Oyster Factory (2015/Kazuhiro SODA/Japan-USA)

Opening Sequence 

Up close, a white cat basking in the sun on the pier, then it walks off screen. Painterly framing of the Ushimado bay, with micro islands in the distance, and a tree branch striking the foreground of the frame top like a Japanese etching. Another view of the bay from higher ground, with the sea cluttered by oyster farms and a boat crossing at mid-screen.
Now the camera is handheld onboard of a fisherman boat, looking in at an oyster rack approaching. It’s made of bamboos. Cut to a crane flying off of one of those racks. Face of the fisherman through the windshield of his driver cabin. The fisherman is walking on the bamboo rack without leash or safety gear, wearing a yellow vinyl overall finished with boots. Whip zoom on him crouching to untie one rope. Several shots of him retrieving the ropes.
Back on the boat, the hydrolic crane is pulling out of the water a bunch of ropes tied together, revealing clustered oysters hugging the ropes as the ensemble elevates in the sky, slowly moves over the deck and is promptly dropped into a rusty wire crate. Then slowly raised again in the air and violently dropped again to free the oysters tightly secured to the ropes. One last time dropped from high up in the same long take. A drop of mud splashed in the corner of the lens. Whip-zoom to the fisherman piloting the crane in the background to put the splash out of focus. He’s now approaching with a stick and starts beating the ropes to unleash the oysters left attached.

– It may splash, says the fisherman as he rakes his stick between the ropes hanging down.

Cut to another batch of ropes being pulled out of the sea in a similar fashion. Whip-zoom on the clusters of oysters covered in algae and mud, dripping down heavily, with the fisherman in the background. Once again he beats down the persistent oysters glued to the ropes, in close up, with the ropes in the foreground barring his face. He operates all this by himself, alone on the boat (the cameraman being an unparticipating companion). Cut to two static shots of the bay from higher ground and a trucking of a boat passing by, against the sound of waves lapping on the beach.
9 more quick shots taken from the boat approaching the harbor against the noise of an engine. The fisherman on the quay, tying up his boat to a mooring bollard. Opening credits on a black screen.

Origin of the project

Kazuhiro SODA and his wife (and producer), Kiyoko KASHIWAGI, use to spend vacation time in Ushimado, hometown of Kiyoko’s mother. On a dare, he decided to film there, for three weeks, a fisherman he met on the seaside. Upon shooting him, some times later, having arrived from New York, the fishing season was over and the fisherman was starting to care for another activity of his : aquaculture. So the fishing documentary became about oyster farming by necessity. This is how Kazuhiro SODA proceeds to pick and film a subject without preparation nor script.

Companion piece : Inland Sea (2018)

Alongside Oyster Factory, which shooting only lasted 1 week out of the three required, Kazuhiro SODA decided to continue to film the area, on a whim, until his planned return to NewYork. This side project became a documentary on the local population of the small harbor of Ushimado : Inland Sea, released three years later. In this new film, we meet again, in depth, two figures appearing in Oyster Factory ; as well as the vernacular cycle of the local fish commerce.

Observational Film #6

Since 2007, Kazuhiro SODA makes « Observational Films » following a strict set of rules of thumb, and Oyster Factory is the sixth of them. Observation as mantra both for the filmmaker and the audience. « Observation and Interpretation » are guiding his framing; « Observation and Listening » are guiding his directing. These rules he calls the « Ten Commandments of Observational Filmmaking » Interesting remarks about the making and post-production of a guerilla-style documentary, such as « no research », « no script », « shoot as long as possible », « no narration », « use long takes »… These principles are the customary routine of CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema). See the (Technical) Minimum Profile here 

Hirano Oyster Factory

Next to « Toyota Seafood », there is a huddle of ancillary oyster factories implanted in the harbor all assembled together around the Hirano Oyster Factory, directed by Watanabe. They are perched up there on the pier, between the sea – the Inland Sea – and the town – Ushimado – in direct liaison between oysters and consummers. The oyster farms are dispersed racks anchored in the bay, around the Mouse Island. The boat comes and goes between the farms and the harbor at harvest season. Docking next to the factories, the boat empties its three metal crates of oysters forthwith into the wall of the chucking room, where oysters are opened and reserved. Promptly carried around in a bucket they are unloaded by the hundreds onto a cart that wheels straigth to the nearby collective warehouse (because they cannot be frozen),where all the neighbors work in unisson. They are then transferred by truck to the Okayama Fishery Cooperative.

