How appropriate that this series kicks off with Ogawa Productions’ A Movie Capital (Eiga no miyako, 1991), an unconventional PR film for the first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 1989. Looking back at that moment—on the very pivot from Cold War to post-Cold War—we can appreciate this film as the record of a turning point in the history of Asian documentary.

I first met the great director Ogawa Shinsuke at the 1988 Hawai’i International Documentary Film Festival, where I was working as an intern. He was there showing his collective’s last major film, Magino Village Story: Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches (Magino-mura monogatari: Sennen kizami no hidokei: Magino-mura monogatari, 1986). One of my jobs was minding Ogawa, leading him from screening to screening and making sure he was happy. That was no problem. He was endlessly optimistic and enthusiastic and we swiftly became friends. I loved his film and was entranced by his many stories; he took to me, I learned later, because he couldn’t believe there was an American who did not possess a credit card. Apparently, I scored points in his book for my poverty.

He told me many stories about his exploits over the decades, but he was most excited about a new project: the Yamagata International Film Festival. Everywhere he went, he carried a handful of festival applications and pressed them into the hands of the filmmakers he met. I vividly recall the gap between my first impression and his bright enthusiasm for the Yamagata festival. He was a charismatic talker, so it sounded absolutely splendid. However, I was not the only person that thought, “A festival in Yamagata? …where’s Yamagata?” I had to look on a map, and when I saw how far it was from the cultural hub of Tokyo I must confess I had my doubts about Ogawa’s grand vision. Little did I know that YIDFF would most definitely put Yamagata on the map.

Sometime after we returned to our respective homes, I contacted Ogawa. I was considering a gap year between my MA and PhD and perhaps Ogawa knew of possibilities for me in Japan? I was actually hoping he’d invite me to work with his collective in one capacity or another, although I was too modest to come right out and ask. To my delight, he immediately responded and within months I unexpectedly found myself in Japan interviewing for a programming position at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. I glimpsed their operation close-up, noting what seemed to be a chasm between their relatively modest resources and their grand ambitions. Nevertheless, they brought me on as a coordinator, and it’s no exaggeration to say the festival changed my life just as it changed Asian documentary. It turned out those ambitions were quite realistic. As I will explain below, it had everything to do with the historical moment.

I started working at Yamagata in 1990, and much of the time I was living in an apartment Ogawa Productions kept near their office. My roommate was Iizuka Toshio, the director of A Movie Capital. It was a tiny one-room apartment with tatami floors. The bathtub had been converted to storage and was filled with cardboard boxes packed with filmmaking detritus. So at the end of every day Iizuka and I would plod over to a nearby public bath to wash away our weariness, and on the way home we’d pick up beers at a convenience store. We would sit on the tatami, enjoying the day’s end drinks and trading stories.

Iizuka was in the middle of editing A Movie Capital. The editing was being done just down the street at Ogawa Productions’ Ogikubo studio. That sounds splendid, but it was actually a typical Japanese apartment converted into a jury-rigged post-production studio. There was a kitchen just big enough to stand in. A back bedroom had a 16mm editing station. The space in-between had been converted into a projection booth, transforming this modest living room into a screening room. Over a season, I dropped in to see the Ogawa Pro team editing away, and at night Iizuka updated me on their progress—or lack thereof.

Iizuka was always circumspect, taking care not to criticize Ogawa. But he felt vexed by the mountain of footage they had accumulated during the festival. Every time he took a crack at giving it form, Ogawa knocked him down and he had to start again. It was clearly frustrating. I recall sitting in the screening room more than once when Ogawa was intensely critiquing the editing. The director’s words were too rapid for me really grasp, but the disappointment was unmistakable. One night, Iizuka informed me that Ogawa was “helping him edit the film” and it finally approached completion. When it was done, they asked me to translate the subtitles; I was surely not the best choice, but I was cheap.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that whole experience until much later, when I found out this was Ogawa’s MO whenever one of his staff tried to direct his own film. The idea of masters giving their apprentices the chance to come into their own as an artist was as true of cinema as the traditional arts, and surely Ogawa felt compelled to support his key collective members in this way. But the three times he did this, he ended up severely criticizing his staff and ultimately taking over the post production process. It happened when Assistant Director Fukuda Katushiko made Filmmaking and the Way to the Village (Eigazukuri to mura e no michi, 1973), leading to Fukuda’s departure from the collective and Iizuka’s ascension the role of assistant director. It happened just after that when his other assistant director Yumoto Mareo directed Dokkoi! Songs from the Bottom (Dokkoi! Ningenbushi—Kotobukicho: Jiyu rodosha no machi, 1975); in this case, Ogawa so severely criticized Yumoto that he left the collective never to be heard of again.

