Dir: Soda Kazuhiro | Dragons & Tigers | USA, Japan | 2015 | 146 mins
At first glance, Oyster Factory is a simple observational film focused on the daily life of workers in the coastal villages north of Okayama. New York-based documentarist Soda Kazuhiro’s approach is modest but detailed, and he devotes copious amounts of screen time to the inner workings of the factory.
However, the film extends itself far beyond that of the director’s interest in fisheries.
Using 90 hours of footage from three weeks of filming, Kazuhiro uses careful detail to explore the larger theme of cultural tension in Japan. He masterfully unravels the ordinary lives of workers and provides a close-up perspective of the declining state of Japanese oyster factories. Not a single detail goes unnoticed: fishing, shucking, cleaning and even banter between workers.
Kazuhiro paints a revealing image of an oyster factory rooted in tradition, struggling to maintain relevant in 21st century Japan. The largest threat to the industry is a lack of labour, which results in a reliance on temporary Chinese workers. Kazuhiro, through simple mechanisms, delves into the problematic nature of maintaining a Japanese industry with foreign workers.
Much of the film focuses on scenes of ordinary workers performing monotonous tasks with efficiency and grace. The dull imagery of the grey factory juxtaposed with the perpetually moving workers is beautiful and captivating. By using this stark visual contrast repeatedly, Kazuhiro’s editing and scrupulous attention to detail creates a quiet anxiety that permeates the entirety of the film.
This focused, yet attentive, tone matures naturally throughout Oyster Factory, culminating in the exploration of Japanese-Chinese relations. Seemingly benign interactions between Japanese and Chinese workers, like the guarded introduction of two new Chinese men, subtly highlight a long history of conflict.
Despite exposing this restrained tension, Oyster Factory progresses empathetically and calmly. As a distinctive and provoking film, Oyster Factory is a vividly unique snapshot of a changing Japan in the 21st century.