Filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda doesn't underestimate the power of observation

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

In late 1992, Kazuhiro Soda was attending a “company information session” in Tokyo, where young students about to graduate from university were introduced to various companies as prospective recruits.

“I looked around and saw of a sea of young Japanese, all wearing the same black suits,” he recalls. “There were 2,000 of us in one huge room, inside a large corporate building. As far as I knew, none of us had been instructed about what to wear and yet everyone turned up in the same ‘recruit suit,’ including myself.”

That was the moment when Soda decided that “the corporate life” wasn’t for him.

Back then, Soda was about to graduate from the University of Tokyo, one of the best institutions of higher education that Japan has to offer. He could have gone on to work for almost any prestigious company of his choice, but instead he chose to step outside of that particular box.

“I asked myself, what do I want to do?” he says. And the answer was that he wanted to make films.

“It’s not like I was a cinephile or anything,” he continues. “I liked watching Jackie Chan movies and Hollywood blockbusters and that was about it. But for some reason, a desire to make movies took hold.”

The leap from desiring to realizing, however, wasn’t easy. Soda had no ties to the film industry and no idea how to become a filmmaker. It was the 1990s, when society and networking in Japan still relied on physical meetings and family connections. Soda did the research but discovered that Japan’s big studios were no longer hiring assistant directors.

He also heard that even if he did manage to get a job on a film set, working in the industry involved “being yelled at and beaten up by your superiors.”

“I really didn’t want to take that route,” he says.

It was reading a magazine interview with the independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who mentioned being an alumnus of the Tisch School of the Arts, that inspired Soda to look overseas. “It was a eureka moment for me,” he explains. “I thought, okay, I could swing that.”

Not one to waste any time, Soda applied for a place at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and soon found himself packing a single suitcase to head for New York. It was early June,1993, when he left Japan and at just 22 years old.

For Soda, there were already facets of his life in Japan that made him feel like he didn’t belong there.

He remembers that, in junior high school, boys would have their heads shaved by a teacher if their hair was deemed too long. “I always hated that,” he says. During the company information session, too, he says he was “aghast” when he heard that the company granted “special leave” after 20 years of employment.

“I guess the company wanted to impress us with their benefits, but all I could think about was how my holidays would be predetermined until the day of retirement,” he says. “I hate having to adhere to a set schedule. I don’t like making plans in advance. I suppose this is why I choose to make indie documentaries — the production process is loosely structured and I get to have control.”

Yet Soda doesn’t belittle Japan or its films. He reveres the director Yasujiro Ozu, whose method of filmmaking was nothing if not rigidly structured and intensely disciplined.

“During my university years I read a review of Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’ (1949) and I felt like I had to see it. Then I learned that Shochiku Co. Ltd. had produced a laser-disc box set of Ozu’s postwar works. The price was about ¥50,000, but I poured all the money I made from a part-time job into buying those discs. It was an impulse purchase that I’ve never regretted, and to this day, I love Ozu films,” he says. “I was also fascinated by the ‘grapevine’ surrounding Ozu’s works. For example, Wim Wenders admires Ozu. Wenders is great friends with Jarmusch, and I went to New York to study filmmaking because of Jarmusch. A lot of factors were intertwined in that grapevine.”

When Soda arrived in Manhattan, with his Walkman (it was the early ’90s) and a couple of cassettes by Yosui Inoue and the Southern All Stars packed in his single suitcase, he checked into “a fleabag hotel.”

“In the morning I rolled my suitcase all the way to the dorm that I had been assigned to, but when I finally got there, I was told flat-out that my name wasn’t on the register. I protested but my English wasn’t good enough. Then the registry people realized they had put me in a different dorm. So they were in the wrong, but they didn’t even apologize,” he says laughing. “That was my New York baptism.

On the way to the dorm, people also stopped Soda on the street and asked for directions.

“It was then that I knew I could make it here — this was a city full of people from all sorts of places, and no one was obliged to follow any rules,” he recalls. “Already, I was blending right in.”

Four years after arriving in the U.S., Soda took his first short film — a 17-minute short called “The Flicker,” made as a graduation project — to the Venice International Film Festival, where he introduced himself to Wim Wenders and James Ivory.

Takeshi Kitano had just won the grand prix with “Hana-bi” and Soda was lucky enough to be taken to dinner by the celebrity director.

“I was young enough to think hey, I’ve made it, I’ll be getting tons of project offers,” Soda laughs. “But, no one called. Back in New York I looked around for work and got a job at a company that made documentaries for NHK.”

For the next decade, Soda worked on more than 40 titles for the Japanese TV network.

“I was fully immersed in the job but I realized I was working from detailed scripts and schedules, hurtling myself toward preordained conclusions,” he says of the experience. “In the process, I was ignoring the truth of what was happening right before my eyes.”

To avoid being trapped by the very mindset he had left behind in Japan, and inspired by the no-frills American documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, Soda decided to make his own film. Wiseman was “the teacher closest to my heart,” says Soda, who chose to shoot a documentary using his own method that he simply calls “observation.”

“There is no pre-research or scripting. I concentrate on watching and listening to the reality in front of me, and to capture that on camera,” he explains. “For me, this process goes beyond movie-making. It’s a life choice that’s also a philosophical exercise.”

Soda returned to Japan to make a film about mental health, but wound up following the political campaign of Kazuhiko Yamauchi, an old classmate then running for a council seat in a Tokyo suburb. The resulting documentary, “Campaign,” debuted in 2007 and was released worldwide, winning a Peabody Award the following year.

Ever since then, Soda has been regularly returning to Japan and working at a frenetic pace, releasing one or two documentaries a year.

One of his latest works “Minatomachi” (“Inland Sea”) documents the depopulation of the Seto Inland Sea area and opens in Japan in April.

For his latest work, however, Soda finally turned his camera on his adopted country. “The Big House,” which focuses on Michigan Stadium, the second-largest stadium in the world, opens in June and is Soda’s first America-based work.

Looking at the changes the U.S. has seen since the 2016 presidential elections, “The Big House,” Soda says, was born out of a desire to observe “the problems of race, class and nationalism in Trump’s America, and really observe what was happening.”


Name: Kazuhiro Soda

Profession: Filmmaker

Hometown: Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture

Age: 47

Key moments in career:

1993 — Leaves Japan for New York

1997 — Shows “The Flicker” at the Venice International Film Festival

2008 — Wins a Peabody Award for “Campaign”

Words to live by: “Keep your desires small and know when you’ve had enough.”

What I miss about Japan: “Apart from my wife, my entire family is in Japan so I miss seeing them. Also, the landscape, food and onsen (hot springs).”

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