Close Up

24 - 25 September 2022: Tsuchimoto Noriaki: Film Is a Work of Living Beings


The work of Tsuchimoto Noriaki (1928-2008) has a central place in the history of documentary filmmaking in post-war Japan. Mainly known for the series of films he made in the 1970s about the struggles over the Minamata mercury poisoning incident and his staunch support for the victims affected by it, Tsuchimoto’s is a vast and original body of work remarkable for its political commitment and ethical stand. This programme includes a series of films never shown in the UK, including a few of his early PR films from the 1960s, which critically chronicle a modernising Japan and changing Asia, and the powerful films he made about the student struggles in Japan.

Tsuchimoto’s committed much of his career to making a series of seventeen films and videos dedicated to the victims of the Minamata environmental disaster. The films are extraordinary portraits of these people and their world. For years, Tsuchimoto advocated for the patients’ rights, directing films and promoting them all over Japan and abroad. The programme includes the main trilogy of Minamata films, made between 1971 and 1975, as well as other less known films on the subject. It also includes an example of the work he made in the 1980s, with a film about the threat brought to small communities by the forces of “progress” and the uses of nuclear power. He continued to make films about environmental issues and also filmed in Afghanistan in a moment of political and social change. Tsuchimoto developed a very personal and independent method of working based on a continued engagement with the social issues of his time, making films based on mutual trust and empathy with the communities he filmed.

Organised by Open City Documentary Festival, this nine-screening programme will take place throughout September at the ICA and Close-Up, with a series of central screenings coinciding with the festival dates.


Tokyo Metropolis
Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1962, 29 min
UK Premiere

Tokyo Metropolis is an early film by Tsuchimoto produced for television by the PR company Iwanami Productions. The series Discover Japan was an educational programme introducing the prefectures of the country from a social perspective, each filmed by a different director. The film focuses on the changing social fabric of Tokyo and the exodus of young people from rural areas to the metropolis. It is a portrait of Japan in the midst of industrialisation and rapid change.

Exchange Student Chua Swee-Lin
Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1965, 51 min
UK Premiere

Exchange Student Chua Swee-Lin is considered as a precursor to independent documentary in Japan, and the first important film shot in the country about the burgeoning student movement. Chua Swee-Lin was a Malaysian exchange student who was being threatened with deportation over his protest against the separation and inde­pendence of Singapore. Tsuchimoto wished to make a plea for Chua Swee-­Lin’s case and thereby avoid his deportation and imprisonment. Chua Swee-Lin starts as a portrait of the young student but soon becomes a more encompassing and complex documentary about the political situation in Japan and Asia. As the film gathers support for Chua Swee­Lin and raises awareness to his cause, we see how his struggle joins that of other social movements.

“With most documentary films after this, like those before it, there first was a movement and then filming began in order to support and document that movement. With Chua Swee­-Lin, it was rather the film that organised the movement. There is no doubt that Chua Swee­-Lin is a happy exception. [...] It was like an expression of freedom, a freedom that was fresh and new. More than denying any cinematic form, it took what was cinematically impossible and gave birth to a new type of cinematic expression. [...] Chua Swee-Lin was an experiment, thankfully a successful one, an attempt at experiencing and showing the larger situation through the limited viewpoint of an individual. I think the experience of that film was carried on into the next generation’s filmmaking as well. That is what gave rise to Tsuchimoto’s Minamata: The Victims and Their World and The Shiranui Sea, as well as Ogawa’s Sanrizuka: Heta Village.” – Shinomiya Tetsuo


Pre-history of the Partisans
Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1969, 120 min
UK Premiere

Pre-history of the Partisans is one of the most extraordinary films about the student struggles taking place globally at the end of the 1960s. In 1969, Tsuchimoto (together with members of Ogawa Productions) had access to a self-organised group of students barricaded inside the Kyodai University in Kyoto. Tsuchimoto was critical of the sectarian conflict that divided the various leftist student groups, but at the same time was interested in their ability to organise, and willingness to act autonomously. The film, a direct-cinema masterpiece that would be a turning point in Tsuchimoto’s own method of working, documents in detail the discussions between the members of the group as they organise and discuss their ideas, define their tactics, prepare their fight, build barricades, and seek ways to broaden their struggle to overthrow not only academic authority but society as a whole.

“This film is perhaps the best documentary made, anywhere, about the student protests of the 1960s. Tsuchimoto was the only filmmaker or journalist allowed to witness the secret workings of an ultra-radical splinter group at the prestigious Kyoto University (alma mater of Oshima Nagisa). As Ogawa has done in Forest of Pressure, Tsuchimoto virtually lived with his subjects during the course of the shoot. Tsuchimoto, however, emerges as more even-handed than Ogawa toward his subjects, more dispassionate as a filmmaker. This is probably a function of the Partisan group’s overt desire for direct, violent confrontation with the authorities. While Tsuchimoto himself does not necessarily share his subjects’ views on the efficacy of violence, he does convey the honesty and intensity of the group members themselves.” – David Desser


Umitori – The Stolen Sea at the Shimokita Peninsula
Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1984, 103 min, 16mm

Umitori takes place in Shimokita Peninsula on the northern edge of the mainland, which was becoming a “nuclear energy peninsula” undergoing tremendous development and serving as the home port for Mutsu, a nuclear-powered ship. Focusing on the fishermen and their stories, Tsuchimoto and his crew made their subject matter the “theft of the sea” perpetrated by giant business conglomerates. While the fishermen of Minamata were obvious victims of the mercury poisoning tragedy, the fishermen in Shimokita were inadvertently becoming the permanent victims of another announced tragedy. Tsuchimoto interviews the fishermen, especially focusing on a stage play actor and his boat­-owner family, establishing (as became his practice) a complex reflection about the threat brought to small communities by the forces of “progress”.

“I thought fishermen were people who were never afraid of the sea. People would laugh at me and say: ‘Even if we do not say it, our fear is growing day by day.’ They know the depth of the sea, the best times to go fishing. Every day they read the colour of the sea, the shape of the waves, read the sky and the clouds, listen to the sound of the wind. Only then are they able to decide if they will go out to sea or not. Such people are always the first ones to suffer a great ordeal in the modern world.” – Tsuchimoto Noriaki

This programme is organised with Ricardo Matos, with thanks to Marcos Pablo Centeno, Max Carpenter, HARUKA Hama, HIRASAWA Go, Keiko Homewood, ISHIZAKA Kenji, Andrea Lissoni, Nico Marzano, MATSUMOTO Masamichi, SATO Tokue, Jelena Stojković, Adam Sutherland, TAKASAKI Ikuko, TSUCHIMOTO Motoko, YAMAGAMI Sakiko, YAMAGAMI Tetsujiro

It is presented in partnership with Athénée Français Cultural Centre Tokyo, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image [BIMI], Courtisane Festival, ICA London, The Japan Foundation London, Kanatasha, Kiroku Eiga Hozon Center, Museum of the Moving Image in New York, National Film Archive of Japan, SIGLO, Toho Stella. With the support of the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and special thanks to TSUCHIMOTO Motoko

For full retrospective and programme details visit: