AMASAN: WOMEN OF THE SEA

AWARDS & FESTIVALS

Falstaff Film Festival

DocHeads, London (FatRat Films), Feb. 2010

Birds Eye View Film Festival, Feb. 2010

US Embassy Tour oF Morocco with Amasan

Ouzazarte Student “recontre Sur La Tente” Festival, Featured opening night. Screened in Casablanca, Marrakesh and Tunis, Morocco at Cinema Rif, May, 2010.

Werner Herzog Competition

ShootingPeople.org, January 2010.
Amasan also made it into the final six films selected for the Werner Herzog “Man and the Environment” Short Film Competition Sponsored by the website ShootingPeople.org.

While we were not selected as the winning film, we got an honorable mention as the second-place film, (given there was no second place, he personally gave Amasan an “ex aequo” award, which for us was a great compliment, given that it means equity and conscience.

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It’s a cold, grey morning in Shirahama, Japan. A chilly wind sweeps over the rocky landscape, otherwise shrouded in fog. Out of the mist appear seven stalwart figures, marching towards the sea. At first they look like creatures from another era, if not another galaxy. As they approach, we notice they are clad in long rubber suits, and have hand-woven straw baskets strapped to their backs. Some of them also sport long, primitive knives hanging off their hips. One of them smiles, a wide, infectious grin as expansive as the ocean.

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Less than one hundred miles south of Tokyo’s hi-tech hyperbolic metropolis, a group of seven women divers, mostly over the age of sixty, carry on a tradition that has been handed down for generations. While the threat of globalization and the pressures of the world economy have taken many young women away from sea villages to the city to find work, these divers still brave the dark, cold waters for their livelihood, six months a year. Because they don’t earn enough money diving, they supplement their income by farming on the off-months. While they admit that the abalone have become scarce as the fishing trade has been infiltrated by more commercial interests, they insist on doing things the old way, without breathing equipment and the most rudimentary of tools. They insist that it is the women divers, the Amasan, that can restore balance to the sea.

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SYNOPSIS

The documentary film, Amasan, will look at the dying art of the Amasan, or Sea Women of Shirahama, Japan… women who plumb the depths of the ocean for prized abalone, a culinary delicacy. Diving together for decades, these women have formed a tightly-knit bond, as well as a business co-operative, providing economic security for their husbands and families. Hardly the timid, self-effacing stereotype of the Japanese female, these women embody a courage and spirit rarely portrayed in films about women in Japan. The objective of this film is to celebrate the brazen spirit of these seven Ama, and to bring their inspirational stories to an international audience. At a time when the pressures of globalization and environmental degradation have wreaked havoc on the fishing industry worldwide, these women and their inherently balanced, almost sacred relationship with the sea serve as a metaphor for a way of life fast disappearing. It’s a film that celebrates growing old while embracing the beauty, camaraderie and longevity of female friendship, defined by lives lived mostly “underwater” and the freedom that they find beneath the sea.

FILM TREATMENT

The film will unravel much like a meditation, or Japanese Zen “koan” where each chapter poses a different answer to the question of why these women continue to dive under such harsh and challenging conditions. Ultimately, the answer lies in the spaces between any set conclusion.

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I. A Space of Their Own

“I don’t know what I would do if I could not come to the sea every day and dive…the secret to carrying on in life is only this.”

Without narration or overt editorializing, the film will follow the rhythms, color and detail of every-day life for seven Amasan in Shirahama. The cinematography itself will reflect the ritualistic, mindful movements of the Ama, with long, sweeping takes of their environment, and small, studied aspects of their craft. The seaside village of Shirahama looks much the same it did decades ago, with almost a “film-set” like quality wherever one points a camera. Yet the Ama are not stuck in a time warp, as they drive their farm trucks full-speed on narrow, winding roads or chat animatedly into a cell phone.

Shot on HD, both underwater and on land, the filmmakers want to achieve a rich film-look palette, to mirror the balanced, natural aesthetic inherent in the Ama’s profession. Less a national geographic reportage, the film will unfold in a non- linear fashion, allowing for the spontaneous unfolding of circumstances.

They seven Ama are
Emiko Yoshido. age 72
Kasuko Hayakawa, age 68
Tomiko Miyamoto, age 65
Kiyoe Yoshida, age 58
Masae Hayakawa, age 69
Reiko Miyamoto, age 70
Etsuko Wada, age 60

Much like the award-winning documentary Story of the Weeping Camel, the filmmakers hope to live alongside the seven Ama for two months, one month during the diving season, and one month during the off-season, when the Ama tend small farm plots on a hill above the town. In this way, the viewer will be able to meet each woman, and be actively, intimately engaged in her story, and the natural ebb and flow, much like the waves of the ocean she dives in.