Thankfully, Iizuka stuck in there, and went on to forge a career of his own as a director. The film about the festival that finally came of their collective efforts is a fascinating account of both the first outing and the times. For those lucky enough to have visited the festival over the years, many of the rooms, theaters, and faces will look familiar. The continuity from then to now is striking.

But this was also a very special year. The specter of June 4 and the fall of the Berlin Wall hung over the festival, especially since China prevented director Tian Zhuangzhuang from traveling to Japan to serve on the jury (a key sequence in the film). The scene that Ogawa intensely engages Polish director Andrzej Marek Drazewski about the future of socialism vividly captures the moment. The world was teetering on the brink of something new, and the space of the film festival lent itself to heady discussions about future directions. Another transition is striking: the film opens with the death of Joris Ivens—one of the original founders of the documentary form—who was scheduled to show his new film in person. Sadly, Marceline Loridan had to visit alone. But she sets the tone for both the film and the festival when she said,

For us the most important thing was to find a new cinematic form and method. We didn’t want to work with the old methods. To find a new form, you must liberate yourself. You must be free. You must be bold. You must express yourself in the film.

This captures the spirit of the festival in 1989. Japan was unique in Asia for a tradition of documentary that started in the 1920s and regularly brought the avant-garde and documentary into dialogue; however, by the 1980s most people associated nonfiction with conventional television and Yamagata dedicated itself to being free and bold and exploding audiences’ preconceptions about documentary.

More importantly, the 1989 YIDFF also marked a turning point for Asian documentary, broadly construed. Most countries in the region suffered under dictatorships and illiberal governments where freedom of expression was unavailable—or dangerous. Furthermore, 16mm film stock was so expensive that only governments, large businesses and television networks could afford to make documentaries. However, right around this time, dictatorships fell, social movements looked to new forms of expression and video emerged as a form of low-budget production. Shocked that there was only one Asian film appropriate for their competition section (Japan-UK co-production Over the Threshold directed by Christine Lloyd-Fitt, Tezuka Yoshi[Kazokushashin, 1989/YIDFF ’89 International Competition Prize for Encouragement]), the festival gathered these independent filmmakers and critics from across the region for its 1st Asia Symposium. A Movie Capital captures some of their discussions about the difficulties and dreams of Asian producers. At the end of the symposium, the great Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik drafted a manifesto which the assembled filmmakers signed. It ended with a reference to Ivens’ new film:

We the Asian Filmmakers present here, declare our commitment to maintain a network of Asian Filmmakers sharing of our visions, as well as our problems and solutions. We dramatize her, our desire to plant the seeds for the renaissance of independent documentary filmmaker in our region. We affirm here with optimism, our determination to seek, develop and implement approaches to deal with the obstacles, so that future international events like YIDFF will not be short of good Asian films. We declare here, the SPIRIT of the independent Asian documentary filmmakers is alive! And will one day, soar with the wind!

Indeed, this is exactly what happened. Every two years, more and more Asian filmmakers came to Yamagata to show their work. They got to know their colleagues, and an intricate network of quickly developed. Through Yamagata’s extensive historical retrospectives they were able to see the classics of Japanese and world documentary, which was particularly precious before the age of Youtube and the home video. And in this way Yamagata became a vibrant hub for Asian filmmakers, a role it plays to the present day.

A Movie Capital is a valuable record of this unique moment in film history. Although it was the first film of Iizuka Toshio’s long career, it became the last film of Ogawa Productions. Sadly, while Ogawa helped birth this consequential international event, cancer had taken root deep in his body. He would be unable to attend the 1991 festival, though many Asian filmmakers visited his sick bed on their way to and from Yamagata. Those filmmakers and the ones that followed in their footsteps circulated between their homes and the biennial movie capital of Yamagata. And over these 30 years of festivals, Asian documentary has flourished, soaring with the wind.

Markus Nornes is Professor of Asian Cinema at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in Japanese film, documentary and translation theory. He was a programmer at YIDFF in the 1990s and beyond, and has also made films. His current book, the open access Brushed in Light, is on the intimate relationship of calligraphy and East Asian cinema.

Dr. Markus’ Yamagata Musings
(2) Living on the River Agano Dir: Sato Makoto / 1992 / YIDFF ’93 Award of Excellence
(3) A Dir: Mori Tatsuya / 1998 / YIDFF ’99 World Spetial Program, A2 Dir: Mori Tatsuya / 2001 / YIDFF 2001 Special Prize, Citizens’ Prize
(4) Pickles and Komian Club Dir: Sato Koichi / 2021 / YIDFF 2021 Yamagata and Film
(5) The New God Dir: Tsuchiya Yutaka / 1999 / YIDFF ’99 New Asian Currents
(6-final) Storytellers Dirs: Sakai Ko, Hamaguchi Ryusuke / 2013 / YIDFF 2013 SkyPerfectTV IDEHA Prize