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Documentaries are a unique genre within film. We see facts, we see statistics and we believe them to be true. A strong narrative voice, overriding a pan over stunning scenery told with such conviction, you might feel unknowledgeable compared to the narrator. However, other than the audio and factual quality of documentaries, there is now the overriding entertainment factor that dominates more and more of our TV screens each day. Certainly, the shift into sensationalism and somewhat manipulating truths in British documentaries such as Benefit Street and My big fat gypsy wedding are designed to both shock and inform us on those from a marginalised community. Eloquently poised answers, minimal involvement of the police and the government are not usually the themes when looking at these communities shown on TV. Therefore, it is interesting to explore how Japan in particular uses a different style to their documentary film making, investigating those that are marginalised in society. Specifically the documentary Hafu, which investigates how being half Japanese has affected their everyday life.
Japan, a country that holds a cornucopia of new technologies, quirky art in the form of anime and of course, hello kitty and sushi. These are one of the many articles that generally come to mind when thinking about modern day Japan, from the countless number of films, comics and books which document the culture. However there is also a variety of fictional depictions of Japan suggesting there is a curiosity of wanting to know what Japan is really like. For example documentaries from western chefs setting out to Japan to make the ‘perfect’ sushi to documentaries like A life in Japan has over a million views on YouTube. There is a fascination to study the culture, and by watching a documentary, the viewer feels that it is the most authentic depiction of Japan. Yet what fails to be noticed is that these documentaries are made by a westerner, for a western audience. For instance in A life in Japan the personal interviewees are mostly told by a mixture of American, English and South African people residing in Japan. This contrasts to Hafu which is made by half Japanese filmmakers. The documentary follows different half Japanese nationalities from across all demographic backgrounds.
The story of Alex a nine year old from the Oi family has a Mexican mother and a Japanese father stood out in particular, as the documentary showed how racism and bullying still occurs in modern day Japan. Alex finds it hard to concentrate in class, due to his tormenters to the point where his parents actually have to send him to an international business school. The documentary is able to show how although there is more than 2 million foreign nationals that have moved into Japan since 2010, there are still racial prejudices. However it is interesting that the documentary highlights that the children are born and raised in Japan, unlike the people mentioned in A life in Japan. Although the documentary primarily focuses on Alex’s struggles, there is little mention on how Sara, Alex’s younger sister at the age of 7 assimilates in Japanese school. At one point the mother Gaby contemplates sending both her children to international school before deciding against Sara going, preferring her to stay in Japanese elementary school. This suggests that Sara might not be subject to bullying the same way to Alex; therefore it could be a question of how the individual deals with his/her Hafu identity. There is a possibility that Sara might appear to be “more Japanese” than Alex, who is able to relate more to his Mexican identity rather than his Japanese.
The documentary takes it one step further by showing David, who is able to use his Hafu identity as a solution to help eradicate poverty in Ghana, where his mother was from. Therefore the documentary not only shows the struggle to assimilate, which is part of the Japanese culture, but also the positive impact the culture has on other cultures. The documentary shows another piece of the puzzle where Sophia embarks on a quest to find and understand her Japanese roots. The multiple threads to finding out what it means to assimilate to Japanese culture, differs from the new form of documentary style in British film making. The strong focus on assimilation of Japanese traditions is what makes Japan unique, thus creating their own spin on the documentary genre.
Written by Aileen Suresh
Ba English and American Literature, Third Year
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham