Director Kazuo Hara and Producer Sachiko Kobayashi with David Wilentz
Director Kazuo Hara is known for raw, transgressive documentaries that boldly attack the repressive mores of Japan. His debut Goodbye CP (1972) took on the intense stigma Japan attaches to the disabled. Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 followed Hara’s radical ex-wife to Okinawa, documenting her relationships with another woman, an American G.I., and captured not one, but two childbirths on film.
Hara worked as a cameraman for acclaimed director Shohei Imamura. Imamura introduced Hara to the uncompromising war veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, who was infamous in Japan for shooting pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito with a slingshot. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1986) chronicles Okuzaki as he uncovers shocking war crimes and their cover-up. Hara’s films are enjoying a resurgence, as seen by his recent retrospective at Anthology Film Archives and his long overdue domestic DVD releases on the Facets label. Hara and his producer/wife Sachiko Kobayashi sat down with the Brooklyn Rail at the Japan Society before the New York premiere of their first narrative film, The Many Faces of Chika.
David Wilentz (Rail):How did the transition to narrative come about? Certainly Chika has documentary influences, not to mention references to real political events, but why fiction?
Kazuo Hara (Hara): I started making films in my mid twenties and at the time I made those documentaries, like Goodbye CP, I was interested in the format, and that’s not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying making them, it’s that at the time that was the format I was interested in. I just always had a great desire to make a narrative film.
Rail:Could you talk a bit about the casting process? There are interesting performers in the film, for example Isao Natsuyagi (Samurai Wolf)?
Kobayashi: As far as the casting goes we did it all together. It was a collaborative process. Specifically in casting Mr. Natsuyagi, that actually got decided close to shooting, just about ten days before we started. We halted the production at one point so it took five years to create this film. Because of that we did have to make some changes to the casting. As far as choosing Mr. Natsuyagi, it had a lot to do with Mr. Hara’s taste and his choice.
Hara: In Japan there’s a writer about my age named Yoh Kemi. For me he was the perfect image of the character. He’s not an actor. I wanted him to do the part and I tried to convince him but he said no, so we went with an experienced actor Mr. Natsuyagi, who ended up being the perfect casting choice for that role.
Rail: The choice to have four different actresses play the title role of Chika is fascinating—Bunuel and That Obscure Object of Desire come to mind. Chika’s story is made up of four segments and only a few years pass between each, yet in at least one segment you utilize an actress several years older than the previous one, so it becomes quite surreal. Was your intention to transform time into something more subjective?
Hara: What you’re speaking about—the idea of time—is something that I was interested in breaking down. The expectation of how they… having different faces portray the same character and my attitude towards it was that, well, it’s okay. It was a decision that I did question a lot but in the end I decided: why not go for it? In the case of The Last Emperor for example, you have 3 different actors playing the character as a child, an adult and as an old man. It’s the same sort of idea except that it’s in a much smaller span of time, so for me it was an adventure in filmmaking to try that out. As far as the reasoning behind having different actresses portray the same character, the central character of the woman remains the same throughout the story yet the men in her life change. But as there are different men in her life at different stages they have different views of her from different angles. The woman they perceive is of course different. And I felt that way probably because I’m a man. Miss Kobayashi said as a man you’re looking at women that way but women are also looking at men too, so she created a script designed to bounce my idea and my assumptions back at me.
Rail:The political backdrop in Chika—references to animal liberation movements and student riots—is striking and seem to shape Chika’s universe without always having a direct effect on her. This aspect is reminiscent of Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth where the main characters, doomed young lovers, are apathetic to the volatile student riots going on around them. Yet Chika is not overtly political, its concerns are more human. How much of your filmmaking is politically motivated?
Hara: In creating a documentary, especially with Goodbye CP and Private Eros there were actual clear target taboos that I had a strong desire to break down, and also in Emperor’s Naked Army as well.. But for this film, we started it in 2000 and compared to Japan in the 60s and 70s, the world we live in now the targets are no longer clear. In Japan of the 90’s and the present day there is a vague and ambiguous oppressive force but the targets aren’t clear so in making this film I wanted to make that unseen force into something more tangible by having it in the 70’s.
Rail:So is that why the specific political references are there?
