The documentary mode has not had the recognition it deserves in the western historiography of Japanese cinema. The ‘discovery’ of that cinema at film festivals in Europe and the United States in the 1950s, and the growth of academic and popular writing that followed, prioritized aesthetic and cultural difference and obscured Japan’s contribution to the documentary mode. Canonical authors such as Donald Richie, who was instrumental in introducing Japanese cinema to the West, even claimed that Japan did not have a true documentary tradition due to the apparent preference of the Japanese audience for stylisation over realism, a preference that originated from its theatrical tradition (Richie 1990, p. 60
). And yet, over 130,000 documentary films were made between 1945 and 2010 (Murayama 2010, pp. 240–46
), and postwar Japanese documentary films regularly won prizes at specialist film festivals.1
Beyond documentary film production itself, a closer look at the history of Japanese feature film production also calls Richie’s assertion into question. “Semi-documentary” and “documentary touch” were clichés of postwar feature film criticism, in response to a renewed emphasis on actuality and ordinary life in at least one strand of Japanese studio and independent production. This special issue, Developments in Japanese Documentary Mode
, seeks to challenge the predominance of fiction film in the literature on Japanese cinema, and in particular the assumption of a stylised Japanese aesthetic. It reveals a broad sense in Japan of the film medium as connected to material and phenomenological authenticity, even as that rhetorical effect was sometimes put in service to political and economic ideologies.
As Bill Nichols has argued, film as “document” is an inherent power of this apparently automatic medium, visible in its early uses as a scientific recording apparatus, an exhibitionist purveyor of “attractions”, and in the earliest actualities. But, Nichols continued, in order to become a genre, that documentary aspect of film had to be supplemented by the subjective intentionality of filmmakers (what John Grierson called the “creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933, p. 8
)). Those filmmakers crafted their material into stories, as part of a group of practitioners supported by institutions, making films that helped organize the ambitions of fellow filmmakers and the expectations of audiences. At the same time, that narrative aspect of documentary film opens the door to its apparent other: the fiction film. If documentary must employ storytelling in order to tell us about our world, the fiction film can draw on the documentary’s “impression of authenticity” (Nichols 2017, p. xii
) by foregrounding its material aspects of unglamourised people in real locations leading ordinary lives. Even Grierson recognized the “documentary value” of the fiction film (Grierson 1979, p. 25
). Rediscovering, organising, and assessing Japanese contributions to the documentary mode from narrative, aesthetic, and theoretical points of view, the articles in this special issue embrace the ambiguity of documentary as what Bill Nichols called a “fiction (un)like any other” (Nichols 2017, p. 4
The scope of this special issue goes beyond documentary film alone. Rather than a distinct genre, the articles in this issue trace a “documentary mode” characterised by a rhetoric of truthfulness that, like Peter Brooks’ influential “melodramatic mode” (Brooks 1976, p. 12
), spans multiple media and genres. This tendency may operate in different formats, from newsreels to fiction films, from magic lanterns to television and can be observed in disciplines from film theory to folklore studies. In this sense, the selected articles interrogate documentary movements, schools, and ways of approaching reality, challenging the limiting understanding of documentary as a self-contained category and proposing a renewed framework for the study of “nonfiction film” that is not necessarily limited to “nonfiction” or even “film”. Each article in this issue focuses on an aspect of documentary in Japan, from the intertextual grounding of the prewar culture film (bunka eiga
) through theoretical debates in postwar documentary and developments in ancillary media, such as magic lantern images and photography, to the incorporation of the tension between objectivity and subjectivity, characteristic of documentary, into feature film production. In this introduction we provide some historical and theoretical context for the developments and debates presented in the articles. That history is necessarily incomplete, but rather than establish a single narrative line we hope that through these diverse articles, readers will gain an enhanced understanding of the history and possibilities of the documentary mode in Japan.
