12 June 2014

The Connecting Bridge (架け橋, 2013)

Japan has the most advanced early warning system for earthquakes and tsunami in the world, but that did not prevent 15,885 people from losing their lives in Tōhoku following the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded.  Many of these fatalities were caused by inadequate local knowledge (see: Reiko Hasegawa, IDDRI) and poor communication (See: S. Fraser, et al., Report). 

While the triple disaster of 3/11 was terrifying enough for the hearing population of Japan, imagine how exponentially more terrifying it must have been for the deaf community.  It was exactly this thought that spurred deaf documentarian Ayako Imamura (Studio Aya) to pick up her camera and drive to Miyagi Prefecture to find out how the deaf community was coping in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami.  Her first stop was the Miyagi Deaf Association, led by Shoju Koizumi, who from their headquarters in Sendai immediately sprang into action to assist their 363 members. 

Imamura focuses her documentary film The Connecting Bridge: 3/11 That Wasn’t Heard (架け橋~聞こえなかった3.11 / Kakehashi - Kikoenakatta 3.11, 2013) on the heart-rending stories of some of those members who survived.  Although many of them had received warnings of the imminent earthquake on their cellphones, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake cellular communication went out of service.  Not only was this means of communication cut off, but deaf people were also unable to hear the tsunami warning sirens.  This meant that only those people who had thoughtful and concerned neighbours and family members were able to evacuate. 

In Iwanuma City, Imamura meets Teruo Sai and his wife, Naoko Sai, who for forty years have run a barbershop about 2 kilometres from the ocean.  The clock in their barbershop has stopped at the time of the earthquake.  Their shop is covered in mud and debris from the tsunami.  The Sais were unable to hear the announcements and by the time they realised that the tsunami was upon them it was too late to evacuate to the elementary school because the water was already rushing down the street.   Fortunately, they were able to survive on the second floor of their house. 

The Sais’ friends, Nobuko Kikuchi and her husband Tokichi Kikuchi, lost their home altogether.  All that remains is the foundation.  If their hearing neighbours had not taken the time to warn them, the Kikuchis would likely have perished along with their home.  The couple now live in an evacuation shelter.  As they are the only deaf people in the shelter, they find it very stressful because they never understand what is going on.  It soon becomes evident that the biggest communication problem is that the deaf are often too shy – or in a very Japanese way unwilling to inconvenience others – to let people know what their special needs are.  As deafness is not a visible disability, the hearing community often does not notice that there is a communication failure. 

I was reminded while watching The Connecting Bridge of something Marlee Matlin, the Oscar-winning deaf actress once said: “I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams.” (Source: Business Week, May 22, 2001).  This also appears to be the mission of Ayako Imamura, who hopes that by telling the stories of deaf people to inspire hearing people to take notice and to help build bridges between the hearing and the deaf communities. 

Imamura is not an objective filmmaker but a subjective one who really cares about the people she is filming.  The strong bond that she develops with the subjects of her film becomes evident when Mrs. Kikuchi becomes overwhelmed with emotion and Imamura steps in to embrace her.  The confusion and fear felt by these survivors is truly moving – particularly the story of Enao Kato, an elderly gentleman who never learned how to read during his wartime childhood.  This means that he is unable to read the instruction manuals for his new property in the evacuation shelter until Mr. Koizumi comes to assist him.

Koizumi is the strongest “connecting bridge” in this film, which is why it is so tragic in the middle of the film when he is struck down by a stroke.  His determination to recover from his stroke so that he can return to helping others in his community is truly inspiring.  The small acts of kindness depicted in the film, from the young volunteers trying to learn basic signs, to the barbershop customer who waits for the Sais to reopen before getting his hair cut again, are a reminder of how little it takes to reach out to others in our own neighbourhoods to make them feel understood and valued.  Not only can thinking of the needs of others spread good will, but when disaster strikes it can also save lives. 

