Look, I get it. Documentaries aren’t the most appealing genre of film for many people. No matter whether you enjoy a documentary and find it interesting, it’s unlikely you would actively take time out of your day to watch a documentary over a narrative film with heavy drama or high doses of intense action. Even the best documentaries can often come across as a little dry and lack the escapism that films can provide.
At their best, documentaries create a forum for debate on issues such as climate or poverty, or highlight the stories overlooked in the news or other mediums. A documentary aims to inform and, while the influence of a director in guiding the audience to a conclusion shouldn’t be overlooked, on principle a director’s job isn’t to put their hands on the scale and instead to let the subjects of the film do the talking.
But what if a director rejects these principles? Whereas most documentaries may stand back to observe a story, what if a director places themselves into the narrative they wish to tell, goading their subjects for a response or taking an active role in proceedings to influence the events or person they wish to chronicle? What are the ethical red lines when creating a documentary?
For this week’s Japanese Film Insight, I want to discuss the amoral documentary masterpieces of Kazuo Hara. Active in the field ever since their debut documentary Goodbye CP was released in 1972, the director has defined himself as a documentarian more than willing to weaponize his movie as activist works aimed directly at the status quo. Known to incite controversy, his films are more than worthy of your time.
Kazuo Hara vs The Documentary
What is a documentary?
The dictionary definition of a ‘documentary’ defines it as being a movie or TV show ‘that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements‘ while chronicling the life or events of a person or moment in time. This tells us what a documentary is, but the term itself is loaded in a way that brings with it a series of implicit guidelines on how a director should act when making such a film, in order to be as ‘factually accurate’ as possible.
For example, how intimate should a filmmaker be in the production process? A filmmaker embedding themselves too deeply into a subject can risk influencing events instead of chronicling them. Yet, at the same time, they need consent and will inevitably earn familiarity with a subject by virtue of their involvement in the film’s production. If a documentary’s primary purpose is to be factually accurate and inform, what sort of input should a director have? Should their primary role be to step back and watch, no matter where their fact-finding journey takes them?
Finally, where are the red lines? Are there moments that should never, ever, be put to film, or certain methods of filmmaking that risk nullifying the work of a documentary or stand opposed to the genre’s primary purpose to inform?
I usually avoid abstract or theoretical discussions of genre conventions because it’s not what this column is primarily set out to achieve. You don’t need to understand the rules of filmmaking to appreciate the acting talents of Meiko Kaji, Japanese horror, or the works of Mika Ninagawa, after all, and my primary aim with this column is to broaden your appreciation of Japanese cinema and discuss these films within a broader historical context.
However, that’s not possible here. A discussion on the ethics of documentaries is unavoidable when discussing Kazuo Hara’s filmography. His creative style is at odds with many of his contemporaries and, at his most extreme, human decency itself, and we must consider it if we are to understand why he creates documentaries in this manner.
Kazuo Hara’s first documentary feature film, Goodbye CP, was released in 1972. It channeled his previous work in a special education school to create an antagonistic movie (shot on black-and-white 16mm film) that captures the life of Yokota Hiroshi, a man living with cerebral palsy. It’s a film that captures pain and betrayal as opposed to humanity, and sets the tone for his entire career.
The film’s creation, and indeed his career as a documentary filmmaker, was inspired by the student protest movement of the 1960s and the rise of the Japanese New Wave and independent cinema. As he noted during his participation in the Flaherty Film Seminar last year:
‘At that time, different arts were imagining a possible revolution, a possible big change. And whether that was through performance, or through fine arts, through music, different sorts of arts… New forms of expressions were happening all over Japan.
‘That’s when I was thinking “OK, what do I need to do?”’
Goodbye CP is a difficult viewing experience. The harshness of the 16mm film format is coupled with the harsh way in which Hara wordlessly captures the life of Hiroshi and the ignorance of Japanese society to the needs of people living with the condition. In doing so, Hara often contrasts Hiroshi against the lives of everyday Japanese civilians, and the continued unrest from the conflict between the Japanese left and the establishment.
Much of the documentary sees both Kazuo Hara and Yokota Hiroshi highlight the cruelty of life, as opposed to the humanity that may be found in similar films on the subject of marginalized subjects. The film is defined by how Hiroshi’s existence conflicts with a society that would prefer to turn a blind eye until they have no choice but to look their way.
To do so, Hiroshi leaves his wheelchair to walk, and at times crawl, through the streets and subways of Tokyo, practically throwing himself in front of the public to raise awareness. For his part, Hara films the reactions from sympathy to annoyance from onlookers, and lingers on the anger created not by the injustice that exists, but the attempts made to highlight such injustice.
It creates an interesting conflict both inside the film and in the viewer’s mind throughout the 80-minute experience. The film aims to make us angry, achieved through confrontational editing and filmmaking, and this anger is most prominent in scenes such as the one featuring Hiroshi’s wife objecting to his portrayal in the film. Goodbye CP exists because society has failed in its role to support their fellow people, leaving ‘undesirables’ to suffer because accommodating their needs is inconvenient. It’s also a film where Hara directly involves himself in Hiroshi’s life and the events of the film to achieve this activist message.
It’s a theme that runs throughout Kazuo Hara’s filmography. He is an outsider, both politically and within the Japanese film industry, with the subjects he follows being in a similar position. In a capitalist system, society is built on inequality, where the 1% must disproportionately benefit from the labor and efforts of those below. Society may claim it helps the disadvantaged through charity and welfare, but fully eradicating societal ills is incompatible with the accumulation of power inherent to a capitalist system that requires exploitation of the underprivileged classes; in such a system, any help provided is often symbolic.
This is an idea only confirmed by his comments in an interview with Charles Exley from the University of Pittsburgh while discussing the release of Sennan Asbestos Disaster.
‘Now that I’m older, I often think about what drew me to the topics I‘ve made films about until now… I guess those in positions of power completely lack the way of thinking that they are to conduct politics for the weaker members of society or the people.’
If a documentary is to call for radical social and economic change, it has to be explicit in its condemnation of establishment politics. An observant camera can capture an event but struggles to capture the emotion driving an event. By becoming an active participant, the power of the camera can be weaponized to galvanize individuals and inspire a similarly radical reaction from the audience.
To return to the ethics of documentary filmmaking, for a director like Kazuo Hara, the red line that shouldn’t be crossed doesn’t exist. The ethical approach to creating a documentary is not conducive to challenging the status quo. Simply observing the life of Yokota Hiroshi won’t change the fact that those with cerebral palsy are left behind by society. If you remove the concept of the red line, you can place the film into an amoral framework that actively seeks to change the society around his subject.
This is what defines the work of Kazuo Hara. As he freely admits, he creates his documentaries for selfish purposes. While less reactionary than the likes of Goodbye CP, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, a film centered on his ex-wife he freely admits was created to spend more time with her following their divorce, captures Miyuki Takeda’s most intimate and personal moments as a way of highlighting their joint critique of US imperialism in Okinawa and their feminist and utopian ideals.
It’s hard to avoid discussion of the ethical dilemmas surrounding this film (especially considering the original motivations behind creating it) when the film features a scene of Takeda and Hara having sex, captures Takeda’s intimate relationships with another woman and a black serviceman, and even features two scenes of childbirth filmed and screened uncut.
This reactionary, confrontational filmmaking style has never left him. It is there even in Hara’s most recent films that centered squarely on the cold, cruel injustice of Japanese bureaucracy. Reiwa Uprising focuses on the rise of the populist new left through a four-hour deep dive into the first electoral campaign of the Reiwa Shinsengumi, often featuring entire speeches that center the party’s message of a society tearing itself apart in its hypocrisy and inequality. Meanwhile, Sennan Asbestos Disaster centers the attention on civilians seeking damages from the government for asbestos-related health problems.
