Documentary Filmmaker Explores Japan’s Rigorous Education Rituals

The defining experience of Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s childhood left her with badly scraped knees and her classmates with broken bones.

During sixth grade in Osaka, Japan, Ms. Yamazaki — now a 34-year-old documentary filmmaker — practiced for weeks with classmates to form a human pyramid seven levels high for an annual school sports day. Despite the blood and tears the children shed as they struggled to make the pyramid work, the accomplishment she felt when the group kept it from toppling became “a beacon of why I feel like I am resilient and hard-working.”

Now, Ms. Yamazaki, who is half-British, half-Japanese, is using her documentary eye to chronicle such moments that she believes form the essence of Japanese character, for better or worse.

To outsiders, Japan is often seen as an orderly society where the trains run on time, the streets are impeccably clean, and the people are generally polite and work cooperatively. Ms. Yamazaki has trained her camera on the educational practices and rigorous discipline instilled from an early age that she believes create such a society.

Her films present nonjudgmental, nuanced portraits that try to explain why Japan is the way it is, while also showing the potential costs of those practices. By showing both the upsides and downsides of Japan’s commonplace rituals, particularly in education, she also invites insiders to interrogate their longstanding customs.

Her latest film, “The Making of a Japanese,” which premiered last fall at the Tokyo International Film Festival, documents one year at an elementary school in western Tokyo, where students align their shoes ramrod straight in storage cubbies, clean their classrooms and serve lunch to their classmates.

In an earlier documentary, “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams,” Ms. Yamazaki showed high school baseball players pushed to physical extremes and often reduced to tears as they vied to compete in Japan’s annual summer tournament.

In the schools highlighted by Ms. Yamazaki, both films show what can at times seem like an almost militaristic devotion to order, teamwork and self-sacrifice. But the documentaries also portray teachers and coaches trying to preserve the best of Japanese culture while acknowledging that certain traditions might damage the participants.

“If we can figure out what good things to keep and what should be changed — of course, that’s the million dollar question,” Ms. Yamazaki said.

“If we don’t have those what seem ‘extreme’ parts of society — or more realistically as we have less of it, as I see happening,” wrote Ms. Yamazaki in a follow-up email, “we might see trains in Japan be late in the future.”

Some extreme scenes show up in her films. In “The Making of a Japanese,” for instance, one first-grade teacher strongly chastises a first grader and makes her cry in front of her classmates. But the film also shows the young student conquering her deficiencies to proudly perform in front of the school.

Ms. Yamazaki “showed the reality as it is,” said Hiroshi Sugita, a professor of education at Kokugakuin University who appears briefly in the film lecturing the school’s faculty.

Having grown up in Japan and then trained as a filmmaker at New York University, Ms. Yamazaki has a one-foot-in, one-foot-out perspective.

In contrast to a complete “outsider who is exoticizing things, I think she is able to bring a perspective that has more respect and authenticity,” said Basil Tsiokos, senior programmer of nonfiction features at the Sundance Film Festival who selected two of Ms. Yamazaki’s films for documentary showcases in Nantucket and New York.

Ms. Yamazaki grew up near Osaka, the daughter of a British college professor and Japanese schoolteacher, and spent summers in England. When she transferred from a Japanese school to an international academy in Kobe for her middle and high school years, she was surprised that janitors, not the students, cleaned the classrooms. Relishing the freedom to choose electives, she enrolled in a video film class.

She decided to leave Japan for college partly because, as someone of multiracial heritage, she was tired of being treated as a foreigner.

When she arrived at N.Y.U., most of her classmates wanted to direct feature films. Ms. Yamazaki enrolled in a documentary class taught by Sam Pollard, a filmmaker who also worked as an editor for Spike Lee and others, and embraced the medium.

Mr. Pollard spotted her talent right away. “You have to apply yourself to figure out what the story is,” he said. “She had that.”

While she was still an undergraduate, Mr. Pollard offered Ms. Yamazaki some editing work. After graduation, she said, “a lot of my friends were smoking pot and were these artist dreamer people with grand ideas.” But she took on multiple editing gigs to support her passion projects. Even now, editing helps support her documentary work.

She attributed her work ethic to her years in Japanese elementary school. “People would be like, ‘you’re so responsible, you’re such a good team player, you’re working so hard,’” she recalled. She regarded her efforts as “below average in terms of a Japanese standard.”

She met her future husband, Eric Nyari, while interviewing for a job to edit a documentary about the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto that Mr. Nyari was producing. She didn’t land the job, but the pair became friends. Mr. Nyari, who describes her as “a dictator — in a good way,” is now the primary producer of all her documentaries.

Ms. Yamazaki made the leap from editing to professional directing with a short film for Al Jazeera, “Monk by Blood,” that examined the complicated family and gender dynamics at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto.

Next she chose a subject that had nothing to do with Japan. “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators” brought her more attention as it screened at film festivals in Los Angeles and Nantucket.

Ms. Yamazaki and Mr. Nyari rented an apartment in Tokyo seven years ago and Ms. Yamazaki began work on “Koshien.”

One of the high schools she wanted to use in the film is where the Los Angeles Dodgers’ superstar Shohei Ohtani had trained, but his former coach, Hiroshi Sasaki, was wary after years of media requests.

Mr. Sasaki softened when he saw how Ms. Yamazaki showed up with her crew in the morning, often before the players arrived, and stayed late at night to film the team cleaning the field.

One afternoon, after he had barred her from a particularly dramatic practice and then ribbed her for not filming it, she burst into what she said were tears of frustration because her cameras had missed such a great scene.

“I thought this person really is serious about this and I was so moved,” said Coach Sasaki in a video interview with The New York Times. The morning after the practice, he invited her to turn on the camera while he watered his collection of bonsai plants and answered questions about his coaching philosophy. That episode became a pivotal scene in the documentary.

Ms. Yamazaki, who films her subjects for hundreds of hours, captures vulnerable moments that reveal as much to her subjects as to audiences.

In one scene in “Koshien,” the wife of another high school baseball coach says she resented her husband’s career because it often took him away from their three children.

“Seeing the movie, it was my first time knowing these feelings,” said Tetsuya Mizutani, the coach, whose old-fashioned, hard-driving style is highlighted in the film.

Such discomfiting moments distinguish Ms. Yamazaki’s storytelling from most Japanese documentary filmmakers, said Asako Fujioka, former artistic director of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Filmmakers in Japan try to treat subjects “kindly, like a caring mother or friend,” whereas Ms. Yamazaki “is very bold in the way she creates drama.”

Seita Enomoto, the teacher who chastises a student in “The Making of a Japanese,” said that although some viewers have criticized him, he appreciated that the film also showed the child learning that “she should work hard, and how she changed and succeeded.” Ms. Yamazaki and Mr. Nyari hope next to make a documentary about new recruits at a large Japanese employer, where young staff start with training that can lead to lifelong work at the same company.

For now, they are raising their young son in Tokyo and have enrolled him in a Japanese nursery school. Although human pyramids have been banned by schools because of parental complaints, Ms. Yamazaki hopes her son will absorb some of the values that exercise taught her.

“It was a weird personal experience,” she said, “that I look back on fondly.”

Kiuko Notoya contributed reporting.

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