‘The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories’ Excavates a Forgotten Political Battle

Japan Society

Tokyo’s Narita International Airport is a landmark with a troubled past. Yet like so many grand monuments of urban development, its physical presence has outlasted the memory of what once lay beneath. It’s unlikely that most of its tens of millions of passengers have any idea that there was once an enormous makeshift tower draped in political signs that sat just ahead of the runway, perfectly placed to force planes to change their flight path.

The local farmers, however, remember. Directors Haruhiko Daishima and Koshiro Otsu have built The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories out of their memories of fighting the airport’s construction, seeking out the places where the legacy of this now-quiet fight still inflects the landscape.

The Narita International Airport project was announced in 1966. The government would expropriate the land from the farmers who occupied it. They had not been included in the discussion before the plan was made public, and so they resisted. It soon became a national cause célèbre. Left-wing student activists arrived in Narita to support the resistance and the resulting conflict lasted years. The first major land expropriation happened in 1967, the second in 1971. The first runway was not completed until 1978.

Now, many years later, things are quiet. Daishima and Otsu travel the landscape, asking the locals to help paint a picture of how it once looked. One man points out the now-empty lots where all of the various homesteads used to be, the village of Heta and its temples. The greying survivors, now many decades older, recall both communal support and lingering suspicion that their neighbors would give in and sell to the airport.

If the tumultuous atmosphere is not quite apparent from the septuagenarian testimony, it certainly comes through the archival material to which Daishima and Otsu frequently turn. Otsu himself was there, serving as cinematographer for Shinsuke Ogawa during his eight years filming and living in Heta. The extracts are thrilling, scenes of political protest edited with an equally fiery political agenda.

Daishima and Otsu find many of their living subjects in these old films and show them the footage. They watch younger selves with frankness rather than nostalgia, their perspective tempered by the cold reality of a fight now lost. With these scenes as its central project, The Wages of Resistance is not a static documentary about a long ago conflict but an dynamic exploration of its legacy. It is a layered excavation of the past not far in methodology from The Act of Killing.

The other striking thing about the old footage is the noise. The crowds of activists and policemen alike bring a feverish energy and bluster. Daishima and Otsu showcase the opposite in the Narita of today, featuring empty fields and small homes. There’s little shouting left. Yet while the land is often vacant, it is never silent. The constant whir of the coming and going airplanes underlines the political and social loss. The enigmatic score by composer Otomo Yoshihide supports this surreal backdrop, his march rhythms inflected by an uncertainty closer in character to Masaru Sato’s Yojimbo score than “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Sound memory also comes to the fore in the testimony of two activists who didn’t survive the conflict. Their words are spoken by actors, voiceover accompanied by images of both past and present. Fumio Sannomiya was a young man in the late 1960s who took his own life after three police officers had been killed in the conflict’s most violent clash. His suicide note calls out for continued resistance and continues to motivate those who fought on. His grave is visited by his friends and by those who quickly sold to the airport, awkward but striking evidence as to the continued presence of the conflict in the lives of its veterans.

The other is Oki Yone, a woman who was already getting old when the protests began. She devoted herself to the fight against the airport, defending her farmland as long as she could. Koizumi Hidemasa, a young activist from out of town, became her adopted son. Her words, which she could not write herself but had to dictate, speak out years later as another testament to the vitality of the movement. Hidemasa, meanwhile, has fought to retain the right to farm her land even as it juts up against the grounds of the airport.

His image, close to the earth with his farming tools while an unwittingly spiteful aircraft flies remarkably low above him, is among the film’s most powerful. It is also about as close as Daishima and Otsu get to an actual airplane. The airport itself is not the star, and is in fact rarely even seen. At core, this is as much about construction as it is about the use of governmental power. The Wages of Resistance is the echo of this power rather than a call to contemporary action, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories screens at the Japan Society in New York on July 18th as part of Japan Cuts.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.