Kazuhiro Soda: “I was conscious that I was filming something that was being lost forever” (Interview)

Inland Sea

It can never be repeated enough, the time of a film cannot – in any case – be limited or be reduced by his theatrical release. For that reason, not bound by any current actuality (in France), it’s necessary to highlight works of art who did not even had that chance, travelling from film festivals to vod platforms, growing in us, having their inherent temporality. Kazuhiro Soda’s documentary, Inland Sea, is one of them. Particularly remarked at the Cinéma du Réel Festival in 2018, the film reveals with closeness, acuteness and generosity the way of living in a small village from a japan inland sea. The real point here is about to be ready to let go and go on a trip, like the director, with the locals, and to relieve from the fear being lost, in order to appreciate the surprises popping up like authentic gifts.

Before talking about the film, I would like you to say a few words about the 10 principles that guide your approach as a film director and maybe explain their origin, what they bring to your work and at which moment they help you? These 10 principles are : no research ; no meetings with subjects ; no scripts ; roll the camera yourself ; shoot for as long as possible ; Cover small areas deeply ; do not set up a theme or goal before editing ; no narration, super-imposed titles, or music ; use long takes ; pay for the production yourself.

I used to make TV documentaries for NHK, Japanese public broadcaster for 7 years. I came up with my “10 commandments” because of the frustration I experienced as a TV director. When making TV documentaries, I had to do a lot of pre-shoot research and was required to write a detailed script which had the beginning, middle, and the end. I was expected to shoot everything by following the script, which made me hard to discover something unexpected. I also didn’t like the fact that I had to explain everything to the viewers using narration, super-imposed titles, and BGM. Basically, my “10 commandments” is an anti-TV doctrine.

What was the starting point of Inland Sea? What did you find attractive about the island?

Kiyoko’s mother is from Ushimado, Okayama, Japan, so we often spend vacations there. And while on a vacation, we became friends with some local fishermen, which made me curious about their lives. That was the starting point of Oyster Factory and Inland Sea which were shot during the same period in November 2013. To be more specific, when I was shooting some exterior shots of Ushimado for Oyster Factory, carrying around my camera, we accidentally encountered Wai-chan at the shore, which started Inland Sea.

I feel like the film’s dramaturgy is based on the encounters that occurred with the island’s locals during the shoot. You seem to have started out following one person, then an acquaintance, then a neighbor, and follow a path without knowing exactly where you are going to end up. To which extent is this narrative weave inherited from the script, the shoot or the editing of the film?

As I said, I prohibit myself from writing anything before shooting, and Inland Sea was no exception. So basically, everything came spontaneously and organically.

At the beginning of the film, we follow Wai-Chan, the fisherman, for quite some time. You were very careful about filming him in his work environment : close-ups of his hands, his time spent on the boat. It goes from the moment he weaves and mends the fishing nets, the fishing at night, the fish sorting to the selling of the fish the next morning. In this case, would you say there was an anthropologic inclination from your part, a will to document work techniques that are disappearing?

Oh yes. When I became friends with local fishermen in Ushimado, I learned that almost all the fishermen were in their 70’s or 80’s and they didn’t have anybody to succeed. It means we will probably have no fishermen like Wai-chan in 10, 20 years – a shocking imagination to me. So when I was shooting Wai-chan, I was conscious of the fact that I was probably filming something that was being lost forever.

Inland Sea

Your way of filming made me think of the iconic film from Québec by Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière and Pierre Perrault : Pour la suite du monde, from 1963. Would you say it influenced your documentary work? Maybe you would like to quote other filmmakers that influenced you.

Actually, my biggest influence was from Frederick Wiseman. I really admire his works, especially his early ones.

It seems you try to show the life of this island (the relationships of its inhabitants) through its fishing economy with its different chronological steps : the fishing, the morning deliveries, the delivery to the sellers, the fish packing, the arrival of the customers, the (delivery) rounds.  It is a « proximity economy » in which everyone seems to know everyone, a strong social link for the community of the island. Did you actually want to show this aspect or is it what you observed while filming?

