24 May 2012

Zakka Films: An interview with Seiko Ono

Rokkasho Rhapsody (Hitomi Kamanaka, 2006)

One of the biggest frustrations of fans of Japanese film is that we hear about a great documentary playing at international festivals and have to wait years before it is available on DVD.  Even then, the film is usually only released in Japan and without English subtitles – thus limiting the audience and making it difficult to use for teaching purposes.
All that changed earlier this year when the U.S-based company Zakka Films opened its Filmmakers’ Market with the aim of offering Japanese and Asian documentary filmmakers the opportunity to bring subtitled DVDs of their films fresh onto the market for consumption like fish at Tsukiji. 
Zakka Films is the brainchild of Seiko Ono, wife of respected Yale professor Aaron Gerow (author of Visions of Japanese Modernity and A Page of Madness).  After my dedicating the month of October last year to reviewing DVD releases by Zakka Films, I contacted Seiko Ono to learn more about how she came to start this exciting new DVD label.
Tell me about yourself and your background in the film industry.
In the late 1980s in Japan I started working at Studio 200 of the Seibu Department Stores. Things were about to decline, but Seibu still had lots of museums, movie theaters, performance theaters and galleries. Unlike the department stores in the US, they were trying to provide an entire life to customers: not just fashionable brands, but the arts as well. Studio 200 was one of the Seibu art spaces, and was sort of an all-purpose theater playing rare films, presenting dance performance, experimental music concerts, art exhibitions, etc. People working there, including me, coordinated many different kinds of events, and I had some wonderful opportunities to work with films which were not shown at commercial theaters such as Taiwan New Wave films. It was extremely exciting for me to work there, and in fact I learned so many things and met a lot of film people, which helped me later. Just before the 1990s, Seibu’s art spaces started closing one after another out of financial difficulties. People around me started leaving because no one wanted to be transferred to the shoe section or some other section of the Seibu Department Store. In 1990 I joined the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, which was preparing for the second festival in 1991 (the YIDFF takes place once every two years). After that, for nearly 20 years, my work involved programming and coordinating the YIDFF. I am no longer officially at the YIDFF, but I am still involved.
Zakka Films seems like a real labour of love.  What inspired you to start the company?
In 2004 my husband got a job at Yale in the US, and all of us moved to America. I still continued to work for the YIDFF from afar even though I was not a programmer anymore. I had more spare time to start thinking of doing something I had never done before, or something that could justify me living here in the US. Considering my long career at the YIDFF, it didn’t take a long time to get the idea to sell Japanese documentaries on DVD. I already had connections with many documentary productions and filmmakers. It was a quite natural idea to start thinking of working on Japanese documentaries. There were only a few Japanese documentaries that you could obtain in the US, and the few that existed tended to downplay the presence of the director, such as with Out of Place: A Memoir by Edward W. Said and Radiation: A Slow Death. The first is by Makoto Sato and the second by Hitomi Kamanaka, and both of them are pretty famous documentary filmmakers, but their names as directors were sometimes hard to find in publicity. Customers were not always even aware these were documentaries from Japan. I felt there was something not quite right with this situation. That was one impetus for starting Zakka Films. By the way, Zakka Films means 雑貨映画 in Japanese. It is a made up word combination, but zakka in Japanese means miscellaneous goods, so I thought I’d deal not just with documentaries, but also with other rare films which are powerful and excite fans of good cinema. As you know, the first DVD of Zakka Films was The Roots of Japanese Anime, a collection of classic animation, not documentary. You see I had no experience in running my own business in Japan, and here in the US I was a non-English speaker, so I thought I should not try something too difficult at first. Classic animation had a broader appeal and there were already many fans of Japanese animation. Starting with this, I could learn how to produce a DVD, how to promote it, and how to sell it.

Although much of pre-war animation has been lost, many great animated films by Noburo Ofuji and Kenzo Masaoka did survive until the present day.    What criteria did you use in selecting films for The Roots of Japanese Anime: Until the End of WWII? 
If you want to access classic animation films, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is the best place to visit, but it is almost impossible for us to make a DVD from their films. Fortunately, there are some classic animation collectors in Japan. All the films on The Roots of Japanese Anime were from one collector whom I had known for a long time. At the beginning of this project, I had a longer list of films to include, but the process of working on permission and rights issues trimmed it down to eight films. For me Momotaro’s Sea Eagle (review) was the one which couldn’t be removed, since it was so historically significant. We also made a booklet that comes with the DVD which includes historical backgrounds of each film, and out customers have liked that.
Do have any plans to release more anime in the future?
Right after I released this DVD, I received requests from many customers about what they want next. Many of them were popular 1970s anime which were made for TV such as the anime of Fujio Akastuka or Go Nagai. If I won a fortune in a lottery, I might put out such DVDs, but that is a bit beyond our scale. However, if I have another chance to work on classic animation again, I would do it.
Zakka Films released four documentaries by legendary filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto who passed away in 2008.  Did Tsuchimoto know of the plans for their release?
I wish he had known of this plan. Two years after his death, my husband and I visited his office, Ciné Associé, a company which was taken over by his wife and sometimes editor of his later films, Motoko Tsuchimoto. I told her about my project before the plans were even concrete, and she was very happy to hear of it, and it was her enthusiasm that helped start the project. Of course I needed to discuss the project with Siglo, the production company for Minamata: The Victims and Their World (review). Both of them were so supportive. Motoko-san provided us tapes, documents, books and whatever was helpful for Zakka.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Tsuchimoto’s documentaries about Minamata and Hiroshima seem more important than ever – particularly his focus on the victims of these manmade catastrophes and their stories.  What can today’s documentarians learn from Tsuchimoto?
Tsuchimoto’s belief was that “If there is no record, there is no truth.” When he started making documentaries about Minamata, Minamata disease was taboo: no one wanted to talk about this disease, which is why his first attempt to make a documentary about Minamata for television totally failed. So what he did was to enter their world: he and his staff started living there, and volunteered to do things like drive a car to help them. Minamata was a poor town and cars were still rare. After building closer relationships with them—a method that wasn’t unusual in the 1960s given the Sanrizuka series by Ogawa Productions—he and his staff gradually started shooting. Their office was always open so people from Minamata could make casual visits and Tsuchimoto could show them the rushes they just shot. Building trust, people who refused to be filmed at the beginning ended up turning to ask him to film them! That’s why he could shoot so many of the victims for Minamata: The Victims and Their World
This documentary became an important document in publicizing Minimata disease so they could be officially recognized as a victims by the government of Japan at that time. Tsuchimoto’s Minamata series is not just a document, it is a record of human dignity. For cinematic beauty, I believe some of his films should be ranked among the top films of world cinema history. You cannot find in his films the terrible images of the victims that you can find by searching YouTube with the keyword “Minamata.” He patiently waited until the patients were relaxed and tried to film their most beautiful expression. I think that’s how he in the end could create works that made you think deeply about social contradictions. After the Fukushima nuclear accident, many documentary filmmakers have been to Fukushima or Miyagi to make documentaries. I think it is fine to have many different styles and methods, and not all of them need be masterpieces. But I wonder how many filmmakers think like Tsuchimoto did about how to film such tragedies, and how their work relates to the issues. The documentaries I like to see are not those that are complete when you’re finished watching, but those that start then. Tsuchimoto’s films are like that.

