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June 2019, arsenal cinema

Contested Grounds: Films by Shinsuke Ogawa and Ogawa Pro


Ogawa Pro, the filmmaking collective set up by the Japanese filmmaker Shinsuke Ogawa (1936–1992), is unique in the history of film: For over 25 years, the collective’s members lived and worked together, creating an unrivaled oeuvre that tells of political resistance as well as of traditions in remote mountain villages. Shinsuke Ogawa, who had already made films about the student movement, found his first major field of activity in 1966 in Sanrizuka, near Tokyo, as the government was planning to build Narita International Airport, which would involve appropriating the land of many local residents who would have to be resettled. Like many other left-wing activists, the collective joined in the protests that would last many years, making several films, in which political and cinematic commitment merge. This alternative way of filmmaking was also reflected in the distribution. All over Japan, especially founded committees organized screenings and created a network of supporters. After living among the local residents for many years, the filmmakers shifted their focus to explore rural life in more detail. Ogawa saw the origins of the stubborn resistance to the state authorities in the toughness of peasant life, in the the rootedness in nature and in a historical past. So Ogawa Pro moved further north to a village in Yamagata Prefecture and with great care turned its focus to agriculture, especially rice farming. The first films, documents of a culture understood to be on the way to extinction, emerged after years of communal life. It was an “organic” form of filmmaking that required a particular relationship between those filming and what was being filmed. The approach had its contradictions: Financial stability was impossible because of the unrestricted personal involvement and most of the collective’s members were denied their own artistic practice because of Ogawa’s charismatic personality. We are screening seven Ogawa Pro films as well as others about the collective.

SANRIZUKA – HETA BURAKU (Sanrizuka – Heta Village, Shinsuke Ogawa, Japan 1973, 4.6., guest: Ricardo Matos Cabo & 13.6.) A turning point in Ogawa’s filmmaking: After spending many years documenting the protests and escalating violence in Sanrizuka, the collective found itself in a changed political landscape and felt the need to approach the realities of village life from a different angle and to seek the origin of the rural force of resistance in local history. The specific rural sense of time crystalized itself as a subject of its own in the deep immersion in everyday life in the village of Heta and long discussions with locals about the protests and their impact.

NIHON KAIHO SENSEN – SANRIZUKA NO NATSU (The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan – Summer in Sanrizuka, Shinsuke Ogawa, Japan 1968, 5.6.) was the first of seven films about the extraordinary resistance to Narita Airport that Ogawa made with the collective set up in 1968. While some families agreed to sell their land, many others refused its appropriation and became heavily involved in the protests against the airport, supported by many students. The camera was positioned right in the midst of the clashes     between the police and the protestors, closely filming heated debates and conveying the chaos in a corresponding cinematic form. A militant manifesto of political activism that ends with an aerial view of the fields accompanied by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

EIGA-ZUKURI TO MURA E NO MICHI (Filmmaking and the Way to the Village, Katsuhiko Fukuda, Japan 1973, 5.6.) Made by the Ogawa Pro member Katsuhiko Fukuda as HETA VILLAGE was in the completion phase, this film gives an insider’s view of the collective’s  singular working methods and offers an insight into the single steps of film production. In the many discussions, the group processes are made visible and the question of authorship in a collective working relationship is posed. Ogawa was not satisfied with the film, which was only screened after his death.

HARE TO KE – DAS BESONDERE UND DER ALLTAG (Regina Ulwer, FRG 1988, 7.6., in the presence of Regina Ulwer) In her documentary, Regina Ulwer explores Ogawa Pro’s films and the collective’s way of living and working together. She depicts Ogawa and the whole team as they go about their everyday lives, showing how affectionate the relationship with the villagers in Magino is, and filming them as they cook and eat together, or discuss camera angles and film projects. But it is the charisma and sheer unlimited energy of Shinsuke Ogawa that come most clearly to the fore. In the film, the female farmers of Sanrizuka talk of what the protests mean for their self-confidence as women, while the villagers of Magino relate legends and ex-members of Ogawa Pro particularly recall the problems, such as financial precarity, the problematic role of women, who in essence were reduced to reproductive works, and the impossibility of having a family life within the collective.

MANZAN BENIGAKI (Red Persimmons, Ogawa Shinsuke, Xiaolian Peng, Japan 1984/2001, 9. & 20.6.) In Yamagata, the eponymous red persimmons (the Japanese title translates as ‘The whole mountain is full of red persimmons’) are a delicacy. After the death of Ogawa, the Chinese film director Xiaolin Peng, who had been friends with him since the 1980s, used footage originally intended for MAGINO-MURA MONOGATARI, Ogawa’s composition notes and some additional new material to complete the film. The result features portraits of the people who have developed tools and implements to harvest the shiny fruit, which they also sell and the amusing stories that they tell. Peng stood back as a director in order to stay as true as possible to Ogawa’s vision. The film begins with the viewing of footage and closes with photos of the protagonists who have since died, including Ogawa himself at the very end.

