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Documentary filmmaker takes 2nd shot at Yangtze

By JIANG XUEQING in Tokyo | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-05-17 09:52

Poster of the documentary film The Yangtze River by Ryo Takeuchi. CHINA DAILY

Editor's note: China Daily presents the series Friends Afar to tell the stories of people-to-people exchanges between China and other countries. Through the vivid narration of the people in the stories, readers can get a better understanding of a country that is boosting openness.

In 2010-11, Japanese documentary director Ryo Takeuchi filmed a series about the Yangtze River for Japan's public broadcaster NHK. A decade later, starting in 2021, he spent about two years retracing the river's 6,300-kilometer-long watercourse.

The documentary film The Yangtze River was released in Japan in April and will begin screening in China on May 24.

"More than 10 years ago, I filmed the Yangtze River, but I was not satisfied with the work at that time," said Takeuchi, 45.

"I couldn't speak Chinese then, and living in Japan, I didn't understand the real lives of the Chinese people, so what I filmed was very superficial.

"I always had an obsession with learning Chinese and understanding China before going to film the Yangtze River again."

Born in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, Takeuchi moved from Japan to China with his family in 2013 and settled in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, his wife's hometown.

Living there, Takeuchi developed an affection for the Yangtze River. He enjoys reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by 14th-century Chinese writer Luo Guanzhong. There are many places along the river related to the Three Kingdoms, including Chibi and the city of Baidi.

Along the river, there are cities that are familiar to Japanese people, such as Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and Chongqing, as well as various ethnic minorities.

"After watching this movie, many Japanese will definitely want to visit China," Takeuchi said, adding that he hopes he has provided them with an opportunity to visit China.

"Nowadays, many Japanese only rely on Japanese media reports and think this or that about China is bad. I hope my film will be their first step in understanding China," he said.

"Don't blindly criticize China without ever having been there or met Chinese people."

During the filming, he revisited some of the people living along the river he had filmed more than 10 years ago, including Cimu, a Tibetan woman living in Shangri-La, Yunnan province.

Then, an 18-year-old Cimu, dressed in Tibetan attire, held a white lamb at the Napa Sea scenic area, inviting tourists to take photos with her lamb for 5 yuan ($0.70).

Impressive experience

She had never left Shangri-La, and was curious about big cities, airplanes and skyscrapers mentioned by the documentary host, so Takeuchi's film crew decided to take her to Shanghai. The experience left a deep impression on her.

After returning to Shangri-La, Cimu found a job at a guesthouse and gained experience in the hospitality industry. Later, she and her family renovated their two-story Tibetan-style house, and opened a homestay called Aurora Hotel in November 2021.

When Takeuchi saw Cimu again, she had become an innkeeper. She said the trip to Shanghai was inspiring and strengthened her determination to open a homestay.

In the past decade, China has undergone profound changes, especially with the internet significantly reshaping people's lives. This is reflected in Takeuchi's latest film.

Compared with 2011, not only has Cimu's life undergone dramatic changes, but Takeuchi, who could not understand Chinese and could only stand behind the camera, has become proficient in Chinese and confident when facing the camera too. He attributes this newfound confidence to his decision to move to China.

Takeuchi made the move for two main reasons. First, he wanted to learn Chinese. At that time, he was well-known as a documentary filmmaker and for specializing in filming Chinese stories, but he could not speak Chinese. Second, he wanted to challenge himself and experience new things.

"When I moved to Nanjing, I was worried about my children because they are half Japanese and half Chinese, and I was afraid they would be bullied at school in Nanjing. But in reality, they have never been bullied. I have been living in Nanjing for 10 years, and Nanjing people have never shown any dislike for Japanese people."

In 2014, he and his wife founded the Nanjing Hezhimeng Culture Communication Company, where he tried to introduce Japanese culture to Chinese people by telling stories about Chinese people living in Japan. In 2015, he started publishing his works on video-sharing platforms such as Youku, iQIYI, Tencent and Bilibili.

Later, he found the Japanese people did not understand China, with most people relying on Japanese media for information on China.

Depicting the real China

"We Japanese living in China are particularly dissatisfied with Japanese media reports on China, because we know what the real China is like, and it is very different from the China depicted in those stories. There is too much negative information about China, so I want to introduce the real China to Japanese people," he said.

Chinese culture is rich and diverse, he said. Be it the landscape, food, culture, history, society or economy, there are many things that can be covered, he said.

"I have filmed documentaries in Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East, but I still find filming in China most interesting. After all, China has thousands of years of history and deep cultural heritage.

"Moreover, the Chinese culture is diverse and fascinating. The country makes me want to film more and more."

He has now begun to film the stories of Japanese war orphans in China.

After Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, when the Japanese army withdrew from China, some Japanese children were abandoned in China and later adopted by Chinese families. Some of them returned to Japan with the assistance of the Japanese government in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, their lives in Japan were not easy because they returned to Japan after growing up in China. They could not speak Japanese, which made it difficult to integrate into Japanese society. Many of them relied on subsidies from the Japanese government for their subsistence.

Takeuchi said he wants to film the stories of people who grew up in China and returned to Japan.

"They have always missed their former home but financial constraints have prevented them from returning to China," he said, adding he hopes to make their dream of returning a reality.

"I always wanted to film stories related to war," he said.

"As a Japanese person living in Nanjing, I always wanted to film this subject but it's too sensitive. I don't know what the final film will be like, but I still want to challenge myself.

"It's amazing that Chinese people are willing to adopt the children of Japanese invaders and raise them."

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