Movie of the Week: 三里塚 第二砦の人々 (Sanrizuka: People of the Second Fortress) (Dir: 小川紳介 Ogawa Sinsuke) 1971

kikujiro2_04The University of Michigan is hosting a series of films from Japanese documentary film production group, Ogawa Productions. Last night I had the pleasure of seeing “Sanrizuka: People of the Second Fortress” for the first time.

Narita airport was built on agricultural land claimed through eminent domain. Some of the residents, who were nearly all peasant families, sold early on and left. A number of families, however, feeling slighted by the Japanese government’s unwillingness to engage them in dialogue, stayed and fought.

This was no sit in protest, but a violent confrontation of peasants against government and private forces. The peasants built elaborate fortresses to prevent construction on the land, deep tunnels to hide in , and used spears, molotov cocktails and hurled projectiles to protect themselves. The Zengakuren (an anarchist group similar to America’s SDS) maintained the front lines armed with spears and throwing stones at riot police.

The entire scene is filmed like a grand Kurosawa epic. Armed forces besiege a well defended fortress on a hill top, while troops on the ground go toe to toe in battle. The riot police were clearly unprepared for the level of violent resistance they encountered and retreat more than once. In desperation, the Japanese government hires non-locals (at a rate of 20,000 yen a day, presumably to minimize liabilities and accountability) to charge in on their behalf.

A few questions came to mind. First, where did the non-locals come from? I’m wondering if they were hired from the day laborer slums of Kamagasaki and Sanya, again illustrating the complex relationship between anti-social dropouts and the State. Day laborers are simultaneously marginalized by the State and completely necessary to its survival. Even as recently as 2011, despite decades of exclusions and abuse, the Japanese government called upon day laborers in Kamagasaki to clean up Fukushima (again for 20,000 yen a day), presumably since few would care about the threats to their health.

Second, the Zengakuren play a major role in defending the fortress. It is mentioned during the film that the Socialist Party of Japan (社会党) initially involved itself, acting on the behalf of the farmers, but at some point during the five year struggle, became disinterested. It was mentioned by others that the Communist Party of Japan (共産党)was also involved. As I was watching the film, I was wondering how the situation could have become as extreme as it did, and though that these political actors might have agitated the farmers to move to more and more extreme methods. If that was the case, then the farmers might have been mere political pawns for an anti-establishment agenda. Though the Zengakuren obviously stuck it out to the bitter end, I’m wondering if they too might have self-servingly exacerbated the situation.

While Ogawa takes time and care to film and interview the farmers, both individually and as a group, not a single member of the Zengakuren speak for the entirely of the film. In fact, Ogawa never even shows them in close-up. Not only do we not know what they think, we don’t even know what they look like. Even more mysterious are the large crowds of bystanders, which are shown only through holes in the barricades the farmers have constructed or on the tops of hills in the distance. We actually know more about the riot police than any of the Zengakuren.

Third, and a minor point, the farmers had set up a tower with which to broadcast inspirational leftist music and speeches to the riot police and bystanders. It’s not clear why the riot police didn’t knock the largely unguarded tower out immediately. Also, though the film is incredibly violent, one has to wonder how much of the violence is performance. All sides had ample opportunity to kill and injure people, but, miraculously, only a handful of people were killed.

kikujiro2_04When farmer ladies are chaining themselves to trees to prevent airport crews from entering, they make a big production out of wrapping the chains around their neck, but have arranged them in such a way that one would merely have to bend down a bit to break free. One has to question how serious the farmers were, and how much of the fighting they preferred to leave to the Zengakuren, and whether they wanted the anarchists there at all. Though some of the farmers suggest directly engaging the riot police at one point, it is clear that there isn’t much consensus on how violent they were willing to become.

The relationship of the farmers, who prior to the planned building of the airport had likely lived in relative isolation from the rest of Japan, to the outside political upheaval of Japan is perhaps the most interesting part of the film. Though the farmers are very serious about protecting their land and continuing their lifestyles, they seem rather ambivalent to Japan’s political problems, but are regardless resigned to become a part of them.

As with many documentaries from Japan, it’s unclear how sympathetic the film’s producers are to the subjects they have chosen. On the one hand, Ogawa seems to want to advocate on behalf of the farmers, but on the other, he spends much time showing them as isolated and slightly naive. He makes no attempt to deny the futility of their cause.

“People of the Second Fortress” is a fantastic film. The producers risked their lives to make the film. Miraculously, the camera wasn’t smashed during filming.

Here are some great pictures from that time.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip of “People of the Second Fortress,” but here is an extended clip of one of the films from the same series:

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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