Film

An Artist Duo’s Ingenious Movie About US Military Bases in Japan

The documentary, titled Making a Perfect Donut, is particularly timely given protests currently going on over the construction of a new base in Henoko.

Kyun-Chome, Making a Perfect Donut (film still) (all images courtesy Kyun-Chome)

TOKYO — The Japanese artist duo Kyun-Chome’s newest work Making a Perfect Donut — an hour-and-a-half-long documentary — explores the various conflicts of interest that surround US military bases in Okinawa. The bases are a vestige of American occupation and are highly concentrated in the prefecture compared to other parts of Japan; military aircraft crashes still occur in civilian areas. The documentary is particularly timely given protests currently going on over the construction of a new base in Henoko.

Making a Perfect Donut starts with a deceptively simple concept: the quest to combine an “American” donut with a sata andagi (an Okinawan deep-fried bun). To do so, Kyun-Chome (consisting of artists Eri Honma and Nabuchi) hatches a plan to position an American national inside a US base and an Okinawan on the outside and have them fry up their respective snacks on the spot and then merge them through a hole in a base fence.

Making a Perfect Donut, however, is ultimately less about the execution of this plan than the gathering of opinions about it. Drawing from ethnography and oral history — in the spirit of historian Shunsuke Tsurumi, or, in the US context, author Studs Terkel — the duo moves through Okinawa, interviewing activists, club-owners, amateur zookeepers, and Shinto priests, among others, about an eclectic number of topics, including flea markets, the going price for a giraffe, and the haunting legacy of the Asia-Pacific War. After an indeterminate amount of time passes in each conversation, Honma, pulls out the donut and sata andagi, hands them to her interlocutor, and ritualistically recites the following: “Actually, we’re not here just to talk — we’re here to make a perfect donut through the fence of a US base … What do you think about this?”

Kyun-Chome, Making a Perfect Donut (film still)

Herein lies the crux of the work: the reaction. These range from awe, to joy, to disgust (“I don’t want to fucking make a perfect donut with Americans”). Through this repetitive ritual, the donut and sata andagi are transfigured into a site for each interviewee to candidly, if indirectly, voice their opinion of US bases, which often becomes a deeply personal account of a formative experience or memory: One man recounts shooting fireworks at outgoing helicopters as a child at a time when relations between residents and the US military were less tense. A bar owner discusses watching American soldiers sticking dollars to the wall of her bar before going off to fight in Vietnam.  The documentary carries the viewer again and again to a surreal moment where the meeting of two deep fried varieties of dough becomes an allegory for a fraught, often overlooked history.

Kyun-Chome, Making a Perfect Donut (film still)

Making a Perfect Donut walks a tightrope between a nihilistic strain of the Dada tradition and overt political engagement. On one level, it seems to parody endless consensus-building exercises that ultimately only ever yield moral relativity and cynical detachment. The amateur zookeeper, for example, can’t directly voice his opposition to US bases because he makes a living off of them on construction contracts. A half-American manzai comic supports them for providing him a place to feel at home. On another level, the movie refuses to be critically distant from the issue: in one scene, Nabuchi is carried off by a group of police from a sit-in protest outside a base while reciting the “perfect donut” prompt. Resistance also occurs at the symbolic level: In a final interview, an American missionary who has resided in Okinawa for over 50 years holds the sata andagi and donut in weathered hands and proceeds to jam the two together. When the donut crumbles, the missionary smiles cryptically and says, “someone has to break.”

Kyun-Chome, Making a Perfect Donut (film still)

Kyun-Chome comes from a lineage of 1990s and 2000s artist-provocateurs such as Makoto Aida and the art collective Chim-Pom; Nabuchi studied with Ryuta Ushiro, the leader of Chim-Pom, at the alternative art school Bigakko. In larger currents of Japanese art history, perhaps Making the Perfect Donut also obliquely reflects the influence of the reportage painters of the 1950s (like Hiroshi Nakamura and Kikuji Yamashita), who regularly incorporated the issue of US bases and imperialism into their work. More than anything, Making a Perfect Donut is about contradictions: between the desire for art to represent an effective form of protest and the reality of its ultimate powerlessness in the face of larger structural issues; between the absurdity of Kyun-Chome’s project and the gravity of the underlying situation. Moreover, the artists, born in Kanagawa and Ibaraki, and who now reside in Tokyo, will never be able to fully relate to the lived reality of the Okinawans they interview. Although there is an ending to the work (which I won’t reveal), there is no resolution: the documentary characterizes a condition that the avant-garde Japanese artist Taro Okamoto called Taikyokushugi, or a dialectic that refuses synthesis.

Making a Perfect Donut has already been screened in Thailand and Japan, and the duo aims to debut it in the US next.

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