannot be kept or contained. She’s independent, heedless, doesn’t listen or obey. She goes her own way. To take your own feelings and attach them to her—is it masochism or just fascination? In any society, she would be a human bomb.

KH Really? What do you mean by that?

KJ She’s powerful.

KH In the early ’70s many young women had a similar strength, standing up as a backlash against the whole history of gender inequality. It didn’t seem she was especially strong back then.

KJ To me, she’s just amazing. There’s nothing for her to grab onto, so she’s out in the world, rejecting aspects of what’s there. She’s having a baby totally by herself, gives birth unassisted. And then that final scene has such tension: she’s working as an erotic dancer, up onstage in front of an audience, which is very servile but also a mode of individual expression. She’s very good, but it’s such a bizarre situation—to be looked at, desired, recorded, but fiercely independent and apart. I’m impressed by her, maybe even afraid of her.

KH Afraid?

KJ I felt for you, seeing through your lens, as you were in love with her. On the other hand, with A Dedicated Life (1994), I had to stop watching at the surgery scene. I have limits!

KH Too grotesque?

KJ You go right past limits. You don’t know what they are. It’s impolite!

KH Impolite? No. There’s this Japanese director by the name of Kei Kumai, who made feature films. One was The Sea and Poison (1986), set in 1945, when American B29s bombed Japan. In this film, the Japanese military fires their cannons, downing the American planes; the pilots try to escape by parachute, but they’re captured as prisoners of war. One of the American soldiers is used by Kyushu University’s medical students for dissection—alive. This is a real story and also the basis of a novel by Shusaku Endo. When Kumai was adapting it for film, I was working with him as assistant director. The vivisection was the most pivotal scene and proved to be the biggest challenge to shoot. We used a live pig, asking a veterinarian-training school if we could film them dissecting it according to the script. Pigs have a human-like skin structure, and so the resulting image—the flesh and bone peeled away with the heart pounding—is very believable. Kumai’s film won best picture that year, and I filmed that surgery scene. Later, with the surgery in A Dedicated Life, I wasn’t afraid at all.

KJ My only comparison is Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), which depicts autopsy, cadavers cut up by medics. It’s tough going, but I think you’d appreciate it.

KH Julian Duvivier’s Under the Sky of Paris (1951) also has an infamous surgery scene, and the world was shocked by its realism. Kumai wanted to surpass it.

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(i) Mitsuharu Inoue being prepared for surgery in A Dedicated Life, 1994. (ii) Poet and activist Hiroshi Yokota performs in Goodbye CP, 1972.

KJ In A Dedicated Life, the novelist and teacher Mitsuharu Inoue can be pretty harsh and repellent, like someone who commands a cult. At some point, he does this dance in drag, and the audience onscreen and off are so charmed by him. But then later, his presence suffocates others, who all fawn over him. Worst of all, he orders his student out of the room without explaining why.

KH I’m always exploring this question: What is the nature of Japanese people? Like Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Shinsuke Ogawa, and Noriaki Tsuchimoto, Inoue was an artist of the postwar generation and quite conscious of “revolution.” His early works demonstrate a strong, radical consciousness, revealing government corruption and creating a symbolic foundation for literature of the period. This desire for revolution actually led him to devise the Bungaku Denshu-jo [Literature Training Schools]. There were ten locations throughout Japan, and I went to them myself to write. A Dedicated Life revolves around all the human relationships that stitch these schools together. 

It was an attempt at training revolutionaries with literature, but no such thing happened. When we were filming, the group’s radical energy was gone, and Inoue himself said it was a lost battle. But that’s why I was interested in this religion-like formation with one cultured, notable man surrounded by followers. And the aspect of sex in the Denshu-jo cannot be ignored. I wanted to reveal how the leader took full advantage of his position. But small communities like this are actually common; its cult-like qualities are not unusual. The Japanese are an extremely strange people!

KJ I have another strange people for you: Americans. (laughter)

KH Yes. I remember speaking with Michael Moore at a panel, and I had some questions for him. This was right when Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) had a lot of attention. 

KJ Deserved attention, yeah.

KH Since he’s a filmmaker that looks at America, the self, and thus the American self—I wondered about the role of individual interiority, self-analysis, and introspection as it relates to the nation. I kept asking him about this sort of thing, but he had no idea what I was talking about.

KJ Perhaps he should be the subject of one of your films.

KH No, I’m not that interested in him. But here’s another example of what I’m driving at: the director Joshua Oppenheimer, when he came to Yamagata Film Festival in 2013, said he wanted to meet with me, so we decided to do a public discussion. His films The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) are great and will make their mark in film history. They’re also shocking, but the more shocking they are, the more I question whether Oppenheimer, whose films are about mass genocide and manhunting in Indonesia, is fully recognizing the role his native nation plays in this subject matter. Is he considering the nature of Americans, of himself? I don’t feel that he includes that introspection. Like Moore, he never gave me a satisfying response when questioned about this. I was left wondering whether Americans are capable of actual self-inspection at all. Then I saw your Star Spangled to Death (2004), which is utterly about such internal questioning. It quite explicitly asks what it means to be American. Am I wrong?

KJ Moore speaks to a larger audience, while I just speak. But I think you’re correct, except that I always feel fragile, tentative. I’m not only American but also Jewish, and the Western world hasn’t been hospitable for us. Right now in the US there are people who proudly call themselves neo-Nazis, which doesn’t make me feel too secure.

KH I see. For Japanese people, being internal and self-analytical is important. When watching a film, the audience wants to see the extent to which the filmmaker does this—if there isn’t enough, they feel its absence. For instance, in Japan, the criticism of Moore is split: as a journalist, he’s capable of reprimanding an authority with his brilliant projects, but as a filmmaker, some don’t think he’s so good.

KJ Well, your own camerawork and editing are wonderful.

KH You changed the subject! (laughter)

I’ve seen your films, and they have a strange power. Each raises a face—and it’s rarely a happy one. To me, they’re full of pain and conflict, even fear. These expressions are so shattered that it’s hard to discern them as human. Some of this is illusory, just coming from inside me—my own fears triggered and bubbling up to the surface. The footage you use is often clipped short and obstinately repeated, subtly changing the focal point. I can’t imagine what techniques you use, but the work stirs me up. There are creatures running rampant inside, drawn out of distortions of daily life.

The first of your films I saw was XCXHX-EXRXRXIXEXSX (1993), a “live-cinema” performance at the Robert Flaherty Seminar. Like Star Spangled, it made use of found footage. I was surprised to see that you could take other people’s film materials and dissect them for truth. It’s a radical and extensive approach, with an energy capable of destroying cinema itself—that is, the kind of destruction that comes just before reinvention.

KJ You like troublemakers!

KH That’s correct. (laughter)

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(i) Nightclub worker Chichi with an American GI, and (ii) Miyuki Takeda washes a newborn at a women’s commune in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974.

Translated by Amber Noe.

Ken Jacobs is a pioneering filmmaker of the American avant-garde with over sixty titles in his seventy-four-year career. His works have been admitted to the National Film Registry and have shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in screening rooms around the world. He has performed his live cinema work, Nervous Magic Lantern, at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn, REDCAT in Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

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