Fuji TV’s Sunday afternoon documentary series “The Non-Fiction” usually covers individuals over long periods of time. “The Old Man and Radiation,” aired in two parts on Jan. 15 and 22, was about Toshihiko Kawamoto, an 80-year-old former carpenter who moved from Tokyo to the wilds of Fukushima Prefecture about 12 years ago. A video crew started visiting him in the spring of 2010 for the purpose of recording his self-sufficient existence during the course of a year. On the show’s website, the producer says he was initially less interested in Kawamoto than in the passing of the seasons, which is just as well because Kawamoto was reluctant to talk about himself. The documentary would be observational, a view of a life lived in harmony with nature, and the fact that the subject was in his twilight years would add a bittersweet flavor to the production.
But as crew and subject got to know each other, Kawamoto’s history came to the fore, and the tone of the coverage shifted from the impressionistic to the specific. Disillusioned by his experience as a teenage soldier in World War II, Kawamoto devoted his life to “working for people” rather than abstractions such as the Emperor, and spent the 1950s telling stories to children with the aid of illustrated filmstrips (gento). When he married, he started his own carpentry workshop, but never abandoned his philanthropic mission. After his children were grown, his wife left him, saying she could no longer remain with a “saint.”
Kawamoto lives alone with his dog, and despite the everyday challenges — growing his own food, making do without indoor plumbing, collecting and chopping his own fuel — and despite the fact that several years ago someone from a so-called nonprofit organization took advantage of his charitable proclivities and disappeared with his life savings, he is happy with his life.
And then came March 11. Filming was scheduled to end with the arrival of another spring, but the producer had to contend with the arrival of radiation — Kawamoto’s property was 25 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant — which forced him to move to a shelter with the understanding that he could never return to his home in the woods. Thanks to the title, the viewer knows the tragedy will intrude on the story, and so for the first three-quarters of the two-part program we feel anxious, knowing something Kawamoto and the crew don’t. The producer exploits this tension, but having become emotionally invested in Kawamoto’s well-being we accept the drama because we can see what he’s lost and, more importantly, what he hasn’t.
Though he has chosen to spend his final years in austere isolation, when forced to live in uncomfortably close proximity to others his generosity is tested and found to be undiminished. He entertains his fellow evacuees with stories and filmstrips, and enjoys every minute.
Whatever the producer’s intentions, the power of “The Old Man and Radiation” is accidental. He started covering Kawamoto with a particular purpose in mind, and ended with something different, something he couldn’t have expected. And though the disaster would have forced this change in the end, it was the subject himself who brought about the shift in editorial perspective, and through no agency of his own. He did not ask to be covered and didn’t seem to care if he was. But as we got to know him we wanted to know more, and were anxious about his fate.
On Jan. 20, Fuji TV aired another documentary that covered an individual for over a year, but “I Wanted to Be a Mother” was produced at the invitation of the subject herself, Diet member Seiko Noda (no relation to the prime minister), who gave birth a year ago to a son, Masaki.
Noda’s difficulties in having a child are well known. In 2004 she wrote a book about her infertility treatments and a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. Her six-year relationship with a fellow politician she was living with also ended. She met another man and they set about trying to have a child together by implanting in her uterus a donated egg he had fertilized. Noda has described this process to any media that cares to listen, ostensibly as a means of sparking discussion about the legal restrictions infertile couples face when exploring childbearing options. Noda undertook her treatment in the U.S.
Complicating the matter is Noda’s stated reason for wanting to have a child. As the only progeny — albeit adopted — of the late political kingpin Uichi Noda to bear his name, she feels it is her duty to pass on that name, which is why she didn’t marry her previous partner, nor the current one until he agreed to change his surname to hers. Though Noda calls herself a conservative, she is in favor of allowing separate surnames for married couples, something most conservatives disapprove of. Many people have questioned Noda’s rationale for going to such lengths to have a child, and an article in Shukan Bunshun describes the program, which had high ratings, as an example of “egoism” and self-promotion.
Masaki was born with his liver outside of his body, a hole in his heart and a detached esophagus. He has had seven surgeries so far, including one to remove his vocal cords so that he can breathe. Noda had to have her uterus removed, meaning there’s no chance of her ever giving birth again under any kind of treatment.
It’s a lot of distressing information to absorb, and Noda is practically the only on-camera person who talks during the documentary. In “The Old Man and Radiation,” Kawamoto was a passive subject. Our interest was provoked by the desire to understand him. With Noda, you get the feeling you already understand too much. The situation might have been different if Masaki were the main focus rather than Noda herself. His survival so far is a miracle. As with Kawamoto, you want to know him better, and the fact that he can’t explain anything makes him no less fascinating.