While the subjects may be less extreme, it’s hard not to feel dismayed and angry at the sight of people dying before they get justice because society in its current form isn’t equipped to care for its sick, injured, and disadvantaged.
It would be difficult to argue that Kazuo Hara doesn’t break just about every ethical code with his filmmaking, editing, and style. His documentaries are amoral and inflammatory, and even in the purpose of making his anti-establishment arguments, it’s hard to disagree that the deliberate misleading of his subjects, most particularly with his ex-wife, is reprehensible. Yet if we agree that the purpose of creating ethical documentaries is to observe and inform, we also agree that the pedestrian, observational nature of the documentary has a limited impact on social and societal change, which isn’t the stated goal of the director’s work.
Wherever you stand on this point, one thing is clear: regardless of whether you agree with him, Kazuo Hara’s movies stand proud as amoral documentary masterpieces.
Film Flashback: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Kazuo Hara, 1987)
This discussion of Kazuo Hara’s work has so far omitted any reference to his most well-renowned documentary to date. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is the most accessible entry point into Kazuo Hara’s filmography (if such confrontational productions can even be categorized as accessible) while also capturing all the defining aspects of his work.
The subject of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is Kenzo Okuzaki, easily the most unhinged of Hara’s subjects. This is a man who spent 13 years in prison for murdering an estate agent and shooting pachinko balls at the Emperor, while vocally calling for the Emperor to break from the immunity given to him and address his responsibility for Japan’s actions in World War II.
For him, the stakes are personal. Okuzaki is scarred by the events of the war and has become obsessed with learning the truth about two lower-rank soldiers who disappeared after the war while stationed in New Guinea. The resulting film is scathing in every aspect of its direct attack on Japanese culpability for the war and the responsibilities of those in power for sending innocent men to slaughter for the cause.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is also Kazuo Hara’s most extreme grappling with the question of the red line, as the endpoint of Okuzaki’s rage becomes increasingly obvious. His deep-rooted desire to inflict justice by his own hands has put him in conflict with everyone and left him willing to commit the ultimate crime in pursuit of his goal. Over the five years Hara follows Okuzaki’s pursuit of the truth, he doesn’t intervene. During the production, Hara only consulted a lawyer after Okuzaki offered to murder a man for the camera.
Okuzaki is Hara’s ideal subject, as every action taken by Okuzaki embodies his desire to burn it all down. For someone so intent on provoking reaction and intervening, his decision to step back and observe at the one time he arguably should interject (when it causes harm to others) speaks volumes. The beatings and assaults are instead captured and played back in full as Okuzaki continues to lose grip on himself and reality.
There are plenty of arguments to be made that a documentary that allows such acts to happen shouldn’t exist. Similarly, it’s hard to deny the influence of the camera in emboldening a man so unhinged. In that case, isn’t the lens of Hara’s camera at least partially to blame for the violent beatings featured throughout the film? And yet, here we are, and it’s no surprise peers like Michael Moore have ranked it among the best documentaries ever made.
What makes The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On such a strong documentary is how it acts as Kazuo Hara’s most powerful rebuke of the system’s unflinching lack of empathy. Without defending Okuzaki’s violent extremes, despite silently recording it, the existence of a man like him serves to highlight institutional failure. The film portrays him in a sympathetic light not because we should be cheering on his violent acts or defending his darkest impulses, but because his acts are an inevitable endpoint of years of pain and suffering, with the blame being placed directly at the feet of the Emperor.
If you’re sent out to an unjust war that leaves you feeling hopeless and causes your peers to resort to acts of cannibalism, only to be abandoned and blamed when the war was over… You might as well send them into battle without any clothes on and expect their bare skin to stop a bullet.
The Emperor’s naked army marches on, leaderless and lost.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is available via a region-free Blu-ray and DVD release from UK distributor Second Run.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !