Close Up

13 - 14 November 2021: Cinema of the Self: Personal Documentary in Japan


This programme places its focus on one of the most disarming strands of Japan’s non-fiction cinema. Variously termed self-documentary, personal documentary or “I-film” (a cousin to the I-novel in Japanese literature), this form of auto-documentary-making began when Japanese filmmakers in the early 70s began to make films that pointed the camera either at themselves, or those closest to them. Distributing and exhibiting the results outside of commercial circuits, the films could take the form of home videos, diaries, portraits, confessions, or a combination thereof. Raw, naked and intimate, both in form and content, self-documentary has often been the province of fledgling filmmakers willing to take on the challenge to put something on the line, to present their lives with an honesty as unvarnished as possible. So, while beauty, humour, lightness of the everyday are present, above all, it’s the private moments that give these films their power to surprise and move. Curated by Sunil Chauhan, this programme brings together some of the best of the sub-genre to come from Japan in the last 25 years.


Annyong Kimmchi
Tetsuaki Matsue, 1999, 53 min
Japanese with English subtitles

Where do younger Korean-Japanese (referred to as “zainichi”) born and raised in Japan stand on issues of ethnicity and nationality? In this charming documentary shot on 16mm, Tetsuaki Matsue, a third-generation zainichi embarks on a journey of self-discovery (the title translates as Hello Kimchi, a taste for which Tetsuaki has yet to acquire). As he confesses his Korean ancestry to classmates, quizzes his aunts on his family’s history, and even makes a journey to Seoul, he connects the social, cultural and political dots, eventually tracing the story of how his family came to bear Japanese names. The film itself is also a family collaboration, with sister Masako – who regularly appears as Tesuaki’s sounding board – serving as narrator. 

How I Survive in Kawaguchi City
Kenji Murakami, 2003, 30 min
Japanese with English subtitles 

Kenji Murakami moved to seemingly non-descript Kawaguchi to save on rent and train fare, but he has so far successfully avoided his new neighbourhood. When he embarks on training for the annual marathon, he finds the excuse he needed to playfully explore his surroundings, camera in tow.


Dear Pyongyang
Yong-Hi Yang, 2005, 107 min
Japanese with English subtitles

One of a trio of films made by director Yang Yong-Hi about her Korean-Japanese family, the tender Dear Pyongyang sees her try to learn more about her father. She examines his lifelong loyalty to the North Korean state, so devout that he sent his three sons from Japan to permanently live in the country while they were still teenagers. Following Yang on a revealing visit to Pyongyang to reunite with her brothers (footage which resulted in Yang being banned from re-entering), Dear Pyongyang – a winner at Sundance and Berlin – sensitively examines this family rupture, while also examining questions of allegiance, belonging and identity.


A Permanent Part-Timer in Distress
Hiroki Iwabuchi, 2009, 69 min
Japanese with English subtitles

When he failed to get a job in the publishing industry after graduating, Hiroki Iwabuchi found himself working as a factory worker assembling printer cartridges. Against a backdrop of loose regulations, a decrease in job security and poor prospects for younger workers, he started filming himself. Pondering his future, he joins worker protests and becomes the subject of a news documentary that causes him to question the representation of workers in the mainstream media, all the while taking on more temp jobs to supplement his low wage. Overlaid by an endearing, introspective voiceover, A Permanent Part-Timer in Distress is a poignant account from inside Japan’s gig economy.

Yuka Sato, 2018, 17 min
Japanese with English subtitles

An experimental documentary and poetic mood piece that charts the cautious re-emergence of a self-described social recluse into a dazzling urban metropolis after a period of withdrawal.


The Duckling 
Sayaka Ono, 2005, 75 min
Japanese with English subtitles

A work that epitomises self-documentary as a platform to address secrets and taboos, The Duckling is director Sayaka Ono’s bid to understand her past and where her deep-seated feelings of unhappiness stem from. Tracing her sadness and fear of abandonment back to her parents’ decision to send her to boarding school at the age of five, Ono confronts family members to reveal discomfiting truths in an attempt to understand the insecurities and loneliness that have affected her relationships with them. Densely intimate and fearlessly exposing, The Duckling – fittingly made with Kazuo Hara as executive producer – sees Ono seek to excavate her personal demons as well as her psychological make-up, asking where her family ends and she begins.

Thus a Noise Speaks
Kaori Oda, 2010, 35 min
Japanese with English subtitles

A family dinner shifts from celebration to discomfort when director Kaori Oda reveals that she is a lesbian. But the dinner is a recreation of the real event two weeks after the fact and the director has re-staged it to force her family members to consider their responses and the dynamics at play.


Director Disqualified
Katsuyuki Hirano, 2011, 111 min
Japanese with English subtitles

One of three films made by director Katsuyuki Hirano on his volatile relationship with porn actress Yumika Hayashi, Director Disqualified is comprised mainly of footage shot by Hirano on a bike trip he made with the actress from Tokyo to Hokkaido’s Rebun Island in 1997. Capturing the complicated, push-and-pull relationship between the pair over several years, it candidly depicts their awkward, unpredictable, sometimes troubling bond, presenting a tragic love story that will likely provoke as many questions in the viewer’s mind as it provides answers.

With special thanks to Takeshi Hata.

Screening as part of Japan 2020: Over 100 years of Japanese Cinema, a UK-wide film season supported by National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network.