Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Commemorating Oh Deok-soo, a Director who Became a “Zainichi Director”

Jan 16, 2016
Shota T. Ogawa

Film director Oh Deok-soo passed away from lung cancer on Sunday. He was 74. Oh is known for his feature-length documentary films on Zainichi Koreans (Resident Koreans in Japan) including Against Fingerprinting (1984) and The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan: Zainichi (1997).

I met Oh late in his life. In 2010, when I first interviewed him for my doctoral project, I was surprised to learn that he had as many questions for me as I did for him. In the years following, it became my habit to pay him a visit when I was back in Japan not only to seek advice on my dissertation, but to report on my life in the U.S., for he was always interested in hearing about the different and diverse ways in which Zainichi Koreans live today. While I cannot write a personal tribute informed by intimate familiarity, I want to offer a brief summary of his resume in the way I believe he would have liked to see it told.    

Born in 1941 in Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture, Oh first entered the film world as an assistant to Nagisa Oshima, working on Violence at Noon (1966) and Sing a Song of Sex (1967), before working for Daiei and Toei in their film divisions through the late 1960s and the 1970s. Some of the better known television productions he worked on include The Guardsman (starring Ken Utsui, Daiei/TBS, 1965-1971), A Lone Wolf (starring Shigeru Amachi, Toei/NTV, 1967-1968), and Key Hunter (starring Tetsuro Tamba and Sonny Chiba, Toei/TBS, 1968-1973).    

Oh was a familiar presence in local film festivals and public symposia, particularly since completing his lifework, The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan, in 1997 which involved working closely with grassroots groups across Japan that co-sponsored its production and realized a nation-wide tour of the film. In addition to making his own films, he was active in organizing screenings of others’ works that highlighted the historical presence of Koreans within Japanese cinema. In the screenings he organized for the History Museum of J-Koreans in Azabu, for example, he showcased the works of Zainichi Korean directors such as Sai Yoichi, Lee Sang-il, and Kim Su-gil alongside films made by Japanese directors that depicted Zainichi Koreans in interesting ways. Each screening was accompanied by a guest speaker who might be the director, a staff member, or a viewer with a special attachment to the title, and a post-screening discussion followed by a party gave the event a unique communal character.

In recent years, he had branched out into exhibiting his own photographs and probing the possibility of curating a museum exhibition of picture books and school textbooks written for Korean children in Occupied Japan. His multifaceted activity as a filmmaker, collector, curator, and cultural organizer stemmed from his work on the monumental documentary, The Story of Koreans in Postwar Japan, for which he had to condense a vast archive of music, photographs, home movies, newsreels, and material artifacts into its running time of four-and-a-half hours.

The unique ways in which Oh’s professional and artistic career developed around rather than fully within cinema were also a product of circumstances. In an interview with film scholar Takashi Monma in 2005, Oh recounts that most studios had stopped hiring assistant directors when he graduated from Waseda’s Theater Department in 1965. Even in Toei’s TV division (Toei Tokyo Production) where he received most of the training and rose to the rank of Chief Assistant Director, he was still on an irregular contract with limited benefits or job security. The second half of his time at Toei was thus spent on a prolonged strike that demanded improved labor conditions for contract employees. It was only by taking up freelance assignments to write screenplays for film, television, and manga, while collectively running a franchised noodle shop that Oh and his fellow strikers of Toei Production Company Labor Union were able to live through the 1970s.

It was paradoxically during the prolonged strike that Oh found the key to direct his own films. Through befriending the editors of the Zainichi Korean magazine Madan and later cofounding its informal successor Jansori, Oh became involved in the burgeoning movement of young Japan-born Zainichi Koreans that sought to build a public sphere that overcame the Cold War division. When the anti-fingerprinting protest broke out in 1980 and developed into a major social movement by 1985, he found himself ideally situated to document the movement from within, thanks to the significant overlap between the target audience of Jansori and the main actors of the protest movement. He founded his independent production company Oh Kikaku for the project which was completed and screened within a year while the protest was still ongoing.

On a number of occasions, Oh raised objection to the label “Zainichi Korean film director” which he found constricting. But no other director has so consistently explored the interrelation between Zainichi and film, or to rephrase in his preferred expression: what it means to be Zainichi Koreans living at a time when we have access to historical film documents. If it is apt to call him a representative Zainichi Korean film director, it is not because his interest was limited to Zainichi Korean issues, but because he took up the challenge of weaving Zainichi Koreans’ social concerns into the fabric of cinema. It is in this spirit that we can appreciate the opening scene of his maiden film, Against Fingerprinting, that shows an alien registration card set on fire. This was, he told the audience at a screening, a visual homage paid to Kei Kumai’s Nihon retto (1965) that featured a visually striking shot of ants engulfed in flame against the backdrop of the map of Japan. With Oh’s documentaries, we can learn about Chesa (a Korean ceremony of ancestor worship) to a-ha’s “Take On Me,” or make unexpected connections between Zainichi Korean history and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters or with Yoshio Tabata’s postwar hit, Kaeribune (Repatriation Boat). He made Zainichi Korean history cinematic.

At a time when Directors Guild of Japan is chaired by Sai Yoichi and Eiren (Motion Picture Producer Association of Japan) have nominated works by Sai, Lee Sang-il, and Yang Yong-hi to compete for the Foreign Language Oscar in the Academy Awards, it appears all but certain that Zainichi Koreans have gained citizenship in the world of cinema. Oh’s legacy might be understood in the reverse term. Instead of making it in the film business, he made cinema relevant to as many Zainichi Koreans as he could.
Shota T. Ogawa is Assistant Professor of Japanese at University of North Carolina at Charlotte who is writing a book manuscript tentatively titled Visualizing Zainichi: A Cinematic Counter-History of Koreans in postwar Japan.  

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