Review of documentary PEACE plus interview with director Kazuhiro Soda

Peace - Pix 01 - cats_confrontation

Since last year, I’ve grown to enjoy and admire Kazuhiro Soda’s observational documentaries very much (love Campaign & Mental). In the summer of 2009, DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival in the border city of Paju, South Korea, commissioned Soda to make a 20 minute-short documentary about peace and coexistence which has now grown into a full length documentary.

Background and serendipity of PEACE

Soda originally wasn’t too keen on the idea of making a film on a board topic like “peace and coexistence“. But while shooting footage of his father-in-law and mother-in-law because Soda has always been interested in their work (respectively running an affordable taxi service for the elderly and disabled, and running an non-profit organization that sends home helpers to houses of the elderly and the disabled), Soda got the idea of making the feature-length documentary PEACE. Soda’s observational documentary style was key because he prohibited himself from doing any research or meeting prior to shooting to avoid having preconceptions.

The film was partly financed by DMZ KIDF and it was scheduled as the opening film for DMZ KIDF.

Film trailer

Film synopsis (emphasis added)

What is peace? What is coexistence? And what are the bases for them?

PEACE is a visual-essay-like observational documentary, which contemplates these questions by observing the daily lives of people and cats in Okayama city, Japan, where life and death, acceptance and rejection are intermingled.

Three people and stray cats are the main characters.

Toshio Kashiwagi runs an affordable taxi service for the disabled and the elderly, having retired as a principal at a special school. Meanwhile, he feeds a group of stray cats everyday. However, there is a growing tension in the cats’ peaceful community because a male “thief cat,” an outsider, is trying to invade it.

Toshio’s wife, Hiroko Kashiwagi, runs a non-profit organization, which sends home helpers to houses of the elderly and the disabled. But, her organization is facing financial difficulties because of budget cuts from the government. At home, she has been grumbling about the way Toshio feeds his cats.

As a professional caregiver herself, Hiroko regularly visits 91-year-old Shiro Hashimoto to help his daily routines. Living in a mice and tick infected small apartment, Hashimoto is spending his final days thinking about his own death. His memories of being drafted to World War II come back to him while dealing with Hiroko.

Film review + interview with director Kazuhiro Soda

Peace and coexistence are big and abstract ideas that are difficult to turn into a documentary without being too semental and corny. I think Soda’s observational documentary style worked well in dealing with the theme without making it a hard sell. The audience was able to experience the theme through the daily lives of three main characters and a group of revolving stray cats that Toshio feeds.

Peace - Pix 02 - toshio holding_chiro

Peace - Pix 05 - hiroko_kashiwagi1

To my surprise, I found out during my interview with Soda that Toshio and Hiroko are actually Soda’s father-in-law and mother-in-law! Both Toshio and Hiroko were totally natural and engaging on screen. Soda “kinda forgot that they are the in-laws”, and in turn, the in-laws forgot that he is their son-in-law for the most part. [note: By the way, Toshio and Hiroko also played an important role in connecting Soda with Dr. Yamamoto, the doctor in Mental.]

Through the eyes of Toshio and Hiroko, we got to also see how the elderly and disabled in Japan are being treated and the challenges they face.

The stray cats


Peace - Pix 04 - thief_cat3

Toshio’s stray cats kind of started this film as Soda has always been interested in Toshio’s feeding of the stray cats. And as the serendipity of documentary making will have it, Soda noticed the new cat (the “thief cat”) had conflicts with the existing cats. And the filming of these cats for his own personal record would later become a wonderful illustration of the theme of peace and coexistence.

Peace - Pix 03 - cats_feeding3

Mr. Shiro Hashimoto

Peace - Pix 07 - hashimoto4

The 91-year-old Mr. Shiro Hashimoto, a client of Hiroko was the third major character in the film. [spoiler alert: skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know too much] Mr. Hashimoto was living in a mice and tick infested small apartment, smoking his beloved PEACE brand cigarettes and slowly dying of lung cancer. [note: According to Soda, PEACE brand was the first cigarette brand sold by the Japanese government to the public in Japan in 1946 after World War II.]

Peace - Pix 08 - hashimoto7

Peace - Pix 09 - peace1tif

Soda’s personal take and impression (not meant to be a definitive take) (emphasis added),

“Mr. Hashimoto’s surrounding is very difficult. He is alone. He is old. He has terminal illness. […] He is on welfare. He is living in a very small apartment with lots of mice. A very difficult situation if you describe it in words. But I felt, in a sense, his mind was very peaceful. He was kind of accepting his own life. His own destiny or fate. He smiles all the time. He interacts with people. I felt, despite the kind of difficult situation, I found some peace in his mind. I don’t know, I could be wrong. But thats the kind of impression I felt.”

