Kazuhiro Soda is a remarkably unique and prolific documentarian; having directed seven films as part of his most recent series since 2007; finding the time to write three books in the same period. From looking at Japan’s health institutions in Mental, to two very different runs for office from the same candidate in Campaign and Campaign 2, to a dissection of harmony in Peace. His latest work, Oyster Factory, lives up to its title, focusing on exactly that. Over two-and-a-half hours, the meditative, narration-less, and stunningly shot documentary observes tension, pace, and a changing world.
We caught up with Kazuhiro Soda at Sydney Film Festival to discuss the process of making his latest film, as well as the guiding dictums that have pushed him to shoot in the style he has over the last decade. The producer of the film, Kiyoko Kashigawi, was also present for the interview with her responses marked “KK:”.
When did you arrive at the festival? You’ve been here for the competition, haven’t you?
Yeah, two weeks.
Has that all been going well?
Yeah, I think so. It’s going well, yeah.
I wanted to ask, I’ve read quite a bit on your style and approach to documentary and I want to get onto that soon, but I wanted to open about what drew you to the subject of Oyster factories.
It was by accident, in a sense, as is always the case for most of my films. Kiyoko, we are married and her mother is from Ushimado, Okayama which is the village we shot Oyster Factory in. Because of the connection with her mother, we often visited Ushimado to see her grandmother. Her grandmother, when she was alive, she used to live there. We often visited Ushimado and for the past couple of years, we spent out summer vacations in Ushimado. We got acquainted with local fishermen during our stay. These fishermen, I found out, tend to be very old, like 70 or 80 years old, and they don’t have any successors of the business,which means that we might have no fishermen in 10 or 20 years in this village, which was kind of amazing for me because I thought that it was regular scenery to have fishermen at the coast.
But you have no fishermen. That kind of gave me the idea of making a film about the life of fishermen. Then I met one of the fishermen there and he told us that we could come back with a camera to shoot his life. In November 2015, we came back with a camera and I didn’t know it but he said that he happened to have an oyster factory. He said he’s busy with oysters because the season just began. We decided, “Let’s see what happens if we shoot oyster factory, what’s going to happen?”
It turned into this expansive thing of its own and he’s the subject of a separate documentary or something?
He’s the owner of the oyster factory, so he’s in the film.
I read somewhere online that you were going to make a branch-off of Oyster Factory that was about one of the older fisherman in the village. Is that still the case? I find with a lot of films that I’m reading about, someone will write a review and add that on. I think Don Brown, the translator, said that you were making another one about a fisherman.
It’s about somebody different. He doesn’t do any oysters. He fishes alone. He was 86 years old when we shot and he still fishes alone in a small boat. He’s going to be a main character in a different film.
I’m excited to see that one. I’m interested with the process, considering how you film something so extensively then cut it down to something that is relatively short at two-and-a-half hours compared to how much footage you likely shot. I was curious as to how you edited it together.
We shot about 90 hours of this but it’s including the footage for another film.
That’s the footage of the other man as well?
Do you have a method going through such a large amount of footage and putting it into a story?
I have ten commandments of basic filmmaking.
(Laughs), I was going to ask about the ten commandments.
One is no research, I shouldn’t do any research before shooting. Second is no meetings with subjects. Number three – no scripts. Number four, I forgot but (laughs). You can find it on my website.
KK: You always talk about it.
KS: Yeah, but I always forget the fourth commandment. This is my website and you can see the ten commandments. No research. No meetings with subjects, that’s number two. Number three is no scripts. Number four is shoot alone, meaning I roll the camera and record the sound. With Oyster Factory, obviously she was there. Number five, because I want to be as flexible as possible and spontaneous because I don’t have any plans, I need to be very flexible. Number five – shoot as long as possible, rather than just quickly.
Number six: cover small areas deeply which means not about distance but closely look and listen. The world of observation in English has a connotation of being distant but I don’t mean that, what I mean is look and listen. If you want to observe something, you need to limit the area to a small area so that you can closely look at it. In the case of Oyster Factory, it’s within maybe a one kilometre range, a very small area but with deeper cover.
Number seven: do not set up a theme before editing. Before editing, if I had a theme first then I would pick only what fit the idea or theme, a preconception. It makes it harder to discover anything new, I want to discover something I didn’t expect, so I try not to think about the theme before editing.
Number eight is no narration, title, or music, superimposed titles to explain. I want the audience to observe as well, these elements might interfere with the observation by the audience. Number nine is use longer takes because I want to give the audience time to observe. Number ten – pay for the production yourself.
Has that ever been difficult?
It’s been working, yeah. I welcome grants or money which doesn’t limit or doesn’t control my creativity or interfere with my creativity. I want to be as free as possible. In this world, if somebody pays a lot of money for a project then that person has an influence on the project.
I was interested, in this observational kind of series, if it was something that you planned to do back when you were making Campaign? That you wanted to go on to make all these documentaries in the same style, or if after you made that first one, it was a style that was working quite well that you wanted to continue.
When I made Campaign, it was… The basic principle was already thought up. When I made Campaign, it said in the title, “Observation Film Number 1”, so I knew I was going to make more of the same style documentaries. I had a basic philosophy and method already developed in my mind but then it’s been gradually, I hope, improved.
The reason I started in this method is, I had a frustration toward the way we made TV documentaries. I used to make TV documentaries for NHK, Japanese Public Network. I had a lot of frustration about the process I had to do, and also the style. For example, the process, I had to do a lot of research before shooting and I had to write a detailed script before I shoot. That, I didn’t really find so exciting because you knew everything before you shoot. NHK is kind of like the Public Broadcast, it’s very heavy on information stuff and that would be how it would function.
KK: He made 50 episodes.
KS: 50 documentaries for TV.
