Unless you’ve seen Kazuhiro Soda’s past works, you may have never experienced a feature-length documentary like this intimate study of a regional oyster industry in Japan. It’s a strategically paced journey into the lives, concerns, and dreams of these oyster shuckers, painting an honest picture about globalization, disaster, and change in the modern world.
How did you decide to focus on the Japanese oyster industry?
It was a pure coincidence. I and my wife/producer Kiyoko Kashiwagi often spend summer vacations in Ushimado, Okayama because Kiyoko’s mother is from there.
While spending summer vacations there, we met some fishermen. I got interested in making a film about their life because most of them were in their 70s and 80s and had no successors, which means, maybe in a decade or so, we’ll see no fishermen in Ushimado or even in Japanese shores!
So in November 2013, we came back to Ushimado with a camera, and went to see Mr. Hirano, one of the fishermen we knew. He usually fishes octopus, so I thought we were going to shoot a film about octopus fishing. But we found out that he owns an oyster factory and he was really busy shucking oysters because the season begins in November. So we ended up filming his oyster factory.
Were you at all aware of the connections to the tsunami or influx of Chinese workers?
No, not at all. While I was shooting the way they shuck oysters, I noticed there was a note on the wall which said “Saturday, November 9th - China is coming.” I was really intrigued by its unusual expression and wondered what it meant. Listening to people’s conversations, I gradually found out that two Chinese workers were arriving and that Hirano’s oyster factory had never accepted foreign workers before. I felt people were quite apprehensive about their arrival too. So naturally, I became interested in this aspect.
After we started filming at the factory, we also learned that Mr. Watanabe and his family moved to Ushimado from Miyagi because they lost their oyster farming business due to tsunami/quake on March 11, 2011. Naturally, it became another important theme for the film.
Do you feel that coming in with little knowledge leads to a more truthful film?
Yes, I believe so. We tend to shoot what we know already because it’s easier and more comfortable. Knowledge often prevents us from looking and listening at the world in front of us without any preconceptions.
I call my works “observational films,” and when I say “observation,” I mean two things. Firstly, I as a filmmaker closely look at the reality in front of me and make films according to my observations and discoveries, not based on my assumptions and preconceptions I had before I shot the film. Secondly, I encourage the viewers to observe the film actively with their own eyes and minds.
In order to realize these two aspects, I came up with “Ten Commandments” for me to follow. They are:
1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Shoot alone.
5 Shoot as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, title, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.
These policies were conceived based on my frustrating experiences as a television documentary director before I started making films. As a television director, I was required to do a lot of research before shoot to write detailed scripts. I was also forced to explain everything to the viewers by putting narration, super-imposed titles, and music. I found these practices prevented me from making documentaries with eye-opening discoveries for both the audience and myself.
Your camera also affects the way people act. How does that affect the “truthfulness”?
Being “observational” doesn’t mean I’m distant and separate from the characters I shoot.
As you say, my camera definitely affects the way people acts, so in the end, my films are always “participant-observations,” which means, I’m observing the world which includes myself. So, unlike traditional Direct Cinema filmmakers, I have no hesitation to include my voice in my films.
In Oyster Factory, I even included my wife Kiyoko dealing with Shiro the cat. I think it’s more honest and interesting to include ourselves since many of the events — like Shiro trying to enter our rented house, or a worker jokingly imitating my camerawork — happened only because we were there.
A documentary is like a diary I believe. When making documentaries, I try to reconstruct my experience in a cinematic reality so that I could share it with the audience.
Do you hope to create symbolic elements, like the white cat, or are those scenes really just part of the observation as well?
It’s both. At first, I was shooting Shiro the cat, because he was so cute. I didn’t think I would include him in the film. But I gradually realized that he could be a metaphor of Chinese workers because Shiro had his own home but wanted to get into our house where he cannot be accepted as a full member. In this sense, Shiro could be a metaphor of Watanabe family too, or even myself, who was born and raised in Japan but moved to New York.
When I showed my first cut to Kiyoko, she was really shocked to learn that I used those scenes. She didn’t imagine I was going to include them in the film, so she feels she acted too candidly.
What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
My goal is to share my experience with the audience. I hope viewers would feel as if they were thrown into the oyster factories in a remote village in Japan.
Do you worry whether American audiences will have the patience for this observational technique?
Honestly, yes. I don’t want to generalize it too much, but I have an impression that American audiences tend to be very used to fast-cutting, music-heavy, manipulative documentaries. They’re not so used to 2 hour 30 minutes documentaries either!
But with my previous films, I noticed that once they started watching my films, they got into it. It may take a half-hour or so to get used to my style and pace, but once they get used to it, they have no problem. After all, observational technique was originally invented by American filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and Maysles Brothers!