2. Early Developments and Terminologies
Since its inception, Japanese nonfiction and adjacent formats have evolved and adopted different terminologies. In fact, the literal translation of “documentary” in Japanese (dokyumentarī
or kiroku eiga
) was neither the earliest nor the most common expression used in Japan until at least the end of World War II. The terminological confusion is compounded by shifts between media and ambiguities over the epistemological status of film images. Komatsu Hiroshi went so far as to argue that there was no conceptual distinction between fiction and nonfiction in the early period of Japanese filmmaking. The dominant form of early film drama, the so-called kyūgeki
, had such strong intertextual connections to the existing theatre that they were in some ways documents of a dramatic performance. On the other hand, films that supposedly showed conditions on the ground during the Russo–Japanese war of 1904–1905 regularly featured models and scenes restaged in Japan. Audiences only objected when the models and the staging were poor (Komatsu 1992
The first nonfiction film in Japan can be found in the earliest moving images ever shot in the country. They were thirty-three sequences, dating back to 1897 and 1898, shot by August Lumière’s French camera operators François-Constant Girel and Gabriel Veyre, as well as the Japanese apprentice Shibata Tsunekichi, using a cinematograph, which had been acquired by the industrialist Inabata Katsutarō (Koga 1995, pp. 31–43
; Anderson and Donald 1982, p. 146
; Nornes 2003b, pp. 2–3
). The films were so-called “actualities”, short sequences that proliferated during the first decades of the twentieth century, as they were cheaper and easier to produce than narrative fiction films, which required a script, actors, settings, and so on (Musser 1994, p. 232
). Japanese entrepreneurs saw in these actualities a profitable business and developed a new nonfiction format, a sort of proto-newsreel called jiji eiga
(“real-life movies”) during the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901). As in other countries, many of these proto-newsreels were “fabricated news films” (kōsei sareta nyūsu eiga
), based on real events but re-enacted in studios, while others were directly “fake news films” (nise nyūsu eiga
), completely fabricated events (Komatsu 1992, p. 238
). By the 1910s nonfiction practices were re-evaluated based on new expectations of truthfulness, which were largely motivated by the emergence of permanent film theatres (Komatsu 1992
). These venues replaced travelling troupes, and audiences began to regard cinema as a valuable source of information, rather than merely as entertainment (Greenberg 2001, p. 7
), though that information was still often presented in the form of scripted and/or re-enacted scenes.
The rhetoric of truthfulness mentioned above not only evolved into these jiji eiga
, but also into a more elaborate format, the travelogue
or travel documentary in the 1910s. The American entrepreneur William Selig pioneered this genre and sponsored the first two travelogues in Japan, In Japan
(1911) and The Ainus of Japan
(1913), shot by Frederick Starr. Of course, the concept of virtual tourism was not invented with the film actuality. For example, the way Japanese Wajin
and Ainu are represented in these travelogues reproduced already existing patterns of representation that had been developed decades before in photography. Film in the early twentieth century was a “new medium” that adopted existing practices of “documentary” exhibition. In the nineteenth century books and illustrated journals showed readers engravings of places they could not visit, often based on daguerreotypes or other photographic processes (Lerebours 1842
). John L. Stoddard and Burton Holmes, stars of the illustrated lecture circuit, travelled extensively and used photographs and then moving pictures for their sophisticated audiovisual performances (Lastra 2000, p. 100
). Both had major presentations on Japan, and commissioned staged photographs of “typical” scenes, as well as made original images to convince their audiences that magic lantern presentations were “a better way to see the world than travel itself” (Barber 1993, p. 77
In the 1920s, despite the ambiguous boundary between fiction and nonfiction, there was a growing belief in the ability of cinema to portray current events. The genre of newsreels was transformed into a new medium that would complement print journalism, although they were still released irregularly (Nornes 2003b, p. 15
). As an example, the Japanese Ministry of Education commissioned The Great Kantō Earthquake
(Kantō daishinsai, 1923), a documentary filmed by Shirai Sigueru, which marked the start of government involvement in film production. Commercial companies also produced earthquake documentaries to satisfy public fascination with the disaster, and the drama film studios made earthquake melodramas as soon as they were able. Although those films were dismissed as unserious in some quarters, they drew more attention to realism in the fiction film. The Nikkatsu studio in particular, though it could not reproduce the production values of Hollywood films about similar disasters, used location shooting and paratextual discourses on the traumatic experiences of the stars on the screen to create powerful forms of identification and rememoration in the audience (Lewis 2019, pp. 53–81
). That potential for fictional narratives to engage the experience of real events and places is explored in several articles in this issue.
Even as the state became increasingly involved in documentary film production, the field remained widely populated by progressive or left-wing filmmakers who sympathised with Marxism, proletarian culture movements, and the class struggle that arose in the 1920s. As a response, the Japanese government sought to eliminate political dissidence and in 1925 enacted the “Peace Preservation Law” (also known as the Public Security Preservation Law), specifically designed to control the Left. In the following years, many artistic, intellectual, and culture leaders were arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned. However, activism continued in the documentary scene until at least the mid-1930s. Prokino (Nippon Puroretaria Eiga Dōmei or “Japan Proletarian Film League”), an organ of the Japanese Communist Party founded in 1929, produced documentary films and Puroretaria nyūsu
(Proletarian News), as well as propaganda films, fiction films, and animated films, until its dissolution due to police persecution in 1934 (Nornes 2003b, p. 37
). Even as activists performed ideological apostasy (tenkō
) in order to continue working, ideas about film’s special ability to register the materiality of things and everyday life still circulated through such groups as the Materialism Study Society (Yuibutsuron Kenkyu Kai) (Nornes 2003b, pp. 121–47
). Those ideas also motivated a shift toward realism in the feature film that was formative for the postwar generation of realist filmmakers, such as Shindō Kaneto, then working as assistants in the studios.
Despite the rise of militarism in Japan and the subsequent attacks on freedom of the press, the 1930s can be defined as a “Golden Age” of documentary. The state promoted the production of educational films (kyōiku eiga
), while the fifteen-year conflict in Asia (1931–1945) was characterized by an unprecedented prominence of nonfiction, fuelled by the new needs of representation and social mobilization (Salomon 2011, pp. 77–78, 116–18
). Film theory and feature film production also saw an efflorescence of realist theories in this period (Yamamoto 2020
). This rise of documentary modes in cinema resulted in a variety of terms that began to circulate in the discussions of the time: jissha eiga
(cinema of real events), kiroku eiga
(documentary cinema), nyūsu eiga
(news cinema), and dokyumentarī eiga
, borrowed from English. Also, the expression bunka eiga
(culture film) was coined in 1933 as a translation of the German kulturfilm
, the mainly scientific cinema produced by UFA. The term ended up designating all kinds of wartime documentary production, particularly once it was adopted in the 1939 Film Law (Eigahō
The development of newsreels (nyūsu eiga
) gave extraordinary prominence to nonfiction in the 1930s. Between 1934 and 1936, the Japanese press established the first five regular newsreels: Asashi Sekai News
, Daimai Tōnichi News
newspaper), Yomiuri News
, Dōmei News
(by the eponymous news agency), and Tōhō Hassei
(by the Tōhō film studio) (Imamura and Tadao 1986, p. 45
). Simultaneously, “newsreel theatres”, which also showed short cartoons and documentaries, emerged in the cities (Hori 2017, p. 125
). The new genre experienced an extraordinary boom after the outbreak of the war with China in 1937 (Hamasaki 1999, pp. 34–35
). As the number of households with relatives at the front grew, so did the number of citizens who attended cinemas to be informed about the war (Nornes 2003b, p. 50
; Shimizu 1991, pp. 2–3
). After the enactment of the Film Law, Japanese newsreel companies were unified under the company Nippon Eigasha (or Nichiei), following the model of Nazi Germany. The full monopolisation of Japanese newsreels was realised once Nichiei absorbed the Tōhō and Shōchiku “culture film” departments and created Nippon News
Once Japan went to war against the Allies after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the need for propaganda increased even further. Nichiei’s budget was enlarged from two to seven million yen between 1941 and 1942. Additionally, as the Japanese Empire expanded over the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, French Indochina, Burma, and Chinese regions, Nichiei created branches with local versions of Nippon News, which worked as a key medium for nationalist propaganda and to promote the Pan-Asian ideal of “The Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” (Dai Tōa Kyōeiken).
