March: Oyster Factory

”Observationalism and the Critical Eye”

Chris Cagle (Temple University)

Oyster Factory opens with a close-up, ground-level, and slightly canted shot of a white cat reposing in the sun next to the eponymous oyster factory. Domestic animals certainly can be engaging creatures that elicit the spectator’s emotional involvement in a film; this one offers a nice tonal counterpoint to a film whose topic, oyster farming, might seem dry. Openings are precious for filmmakers, however, and the cat shot is not gratuitous—it is an “outside” visitor foreshadowing the film’s eventual depiction of foreign workers in contemporary Japan. More than anything, the opening shot reveals a good deal of director Kazuhiro Soda’s approach. The camera reacts to the cat’s movement, and in turn the cat gazes at Soda/the camera and swipes lazily, as if to push him/it/us away. After twisting about to reposition itself, the cat finally gets up and walks away. It’s a reflexive moment in a documentary full of reflexive moments.


The reflexive gambit suggests how Soda approaches observational documentary as an intersubjective enterprise. As Soda notes about his approach:

“So I decided, okay, I have to redefine what is observation and adjust my method…Whatever I’m observing is changed by my presence. The observer is always a participant in the observation; it is observation of a world which includes myself” (Documentary Storytelling, 318).

While Soda is not the only documentary filmmaker to acknowledge directorial presence, he has developed a method that colors his aesthetic choices in the film. The sound design of this opening, for instance, is rich with loud sea sounds and more muted sounds of employees talking or working in the background, gradually growing louder in the mix so that close-up “subjective” sounds of the sea accompany “objective” extreme long landscape shots.

That said, despite its intersubjective bent, Oyster Factory is not a film representing the full-on phenomenological turn of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. It is still, at heart, an observational documentary, and Soda matter-of-factly subtitles Oyster Factory as “Observational Film #6.” As in more traditional issue documentaries, the film’s sequences illustrate the process of oyster farming, the business climate for the industry, and the culture of its work. At times the camerawork is handheld, at other times more static framing abets montage sequences that would not be out of place in a poetic documentary like Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005). Although it presents a portrait of a number of subjects—the owners (the Hirano family), an apprentice Watanabe, and guest workers from China—the film is not a character-driven documentary as is commonly understood but rather a detached, multi-focal observational film.

The film’s power, for me at least, lies partly in its ability to draw on the intersubjective, the reflexive, and the phenomenological without having to develop an apologetic stance toward observationalism. Oyster Factory does what many excellent observational documentaries do: it gets incredible access to its subjects, lets the chance capturing of detail guide some of the film, and engages spectators dialectically in a political issue lacking an easy solution. Managing these in a film that works, experientially, as cinema is no easy task. Of the various styles on the film festival circuit, observational docs are arguably the least prestigious (see their general marginalization in favor of doc-fiction in Sight & Sound’s recent critics poll).

Especially with a film like Oyster Factory in mind, I would venture that any critical omission is not an indictment of observational documentary today but rather a call for us to recalibrate our critical eye to see and experience observational documentaries beyond the anti-realist debates of the post-vérité years.

“Saturday, 9th. ‘China’ is coming”

Luke Robinson (University of Sussex)

Kazuhiro Soda’s Oyster Factory is set in a ten-person seafood processing plant in rural southwest Japan. The Hirano Oyster Factory is located in Ushimado, a town perched on the edge of the Seto Inland Sea. The factory manager, Watanabe, is however from Minamisanriku, a resort town in northeast Japan destroyed by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Displaced, Watanabe moved his family first to Tokyo and then to Ushimado. Here, he took over the factory from the eponymous Hirano, whose son had rejected the family business for the life of a salaryman. Watanabe may be Japanese, but he is also both a refugee and an economic migrant.

This matters because Oyster Factory is a documentary about migration. Rural depopulation has resulted in labor shortages, and many of the factories in and around Ushimado have begun importing temporary workers from overseas. For the first time, Hirano Oyster Factory is taking on two Chinese laborers; the initial two-thirds of the film is spent preparing for their arrival, while the final third observes them acclimatizing to their new surroundings. Soda shoots largely observationally. Though he does not eschew contact with his subjects, he speaks no Chinese, and therefore cannot talk directly to the laborers. Linguistic difference also limits verbal communication between Watanabe and his new employees, in turn restricting what we learn about the latter through diegetic dialogue. This barrier is replicated for Anglophone viewers by the lack of subtitles for the migrants’ Chinese-language conversations; our perspective is thus no more privileged than that of the filmmaker and his compatriots. As a result, by the end of the film, our direct access to the interior subjectivity of these workers is as limited as at the beginning, when their arrival at Ushimado was marked on the factory’s calendar simply as, “Saturday, 9th. ‘China’ is coming”.

In this context, Watanabe’s identity is significant because he provides an indirect point of entry for exploration of the migrant experience. While Soda’s style allows Japanese racial panic to emerge in conversation or through asides to the camera—various oyster farmers decry the Chinese as “lazy”, “mental”, “terrible…they just steal whatever they see”—Watanabe’s own comments often complicate this affective horizon. When another factory owner complains about a Chinese worker who quits unexpectedly, Watanabe’s response, perhaps surprisingly, is “Homesick?” When Soda asks why it is so hard to bring Japanese labor to Ushimado, he replies, “People who would come here are kind of losers, aren’t they?” And when questioned as to whether the temporary accommodation he builds for his temporary workers is similar to that which he lived in after the tsunami, he explains it is better because it is thermally insulated. These tiny openings into the emotional dimension of migrant experience speak to, but not for, the world of Watanabe’s Chinese laborers. They illuminate this world at one remove, analogously, without pretending to be its mirror.


Soda shoots rapidly without preparation, edits slowly, and acknowledges Frederick Wiseman as an influence. More interestingly, in his interview in Documentary Storytelling he cites the root of the Japanese for “observation”—kansatsu, literally “looking” and “sensing”—to argue that the practice is not per se distancing, but rather encourages the audience’s sustained engagement. Oyster Factory never minimizes the differences between its Japanese and Chinese subjects, nor fully gratifies the viewer’s epistephilia by directly “giving voice” to people the director himself could not understand. Instead, it encourages the audience to intuit both the complexity of migrant experience, and the reasons for migration, without ever pretending to fully bridge the distance that separates those on screen from those watching.

See “Kazuhiro Soda” in Sheila Curran Bernard, Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen (CRC Press, 2015).

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