Japanese documentaries tend to be blandly inoffensive, especially those dealing with sensitive topics. Typically, a velvet-voiced narrator sets the scene and a sympathetic interviewer lobs questions to her subjects as gently upbeat music plays in the background.
By that measure, New York-based documentary director Kazuhiro Soda makes very un-Japanese films indeed, though he isn’t the first here to reject the above-mentioned methods and formulas. Since 2007, when he released his observational documentary “Campaign,” about an eccentric former classmate’s run for Kawasaki city council, Soda has succeeded in illuminating truths his more conventional colleagues elide or ignore.
This is also a kind of high-wire act, as his latest film, “Oyster Factory” (“Kaki Koba”), makes clear. Premiering at Locarno’s film festival in 2015, this documentary about oyster harvesting in the port of Ushimado on the picturesque Seto Inland Sea was shot in only three weeks, minus the usual sort of advance work to smooth the way. This is not laziness but rather Soda’s standard way of staying fresher to new situations than filmmakers who arrive on location with all their expert interviews neatly scheduled.
He does have a hero — a plain-speaking oysterman named Watanabe — who has moved to Ushimado with his family from Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture, a coastal town hard hit by the tsunami of March 11, 2011. A generation or so ago, few in Watanabe’s line of work would have taken such a leap, but post-disaster prospects were limited. Meanwhile, Ushimado needed fresh blood to keep its remaining oyster factories going as the local population declines and young people seek better opportunities elsewhere.
Watanabe, in fact, has been asked to take over an oyster factory by its aged owner, whose son is reluctant to succeed him. But the factory needs more workers than the local (and mostly aged) community can provide. To make up the difference, he and the other Ushimado oystermen have been hiring foreigners on temporary labor contracts. Two from China are scheduled to arrive while Soda is filming.
That, in a nutshell, is the film’s story. It’s one that has become increasingly common in rural Japan. But where the mass media applies a broad brush to the labor shortage issue, parading statistics and facts, Soda is a pointillist, recording snatches of conversation and scraps of writing that somehow capture real-life attitudes better than the endless editorials and Internet rants.
One local, with Soba listening in, praises the previous Vietnamese workers as “nice,” but describes the Chinese who will replace them as “terrible.” “They steal whatever they see,” he says. “They lack common sense.” And a schedule in the factory lists the two new workers simply as “Chūgoku” (“China”).
When the workers finally arrive, Soda is bluntly told by the factory owner to stop filming, since his camera may upset the men. But Soda, with his smiling producer-wife running interference, records their arrival without missing a beat. Did he acquire this chutzpah in New York?
In any event, the new men, Zhao and Zhen (Watanabe introduces them to the other workers by name), are eager to please, with no camera allergy whatsoever. Fears vanish and stereotypes shatter. And they are set up in a spiffy prefab house, with new furnishings and appliances that Watanabe patiently explains to them as curious local kids look on.
All’s well that ends well? The film offers no such pat arc. Instead it digresses freely, tracking the adventures of a white stray cat Soda and his wife adopt and following the rescue of a fisherman who falls off a dock. Cuts could have arguably been made, of such scenes as the lengthy, aimless takes of kids playing around the factory. But the kids, cat and soaked fisherman also raise a smile. As a film, “Oyster Factory” may not be slick, but it is warm, insightful and human.