The cycle of oysters’s life

Buying seeds. Farming at sea. Harvesting. Chucking. Storing oysters in buckets with frozen water bottles. Moving them to the cooperative. Cleaning the workshop. Cleaning the buckets and water bottles. Cleaning the vinyl aprons. Collecting and cleaning shells. Cleaning the mud. Cleaning the crates. Cleaning the boat. Repeat.
Kazuhiro SODA doesn’t film the cycle in its chronological order, but rather accumulates daily footage, day after day, in situ. This disparate aggregation of tasks and practices develops nonetheless into a mirror of this local industry. And we piece together, in after thought, like a mystery game, the process in the right order, after seeing it done over and over, at different factories and on different days. True observation puts the spectator in the pilot seat, engaging with the natives and forming a portrait of each recurrent character, each at a precise place on the chain.

Slow pace of daily life

The ingenious cameraman masterfully captures a monotonous labor with poignant dexterity. He follows effortlessly in the footsteps of various colourful characters, mingles with everybody, enters their homes… His enticing camera, which records direct sound synchronously, projects us inside an underestimated world, little known and self-sufficient. Interspersed by « pillow shots » (à la Yasujiro OZU) of still life, landscapes, building corners, abandonned tools, the scenes and days unfold like a treasure trove of compelling activities and genuine behaviors. One shot after another, the vicissitudes of a millenary tradition manifest before our eyes at an unhurried pace. The faces tell a tale of sudden mutation. A microscopic metamorphosis, with each discerning minute, transitionning old habits to reluctant new ones.

Work and Talk

People do not sit down for an interview in « Observational Films »… unlike with Errol Morris’s Interrotron, with a lot of talking heads. Preferably, Kazuhiro SODA’s immersive style of documentary catches off guard the people at work, while they are busy doing other things. Busy hands : loose tongues. We might not get eye contact all the time, but the conversation is more natural, unrestrained and relaxed. Hollywood has the « Walk and Talk » to show protagonists busy while delivering exposition dialogue. « Observational Films » have « Work and Talk » to capture the speech in its natural habitat, its ordinary context.
One of these lasts 3min 30sec, when the filmmaker questions Watanabe about the tsunami and his move to Okayama prefecture, in Mushiage, as a nuclear refugee. Watanabe washes the rusty crates full of mud, and shares about his painful past. As one of the Chinese worker just quit, Watanabe feels compassion for someone who is away from home, like him.
Again with Watanabe, another day, this « Work and Talk » long take reaches 5min of confessions as he and the cameraman walk around the truck.
Not only that, but Kazuhiro SODA films extensive takes of the « action », whether they are talking or not, whether they are working or not. And he keeps the down times in the final cut. These intermediary moments without conscious activity, but where a lot happens : hidden body language, meaningful pauses, suggestive faces, demonstrative expressions…

Tsunami refugees

Watanabe, who is one of the main character of this documentary, used to work in aquaculture in Miyagi prefecture, before the 2011 Tsunami hit Fukushima on this coastline. They had to move out because the government declared their land restricted area, and the consumption of oysters forbidden. From his own admission, he moved first and foremost because his kids could not live in an irradiated zone. But he’s not a « nuclear refugee », insists his boss, Mr Hirano, he’s a « tsunami refugee ». This only superficially removes the stigma. Watanabe was removing debris in Miyagi. He moved to Mushiage (Okayama prefecture), not far away from Ushimado. He’s now directing the Hirano factory, and will succeed to the owner who is retiring.
In another scene we learn that oysters seeds from Miyagi are banned in Okayama, because of the rumors of nuclear radiations. Ironicaly, they buy them instead from Hiroshima !

