Although the Japanese director Kazuo Hara has insisted that he is anything but a political filmmaker, his 1974 documentary Extreme Private Eros (Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974) remains a fascinating snapshot of Japanese society at a time of transition. An account of the life of Hara’s ex-lover, Miyuki Takeda – a feminist who relocated to Okinawa and entered into a lesbian relationship with a bar hostess before becoming pregnant following a fling with an African-American soldier – Hara’s film directly addresses such issues as sexual liberation and racial discrimination. Extreme Private Eros was potentially inflammatory when first shown in Hara’s homeland and strict censorship laws regarding on-screen genitalia forced the director to recoup his production budget over an extended period by charging admission for private screenings. He would not complete another film until 1987: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On won awards at major festivals such as Berlin and Rotterdam, and earned the admiration of Errol Morris, the American director of The Thin Blue Line. Hara is now firmly ensconced in academia, teaching documentary filmmaking at the University of Osaka, but he recently attended the Sheffield DocFest to introduce a screening of Extreme Private Eros. John Berra met with him to discuss his landmark work and the fascinating female personality at its centre.
John Berra: You witnessed the explosion of the Japanese New Wave in the 1960s; were you influenced or inspired by the films of Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Ã”shima?
Kazuo Hara: At that time in Japan, after the war, lots of young people tried to achieve power by rebelling against the government. I grew up in that era and I went to see those films to support that ideology and contribute to changing the government. Nagisa Ã”shima and Shohei Imamura had made documentary films before me, but all their films showed how normal Japanese people did not have power, that they were struggling and controlled by the government. I thought that there must be a way to change that view, the idea that normal people are weak; I didn’t want to show the weakness, I wanted to show the strength of the people.
JB: Miyuki exhibits a powerful personality but also a very vulnerable side. She is contradictory in that she does not need anybody but also needs to be with someone in order to feel special. Did you see her as being particularly representative of a certain generation of Japanese women?
KH: She was very representative of Japanese women at that time, especially those who were involved in student activities. But she had more charisma than other women, she was stranger, you could not say she was ‘normal’, although she does represent a time of change for Japanese women.
JB: There is a disturbing moment after the birth of Miyuki’s child when she gives the news to her mother over the telephone, and her mother asks how ‘dark’ the baby is, and if she is going to ‘keep it’. Was her relationship with the African-American solider a political act?
KH: Miyuki was always interested in the power of lower-class people, which is why she went to Okinawa and lived in the prostitution area. There were army camps there, and black soldiers would come into that area, but she did not intend to have a black boyfriend at that point. One day, she became ill, and one soldier was really kind to her, so she spent the night with him. Their relationship only lasted three weeks, and she did not think she would have a baby with him, she just wanted an experience. Miyuki was very nervous when she spoke to her mother after giving birth. Her family were not very supportive but Miyuki was very much against racial discrimination in Japan and wanted to fight that aspect of society.
JB: When was the film first shown in Japan and did you experience any censorship problems?
KH: It was first shown in 1974. It was a big film in Japan that year because it was a shocking, self-portrait film, so a lot of people came to see it. At that time, the Japanese censorship law was that if you filmed someone’s private area, you would be arrested if you tried to show that film in the theatre. But because I had made the film myself, I could hire a venue and show it privately, which was not illegal. That’s how I was able to get past the censors. Some of the money for the film came from university research departments and friends, but we did get into debt making it. We were able to gradually pay back the money we had spent making the film by charging admission for these private showings, but it took three to five years to pay back the debt.
JB: When the child is born, there are a few minutes when it seems that he could be stillborn. How were you able to continue filming during what must have been a very distressing experience?
KH: The way the birth is presented in the film makes it seem very quick, but it actually took 12 hours. My mind became very cold, I was just a director, I was thinking about the film and nothing else.
JB: Before Miyuki leaves Okinawa, she makes a pamphlet and hands it out. What kind of statement was she trying to make with this material?
KH: In the film, it seems that she does not like Okinawa, but actually she loves Okinawa; like me, she is from the mainland and Okinawa is very different, with a lot of discrimination. When mainland people go to Okinawa, we can’t get into that society, even if we try, and it’s the same for people from Okinawa who go to the mainland, even more so in that era. Even though Miyuki loved Okinawa, she could not be in perfect harmony there, so the pamphlet was her love song to Okinawa, she wanted to leave something.
JB: What has happened to Miyuki and her son in the past 30 years?
KH: For about five years after I finished filming, Miyuki stayed in a commune, living with other women and their children; but Japan was still very conservative and mixed race kids, especially half-black, half-Japanese kids, were not accepted. The boy wasn’t happy at all so they decided to put him up for adoption and now he is very happy in America.
JB: Extreme Private Eros captures a very particular period of your life. How did you respond to the film when watching it at today’s screening?
KH: I did not watch the film today. I can’t watch it anymore; it’s too embarrassing, I was too young.
Interview by John Berra