Notes from the Q+A with Ayako Imamura (post-screening at Nippon Connection 2014)

  • Imamura bonded with Koizumi, the head of the Miyagi Deaf Association, over a shared love of beer.  It also turned out that Koizumi’s hearing daughter is the exact same age as Imamura and Koizumi himself is the same age as Imamura’s own father, so they bonded over this coincidence as well.
  • Regarding the soundtrack:  someone asked why she had used a male narrator when she, the director, is female.  Imamura responded that she chose a male narrator because the central story for her was that of Koizumi.  His own personal story begins and ends the film, and without him she would never had met the people he and the Miyagi Deaf Association were assisting. 
  • Regarding the music:  The closing of the film features the song “Not Alone” (1人じゃない / Hitori ja nai) by Kazuhiro Kojima quite prominently.  Imamura chose this song because she liked the lyrics so much and felt that they fit the message she was trying to get across with her film.  [It did not come up in the Q+A but I should note that Kazuhiro Kojima wrote the song “Not Alone” for the survivors of the Tōhoku disaster so its meaning resonates quite deeply for a Japanese audience (See: Vimeo).  Kojima is also the male narrator of the film.]
  • Imamura’s film training in the States was actually on film, so she taught herself how to use digital technology. 
  • Imamura expressed her fear of communicating with people who do not know how to sign.  Through her documentaries she has learned from other members of the deaf community about how to overcome these fears.  In particular, she mentioned how inspirational Tatsuro Ota, the surf shop owner who was the subject of her documentary Coffee and Pencil (珈琲とエンピツ, 2011) has been to her in the way that he builds communication bridges between himself and his hearing customers. 
  • Imamura’s current documentary project will profile a deaf family. 

Interview with Ayako Imamura

After the Q+A at Nippon Connection 2014, I had a chance to interview Imamura with the assistance of American ASL interpreter Joanna Martin who was flown in from Berlin for The Connecting Bridge’s German premiere.  You can see the amazing Joanna at work on YouTube interpreting an event with Berlin-based American author Michael Lederer into DGS (German Sign Language / Deutsche Gebärdensprache).  Imamura’s mother was also on hand for assistance with JSL (Japanese Sign Language /日本手話 / Nihon Shuwa).  15 years ago, Imamura spent a year studying filmmaking in the States and learned ASL while she was there (there were no courses in ASL available to her in Japan at that time).  She teaches at a school for the deaf in Japan which has close ties with a school in Manitoba (Anglophone Canadians also use ASL).

Having grown up in Canada with co-workers and Easter Seals campers whose primary language was ASL, I was full of questions for Imamura about the differences between North American and Japanese deaf culture.  Some interesting facts:
  • Japan was slow to introduce universal education for its deaf population.  As a result, many elderly people did not learn to read and write or to do standard JSL until later in life.  Although Imamura was fuzzy on the dates, she had the impression that until about 30 years ago it was challenging for deaf people to receive a full education. 
  • When Imamura went to university, it was difficult for her to get assistance with note-taking, etc.  This was in stark contrast to her experience at California State University, Northridge, which has a strong deaf community (they are home to the National Center on Deafness).  Her experience in the United States seemed to inspire her to fight for more rights in Japan.  I noticed on the website of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf that sign language did not get officially recognized as a language by the Japanese federal government until 2011!! 
  • When Imamura was growing up in the 1980s, closed captioned was not yet available for the deaf community.  As a result, she was bored by anime and other television series because she did not understand what was going on.  Her saving grace was the introduction of video technology.  Although most foreign films and series shown on TV in Japan are dubbed, they have a subbing culture for cinema.  Imamura’s father picked up E.T. (1982) from the video store for her when she was little and she loved it.  Her early movie education was mainly foreign films because they were the only ones with subtitles when she was growing up.  The irony was not lost on Imamura that her native land’s movie and television culture was foreign to her because they did not use closed captioning.
  • Modern technology (e-mail, text messaging, etc. has made communication between the deaf and hearing communities a lot easier but there is a major generation gap for elderly people who find new technology challenging.   Many of them still use faxes for long distance communication. 
  • It was clear from the context in The Connecting Bridge that Imamura would have come into contact with the stories of many of the Miyagi Deaf Association’s 363 members, so I asked her how she selected which people to use in the documentary.  She told me that she focused on the stories of survivors.  A lot of deaf people did not survive the disaster and the grief of their families was too fresh for her to intrude on their lives.  There were also many survivors who felt uncomfortable with the presence of a camera / a stranger documenting their difficult circumstances.  So, the people that feature in the films were the ones who opened themselves up to Imamura --- I could really feel when watching the film that the director came to care for the individuals she was recording, and that this friendship would likely continue after the film was done.
  • The subtitles are very prominent in this film.  Imamura chose white with black outline for the narrator.  Blue with white outline is used when men are speaking and red with white outline when women are speaking. 

