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On “Oral History”

post: 2013/06/10

For r:ead I started a project named “Oral History”, a project in the form of interviews with passersby on the street that asks people to talk about their knowledge of Japanese history before and during World War II. We conducted guerilla interviews with about seventy people in the areas of Ueno Park, Ameyoko, Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku, Tokyo Tower, Shin-Okubo and Asakusa. To keep the identities of the interviewees hidden, we filmed only their mouths with a video camera, creating, as the title suggests, a situation where “mouths” (oral) tell “history”. I worked on the project with the idea to develop it further into a film.

For r:ead’s final presentation, I firstly attempted to place what the interviewees said into chronological order, and then presented the material which I tried to edit in this way. Through this method of editing – organizing the memories evoked by seventy individuals into one single timeline – I was hoping that the shape of a shared awareness would become visible, as well as those facts that had been left out. The result was that, for example, the terms “the dropping of the atomic bomb” and “attack on Pearl Harbor” were repeated by many more mouths on the timeline and by this, I then understood that they are much better known than other historical facts. It is also a very interesting phenomenon that several people say “nuclear power plant” (genpatsu) instead of “atomic bomb” (genbaku). As this kind of verbal errors and false memories were articulated by a number of people, I saw that something like a collective unconscious emerges. I felt the core of this project was to depict the moments when this kind of unconscious emerges on film.

But what I recognized by editing the material in this way was that putting the material in chronological order could not effectively display those verbal errors and false memories. This is not a work that aims precisely to convey the history stored in people’s memories. The real challenge is to record the distorted form of errors and gaps in collective memory and historical awareness. Therefore, I believe, the decisive point will be a question of how to fit the utterances that came out of the great majority of people’s mouths – “I have no clue” or “I am bad at history” – the absurd statements into the systematic order of the timeline. I feel that if I just discover a system for this I can attempt to film many more interviews and by gaining more and more material, achieve a deeper and more sophisticated level of expression.

The final form of this project is not yet visible to me, but it is not my wish to present it in the form of a multi-channel installation or an archive. Instead it is my dream to put the entire material into chronological order and to finish it as a single-channel work, and then show it in an ordinary cinema: To unilaterally and obtrusively force onto viewers sixty minutes of mouths full of historical contradictions, distortions and stupidity. I feel that this form in particular might display the shape of a sincere “Oral History” created by the reality of Japan today.

April 26th, 2013