The Pilot of the Festival, Ogawa Shinsuke
Cheung Tit Leung (Researcher, Lingnan University)

Ogawa Shinsuke is widely regarded as an influential Japanese documentary filmmaker. Born in 1936, he studied Economics at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo(i). His enthusiasm for film started to develop after his initiation of a film club at the university, where he organised screenings and tried making his own films. His interest in left-wing ideas and participation in the university’s student movement led him towards an interest in politics. After graduation, Ogawa took up a post as assistant director in a public-relations film production company, Iwanami Productions. He quickly accrued experience in film production during his time in the film company, which further consolidated his vocation towards filmmaking. However, the films he participated in for Iwanami Productions did not satisfy his ambitions for making the films he desired, and the film company did not appreciate his filmmaking methods (Nornes, 2007, pp. 32-34). As a result, Ogawa began to pursue an independent career and to produce films based on his own interests.

Beginning with film production for a student activists’ group, Ogawa subsequently produced a series of documentaries which have since become regarded as “monuments” in the history of Japanese cinema: the Narita (Sanrizuka) Series (Nornes, 2007, p. xiv). The series consists of seven films documenting the social struggle faced by farmers living in the Sanrizuka area, where the Narita International Airport was initially planned to be built. Erik Barnouw (1993) describes how, in the fourth film of the series, Narita: Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971), Ogawa, over four years “patiently record[ed] the growth of resistance… achiev[ing] an extraordinary social document, and one of the most potent of protest films” (p. 283). One of the astonishing features of the series is its extended chronological nature. Ogawa decided that the struggle should be recorded chronologically and cyclically, from spring to winter, and then start all over again, and again. The idea for such a chronicle was suggested by the titles of some of his other works, such as Summer in Narita (1968) and Winter in Narita (1970), thus representing a continual historical period in Sanrizuka. Additionally, in terms of the formal structures in the films, the apparently chaotic handheld shots and sounds give the film a “raucous aesthetic” like an “action film” (Nornes, 2007, p. 62).

After the completion of Narita – Heta Village (1973), Ogawa felt that the way in which he had captured the daily life of the farmers was actually only a “peeking” into their way of life (Ogawa, 2007, p. 45). Despite Ogawa and his team capturing the actual labour of farming, they felt that the position represented merely an outsider’s viewpoint; one which did not and could not truly evoke a farmer’s life (p. 44). As a result, Ogawa and his team, Ogawa Productions, decided to leave Sanrizuka and move their operations to a small, remote village in Yamagata prefecture, where they learned to become farmers themselves, and where they developed a friendship with the people in the local neighbourhoods. Such a manner of documentary filmmaking resembles what Bill Nichols (2011) classifies as a participatory model; one which, through an active engagement with the subjects-in-question over a period of time, “gives us [the audience] a sense of what it is like for the filmmaker to be in a given situation and how that situation alters as a result” (pp. 115-116). The “period of time” Ogawa spent on this project was thirteen years. Over this extended period, Ogawa and his teammates learned to be real, functioning farmers so as to genuinely capture that arduous life to the fullest. Thus, for example, they researched how the best harvest could be achieved, including undertaking empirical studies of the area’s weather and soil.

Their scientific studies on farming were represented in the film Nippon: Furuyashiki Village (1982) which was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at the 1984 Berlin International Film Festival. The first part of the film, in which they demonstrated a model of the flow of cold air into the village in the style of educational science documentaries, resembles an NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, the Japanese Government Broadcaster) educational documentary style. As suggested by the title of an article written by Ogawa, “Using a period of thirteen years to make a harvest of films” (2007)(ii), the productions actively engaged with the subject they sought to document by immersing themselves in the subject-in-question. From 1975, when they first moved to Yamagata, to 1991, Ogawa Productions produced six documentaries devoted to the farmers in Yamagata prefecture, including the almost four-hour long opus, Magino Village – A Tale (1986). During these thirteen years in Yamagata, Ogawa developed close relationships with many of its citizens, including the executive director of the Art and Cultural Society of Yamagata City, Tanaka Satoshi, who figured prominently in the establishment of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF). Through such an extended engagement with their neighbours in Yamagata, Ogawa and his teammates ceased to be visiting “Trotskyites” (Nornes, 2007, p. 155) who had fallen into the village. Instead, they transformed themselves into “local” farmers-filmmakers who actually resided in the region under study.

Through the invitation of organizing a documentary film festival in Yamagata, Ogawa took up a leading role in instituting the YIDFF, including planning for the recruitment of staff, networking with directors, and even initiating the idea of producing a documentary to promote the festival itself, which eventually resulted in the film A Movie Capital (1991). Furthermore, he teamed up with film critic Sato Tadao and other film or cultural practitioners in the region to garner support for the festival. As a result, the festival organisers included – at least until the festival became independent in 2007 – the festival office, various festival committees and the municipal government. 

After playing an instrumental role in organising a festival for the celebration of Yamagata City’s centennial, Ogawa’s ambitions for the festival moved well beyond that of a one-off event. By creating the first documentary film festival in the Asian region, Yamagata City positioned itself not only as “a significant site in the Asian independent film sector”, but also began to nurture film culture in the prefecture (Nornes, 2007, p. 222). Furthermore, the festival provided a platform for communication between fellow documentary filmmakers in Asia to further consolidate a sense of community, and the festival can now be seen to serve as a window to promote documentary makers from the region. The lasting contribution Ogawa gave to the festival – a kind of spiritual energy – is best described by Abé Mark Nornes (2007) as “a quasi-religious ‘Ogawaism’ that the volunteers speak about” (p. 224). Tragically this active spirit became just a memory in 1992. After the completion of A Movie Capital (1991), Ogawa was found to have cancer. During the 1991 festival period, he was unable to attend due to an extended stay in hospital for surgery. His condition fluctuated for a time until he passed away in 1992 at the age of 55.


Nornes, Abé M. (2007). Forest of Pressure : Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(i) According to Nornes, Ogawa liked to tell people he was born in 1935 rather than 1936, and that he studied ethnology rather than economics. Furthermore, he told others that he had never graduated. This “false” information provided Ogawa a more mature status among his peers and “all of his best friends”, and gave him “a badge of honor in the days of the student movement”. This misleading personal account was seen by some of Ogawa’s friend as “Ogawa’s way of engaging someone in discussion” rather than anything as sinister as a lie or trick. (2007, xviii)

(ii) 用十三年的時間,收割了電影 - translation by the researcher.