Director Spotlight: The Unflinching Eye of Kazuo Hara

Kazuo Hara has been making films for over four decades and he is one of Japan's boldest artists. His so-called "action documentaries" highlight the fringes of Japanese society and push against the courteousness that permeates the culture. His vision is uncompromising and he is not afraid to turn the attention back onto his own life and personal struggles as well.

Goodbye CP (1972)

Many documentaries about disabled people to try to show them in their best light--overcoming the hurdles that give them the most trouble. Goodbye CP (the CP stands for "cerebral palsy") has no such goal, instead the film chooses to show these individuals for better and for worse, as complex people who are defined by more than their physical ailments.

Director Hara follows around a group of Japanese people with cerebral palsy known as Green Lawn Movement and most of the attention is centered on one of their most brash leaders Hiroshi Yokota, himself severely afflicted with the condition.  Eschewing his wheelchair for most of the film, Yokota travels the streets of Japan, crawling on his hands and knees, all the while forcing the locals to take notice of his condition. The film is in grainy black-and-white, and Hara often has his camera up close and personal on Yokota as well as the people's reactions to his struggles. There is a moment where Yokota is soliciting monetary donations for his cause and he reflects later that "I know it's just pity, but I would rather have pity than no interest at all".

As with most of Hara's documentaries there are sequences where the line between depiction and exploitation are crossed. Many of the disabled subjects question Hara on his motives and there is an especially harrowing scene where he films a fight between Yokota and his wife (she objects to him being in the film) that goes on for an extremely uncomfortable amount of time. It is these moments that are the most compelling, however, and they delve into the heart of what makes people tick. Hara never turns the camera away from the discourse, and he peels each person down the the most sensitive core of their being. 

During some interviews with the various members of Green Lawn, they discuss some heinous acts, but there are other delicate moments, like when Hara films them eating tangerines an an orchard that reinforces that softer side of humanity. People are a mixture of good and bad and being disabled doesn't change that fact. At the end of the film, Yokota strips naked and sits in the middle of the street, unashamed of his twisted body, a beautiful testament to the sheer force of one person's will to exist.

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974)

In his autobiography Camera Obtrusa, Kazuo Hara speaks candidly about his obsession with pulling out and filming the most intimate parts of a person. He is not interested in romanticizing his subjects, he wants to find the deepest aspects of their inner emotions. Extreme Private Eros encapsulates all of his views on romance, fear, love, heartbreak, joy, and confusion. Hara was dating a headstrong woman named Miyuki Takeda when out of the blue, after having a child with him,  Miyuki decides she wants to leave him and move to Okinawa. Instead of trying to stop her Hara follows her and films her new relationships--one with a woman and another with a black serviceman.

Hara completely immerses himself and lives with Miyuki and her girlfriend Sugako filming their quarrels. He has away of framing each sequence perfectly to capture small moments and facial expressions, transcending the detached style of most documentaries with oftentimes uncomfortable intimacy. These are raw vignettes of unfettered emotions, with Hara himself even breaking down into tears at one point while interviewing Miyuki about her new boyfriend. One might question Hara's motives in putting himself into these volatile situations and perhaps, in a strange way, this is some sort of fetishistic journey he is embarking on. He craves the truth no matter how hard it is to bear. 

Extreme Private Eros isn't all conflict and strife, it contains beautiful moments as well. There is a sequence where Hara holds Miyuki's face in close-up while making love to her. Miyuki also has him film the birth of her child at home, a scene that is blurry because Hara was too nervous to notice the camera was out of focus. Hara's new girlfriend becomes pregnant, and he films that birth as well. Both of these birthing scenes are extremely graphic but also seeing new life being brought into the world is something to behold. 

It's a film about the connections people make with each other and the love that they may hold even if relationship statuses shift and change over the years. From a technical standpoint, the film is quite rough, with the sound and images very rarely synchronized, but despite these shortcomings it remains compelling. Miyuki is a fascinating woman--extremely independent, fiercely stubborn, bisexual, and freethinking. One can imagine how radical this was in 1974 and even now it would raise some eyebrows. It's easy to see why Hara was fascinated by her. There is a fine line between depiction and voyeurism and Hara is happy to obliterate it completely.

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

"There are no heroes in war. Only victims"

The central narrative of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is the the pursuit of truth at any cost. Kazuo Hara's focus is on Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old war veteran who served in Japan's New Guinea campaign in WWII. After the war concluded two solders in his unit were put to death by firing squad, and even though it's been forty years since the events transpired Okuzaki has made it his mission to found out what really happened. Okuzuki is a brash individual, and at the start of the documentary he had served jail time for three prior convictions: manslaughter, throwing pachinko balls at the Emperor, and passing out fliers with a pornographic image of the Emperor on it. Needless to say, the man is not afraid of conflict.

Okuzuki himself is an interesting individual that is comprised of contradictions and he oscillates frequently between egotistical manic highs and self-depreciating and humble lows. It could all be an act, because he uses whatever means necessary to extract information from people, even at times, resorting to violence. The film follows him around as he confronts former members of his unit trying to ascertain what actually happened when the two soldiers were executed. Okuzuki goes to their houses unannounced, often extremely early in the morning, and interrogates them mercilessly until the tell him what he wants to know. Interestingly, though Okuzuki himself has no regard for politeness, he uses these cultural norms against the people he is questioning, often preying on their want to appease him and to also not lose face.

Director Hara has a way of framing each encounter eloquently, always placing his camera directly in the center of the fray, making the audience feel like they are part of the proceedings. This documentary is just as much about Okuzuki testing the limits of Japanese society with his methods as it is about finding out what happened with the soldiers. Okuzuki states in the film that "violence is my forte" and he physically assaults several people in his crusade for the truth. One might question the moral obligation of Hara to stop these violent encounters, but he is, for better or worse, just recording life as it happens, an indifferent eye that is merely a window into the situation. 

As the film progresses, information comes to light that changes the entire dynamic of the narrative, and it culminates in a shocking ending. It is interesting to speculate on the fact that, had Hara not made this documentary in the first place then things wouldn't have turned out the way they did, but ultimately he is not responsible for the actions of other people. This documentary is a harrowing look into the real cost of war.

--Michelle Kisner