NIPPON KOKU: FURUYASHIKI-MURA (“Nippon”: Furuyashiki Village, Shinsuke Ogawa, Japan 1982, 11.6., Introduction: Philip Widmann) In the early 1980s, the collective had already been living in northern Japan for some time and was working on film projects about agriculture. One summer, a cold spell destroyed the rice crop in the mountain village of Furuzashiki. With great curiosity and scientific precision, the team conducted experiments with cold air, creating a relief map of the area and finding evidence of Japan’s entire history in samples of soil. The first half of the film uses conventions of scientific filmmaking, whereas the second half delves into the history of the village, which comprises merely  eight households but whose past and present reflect those of the country as a whole. In the villagers’ stories, personal and collective history merge, as do the legends handed down over the ages with those of the present.

SANRIZUKA NI IKIRU (The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories, Koshiro Otsu, Haruhiko Daishima, Japan 2014, 14.6.) Some 45 years after the intense protests against the construction of Narita Airport, the film director Haruhiko Daishima and Koshiro Otsu, who was the cameraman for the first Sanrizuka films, returned to the surrounding villages. They found just a few farmers who continued to cultivate their fields despite the deafening noise of the planes and thus continued their resistance on a small scale. Photos and footage of the past evoke the events of the past, which had such an impact on the local population.

OGAWA PURO HOMON-KI (A Visit to Ogawa Productions, Jun'ichiro Oshige, Japan 1981/1999, 20.6.) Nagisa Oshima visited Ogawa and his collective a few years after they had moved to Yamagata, conducting many discussions. These form the heart of this documentary about two symbolic figures of Japanese cinema - Ogawa and Oshima who were both at the peak of their artistic creativity - and about a unique film collective. A provisional version of the film was screened in 1981 before sinking into oblivion. A recut and expanded version of the film was shown at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 18 years later.

SANRIZUKA – DAINI TORIDE NO HITOBITO (Sanrizuka – Peasants of the Second Fortress, Shinsuke Ogawa, Japan 1971, 21.6.) In 1971, the farmers’ protests against the airport, which had been going on for five years already, took on different forms, becoming more forceful and fearless. The farmers used barricades to protect themselves from the brutality of the repressive state organs, building fortresses and digging tunnels under their own fields, in which they entrenched themselves. Women chained themselves to trees with their children. The collective, which had formed a close relationship with the locals by then, used epic imagery to depict the evictions and the bitter resistance to them, as well as filming the farmers expressing their anger and hope on camera.

SANRIDUKA NO IKARUS (The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories, Haruhiko Daishima, Japan 2017, 24.6.) Complementing the THE WAGES OF RESISTANCE, THE FALL OF ICARUS takes the viewpoint of left-wing students and activists, who found an effective means of being politically active in Narita. The protests challenged their tribute in the form of arrests and casualties, which still have an impact today.

SENNEN KIZAMI NO HIDOKEI – MAGINO-MURA MONOGATARI (The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches – The Magino Village Story, Shinsuke Ogawa, Japan 1986, 28.6.) In this monumental film that lasts almost four hours and was made over a period of over 10 years, all the themes that characterize Ogawa’s oeuvre come together: Resistance against the authorities, the relationship between farmers and land, a village’s sense of time which follows its own rules and the importance of the oral transmission of local knowledge. This exploration of peasant culture in the village of Magino and its deeply-rooted history combines documentary footage with fictional scenes, merging past, present and mythology. Time is measured according to growth period of rice, a far cry from the logic of exploitation and capitalism. This unique film was screened in a temporary cinema built especially in Kyoto from wood, straw and earth.

DEVOTION: A FILM ABOUT OGAWA PRODUCTIONS (Barbara Hammer, USA/Japan 2000, 29.6.) Barbara Hammer, who died recently and was one of the most important protagonists of experimental queer cinema, discovered Ogawa’s films at a documentary festival in Yamagata. Her interest in the collective coincided with a virulent debate about Ogawa’s legacy. She placed the complex connections, the hierarchies and dependencies, the relationships between the sexes and Ogawa’s paradoxical personality at the center of her film. The numerous discussions with members of Ogawa Pro create a collective multi-voice narrative and an overall picture that is full of contradictions. (al)

A Film Feld Forschung project as part of “Archive außer sich”. Thank you to the Japan Foundation, the Athénée Français Cultural Center and Asako Fujioka.