Faraway So Close:
The Groundbreaking Intimacy of Nonfiction Filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto
By Z. W. Lewis

The retrospective Noriaki Tsuchimoto screens at Museum of the Moving Image November 12–27, 2022.

By the time the cats dance, it’s too late. They flutter, fumble backward, and reduce their natural graceful stride to a series of falls befitting newborn calves. These cats are an omen, a yokai, of what their human neighbors can expect very soon after. It sounds like a fable or a ghost story, but to the people of Minamata, it was real. Dancing cat fever, as the disease was called at the time, visited this Japanese fishing town after the felines ingested large amounts of mercury that had bioaccumulated in the area’s fish. The fish were mostly the remnants of those eaten by the village’s humans, whose lives were largely dedicated to fishing in Minamata Bay; soon they would be afflicted.

Minamata disease first affects peripheral vision. A simple walk home becomes difficult with just this mild symptom; later, ataxia sets in, affecting the nervous system such that buttoning a shirt or fixing a simple meal becomes impossible without help as the nerves no longer follow what the brain signals them to do. In moderate cases, blindness, deafness, muscular atrophy, and loss of memory leave its victims dependent on others. In severe cases, complete paralysis takes over the body while the brain slowly dissolves. Families must deal with a coma patient, Alzheimer’s patient, and cerebral palsy patient all in one body. It is not a painless death.

The first Minamata disease patient was identified in 1956, and by 1959 the source of the disease came to light. The Chisso Corporation, a chemical manufacturer once specializing in fertilizer, had produced up to one-third of the country’s acetaldehyde using a mercury-based catalyst and had been dumping large amounts of methylmercury waste into Minamata Bay since 1951—eight years. Through its own lab tests with the dancing cats, Chisso confirmed it was the sole culprit. Yet they kept the results a secret—Chisso closing meant the collapse of the local economy. People continued to get sick, the population dipped, and hush money could only do so much. By 1968, collective victims’ groups had split into two factions: those who stuck with Chisso’s original agreement and the troublemakers who dared to challenge Chisso publicly. Supporting the latter was a young but experienced documentarian who not only recorded these victims but joined in their protest, journalistic objectivity be damned.

Noriaki Tsuchimoto is best known outside Japan for his first documentary on the political fallout of Minamata, 1971’s Minamata: The Victims and Their World, a film that has set precedents in journalism, environmental activism, and anthropology. The Minamata incident is a blemish on Japanese history, and here is the document which preserves it. Yet Tsuchimoto made more than a dozen more films about Minamata, which reflects a level of personal dedication unrivaled by most other documentarians. He also made films about student revolts, the plight of the average fisherman, Siberia, and Afghanistan. Most of his films deal with the harsh aftereffects of an industrializing postwar Japan that the new corporations and government were eager to hide. The result is a lifelong campaign against the very idea of public relations.

Ironically, public relations is exactly where Noriaki Tsuchimoto began. A young Noriaki grew up in a Tokyo suburb that housed much of the film studio Toho’s top talent. Though he didn’t care much for filmmaking, he did care for radical politics, and his participation in the Toho strike would show him the radical heart of the independent production companies that rose later. Following in the footsteps of his hero John Reed, Tsuchimoto went into documentary filmmaking as a form of radical journalism. And, though he was never a cinephile, he was quick to master his caméra-stylo by learning from the cinematographers at his first studio: Iwanami Productions. This company, specializing in public relations and slice-of-life documentary, gave its filmmakers a creative freedom unheard of in larger companies like Toho, mostly thanks to its low-cost, low-risk content (a creativity catalyst mirrored by pinku studios two decades later). The Iwanami of those days is comparable to the UCLA Film School of New Hollywood, as those who walked its halls would benefit not just from the projects they worked on but from the collaborations and drunken conversations with like-minded radical filmmakers. Japan’s top postwar documentarians all began their career at Iwanami, and formed the Ao no Kai, an unofficial group dedicated to political talk, documentary discussions, and a little drinking. From this, a leftist documentary aesthetic would emerge and influence these directors, as would the politically charged films of Nagisa Oshima, Masao Adachi, Koji Wakamatsu, Akio Jissoji, and Shuji Terayama.

That said, Tsuchimoto’s works for Iwanami are not radical departures from the standard PR film. In Discover Japan: Tokyo Metropolis, Tsuchimoto shoots a busier-than-ever urbanized Tokyo, featuring shots that are familiar to us now: train cars so packed that not a single inch can be spared, businessmen flowing past each other like water in the crosswalks, and the customary beers and sake after work. The youth of Japan had been moving to Tokyo at an exponential rate, and Tsuchimoto’s brief tour, scored to light jazz like a PG version of the infamous London in the Raw, would give these transplants’ rural parents a comforting portrait of city life. Conversely, An Engineer’s Assistant would be Tsuchimoto’s first foray into political filmmaking: the Japanese National Railways had commissioned the film to cover up their responsibility for a recent accident. While the Railways blamed the accident on individual engineers’ negligence, Tsuchimoto gives extended screen time to these engineers performing safety checks. It’s aesthetically similar to Tokyo Metropolis, but this time the usual PR info dump and pleasant portraits of average people could be used against those who usually control the information.

Tsuchimoto would double down on his political style and substance with his 1964 On the Road: A Document, which even the previously laissez-faire Iwanami thought a step too far. He was again tasked with simply providing PR, this time for the Tokyo police’s traffic safety program ahead of the opening days of the Olympics, but Tsuchimoto instead focused on those who would be most affected: the taxi union. Though the content obviously went against the producers’ wishes, Tsuchimoto’s style also broke from the organized informational approach of Iwanami. This film marks the beginning of Tsuchimoto the artist as he rides along with his subjects and shoots a quickly growing Tokyo from the taxi passenger window. The quick “dialectical” editing is reminiscent of the city symphony films from the days of Soviet montage (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Manhatta, Man with a Movie Camera), but it’s also literally a road movie, complete with shots from the perspective of the front bumper. Though scenes of the city and its traffic (mostly drivers’ disputes, as the ever-evolving Tokyo streets have caused more and more accidents) are edited together to form a portrait of a dysfunctional Tokyo, Tsuchimoto never distances himself from the conflicts of the city’s citizens, as the Walter Ruttmanns and Dziga Vertovs of the past had done.

This film also marks the beginning of Tsuchimoto as a participant in his subjects’ struggle—a move that Tsuchimoto thought was the only correct one. For him, the struggle comes first, and the documentary is merely a small way to help with that struggle. In the context of On the Road, that means scenes of taxi drivers venting, drinking, having small union meetings, fixing their cars, and sometimes complaining directly to an off-camera Tsuchimoto. These human-centered moments, shot with Tsuchimoto’s now-signature long-lens pseudo-close-up (in order to be both physically distant from the subject but still cover their expressions), interrupt the city symphony to remind us why this film was made in the first place. The abstract sequences of Tokyo roads zooming by, some even resembling the famous shot of Lost Highway, wouldn’t be there if not for the taxi drivers who made it possible; and they likely wouldn’t have helped Tsuchimoto with these shots if not for his insistence on helping them.

This people-first attitude extended into Tsuchimoto’s initial post-Iwanami film, Exchange Student Chua Swee-Lin, a work that, according to Aaron Gerow in his essay “Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Environment in Documentary Film,” began as Tsuchimoto’s political activism and later became a documentary (as well as a full campus movement). The titular student, a Malaysian national, gave vocal support to Singapore’s fight for independence and subsequently faced expulsion from Chiba University and even deportation from Japan. Here, Tsuchimoto doubles down on the political meeting sequences from On the Road for one practical reason: this movie would be the only opportunity for the wider public to hear the arguments of Swee-Lin and his supporters. The camera shakes as each long-lens close-up is matched with another, giving the film the cheap vérité look associated with wartime newsreels. For the radical Tsuchimoto, covering these subjects was akin to war; he had already been arrested for supporting such causes in the ’50s, and there was no guarantee that his camera crew would give him the usual journalistic protections.

Tsuchimoto’s interest in covering these campus activities extended into 1969’s Prehistory of the Partisans. Whereas Chua Swee-Lin covered campus activism from “behind the lines,” Partisans literally shoots from behind the barricades as the Zengakuren (the name given to the collective leftist student groups) began occupying several university buildings, often leading to violent confrontations with the police. Tsuchimoto—too old for Zengakuren, no longer a member of the Japanese Communist Party, but still insisting to live with and help these students—offers his most formally audacious techniques for this film, such that the camera never stops moving and the tension is never broken. A shot covering a protest speech begins all the way down the road from the event, as Tsuchimoto films the barricaded university surrounded by cops, passes by the protestors, circles the entire crowd in order to get a good shot of the speaker, then circles back around to capture the scale of the protest. It’s an establishing shot, medium shot, close-up, and reverse shot all in one take, but the flashiness never undermines the speaker’s words. His small lighting unit even illuminates the short scuffles with the cops at night, which puts a stop to some of these fights—just like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the very act of documenting changes the outcome, something Tsuchimoto would continue to use to his advantage.

Then, Minamata. Tsuchimoto had made a short TV documentary on the Minamata crisis during the same time he recorded Swee-Lin, but he was dissatisfied with the results. The families didn’t trust him quite enough to allow unrestricted access to their kids, parents, or friends. After all, this was 1965, early in the days of Minamata and halfway into the “ten years of silence,” and speaking out at all against Chisso (or even revealing that your family contracted the disease that was rumored to be contagious) would leave you ostracized from your tight-knit fishing community. But, by waiting a bit longer, and by harnessing his intimate approach from the student protest films, Tsuchimoto finally embarked upon Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Even though Tsuchimoto doesn’t include footage from his weeks living with these families, we do see the results: families refer to him by his first name and talk bluntly about the disease (yet still refraining from talking too much about Chisso). Shots of blind, immobile children being carried from room to room give way to images of the shrines of the dead: this and the families’ storytelling make up the majority of the film, only sometimes interrupted by brief titles explaining the legal and political contracts that have awarded the victims little to nothing in compensation. The style is more relaxed than in Prehistory, but political fervor still simmers below the surface. The true boiling point comes with his first follow-up film, 1973’s Minamata Revolt: A People’s Quest for Life. There, Minamata victims confront the heads of Chisso directly, each giving an impassioned speech on behalf of their family and community, many of whom are recognizable from Victims. Chisso budges on the negotiations, then reneges. The meetings last all night—the director of Chisso doesn’t want to sign an abstract agreement so hastily, and the victims don’t want to leave with nothing. It’s shot in the same vérité approach as the political meetings in Swee-Lin and Prehistory, with long-lens close-ups of heads listening given priority to those speaking. Though Tsuchimoto would later note that this style of editing conversations in montage rather than simple shot/reverse shot is mostly due to cheap equipment that made sound-sync nearly impossible, there’s a perverse pleasure in watching the director of Chisso sweat for two hours.

By the time Tsuchimoto made yet another follow-up film on Minamata, 1975’s The Shiranui Sea, this environmental crisis and these people, now his years-long friends, were clearly at the forefront of Tsuchimoto’s activism and art. Fellow Iwanami graduate Shinsuke Ogawa had, for over a decade, followed the Zengakuren movement out of the campuses and into the streets, then to Anpo protests (against a new defense treaty linking Japan to the United States), and finally to the Sanrizuka Struggle, an armed resistance against the construction of the Narita International Airport that would displace farmers in the area. Tsuchimoto noted in an interview with Gerow that he wouldn’t compare himself to Ogawa in style or substance, but the comparisons are overwhelming—so much so that the only English-language study on Tsuchimoto, Of Sea and Soil, is also a study on Ogawa. But, while Ogawa would live with the villagers of Sanrizuka to follow the outcomes of the Zengakuren protests, Tsuchimoto continued following the areas surrounding Minamata in order to observe a more abstract political movement, where the actions of corporations and government could turn an entire community against itself. More than that, Tsuchimoto centered the environment—the sea—as a victim, much as Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima or Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla covered the deleterious political and environmental effects of nuclear radiation decades before.

The Shiranui Sea follows some of the same victims from the first Minamata documentary, albeit now in color and with synced sound. The children have become teenagers, some of the adults have died, and everyone is more open to criticize Chisso, as doing so has led to some compensatory victories. Tsuchimoto shoots the victims in a more reserved way, although some signature style remains. His DP still climbs to the highest possible location to get 180-degree establishing shots. He still addresses the victims directly on camera, though he prioritizes their answers. And he’s thankfully kept his great ride-along shots, though he’s swapped cars for boats to follow fishermen out to their usual spots, hopefully now untainted by methylmercury. It’s a film much more about how the community lives now than about their previous struggle, and by being this, The Shiranui Sea shows that Minamata disease continues long after the government and Chisso have made amends and that no amount of money will bring back nerve function or dead children.

Noriaki Tsuchimoto would continue making films about Minamata disease for the rest of his life. My favorite, 1981’s The Minamata Mural, made 25 years after the initial discovery of MD, follows an artist couple, Iri and Toshi Maruki, as they complete a mural made of 280 portraits of MD victims. The portraits range from realistic depictions of the sort of contortions affecting the limbs of MD victims to those that take a more creative license: hands blending into octopi, children drowning, body parts isolated from their context, and everything coated with layers of black watercolor. The film dedicates about 40 minutes of its runtime to record each element of the mural itself as well as the patrons who feel free to touch and weep at it in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. But the couple, like Tsuchimoto, don’t paint these from an objective distance; instead, they volunteer to teach art to MD victims in order to get closer to them and establish a relationship that will be indispensable to their portrait. Tsuchimoto is here posing questions about the artistic representation of real-life subjects that he may as well be asking himself. They side with Tsuchimoto: the best thing to do is the good thing to do.

Minamata is not the sum of his career. Tsuchimoto also made a documentary about the Asian population of Siberia in the USSR, 1968’s The World of the Siberians. He would recount later that he wasn’t allowed to film on roofs (his favorite establishing shot locale) and that he was mugged, but, fearing an international incident, the governor gave Tsuchimoto his own watch, plenty of free booze, and easier access to the region he was shooting. In 1984’s Umitori, he would cover the coast of Shimokita Peninsula, where government officials would trick locals to sell their fishing rights in order to place nuclear ships, reactors, and, inevitably, waste along the coastline. And, in some of his last works, he would capture the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and its subsequent political changes, mostly in the Iwanami style with tons of voiceover work. The Afghan movies were PR films, but this time on Tsuchimoto’s terms. In fact, his entire filmography works in this way: they are all PR films that circumvent their official channels. Only Tsuchimoto would take it a step further by relating directly with the public for each work; it’s clear from every subject who speaks fondly of a “Noriaki” just off-camera, their eyes meeting someone 45 degrees from the gaze of the lens, that this is their hundredth conversation.

In The Shiranui Sea, one victim pleads to Tsuchimoto by name to surreptitiously film his caseworkers so he can take them to court. This should be the counterpoint to Tsuchimoto’s style; this request should highlight the dangers of being too friendly with your subjects. If Tsuchimoto denies this request, he may lose his friendship, but if he accepts he’ll be engaging in dirty, disrespectful “booby-trap” journalism, and this request surely won’t be the last. Instead, Tsuchimoto treats this man with intelligence and dignity, using the opportunity to discuss documentary ethical practice. This scene is emblematic of a career that answered abstract questions about the rules of nonfiction filmmaking with the simplest answer: be a good person.

Images from top to bottom: The Shiranui Sea, On the Road: A Document, The Shiranui Sea, The Minamata Mural