For more than three decades the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) has provided the primary platform for independent non-fiction filmmakers in Japan. The festival has played a major role in the early careers of such internationally regarded talent as Naomi Kawase and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, as well as acting as a hub for documentary makers across Asia and further afield. 

Its setting of Yamagata in the north of the country, where it’s been held every two years, is significant. In its environs the collective led by Shinsuke Ogawa realised such monumental depictions of the region’s folkloric traditions and rural practices as Furuyashiki Village (1982) and The Magino Tale: The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches (1986).

A selection of 10 Japanese documentaries that have played at the festival has been made available to view for free from 17 to 24 January on the streaming service DAFilms. They range from A Movie Capital (Toshio Iizuka, 1991), which holds up a mirror to the inaugural edition of the festival itself, to Komian and Pickles (Koichi Sato, 2021), a celebration of the role played by the Komian Club pickle store that – until its closure due to the pandemic – served as the main meet-up spot for filmmakers and guests during the festival.

Here are some highlights.

The Weald (1997)

Director: Naomi Kawase

The Weald (1997)

The Cannes-feted Naomi Kawase counts among YIDFF’s most important discoveries, with her personal 8mm portraits of her upbringing Embracing (1992) and Katatsumori (1994) both among the early highlights of the festival. 

The rarely seen The Weald sees the director return to the location of her first fictional feature, Suzaku (1997): the remote wooded village of Nishi Yoshino near Kawase’s own birthplace and centre of operations in Nara. Filming with a mixture of video, 8mm and 16mm, she creates a poetic portrait of the community of foresters who live and work there. Kawase focuses on the ageing members of six families still making their living from the forest, all delivering their personal stories to the camera that convey a vanishing way of life amid the harsh economic realities of modern Japan.

The New God (1999)

Director: Yutaka Tsuchiya

The New God (1999)

Yutaka Tsuchiya’s deft dissection of identity politics charts his encounter with guitarist Hidehito Itoh and feisty frontwoman Karin Amamiya of the ultra-nationalist punk band The Revolutionary Truth. When Amamiya returns to Tokyo from a trip to North Korea – where she’d been invited by members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction, who were responsible for the infamous 1970 airplane hijacking – she begins to question the foundations of her own convictions. 

After Tsuchiya lends Amamiya his camera to record her thoughts, a three-way dialogue ensues between filmmaker and musicians. The relationship between ideology, the individual, the state and Japan’s emperor system comes under scrutiny, with surprising revelations for all.

A2 (2001)

Director: Tatsuya Mori

A2 (2001)

Tatsuya Mori’s A (1998) went behind the scenes of what remained of the notorious Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult responsible for the deadly Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway of 1995. It focused on the group’s beleaguered PR spokesman Hiroshi Araki, one of the remaining active members who claimed they had no idea of the murderous activities planned by their leader Shoko Asahara. 

This follow-up sees him revisiting Araki while the trial of Asahara and his associates dominate the headlines. As right-wing nationalists and local community groups besiege the regional bases of Aum (now renamed Aleph), Mori takes a nuanced look beneath the heated media coverage at the various antagonistic factions. It’s the press undoubtedly who come across as the least sincere.

Dear Pyongyang (2005)

Director: Yonghi Yang

Dear Pyongyang (2005)

Questions of ethnic, national and political identity are at the forefront of this first-person portrait by Yonghi Yang (a second-generation Korean, or zanichi, raised in Japan) of her father, who emigrated to Japan as a teenager prior to the country’s division. 

Mr Yang is utterly ambivalent about his adopted Japanese home. He’s romantically patriotic towards the country of his origins, strongly believing in the idea of a united communist Korea. In 1971, he even went as far as sending his three sons, then in their teens, to live forever in North Korea as part of a repatriation project that saw 90,000 such zainichi returned ‘home’. 

Yang’s tender, often humorous film sees illusions shattered and conflicts emerge. Yet a new understanding arises as the estranged sides of the family reconvene in Pyongyang.

Storytellers (2013)

Directors: Ko Sakai and Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Storytellers (2013)

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and subsequent meltdown of the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant inspired a raft of reactions from Japan’s filmmaking community. Among the best is Storytellers, the third instalment in a documentary trilogy co-directed by Ko Sakai and Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, Drive My Car) aimed at giving voice to the people in the area most affected by the disaster. 

How to express in words the trauma of 11 March 2011 and its aftermath is the challenge faced by filmmakers. Sakai and Hamaguchi’s film focuses on the region’s strong tradition of oral folk storytelling and its modern-day practitioners’ attempts to find a form adequate in passing down to future generations the magnitude of the events.

Further reading

10 great Japanese documentaries

By Matt Turner

10 great Japanese documentaries

Where to begin with Naomi Kawase

By Hayley Scanlon

Where to begin with Naomi Kawase

The best Japanese film of every year – from 1925 to now

By Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández

The best Japanese film of every year – from 1925 to now