Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Depicting Women:
The Memoirs and Documentary Films of Atsugi Taka

Ronald Loftus

  1. On a spring evening, May 31, 1930, a young woman attended the first public screening of 'proletarian films' ever held in Japan. She was so moved by what she saw on that occasion that she resolved to make filmmaking her life's work. The evening of film had been sponsored by 'Prokino' [puroletaria kinema], Japan's Proletarian Film League, and since the organizers fully expected trouble from the authorities, the narrator was cautioned to prepare a false name to give to the police should she be questioned or detained.[1] She chose 'Atsugi Taka' based on the complexity of the Chinese characters with which it is written (so that it would take more time for the police to record the name or might allow for error and/or frustration by the arresting officer), but decided to retain this name as her official nom de guerre as a filmmaker. Recounting this episode is the way that Atsugi Taka, a proletarian film maker who began her career in the 1930's, starts her autobiography—a text that grapples with what it means to recollect and reconstruct a self, and to reproduce that self on the printed page.
  2. Why do we read autobiographies, memoirs and other types of self-representational texts? One reason may be that they provide access to voices from the past, as well as insights into what it was like to live and reflect on one's experiences in different times and places. The historian Stephen Greenblatt refers to this impulse as his 'desire to speak with the dead.'[2] He argues that even though at times he might strain so hard to hear the voices of the dead that he winds up listening only to his own voice, this was not necessarily the end of the story because, as he notes, own voice was the voice of the dead, for the dead had contrived to leave textual traces of themselves, and those traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living. Many of the traces have little resonance, though every one, even the most trivial or tedious, contains some fragment of lost life; others seem uncannily full of the will to be heard.[3]

  3. Certainly this desire to discover a 'fragment of a lost life,' or to hear a voice that is 'uncannily full of the will to be heard,' is part of the attraction of reading Atsugi Taka's autobiography. Moreover, as Mistsuhiro Yoshimoto 's recent study of Kurosawa Akira argues, it can be very rewarding to read a filmmaker's autobiography against the backdrop of their work for it allows both to be seen as discursive products whose meanings are the result of ongoing negotiation between them.[4] This essay will explore both the textual and cinematic voices of Atsugi Taka (1907-1998), focusing primarily on her wartime documentary film, Aru hobo no kiroku.[5]

    Figure 1. Atsugi Taka

  4. Atsugi spent her life involved with leftwing causes and exhibited an abiding concern with gender issues. Her autobiography is especially intriguing to me because it specifically addresses questions about how women's experiences should be depicted and it is my argument that a careful reading of her autobiography in the context of some of her more well-known documentary films, will shed light upon the way she approached the question of depicting women's experience both in her self-writing and in her filmmaking. In the following pages, I will explore Atsugi's autobiography in connection with Record of a Certain Nursery and We Worked So Hard, two of her most well known wartime documentary films.[6]
  5. This is not an uncomplicated undertaking, especially since we are dealing with women's self-representational texts. Many would argue that the very nature and form of autobiography has operated to erase or silence women's voices as often as it has permitted them to speak. Moreover, trying 'to speak with the dead,' as Helen Bruss cautions us, may not be the best way for feminist scholars to launch an inquiry because, as she puts it, 'We hardly know who our dead are: what could they possibly say that was not conditioned and structured by their place inside the gender system that silenced them or allowed them to speak only in the limited and oppressive public scripts allowed to women?' [7] Without questioning the validity of this assessment, it could be argued just as effectively that these utterances from the past are of interest precisely because they reflect the narrator's struggle with the dominant ideology that would silence and repress them? Voices from the past should be able to reveal much about the assumptions underlying that system as well as illuminate the ways in which these self-representational texts might challenge the prevailing ideologies and discourses. Let us turn now to a brief overview of Atsugi Taka's life.

    Looking at Atsugi Taka
  6. Atsugi Taka was born on March 3, 1907, the ninth of ten children, and died in November 1998. A scriptwriter and documentary filmmaker, Atsugi is probably best known for her translation of Paul Rotha's classic book, Documentary Film into Japanese in 1938.[8]

