‘Hashima’: A Documentary by Thomas Nordanstad and CM von Hausswolff

This week I’m looking at documentaries about Gunkanjima and the first official one I got my hands on was by Thomas Nordanstad and CM von Hausswolff in 2002.

The official resume of the documentary is the following: “In the crazy ruins of a 20th century civilisation, walks one of the men who grew up, and was forced to leave in 1970. He tells his story among the almost untouched buildings, where remnants of daily life sits as symbols for a sociey much like our own. The man wants to make it into a museum, but painfully realizes that decay cannot be frozen, and even less restored…”

Nordanstad explains the history of the island as such: “The deserted island of Gunkanjima, as it is most often called, was a coal mining colony based on an island roughly the size of a football field. This was the most densely populated place on earth before Mitsubishi, the company who owned the island, closed the operation in 1974. Upon closing they offered the population to apply for jobs on the mainland, leading to a mass-exodus within only a few days of closing its mines. Thus, the island was left as if a neutron bomb had gone through it, with people´s breakfasts remaining on the tables, bicycles leaning on the walls, and beds still unmade. It is a harrowing place.”

You can watch the documentary here: “Hashima: Part 1 and 2”

Ten years ago Nordanstad and CM von Hausswolff became interested in Hashima’s history, and wanted to make a documentary about the island. The filmmakers went to Japan, but found that the Japanese weren’t interested in talking about it.

“We met a lot of embarrassment. We met a lot of hushed faces, a lot of people who would turn away as soon as we started speaking about the island, almost like it was a leper colony or something.”

Norandstad and Hausswolff eventually found someone to take them out to the island. The short film they made follows Doutoku Sakamato, whose family moved to Hashima when he was four. In one scene, Sakamoto returns to the apartment where he lived with his family 30 years ago.

“My mother’s decorations are still up here,” Sakamoto says. A few seconds later, he finds the marks on the walls that recorded his sister’s height through the years.

“They left coffee cups on the tables, and bicycles leaning against the walls. And I think very few people had been back out there when we went there. It was practically untouched.”

The film follows Sakamoto as he finds a schoolhouse with the teachers’ names still written on the blackboard. Sakamoto reflects on the people who once lived there and risked their lives in the mines below.

“It’s like the souls of the dead linger on down here,” Sakamoto says. “So many people who died, so unnecessarily… but these are things I probably shouldn’t talk about.”

The occasion marked the first time that Dotokou had been on the island as an adult, and his experience is nothing short of harrowing. Throughout his visit, the former Hashima resident excavated memories from his childhood, gazing at the decorations his mother hung on their apartment walls, and paying homage to a deceased friend with whom he grew up.

(To be continued: with an interview from Thomas Nordanstad!)

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