The Connecting Bridge: 3/11 That Wasn’t Heard
Kakehashi - Kikoenakatta 3.11
Studio Aya, 74 min.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

11 June 2014

RongRong & Inri’s "Tsumari Story" at Mizuma Art Gallery

June 11 (Wed.) - July 12 (Sat.) 2014/ 11:00-19:00
closed on Sun. Mon. and Holidays

Opening this evening, Mizuma Art Gallery is presenting a solo exhibition of the Chinese-Japanese artistic team RongRong & Inri (荣荣和映里). 

RongRong (b. 1968) is a Chinese photographer from Fujian Province who made a name for himself in the 1990s for his portraits of life in the East Village of Beijing.  Inri (b. 1973), who is from Kanagawa, began her career as a portrait photographer for a Japanese newspaper before pursuing an independent career starting in 1997.  Since meeting in 2000, this husband and wife team have become known for their collaborations together. 

RongRong & Inri are based in Beijing but have exhibited their work together worldwide. In 2007, they established the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing’s Caochangdi District - the first private art centre in China dedicated to photography. They continue to be at the centre of Beijing’s photographic art world.  For example, since 2010 they have been organizers of the Caochangdi PhotoSpring Festival in collaboration with Arles International Photography Festival in Southern France. In recent years they have also held numerous exhibitions in Japan: they held a solo show at Shiseido Gallery (2011), participated in the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (2012), and their works have also been acclaimed as part of last years ‘LOVE’ exhibition at the Mori Art Museum and in the collection exhibition of Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

This exhibition will revisit work shown in 2012 at Echigo-Tsumari, with the addition of new pieces created this year. In Tsumari Story they will use experimental forms of prints to exhibit their work. If one compares the location of Tsumari in Niigata Prefecture, adjacent to the Sea of Japan, this is a region markedly different to the Pacific Ocean side of the country. Perhaps because its transport network was comparatively late to upgrade, it has somewhat escaped the homogenization effected by globalization. Even today, the unique characteristics of its culture remain prominent. During its long winters, large volumes of white snow may totally cut off road access. There, time flows according to its own rhythm, allowing for the creation of unique stories.

It has been suggested that the origin of the name of this mountainous region of Niigata lies in the phrase “dontzumari” (meaning ‘dead end’, or ‘impasse’), which takes it beyond a place name to being an aspect of Japanese culture - or possibly a symbol for the whole of Japan, existing as a chain of islands surrounded by the sea. “It is only once you have escaped everything and you reach the final impasse, that you find the love you were searching for”: this artwork was created in a place in which such folklore as this remains.  As such, in today’s ever-shrinking world of increasing homogenization, perhaps this work bears the power to leave behind a unique and deep impression.

In the encounter of a man and woman and their children, RongRong & Inri’s photographs have at the centre of their creative process “the circle of life”.  Within their tales, perhaps we may feel a premonition of the future that is to come. In this age of growing awareness of the land on which we live, the Mizuma Art Gallery warmly invites you to view the exhibition of RongRong & Inri’s story.

This post is an edited version of a press release by Mizuma Art Gallery.  For more on Rong Rong & Inri see their profile on Art Speak China.

cmmhotes 2014

10 June 2014

The Sakuramoto Broom Workshop (櫻本箒製作所, 2012)

When I first moved to Japan from Canada in 2000, I was struck by the prevalence of traditional brooms made of straw or reeds used not only in homes but by city workers cleaning the streets.  Called “hōki” (/ほうき), hand-made brooms of bamboo reed and millet straw are considered the best way to clean tatami mats.  Due to modernisation, broom-making workshops have become rarer, but there are still many people who continue this traditional handicraft.  In her graduate film from Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai class of 2012), animator Aya Tsugehata chose the setting of a traditional broom-making workshop.