    Figure 2. Books

  7. A member of Prokino, Japan's Proletarian Film League, Atsugi was engaged with a wide array of leftwing movements, including Yuiken, or the Yuibutsuron kenkyukai (Materialism Study Society) of which her first husband, philosopher Mori Koichi, was a founding member. In 1991, Atsugi published her autobiography entitled Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô (Memoirs of a Female Documentarist, Domesu shuppan, 1991) a 245 page account of her life. What sorts of things did she elect to include in her life story and what did she leave out? From the outset, her narrative seems of unfold linearly beginning with her upbringing and early education, followed by a review of her college years at Nihon joshidai, her brief membership in one of Kikuchi Kan's literary groups until she took a teaching position which she would quit a few years later in order to join Prokino as a full-time member. However, when the continual harassment of Prokino by the authorities forced the organization to disband, Atsugi joined the film company PCL (Photo Chemical Labs). It was here that she really began her career as a scriptwriter and filmmaker. Near the end of the war, to escape the effects of the American B-29 air raids, she moved to the town of Kuki in Saitama Prefecture where her neighbors included literary critic Arai Masahito and philosopher Mike Kiyoshi. Following the war, she became engaged as a political activist in labor union activities, assumed a leadership role in the Democratic Women's Club and participated in a local citizen's movement in Kanagawa Prefecture against the use of Yokosuka Naval Base as a home port of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
  8. Threaded through her accounts of these events were scant details about the death of her parents, her two marriages, her relationship with her mother-in-law and her friendship with Miyamoto Yuriko. In other words, what was elided was not only details about Atsugi's personal life, but also some of the sinew that would bind the narrative together. For example, when the subject of her first marriage comes up suddenly while talking about a women's residence in which she was living, she simply writes 'But I was only to stay there less than a year as it turned out that I moved out in April 1931. I did so in order to get married.'[9] Prior to this statement there had been no hint that marriage was pending, nor any mention of relationships with members of the opposite sex. This is most likely because both Atsugi and her husband were members of clandestine organizations the details of which she was not prepared to reveal even sixty years later. Nevertheless, this is the kind of information, which is often omitted from Atsugi's text. Likewise despite living the life of a dedicated filmmaker and social activist, Atsugi's name never became a household word in Japan. Indeed, laboring largely in anonymity, Atsugi is not even mentioned in Aaron Gerow and Makino Mamoru's interview with Komori Shizuo and Noto Setsuo about the history of Prokino carried in Documentary Box.[10] Hopefully, the present essay will go some way to rectify this situation and bring Atsugi's life and work some of the attention it deserves.

    Memoirs of a Female Documentarist
  9. As cited in the introduction, Atsugi opens her autobiography in an interesting fashion. She begins not at the beginning, but with events that occurred in May 31, 1930, when she attended the first ever public screening of proletarian films in Japan and adopted the name 'Atsugi Taka, initially to foil the Japanese police, and retained it as her filmmaker's name
  10. This is an intriguing way to begin an account of one's life. The narrator reveals at the outset of her text that in order to define her own identity—to become the person she wanted to become—she had to conceal who she was by adopting a false name. In effect, she had to mask her identity. This seems like an obvious way to alert the reader to the reality that when a female autobiographer decides to write her life, she inevitably faces erasure and threats of silence from the very outset.[11] Of course, the immediate context for this anecdote has more to do with the dangers inherent in social activism in Japan during the 1930s than with gender. But we cannot ignore the fact that Atsugi has chosen to use the term female—josei—in the title of her memoirs. This is because it is imperative for readers to understand that any obstacles facing activists and leftists in the 1930s were doubly compounded for women. A woman who chooses to write about gender issues and to tell her life story inevitably engages in acts of trespass. Choosing to speak when the culture would normally keep her silent, and availing herself of a form developed to tell the stories of men and the great deeds they accomplished, women who write their lives find themselves in unfamiliar textual territory. As a result, a woman must often disguise her true self and obscure her real intentions. Here, Atsugi's text opens with a story about how the narrator falsified her name, her identity, in order to proceed down her chosen path. The narrative soon turns to an account of the 'real' circumstances of her birth and upbringing, however, including an account about how she discovered that she was, in fact, adopted into a relative's family. Indeed, things were not always what they seemed, even to the narrator herself. She begins by recording in her text what her actual birth record looked like:

      Fifth daughter of
      Late Father: Okada Kiyohira
      Late Mother: Sumi
      Adopted daughter of
      Late Father : Fukamachi Tôzaburô and
      Late Mother: Yasu
      Consensual adoption by blood relatives as reported by Okada Kiyohira and his wife Sumi duly recorded in the 45th year of Meiji, January 5th.[12]

  11. As she often does in her narrative, the author immediately inserts a passage concerning the social and political circumstances around the time of her birth:

      The year of my actual birth was Meiji 40, or the year 1907 by the Western calendar, when Japanese capitalism was still in its infancy. If we want to get an idea of what was going on in that era by looking at a chronology for that year, we see that on January 21, the stock market took a serious tumble, and in the daily Heimin shinbun it was reported that troops were called out to quell violent protests against the Ashio Copper Mine. Also, there were numerous instances of social upheaval during that first half of that year alone. I was surprised to learn that the Heimin shinbun which was edited by the socialist leader Sakai Toshihiko, was actually published daily and that Kageyama [later Fukuda] Hideko, forerunner of the women's movement, started, started publishing a magazine called Women of the World [Sekai Fujin] that year.[13]

