In a saturated field of auteur-driven nonfiction cinema, Kazuhiro Sôda, the award winning New York-based Japanese filmmaker, sets himself apart through his self-proclaimed observational approach. Ruled by his “Ten Commandments,” Sôda invites audiences to watch attentively on a varied list of subjects: small family businesses, fading rural industries, political campaigns. Producing films through his independent company, Laboratory X (Commandment #10), Sôda travels and records using a sole handheld camera and attached microphone (Commandment #4). The filmmaker gives himself a freedom to move, untethered by pre-determined agendas or ideas (Commandment #1). Evident through his observational approach is how the act of observing goes beyond looking and taking in one’s surroundings. For Sôda, listening comprises a crucial element, and he regularly initiates an engagement between himself and the subjects: he asks questions and responds — an active participant. Sôda’s voice is heard throughout his films from behind the camera — occasionally, viewers can hear his feet as he moves, and even sometimes see his shadow. This spontaneous filmmaking style gives space for the subjects to breathe, allowing for unexpected and deeply personal discoveries. This finely tuned methodology allows Sôda’s astute observations to be guided by his own curiosity, choosing an intimate relationship to the subject as opposed to the fly-on-the-wall distance most historically associated with observational cinema — see the late D.A. Pennebaker’s work, for example.
The Sôda style peaks with the filmmaker’s masterpiece, Inland Sea (Minatomachi), released in 2018. Made along with Sôda’s co-producer and wife, Kiyoko Kashiwagi, the documentary focuses on Ushimado, a small fishing village located in Seto Inland Sea, Japan — once a bustling fishing community, now a shadow of its former self: empty, lacking in life and sadly relying on the work and efforts of its elderly occupants. Ushimado is failing economically with residents fleeing and leaving lines of houses dormant. The streets are wide and bare, aside from the stray cats that eat fish offal and annoy the locals, with these cats being a principal source of Ushimado’s tourism. Shiro is the lead of this cat population; a plump, white stray who follows Soda around and is regularly seen being petted; he is accepting and friendly, ready for domestication as he waits outside houses that are likely deserted. Shiro even wears a collar as if dressed for a job interview. All this, though, ultimately effects the town’s industrial landscape with local businesses lacking in fresh, young people to take the helm of the fishing trade and inject it with modern methods. The local fish factory even observes how unimpressive the daily catch is as they often receive the scraps from larger factories up the road in Okayama. Inland Sea illuminates a connection between its residents and a sense of place where Sôda unconsciously explores identity in a town whose community and people are on the verge of fading away.
Inland Sea’s narrative is centred on Wai-chan, the oldest fisherman in the community still plying his trade at the age of 86. While filming landscape shots for another documentary project, Oyster Factory (2015), Sôda unexpectedly stumbled upon Wai-chan at the Ushimado coast (Commandment #2). Wai-chan works alone on his small fishing boat while his only daughter is retired out of town having earnt more money than her father — she is fleetingly heard of but never seen. Wai-chan is physically affected by his work whereby he is permanently hunched with his back heavily stooped forwards. His trousers have been bitten by stray cats searching for fish and now are ruggedly patched together. Wai-chan often wears a towel around his head, presumably to help him stay warm from the biting morning cold. Noticeably, he also rides a bicycle around the town, another indication that modernisation has slipped by this community without effect. Sôda and Kashiwagi chat amiably with Wai-chan about how agile and youthful he seems, only the fisherman muses about getting “older without knowing it.” Wai-chan dreams of retirement himself, admitting how he probably is nearing the final year in which he will be fit enough to continue working. As Sôda speaks, viewers are left unsure how Wai-chan is going to sustain himself when he is forced to stop fishing.
This intensifies during one of Wai-chan’s early morning fishing trips. He heaves up fishing nets that are sporadically clinging onto lone fish, and struggles to pry his catch from the large, tangled nets. With every fish, it seems like he’s losing time to catch more. Sôda reveals that Wai-chan earns more money for catch that are alive: “It is good to catch a lot, but it takes ages to untangle them,” the fisherman says. The sound of the wiry nets overtakes the scene and draws viewers closer to an aging industry; there’s a mechanical feel but one that is old and rusty. Sôda’s camera style — intently following movements, rarely cutting and occasionally going in and out of focus (Commandment #9) — illuminates a sense of an endless struggle, and forces audiences to project their own understandings and thoughts on the scene. Sôda is unobtrusive as to capture events in their most authentic, leaving Wai-chan to fill in the gaps with his odd, reflective thoughts. This observational glimpse into Wai-chan’s work is done so without an intermediary, agenda or the bias that accompanies some other famous documentaries, such as Humphrey Jennings’ poetic war film Listen to Britain (1942).
There is a lonesomeness about Wai-chan, a man who struggles to connect with others because of his terrible hearing loss. But Inland Sea is not a film driven by a forced sympathy. Alternatively, Sôda’s observations highlight a connection between more existential inquiries on life and loss within institutions. Wai-chan’s work is defined by his lonesomeness, and one can only assume that he once worked in a larger group that has naturally been whittled down, although Wai-chan never explicitly remarks on this ( another indication of his humility and living in the present). Later in Inland Sea, during another fishing trip, the fisherman muses that he “used to be good but now it’s getting worse.” Wai-chan constantly evaluates his own current situation — “it’s impossible to keep going,” he says — suggesting that this question of retiring has been a real one for longer than it should have. The price of fishing netting is going up, yet the price for fish is going down. Like Wai-chan, the business appears to be on its last legs, waiting for the day it can no longer sustain itself. Sôda shows care and softness towards his subjects, never making an overt comment on their situation, but rather allowing them to tell their stories as naturally as their lives and situations allow (Commandment #3).
Sôda is introduced to another resident, Mrs. Kosa, the owner of the shop where Wai-chan sells his fish. She is a self-proclaimed “late-stage elderly” and refuses to reveal her real age. Mrs. Kosa started her business with her husband 55 years prior, and reveals that they would only get four to five hours of sleep per night due to high demand. Here, the rise and effect of supermarkets is physically portrayed through Mrs. Kosa’s efforts as she travels the village and empty streets in her truck, delivering fish to the elderly residents that are unable to visit her shop. One elderly resident observes, whilst perching against Mrs. Kosa’s truck, that “Ushimado is ageing and getting deserted.” She burrows through the varied fish that litter the back of Kosa’s truck as an oxygen tube hangs over her body, connected from her nostrils. She seems tired but maintains a light sense of humour, stating “it’s quiet at least.” In Ushimado, the residents have seemingly accepted that they are now too old, or too unconnected from the wider world, to change the village’s fate.
Mrs. Kosa is symbolic of Ushimado’s supportive community. She helps carry bags for customers, buys specific fish via customer requests and delivers directly to older residents’ houses. There is a definite trend in that everyone looks out for one another (a conscious one perhaps), as each could be the last resident. In another pertinent scene, an unnamed woman remarks about how even the graves are going missing and moving away from the cemetery. Even the residents that have passed refuse to be remembered in Ushimado, opting to follow their younger relatives out of the village.
The third protagonist in Inland Sea is Kumiko, the local gossiper who is regularly found near Wai-chan, teasing him as he works. She acts as the film’s lead orator, often giving Sôda suggestions of where and who to film. The documentarian kindly and curiously indulges Kumiko’s idea, regularly turning his camera toward the nearest dog or cat as the female subject tries to deflect the gaze away from herself. By doing so, Kumiko offers context and provides Sôda a natural way out of using descriptive titles or expositional narration (Commandment #8). One of Kumiko’s suggestions is to film the hospital up the hill. What begins as an idea to get a nice aerial shot of the village quickly turns into the film’s most intimate and deeply moving moment. Sôda patiently follows Kumiko as she points to shrines that she prays at or describes where her house is located in relation to the hospital. Kumiko slowly changes the discussion to her child who was apparently stolen by the state. Kumiko’s nephew, in hope of payment, reported her son to the authorities after he lost his sight in one eye, claiming that Kumiko was unable to care for him. In a spontaneous moment, Sôda holds his camera on Kumiko, with her face often shrouded by her hand. Sôda gives her space to tell the story, and to fill the silence when prompted (Commandment #6). The long takes (Commandment #5) and lack of explicit editing absorbs viewers into this sad story, as Sôda illuminates a specific tale about a sole individual as a means to emphasize the wider and important context.
Akin to the cats, Kumiko wanders the streets and claims that she is “alone at home.” This is paralleled by her unnamed friend who was abandoned by her eight children, as they, too, have mostly fled the village. Soda’s filmmaking seems like a respite from their loneliness, offering the opportunity to participate in something, perhaps even giving their days meaning.
Importantly, Inland Sea is portrayed in a light monochrome, a late suggestion by Kashiwagi at the end of post-production (Commandment #7), which gives the image a photographic sensibility and helps allude to something that once was, something that has been and passed. In Sôda’s first black and white film, the rocky and shaky camerawork comes across as a bit amateurish at first. But when coupled with the monochrome and bare compositions of the scenery, the imagery is left plain and simply beautiful. While initially seeming to be a departure from Sôda’’s “natural” observational style, there is a softness to this approach which seems to respect the timelessness of its main characters.
By focusing on three elderly Ushimado residents, Sôda has unconsciously managed to both comment on the present and the past, as the subjects seem like relics or museum articles that have come to life through monochromatic photography. The filmmaker’s approach is superbly honest, authentic and sweetly personal (as always). Sôda is at his finest form, and pushes the boundaries of the observational canon. Not only is Inland Sea one of the finest nonfiction films to be released in recent years, but it’s also one of the greatest films of the last decade, thanks to Sôda’s astute and singular filmmaking style (Commandments #1-10).
Edwin Miles (@eaj_miles) is a filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian from the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Now based in London, Edwin’s experimental work reflects on ideas of family and memory, home and displacement. His favourite filmmakers include Derek Jarman, David Lynch and Kazuhiro Sôda.