Almost everyone who comes to Tokyo via Narita International Airport notices the lush green fields surrounding the runways and terminal buildings. It’s a nice sight after sitting on an airplane for so long.
Some new arrivals get confused, however. “This can’t be Tokyo,” I once heard a startled tourist proclaim on the journey from airport to metropolis. “Where are all the buildings? It’s just a bunch of trees!” Patience, my friend, this “bunch of trees” happens to hold significant history in these parts.
In 1966, the administration of then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato decreed that a stretch of farmland in the Chiba Prefecture villages of Sanrizuka and Shibayama should make way for an international airport. The locals disagreed. In that same year, female farmers chained themselves to stakes and swore they would never give up their land. Riots and protests followed, the first wave of what was essentially Japan’s most enduring farmer’s rebellion.
“The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories” is a documentary about the 50-year struggle surrounding Narita airport referred to as the Sanrizuka tōsō (strife), and how the flames of resistance still burn under the planes that land there.
If there had been no struggle, Narita would be like Haneda airport, which operates 24 hours a day. As it is, Narita closes at 11 p.m., though director Haruhiko Daishima says that when flights are delayed, the planes run after midnight and the sound is “deafening.”
“It’s hard to believe people would still want to live here and continue the struggle,” he tells The Japan Times. “But Sanrizuka has never been about making things easy, or feeling good about it. It has never been about triumph.”
Daishima has dedicated most of his career to the Sanrizuka cause and co-directed another documentary on the topic, “The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories,” three years ago. He described his latest film as “bringing a sense of closure. It’s not over yet, but it’s time for a new chapter.”
What fueled the farmers’ staunch resolve when, all around them, tradition was giving way to development and capitalism? How, for example, did the government manage to erect 50-plus nuclear plants all along the coastlines of the archipelago while they were having so much trouble building a single airport?
“Japanese fishermen are different from Japanese farmers,” Daishima says. “Fishermen can take the cash, buy better boats and sail further out in the ocean to fish. Farmers can’t do that. Once they sell their land, they lose it forever.”
There’s an inescapable sense of loss in the film, mainly because the people involved have been fighting for such a long time.
One scene in particular focuses on an elderly farmer, now alone in the house that he shared with his mother until her death.
“I had never seen a woman naked until I had to bathe my mother and change her underwear,” he says. “If only I had gotten married, it would have been different.”
The camera stays on the man’s face until he has finished his confession to give his story that extra bit of impact. We then see a picture of the farmer in his activist days, defiant and roguish — a testament to the toll the fight has taken on him.
Others have fared better. Daishima says some of the activists’ grandchildren now work at the airport, and one of them is even selling organic vegetables for in-flight meals.
“The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories” is screening with English subtitles at select theaters. For more details, visit http://www.moviola.jp/sanrizuka_icarus/