  12. This is an excellent example of an author situating herself in relation to events in the world around her. She makes a special point to refer to the early stages of the development of Japanese capitalism, and to the violent political protests surrounding the Ashio Copper Mine incident when effluents from the copper mine poisoned the Watarase River basin. The spillage not only endangered the health of its inhabitants, but destroyed their livelihood as well. She actually quotes the progressive Heimin shinbun about the violent reaction to the Ashio debacle, and expressly brings up the names of prominent socialists like Sakai Toshihiko and Fukuda Hideko. Fukuda was infamous for her political activism in the 1880s when she was imprisoned for trying to carry explosives to Korea, and later was well-regarded for serving as editor of the feminist journal, Sekai fujin.[14] These are the people and the events of Japan's past with which the narrator seeks to identify; clearly, she would like the reader to see her own story in the public context of broader concerns such as socialism, women's issues, and the high costs of the Meiji government's top-down modernization program. As to the circumstances surrounding the narrator's birth and subsequent adoption, she did not learn of the truth until she was in her fourth year of elementary school. She records the scene in her text this way:

      Soon after entering fourth grade, it was time for me to get my vaccinations in order, and a month later they sent a formal report addressed to my father. These reports were usually brought home by each student so on my way home from school I took a peek at it. I noticed that for my name was written Matsue adopted daughter of Fukamachi Tôzaburô and his wife Yasu. Whaat?? Adopted daughter? That couldn't be! They were my real parents, I was sure of it! So I came running home and asked my mother about it. She was apologetic: 'I am so sorry. We were going to tell you when you got a little older. There was no intention to keep it a secret from you. I am sorry.' I was not one to confront my parents as a rule but I blurted out: 'How could this be that I was adopted? I can't believe it!' Once it became clear that I was indeed adopted, it seemed best that I get to know my brothers and sisters and my real parents as well as possible during the summer, so we decided that I would return to Isesaki that summer and stay with them for a month.[15]

  13. Although it must have been a shock to learn that she was adopted, Atsugi was fortunate to now get to know her birth family. Nevertheless, her identity as expressed in the early pages of her autobiography is decidedly fragmented. Leigh Gilmore notes in her penetrating analysis of female self-representation, Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation, that since 'the subject position of woman autobiographer so strains the discipline of autobiography studies that it has remained until recently a question beyond interpretation',[16] it is important that readers be sufficiently discerning to see female autobiographers as 'gendered subjects' in the sense that Teresa de Lauretis uses the term. Women, she finds, 'are both inside and outside gender, at once within and without representation.[17] Theorists may generally agree that language creates subjectivity but they rarely address the fact that definitions of female subjectivity are always 'in relation to man.'[18] But Gilmore also alerts us that readers of women's autobiographies must also be sensitive to both the historical and the textual selves:

      While the historical self may be the autobiographer's explicit subject-the story of her life with self-development as the structure of the text-this subject is distributed across the historical self and the textual self, both of which are versions of the self who writes.[19]

    In other words, the process of women writing their lives is often a delicate negotiation between a historical self and a textual self, and, in the case of Atsugi's text, this process is made even more complex at the outset when we are alerted by the narrator that neither self may be exactly what it seems.
  14. As we saw, Atsugi became convinced on that May evening in 1930 she wanted to join the Proletarian Film League and become a filmmaker. Her desire was to find a way to speak directly to viewers about reality without relying exclusively on words, but using images and sound as well. While still learning her craft, she had the opportunity to translate Paul Rotha's influential book, Documentary Film, into Japanese, while she was employed at PCL. This translation appeared in 1938 under the title Bunka eigaron and was very influential on the development of a discourse on documentary film theory in Japan.[20]
  15. Atsugi soon went on to script and film documentaries herself, but it was her misfortune to begin her career in the mid-1930s, just as Japan was embarking on a course of virulent nationalism and militarism. It was an atmosphere in which the humanist filmmaker, not to mention one with Marxist or proletarian sympathies, would have very little freedom with which to operate. We know how challenging this could be from several of the passages in her autobiography that discuss the documentary films she made during the war. One of her main challenges, however, would have to do with the process of depicting women. In another passage that discusses how Atsugi's female subjectivity was inscribed on her text and on the process of writing her life, the narrator describes her encounter with a fellow PCL writer Miyoshi Juro who imparted to her the wisdom that: 'If you cannot depict women, then you are not really mature writer (onna ga kakenakereba, ichininmae janai).' She goes on to say:
      This proved to be very prophetic for 'writing a woman' is, indeed, very difficult. If I were to say that I harbored no hopes that this self-depiction [jibunshi] that I am currently writing might be a valid attempt to 'depict a woman,' [onna o egaku], it would probably be a lie. But if I am reticent about it, it is simply because there is always that fear that the gap between what one tries to depict [egakou to suru] and what one actually succeeds in depicting [egaku koto no dekita] will be too great. Anyway, this is what I learned from Mr. Miyoshi.[21]