3. Wartime Tensions and the Demand for Nonfiction
The Film Law also fuelled demand for nonfiction, since it required theatres to screen at least 250 m of “culture films” in each programme. As a result, documentary film production increased from 985 in 1939 to 4460 in 1940 (Nornes 2003b, p. 63
). The films were deeply ideological, presenting a view of Japanese total mobilization that was pre-scripted by the state. Official narratives of famous events, such as the attack on Pearl Harbour, were presented in newspapers, contextualized by documentaries, and fictionalized in blockbuster propaganda films. In all cases, their adherence to the official narrative was supported by the documentary mode of film and photography, in which the presence of apparently realistic military hardware and uniforms reinforced the ideological claims of the figures on the screen.
However, not all nonfiction films of the 1930s followed militaristic policies. As noted above, the documentary film circles had been a stronghold for the Japanese left and ironically, much of the wartime propaganda film was made by filmmakers opposed to nationalism (Hori 2017, pp. 114–53
). The most notorious example was the case of Kamei Fumio, a documentary maker linked to the Japanese Communist Party and a former member of Prokino, who proposed a kind of antimilitarist approach in his trilogy on the conflict in China: Shanghai
(1937), and Peking
(1938). Kamei was accused of promoting Marxism and antiwar consciousness in his films and was incarcerated in 1941 (Nornes 2003b, p. 177
; Nornes 2006, p. 26
). His supposed propaganda documentary Fighting Soldiers
(Tatakau Heitai, 1939), which follows Japanese troops through the trenches in China, was banned.
Kamei was an isolated example, the only filmmaker to be arrested during the war. Other filmmakers resolved the tensions between national policy (kokusaku
) and their political and aesthetic subjectivity in complex ways. What, from one perspective, seems like a humanist interest in the texture of everyday life or a modernist fascination with new forms of mobility or new modes of perception, could also be a deeply ideological discourse on national culture and the relation of individual to the collective. As Fujii Jinshi argues in this issue, the ethnographic turn toward ordinary people, first in feature films and then in bunka eiga
, helped create/imagine a unified sense of the national character of the Japanese people through their representation of nonmetropolitan life. Other filmmakers emphasized the new modes of perception enabled by airplanes and optical weapons, or enlisted the perceptual apparatus of cinema to engage audiences more intensely in the war effort. Those “filmlike films” (eiga teki eiga
) had more in common with ambitious feature films than what Mark Nornes called the orthodox “hard style” of more typical documentaries. Ironically, those formally ambitious films were often the most successful with audiences, and were made by liberal filmmakers who went on to support progressive post-war documentary movements, as well as movements to democratise post-war intellectual life, such as the Shiso no kagaku
(Science of Thought) group (Tsurumi 1969, pp. 233–53
It is also important to highlight women´s roles in Japanese documentary film during this period. War circumstances and the increasing demand for propaganda films provided women with an opportunity to become directors, since women were replacing men in many sectors, including the film industry. Sakane Tazuko, who worked as an editor and assistant director for Kenji Mizoguchi, became the first female director in Japan with New Clothing
(Hatsu Sugata, 1936). In 1940, Sakane started working for the Riken documentary company where she directed Fellow Citizens in North
(Kita no doho, 1941). In 1942, Sakane moved to Manchuria to work for Man’ei (Manchurian Film Association), one of the largest film studios in Asia at the time (Yomota 2019, pp. 91–92
), where she directed fourteen nonfiction films until 1945. Atsugi Taka also became a key figure for in documentary scene in wartime Japan. Atsugi had a stronger political commitment than Sakane: she had been a member of Prokino until its dissolution, and questioned the dominant ideology during and after the war. In 1934, she became the only woman employed at P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory, later part of Tōhō Studios), where she began her writing career. In 1939, her husband Mori Kōichi was arrested for his left-wing activism and Atsugi joined the documentary producer Geijutsu Eigasha (GES), where she worked as the scriptwriter for Record of a Nursery
(Aru hobo no kiroku, 1942). Atsugi incorporated her opposition to nationalist education into the script, taking the approach of showing how mothers and teachers teach children a commitment to life rather than death (Ikegawa and Ward 2005, p. 266
). From 1941, the mobilization of women became mandatory and the Japanese media multiplied their representations of female labour. As a consequence, Atsugi worked on various documentaries that positively portrayed the effort of women during the war, such as This Is How Hard We Are Working
(Watashitachi wa konnani hataraiteiru Mizugi Sōya, 1945), in which she showed young female workers in a factory making military uniforms. Atsugi’s contributions to the documentary field also include her translation in 1938 of Paul Rotha’s book Documentary Film
. She translated documentary film as “culture film” (bunka eiga
), which sparked extensive discussion among Japanese directors.
