Animals die. Horses are not indestructible, despite what Steven Spielberg would have you believe. To eat beef we must first kill cows. Death is a fact of life, one that is made no less present by pretending it isn’t there.
This truth is part of the shared DNA of the two documentaries playing in this year’s Japan Cuts, the annual festival programmed by New York City’s Japan Society. Yet on the surface they seem to be quite different creatures. The Horses of Fukushima is a narrowly focused portrait of a group of horses that were left in the vicinity of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant after its dramatic meltdown in the spring of 2011. It’s a quiet, elegiac and peculiar take on the rarest of circumstances.
Tale of a Butcher Shop, meanwhile, is a chatty and warm family picture. The butchers in question are three siblings who run a century-old family business, all of them over the age of 55. Its extended scenes of the genial, pleasant home life of adorable senior citizens are far from the mournful shots of ailing beasts in the other film.
Yet there is something much deeper going on in both of these films, an undercurrent of mortality and isolation. The horses occupy a very bizarre space in the Japanese cultural and legal system. Shortly after the disaster, the government ordered that they be killed. Their owner, rancher Shinichiro Tanaka, refused. He resisted, in part, because they are used every year in the Soma-Nomaoi, a local festival honoring the age-old collaboration between humans and horses. The government’s recourse is to shut the animals away in a state stable, where the bulk of the film takes place.
There they sit for months, a symbol of existential confusion. Director Yoju Matsubayashi highlights all of the contradictions and ironies. In one moment Tanaka tells the camera about his resistance to emotional involvement with the animals, given how often in the past he has had to slaughter individual horses to ease a financial burden. Matsubayashi follows this confession with the sudden death of one of the now-quarantined horses. An array of flowers fit for a funeral have been laid out in this particular horse’s stable, a peculiar reversal of Tanaka’s policy. It is as if the social isolation of these animals has anthropomorphized them.
The film’s lead character is Mirror’s Quest, a failed racehorse who is now suffering from an inflammation of his genitals. Given the longstanding status of the horse as a symbol of virility, Matsubayashi’s highlighting of this entirely off-putting deformity is more than just a diversion into comic relief. And that is only the most brutal image. Tanaka lets them out to graze in spring, only to discover that the grass is too radioactive to eat. They are eventually branded so that none of them stand a chance of being accidentally slaughtered for meat. They are domesticated animals without any remaining practical utility to humankind.
In the winter they are shipped off to Hokkaido, where a stable has offered to take them in. Here, on Japan’s northernmost island, is the height of their despair. Matsubayashi captures one of these horses in what resembles a scream. He mutes it at first, allowing the audience to take in the specter of desperate impotence before bringing things back to earth. The more stylized moments in the film are all about creating an almost human dignity. An important motif is drawn from a medieval picture scroll in which the early days of the Soma-Nomaoi are depicted. These horses have a long and significant cultural history. This soulful presence is what remains after their economic utility has been stripped away by the nuclear disaster.
That historical resonance is what ties The Horses of Fukushima to Tale of a Butcher Shop. Director Aya Hanabusa’s family portrait is built from much more homespun stuff. Where Matsubayashi’s subject feels like something taken from the mind of Werner Herzog, Tale of a Butcher Shop is like the documentary equivalent of a Yasujiro Ozu film. The subject is the Kitade family and their longtime family business, run by three aging siblings. Their clientele is mostly getting on in years as well, with the younger generations more easily swayed by mass-produced meat. At the beginning it feels downright sunny in comparison.
Yet these butchers have much more complex problems than the horses. Traditional Japanese culture has a very strong revulsion toward those professions that involve uncleanliness and death. Butchers and their families have long been considered buraku, an outcast group at the bottom of the Japanese social ladder. For many years they were forced to live in their own neighborhoods and were often left uneducated. The Kitade patriarch was never taught to read. While his descendants are better off, in part due to major constitutional changes that were enacted after World War II, the prejudices have not entirely gone away.
The Kitades have been active in the Buraku Liberation Movement for years. The film includes their participation as both members and teachers within this civil rights organization. Alongside this more explicit activism, Hanabusa advocates for the Kitade family itself by presenting them as charmingly, almost relentlessly domestic. It really does feel like something out of Ozu. The camera itself seems to smile, beaming along with this clan whose response to hardship is tireless work and mutual reassurance.
Like Matsubayashi, Hanabusa refuses to shy away from the discourse of death and violence that caused her subjects to be outcast in the first place. There are long sequences in the 102-year-old slaughterhouse that the family continues to use. It would perhaps be too much to argue that the slaughter and subsequent processing of a cow by the Kitade family is beautiful, yet it’s hard not to develop a deep respect for the butchers’ skills. Hanabusa captures the odd serenity and intricate detail of all the cutting and cleaning required. Every part of the cow is used for one thing or another, mostly culinary but not exclusively so. One of the Kitade brothers even learns to fashion traditional drums from cowhide, planning a supplemental form of income as the family’s clientele grows older and smaller.
These drums will be used in traditional processions and performances, not all that different in social importance than the closing celebrations in The Horses of Fukushima. Both of these films are elevated by sequences of colorful, kinetic celebrations, the sort that bring communities together and can bridge the gap between outsiders and those who hold onto their fear. The difficult questions raised by the presence of death in society are hardly resolved by these two films, but rarely are they addressed quite so beautifully.
The Horses of Fukushima screens as part of the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (aka Japan Cuts) on July 15th, and Tale of a Butcher Shop screens on July 19th. For more information visit the Japan Society website.