  16. This is a significant passage for the narrator addresses a very basic question: how does one accurately depict women? Even though her own attempt at self-writing may be flawed she hints, if she were to claim that she has no desire to make her narrative an accurate depiction of women, then she would not be being truthful. However, since no such claim to authenticity is actually made, presumably she believes that her own self-depiction can stand up to the test that it accurately captures and portrays a woman's life experience.
  17. But this passage also leads into a discussion about how she learned to write scripts for films that depict the lives of women. It may seem odd that she credits a male colleague with alerting her to the challenge of accurately portraying the female experience. But there is no hint here that she learned anything specific about how to go about her task from Miyoshi. In fact, the rather formal, respectful way of referring to 'Mr. Miyoshi' suggests some distance between the two. She may agree with his observation that this skill of being able to write films that faithfully depict a woman's perspective is more likely to be one of the skills that a writer develops later in their career rather than earlier. And since the narrative present, in which she is writing her life, is definitely a later one, written when she is a more mature writer, there is every reason to understand her remarks—indirect and 'telling it slant' as they may be, to use a term adapted by Judy Long[22] —as an assertion that she has learned something about what it means to depict a woman. Perhaps out of respect for some one who mentored her, she does not elaborate about what depicting a woman might mean to her specifically. But her text does continue with passages that reveal much about how she tried to make films that accurately reflected and depicted women's lives.
  18. One of her most important wartime films is a 1945 documentary about life in a day-care centre called, Record of a Certain Nursery [Aru hobo no kiroku]. After investigating a number of sites for filming her script, she settled on a daycare center in the Togoshi section of Tokyo. She then went to work on the script. She writes about the process of making her film as follows:

      The script first appeared in the October 1940 issue of GES' [Geijutsu eigasha] Cultural Film Studies, and I was immediately called before the Film Control Committee who said:

      This script is not written at all from the point of view of children at a nursery during wartime. Please insert something about the wartime education appropriate to such a childcare center. For example, you could have a soldier walk by in front of the nursery school, and the nurse from inside could point him out to the children and say 'That soldier is going off to fight for the sake of the country,' and have the children sing the song, 'Thank You, O Soldier.'

      Or, anyway, they said something along these lines. Their demeanor may have been very calm, but I will never forget the fierceness of their eyes. I just quietly hung my head and left, but I did not alter the script.

      The curriculum at Togoshi was not anything like what they were suggesting. That was part of its appeal to me and precisely why we had selected it as our subject.

      However, at some of the public day care centers I had visited while scouting sites, I did hear children being required to sing a song before they opened their boxed lunches about 'You are able to eat this meal before you because of our Soldiers.' During wartime, with food shortages, children were forced to go hungry. It was pathetic to see them being forced to suppress their natural instincts to open their meals and start eating. It was bad enough that they had to sing 'Thanks to our Soldiers,' but there were also nursery schools where kids were taught to sing, 'I can't wait to grow up, get a rifle, and go off to war.' They were already teaching these poor children about killing and dying-it sent chills down my spine.

      I had wanted to portray the partnership manifest at these day care centers between mothers and nurses in their desire to instill in the young lives of their charges an earnest commitment to life. If I could give expression to this unspoken feeling of solidarity, this humanistic spirit manifest in their commitment to living and to life, then somehow it could function as an antidote to the emphasis on killing and dying. Looking back on it now, it may well seem like too little of an attempt at protest, but at the time, it was the most I could hope for. [23]

    Figure 3. Video Clip: Circle

  19. The agenda that Atsugi sought to pursue, then, in defiance of the censors and the aims of the government, was the portrayal of a 'humanistic spirit' and a 'commitment to life' as an alternative to all the rhetoric about death and killing. We can see this through the camera's eye as it settles on children, their working mothers, and the women who provide their day care. In this sense, and in the way she integrated the school community, Atsugi could be said to thoroughly feminise the gaze of the camera which is traditionally regarded as male and intrusive. Since the film consists, in a way agreed with the participants, as she herself describes it, of scene after scene depicting these women and children doing the ordinary, the everyday things of life: running, playing, eating, drawing, napping, etc., Atsugi has, in effect, converted the camera from a hierarchical to a nonhierarchical device. She spells out what she believes is most responsible for the success of the film:

      When doing background research for my script, I donned an apron and worked like a volunteer alongside the other mothers, and I was amazed at the way I was accepted by the mothers, the children and the nurses as virtually one of them. As noted above, I wanted to focus on the bond between the mothers and the nurses that they formed in order to affect the growth of their children in a group setting. As this bond finally took root in the consciousness of the mothers, it transformed them...It was the producer's wish to have me come on location as the person responsible for the script, so that's what I did everyday with the notion that I would write this second version of the script 'with my body'[karada de kaku][24]