5. Goals and Structure of This Special Issue
The documentary mode is an essential part of Japanese film culture, whose role in film history has been recognized only recently. Some authors have provided a general historical overview of the documentary film (Satō 2010
; Kurosawa et al. 2010
), while others have focused on certain aspects: short documentaries (Yoshihara 2011
; Harada 2012
; Fujii 2002
), Iwanami Eiga productions (Kusakabe 1980
; Hani 2012
; Tsunoda 2015
), the variety of nonfiction genres (Takeda 2017
), prewar and wartime non-fiction (Okudaira 1986
; Kurasawa 1987
; Fujii 2001
; Hori 2002
; Nornes 2003b
; Centeno-Martín 2017
; Morita 2018
) and postwar movements (Nornes 2003a
; Centeno-Martín 2020b
). In recent years, there has been a growing interest in treating certain documentary makers as auteurs
, such as Sakane Tazuko (Ikegawa 2011
; McDonald 2007
), Tsuchimoto Noriaki (Jesty 2011
; Bingham 2009
; Gerow and Noriaki 2014
; Inoue 2018
), Ogawa Shinsuke (Nornes 2007
); Hani Susumu (Briciu 2013
; Centeno-Martín 2015
), Matsumoto Toshio (Matsumoto and Ishizaka 2008
; Raine 2012
), and Hara Kazuo (Ruoff and Ruoff 1993
Although there are older histories of documentary film that survey early actualities, bunka eiga
, educational films, PR films, socially committed documentaries, television documentaries, and so on (Satō 1977
), and more focused volumes on single production companies (Kusakabe 1980
), few works have recognized Nichols’ stipulation that documentary is a “fiction (un)like any other”. Documentary is not just a genre but a mode (or modes); filmmakers in Japan have long explored the special power of cinema to compel a sense of authenticity, even when put in service of fictional worlds. From 1920s earthquake documentaries to the 1930s films influenced by contemporary debates over materialism, and from the ideological hypostatisation of a unitary Japanese nation in wartime culture films to 1960s radical documentaries that unashamedly “stood on the side of the subject” (Nornes 2007, p. 30
), the putative boundary between documentary and dramatic films was frequently crossed in Japanese cinema. If terms such as “documentary touch” and “semi-documentary” were mere journalistic shorthand in post-war film criticism, Coates, Kitsnik, and Mihalopoulos make clear in this volume that some filmmakers made more stringent efforts to develop fictional worlds using at least some of the rhetorical forms and ethical commitments that underpin documentary’s “impression of authenticity”. In that context, it is vital that current studies develop more comprehensive approaches by interrogating the alliances and dialogues between documentary and other media and artistic practices, to avoid compartmentalising documentary films away from the rest of film history. Developments in Japanese Documentary Mode
proposes new approaches to the history and theory of nonfiction genres and adjacent formats that contribute to identifying, analysing, and categorising distinctive uses of the documentary mode in Japan.
In his article, Fujii Jinshi identified an “inversion”, through which, despite their shared goal of representing the ignored margins of Japan, the historical coincidence and methodological compatibility of the wartime documentary (bunka eiga) and Japanese ethnography (minzokugaku) supported the Japanese State in its ideological construction of a unitary and homogenous “Japanese Nation”. Motivated by a “discourse of the vanishing”, which described traditional Japanese culture as retreating in the face of forced modernization, both bunka eiga and minzokugaku drew on a contemporary intertextual field of ethnographic photography and reportage to attempt to document the disappearing lifeways of Japan. However, reviewing the “cameraman–viewfinder debate” between Miki Shigeru and Kamei Fumio, Fujii showed that cameraman–director Miki’s collaboration with famous ethnographer Yanagita Kunio, recapitulated the tension in all documentary practices between a respect for the real and a desire to control it. Miki and Yanagita’s documentary and spinoff photographic album covered over the heterogeneity of Japan, with representative images that came to stand for what could not be seen. Rather than a true representation of reality, their work served as an escape from it.
