Japanese documentary film-maker Yu Yamanaka was in Singapore 5 September 2014, to grace this year’s Design Film Festival. His 45 minutes documentary, Hakusho: The Story of Rice, is the festival’s opening film. That Friday morning, before the film’s premiere at Shaw Lido in the evening, Yamanaka came down to The Puttnam School of Film where he shared generously with students.
Yu Yamanaka was born in 1976 (38 years old) in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, a landlocked area surrounded by high mountains and the natural environment. His early childhood spent in his hometown may have influenced his preoccupations with nature. This is evidenced in his short 35 minutes documentary, Tema Hima: Time, Work and Life in Tohoku, North East Japan, which he screened to us students.
Screened at last year’s Design Film Festival, Tema Hima is an elegiac meditation on craftsmanship and creation. Images of the simple, unassuming folks of Tohoku at work at their various traditional crafts, set together with the tumultuous Japanese seasons, flowed with the sound of their labouring, from the wrapping of bamboo leaves to the assembling of apple boxes, from the weaving of rattan baskets to the forging of red-hot steel into pliers and shears—all coalesced to form a moving and eloquent cinematic haiku in tribute to the many hardworking craftspeople and artisans that have sustained Japan throughout the centuries.
Yamanaka explained to students the several principles that grounded the artistic direction of Tema Hima which took a year to conceive and make. There were to be no dialogue, no voiceovers, and no subtitles. He did not want to make a ‘proper’ documentary, that is, an unbiased documentary that presented all the necessary facts and figures—an objective documentary. Instead he wants to move people. As he was emotionally involved in the filming, he too wants to involve his viewers emotionally and to show what he felt as he was filming. He wants his viewers to feel their way to understanding. These were the conditions of filming which resulted in a documentary that I believe comes close to what Ozu would have made if the great Japanese master had made documentaries.
I told him this. And, indeed, when I later asked Yamanaka what his influences were, he listed, amongst others, the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, and of course, Yasujiro Ozu. He stands on the shoulders of some of the most poetic film-makers in the history of cinema and their influences clearly run through the veins of his work as in his sensitive portrayals of human beings and his humanistic natural landscape photography.
Yamanaka also shared with us his reasons for being a documentary filmmaker. Before he went to film school, he majored in physics in another university. There, he took a class in film where his film professor introduced him to Takeshi Kitano, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Yimou. These filmmakers, he said inspired him to pursue film-making.
He started out in feature films but felt that he always had a “documentary film-maker type of thinking”. He said that early on he felt that “it would be very hard to just keep on focusing on complete fiction”. As audience watched more and more movies, as they became more sophisticated, “simple 100% fiction would not appeal to audience as much in the future, perhaps”. To show true human drama, he said, there has to be “some connection to reality”.
As the seminar neared its end, Yamanaka encouraged students to persevere and work hard: “When you go into the professional world of film-making, I’m sure you will have days where the work is too tough or you will have sleepless nights—you cannot sleep—due to overwhelming amount of work. But I want you to know that you will have rewards at the end. So that—what I want to tell you is that you have to continue. And that you don’t give up in the middle of your career. Because if you do keep working in this profession—or I guess, any profession—you will have rewards at the end. And I think in the future, when you look back, maybe if you remember what I said today, then you will realize that it was not a lie.”
Ho Say Peng is a Year One student at the Puttnam School of Film. He loves to watch films and aspires to be a feature film-maker.