Most serious documentaries made in Japan, especially for television, follow a basic just-the-facts format. A presenter or narrator and various talking heads explain and interpret what we are seeing, from beauty shots of tourist spots to footage grabbed on the run in a war zone. Meanwhile, in the background, the director or other staff members have been diligently gathering and sifting through information.
In his three feature documentaries to date — 2007’s “Senkyo (Campaign),” 2008’s “Seishin (Mental)” and his new “Peace Pisu (Peace)” — Kazuhiro Soda has taken a different path, filming as an open-minded observer, with no agenda beyond capturing the truth of the moment. Rather than grill his subjects, investigative-journalist style, he asks conversational questions that gently probe rather than challenge, while he sits discreetly off-camera.
Also, instead of an hour with the lights on and various handlers present, he often spends weeks, months or, in the case of the elderly couple at the center of “Peace,” years with his subjects. In fact, the couple are his in-laws, though he gives no indication of the relationship in the film.
These methods could have turned “Peace” into a glorified home video, but Soda is an artist alert to contrasts, ironies and glimpses of beauty that a more literal-minded filmmaker, advocating a cause or making a case, would have ignored as extraneous. But they add texture, resonance and depth to the film’s two central questions, as articulated by Soda in a program comment: What is the real meaning of “peace”? How can human beings get along in a society such as Japan’s, which so often isolates and discards the weak?
At first, the film seems little more than a discursive profile of Toshio Kashiwagi, the kindly, craggy-faced retired principal of a school for special-needs children, who feeds stray cats at his home in Okayama and runs a nonprofit transportation service for the disabled and elderly.
Besides driving them here and there in his van, Kashiwagi serves his clients in other ways, such as pushing the wheelchair of one around a park and taking another to a shoe store to buy new sneakers. Meanwhile, we see the stern financial and burdensome bureaucratic realities for such a nonprofit: Kashiwagi must account for every liter of gas, while earning a pittance for his labors.
But just as we are settling in for an indictment of how the system squeezes Japan’s struggling welfare service providers, we are introduced to Toshio’s down-to-earth wife, Hiroko, who operates a caregiver service and visits clients in their homes. One is Shiro Hashimoto, a 91-year-old man dying of terminal lung cancer and living alone in a tick- and mice-infested apartment.
The relationship between Hiroko and Hashimoto and between Hashimoto and his disease and approaching demise bring the film’s themes sharply into focus, while providing moments of drama all the more powerful for emerging unmediated, rather than from a question sheet.
Defiantly smoking his favorite Peace cigarettes (“It’s my only pleasure,” he says. “If I quit … I’d only be breathing”), Hashimoto talks about his condition and tells stories from his days as a World War II home-front soldier with quiet dignity and absolutely no self pity. It’s also obvious, though, that he appreciates Hiroko’s real, if studiously professional, concern for his well-being. “The price of a man was … 1.5 sen,” he tells her. This, the cost of a draft notice postcard in wartime Japan, was a then-common expression of a soldier’s cannon-fodder status.
But with the support of Hiroko, Toshio and others like them, the Hashimotos of this society still have a place and a value. And if Toshio’s stray cats, including one sly, shy dorobo¯ neko (“thief cat”) that ends up eating peacefully with the rest, can get along, why not we humans?
By such real-life examples, presented with minimal manipulation, “Peace” shows us that its title is a possible dream.