Miyao Daisuke also drew on the “cameraman–viewfinder debate” to highlight the tension between two longstanding discourses on documentary filmmaking: the film image as a mechanical reproduction of reality and documentary cinema as the creative treatment of actuality. He argued that wartime commentators played down the creative aspects of documentary in favour of the immediacy of the newsreel, a kind of zero degree recording that was even praised in feature films as an example of “documentary spirit” (jissha seishin
). Through a discourse analysis of articles mostly in the influential trade journal Eiga gijutsu
, he showed how that tension was resolved for makers of bunka eiga
(culture films) by a strategic use of the world “culture”. Culture was used not in Raymond Williams’ modern sense of ordinary life (Williams 1958
), but in the sense of education and refinement: cultured documentary filmmakers were both au fait
with the modern science and technology of optics and imported cameras that produced their apparently automatic images and at the same time knowledgeable about the Japanese culture that they were newly commissioned to support. Concluding in a similar vein to Fujii, Miyao showed how that cultural knowledge was implicitly in opposition to Americanised popular culture, and complicit with the cultural nationalism of wartime Japan.
Toba Koji cast light on the documentary scene in Japan since the 1950s. This article provides keys to understand certain aspects of the media production of the time by exploring the interactions between magic lantern and documentary films. Toba proposed an innovative analysis of the relationship between Japanese documentary film and the cultural context of the time, including changes in postwar education, political activism, and the postwar “democracy” spirit in cultural productions and collaborative works. Toba demonstrated how the documentaries expanded beyond cinema and should be studied in relation to what is not in the film, becoming a sort of macrotext, which is comprised of a various media and artistic works that complement each other (mainly magic lantern productions, but also poetry, illustrated books, and so on). This approach also entails paying attention to the filmmaker’s alliances with social actors, without which the films cannot be completely understood, ranging from artists, such as sculptors and painters, as well as local communities (students, teachers) and local historians.
The following three articles (Centeno-Martín, Jesty, and Inoue) explored the documentary scene from 1950s Japan and analysed tendencies that were articulated through shared innovative approaches to filmmaking. Centeno-Martín took Hani’s film theory and practice as a starting point to demonstrate how this author pioneered a filmmaking method based on an extraordinary engagement with the filmed environment and created a sort of “documentary school”. Centeno-Martín explained how Hani’s theoretical framework was aimed at exploring inner worlds existing in the external world by following his principle of filming “protagonists who do not act”. The article illustrates how Hani applied his methodology to a film without living characters, which focused instead on the architecture of Hōryūji temple. This example became one of the boldest attempts of the time to explore subjectivities and inner universes in the filmed objects and shows how the avant-garde documentary movement evolved in a variety of unexpected directions in late 1950s. The analysis is contextualised within the intellectual and artistic scene, including (trans)national influences as well as the ideological and aesthetic rupture among Japanese New Left artists. Centeno-Martín traced how Hani’s method was expanded to Teshighara and Adachi’s avant-garde documentaries, interrogating subjective dimensions in rural, urban, and architectural landscapes.
The relationship among these directors, largely unexplored to date, is essential to a comprehensive view of the documentary scene in post-war Japan. Assessing these artistic links and common practices, rather than studying films as isolated works, is instrumental to identifying collective tendencies of the time. Jesty explored this issue further by analysing how Hani’s theories and films from the 1950s were expanded by Tsuchimoto in the early 1970s. The article provides a sharp and in-depth understanding of Hani’s methodological framework, the nature of his collective works founded on the rejection of scripts, actors, and staged shooting, as well as its reliance on long-running involvement with the subjects in the film. Jesty engaged in important epistemological keys, such as Hani’s singular notion of performance (engi), which is only true to life when shots capture changes in individuals as a consequence of being exposed to unfamiliar environments. Jesty explained how, to a certain extent, Tsuchimoto expanded Hani’s approach in his lifelong engagement with Minamata victims. The article also demonstrates that despite apparent similarities with cinéma vérité in the US and France, Japanese authors developed an original pragmatic method seeking to reveal the dynamics of the subject’s “life-world”, which was not conceived to exist apart from the filmmakers. Films require partial mediation that should be carried out through receptivity and long observation. Thus, Jesty defined this film practice shared by Hani and Tsuchimoto as an “intersubjective” process, since the moving image’s ability to project the subject’s life-world emerges from the interdependence of the people involved in the film, both filmmakers and filmed subjects.
