Yama—Yareretara Yarikaese

Mitsuo Sato, Kyoichi Yamaoka

Sad but true: expression is a life-and-death struggle. Yama—Yareretara Yarikaese (Yama—dare to take revenge, 1986) is a disturbing film that begins with a chronology of the workers’ struggle in and around Tokyo’s Sanya (or “Yama”) district, superimposed over an aerial view of the area. The last line reads, “December 22, 1984.” We then see blood on the pavement, a man lying in the street, and a close-up of his face. He seems to be still breathing weakly. There is no indication that this is Mitsuo Sato, the initiator and first director of the film, who was stabbed to death on that day by a rightist gang. The silence suggests that the film rejects reducing his death to a mere semiotic frame of history by identifying the scene’s who and what. The audience isn’t allowed to participate in the transient time between life and death. The violence of the image transforms even a man’s death into an object; the beginning of this film attempts to destroy that distance.

Crowded with cheap, so-called “bed houses” for day laborers, the impoverished Yama area is where lower-class Tokyo workers find their day’s work through brokers. It’s a testimony to the multilayered sub-sub-subcontractor system of Japan’s flourishing industrial sector. The film notes that these workers are “trapped at the bottom of this structure, controlled by the brokers and foremen who offer the capitalists ’labor service’ and harassed and watched by horyokudan [underworld gangs]” On the frontline of this labor control was the Kanamachi family, affiliated with the Nippon Kokusui Kai (Japan nationalist society), apparently in close cooperation with the police. The film documents the workers’ struggle against these forces.

Toward the beginning of the film, the camera shows various aspects of the district: riots, early-morning job-hunting at the placement center, labor brokers, hands buying thick cotton gloves for work, men sleeping outdoors in the park and street, bonfires. The social situation and exploitative mechanisms of Yama and its equivalents in other cities are revealed gradually.

People speak to the camera: a worker disabled by an occupational disaster; an old man sleeping outside in the rain; a victim of the Shimbashi dent, the first known case after World War II of the exploitation of Korean workers living in Japan. They speak without edits, as though being interviewed by a curious graduate-school field researcher. In mainstream documentaries, these interviews would be preceded by didactic anonymous narration informing us of their significance. Only such portions as were relevant to the producers’ intention would be selected and edited tightly together Here, however, we can only resort to our own knowledge.

Following Sato’s death, Kyoichi Yamaoka, a longtime leader of the fighting workers’ group Sanya Strife Squad, completed the film; immediately afterward, he too was shot to death by a sniper indoctrinated by the Kanamachi family The death of the film’s two directors offers stark testimony to its power. The Sanya district is presented to the audience in “lived time.” This propaganda film is neither easy to surrender to nor easy to resist. The audience cannot escape from a dialogue with those whom they met through the film.

Yoshinobu Kurokawa

Translated from the Japanese by Kazue Kobata.