by Kazuhiro Soda

In the summer of 2009, the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival in the border city of Paju, South Korea, asked me to make a 20 minute-short documentary about peace and coexistence. But honestly, I wasn’t so keen on the idea at first.

One reason is that I firmly believed I should never set up a theme before I make a documentary. Otherwise, there is a danger that the theme becomes more important than the reality itself, and would dictate my filmmaking process. I would shoot materials that might fit to the theme rather than learn from what I see. I believed that the theme should be discovered only after the long process of observation of the world through shooting and editing.

I was also hesitant to deal with such a big theme as peace and coexistence, which sounds too politically correct and can be perceived as almost cliché. I was saying to myself, “There’s no question that everybody wants peace and coexistence. Why should I make a movie about such an obvious theme?”

I was about to decline the offer.

However, in the fall of the same year, I suddenly changed my mind. While I was casually videotaping Toshio Kashiwagi, my father-in-law, feeding some stray cats in his neighborhood in Okayama, Japan, I got an idea for the movie. He was feeding a peaceful community of stray cats, but the situation became shaky because a male “thief cat” from outside was trying to invade their territory. It reminded me of the problems we human beings have, and I was convinced that I could make a short documentary about the issues of coexistence among cats.

But, while shooting the relationship between my father-in-law and his cats, I also became interested in his work as a welfare taxi driver, and the way he deals with his clients. Through him, I further got acquainted with Shiro Hashimoto, a 91-year-old gentleman who was contemplating his own death. This made me curious about the work of Hiroko Kashiwagi, my mother-in-law, who was taking care of Hashimoto. While shooting all these scenes that attracted me, it became apparent that a 20-minute short documentary was turning into a feature.

While I was shooting this film, there was one thing I constantly reminded myself; the theme of peace and coexistence should only serve as a starting point. What is most important is to explore the cinematic journey without being bound to where I began.

So, I decided to shoot whatever interested me, even if it seemed to have no relation to the theme. The scenes of Hashimoto are the typical examples. In fact, if I were only concerned with the theme, I wouldn’t have shot any of them.

Just like in my other observational documentaries, I prohibited myself from doing any research or meeting prior to shooting to avoid having preconceptions. During the editing, I put aside the theme, and tried to make discoveries by accumulating scenes that interested me. In this sense, I practiced my usual observational method of filmmaking.

However, it’s wrong to say that I was not influenced from the theme I tried to forget. In fact, throughout the filmmaking process, I found myself constantly thinking about these questions: What is peace? What is coexistence?  How can they be realized, and how can they be destroyed? And I believe that the finished film asks the same questions to the audience, too. The film also explores the meaning of Japan’s post-war era and its future, thanks to Hashimoto’s unexpected war stories and his favorite cigarette brand “Peace,” a long-selling tobacco that came out in January 1946 right after Japan’s defeat in WWII.