“What we chose to tell from the truth is a fiction.” or so said Japanese author Mitsuhara Inoue in Kazuo Hara’s documentary about him, A Dedicated Life. Truth and fiction weave and twist together in this most accessible and yet most complex film by Hara.
- Liner notes
Hara is the director of such confrontational and aggressive documentaries about Japanese contrarians such as The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Goodbye CP, and Extreme Private Eros Love Song 1974.
A Dedicated Life is the only film among these to use dramatizations, which seems quite out of character for Hara. Was it because he was filming a successful and popular author that led Hara to make a more literary and orderly film?
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, having established in Inoue’s own words a short biographical sketch of the writer, Hara then dismantles that narrative and shows it to be a fiction. It is as if Mitsuhara Inoue the author is a character invented by Inoue the man, in some kind of meta-novel that is his greatest work. If that is true, then his truly was a dedicated life.
At the center of the film is Inoue’s losing battle with cancer. Hara started this film shortly after learning that Inoue was ill and in fact Inoue died before the film was finished. Hara says in an interview in the notes accompanying the DVD that he was left with 70 hours of film but no idea of how to tie it all together. Hara then began to interview everyone he could find who knew Inoue, particularly those from the small coal-mining town where Inoue grew up. I suspect it was then that Hara found out that Inoue had invented his “official” autobiography.
At the same time Hara documents Inoue’s work with his students. According to the notes, Inoue opened 13 writing schools across Japan. This kept him busy lecturing and teaching in the years following his initial success as an author in post-war Japan. There seems to be an air of beneficent hucksterism in all of this activity. By Inoue’s sheer willpower and the large number of students he’s taught, it all begins to take on an air of respectability. He seems to be a sincere teacher who has something to say, doesn’t patronize his students nor rise above them... at least not too high. However, Hara says little about Inoue’s writing, possibly because he assumes the Japanese audience already knows his work.
There is also a nod to Inoue’s history of open-marriage affairs. The marriage was open for him, at least; I’m not sure if his loyal and long-suffering wife had the same options, but she seems to have come to some kind of accommodation with him and she stands by his side all the way to the end.
Red, White and Blue
Inoue made his name as a maverick author. No doubt that’s what attracted Hara to him in the first place. I got the sense that Inoue’s big breakthrough came shortly after the end of the war when he wrote a book denouncing the Communist Party in Japan. Inoue had originally declared himself a communist and, coming from the coal-mining culture, he seems to be genuine in his understanding of life at the bottom of the social pile.
But he soon had a run-in with the “official” communists and if there’s one thing you don’t want to do it’s take on a big franchise by yourself... and particularly to use their branding without their blessing. Still, calling out the communists is going to take you further in the publishing game than trying to bring down the capitalists, especially in U.S.-backed post-war Japan.
A Life of Fiction
Inoue was published and recognized. A lot of Japanese do read and respect his work. But given Ionue’s gift for self-invention, you have to wonder what, if anything, he really believed in.
A Dedicated Life might be said to be more of an impressionist portrait than a documentary. Coming from Kazuo Hara, it is a surprisingly traditional work. And in the liner notes, Hara admits that the character of Inoue defeated his normal style of depicting “troublemakers.”
Inoue built his literary career on being an outsider, and as we find on closer inspection, Inoue had more going on than just raging against the machine. But was it all a sham? In being a writer of significant works, does it even matter? Perhaps what you choose from a fiction gets you to the truth.
Picture and Sound
This is the best looking — or should I say “most normal” — of the Hara films I’ve seen. The dramatizations are quite cinematic. The sound is good and even in sync with the image... all very strange for a Hara production.
How to Use this DVD
Give yourself all evening to watch this one. It’s 157 minutes long, but worth the effort. And be sure to read the accompanying notes.