Inland Sea (2018/Kazuhiro SODA/Japan-USA)

Opening sequence :

A brief black screen with the sound of water nearby, so that the film starts by titillating our ears first with a calming, soothing tonality. The soundscape lingers as the screen opens, in black & white, on an embankment with the setting sun straight ahead. Two old people, backlit beautifully, are busy working ; one crouching over a bucket full of water and the other bending over an entangled fishing net.
– Konnichi wa, says the cameraman off-screen as the old lady turns to the camera, and replies likewise. The film begins with a welcoming greeting (as we are casually introduced to who will become the two main characters of the film).
In the foreground, the old lady calls for Wai-chan in the distance. But she soon adds he doesn’t hear well. Cut to the reverse shot, looking back at the lady, and slowly panning toward the legs of the old man who has sit in the shade of a shack. Tilt up, revealing his head, hidden under a cap. Close up of his face, eyes down, from under his visor. He’s mumbling to himself, ignoring the camera. Cut to his hands mending a net by tying several solid knots. His wrinkled hands manipulate netting needle and scissors. Cut to the next shot as the old man cuts with the scissors (cut on cut). He raises the net, out of focus – as a nylon prison over his face – satisfied with his repair.
Now on his boat, he throws another net to the quay. Trice he repeats « it’s to catch rockfish ». A woman voice off screens asks a question twice, but doesn’t get an answer. He complains about the the price of nets, and how fishes are cheaper than the tools nowadays. At 86, fishing on his own... It’s dangerous. He should retire, he says. The cameraman films him at a low angle shot because he’s hunched over his net, his body folded in half. And we see the lovely tiny harbor of Ushimado behind him.
These were the first ever spontaneous takes of the shooting, without meeting, preparation, rehearsal or guidance. As per the filmmaker’s own « Commandments ».

Origin of the project

Inland Sea is the 7th « Observational Film » of Kazuhiro SODA since 2007. It emerged from the impromptu collection of side footage on location in Ushimado for his previous film Oyster Factory (Observational Film #6, 2015) [my review] – if you want to see these two main characters, from the opening sequence, in full colour and more, you should watch Oyster Factory. In fact Kazuhiro SODA was kicked out of the oyster factory after a week, so with two weeks left before his return to NYC, he decided to film a fisherman met on the waterfront. And from then on following several villagers, came to be Inland Sea.
Ushimado is the hometown of his mother-in-law, so he was familiar with the area where they spent vacations with his wife and producer, Kiyoko KASHIWAGI.

Observational film #7

This film comes after a series of documentaries in the same vein, following strict ethical rules : The Ten Commandments of « Observational filmmaking ». There was Campaign (2007) & Campaign 2 (2013) following a Tokyo University classmate who ran for office twice, once for the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), once for himself to address environmental issues due to the Fukushima disaster. There was Mental (2008) a formidable exploration of the daily lives of outpatients from a neighbourhood clinic ran by the one of a kind psychiatrist Dr. Yamamoto, a kind old man who provides the most humane services pro bono. There was Theatre 1 & 2 (2012) a 5h 42min long documentary on the essence of theatre, through the work of playwright and director Oriza HIRATA.
There was Oyster Factory (2015) and Inland Sea (2018). And followed by The Big House (2018) his first documentary outside of Japan, on and around the largest USA arena : Michigan Stadium, filmed with the help of co-directors and students from the University of Michigan.

The Ten Commandments of « Observational filmmaking »

All these films were made according to his self-imposed rules (à la Dogma 95) which he developped during his experience as a TV director-editor for the NHK (National Japanese television) and perfected during the writing of his book on Mental. See the page on his website for futher informations.
From his experience he learnt how to make documentaries in everyway unlike the fabricated « world » of television. He’d rather skip the research and script part, to focus on the spontaneity of his characters discovered on the spot. And, like Frederick WISEMAN, he favors long takes, without narration, titles nor music.
This reminds me of a graphic I made to explain all the obstacles to contemplation in traditional cinema, with a set of interdictions in forbidden pictograms.

CCC & Observational Films

This is where Kazuhiro SODA’s « Observational Films » might meet the minimum (technical) profile forContemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC) : Plotlessness / Wordlessness / Slowness / Alienation…
Plotlessness corresponds to his Commandment #3, #7 & #8. Wordlessness (doesn’t mean without speech altogether, but rather laconical and natural conversation) corresponds to #8. Slowness corresponds to #5, #6 & #9. And Alienation (with the caveat : distanciation of characters does not mean complete separation but the natural boundary we experience with strangers in real life) corresponds to #1, #2 & #7.
CCC is not necessarily documentaries made guerilla-style, like advocates his « Ten Commandments »… although these are conditions to produce a free and independant film form that film companies eschew. But the natural, free-wheeling, patient, extensive types of images resulting from his method correspond more or less to what other CCC filmmakers record in their films. Natural like Lisandro ALONSO, because the approach to the characters is genuine and direct. Free-wheeling like Naomi KAWASE, because she lets things happen in front of the lens and goes with the flow. Patient like Raymond DEPARDON, because he takes time to meet people and makes his camera become invisible. Extensive like Alexander SOKUROV, because he register hours and hours of footage.
For one thing CCC is not a homogenous stylistic block, it is more a general regimen of images that contrasts with everything else on the theatrical circuit. And it is a family of filmmakers who share the same spirit of dailylife rhythm and extended takes.