KK: For NHK.
How did you go from doing NHK, are you currently based in Japan still or New York?
I was in New York already. We’ve been living in New York since ’93.
How did you make that kind of change, I’m interested in the move to New York while making a lot of documentaries still in Japan, how that kind of dynamic played out?
I lived in New York and I worked for a production company in New York to make the TV documentaries for Japan. Everything was shot in the United States or outside of Japan, but it was aired in Japan. I didn’t go to Japan to make movies, TV shows.
But you’d go back to make your observational things like Campaign?
I was interested in how you have interacted with Oyster Factory since making it and looking back on what it says as a documentary, and I’m curious as to how you interpret a lot of… it seems like it gives a very nuanced take on how a lot of the older workers there interact with a lot of the foreign labor and I’m interested in how you viewed that interaction and if that was how you expected it to play out.
I didn’t have any expectation. I try not to have any expectation. I try to be as relaxed as possible, because I’d like to blend in to the environment. Also, I like to be as friendly as possible. I try to smile all the time which helps. If I’m shooting and have focus like… they become tense. In this case, it helped because Kiyoko’s grandmother and mother used to live in the community. Many people knew her mother and grandmother.
KK: My relatives.
KS: Relatives. Some of her relatives are fishermen.
KK: “They used to work together so if I say the name, they’re like, “Oh, I used to work with the person. I love him.” Fishermen is a closed society, they really trust each other. They hold a life rope together. If you’re thrown in the sea, you have to help. Sometimes they’ve lost their lives. They’re really close, responsible to each other. Work together meaning, “you hold my life,” that kind of relationship, they are really tight relationships. That’s why when I say my relatives’ names, they’re like, “Oh yeah.” They immediately open up. “Welcome, welcome.”
Was that kind of a different experience than approaching a documentary, instead of having to jump in and figure things out, to be welcomed?
I think it’s quite different. Although it’s not impossible, it helps to have some connection. With my documentaries, I always have some sort of a personal connection first mainly because I prohibit myself from doing any research, I need to get to know somebody first. I have to seek the subject. It always starts with personal connection, for example, the protagonist of Campaign, Yama-san, he is a friend of mine from college.
He ran again in Campaign 2 as an Independent?
Yes, and he’s a friend of mine so that made it much easier in terms of the access to the campaign. Also Mental, my second one, it’s about people with mental illness. I got acquainted with the doctor there through her mother, Kiyoko’s mother, because she is a social worker and she works with Dr. Yamamoto, the clinic’s doctor.
I think that’s an interesting way to approach documentary, where it’s all with a close experience. Each one is making a universal comment about politics or health and I think that’s a fascinating way to approach it.
One of the things I was interested in with how you presented these is what you feel a documentary has to explain, knowing that you don’t use voiceovers, and how you feel when you put a documentary together, it explains something and you feel it doesn’t need to overly explain. If that makes sense, I’m not sure that’s a whole question.
I’m often tempted to use narration because sometimes it’s much easier just to explain the situation. I prohibited myself from doing that because it’s an easy way and because I cannot use it, I need to work harder when I’m shooting as well. I cannot miss any moment when something crucial happens.
If I had a narration or if I could use titles to explain the situation, sometimes I could miss it, right, because I could explain it in the narration. “Here, this guy is blah blah blah,” and you don’t have to catch the right moment. For example, because I don’t… I know that I can’t use any narration or titles to explain the situation, I have to be rolling the camera when something crucial happens. I’m very alert all the time. Scenes like, remember when one of the factory owners said that “one of my Chinese guys just quit and left,” and he started complaining about that. That moment, I was already rolling the camera. If I missed the first comment from him, probably the whole scene cannot work because we’d never know what they are talking about. Because of that restriction, I’m more strict about… I have to be rolling the camera when something crucial happens, I cannot miss it. That makes it more cinematic, I think, because these are the moments which is most cinematic. It’s almost like… witnessing, you were there as a witness.
I think that’s one of the interesting things, watching through this, at times because of the way it’s thrown together, it almost doesn’t feel like you’re watching a documentary at times. It does have that very cinematic quality to it. I think without having the narration there, it almost gives an extra role to the audience where they’re able to take more of their personal things and pick up something going on in the background, or have a different relation to a different scene because they’re not having that voiceover.
When I was watching that, one of the other people at this festival – the first person I interviewed, directed a film in the festival called Europe, She Loves, which is in the Features section of the festival. That said, it is comprised entirely of couples that he was staying with but shooting their day-to-day lives. Essentially, it’s basically a documentary but it’s in fiction. It’s made me feel… I was interested in people making, you are a documentarian but how you view documentary cinema against cinema, how you view that distinction because I feel Oyster Factory blurs in being cinematic.
I consider my documentaries cinema. I approach it that way. Some documentarians or journalistic people approach documentary as journalism, I have nothing against it but what I do is different. I’m not trying to convey any information or I’m not trying to uncover anything. What I want to do is depict the world as I see it and reconstruct my experience in a cinematic reality so that I could share it with the audience. What I want to convey is not information, but more like an experience.
Where you see yourself going next with the style: if with the style itself, it necessitates that you’re not really sure until you’ve found it, or if you’ve got certain things lined up that you’re interested in making films about in the future?
You mean, “What kind of subjects am I interested in?”
Yeah. Do you have ideas that you’re interested in the future?
Yeah, I do. I have about… all the time, I have about twenty ideas. It’s in my computer, on my file. I’m waiting all the time to have any connection with somebody to start making a film. For example, before making Oyster Factory, on my list I had a word which said Fishermen. When I met the Fishermen there, actually Fishermen, that became a project.
That’s fascinating. Thank you so much for the interview because I really enjoyed the film.
Best of luck with the rest of the festival.