Here is a very telling exchange between Mrs. Hiroko Kashiwagi and Mr. Shiro Hashimoto about Mr. Hashimoto’s war time experiences. (emphasis added)

*** S: Mr. Shiro Hashimoto, H: Mrs. Hiroko Kashiwagi

S: I was a solider before.
H: What?
S: I was stationed in Fukuoka until the war was over.
H: I’ve never heard that before.
S: I mean, I didn’t go to the front line. But I was in Nagoya and Fukuoka for 7 or 8 years.
H: Really. Was it before you got married?
S: Yep. Back then, they took us all to the war to use us like shields. So many young men were killed. Even people like the mayor of the village all went to the war and got killed. I’ve lost so many classmates.
H: Really.
S: We are all proud of dying. Nobody complained. It was a different era.
S: That’s why people used to say a man is only worth 1.5 sen.
H: What do you mean?
S: The same price as a postcard.
H: What?
S: The price of a man was the same as a postcard, 1.5 sen.
H: Oh, a postcard cost 1.5 sen?
S: Yep. So, men were drafted for 1.5 sen each. Regardless of if a parent died, if the 1.5 sen-postcard came, you had to go.
H: Wasn’t your mother glad to see you come back alive?
S: Well, she had to be reserved because many people got killed. Some were proud, but others felt bad about being alive. Since I wasn’t dead, I couldn’t go home in triumph. Back then, we were all educated that way. A man was worth 1.5 sen.
H: This is the first time I heard the phrase.
S: We were so cheap and disposable.
H: People actually used the phrase?
S: Yeah.

The Fukuoka connection

In my interview, I asked Soda but we both were not sure if Fukuoka, the city where Mr. Hashimoto stationed during World War II, had a prisoner of war camp.

I have now done some research and was able to confirm Fukuoka indeed had a POW camp. While we don’t know Mr. Hashimoto’s involvement at Fukuoka and it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate further. We do know some horrific things happened there based on naval historian Timothy Lang Francis’ 1997 research article, “To Dispose of the Prisoners”: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945“. And John Hickman referencing [Francis 1997] in his 2009 Journal of Military and Strategic Studies article, “Explaining the Interbellum Rupture in Japanese Treatment of Prisoners of War“,

“Describing the June 20, 1945 execution— decapitation by sword—of a handful of captured American Airmen in Fukuoka, Francis emphasizes not only the effect of indoctrination in unquestioned obedience to military authority but also the precedent of executions of captured airmen elsewhere, the effect of mixed signals about punishment from military authorities to the responsible officers, popular anger over aerial bombardment, and racial hatred encouraged by wartime propaganda.”

Again, if Soda had initially tried to shoot only things or people related to the theme of  “peace and coexistence”, instead of following his observational style of documentary filmmaking, he might not have filmed Mr. Hashimoto at all.

Quoting Soda talking about Mr. Hashimoto,

“Documentary is full of surprises. You never know what is going to happen. And I’ve never met Mr. Hashimoto before I shot him. So I never knew what kind of person he is. The minute I met him, I was already rolling the camera.”

Some details about the documentary:

PEACE was shot over two months in Sept and Oct 2009 (has about 32 hours of footage compare to ~60 hours for Campaign, 70+ hours for Mental, and 300+ hours for Soda’s upcoming “Theatre”) when Soda was in and out of Okayama city to visit various cities around the world to screen his previous film Mental. Editing of PEACE took only 2 months (compare to 6-7 months or a year for previous films) and came much more naturally for Soda and he was a bit surprised by the ease of the editing process.

The special DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival opening

I believe the following story is telling and meaningful as a reminder to us of the importance of peace.

PEACE was scheduled to have its world premiere at an outdoor screening at DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival at the foot of the Freedom bridge connecting South and North Korea at the border city of Paju, South Korea. Along with Soda, Toshio flew to Paju to attend the film screening. The Korean organizers were very passionate and wanted to screen the film at the planned outdoor and emotionally significant location for the gathered hundreds of participants. They even started the opening ceremony under thunderstorm and heavy rain with everyone wearing white raincoat. Unfortunately, part way through the ceremony, the conditions become dangerous (with lightening, etc) and conditions unsuitable for film watching, the screening of PEACE was delayed for two days and the film later screened indoor.

So while we may have “peace” and “stability” in North America, “peace” is not enjoyed by some citizens around the world.

Final thoughts

I highly recommend PEACE and I hope you will enjoy the documentary as much as I did. PEACE was invited to be screened at Vancouver, Tokyo Filmex, and has also been invited to three other film festivals and I am sure with more film festivals to come.

If you haven’t seen Soda’s previous films: CampaignMental, I recommend you go check them out as well.

One Response to Review of documentary PEACE plus interview with director Kazuhiro Soda

  1. […] I am happy to report Kazuhiro Soda’s PEACE won the audience award at Tokyo Filmex. Here is a link to my review of documentary PEACE plus interview with director Kazuhiro Soda. […]

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