Ogawa Shinsuke - Writing “Love Letters” With Films
Feng Yan (Documentary Filmmaker, Translator of the book Harvesting Film)

In my eyes, Ogawa Shinsuke is the best person to “love” with filmmaking.  No matter his subjects-in-question are students or peasants, he was deeply impressed by their shining of human nature.  Although the way he approached his subjects took a lot of “troubles”, it was, at the same time, full of love and passion, which made those in front of his camera opened up their hearts spontaneously.

The love of Ogawa Shinsuke was also “dauntless”. In order to film the villagers in Sanrizuka, who opposed to the construction of the airport, Ogawa’s crew defended with the villagers together in the bulwark.  Not only were they fearless in the midst of the battle, but their camera did not “sit on the fence” either – it was also literally “fighting the battle”, as in Ogawa’s own words, “If the villagers are positioned at 100 meters ahead, we will go 30 meters more." After moving to Yamagata, in order to approach the soul of those being filmed, they even spent more than three years to experience the process of rice-farming themselves before rolling their camera. The love of Ogawa Shinsuke could as well stand loneliness.

But such love of his was never forcefully imposed on his subjects.  Instead, it was "mutual love".  He never "examined" in the interviews of his films, but invited the interviewees to "speak freely".  The reason was that he understood stories as being originated from personal life experiences of the narrators themselves.  He, therefore, did not treat "reality demonstration" as the ultimate goal of making documentaries.  Instead, he let his characters "play their own roles freely" in front of the camera.  The charming fabrication, which those being filmed were not aware of, and their most fascinating expressions were presented to the audience, bringing us to a wonderland in which the real and unreal are indistinguishable.

The most wholehearted love that Ogawa had ever expressed was the dramatic presentation of the Itututomoe Incident in Magino Village A Tale.  It is also the best interpretation of the "remedy" function of documentaries.

A revolt broke out in Magino 240 years ago, in which the villagers fought for reduction of rent and interest rate.  The revolt was severely suppressed by the government.  In order to protect the majority, the five leaders of the revolt, including Taroemon and his two sons, took the blame and responsibility, and were decapitated by the government.

For a few hundred years, the fear of ghost and guiltiness had been embedded deeply inside the hearts of the villagers. There was an unusual thinking in their subconsciousness that they believed their ancestors betrayed Taroemon in order to survive, and that they were "traitors".  As such, no one dared to work on Taroemon’s land even though Taroemon had no more descendants.  People were scared of the "haunted" house and dared not to enter until the site was rebuilt to be a shrine, where five decapitated Ksitigarbhas were enshrined and worshiped thereafter.  Every year, on the 1st of January which is the most joyful day of the year, the villagers still go to the shrine, worship and pray in reverence.

Ogawa and his crew learnt of the story above gradually from many fragmented conversations they had with the villagers in the many years they stayed in Magino.  For the villagers, it was a painful history that none of them could forget but not desire to bring up.

To use drama to reenact the revolt was the most humane "remedy" that Ogawa Shinsuke had chosen. He not only invited the villagers to play the role of the revolting peasants, but also encouraged them to be involved in the whole production.  At that time, in April, it was a busy month for farmers, and therefore the villagers had to work in the field at daytime.  Then they rushed to the set at night, but without feeling the least exhaustion as they felt like "atoning their guilt" through this participation.  Topics ranging from scriptwriting to costumes and props were discussed among the crew and the villagers.  In this drama, the villagers were no longer merely “objects being filmed", but they could add in their sentiments for Taroemon in the film through the process of getting involved in the film production – as if everyone of them went back to the battle hundreds of years ago. The shame of "not being able to fight to the end with Taroemon" was gradually replaced by "the pride of being a descendent" in their hearts.  They could, finally, be emancipated in front of the camera.

Kimura Michio, who invited Ogawa's crew to "have a look at Yamagata", recalled the days back then: "From many perspectives, Magino Village will never experience something like that again.  All the villagers were sincere and united throughout.  Apart from the revolt 240 years ago, this condition has never happened and will never happen again. I should put it like this: after 240 years, Ogawa brought the community of our village back to life."

Whenever and wherever he was, Ogawa stood hand-in-hand with those being filmed, using filmmaking to help them re-discover dignity and confidence, to heal their wounds and ransom their soul.  The love of Ogawa for his subjects was demonstrated subtly and unnoticeably, and was vast and touching.

As a documentary filmmaker, I have learnt a lot from Ogawa Shinsuke.  From my point of view, Ogawa is referred to as a "master" because he knew "the way of love" in documentaries.  It was his documentaries that showed us how to write "love letter" with films.