Hasegawa gets the perfect portrait


Special To The Japan Times

Making a documentary on a crusading 90-year-old photojournalist who is famously fearless and uncompromising is not for the timid. Saburo Hasegawa, who has been directing television documentaries on a range of social issues since the 1990s, was initially afraid that his subject, Kikujiro Fukushima, might be as formidable as his body of work: 250,000 photographs taken over the course of six decades.

“But when I finally met him, he was as charming as could be,” Hasegawa tells The Japan Times in an interview at the office of Bitters End, the distributor that will release his film, “Nippon no Uso: Hodo Shashinka Fukushima Kikujiro 90-sai (Japan Lies)” on Aug. 4. “He was so nice that I wondered if he could still get angry,” he adds.

The anger, however, was still there, as is evident from not only Hasegawa’s interviews but his footage of his subject snapping shots of security guards as grimly as a sharpshooter squeezing off rounds. “He was making a stand against the powers that be,” explains Hasegawa. “But when he’s shooting farmers and other ordinary people, he does it with a gentle feeling.”

What has not mellowed, however, is Fukushima’s distrust of Japanese officialdom, whose evasions, falsehoods and coverups have served, says Hasegawa, as his prime motivating force over the decades. “What are all these photographs about?’ I asked him. His answer was, ‘Japan’s lies.’ “

His battle against those lies began with his early post-World War II photographs of the Hiroshima atomic bombing victims and continued with his trip last fall to Fukushima Prefecture to record the aftermath of the nuclear reactor meltdown.

“For Fukushima, “nuclear explosion” (genbaku) and “nuclear power” (genpatsu) are synonyms,” Hasegawa says. “The victims of both were harmed by radiation human beings couldn’t control. The state has a fundamental obligation to support those victims, but instead they were left to fend for themselves.”

Fukushima, Hasegawa notes, was angered “by the government’s callous treatment of atomic bombing victims, while building memorials and proclaiming Hiroshima a ‘city of peace.’ ” But few people now share his anger — or experiences. “He told me that, when he saw conditions in Fukushima (Prefecture), he had the feeling that the same thing (that happened in Hiroshima) would happen again,” Hasegawa says. “That’s the kind of connection that only he could make. For people of my generation, the (Fukushima reactor meltdown) was our first encounter with nuclear disaster.”

Seeing his elderly subject in action at the exclusion zone around the plant, taking photos like mad, Hasegawa was impressed and envious. “I couldn’t keep up with him,” he explains. “It was as though he were on the hunt for prey. I felt the strength of his need to communicate the truth, of his mission as a cameraman. That’s the source of his energy.”

Unlike most of his colleagues, Fukushima was not formally trained but learned his trade, as Hasegawa puts it, “on the postwar front lines” of social and political unrest. “He attended the school of life,” Hasegawa adds. “He was an amateur in the good sense of the word. Instead of taking photographs for money, or as a product, he developed that quality so important to a cameraman, empathy, by interacting with victims and the Japanese who were fighting for them, as one human being to another.”

In his film, Hasegawa contrasts Fukushima the battler for justice with Fukushima the elderly man living independently with pride, if not a lot of money. “He’s the coolest old guy I know,” says Hasegawa. “Even at age 90 he wants to keep doing his work, the core of his identity, until the end. I really admire that.”

Wrestling with a wealth of material, including those quarter-million photos, Hasegawa spent two years editing the film to its final 114-minute version. “For me a documentary is like a drama,” he explains. “I want the audience to — my choice of words is not the best — experience excitement and enjoyment and feel something at the end. If I had just shown Fukushima talking, it would have been boring, so I inserted scenes of his everyday life. I wanted the audience to see him enjoying moments of calm and relaxation. I didn’t want to make a scary movie.”