Even as their own daughters leave to take “salaried jobs” in the city, these Ama proudly carry on, clearly in love with what they do. We learn that part of this love is born out of the hours they spend together, in the amagoya, or women’s cabin, a special place where they gather every morning to prepare their equipment, eat and dress for the dive. This space, because it is theirs alone, separate from the demands of husbands and outside society, becomes a symbol for female independence and self-expression.

Because diving requires great skill, these Ama have always held a special place in their society, autonomous and self-sufficient, as precursors to the “enlightened and modern” Japanese women of today. Yet they do not see their role as unique, it is in a sense, the way things always were, and they do not flaunt their independence. Quite the opposite, they rely on each other.

“Sea friends, friends who share the ocean are the best friends of all…”

What is most touching is the camaraderie these women have developed over sixty years of diving together. Two of them are sisters, many of them went to school together. One Ama has helped another bury a husband, another suffered a minor heart attack while diving, and had to be rescued. Still another gave birth on the shore, after going into labor while diving. Spending time with them, one is struck by their simple joy in the smaller things: a type of medicinal herb for arthritic pain, a story told over and over, a candy savored for hours before diving. It is the “wabi-sabi” or “suchness” of ordinary life that contrasts with the enormity of what they face every dive: dangerous, nauseating waves, hours spent searching for fewer and fewer shellfish, and a shrinking return for their efforts.

Everyone is thinking, more abalone, more abalone, but if you do not conserve your breath, it is easy to choke and die. I have seen it happen. Maybe this is why we do not worry about the small things in life. Our life every day is in danger.

II. A Good Catch

As the film unfolds we get a keen sense that the Ama’s life has dramatically changed over time. In 1965, one Ama tells us, she could earn 10 million yen (about 85,000 dollars) for a season’s work. “As I was a good Ama, I was also sought after by many young men.” At that time there were over 1,500 active Ama in the region, compared to less than 300 now. Although the women are guarded about how much money they actually earn diving now, it is clear it is far less. Powerful economic and social forces are pressuring Ama to leave the profession, and it is also being replaced by a tourist-friendly, fantasy-Ama image. The film will also feature the annual Ama festival in Shirahama, which attracts thousands of curious outsiders who want to catch a glimpse of women clad in skimpy, white outfits diving for an audience, rather than their livelihood. A beauty contest features young women in diaphanous white Ama-costumes answering such questions as “How old are you?” “Do you want to marry someone in this town?” A profession that once challenged the “geisha” stereotype has almost returned to just that, something these older Ama laugh about.

“Look at her, she’s a monster woman…”

Their bodies are muscular, their skin darker than most Japanese women, their speech patterns are rough, as are their hands, which have pried so many abalone from rock crevices. All of these characteristics conflict with the countless romanticized notions of Japanese femininity. Western audiences were first introduced to Japanese women pearl divers in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, exoticizing, if blatantly misrepresenting the profession. The age of these Ama is also a novelty—the youngest is 58. They are refreshingly unassuming, thinking nothing of baring their strong, stout bodies to the camera as they slather on protective creams to help stave off the cold. How many films do we see portraying vibrant, opinionated, sexual, older women, in any culture?

III. Pride in the Work, Protecting a Resource

“When a woman puts her hands into the ocean, we do it not to disturb, but to restore the balance…a balance that has been lost and forgotten.”

Diving for abalone is hard work, and while they spend at most an hour or two in the water each day, it takes them twice that to recover, back at the amagoya, in front of a fire, where they bring their bodies back from minor hypothermia. A central part of the film will be captured with underwater cinematography, to give a detailed, up-close accounting of what they actually do to retrieve the prized abalone. However, the film will come back again and again to this amagoya or women’s sphere, where a constant flow of stories and jokes will weave the overall fabric of the film.

While coastal shellfish diving has traditionally been performed by women in Japan, (supposedly because women were better able to retain the heat necessary to withstand frigid waters), more and more men are diving today, using breathing equipment and according to these women, “upsetting the balance of the ocean.” The first day of filming, we heard about a young man who was missing, only to be found dead several days later, even though he was diving with full breathing gear.

The Ama have always belonged to the fishing co-operative associations that have been formed since the early 1900’s in Japan. While these “FCA’s” have in the past been successful in legislating the tools of the trade, restricting access, seasons, and limits. It is precisely these restrictions that encouraged helmet divers to travel to California in search of abalone, where coastal fishing policies served to maximize today’s catch at the expense of future stock status. Years later we are seeing the effects of over-fishing throughout the world, combined with other alarming factors such as global warming and international trade policies. The introduction of sport diving has also encroached on the Ama’s lifestyle, where abalone will be collected before it is ready, driving the industry further into crisis.

These seven Ama, because they rely quite literally on their heart, lungs, and strength of spirit to succeed in the industry, serve as anchors in an otherwise frenetic, unexamined modern world, driven by commerce, ambition, success. As one Ama told the filmmaker as she was leaving for the day, fretting about funding for the project:

“We don’t know that we already have all that we want, we already are what we are trying to become…”