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Noriaki Tsuchimoto: A Forgotten Cinema of Empathy

Noriaki Tsuchimoto: A Forgotten Cinema of Empathy

Like lazy cartographers, many Anglo-centric cinephiles seem comfortable only watching films brought to their attention via a few accepted currents, be they boutique home video labels, distribution companies, or even streaming services. While there are certainly more obvious blind spots in contemporary filmic circles that need to be addressed (such as a majority of India’s rich film history or work from Sub-Saharan Africa), New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image has proved that even Japan, one of cinema’s most represented countries, still has artistry yet to be properly recognized.

In a forthcoming retrospective running from November 12th through the 27th, MOMI is exhibiting the first stateside career-spanning retrospective of Noriaki Tsuchimoto, a Japanese non-fiction filmmaker largely concerned with the concealed consequences of post-WWII modernization, both in his home country and abroad. Tsuchimoto’s militantly leftist political dogma guided the focus of his camera: industrial pollution, urban modernization, colonialism, and exploitation of the working class. Across the 12-film program, Tsuchimoto’s work critiques these subjects while still balancing a rigorous journalistic sensibility and a deep, piercing humanism — his camera alternating as both witness and active participant.

Tsuchimoto’s most renowned target was the industrial poisoning of Minamata Bay, a small inlet in southern Japan encircled by small fishing villages. In what is surely one of the great ecological crimes of the 20th century, the Chisso Corporation dumped highly toxic methylmercury (a catalyst for fertilizer production) into the bay for a period starting as early as 1932 up until 1968. This chemical compound not only infected drinking waters but actively poisoned the surrounding areas’ primary source of sustenance — seafood. As the pollution intensified into the mid-50’s, thousands of innocent citizens (primarily of the working- and poverty-class) were afflicted with myriad symptoms: narrowness of vision/blindness, a decline in motor function control, and, regularly, a slow and painful death. Chisso, who had close ties to the Japanese government and their colonization of Korea, refused to acknowledge any culpability until legally compelled to by a Japanese court in 1968. Around this time, a young Tsuchimoto, only a few years out from directing his first shorts, traveled to the village with one purpose in mind: to amplify the voices of the suffering who had been ignored, mistreated, and discarded. Minamata and its surrounding areas became a major focal point for the filmmaker who, over the course of the next 40 years, would make no less than ten films about the lasting effects of the corporation’s devastating pollution.

The Shiranui Sea

The Shiranui Sea

Here in this retrospective, five of the films center on Minamata, with three forming a loose trilogy: Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971), Minamata Revolt: A People’s Quest for Life (1973) and The Shiranui Sea (1975), each highly distinct but all of exemplary quality. The Victims and Their World is possibly the most conventional work here, but that does not in any way dull the impact of seeing a tragedy of this depth with clear, honest eyes. Tsuchimoto’s camera never shies away from the most sickening details, and yet strikes a balance akin to Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters (2019) — listening at length to victims’ day-to-day reality while adequately capturing the much larger scope of the issue at hand. Why this film has not been widely canonized should be greatly questioned, as it is both a forerunner for “social issue” docs of the subsequent three decades and an important document in the understanding of disabled peoples onscreen. Of significant note for viewers is that the Museum is showing an archival print of the film, 27 minutes longer than any version available internationally or on the Web.

One of the more exciting aspects about this filmmaker’s work is that each film is so fully formed, so complete of a document that it may be hard to see in advance how brilliantly Tsuchimoto’s films play off each other. Audience members may leave The Victims and Their World thinking they have likely seen the definitive document of the Minamata tragedy (including one of the most gloriously cathartic climaxes in non-fiction cinema). But there is always more than initially meets the eye when it comes to Tsuchimoto’s films, and his next work, Minamata Revolt, only brings viewers deeper into this heart-decimating catalog of disasters. This second film of the trilogy follows as a brigade of victims and victims’ family members who sit down at the negotiating table (literally) with the president of Chisso and his chief council to discuss the terms of reparations, as compelled to by the aforementioned Japanese court. The subsequent two hours provide some of the most bracing, theatrical, and raw footage shot in any genre of film, as each victim actively makes their plea for the closest form of humanity available to them: financial compensation. Nearly every scene of this film happens in a single conference room with dozens of victims alternately pleading, screaming, and making a call for empathy to the president of Chisso. Minamata Revolt is the ideal window into the emotional hellscape present in this situation — Tsuchimoto captures the testimony of the suffering present on each person’s face, as he patiently listens to the way in which they have been personally harmed by forces out of their control. It’s no surprise that Claude Lanzmann, the maker of Shoah (1985), was a fan of Noriaki Tsuchimoto: both are keen observers to the pain capable of being hidden underneath the architecture of the human face. Here the camera stays put, listening, watching, and even occasionally receiving direct addresses by victims requesting nothing more than being seen as humans worth the most basic level of empathy. Minamata Revolt is an unrelenting, thrilling document of real people standing up for their own worth, and its assemblage of footage provides the deepest form of empathy possible — a receptive ear and an amplification of discarded voices and bodies, betrayed by the very institutions created to protect them. Rarely, if ever, are cinemagoers granted such uninhibited access to conversations of pain, trauma, and reparations. Opportunities like this should not be passed over easily.  

Minamata Revolt: A People's Quest for Life

Figure 2 Minamata Revolt: A People’s Quest for Life

After such a furious and passionate document, Tsuchimoto’s approach to Minamata changes: the finale to the “Minamata Trilogy,” The Shinarui Sea (1975), is significantly more reflective and contemplative. As victims start receiving state-mandated payments and have spent more time adjusting to the new realities of bodies with Minamata Disease, the tone on camera is more placid, even if the situation is still as dire as the previous two entries. There is an overwhelming understanding of this situation as it is, not acceptance per se, but recognition of the unlikelihood of change. With it, Tsuchimoto’s form becomes more relaxed and the film changes in unexpected ways — open-ended conversations last longer and passages of fishing and the sea itself start to populate the runtime. While these three films were all released within a few years of each other, the production of this trilogy ran nearly seven years and with it, Tsuchimoto’s techniques matured. Shinarui provides more historical context, and Tsuchimoto himself starts to creep more into frame (his hair and omnipresent sunglasses make occasional appearances in his films up until now but here, he and his crew start regularly appearing on screen). In becoming more present and quotidian, the empathy being transferred through the camera only deepens. We watch as elderly wait outside a doctor’s office three hours before it opens just so they can get proper treatment, or as a disabled teenager shares his fears that his caretakers fail to see him as an adult. The long-term pain, of lives altered or of lives lost, becomes more acutely realized as time marches forward and Tsuchimoto’s camera solemnly adjusts with this change in attitude.

The Shiranui Sea

The Shiranui Sea

Despite variances from film to film, there is one throughline in all the Minamata works: the unwavering stoutness of those afflicted by this disease — their unending pursuit of justice, the perseverance in the face of their tribulations, and their infinite resourcefulness in finding a way to carry on. Much like Barbara Kopple’s American classic Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) and its depiction of coal miners during a 13-month strike, this recognition and appreciation of “ordinary” bravery taps into a specific vein that resonates strongest through a non-fiction lens. It’s an affirmation that these people exist and are changing their world right before the viewer’s eyes. This spirit carries over to the other Minamata-based works to be shown in this retrospective, “My Town, My Youth” (1978) and The Minamata Mural (1981) — two very different films about art’s capacity for raising awareness, generating empathy, and providing a vessel for remembrance. “My Town, My Youth” follows a group of people from Minamata as they try to organize a concert for victims of the disease residing in the town’s permanent rehab clinic. The 43-minute film is split between scenes of community building and the eventual performance, as people within the town make sure that their plight is not so easily removed from the national spotlight. Similarly, The Minamata Mural follows a married duo of artists who alternate between making a large-scale impressionistic mural ruminating on the horrors of the disease and making individual in-person portraits of people with Minamata Disease. Much like the concert organized a few years prior, these works of art (both the artists’ paintings and Tsuchimoto’s film) seem to serve a dual purpose: to forge trust, intimacy, and community between those participating; and to ensure those who are most vulnerable will never stray away from the collective attention of the public.

Other works of note in this retro are Tsuchimoto’s first films: “Discover Japan: Tokyo Metropolis” (1962) and “On the Road: A Document” (1964), which begin like city symphonies charting the sprawling expansion of Tokyo but quickly reveal that these “steps forward” often leave large swaths of people adrift in their wake. Even among some of his earliest work, Tsuchimoto’s exacting rigor intentionally juxtaposes endless construction sites, unfinished roads, and people seemingly lost in the shuffle. A pair of movies also highlight a growing unrest from young Japanese leftists with the establishment, whether that be over the unjust expulsion of a foreign-born student (“Exchange Student Chua Swee-Lin” [1965]) or a portrait of a large-scale student protest in the making (Prehistory of the Partisans [1969]). Finally, a third set of films in the retrospective show that his sympathies were not only limited to that of his countrymen. Both The World of the Siberians (1968) and Afghan Spring (1989), filmed in the USSR and Afghanistan respectively, find strength in collectivism far from Tsuchimoto’s homeland.

“On the Road: A Document”

While each work is in its own way distinctly formalized, like any great filmmaker, Tsuchimoto’s oeuvre has a compounding effect. The causality and repercussions of the 20th century start manifesting in every corner of every frame and his patience behind the camera yields rich material to digest in every scene. Over these dozen films, a portrait of a rare filmmaker emerges — one whose intellect and intuition behind the camera is met equally with a capacity for compassion and understanding. Tsuchimoto’s films represent an exciting possibility of what great non-fiction cinema can be: both a reflection of who we are now and a blueprint of how we can materially improve the world of those around us.

Top image: The Shiranui Sea

The Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective on Noriaki Tsuchimoto takes place between November 12th and the 27th. 

About The Author

Jason Miller

Jason Miller is a film lover and occasional writer. He has written for MUBI Notebook and Brooklyn Magazine. When not in a cinema, he is likely watching a Broncos game or talking about Charli XCX.

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