  20. It was her physical presence, her willingness to bond with the women in their workplace, that allowed her to revise the script 'with her body,' so to speak. Of course, this term resonates with the writing of the French feminists, especially Helene Cixous, who argues that, if the structure of language itself is phallogocentric, with stable meaning anchored and guaranteed by the phallus, anyone who uses language must take up a position as 'male' within this structure which excludes female bodies. This is why Cixous wants to deconstruct the phallogocentric system and why she argues for new approaches to the relationship between female bodies and language. Specifically, in order to escape the discourse of mastery, Cixous believes women must begin to 'write the body.' To write with one's body is a way to overcome the hierarchical bonds that repress and imprison women and to allow them to discover their own voices. [25]
  21. Of course, the French feminists were not writing in the 1940s, so Atsugi Taka could not have been reflecting their ideas when she went about writing the script for Record of a Certain Nursery. But she certainly could have been aware of the phrase 'writing with the body' during the late 1980s when she was composing her autobiography. Yet we have no direct evidence for this and, as the passage below reveals, she actually uses the term in a slightly different, but nevertheless overlapping sense. For her, 'writing with the body' has more to do with the physical act of being on site, writing her script there, shoulder-to-shoulder with the women who constituted the staff, the mothers and the nurses who provided the day care.

    Figure 4. Video Clip: Newsletter

    Atsugi continues her discussion of the film:

      The most significant strength of this film made fifty years ago is that it meant that the daycare center itself had to be an integral part of the filmmaking process. In those days, the luxury of having this kind of relationship was enviable. Therefore, everyone from the head of the school, to the nurses and clerical staff, supported us without reservation in the process of making this film. Everyday, after filming was completed, we would reflect on that day's work, and in the presence of everyone, hold a lively discussion on constructing a plan for the next day's filming....

      Since I started working on Aru hobo no kiroku shortly after my translation of Paul Rotha's Documentary Film had appeared, some critics were quick to assume that I was 'eager to put Rotha's theory into practice' and suggested that this might have resulted in some short-circuiting problems in the filmmaking process. But I would argue that more than this, what distinguished our film from other types of documentary films was the insistence that a 'woman's eye' [ onna no me] be reflected in the script. Manifesting a 'woman's eye' in the script was not something just to do with myself as an individual. It refers to the multiple 'women's eyes' [ fukusû no onna no me] that were involved from the nursery's side.[26]

  22. It is provocative to hear the narrator speak in terms of 'multiple women's eyes' and their impact on her film. Atsugi is committed to bonding with the people she is seeking to depict, and the world she must enter is very much a woman's world, a world of mothers, day care providers and children.

    Figure 5. Video Clip: Undokai

  23. It was here that she needed a 'woman's eye' to permeate the script. An effective transition shot illustrates the quest for multiple female perspectives as we see the children being put down for afternoon naps followed by a cut to the mothers at work in various locations such as a shoe factory, a commercial kitchen, and at metal stamping machines in a small factory.

    Figure 6. Video Clip: Napping

    Another short sequence, shot at the day care facility, shows one of the providers planting dandelions with the children.

    Figure 7. Planting

    This shot is followed-up by a very brief clip some weeks later when the children are tending to the dandelions that have grown there.

    Figure 8. Video Clip: Flowers

  24. Given the emphasis in contemporary feminist criticism on the multiplicity of discourses that are embraced in feminist writing, especially self-writing, it is interesting that Atsugi has put forth this notion of the 'multiple eyes' representing the various women's perspectives for she understood that 'women' in the film were the construct of multiple discourses: they were workers, mothers, day care providers, teachers, managers as well as consumers and housewives. As a filmmaker, Atsugi wanted to incorporate as many of these viewpoints as possible in her work.
  25. In a way, this single scene in the narrative manages to bring the reader back around to the earlier passage about depicting women. Earlier in her career as a scriptwriter, the narrator felt frustrated and marginalized at always being assigned to work on the haha mono, the 'mother stories' that were designed to pull on the audience's heartstrings. But she learns from a mentor that one of the most challenging parts of scriptwriting is to depict women. Moving away from fiction and into documentary filmmaking, she winds up crafting a scene that says more about the link between mothers, their children and social institutions and ultimately about mother-children relationship-than any of the fictional 'mother stories' could ever have hoped to. Since she felt that there was something artificial about being asked as a scriptwriter to provide the 'women's perspective' for these haha mono stories, it must have meant something to her to be able to point, in her memoirs, to her work on a documentary film that actually succeeded in depicting women's experience directly and realisitically.
  26. Towards the end of the war, Atsugi began work on another documentary film, this time about female mill workers. It was originally called 'Even Though We Are Working So Hard...[Watakushitachi wa konna ni hataraite-iru noni]. She describes how the inspiration for the title came from a remark quoted in a newspaper article by a young female factory volunteer in Fujisawa clothing factory: 'We are working so hard. Why did Japanese soldiers have to die this way on Saipan.' Although uncertain why the Navy Ministry would want such a film made at this point in time, Atsugi was eager to proceed because, as she expresses it,

      I began to realize that if I could frame these questions in the right way, I may be able to make one of those Kamei Fumio type of films which portray war weariness[27] and, in this way, I could answer these questions albeit somewhat equivocally. [Although the result was] a pathetically maimed little film, it was one that nevertheless cried out that war is horrible. These feelings veritably ooze from the film's pores. This was something painfully evident to us in the terrible working conditions we observed...