The Sakuramoto Broom Workshop (櫻本箒製作所 / Sakuramoto Hōki Seisakusho, 2012), like Tsugehata’s first year Geidai film Imamura Store (今村商店 / Imamura shōten, 2011) – click here to read my review of it – is based on a real space and the artisans who work and live there.  In fact, at Nippon Connection 2013, Prof. Mitsuko Okamoto described Tsugehata’s puppet animation as examples of “animation documentary” because of her use of documentary recorded sound.  The Sakuramoto Broom Workshop is based on the workshop of the same name which is run by the elderly couple Kakutarō and Setsuko Sakuramoto.  There is no dialogue in this film, but the sound effects were recorded in their workshop as well as in Murai’s Broom Works and Yoneda’s Broom Shop. 

The age of the Sakuramotos is established before we even see Tsugehata’s puppets of them by a series of shots showing the absence of modern conveniences in the workshop.  An ancient electric stand-alone electric heater, a traditional tray bearing tea for two, a pair of zabuton (floor cushions) are the meagre creature comforts in this traditional Japanese space.  Outside, brooms lean against the building, drying in the sun.  Inside, the husband and wife face each other on the barren wood floor, kneeling on zabuton as they work.  The wife makes small bundles of straw, tightening them with a rope and tying them together with a short piece of wire.  Her husband then takes these bundles and weaves them into the shape of a broom using thread to bind them. 

There is a sense of harmony between these two individuals and one senses that they have sat here for decades, performing these daily tasks.  They work with the ease and steadiness of experts, until the husband notices a subtle difference in his wife’s performance.  Glancing down, he notices that one of the bundles is not as neatly done as the others, as if his wife had struggled with the task.  Later that night, the wife wanders out of her bed in their neighbouring home and back into the workshop.  Concerned for her well-being, the husband follows to find her back at work binding straw.  One can deduce from the subtle visual storytelling that the wife is likely suffering from the early signs of dementia.  The film expresses a feeling of melancholy that this couple’s productive life together is entering its twilight years. 

Tsugehata’s style of storytelling is reminiscent of that of the legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in its use of a series of cutaways to tell the story not only of the characters themselves, but also of the Japanese space.  Like Ozu, many shots are taken from a low angle, such as the view of the woman from behind as she kneels on the floor.  I was reminded of Tokyo Story (1953), in particular, in the way that Tsugehata depicts harmony between an elderly husband and wife.  In doing online research for this post, I discovered a short interview with Tsugehata in the run-up to graduation in 2012, where she says that she “finally saw the works of Yasujiro Ozu” in the past year.  There is no context or follow-up question to this, but it suggests that someone must have recommended Ozu to her.  Her first year Geidai film, Imamura Store, was shot in a similar way, but I have not seen any of the work she did as an undergraduate so it is hard to judge if she naturally adopted an Ozu-like aesthetic before seeing his work.  As Ozu’s aesthetic was, for him, a practical response to shooting Japanese spaces, it is highly possible that Tsugehata did the same.  It seems likely that seeing Ozu’s work may have helped her to hone her cinematographic approach to these spaces further.  Tsugehata’s use of puppet animation to record people and spaces from her hometown is certainly unique and I very much look forward to seeing more work from her. 

This is an auteurist work in that Tsugehata not only directed the films, but also designed the puppets, sets, lighting, wrote the screenplay, did the cinematography, and edited the film herself.  Music was composed for the film by Keisuke Kimoto and the sound design was by Choi Woong.

Aya Tsugehata (告畑綾, b. 1987) is an up-and-coming stop motion animator from Saitama Prefecture.  She graduated from Tama Art University in 2010 and then continued to develop her puppet animation skills under the supervision of Yūichi Itō (伊藤有壱, b.1962) at Tokyo University of the Arts. This film can be found on the DVD Geidai Animation: 3rd Graduate Works 2012.  See behind-the-scenes photos at the Geidai 03 Talk blog and learn more about traditional Japanese broom-making at Tokyo Chuo Net.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014


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