On the Road: A Document (1964) is a groundbreaking film for its experimentation with the form of dramatized documentary.  Can you talk a little bit about why this was such a radical film when it was released and how it was received by audiences?
This film was originally made as traffic safety film for the Metropolitan Police, but it was shelved for nearly 40 years because Tsuchimoto did not make the film that was ordered. Tsuchimoto was working with the drivers union to expose their problems and unhealthy labor conditions, while also masterfully editing the footage like a city symphony, so when a police official finally saw the film, he called it “useless—the plaything of a cinephile.” Until recently the film was not shown openly except at some film festivals, so for a long time On the Road was a kind of phantom film. The production company went bankrupt, so the rights finally reverted to Noriaki Tsuchimoto himself, and the DVD was released in 2004 in Japan.
The name “Zakka” (miscellaneous goods) suggests that you plan to expand your catalogue to include more than just classic works of animation and documentary.  What is next for Zakka Films?  
I am going to continue working on Tsuchimoto’s works, but in the spirit of my company’s name, zakka (雑貨), I would like to extend my business and move beyond the limitations imposed by our size and finances. The project I just opened is The Filmmakers’ Market (FM). FM is a new marketplace for documentaries that tries to break down the walls separating Japanese filmmakers and foreign viewers and allows filmmakers to bring their English-subtitled works in for direct sale, kind of like a farmer’s fresh produce market. When I produce and release my own DVDs, there are countless steps such as making subtitles, designing the DVD cover, making booklets, and so on; that is a big investment in time and money, so we have to limit ourselves in what we actually release. But FM is basically Zakka helping independent filmmakers sell the DVDs they have already made to a foreign market. It opens up the possibilities to obtain rare documentaries, some of which are not even commercially released in Japan. We feature not only Japanese but also other Asian documentaries. All of the DVDs are produced by the directors and producers themselves; for some, Zakka will help make an English booklet or cover, but some may have only Japanese on the package or in the booklet (we will note as such when selling it). But and all of them will have English subtitles. Please come and look at the films brought to market!

産地直送 Filmmakers’ Market (official website)

ROKKASHO RHAPSODY  Director: Hitomi Kamanaka (read review)
In 2004 the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant was completed in Rokkasho village as a facility for reprocessing spent fuel from Japan's nuclear reactors into plutonium. The film spotlights the people of the village, who hold diverse opinions regarding this huge, nearly operational national project.

ECHOES FROM THE MIIKE   Director: Hiroko Kumagai
The story of the Miike Coal Mine, the largest mine in Japan, which ceased operations on March 30, 1997. Hiroko Kumagai interviewed over 70 individuals, men and women, including Koreans who were forcibly brought to Japan. The film looks at Miike not just to explore the past, but also to think about the future: what it means to work and to live.

BREAKING THE SILENCE  Director: Toshikuni Doi
In the spring of 2002, the Israeli army surrounded and attacked the Balata refugee camp. The camera follows residents living in at state of terror and records their lives and feelings.

ARTISTS OF WONDERLAND  Director: Makoto Sato
This is a film about seven artists. It's also about seven people who are mentally handicapped. This has all the marks of a Makoto Sato film: the quirky humor and passion for everyday human life.

BINGAI  Director: Feng Yan
Bingai, a Chinese documentary by Feng Yan—a director deeply inspired by Shinsuke Ogawa—has just been added to the Filmmakers' Market at Zakka Films. Bingai won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize (the grand prize of Asia program) at the Yamagata Film Festival.

MAPPING THE FUTURE NISHINARI  Directors: Yukio Tanaka, Tetsuo Yamada
Nishinari in Osaka is home to one of Japan's largest concentrations of day laborers, with much of the population being composed of homeless persons, buraku (a discriminated community of descendants of outcast groups), former yakuza, and Korean-Japanese. This documentary presents the people of Nishinari, not from on high, but rather from their own level.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012