2018, HD video, 24 minutes
Herb Shellenberger: When and where did you record the footage that became a new use?
Monika Uchiyama: The film was recorded in March 2018 in Tokyo. I went home and shot over the course of a week, even though the bulk of the film is a single clip. I wanted to make a film about my family’s company, which is struggling. Everyone who works in the company besides my cousin is quite elderly—my grandmother was 88 when I shot the film—and I felt an urgency to document the company as it is today.
The entire film takes place in two structures where most of my family lives. My grandmother, uncles, and cousin live in the building where the office in the first scene is, and I grew up with my mother and brother in the house in the back, which also contains the factory. My family pretty much circulates around this small plot of land every day.
HS: We see different steps in the process in the manufacturing of the product. Is the form of the film a chronological view of the day?
MU: It shows different steps in the process, and frankly not even the most visually interesting ones. The cycle of making the wax blocks happens multiple times in a single morning of working. I structured it as being a cyclical film, beginning and ending with the cooling of blocks, with various steps of packing, preparation, and production in between.
HS: When did Uchiyama Shōten start, and was it always a homemade concern? Could you speak about their products and how they are sold?
MU: My grandfather started the company, I would assume after the war, sometime in the 1950s, and it’s always been a family affair. The extrusion machine and most of the tools have been used since the beginning, which is why there’s so much build-up on everything. They also utilize a standard bread mixing machine in the process. The workshop is put together in this very D.I.Y. way.
Besides wax blocks, they also make tools that are used to sand down wood to make the grain more pronounced. Those don’t sell as much. All the products are originally meant for use on furniture or Japanese interior architecture details.
It’s such a niche product. I definitely know there are other companies that make wax for the specific use of lubricating drawers or furniture. My family’s wax is intended for lubricating fusuma and shoji sliding door grooves. With the declining popularity of Washitsu-style rooms and the ubiquity of prefab interiors, sales have gone downhill. In the past decade or so, trucking companies have found a use for it in lubricating truck beds, which was just a use that came from the trucking companies themselves.
HS: When I watched a new use for the first time, I didn’t know what the blocks were. I watched it again with a colleague who speaks Japanese, and she pointed out what the label said. But I find the film just as engrossing without knowing what is being made. It can also be boiled down to these movements, materials, textures and visible histories of these machines, the precision of your family using the instruments. It becomes about everything but what the object is, in a way. But there’s also undeniably a mystery around what we’re seeing.
MU: Yes, including for myself, although I’m so familiar with this process and material. When I was a teenager, my room was next to the factory space, with a separate entrance but a shared wall. I remember the sometimes sweet smell of the wax coming into my room in the morning.
The blocks are aesthetically such blank slates so a lot can be projected onto them. I’ve actually never seen anyone use the product in real life.
HS: Your footage is exploratory; it mimics the way someone’s eyes might linger on the different processes happening around them. When did you choose to utilize this observational form to document these actions?
MU: Everything you see in the film is from the last day of shooting, the only element out of time is my mother’s voice at the end. A few days earlier, I was shooting in a more traditional way, or maybe in a way that internalized other films I’d seen of people doing mundane activities that are framed as a bit unfamiliar. This could be anything, from ethnographic films to “how stuff’s made”-type YouTube footage: on a tripod, at a distance, trying to include as much information as possible in the frame. I had collected a lot of footage in this style but it was only on the last day that I decided to shoot handheld and see what happened. I wasn’t confident I could hold the camera still enough or that the footage would be usable. When I started editing the material, I hated how most of it looked—so distanced, in a way that I could immediately imagine what viewers would project on the people in the footage. That felt wrong.
I shot two long takes passing through the space for the thirty-minute duration before the camera automatically stopped. It became important for me to be able to document how I explored the space, and it was also important for me to assert my perspective as a cameraperson. That only felt possible through this handheld footage that allows for the viewer to occupy my vantage point for a long duration.
My family had put up with me filming for most of the week so by the final day they learned to tune out the camera and I think that’s why the conversation happens sort of freely, although they also address me. It helped that I understood their choreography more after being in the space for a few days. I knew when to get out of their way or when to turn my attention to a specific activity.
HS: Though this is a document of something quite personal to you, how do you think your family’s work can be extended outwards as a commentary on larger issues of labor, history or familial responsibility?
MU: The work is quite open-ended. I did want to highlight how labor and one’s work are integrated into a sense of community and purpose. Within this particular family business, work is also social life. I think the mundane conversation is the most interesting part of the film, in what it reveals about how much time everyone spends together.
I think about the aging population in Japan and about older generations’ sense of loss of purpose, thinking they aren’t productive or useful in society anymore. I feel that my family is lucky to have something that keeps them together. They have a place to go to every morning to work and interact, but it’s something they’re struggling to maintain. I also think about the pressures of keeping alive what my grandfather started. My family really reveres my grandfather as a person who founded a bedrock for stable living for a very tight-knit community of people, creating the means for everyone to live under one roof and maintain a living.
It’s more pronounced to me the more I watch it myself, but the film is also about watching my family age. They have a very specific, limited timeframe in thinking about their collective future. There’s already a limit to whatever legacy is possible for a business like this and it’s pretty clear that it stops here. If anything, I know where it stops because I’m the next in line.
I think a lot of the impetus for making this film was to try to place myself within the family structure as defined by the company and production line, within this framework of a family that works together. If the family is struggling to find a new use for the product in order to have enough orders, to make enough money to keep things going, what can I do as a video-maker? Very little. I can put it into the imagination of more people. That’s not meant as a commercial gesture by any means. But I thought: what can be triggered in the imaginary? The proposal is: care about this family for twenty minutes, and the question is: how else can we use this?
HS: Also, it’s another form of legacy-making. The company isn’t going to exist forever but this is a document of its existence. It’s not like someone came in the 1970s and made a documentary on Uchiyama Shōten, so this is actually the record now for all-time.
MU: Sure, this is the record of it just existing.
When my mother took over the company—because my uncle, who was head of the company, fell ill—one of the first things that she advised they do was to take off the use label from the packaging. The package used to say in a very dated form of Japanese: “For lubricating fusuma doors and shoji screens.” And she said, “Let’s take it off. So it can just be for anything.”
Directed, filmed, and edited by Monika Uchiyama
Sound mixing by Sindhu Thirumalaisamy
Filmed at Uchiyama Shōten in Tokyo, Japan
Courtesy the artist