It’s definitely what I observed while filming. When we met Wai-chan for the first time at the shore, we shot the opening scene. And we learned that he was planing to go fishing tomorrow, so we followed him to film it. Then he went to the local fish market to sell his catch. At the market, they started bidding, so of course, I filmed it. I noticed Koso-san was among the bidders. We knew Koso-san because we often bought fish from her store. So we followed her to her store and filmed her activities as a store owner. So without knowing it, I ended up filming the entire cycle of this ancient local economy which probably has lasted for more than 1000 years in Ushimado. At the same time, I learned that this economy is no longer sustainable today.

I was very intrigued by the way you film the fish after they have been caught : patent zooms reveal their agony, while being disentangled from the fishing nets, flailing around in the buckets of water, still moving in the boxes before they are sold. I had empathy for them, that was the effect it had on me but was it the effect you were searching for?

Well, I felt empathy for the fish while filming, so I tried to translate it to visual language. You know, life is complicated. To catch a fish is a success for Wai-chan and it’s what keeps him alive. But at the same time, the same incident means tragedy and death for the fish. That’s the nature of life. You always see light and darkness in the same picture. You can’t separate good and evil.

This sympathy towards animals is also found in shots of the island cats that are very present there, it reaches its peak when a couple feeds the stray cats in their neighborhood.

Yes, absolutely.

The film is black and white; this accentuates a contemplative dimension, less contemporary but maybe more eternal. When was this choice made, what are your motivations for choosing black and white, and more importantly, what is at stake?

It was accidental, too. I edited everything in color and once fished the grading in color. I thought that the twilight color in the film was so important so I spent so much time tweaking it. I even had this temporary title « Inland Sea at Twilight » because so many important scenes happened at twilight. The film is also about people and town at their twilight days. But I didn’t really like this tentative title, so I and Kiyoko were discussing what to do. Then all of a sudden, Kiyoko suggested me to turn everything into B&W! I immediately dismissed it, but then at midnight before I went to bed, I somehow thought I should give it a try. When I started watching it in B&W, I was so astonished. Like you said, it made the film timeless and eternal. By taking out the color, it added a different dimension to the film. So I decided to redo the grading all over again in B&W. At the same time, we took out « at Twilight » from the title.

The film progressively turns towards Kumiko, a very loquacious eighty-year old. I’m not sure how to characterize her but I think we can say she is quite a character: rather heinous and touching at the same time. She criticizes absolutely everyone, even in their presence. We can tell she is elderly and says many inexact things. It seems she sometimes gives out roles and characterizes people.

Yes, she’s definitely a character. While we were shooting Wai-chan, she started invading our frame. I was a bit annoyed at first but my observational filmmaking policy is about accepting anything that occurs in front of me. So she gradually became our main character.

Inland Sea

Something happens when she literally embarks you up to the island heights and monologues for quite some time about her son that has been taken away from her by the state with the complicity of her nephew – according to her. She talks about this as if it had taken place decades ago, but that is not the case. Still it is a very moving moment. We come close to and are touched by a certain truth: her profound solitude that I believe to be her true unhappiness.

That’s right. As you may have noticed, I was very reluctant to go to the hill when she urged me to do so. It was chilly and I was so tired. But I’m glad she insisted. It became one of the most important scenes of the film. It has this dreamy, surreal quality of Japanese Noh theater.

It is indicated in the film that Kumiko passed away in 2015. I can imagine you were affected by this… However, did her passing away have an impact on the editing of the film?

When I was completing the film, I knew she had already passed away. So it totally affected my editorial decisions especially toward the end of the film.

Inland Sea

It seems to me you try to make the film feel like the experience of a journey that is your own and that you directed, as it starts out with your meeting Wai-Chan and ends with your goodbyes in the same place with him, Kumiko and the others.

That’s exactly what I try to do by making documentaries. To me, documentary is not about conveying information or political messages. It’s about sharing my experience with the viewers. If you felt as if you visited Ushimado and met Wai-chan, Kumiko, Koso-san, and cats, I think I did a decent job.

Are you already working on your next film? If this is the case, could you tell us more?

I’m editing two new films that are already shot. One is set in Okayama, Japan again. The other one is set in Detroit, USA.

(translation : Nina Aboutajedyne)