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Carolin Weidner: Your films employ quite a minimalistic approach. Besides Kiyoko Kashiwagi, your wife and producer who often joins you during shooting, it’s otherwise only you. But it still seems that you are responsible for a lot of things. So I was wondering how you prepare your films.

Kazuhiro Soda: There’s no preparation at all. That’s my preparation. First, I usually don’t have any intention to make something into a film, which was the case here too. We lived in New York for 27 years and moved to Ushimado three years ago. There are so many street cats in Ushimado. There is this cat activist called Tecchan there, who is protecting these cats. And we became friends with Tecchan and also the local cats. So Kiyoko started helping him take care of the cats and carry out the practice of TNR – trap, neuter and release. I didn’t have any intention of making this into a film, but I just started shooting with my camera. And I saw a possibility of turning it into a film. So I ended up shooting for a year.

CW: You are already known in the area, people know you as the documentary filmmaker. Does this help in gaining access, such as to the community gatherings? Or does it make it harder since people know that your films are shown abroad and are successful?

KS: When we shot KAKI KOUBA and MINATOMACHI in Ushimado, the fact Kiyoko’s mother is from that town helped us with shooting or gaining trust from local people. And after KAKI KOUBA and MINATOMACHI were screened everywhere in Japan, we kind of became known as filmmakers in this area. I think it was easier for us to gain trust from local people because of that.

Cats are very honest. They cannot pretend to be a character

CW: How do you approach your potential protagonists?

KS: Well, the secret is that you need to always be smiling. It really is that simple. I mean, I cannot look intimidating and I need to show that I’m trying to be friends with them. And that I have no bad intentions in terms of portraying them in a strange way. So I try to express that with my own body language and my facial expressions.

Kiyoko Kashiwagi: Me too. I’m always smiling, right next to the camera.

KS: But it has to be genuine though.

KK: Yes, exactly.

KS: You cannot really pretend that you’re friendly. But it’s coming truly from my heart, because I want our films to be good for everybody: good for people, good for cats and good for other beings. That’s our genuine feeling. And most of the time, people don’t say no to being on camera, that’s actually very rare. And if anybody says no, then I stop, of course, I don’t resist or explain or try to persuade.

Barbara Wurm: What about the cat’s reactions? Are they more honest? Do they understand when you’re just pretending to be friendly?

KS: Cats are very honest. They cannot pretend to be a character. They always look into the camera only if they want to. So there were some cats I couldn’t really approach because they always ran away. So any of the cats who didn’t run away from us got into the film.

I think the space to accept or tolerate whatever is “irregular” in our society is getting smaller and smaller

BW: The film is a lot about dealing with others, whether animals or humans. This is basically the core of the film, which is also about understanding existence in general. But at what point did you make these comparisons between humans and cats?

KS: I noticed that the street cats are like the frontiers of nature because they still retain something of the wilderness. And if you observe people dealing with street cats, you are observing the relationship between human beings and nature in a sense, because cats are these frontiers. I noticed that early on when I started shooting.

CW: Your films also always say a lot about Japan on a subtle level. In this case, I had the feeling that both populations – the Japanese and the cats – are somehow connected. When you bear in mind that Japanese society is shrinking and the cats are being sterilised in your film, the same thing might happen to them as well – they will gradually disappear.

KS: Yes, it’s a parallel. The Japanese population is declining. And in Ushimado, most of the people are elderly and we don’t know what’s going to happen next in the ten years. Will we still have the town? We don’t know. It’s a really critical point actually. And the cat population too. It’s totally possible that cats could vanish from the streets. Street cats used to be taken to shelters and were put down, but nowadays people think it’s too cruel, so they introduced TNR to control their numbers. But if you fix all the street cats, it means you will have no next generation, so the cats won’t be around anymore on the streets. That’s the consequence of what we are doing right now. It’s actually a parallel, I think, the human population declining and the cat population declining. And it’s quite ironic that Gokogu is a shrine to the gods of fertility.

BW: When we were discussing the film, we also talked about the idea of dealing with migration in Japan since the cats are somehow migrating to Ushimado.

KS: I think the space to accept or tolerate whatever is “irregular” in our society is getting smaller and smaller. It’s shrinking. And I think the whole of society is becoming more regulated, more technologically sophisticated, I actually think it’s a worldwide trend. We can record everything and we can control everything. And as we become more capable of controlling everything, the room for irregularity shrinks. It’s a big tendency across the whole of our human society, and the way we deal with street cats kind of reflects that, I think. I remember when I was little, there were many street dogs around, but society couldn’t tolerate them anymore, so they caught every single one, and now there are no street dogs anymore. And now the same is happening even with cats.

