The Shiranui Sea, dir. Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1975 (courtesy Siglo, Inc.)

In 1963, ahead of the Summer Olympics taking place in the city the next year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police commissioned a documentary to spread awareness about safe driving practices. What director Noriaki Tsuchimoto delivered was instead a quietly furious jeremiad against the exploitative and frequently unsafe working conditions of the city’s taxi drivers. On the Road: A Document combines an early verité observational approach with an almost impressionistic sensibility. While it includes footage of union meetings and demonstrations, much of it puts the audience in the driver’s place, as it shows street sights around Tokyo, a montage of mundane occurrences jarred by harrowing accidents. The film’s gritty immediacy is enough to make viewers reflexively tense their hands around a nonexistent steering wheel. The police were aghast and never exhibited On the Road. Undaunted, Tsuchimoto would go on to have a career making documentaries in a defiant, compassionate spirit.

Tsuchimoto is a hugely influential figure in the Japanese documentary world, but outside of the country he is not well known. A retrospective of the director’s career at the Museum of the Moving Image, simply titled Noriaki Tsuchimoto, is the first of its kind in the United States. The series is an impressive work of curation, particularly in obtaining 16mm or 35mm prints of most of the films. Some of the movies have never screened in the US before.

At the time of On the Road, Tsuchimoto, in his mid-30s, had already had a tumultuous life even by the standards of his generational cohort, which had lived through World War II and the subsequent US occupation of Japan. At university he was active in the student union and Japanese Communist Party, joining the Mountain Village Underground — militants planning armed insurrection in the countryside. Before he could participate in any such uprising, he was arrested in 1952, and expelled from school the next year for his political activities. For a time, he could only find work with the Japan-China Friendship Society, until a chance encounter with an executive at Iwanami Productions led him to filmmaking. 

Student Chua Swee-Lin, dir. Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1965 (courtesy Kanatasha Co., Ltd.)

Iwanami was a new studio that made educational and informational films, mainly collaborating with the government and industrial clients. But as the 1950s wore on, it became an unlikely incubator for some of Japan’s most politically and aesthetically radical documentarians. Tsuchimoto and contemporaries like Shinsuke Ogawa honed an observational style of filmmaking similar to the cinema verité movement in the US and Europe, but separate from it and years before it came about. The directors formed the Blue Group; during regular meetings they compared techniques and exchanged ideas. During the ’60s, their individual films were a large component of Japan’s independent documentary scene. 

This was the climate in which Tsuchimoto made On the Road, and he faced similar friction with would-be backers during his next project, 1965’s Exchange Student Chua Swee-Lin. Initially commissioned by a television network, the network abandoned the film due to its material. Compelled by his subject, Tsuchimoto forged on, raising funds to finish it himself. Chua Swee-Lin was a Malaysian student in Japan facing deportation because of his left-wing beliefs. In this story, Tsuchimoto locates greater resonances around Japan’s still-tense relationship to the rest of Asia amid the decolonization period, given its former status as an imperial power. The director championed Swee-Lin, and the film worked to rally public support for the student. He was ultimately allowed to stay in Japan.

For 1969’s Prehistory of the Partisans, Tsuchimoto captured Japan’s mass student protests of 1968 and 1969 behind the scenes of the prolonged occupation of Kyodai University in Kyoto. But it was his next documentary that would set him on the course that solidified his legacy. In 1965, Tsuchimoto had made a TV film about the victims of Minamata disease, a terrible neurological condition caused by the Chisso Corporation dumping mercury into the local waters for decades. Though his crew went in with the best of intentions, Tsuchimoto was haunted by accusations from the community of gawking at and exploiting their plight. He eventually returned to try again, this time with the full cooperation of the town. 

The result, 1971’s Minamata: The Victims and Their World, was the first chapter in a multi-decade project that eventually encompassed more than a dozen features and shorts, each one revisiting and deepening Tsuchimoto’s look at Minamata and its people. He lived in the town for long stretches, becoming part of it. Through works like The Shiranui Sea (1975), about the fishing economy upended by the pollution, and Minamata Mural (1981), about married painters who make portraits of the victims, he continued to refine his blistering sense of observational humanism. Together, these films comprise a long-form, detailed rendering of a community continually evolving and reacting to a singular event. It is an epic lifelong documentary enterprise comparable to the Up series. Unlike that series, though, Tsuchimoto’s films have not received such acclaim and attention outside Japan. Hopefully this retrospective can shift that conversation.

The Minamata Mural, dir. Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1981 (courtesy Siglo, Inc.)
Minamata: The Victims and Their World, dir. Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1971 (courtesy Siglo, Inc.)
Portrait of Noriaki Tsuchimoto (courtesy Motoko Tsuchimoto)

Noriaki Tsuchimoto continues at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35 Ave, Astoria, Queens) through November 27.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.