The workshop contraption

This family factory, partly mechanised, partly manual, is pretty ingenious. With the simplest means. Fresh from the sea, the oysters collected are carried through a motorised conveyor belt into the main room of the factory built on a raised floor and split in two halves. In the middle of the room stands high a double wall within which is stored the live shells shut closed. Each wall, on either side, is pierced with trap doors to catch the oysters pouring in from above. And a man can walk between these walls to scather the oysters towards each hatch. The oysters are picked up onto a counter, through the hatch, one by one, by the workers who are seated on the raised floor. And underneath is another motorised conveyor belt collecting the emptied shells, between the two walls, dropped by a hole in the counter. Thus the course of the oyster : in come the full shells, out come the empty shells. These shells are then automatically cleaned up outside and evacuated by trucks (probably recycled and sold).

Chucking Oysters

Oysters have sharp shells. Workers wear thick gloves. Shells are muddy. Work is messy.
This is hard work. Arduous and repetitious. Workers in this agrarian region are getting old. The rural exodus of the youth depletes the workforce for local businesses. The next generation hates this backbreaking job, and prefers one of a salaryman. Mostly eldery female workers, they have the skills to chuck oysters at a breakneck pace ! The rare younger helping hands struggle to keep up. The eldery are kneeling on the floor, Japanese-style. The youngsters are seated on their asses.
One hand picks up an oyster, pivots it in the right direction (mouth to the palm). The other hand plunges a pointy knife, or a hook, between the two calcified valves. And with a twist of the wrist, it breaks open the mollusc. The mantle is delicately but swiftly scraped and dumped into a bucket. At the bottom of each bucket sits a frozen water bottle to maintain a cool temperature. The empty shells are soon discarded downstairs. And the reiterating operation begins all over.

« China is coming. »

This decaying workforce needs new blood. And the Japanese don’t want to do this anymore. One employee, Watanabe, calls it a « hard, dirty and dangerous work » , he later adds « People who come here are kind of losers, aren’t they ? ». The next best thing is to hire help from abroad, in this case, from China. And the local community is not ready for this « invasion ». Japan, being one of the most homogenous ethnicity in the world, is not acquainted with foreign visitors, let alone labor force from their arch enemy : China. They are afraid. One standbyer confides « Chinese are terrible, they steal anything they see ! »
The neighboring city has 200 Chinese workers. And there is a total of 10 in Ushimado. However, the Hitano Oyster Factory has ever employed indigenous workers, despite, is getting ready to accomodate two new Chinese aids. On the calendar is noted « Saturday the 9th, China is coming ». Not even « The Chinese workers are coming », but that deprecative metonymy…
At the factories nextdoor, there are already a couple of Chinese expatriate working on the line. The Chinese language is not subtitled, so the foreigners stay at a distance, behind a language barrier. And with their rudimentary Japanese, they hardly interact with the filmmaker or others. Regardless of English.

More than a factory

This is an idiosyncratic microcosm of Japanese society, with a dozen Japanese figures surrounding half a dozen Chinese expatriate workers. This multigenerational bunch spans all ages. From a toddler carried on her mother’s back at work ; to young girls playing around the facilities ; to teenager worker from China ; to young adults, married, ready to take over the succession ; to older men from the neighborhood ; to 65 year old bosses about to retire ; to eldery workers on the line… Kazuhiro SODA’s camera alternates the viewpoints, jumping from one person to the next.

