Kazuo Hara, the director of Sennan Asbestos Disaster, hails from the tradition of dissenters in Japanese society, a man who has dedicated his career to zooming in his lens on governmental culpability while celebrating the spunk and irreverence of those unafraid to protest. In any society, transgressive expression opens up an artist to criticism. Hara, an admittedly “weak” person who makes films about the strong, is not a household name, even among Asian Americans and film festival fans of all backgrounds. Many of his films are rarely viewed in the United States, and his most infamous documentary, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, was released in 1987.
Sennan Asbestos Disaster was over a decade in the making, follow in the wake of the “Kubota Shock,” the effects on Japanese society after the Kubota Corporation announced in 2005 that ten percent of its employees had contracted asbestos-related diseases. Other that died of such illness lived in proximity of the manufacturing facilities in and around Sennan, Osaka but never worked in them. As a result, two group of plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government and the manufacturers for failing to regulate and warn against the well-known dangers of asbestos. Hara’s purpose as a filmmaker is to expose, provoke, and awaken, and the camera is his prod, but while he has previously revelled in the avant garde style, by necessity this film falls back on more standard documentary techniques. The protagonists are neither iconoclastic figures nor those who sought out attention. Some recoiled from the camera and being subjects at all.
Rather, the Sennan victims are mostly senior citizens victimized by circumstances. The calls for awakening comes from the truth and exposition of their experiences, many of them ethnic Koreans, and all of them whose labor and lower-class status was used for the manufacture of asbestos. Some were mere babies whose parents unwittingly exposed them to asbestos. American viewers will find parallels to our own struggles for injustice against corporate and governmental malfeasance. Long scenes document that suffering from long-term exposure to asbestos, affecting a feeling of helplessness, a devastatingly effective appeal to sympathy for the individual and cause. Such profiles of sickness dominate the first half of the film.
In the second half, Hara turns the camera the other way, upon himself and Kazuyoshi Yuoka, a manager who ran an asbestos business founded by his father and now understands the harm of his industry and failure of government to warn of the dangers. Hara states, “trial is a space given by the government,” as support for direct action and protest, albeit well-mannered and ritualistic protest. There are few hard questions that would have probed plaintiffs and their lawyers, but one profile stood out. Shoichi Eshiro, an ethnically Korean naturalized Japanese citizen also ran an asbestos facility. Six members of his family died of asbestos-related diseases. Asked why his father left Korea for Japan, he replies, “He hated Confucianism. They respect dead men and their elders too much,” hence a parallel conflict embedded in the film. While the citizens are uprising against the state, they are also internally conflicted about the mores of tradition in a Confucian society. Scene between the plaintiffs’ group and government officials tellingly show the difference between expectations of behavior and blunt questioning of those in authority.
What missing in Sennan Asbestos Disaster is a forensic examination of the facts. Why should the audience assume that the suffering of the elderly victims was caused by their exposure to asbestos? Most lived a long life. Hara leaves his audience to seek other sources on this question, forgoing deep analysis and relying on the pathos of the suffering and dying plaintiffs. Some statistic provide an argument that leads to understand as to why “Angry Yuoka” saw the outcome as a small compromise by the government and not an all out victory. Asbestos products were produced in Japan for about a century, between the early 1900s and not ending until 2006, but only those who worked in the industry between 1958 and 1971 were awarded compensation, events that happened long before many in the current government were in power or even born. Yet, the visit to Sennan by the Minister puts a sympathetic, if symbolic, face on the structure of power.
With a running time of three-and-a-half hours, Sennan Asbestos Disaster isn’t for everyone. An edited version would have preserved the effect of the film. Yet, it will reward those who appreciate a deep dive into the politics of an underdog community versus the omnipotent state. Hara does reveal the limitations of documentary as history, failing to provide an in-depth picture of legal strategies that won the case, instead focusing on the emotions of the attorneys and plaintiffs’ group rather than their tactics beyond protest and merely speaking out. Ironically, while the idea of a Confucian society that values deference to authority is examined critically, the closure of the legal case and carthartis for the elderly victims includes the voluntarily sharing of proceeds with those who were left out of the judgement, something that perhaps wouldn’t have happened if the plaintiffs’ group didn’t work under the very Confucian principles of group importance over the individual which are criticized.
Sennan Asbestos Disaster is showing on July 22 at JAPAN CUTS.