Work, life, and ‘pure’ love
When I started shooting MENTAL (Observational Film #2, 2008) at Chorale Okayama, a small outpatient mental clinic, I was mostly interested in the lives of the patients there. I didn’t really pay too much attention to the old doctor who always looked sleepy listening to his patients in his consultation room. However, I soon realised that the doctor received enormous trust and love from his patients, as if he were a god or Buddha. I started wondering who this veteran psychiatrist, Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, really was.
I didn’t discover his hidden greatness until I started editing MENTAL. Observing how he counsels his patients, I realised that every word and action he makes is a manifestation of his therapeutic strategy. I also noticed that everything he does is rooted in his quiet compassion towards his patients. I thought that perhaps one day I should make a documentary on this extraordinary doctor. Ten years have passed since then.
In February 2018, I learned that Dr. Yamamoto, who was turning 82, was finally retiring from the clinical practice at the end of March. That meant that I needed to start rolling the camera immediately if I wanted to make a film about him. I was in the middle of promoting my new film INLAND SEA in Tokyo, but I decided to commute to Okayama by bullet train whenever I had time to shoot. As is always the case, I had no idea what kind of film I was making. So, the process of making this film was inevitably based on my “10 Commandments,” a set of rules I impose on myself.
Shooting Dr. Yamamoto, a self-described workaholic, I immediately felt that for him, mental healthcare was his life. His work defined who Masatomo Yamamoto was. It gave him a reason to live. And he was about to let that go.
When Yamamoto becomes just a human being without a title or role as a doctor, how will he live? Being a workaholic myself, I was really curious. The path he is about to take is the one I will need to take one day. It is actually a universal path that many people must experience some day. While I was shooting Yamamoto with such a point of view, another protagonist emerged: Yoshiko Yamamoto, his wife. The film turned out to be about the couple rather than the doctor. As a result, I unexpectedly made a film about “pure love.” (Kazuhiro Soda)
The Ten Commandments of Kazuhiro Soda
1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Roll the camera yourself.
5 Shoot for as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, superimposed titles, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.
Interview with Kazuhiro Soda: “There is no such thing as a perfect distance as a filmmaker”
SEISHIN O is the ninth part of your "Observational Films" – a series of documentaries you started in 2007 with the film CAMPAIGN. You make the films according to the rules you set up for yourself, the 10 Commandments. How did you come up with these 10 rules?
The 10 Commandments is a set of rules I conceived so that my mind could be open to the unexpected and to make discoveries without being locked up in my own preconception. At the beginning of my career, I used to make a lot of documentaries for NHK, the Japanese public TV network. I did it for about 7 years and became quite frustrated with the way I was forced to make the programmes for them.
One of the problems I had was that I was required to do a lot of research before shooting in order to write detailed scripts which had a beginning, middle, and end. I was even forced to write narration before shooting! And once the script was approved by the hierarchy of the TV station, it was almost impossible to change the course of the programme even if you encountered and discovered something contradictory during filming. But you would always see something totally different or more interesting than the script you wrote, and if you shot it and went back, they would scream at you. I thought it was contrary to the idea of what a documentary is supposed to be. If you know everything beforehand, why bother to make a documentary?
So, my 10 Commandments came out of my reaction to working in TV. They are actually anti-TV commandments. If you flip all of my commandments, they become, "How to Make TV Documentaries".
SEISHIN O ties in with your film MENTAL (Observational Film #2), in which you already observed the work of Dr. Yamamoto. Other films of the series deal with theatre, the inhabitants of an island, and an oyster factory, to name just three examples. How do you choose your topics?
Since I don't do any research, I need to rely on my personal connections, encounters, and instinct. I shot CAMPAIGN because my former classmate Kazuhiko Yamauchi was running in an election and gave me full access to his political campaign. We shot OYSTER FACTORY because I and Kiyoko Kashiwagi, my wife and producer, became friends with local fishermen while on vacation in Ushimado. We met the protagonists of INLAND SEA on the street while we were shooting scenery shots for OYSTER FACTORY.
As you can see, my topics are not concept or theme-driven. I always encounter actual situations or people which intrigue me, and by filming and editing, I discover the themes of the film. Characters in my films are not tools to prove my themes or ideology.
The film is very intense and the viewer gets very close to the protagonists, Dr. Yamamoto and his wife Yoshiko Yamamoto. An almost friendly relationship between you and your protagonists is conveyed. How do you achieve a balance between closeness and necessary distance as a filmmaker?
Actually, I don't really balance or adjust my distance to my characters. Just like I try to be friendly and sincere to everybody I deal with in my daily life, I try my best to be friendly and sincere to the characters in my films. If we become close, that close relationship naturally shows in the film. If we are distant, that also shows in the film. There is no such thing as a perfect distance as a filmmaker. I just let it be.
The 10 Commandments of filmmaking that you established make it clear how essential freedom and independence are for your observational filmmaking. Yet there are material and organisational constraints. How do you finance your films?
As you can see in my 10 Commandments, it's my policy to pay for the production myself in order to be completely independent. Actually, I've never "pitched" my project to anybody because I don't even know what kind of film I'm making!
We use our own money to shoot, edit, and finish the film. We get the money back by selling our films to the distributors, collecting box office and screening fees, etc. We use the money generated by our films to make more films and to live. The process is very self-sufficient and liberating. It allows me to be spontaneous, too, because I don't have to wait for my projects to be approved before shooting. I'm often amazed by the fact that we've been surviving like this for the past 15 years, though.
The producer of your films is your wife Kiyoko Kashiwagi, with whom you work closely. How does this cooperation work? How do you discuss the choice of the settings and later the editing?
Kiyoko is a dancer, choreographer, and tai-chi player and has never been trained as a filmmaker. But we share a taste in films and arts in general, so we feel very comfortable working together. Kiyoko is also a point person for many of my projects. I got to know the clinic of MENTAL through her mother Hiroko Kashiwagi. The protagonists of PEACE are her parents Hiroko and Toshio Kashiwagi. We shot OYSTER FACTORY and INLAND SEA in Ushimado because it’s Hiroko’s birth place.
Starting with OYSTER FACTORY, Kiyoko started getting more involved with the shooting process, so she even got into the frame of the films, becoming an important sub-character. I like this development because it happened very naturally. It also clearly shows that we are participant-observers.
During the editing process, every time I come up with a new rough cut, we watch it together and discuss it. I call her “my secret editor”. We don’t agree on everything, but I don’t ignore what she says on my cuts because I trust her as a fellow artist.
(Interview: Gabriela Seidel-Hollaender, January 2020)