Inoue expanded Jesty’s analysis by engaging in a discussion of the ethical dimension of Tsuchimoto’s documentary practice. The article shows how Tsuchimoto’s close gaze on the human being, which is based on interactions between individuals, becomes problematic when representing filmed subjects (shutai) who remain unconscious or unable to express themselves, like victims of Minamata disease. How can filmmakers deal with subjects who can’t interact? Is it ethically right to film them in the first place? Inoue engaged in this ethical debate that has relevant implications for contemporary media practices. By comparing Tsuchimoto’s films with Eugene Smith’s photography, Inoue showed how the threshold between an abusive usage of a subject’s life and an ethical representation is extremely subtle but equally meaningful. Tsuchimoto’s concerns about the potential danger that the camera may trigger on filmed subjects is precisely what makes his approach valuable.
Kitsnik analysed Shindō Kaneto´s interest in working with real events and using a variety of documentary film resources, tropes, and patterns of representation as part of the filmmaker’s engagement with postwar cinematic experiments on the boundaries between reality and fiction. The article raises crucial questions through the close observation of Shindō´s oeuvre: questions of ethics and the impossibility of making “nonfiction” films given the unavoidable existence of an author and the subsequent cinematic artifice that makes any attempt to capture reality objectively unattainable. Thus, Kitsnik illustrated how Shindō’s work is a mixture of documentary and fiction formats, articulated in a hybrid and stylised manner. This study is also useful to understand the context in which other avant-garde filmmakers of the time, such as Oshima and Matsumoto, engaged in this film experienced challenging the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction by combining historic events, media footage, and interviews with re-enactments or fictional stories.
Turning to Imamura Shohei, a filmmaker whose career spans both feature films and documentaries, Bill Mihalopoulos argued that many of Imamura’s films are characterized by a promiscuous fusion of the “immediacy and authenticity associated with documentary film-making” and the “character development and dramatic arc” typical of the fiction film. When Imamura turned to documentary filmmaking in the 1960s, the films were similarly experimental and reflexive. Focusing on Imamura’s 1970 documentary History of Post-war Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, Mihalopoulos argued that the juxtaposition of interview and newsreel documentary modes, layered in the same shot, disrupted the dominant narrative of post-war Japan. The interval between the two modes allows us to perceive, simultaneously and ambivalently, the interview subject’s shameless vitality as well as her self-commodification and indifference to her complicity in the public events shown behind her. Unlike the wartime films discussed by Fujii and Miyao, the dialectic of public and private in the film foregrounds the heterogeneity of life as it is in Japan. Mihalopoulos concluded that in place of the orthodox story of democratization and economic growth, Imamura’s film suggests a “radical change in personality”, in which Japanese respond to intensified postwar capitalism with “greed, violence, and cold indifference”.
Jennifer Coates also cast a wide net over the history of documenting practices in the cinema. Starting with the earliest actualities, Coates questioned national and genre divisions in film analysis. Drawing on the concept of ethnofiction from visual anthropology, Coates extended its definition from subjects improvising their own lives on camera to argue that scripted prewar documentaries were a form of ethnofiction, as were wartime films that, like ethnofiction, dramatized real events. This historical revisionism enabled a critique of origins: ethnofiction is usually traced to French cinema verité, but Coates argued that it was a common-sense approach in Japan from the 1950s to the present day, from Japanese filmmakers such as Imamura Shohei to filmmakers working in Japan, such as Hou Hsiao Hsien. Ethnofictional practices in those films included research into real people’s lives and a provocative or reflexive relation between filmmaker and subject/character. Coates went on to argue that recognizing Japanese feature films as ethnofictions allows us to recognize that blend of fictional and documentary techniques as a polycentric global innovation with geographic and temporal specificities.
We would like to thank these authors for responding to our initial call for papers, and for their careful revisions of their essays. We are pleased to present their work in public and hope the various arguments and histories documented here will spark further research and discussion among our readers.