      'Even though we work so hard-and for what?' This was the refrain we encountered wherever we looked. This was what we needed to record faithfully. As aestheticist Nakai Seiichi once said, 'Documentary film records for posterity that sacred 'onceness' [ ikkaisei} of historical experience.' We started filming right away....

      Anyway, we had titled our film, Even Though We Work So Hard—with the emphasis on the 'even though'[no ni]—but the Navy Ministry did not care for it one bit. 'This won't do! What is this 'even though' stuff?' So the 'even though' was cut right away and in terms of content, they figured out where we were being equivocal and cut out about 12 minutes of a short 30 minute film...[28]

  27. Some important notions that shape the narrator's viewpoint on documentary filmmaking are articulated here. The first is the remark she quotes about the 'onceness' or the 'one time-ness' of documentary films. The phrase, 'history's sacred onceness'— rekishi no seinaru ikkaisei—does not yield readily to English translation. But it may be that it refers to the synchronous nature of documentary film and the immediacy that it is capable of delivering. To quote Paul Rotha—Atsugi's favorite theorist—in a passage where he outlines what he believes the potential of film to be as a mode of communication:

      Real and creative thought must be about real things. Let cinema explore outside the limits of what we are told constitutes entertainment. Let cinema attempt the dramatisation of the living scene, springing from the living present instead of from synthetic fabrication of the studio. Let cinema attempt film interpretations of modern problems and events, of things as they really are today, and by so doing perform a definite function. Let cinema recognize the existence of real men and women, real things and real issues, and by so doing, offer to State, Industry, Commerce, to public and private organisations of all kinds, a method of communication and propaganda to project not just personal opinions but arguments for a world of common interests.[29]

  28. To bring forth an 'actualized' scene out of the living present may be exactly what Nakai Seiichi is getting at when he speaks of the immediacy which only documentary film is capable of offering the viewer. But when the state tolerates only one worldview and contracts with the filmmaker to represent that worldview, how does the filmmaker make the film while remaining true to at least some of her own vision of the truth? The narrator explains what she and her crew went through making this film, depicting the lives of female factory workers, only to see some of their most poignant and powerful scenes end up on the cutting-room floor. Nevertheless, her claim for the film is that its most deeply rooted message—which was about the horror of war—came through clearly in spite of the fact that it was the antithesis of what the navy Ministry was hoping for.

  29. As Paul Rotha notes, 'Documentary must be the voice of the people speaking from the homes and factories and fields of the people.'[30] Atsugi took this to heart when she ventured into the day center in Tokyo and the clothing factory at Fujisawa. She also incorporates many of these same principles in composing her life story. Again, Rotha observes how 'a film is in actuality a series of views placed one after (below) another on a screen in such a manner that the spectator may...grasp the meaning not only of one view but of the whole collection.'[31] In a similar manner, Atsugi has placed before her readers a series of linked scenes and images that take us all the way from her schooldays to her days as a radical peace activist. Reflecting on the process of writing her life in her Afterword, Atsugi observes that:

      As for myself, I knew that I had made my way along this very diverse and complex path veering back and forth between work, social movements and family life, seeing these paths branch off in different directions, only to converge later on. In my text, I wanted to capture all the ramifications of these disruptions and divergences so all along I had planned on titling it My Disrupted Life Story [Hikisakareta jibunshi]. Before I actually started writing, I wasn't sure how well it would go, but since participating in women's movements and peace movements is fundamentally such a human thing to do, there was really no reason for me to be anxious about it.

      Keeping this in mind, and trying to be sure that what I did write contained no lies, the words just began to flow like the unraveling of a ball of twine so that at times I almost had to wonder if writing should really be this easy. But when I was done and my friends took a look at it, they were concerned that while it read well, it didn't really have all the drama of a ruptured life that the title suggested. So we got in a big discussion about what made for dramatic reading but finally, I gave up on the original title and settled on Memoirs of a Female Documentarist, the title my publisher had suggested. This title might actually better capture the fluidity with which it was written.[32]

  30. The narrator's approach to composing her life, then, was to write in a fluid, direct manner—just letting the words flow in a stream-of-consciousness fashion in order see what kind of narrative emerges. But this approach was at odds with the very point she wanted to make: that her life was fractured and disrupted. However, since her own discourse seemed to mask much of the fractured, disrupted nature of her life, she acquiesced in the end to the title her publisher favored, Memoirs of a Female Documentarist.
  31. As all of these episodic fragments of her life story are woven together—sequenced much as a scriptwriter might arrange plot lines on a storyboard—there seems ample evidence nevertheless for disruption and fragmentation in her life. Today, it is not difficult for us to read between the lines and see that Atsugi Taka's narrative consists of forces that operate both to reinscribe and resist notions about what constitutes a self—something that clearly revolves around the question of gender. As Leigh Gilmore notes,