Assorted points of view

Watanabe, father of four girls, the nuclear refugee who empathizes with the Chinese expatriates.
The Hirano family old boss who is retiring, and hands his family business to Watanabe
Hirano junior (salaryman) who would « never » succeed to his dad.
The bubbly daughter-in-law of the Toyota factory who is interested in the world.
The Toyota factory owner who has opinions on the state taxes on succession.
The A/C repairman with racist views on Chinese immigrants.
The cameraman and his wife, from NYC, who have seen the world outside of Japan.


We find recurrent themes that have been treated in previous « Observational Films » :
LDP (Liberal Democrtatic Party) political poster from Campaign (2007)
Mental health problems (attributed to a Chinese quitter) from Mental (2008)
Feeding stray cats from Peace (2010)
Nuclear meltdown consequences from Campaign 2 (2013)
Shiro the cat, Kumi and Wai-chan from Inland Sea (2018)

Contemporary Contemplative Cinema documentaries

We could contrast Oyster Factory with Frederick WISEMAN’s Belfast, Maine (1999) where he films a mechanised line in a canned sardines factory. Or compare it to Niklaus GEYRHALTER’s Our Daily Bread (2005), a wordless documentary on agricultural industries in Europe. With a succession of symetrical static shots filming the robotized food collecting, calibrating, processing and conditioning. But « Observational Films » are not from a cold surveillance camera, and much more immersive and reactive to the workers being filmed.


Out of nowhere, when the time for the new Chinese employees to arrive came, the shooting of the documentary is interrupted by Hirano, the old boss. Seated back to the camera at the counter, without stopping his oysters chucking, unwavering, he utters these damning words. According to him, the shooting may offend them and you never know what could happen… You’d need to get their permissions first, and the permission of the agency. Will the documentary stay at a stand still ?

Comedic relief

The documentary is peppered with touches of laughters – often the filmmaker’s own infectious laugh.
An old lady asks for the fish price, twice, with a puzzled look on her face because she gets no answer, before realising she was asking the cameraman ! She then walks away in shame but also amused, followed by the laughing filmmaker.
Another impromptu scene : we see the chucking workers laugh without knowing what is the fuss all about. Then a guy walks in from behind a wall, approaching bent over, looking into a plastic tube, without a word. « What are you doing ? » asks the filmmaker. As he realises he’s being imitated, he bursts in laughter with everyone else.
A long scene where Watanabe and his wife pay for the prefab house bought in for the new Chinese workers. Money goes from Watanabe’s hands, as he counts the bills one by one, in stacks of tens, to his wife’s hands, who counts again ten bills by stacks, and in the hands of the seller, who also counts the bills by tens. Ultimately, the salesman counts the number of stacks and counts again and counts again : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… Everyone, eyes on the stacks, notices there shouldn’t be a 7th stack. There is too much money ! Everybody laughs out loud nervously.
The daughter-in-law of the Toyota Seafood is interviewed while she is preparing a miso soup for lunch. Pots and lids fall on the floor. The filmmaker laughs. She asks « What is so amusing ? You’re not going to use this ? » Concerned about coming out well on screen, she asks « Am I doing OK ? » between each question asked...
To the Chinese workers, recently arrived, the filmmaker asks « Speak English ? », then again in Japanese. But they reply « Yes. No. » in a laugh.
The cat periodically tries to come in the house of the filmmakers.

Shiro the cat and the circadian rhythm

Kazuhiro SODA can’t help but film cats when he sees them. And they stay in the final film. On the seafront, there is a white cat with a bell, roaming around, looking for food and petting. Everybody calls him « Shiro » (white in Japanese). He opens the film. He’s the punctuation of each new day passing. We see him at night, or in the morning, in between two days of shooting. So every time we see the cat’s frolicsomeness we know another day of shooting went by.

Repeat Viewing

The characters in the documentary are not named on screen, but at one point or another they stand out with a particular conversation or a gag. Therefore their personality is imprint in our brains. And with a subsequent viewing, it is easier to notice their presence in the background, or in a crowd. Thus connecting different scenes together and tying the relations, geographical and interpersonal, between all onscreen characters.


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