NYAFF 2010: Documentaries Are Lying To You - The Tetsuaki Matsue Interview

[The New York Asian Film Festival has wrapped, but here's one last interview for the stack.]

Director Tetsuaki Matsue has 5 films to his credit and is already making a name for himself with thought-provoking and insightful documentaries. His recent productions Annyong Yumika (my review here) and Live Tape both played at the New York Asian Film Festival. Mr. Matsue was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about his work, his drive to continue making documentaries, and how the news is lying to you.

Could you give our readers an idea of how Annyong Yumika came about?

The documentary deals with an actress, Yumika Hayashi, who was very active in Japan in the Pink Film world as well as adult films. She passed away on June 26th of 2005 and in her lifetime she starred in over 500 films.

So after her death there was a book that was compiled about her life called Actress: Yumika Hayashi, and I participated in the editing of this book. I wrote some of the reviews for the works that she had appeared in during her lifetime. And while working on this book project I learned about this film she had made called Tokyo Housewife Junko. It's a softcore porn film made in Korea that Yumika had starred in. So this film was made by a Korean production company but other than the actresses they're all Korean and they're all speaking Japanese.

This was during a time when Japan and Japanese culture were becoming popular in Korea and they decided to make the film this way. But from a Japanese point of view, you watch this film, the way they portray Japanese characters, the way they speak the language it's all wrong - and it's actually really funny as well as being really interesting.

Within this sort of incorrect portrayal and unintentionally humorous backdrop you have Yumika who was taking this very seriously as an actress. And I got very interested in how she got to be involved in this project and why. In exploring this it's how I began making Annyong Yumika.

It seems like it was attempt to get to understand her better.

It's not so much that I wanted to know her better. I went to film school in Tokyo, and the very first film I made Yumika-san actually starred in it. And when she saw the finished product she said, "You know, Matsue, you've got a long way to go." And at the time I was very young but I always wanted the opportunity to work with her as a professional and she passed away before that could happen.

So it wasn't so much that I wanted to understand her better, but in response to what she said to me all those years ago I wanted to make a project in the only form that we could work together at that point.

A lot of the people that you spoke to during the documentary admired here, but there often seemed to be a lot of distance between Yumika and the people who knew her.

What do you mean by "distance?"

Well, even when speaking with her boyfriends there was the sense that she was someone that they respected but didn't quite understand.

I just think there are parts of her that no one understands. For me personally while working on this documentary I discovered that there's a line in Junko where they speak about her character, and someone says that she's a woman that no one can own. And for me that really summarizes my feelings about Yumika.

I don't think it's actually a negative thing that no one could know her or understand her. I think because of that she was able to be loved by so many different men and the audience. And she was an actress with such a great appeal that even after her death someone was able to make a new film about her. And I think through this documentary a new group of people can be introduced to her work. And she still holds up.

There was a real process of sort of "video archaeology" in the making of the film. About how long did that process take?

Shooting the material was one year and editing was two years. I had about 60 hours of raw footage and for me that wasn't actually a lot. For me, the biggest challenge in making the film was the editing process.

I wasn't sure for a while where to place the point of view for the documentary. So for the audience, the majority of people will have never heard of her, and I wondered if it was okay to make it from my point of view. For a while I thought it might be better to make it from a more objective point of view for an audience that doesn't know who she is. Looking over the raw footage I had, I conducted all the interviews myself with a mini-DV camera, so I shot all the footage. So there was really no other point of view and I ended up making it a sort of self-documentary.

Was the initial intent for it to be a biography or simply a review of Junko the film?

The end-result is that we see Junko and Yumika have a lot of parallels and overlap. But when I started I didn't know this. But for me, Junko the film was just a starting point but it really blossomed into exploring all the different avenues of Yumika's life.

You sounded a little resistant before to the idea of subjective documentary.

I have no resistance to doing a subjective doc. It's just that in the case of Annyong Yumika I was trying to find the appropriate distance for myself.

I believe that documentaries have to be subjective.

Why is that?

The act of holding a camera and shooting footage makes it subjective. There's really no way it's NOT going to be subjective. For example, if you're going to shoot this scene right here, depending on where you choose your shot and place your camera that's already being subjective.

What I think is really interesting about documentaries is that no matter how subjective you want to get, reality gets in the way. In the case of making Live Tape there were definitely accidents that happened that we did not expect and in the case of Annyong Yumika there were so many twists and turns of events that I had no idea were going to happen.

That contrast is very interesting - the parts that escape my control. That's why I think it's important for people who make documentaries to be aware that they're subjective.

One of our news networks' catchphrases is that they're being fair and balanced in the reportage of facts. But what you're saying is that when you choose a camera angle you're automatically choosing a position?

I agree with you. I've actually made a program criticizing the effect that TV media has on the people of Japan. People there tend to take the documentaries and the news too much at face value instead of looking at it critically and thinking for themselves.

Is that something we'll be able to see here?

No, it was a TV program, so it's not likely. Do you know Tatsuya Mori? He made a film about the Aum Shinrikyo cult. I made this TV program together with him.

What was the process like for that project?

He has a book called Documentaries Lie to You. Do you know Kazuo Hara?

No.

He's actually very famous back in Japan and had a film show here in New York called The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.

(It occurs to me later looking at his credits that I'd actually seen Hara's Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 a couple of years back)

So after writing that book, Mr. Mori interviewed various documentarians about their films and technique. So he interviewed people like myself and people like Mr. Hara who's one of the most famous documentary filmmakers in Japan. There was a little bit of a setup where it almost turned into a mockumentary because Mori couldn't make the documentary for TV by showing through interviews how various filmmakers create documentaries.

We discovered that when we interviewed people on the street they almost all said they believed what they saw in documentaries was 100% true. And when they interviewed people who make documentaries they almost all said that documentaries are subjective and that we don't even think of them as objective. And in interviewing people who work on news programs, things are more spur of the moment and they strive for what you were talking about, being fair and true, but sometimes they end up broadcasting false information.

To bring back Live Tape and Yumika - how do you think that having two years to consider the footage vs. looking at a story that's happening right now it changes your perspective?

I guess with Yumika it wasn't so much that I set down a story and filmed it - I found stories. Stories came out of that. With Live Tape it was little bit different because of the way it was made. All I did was come up with the concept of the film and the way the story ended up being told was by just aiming the camera at what happened.

Do you have anything you can talk about in terms of your next project?

I have two projects right now: I can't really talk about the details. But it's similar to Live Tape in that we don't really know what's going to happen, but we're going to set up a bunch of rules and just see what occurs.

I think that up until making films like Annyong Yumika I always wanted to be able to make films whose stories I could control. But in making something like Live Tape I liked the idea of going where the story took you. I don't want audiences to just watch my films but to take the time to experience them.


Charles is a freelance writer and game designer. You can find more of his work at his blog.

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