Hara: That’s a little bit different in regards to having the background of the student protests. As far as how the screenplay is created I wanted some socio-political issues to be put in, but Kobayashi created the screenplay, she created the world of the film. But the thing important to me in making any film, documentary or narrative, is looking at and finding what it is that oppresses freedom. Looking into myself and finding what it is outside that restricts freedom and how to break it! And this is not always specifically political.
Rail:I understand Shohei Imamura introduced you to Okuzaki, the subject of Emperor’s Naked Army. Could you talk little about him and his influence on your work, especially his documentaries?
Hara: Thinking about Imamura’s documentaries such as A Man Vanishes (1967), now that secretly, in certain instances, was shot without the knowledge of the subjects and I decided I was against that. And then thinking about the film Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute (1975), part of a series for TV which dealt with the poor inhabitants of an area called Amakusa. People there were bought and sold into prostitution and then sent into war torn areas; the series also dealt with soldiers who couldn’t return home. Those series sort of treat the masses as a weak force. I have a different value system in terms that I am also part of the masses, that actually I can help to exercise the masses to rise above. So as far as influence goes, it’s about going beyond the previous generation of filmmakers.
Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima and Shinsuke Ogawa all made notable documentaries and they’re all from the 60’s generation. I feel I have a very different value system. For me it’s about the individuality of people, about pushing forward and changing the way the individual expresses themselves independently and how that individual can effect change. That effect is something I wanted to breakdown as well.
Rail:I saw Kinji Fukasaku’s Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (a dramatic film based on non-fiction research about Japanese soldiers in WWII faced with starvation, cannibalism and execution) and then I saw Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. Both films were shocking, especially your documentary which dealt with the same issues as the Fukasaku film.
Hara: Yes, both films deal with the same incidents of the soldiers in New Guinea and the issues of cannibalism and the stories that unfold in both films are similar. When I made Naked Army I had seen the Fukasaku film. The film I made was 36 years after the war had ended. I was really interested in portraying that Japan—36 years postwar—at that time. In my film, Okuzaki’s living the way he is and then you see the contrast with other people who were in the same place who had blended into society and were living a very different life. That contrast was something I was interested in. The film deals a lot with war crimes and I was interested in this in the context of Japanese society 36 years after the war.
Hara (cont.): It’s sort of mysterious to us. There’s obviously something that you were interested in about our films. What specifically interested you and made you want to come interview us?
Rail:You are known, not just in Japan but in the film world, as a maverick documentary filmmaker. Your films transcend the documentary format. They become, to me, an expression of a vital energy—a kind of freedom. In Japan you have the concepts of tatemae (Façade: the outward behavior required for society to function as a whole) and honne (one’s true feelings, usually hidden behind the tatemae). These concepts in America are understood separately but the ideal in Japan is for these concepts to be in harmony. Americans cannot deal with that because it’s just too much repression. What fascinates me about your films is that you’re completely tearing that away. It’s like you said about new value systems. When I saw Private Eros: Love Song 1974 it felt so fresh. That film today is still very stunning, a little bit shocking, but to think that it happened in 1974, not only was this woman completely expressing her freedom in a society based on repression but that you were filming it and putting yourselves in a very emotionally unsafe zone.
Hara: For me you’re right, it’s about freedom. It’s about things that are shocking and stimulating but for me it’s more. It should be more freedom and more shocking. When I do an autograph, that’s what I always write down. Those are my intentions and theory behind my filmmaking and I’m happy that that’s really gotten through to you.
Rail:Obsession plays a large role in your films. For example in Private Eros Miyuki Takeda seems very much driven by obsession—the way she contacts the bar girls in Okinawa on her one-woman protest. It is this drive that seems to liberate her. Chika, however, seems more bound by obsession. She’s with a lover she knows she shouldn’t be with, and that ends up being part of her downfall.
Kobayashi: In making a documentary you have people’s passions and intentions frankly laid out. That sort of honesty works well in documentaries because people can empathize with and relate to them. But in making a dramatic narrative, if the relationship between obsession and passion is simply laid out it seems fake. So for the narrative I was more interested in different relationships. Chika strongly desires freedom. That was her obsession. And for us, what she ends up with is a type of freedom.
Hara: One way to think about freedom is that it is something that you fight against many obstacles to obtain. But another way to look at it is instead of fighting against the force, you simply remove yourself further and further away from whatever it is in society or the powers that be. Chika moved closer and closer to freedom by moving further and further away from society.
David Wilentz dreams in color.