For a long time, documentary film maintained this illusion that the observer can be invisible

CW: You work with your own set of rules called the “Ten Commandments of Observational Filmmaking”. The 7th in particular really stuck with me: “Do not set up a theme or a goal before editing.” How does that work? Are you really that purist when shooting?

KS: It’s more open than purist, I think. Because when I’m shooting, a lot of thoughts do, of course, come to mind. So I have some ideas. I’m probably dealing with this kind of issue through the film. But I don’t want to set it out in advance. I want to be open to new discoveries. So I refuse to set out the theme or goal before editing. Basically, what I do during the editing is to edit together whatever the most interesting or cinematic scenes are first, regardless of when they happened. And it doesn’t really matter if they fit to any concept or anything. Whatever is interesting, whatever is cinematic, I edit. And one by one, I put this scene first, and then this scene 2nd, 3rd, 4th, until I have around 70 interesting scenes, right? Then I put them together in one sequence. That becomes our first cut. And Kiyoko and I, we watch it together. And Kiyoko usually falls asleep …

KK: … because it’s not interesting, to be totally honest …

KS: … and I know it’s not working. So I work on the second cut, and we watch it together again, and we discuss what’s working, what’s not working. So I work on the next cut until I’m satisfied. I think we had around 20 cuts for this film. And finally …

KK: … I’m able to stay awake. I’m a barometer. I’m too honest. I’m sorry. But recently people have started approaching him like, oh, Soda, Soda, Director Soda! I feel like I’m the only one who can tell him something honest.

CW: That’s a very important role. But the importance of honesty also came to mind when I thought about your decision to be present and visible in your film. Is that the idea behind it?

KS: Yes, definitely. For a long time, documentary film maintained this illusion that the observer can be invisible. And that we are all observing whatever is in front of us without changing it, changing reality. But that’s an illusion. We always change the reality in front of us because we are there. And I think it’s more honest to acknowledge that and include that in the film. And in this film, I went even further and included Kiyoko as a character. Although she’s a producer, she became a character in the film, which was okay for me.

KK: It wasn’t okay with me, but there was no choice because I became a member of the community Soda was shooting. I wanted to be honest about that. So I had no choice, but I looked terrible.

KS: You don’t like the way you look?

KK: Normally, I’m by Soda’s side behind the camera, and I smile at the subject and create a good atmosphere. But this time I was always in a bad mood because what’s happening was very intense and Soda was around. I was so irritated by Soda’s camera. So it was pretty hard for me to be both working for him, but also being a part of the community, which is very intense. So now I understand that how protagonists feel about us. Before, I didn’t get it. But now I really understand what they feel like. So it was great practice for me.

By taking care of the cats, you are also being taken care of

CW: Another “protagonist” I really liked in the film was not a cat, nor a person, but rather the stairs. There is a kind of symbolism about them that connects the different worlds.

KS: Yeah, everybody uses the stairs, older people, young people, kids, cats. They’re an interesting place. And the reason why there are so many stairs there is because Japanese shrines are usually built on slightly higher ground, like in the hills, because people believed the gods lived in higher places. And the stairs are the only connection between the place of gods and that of human beings or this world. They actually set this world apart from another world. The stairs are the link between these two very different worlds.

BW: At what point were you convinced that the film was working?

KS: The film was actually linear at first. It started with cherry blossoms and progressed across the different seasons. And Kiyoko suggested we should come back to spring again. And that kind of opened my eyes actually, and it became circular. All of a sudden, I thought it’s going to be a film. I realised that was something I was trying to portray in the end, the cycle of nature. And people are part of it. So it’s portraying something bigger, bigger even than society.

KK: It’s actually about reincarnation.

KS: This cycle is a universal structure, actually, a structure of time.

CW: It’s about healing as well. The cats couldn’t survive without the humans, and so they take care of them. And right at the beginning, there’s this woman who says she goes there to get healed by the cats. So it’s about giving and taking.

KS: Yeah, I think so. By taking care of the cats, you are also being taken care of. Again, it’s circular, not linear. And also includes life and death. I think it was pretty late on when we added the funeral ceremony of the cat and also the arrival of the little kittens. And that kind of completed the cycle. The cycle of nature, the cycle of the seasons and also the cycle of our lives.


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