Observing, interpreting, observing, interpreting…

The rapid succession of these actions on location, defines in situ the framing of his images : Observing first ; interpreting second... Always going from on to the other, to and fro, in order to nurture and combine one another. The quick-witted interpretation that succeeds each passive observation leads to a transformation into an active observation. Thus the images reflect what is taking place on site. If the observer wonders what the onscreen characters are glancing, or addressing, the camera moves automatically toward this off screen space, with a continuous reverse shot, sans cut. The frame chiefly shows on screen what the audience wants to see at the right moment.

Observing, listening

If « To observe & to interpret... » governs the framing of each sub-part of a shot, what instructs his directing style is another motto, two conjoined verbs again : « To observe & to listen ». The cameraman doesn’t frame static shots on a tripod but engages with the motion of the people on a mobile hand-held camera that interacts with the action, the words and the gestures.

Looking and Listening

Observational doesn’t mean distant or detached. The filmmaker must be part of the world he captures and describes. In Japanese, there is this concept of « Looking and Listening », two words combined to generate a « participative observation ». The matter is to look deeply, but to be attentive and reactive to what is going on, and what is being said.

Participative Observation

Here is another mantra of Kazuhiro SODA that explains his unique style of filmmaking. This is the combination of all these aspects of filmmaking : framing, directing, editing. After his first « Observational Film », he realised his observational style had to be participative.

Five Portraits in-situ in circle

Wai-chan (MURATA-san). First character, an 86 year-old fisherman who drives his boat, all alone, at night, like a hero ! He’s the first person contacted – the raison d’être of this documentary. He lays his net in the day, pulls back up his net at night (before the fishes die), sort out the rockfishes from the shrimp, and goes to the local fishmarket. There he auctions his catch. And KOSO-san – the only woman – buys some fresh assorted seafood as the sun rises...

KOSO-san. Back at her store, she preps, weights and condition the fishes under clim film. Then she drives her pick-up truck around town directly to her faithful customers. She calls herself a « late-stage eldery » (75 years-old and over). She’s been doing this job, alongside her husband – until he passed away – for more than 55 years straight. One customer at her shop is KUBOTA who came to collect offal (fish heads rejects)...

KUBOTA. Back at home, always accompanied by her son, she cooks the fish heads with rice. The heads are cut up in close up. Her numerous cats seem fascinated by this cook. Sure enough, the food was prepared for the cats. Some stray cats from the neighbourhood. As the filmmaker chats up with them outside their house, in a narrow alley, passes by MURAGIMI in a haste, embarassed by the idea of disturbing the documentary shooting...

MURAGIMI. Enticed by the KUBOTA family advice, the filmmaker follows this way, where people attend a flower festival. On his way, he finds again MURAGIMI crouched on the side of the path. She visits the neighborhood cemetery, up hill, to tend to her old ancestors tombstones overtaken by grass. Precisely on the day of the Chrisanthemus flowers contest. From this vantage point we can see Wai-chan’s boat entering the harbor. Call back to the seafront, where Kumiko is talking to an old lady friend on the embankment...

Kumiko « Kumi » (KOMIYAMA). Last story but first character on screen (she says « good afternoon » in the opening sequence). So the film comes back full circle by following this singular lady around, down on the shorefront. She is quite a character, full of pernicious comments, gossips and bizarre stories. She knows everything and guides the filmmaker and his wife up and down hill, from one extremity of the port to the other, and back, according to promises of great shots for the film...

Villagers directors

Kazuhiro SODA goes with the flow of real life. Following character after character, upon chance encounter, to their full extent, after exhausting the slow time spent with them, he assembles a formidable array of slices of life. He lets villagers direct the « show » at their will. Some appear camera-shy, some seem uncomfortable, some feel uninteresting. All want the best for his documentary.
Thus we hear « why don’t you go there ? » « Why don’t you shoot this or that ? » « Look ! » « Show this on camera instead »... And amused, confounded, complicit, he follows suit, aiming the camera in the right direction, chasing their footsteps. He also keeps those underachieved moments with camera adresses, these neutral transitions in the final cut, because they are integer part of the process of filming a documentary, moreover full of truth and sincerity.

The filmmaker who doesn’t cut out « camera address »

The « camera address » – looking directly into the lens for an actor – is the staple of Cinéma Vérité and La Nouvelle Vague. Jean-Pierre Léaud in the last shot of « Les quatre-cent coups » (The 400 blows, 1959, Truffaut), or the eponymous character in Monika (1964, Bergman). In documentaries, it is far more prevalent, even though most documentarians prefers to cut them out, for it stresses too much attention to the cameraman, and distracts from the narrative. Frederick WISEMAN, for instance, remains invisible behind the camera : never he utters a comment or a question, never he’s seen on camera, never he keeps the camera address in the final cut. He lets the images speak for themselves sans intervention from the filmmaker.
But Kazuhiro SODA doesn’t mind. He welcomes these little incursions of reality like a moment of complicity with his characters and his audience as well. He believes « observation » has to be « participative observation » ; meaning the involvement of the filmmaker-cameraman on location, amidst a crowd of people aware of the camera in their environment, is matter of fact and should not be concealed on screen.

