New York-based Kazuhiro Soda's documentary reveals more of Japan's social problems through stories of struggling workers at provincial shellfish processing plants.
Online and in print, Kazuhiro Soda is never hesitant to make his political views known. The New York-based Japanese filmmaker writes damning posts about the rise of warmongers in his home country and abroad in his blog, and among his published books are Fascism Without Enthusiasm and Do Japanese People Want To Throw Away Democracy? His films, however, have taken a very different approach, with problems in Japan's national narrative gently revealed through exposition-free representations of ordinary lives on the margins.
Oyster Factory, Soda's latest, which just debuted at Locarno, bears testament to the filmmaker's skills in wringing out big issues from the "little people." Edited out of 90 hours of footage shot over three weeks in one seaside community in southwestern Japan, the film slowly and successfully teases out the country's clammed-up anxiety about a new, globalized economy through the struggle of workers in mom-and-pop shellfish process businesses.
Engaging as always with his settings and subjects, Soda demonstrates an instinct in capturing fears and doubts when they come to the fore, while also carefully putting these emotional implosions in context. Always entrusting his protagonists to provide unintentional punchlines, he lingers for too long in certain scenes. Generally speaking, however, Oyster Factory offers pearls of wisdom about small-town ennui in the 21st century, and should again secure Soda yet another sustained run on the festival circuit after that of the Peabody-winning Campaign (and its follow-up last year), Mental, Peace and the two-part Theater.
Set in Ushimado, the hometown of the mother of Soda's producer (and wife) Kiyoko Kashiwagi, Oyster Factory revolves mostly around a cluster of seaside workshops in which mountains of the freshly fish-farmed shellfish is shucked, cleaned and loaded onto delivery trucks for the market. From the very start, Soda is able to convey the nature of a line of work which one laborer describes, half in jest, as tough and dirty. Muddy water splatters over his camera as he films the clattering unloading of oysters, and the shop floor in which all the processing takes place - a bare room in which workers sit on the floor for hours tackling all those sharp-edged shells with even sharper blades - is tidy but gloomy.
With not a conveyor belt or cellphone in sight, the labor nearly completely manual, and one of the workers slogging on while straddling her toddler, Oyster Factory could easily have been a film from decades past. Changes are afoot, however, as a note attached on the wall of a factory marks the date on which "China is coming". Not the country, mind you, but workers from there: because of the lack of new local intake - long-time workshop owner Hirano's urbanite son says on camera, with his father next to him, how he will "never" countenance taking over the business - the spiraling industry has resorted to bringing in workers from abroad.
As the two-hour-plus documentary slowly inches forward, the suppressed fears of the other begin to surface. While there are already Chinese workers in situ among the oyster factories, the new arrivals still vex the locals: some struggle to get up to speed about these developments - one spends a sizeable amount of money to get a prefab house for his two employees-to-be, while his wife learns Chinese - while others are more belligerent. A fisherman describes one of his imported workers as "lazy" and "mental" - the latter a source of fear because of a recent violent murder involving a Chinese laborer - while another acquaintance is outright in saying how the "terrible" Chinese "just steal everything they see".
But the Chinese are not the only aliens in Oyster Factory. The wayfaring Watanabe, who plans to bring in the foreign workers when he takes over Hirano's factory, is a domestic migrant himself, displaced from his northeastern hometown which the Fukushima nuclear plan meltdown has deemed uninhabitable. The pain of hearing these complaints about "foreigners" is doubled by his discussion with fellow fishermen about the decimation of oyster farms in his home region. In a scene following Hirano's son's blunt rejection of the family business, Watanabe mutters to an off-screen Soda: "People who come here are kind of losers, aren't they?"
Such sequential juxtaposition shapes Oyster Factory. Soda has long stated that he never does research, plans his shoot or meets his subjects before production begins; his empathy with his interviewees of course allows him to cruise along during the filming, but the "story" is effectively sewn up in the editing (in this case, nine months of work, says the filmmaker in his production notes). While it may seem haphazard or randomly assembled in the beginning, the film gradually comes together as the many different individuals, themes and morals coalesce into a bigger picture.
Combining a pervasive sense of grit and offering odd moments of grace - the town is part of what is dubbed "Japan's Aegean Sea" after all - Oyster Factory slowly cracks its settings of provincial serenity open and leaves the viewer to reflect on the future.