10 great Japanese documentaries

Japan has produced many vital and fearless non-fiction films. If only they weren’t so difficult to see.

18 November 2021

By Matt Turner

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Compared to the country’s fiction film output, Japanese documentary film is under-appreciated internationally. This is partly an access issue. More than 130,000 documentary films were produced in Japan between 1940 and 2010, but, despite winning prizes at international festivals or being the subject of domestic acclaim, only a selection of these have screened regularly or been made available on home video formats outside of Japan. 

Many remain unsubtitled or unavailable; others are often only circulated within academic circles. Whole filmographies are unavailable and numerous filmmakers remain under-known. This is unfortunate as much of the work that is accessible is striking, notable for its political integrity and aesthetic ingenuity. 

In a 1993 interview, Kazuo Hara, maybe the Japanese documentary filmmaker who is best known outside of Japan, said that documentaries “should explore the things that people don’t want explored”. The works included on this list demonstrate this philosophy, tackling tough subject matter with a rigorous approach and displaying a commitment to the value of the documentary form as a tool for investigation and inquiry. 

Whether turned towards the self or held in the direction of others, the camera here is always a potent force. 

Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Director: Kon Ichikawa 

Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Regarded as one of the greatest films made on a sporting subject, Kon Ichikawa’s Olympic Committee-commissioned film about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics takes an impressionistic look at the expressivity and physicality of the human body, finding engaging ways to frame the varying motions of the athletes competing in the competition. 

Employing telephoto lenses, freeze frames, low-frame-rate photography and dramatic slow-motion sequences staged against expressive black backgrounds, the film wrote a new playbook for how to film sports artistically. If the Olympics is, as the film’s narrator states, “a parade of strength and beauty”, then Ichikawa finds the perfect form to display this.

A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969)

Director: Masao Adachi

A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969)

Following an incident in which a man killed four people in four different cities using the same handgun, this unsettling travelogue follows the trajectory of the development of a serial killer. Mixing sparse factual narration, cleanly composed urban landscape imagery, and an intermittent soundtrack of discordant free jazz, Masao Adachi’s film is a striking study in visual association, looking at how viewers draw meaning from images when the context for their consumption has been pre-established. 

Spaces can never speak of the histories they contain, but stare long enough at them and it almost appears like they may have something to say.

The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms (1977)

Director: Haneda Sumiko

The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms (1977)

A film with a straightforward-seeming subject, a cherry tree believed to be the oldest in Japan, Haneda Sumiko’s tone poem expands gracefully outwards, using the motif of a tree as old as time as a means of exploring life, death and eternity. 

The first film made independently by one of Japan’s most prominent and prolific women documentary filmmakers, The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms was a long-planned project that was finally completed following the death of Sumiko’s sister. Her poetry provides a frame for the film in the form of the whispered narration that accompanies extraordinary images of the tree across the four seasons.

A Japanese Village (1982)

Director: Shinsuke Ogawa

A Japanese Village (1982)

Believing that in order to accurately convey their struggles a filmmaker had to live like their subjects led Shinsuke Ogawa and his crew to do exactly that. They moved to a small village in the Yamagata prefecture to live, work and study with the farmers they were interested in following and filming. 

While in the region, they made a number of fascinating films exploring agricultural and political issues there, looking into the climate, economics and history of the area with a degree of exacting detail that can only come from total immersion. A Japanese Village is the first film from this period, but its vision feels fully formed.  

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Director: Kazuo Hara

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

A serial portrayer of society’s most marginal, Kazuo Hara’s best known work is The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, an unflinching portrait of a Pacific War veteran on a one-man crusade to uncover the truth about soldiers in his regiment that died after the war’s official end. Suspecting foul play, Hara’s subject doggedly tracks down any surviving army officials and berates them, extracting some shocking confessions through a use of force. Hara films all the while, forging a relentlessly compelling film out of his subject’s truth-seeking journey.

As audacious as it is ethically questionable, the results are entirely befitting of Hara’s hands-on, totally committed vision of documentary cinema. 

Embracing (1992) / Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth (2001)

Director: Naomi Kawase

Embracing (1992)

Ever since she became the youngest filmmaker to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1997, the fiction films that Naomi Kawase has made over the years have been well received. The personal documentaries she made parallel still remain somewhat under-seen. Embracing (1992) and Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth (2001) both relate to her estranged father, with the former detailing her search for him and the latter showing her response to learning of his death.

Both films are aching, anguished diaristic exercises, full of resonant images and explosive emotions. Musing on connection and absence, Kawase uses the documentary form as a way of asking unanswerable questions, reaching for something more abstract and sublime.

Without Memory (1996)

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

Without Memory (1996)

Prior to becoming one of Japan’s most internationally celebrated fiction filmmakers, Hirokazu Koreeda made several documentaries. The most significant is Without Memory, a remarkable yet thoroughly depressing film about a man with anterograde amnesia. As a result of post-procedural malpractice after simple abdominal surgery, Hiroshi Sekine is left unable to create new memories, starting each day with his family anew as he lives out the rest of his life in an eternal present. 

Opening up questions that he would remain preoccupied with, and poking at them creatively, Koreeda creates a deeply moving film that muses intelligently on memory, disability and identity.

A (1998)

Director: Tatsuya Mori

A (1998)

Filmed over the two years that followed the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, Tatsuya Mori’s controversial film about the Aum Shinrikyo cult was the first of two in-depth studies of the group that the director made. Given remarkable access and a troubling amount of trust, Mori patiently films behind closed doors, trying to find out how the remaining members of the cult in decline justify their loyalty to an organisation with so much blood on its hands. 

Roaming around with a handheld camera, Mori creates an engrossing, thornily compassionate longitudinal portrait of the mundane reality of life as a low-ranked devotee of a criminally misguided cause.

Campaign (2007)

Director: Kazuhiro Soda

Campaign (2007)

As the first in his series of disciplined “observational films”, Campaign offers as good a place as any to start delving into the compelling work of independent filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda. Following a regional political candidate running in Kawasaki City, this straight-faced farce watches wordlessly as unqualified, self-described “parachute candidate” Yamauchi Kazuhiko bumbles his way through the campaign trail, running with a mandate for “reform” but never specifying what it is that he plans to alter. 

As humorous as it is quietly horrifying, Campaign exposes the absurdity of electoral democracy, showing how knowing the right way to smile and bow means more in politics than policies or principles. 

Thus a Noise Speaks (2010)

Director: Kaori Oda

Thus a Noise Speaks (2010)

An intelligent, experimental reinvention of the Japanese tradition of “self-documentary”, the first film by one of Japan’s finest contemporary documentary filmmakers may be her cleverest and most confrontational. Only weeks after having come out, Oda restages the moment when she told her family that she was gay, having her mother and sisters play themselves in a dramaticised re-enactment that paints them in an unsympathetic light. 

At first, it’s presented as if it were real footage filmed clandestinely. But throughout the course of the film, which unfolds like a form of unconventional family therapy, reality is repeatedly reframed, pushing both Oda’s parents and an audience watching on to reconsider their initial response.

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