Hands and faces

In particular, Kazuhiro SODA is fond of framing hands and faces as he films people who talks to him or just work. He films the hands manipulating objects or accomplishing a task. He films talking faces, listening faces, quiet faces, thinking faces.

Labor at work : an unspoken language

After the 5 minutes one-sided laconical chatter with Wai-chan (who is hard of hearing), from the opening sequence, the film goes wordless for 8 minutes, as the fisherman drives his boat out in the bay to lay down his net until he comes back at the harbor. A segment only animated by the sounds of the engine and the waves. Another 16 minutes wordless interlude – only briefly interrupted by a couple questions – while the fisherman retrieves his fish-full net at night. This is a powerful statement from the filmmaker who offers images free of commentary. Therefore he lets the audience swim solely in visual cues, without interferences, to simply enjoy the bare unspoken beauty of sounds with images and images with sounds.

Cycle of fishes

We first see the fishing net being repaired on the embankment : a testimony of previous fishing. Then the fishing net is lowered into the opaque sea. And it is only a few hours later, at night, when the boat comes back that we see the actual fishes caught – ensnared – inside the net, as it is slowly pulled from the dark waters. With some difficulty the fishes are disentangled one by one and thrown into a bucket of water. They flap around in an empty basket or spit out a jet of water in a full bucket. Before the first light of dawn, the seafood is sorted out by spieces, one basket each. At the fish cooperative, trays of seafood are weighted and auctionned for the retailers. The shopkeeper then cleans up the fishes and sells them at the shop or on the road from the back of her pick up truck. The fishes are cooked by one customer and fed to the stray cats. A long way from the sea to the mouth of these felines. A shorter way is illustrated later on, with a cat catching a fish rejected by a line fisherman on the pier.

Connections with Kazuhiro SODA filmography

Mental (2008) : Presence of Dr Yamamoto (from the Chorale Okayama clinic) at the oyster bar
Peace (2010) : feeding stray cats
Oyster Factory (2015) : cooked oysters (from the Hirano Factory) at the oyster bar. Presence of Kumi and Wai-chan two characters first met in this film.

Comparison with CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema)

Leviathan (2012/Véréna PARAVEL, Lucian CASTAING-TAYLOR/FR-UK-USA) video excerpt
This couple of filmmakers from the Ethnographic Sensory Lab in Harvard, made an extraordinary performance art piece by strapping 10 « Go-pro » cameras to a fishing ship : to the mast, to the cables, to the forehead or the chest of a fisherman, to a pole plunged underwater… As many surveillance cameras perched to peer and survey each move of the fishermen and women, each activity on deck, each process of the labor chain. No narration, no interview, just the cadence of images colliding with one another making sense of a fragmented whole.

Profil Paysan (2001-2008/Raymond DEPARDON/FR)
Former photographer, DEPARDON filmed a series of three documentaries on the aging rural world of French peasants, each three years apart : L’approche ; Le quotidien ; La vie moderne. There we follow the daily lives of old peasants and their successors when present. He films them with a static lens, at work, in the fields, at home, in a very intimate yet respectfully distant way. He lets them, taciturn introverts, talk to the camera with their own words, and collects memories and despair.

Desertification : The twilight of Ushimado

The little town of Ushimado is getting older. People are aging and passing away. The youth and families are moving to the cities. Seafront houses are empty because nobody takes the sucession. Even the cemetery is deserted because families bring their tombstones with them closer to the city where they live. This is a problem of the countryside towns : only the eldery rooted in Ushimado for so many years, all their life and many generations past… This town sees its last days since in a few years, when the eldery have vanished for good, there will be nobody to inhabit these houses, to work those jobs, to eat and drink, to walk around the pier, to fish, to smile and laugh in the twilight…

A dedicated ascent to the Hospital

BONG Joon-ho : « The scene in which one of the subjects briefly takes over the film – bringing the camera with her to finally tell a story she probably had never told anyone – was so calmly stunning, raw, and emotional. It didn't feel forced or manipulated. It just seemed like something very naturally walked into the filmmaking. It's an art of documentary filmmaking. »

Indeed this sequence, with Kumi, toward the end of the film, is a piece of art. It starts on the embankment in the harbor, where Kumi and Wai-chan always hang out. Kumi, as usual is pointing at somewhere else, up hill, behind them, to drag the shooting there with her. « You should film the hospital » The filmmaker is first reluctant to go, but eventually follows along, for what will become the best scene at the heart of the film : a 10 minutes of confession non-stop, after a couple of minutes of walk.

From the director’s statement : « In Japanese noh theatre, there is a popular form called “mugen noh,” in which a traveler meets a ghost who tells him what happened at a specific site. »

This moment is like an oracle.

Related :


BenoitRouilly said…
Review by Nadin Mai at The Art(s) of Slow Cinema (16th Feb 2020)