'Sennan Asbestos Disaster' ('Nippon koku vs Sennan ishiwata son'): Film Review

Courtesy of Tokyo FilmEx
A description of a protracted struggle.

Japanese filmmaker Kazuo Hara's latest documentary has just added an audience award from the Tokyo FilmEx festival to its best Asian documentary prize from Busan.

Three decades after using tales of wartime cannibalism to condemn the political maneuvers of Japan's ruling class, firebrand filmmaker Kazuo Hara returns with another j'accuse against his country’s officialdom with Sennan Asbestos Disaster. Running nearly four hours, the documentary chronicles the protracted struggle in getting the Japanese government to admit to ignoring the deadly consequences of the country's asbestos factories — considered a driving force behind Japan's economic resurgence after the Second World War.

With an original title that translates as "The Japanese State vs Sennan Asbestos Villages," the documentary offers more than just a harrowing account of the suffering of those afflicted with asbestos-related diseases. Instead, Hara focuses on the government’s war of attrition against these poor victims, unleashing mountains of red tape to derail the victims' cases, and appeals against each and every court indictment for official negligence. The result has been a lawsuit lasting nearly eight years, with dozens of ailing plaintiffs not living to see the outcome.

Unlike his 1986 classic The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, in which a man goes to extremes to coax or coerce ex-soldiers into talking about atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in New Guinea during WW2, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is a more civil affair. Its confrontations are limited to screaming matches in conference rooms or minor scuffles outside government buildings. This is hardly something one expects of a filmmaker who once proclaimed he hates mainstream society and makes "bitter films," an urgency mirrored in the name of his production company, Shisso (“sprint”).

But if Naked Army is a mad dash to the finish, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is a slow-burning race-walk, with Hara punctuating his heartbreaking portrayal of the victims’ predicaments with odd splashes of black humor. The power of this deft mix, accessible to pros and ordinary viewers alike, won the film Busan International Film Festival’s best Asian documentary prize and then Tokyo FilmEx’s audience award. Its running time may discourage distributors — its domestic release is tentatively limited to screenings at one art house cinema in Tokyo next March — but festivals should be more receptive to Hara’s pedigree and aesthetics.

The length issue might be the reason behind an intermission in the middle of the film. But the break also serves to mark the documentary’s two halves. The first part offers background information on the issue and introduces the protagonists. With archival photos and onscreen graphics, the film traces the 100-year history of Japan’s asbestos industry, the establishment of concentrated clusters of factories producing the material in cities, and the country’s incredibly late awakening to the relationship between these “asbestos villages” and the lung diseases striking those who work and live nearby.

Organized resistance finally emerged in 2006, when a group of ailing residents in Sennan, a city just outside Osaka which once boasted the biggest number of asbestos factories in Japan, sued the government for its scant control of the hazardous industry. Hara’s film begins in 2008, when he goes with these ardent campaigners and their legal team to visit the area. While former workers recount how these factory jobs gave them a way out of farmwork, the price they paid is vividly shown in ailments and their suppressed fury at being lured into such a toxic trap.

In the first part of the film, the victims swing between joy and despair as the lawsuit drags on. In the second half, Hara goes beyond these personal emotions to explore the symbolism of a trial he describes as a “challenge to the state,” and how campaigners wield a campaign which calls for as much strategy as science or sentimentality. The group begins to splinter as some call for “performances” to raise public awareness — throwing asbestos in front of the labor ministry, for example — while others want to “go by the rules and win.” Their lawyers chide some for “not understanding the rule of law” as they try to barge into government offices to voice their demands.

But these squabbles are nothing compared to Hara’s clever depiction of the mammoth machine of officialdom battling the plaintiffs. An attempt to deliver a petition to the prime minister goes nowhere, as a string of guards and then apparatchiks take turns saying they have to ask “their boss” and then disappear. A deftly edited sequence shows the victims forced to repeat their painful stories for weeks on end, to an ever-changing cast of junior officials sent to head them off at the pass.

Eventually, the victims achieve some kind of resolution. The government finally admits defeat and a minister comes to Sennan to apologize personally for official wrongdoing. This satisfies some, but others see it as a hollow victory. In the end, the state refuses to acknowledge the faulty economic ideology that led to the asbestos crisis in the first place, and the masses continue to defer to authority. Ending the documentary on this defiant note, Hara is perhaps signaling how the struggle continues for public campaigners as well as documentary filmmakers.

Production companies: Shisso Productions
Director-cinematographer: Kazuo Hara
Producers: Sachiko Kobayashi
Music: Mie Yanashita
Editing: Takeshi Hata
In Japanese
215 minutes