“Documentary filmmaking is about art and art cannot be compromised.”
Kazuhiro Soda is famous for being an uncompromised, genuine and insightful documentary filmmaker. Film festivals around the world have rewarded his observational work series. His latest film “Oyster Factory” (Kaki-Kouba) premiered at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in 2015 and has since gained wide recognition in Japan where it opened in more than 30 theaters across the country. Through the small window of the fishing village of Ushimado and its oyster factory workers, we are compelled to look at the reflection of the world in its entirety. Below a seemingly peaceful routine, each party involved is facing the global challenges of local manufacturers, generational gap and migration issues. Soda-san is taking us behind the scenes in this insightful interview.
Your documentary style has become your trademark signature over the years as you develop new projects. Can you tell us about this style and why it is so crucial to your work?
I make what I call “observational films”. I want the audience to be able to immerse itself into the story without any distractions such as music, titles cards, and narration. In Japanese you would call it “ kansatsu”, it’s the concept of looking and listening and making your own discoveries. I am trying to share reality as I see it. That’s why I don’t do any script writing or pre-production interviews with the subjects ahead of the shoot. I don’t want to establish any blueprints that could make the film predictable. I trust that the audience will experience the same raw reality that I observe and try to learn something from it.
This is a very brave style of documentary that doesn’t conform with the traditional “marketable” docs formatted for TV sales. How do you cope with this challenge?
It is true. I am not compromising my style, the story or the length of the film to fit a pre-required format. I think that people are fed up with films that are only a marketable product. I need to feel genuinely excited about a topic to work on it and I trust that the audience will share my excitement. Having no strings attached to investors or TV stations allows me to make the film that I want. For example if I feel that the film needs to be 2h 25min long, this is what it will end up being. My longest film was actually 5h 45min! It’s also a form of marketing to purposely not care about marketing. Above all, I believe that documentary filmmaking is about art, and art cannot be compromised.
But of course, once the film is finished, I go from being an artist to becoming a salesperson! But this is a conscious decision and I am ok with it because I know that no one can revise the film.
Oyster Factory is your 7th installment in your observational series. How did you come to this subject?
It was somewhat accidental. My wife Kiyoko’s mother is from this region of Ushimado and Kiyoko and I regularly rent a vacation house in her hometown. Because Kiyoko did Tai-chi every morning at the shore, she became acquainted with the fishermen there. We became friends with them after they observed us for several weeks! They opened up about the fishing industry and the challenges they are facing. I realized that the same issues were impacting local industries in most developed countries and that was the spark that ignited my motivation to film the life of fishermen. In November 2013, we went back to Ushimado with a camera but we realized that fishing season was over for the fisherman we met. The factory was busy with oysters at that time. We had no idea how an oyster factory worked but we decided to take advantage of this seasonal opportunity and filmed “kaki-kouba”.
It is indeed very interesting to learn about the process of oyster farming, the craft and hard work that it requires to produce a sustainable amount for selling, but it also reminds us how disconnected we are from the food we eat and the people who produce it. Are we part of the problem afflicting this industry?
Absolutely. While filming, I realized that I was witnessing on a small scale what was happening all across the globe. The town of Ushimado is suffering because of many factors. One of the main challenges is the generational gap. The town is rapidly aging. The youth has left to find a more rewarding line of work in the cities. The younger generations are shying away from this dangerous, labor-intensive manual work. For example, the factory’s owner is left wondering what will happen to his plant after he retires. His son has neither the will nor the motivation to take over the factory. Immediately I thought, “why not take over your father’s business?” Then I realized that I was looking in a mirror…these questions echo my own personal history very strongly: my father is a small scarf manufacturer but it was never even an option for me to continue his line of work. We are taught to think that success is moving to a big city, going to good schools and wearing a suit. We are now witnessing the devastating consequences of this mentality.
Your film also touches upon a very sensitive and timely subject: the relationship to the “stranger” and the globalization of the foreign workforce. Tell us about it.
To counter the desertion of the native workforce, factories are forced to employ foreign workers from China. The oyster factory is no exception. There is a striking image in the movie where you see a calendar on the wall with a date circled “China is coming”. Chinese workers are both the salvation and the curse of the Ushimado fishing industry. The irony of the situation is cruel: if the wages were higher, Japanese people would probably accept to shuck oysters. But if wages go up, the resell price will also climb up and the overall sales would suffer from it. So the plant owners need to make a hard choice: in order to stay competitive, they pay low wages that don’t attract locals, and are forced to turn to Chinese workers. This is a big dilemma for them and for us as consumers. The blame is shared between all parties involved in this complicated issue.
Is there a topic that has caught your eye since completing the film? Can we hope for another chapter of your observational series soon?
Actually during the shoot of “Oyster factory” we came upon two characters that briefly appear in the movie: an 86-year-old fisherman and an older woman who talks to the white cat. I am currently editing the footage I captured around them. They will probably become our next heroes.
—– Interview by Ruth Berdah-Canet
Oyster Factory (2015)
Facing serene Seto Inland Sea, a beautiful fishery village of Ushimado in Okayama Prefecture may not be as quiet as it may seem. The oyster industry there is now obliged to hire non-Japanese workers in order to fill the positions of shacking freshly caught oysters, which Japanese people refuse to take. The documentary film slowly reveals the tension between oyster shack owners and Chinese laborers, implying the uncertain future of the industry and much larger scale of problem that this Japanese society holds.
Directed, shot and edited by Kazuhiro Soda; Produced by Kazuhiro Soda and Kiyoko Kashiwagi
Born in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. After graduating from Tokyo University, he attended School of Visual Arts in New York. His thesis film, The Flicker (1997) was nominated for the Silver Lion Award in the Venice International Film Festival. He worked for Japanese TV productions and directed numerous documentaries before he started filming “kansatsu” (observational) documentary independently. His first kansatsu documentary, Campaign (2007), depicts a political campaign in Kawasaki, Japan, by Kazuhiko Yamauchi, an inexperienced candidate officially endorsed by the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party. The film was invited to the forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007.PBS broadcast a 52-minute version, which won the Peabody Award in 2008. He has made six other documentary films including Mental (2008), Peace (2010), Theatre 1 (2012), Theatre 2 (2012), Campaign 2 (2013), and Oyster Factory(2015). He resides in Astoria, Queens.