Eastern Premise #59 – The Wield

It’s only taken him almost 60 weeks to get to one, but for in this instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes a look at a documentary!

Documentaries can offer us a unique insight and journey into other cultures and identities. One of Japan’s most notable female directors, Naomi Kawase, established her reputation with a series of documentaries fuelled initially by her own personal experiences. First noticed on the international festival circuit, she remains largely unknown in the West although her work has been the subject of several retrospectives outside of Japan. Kawase is making her long overdue Eastern Premise debut this week.

Being within touching distance of #60 it is surprising that documentaries haven’t featured more prominently so far. We have scouted around the confines with films that blur the boundaries, such as Masato Ishioka’s disturbing and sleazy ScoutMan, Nagisa Oshima’s seminal Death by Hanging or even Isao Yukisada’s tale forbidden love and racism; Go. For Kawase, the initial inspirations for her early works came from her family and upbringing. A firm believer in filming topics that are of personal interest, her debut 8mm film was simply entitled I Focus On That Which Interests Me. Graduating from the Osaka School of Photography in 1989 with The Girls Daily Bread, she continued with 8mm and 16mm short documentaries with the remarkable Embracing following her journey to find the father she never knew.  

Her personal touch and emotional investment in each film ensures each is a memorable journey, even when Kawase moved away from the documentary genre her roots are still visible. The pinnacle of her career to date would be winning the Camera d’Or Grand-Prix at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2007 with The Mourning Forest. For now this week we are heading back to 1997 and her poetic documentary that follows 6 families living in the remote Hirao district of Nishi Yoshino village in Nara. The Weald was filmed after wrapping Kawase’s debut feature film, Suzaku, and during its production Kawase felt compelled to capture the decay and depopulation she was witnessing around her. This desire manifested itself as The Weald.

This remote mountain community provides a glimpse to a bygone age, one that is slowly slipping away. Although its residents have embraced modern technology such as chainsaws, motor vehicles and pressure washers, the work itself remains manually intensive and laborious. The rugged landscape is dominated by a thick and daunting canvas of trees. These forests provide the timber resource that the men harvest by hand and sell at a nearby auction. In comparison the women work what patches of fertile land they can find outside of their domestic chores.

Each of Kawase’s subjects has lived most if not all of their life in this unforgiving environment. Through her use of a handheld camera we are invited into their world and ultimately their life and future. The residents that we follow in bite-sized chapters throughout the 73 minutes of the documentary are closely matched with their predicaments. Kawase’s style is not what we’d expect from some of the popular feature length documentaries that have grown in popularity over the past couple of years. The camera at times can be jerky, the images gritty and blurred yet it allows us the chance to walk in the shoes of these inhabitants.

She breezes into each of remote homesteads in a creeping fashion, peering around the corners and slowly integrating us into this landscape. For all the life in the surrounding forests, the houses that have been the homes of these residents for decades are eerily quiet and the atmosphere is one of mystery, and at times sadness. For all the life that surrounds the community, this is a world slowly dying with this generation as lure of the cities and wealth has robbed the village of a future. After each interview, she leaves this setting by zooming out through a series of increasingly distant shots confirming the isolation and predicament of each resident. It is at times a haunting atmosphere that lingers and dominates the fabric of The Weald.

The interviews are filmed as each local goes about their daily routine and are organic, lacking any sense of staging or scripting. Close-ups form the main thrust of these encounters, with each resident’s face showing the hardship and loneliness of their twilight years. A small common series of topics permeate the documentary; reminiscing about former loves, when there was a sense of a bustling community and being young. Reincarnation is a constant theme as are regrets in life. Several men seem sad how their lives have panned out; one wishes he was 10 years younger and another is waiting to die. Money is another topic that becomes evident; these elderly souls have no need for the consumer based society we live in today, they are happy with their stock and as one comments ‘if I had a penny, I’d be a rich man’.

Photographs are used to show several of the residents as young men, full of life and joy. The dissolve that Kawase utilises for one individual towards the end of the documentary is the brief moment where the viewer can reflect in visual terms about the relentless nature of life and growing old. The Weald is a vessel for reflection; we are given a unique ticket into this dying community and lifestyle. The links to the past are fading and these residents may have lived an alien life to us but their hopes, emotions and experiences carry great weight and similarities for our society.

The Weald along with Kawase’s work is unavailable outside of Japan in any format, the only exception being The Mourning Forest which can be streamed online via Mubi. However there is an option available to purchase most of her work via the Tsmugu DVD box set, which is available for import or via her own website.  This comprehensive package is expensive as is common with purchasing any material from Japan yet it is the only available route. Across the 5 discs we are granted 8 of Kawase’s films, with each of these thankfully offering an English subtitle option. We will no doubt return to Naomi Kawase’s work as we venture onwards in Eastern Premise.

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