      By exploring the technologies of autobiography, we see that autobiographical identity is always constructed through the changing and contradictory exigencies of the specific and that the autobiographer's reinscription and resistance to a model of selfhood is a dialectic that shapes self-representation. The identity an autobiography inscribes is something more like a process that variously synthesizes or is fragmented by these discourses.[33]

    She continues:

      Thus, the subject of autobiography is not a single entity but a network of differences within which the subject is inscribed.[34]

  32. Memoirs of a Female Documentarist clearly manifests that tension, that dialectic that accompanies the construction of a discursive self, a narrating subject. Capturing in her text this frenetic motion—the 'veering back and forth between work, social movements and family life, seeing these paths branch off in different directions, only to converge later on,'[35] highlighting all the twists and turns, and the crisscrossing—is Atsugi's way of talking about the multiple discourses from which her identity was constructed. As noted at the outset, self-representation is the result of a process, a dialectic between forces of resistance and reinscription of a given model of selfhood. What Gilmore calls the 'changing and contradictory exigencies of the specific' refers to the specific historical context as well as all the cultural and social forces at work shaping the identity of both the historical and the textual selves.
  33. Atsugi Taka clearly conceives of her identity as the result of just such a process, and she goes to some lengths to demonstrate how the process is constantly being 'fragmented' and 'disrupted' by the discourses around her. Moreover, she understands that somewhere at the core of this process is her struggle to 'depict women' accurately and sensitively. At the same time, the challenges women face when writing their lives sometimes have the power to pull a text in a different direction. If they render the text muted and understated, then we must not forget that the surface calm may belie a turbulent undercurrent of resistance and contestation.


    [1] There was good reason to be concerned. As Makino Mamoru and Komori Shizuo recalled in a 1994 interview, 'In the movement, it was a time when you'd get caught the minute you did anything.' They also talked about the purpose of Prokino and the kind of police harassment to which they were subjected. 'We suffered a lot of police harassment during screenings: they'd frisk the audience and make trouble.... One aspect of our movement was to use film as agitation. Our film of the May Day celebration was the best for agitation: the workers were marching boldly along a pre-determined route while totally surrounded by a huge number of imposing police. We'd show that film to rural workers, or even just average citizens, and through the movement of the images, the film functioned, as television and radio can do today, as our weapon. So it was important to make a film— not some drama, but a documentary—and to show them the raw scene: this is how the workers fight; this is how the farmers struggle. We'd film the city rail strike or the funeral procession for the assassinated leftist leader Yamamoto Senji [known as 'Yama-Sen']—really valuable records. Then we'd take them around the country showing them to people everywhere, spreading the word and using movies for our leftist movement. See the complete interview in Documentary Box, November, 2001.

    [2] See Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: the Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 1.

    [3] Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 1.

    [4] See Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000, pp. 58-68.

    [5] Atsugi details the process of making several other documentary film, especially one shot in the 1970s, We Are Watching You—Yokosuka the Nuclear Weapons Base [Warware ewa kanshi suru—kakukichi Yokusuka], a film about a citizens' protest movement against nuclear weapons being introduced and handled by both Seventh Fleet naval personnel and Japanese employees as well. The film, shot in colour, entailed Atsugi surreptitiously filming activities in the naval port with an 800 mm telephoto lens from a small boat in the bay. They came up with footage that clearly shows the loading and offloading of containers filled with missiles apparently armed with nuclear warheads.

    Especially disturbing was footage that revealed that these containers were being handled by both American naval personnel and members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. This was a clear violation of Japan's Three Non-Nuclear principles which state that Japan will neither manufacture, possess, nor permit the introduction of nuclear arms into the country. The film was shown around the world and won a gold medal at an East German Film Festival in Leipzig.

    [6] Aru hobo no kiroku, Omura Einosuke, producer, Mizuki Tadanari (or Masanari),director, script by Atsugi Taka (Geijutsu eigasha, 1943) and Watashitachi wa sonna ni hataraite-iru , script by Atsugi Taka (Asahi eigasha, 1945).

    [7] See Helen Bruss, 'A Feminist Revision of New Historicism to Give Fuller Readings of Women's Private Writing' in, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, pp. 222-31.

    [8] Paul Rotha, Documentary Film, New York: Hastings House, Communication Arts Books, 1953. For Atsugi's original translation see Paul Rotha, Bunka eigaron , ed. and trans. Atsugi Taka, Kyoto: Daiichi Geibunsha, 1938. Revised and expanded translations were published in 1960 and 1976 by Mizusu shobo. In these versions, the title was changed back to Documentarii eiga.

    Figure 2 is reconstructed from an online journal article. See Abe Mark Nornes, 'Poru Ruta/Paul Rotha and the Politics of Translation.' The article appeared in hard copy format in Cinema Journal, and is now found online as Screening the Past, La Trobe University, July, 2000.

    [9] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, p. 92.

