Last night I was watching a series of old short documentaries produced by Japan's national public broadcasting company, NHK, and I was pretty stunned. They were so well made and far better than the ones in the recent years. I couldn't believe they were TV documentaries.
In the mid-60's, there were environmental pollution and contamination problems in a small industrial city Yokkaichi, west of Nagoya. Back then, there's hardly any strict law to protect the environment, and a number of companies, despite all the claims and complaints from the city and its residents, kept blowing black smoke in the air and dumping chemicals right into the Yokkaichi bay.
The people there were suffering from asthma heavily and a more than a thousand were hospitalized. The local fishermen were worried because the water was so smelly, and they were getting funny dead fish there. So, they got together, sued the companies, and won the case, the first criminal case against air pollution, according to the documentaries.
Among them, there was a man, I think he was a local government employee, who was in charge of recording the events, took his camera, started snapping pictures with his own interest. Later his photos were published as a book, which turned out to be the rare visual record for this part of the history in his city because as time went by, in the early 90's the city dropped its support for the victims of this environmental catastrophe.
He's no W. Eugene Smith, but some of his shots had as much impact on me as the shots from Minamata by the famous photorapher. I'm glad that I've found the local guy, and I live in the next town.
It was clear that some people in the city wanted to forget it and move on. They just wanted to not talk about it any more. But the story doesn't end there.
What is really ironic today is that one of the companies from that time period has committed a crime again. This time, this comany took a different approach by secretly mixing its undisposable toxic waste into a product and selling it as a soil fertilizer. What's worse is that the local prefectual government had approved the product and helped the company to sell it more.
At least in four locations in the surrounding area, this fake product has been used, and it is contaminating the environment. By the way this is not part of the documentaries but something I read in the newspaper.
Overall, what was essentially good about these documentaries was that they were partly shot black and white on 16mm motion-picture film (that was the standard before color film and video), and the contrast between the local residents' houses and the thick black smoke coming out of the chemical plants was so vivid and perhaps memorable. And the use of a telephoto zoom lens with a shallow depth of field made the subjects in each shot look very close to each other as if the old part and the new part of the community were so inseparable.
Anyway, I got a lot out of those one and a half hours last night before I went to sleep.