    [10] Documentary Box is an online and print journal dedicated to documentary film in Japan. One exception to the overall neglect of Atsugi's work is Hori Hikari's essay, 'Atsugi Taka to Aru hobo no kiroku: senjikano 'hataraku josei' tachi to teiko no hyogen o megutte,' [The Record of a Certain Nursery: An Expression of Working Women's Resistance in Wartime Japan'] Eizôgaku tsûkan 66 (May 25, 2001): 23-39.

    [11] Sidonie Smith makes this point most eloquently in her book, The Poetics of Women's Autobiography Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1987, where she writes about what happens when 'women approach the autobiographical territory from their position as speakers at the margins of discourse. In so doing, they find themselves implicated in a complex posture toward the engendering of autobiographical narrative' (44). Similarly, Judy Long notes in her book, Telling Women's Lives: Subject/Narrator/Reader/Text, New York: New York University Press, 1999, 'Female autobiography is not autobiography as usual. Women's self-writing is animated by the tension between external control of women and the assertion of female subjectivity, a tension visible in women's personal narratives of whatever form' (27).

    [12] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 14-15.

    [13] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, p. 15.

    [14] On Fukuda Hideko, see Vera Mackie, Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900-1937, Cambridge and new York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 2ff; and Mikiso Hane (ed.), Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, pp. 29-50.

    [15] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 31-33.

    [16] Leigh Gilmore, Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Self-Representation, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 2.

    [17] See Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University of Press, 1987. The quote can be found on p. 10.

    [18] de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender, pp. 19-20

    [19] Gilmore, Autobiographics, p. 84.

    [20] See Paul Rotha, Documentary Film, New York: Hastings House, Communication Arts Books, 1953, appearing in Japanese as Bunka eigaron, ed. and trans. Atsugi Taka, Kyoto: Daiichi Geibunsha, 1938. Rotha's book was first published in England in 1935 and apparently Atsugi's title was her attempt to render the popular German term kulturfilm into Japanese. See the very interesting article by Abé Mark Nornes, 'Pôru Rûta/Paul Rotha and the politics of translation,' in Cinema journal 38, 3 (Spring 1999): 91-108 which covers some of these matters and includes a detailed discussion of the controversy and debate sparked by Atsugi's translation. The article also appears online at Screening the Past. It seems that Nornes came across a copy of Atsugi's translation in a used bookstore that was thoroughly marked up with comments and corrections by an unknown party. Whoever made these corrections also added the note: 'This is a surprising book. She can't understand English. Japanese is pretty bad. Even Ms. Atsugi cannot argue with this. I don't understand how this person had the guts to translate it. This caused the chaos in this country's bunka eiga discourse. I'm sorry these corrections are a year late.' In a word, then, the quality of Atsugi's translation has been seriously questioned and it may explain why she sounds so apologetic in the text about the speed with which she had to complete the translation, and the quality of the final product.

    [21] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 100-02.

    [22] See Judy Long, Telling Women's Lives, pp. 36-41. 'Telling it slant' is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem about whether one should speak of the truth directly or only indirectly lest it render us 'blind.' The poem in question is quoted on p. 37:

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant
    Success in circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The truth's superb surprise
    As lightening to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind-

    Long puts forth the idea of three narrative strategies available to women who choose to transgress and write their lives: 1) 'telling it slant,'(which refers to drawing on allusion and indirection, issuing denials or pronouncing disclaimers, denying being affected by certain things, avoiding confrontations with the dominant discourse, sticking to the facts without presuming to impose one's ideas); 2) 'telling it messy,' (in which the language of dirt, diapers, blood appears in order to underscore stories of interruptions, loss of control, lack of closure, process with no product); and 3) 'telling it straight,' (correcting the biases and distortions of the female experience by setting the record straight). Whereas in many cases, all three strategies can be found in a text, in this particular scene it seems evident that the narrator is writing circumspectly, 'telling it slant.'

    [23] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 111-12.

    [24] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 112-13.

    [25] See Susan Sellers, 'Introduction,' in The Hélène Cixous Reader, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. xxvi-xxxi. See also, Hélène Cixous, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp. 92ff.

    [26] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 114-22.

    [27] Kamei Fumio was renowned for his film that the Occupation authorities ultimately banned, The Japanese Tragedy, but during the war he made Tatakau heitai, or Fighting Soldiers which later became known by its nickname Exhausted Soldiers [Tsukareta heitai] because it highlighted 'the physical and emotional exhaustion of the soldiers rather than their bravery in battle.' See Kyoko Hirano, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp. 105-45.

    [28] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, pp. 136-41.

    [29] See Rotha, Documentary Film, pp. 69-70.

    [30] See Rotha, Documentary Film, p. 113.

    [31] Rotha, Documentary Film, p. 130

    [32] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, Tokyo: Domesu shuppan, 1991, pp. 243-45.

    [33] Gilmore, Autobiographics, p. 84.

    [34] Gilmore, Autobiographics, p. 85.

    [35] Atsugi, Josei dokyumentarisuto no kaisô, p. 244.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 11 March 2009 1112 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright