We all know the desire to resist the state. Anytime we receive a parking ticket, we feel it stirring in our hearts. Every time we pay taxes on our hard-earned wages, we experience the impulse to resist. Many of us have entertained these desires and taken up far more substantial causes in a show of resistance to the power of the state. This defiance is never easy, as it is invariably met with a response designed to repel and tamp down the forces of change. Sometimes this reaction is mere indifference made possible by institutional inertia and the sheer size of government. However, at times, the state responds with its own force, an exertion of power backed up with both legal and martial instruments. When this happens the citizens choosing resistance face a decision: submit to power or fly in its face. The latter choice almost always means escalation.

This is precisely what happened in the fields of Sanrizuka in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sanrizuka was a sleepy village 70 kilometers east of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. In the late 1960s, the Japanese government abruptly announced the need for a new international airport to take the burden of Haneda International Airport, which was located on reclaimed land on Tokyo Bay. The location of the new airport was to be Sanrizuka, far from the city center. The construction site became a magnet for all manner of social movements. The student movement imploded in the mid-1970s, but a smattering of protestors hung in there until the present day. One actually farms a patch of dirt in the middle of the tarmac. Fifty years later, two filmmakers returned to Sanrizuka to talk to the people who were still there. The resulting film, The Wages of Resistance (Sanrizuka ni ikiru, 2014), features both farmers and student activists, now senior citizens. Every one of them has a different and complicated relationship to that history — and by extension to their youthful political commitments.

Back when the government made its surprise announcement, it was clearly unprepared for both the ferocity and scale of the resistance its plan met. The site was chosen for several reasons of expedience. It was an unusual tableland, which lent itself to airport construction. Much of the area was an Imperial horse pasture, which made for effortless expropriation. But it was also chosen because the farmers there had only pioneered the land in the last generation or two; these were not age-old hamlets, so the farmers’ ties to the earth were presumably weak (or easy to break) and they would be amenable to generous buy-outs.

In fact, many sold immediately and moved on to new lives in bigger houses. However, a core of very obstinate farmers chose resistance. The state elected an aggressive response. The resulting skirmish attracted the attention of the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-base movement and more. The need for the new airport and the location in relation to American air force base traffic were clearly connected to the escalating war in Vietnam. These social movements all found powerful affiliations with the farmers’ plight and moved to the construction site en masse to lend support. Indeed, the student movement in general found Sanrizuka to encapsulate many of the core issues driving new left politics, and student sects set up huts all over the construction site.

The escalation was swift, its scale unprecedented. Within a matter of years, many thousands of protesters from across Japan faced off with many thousands of riot police from across Japan. The farmers built fortresses and burrowed under their fields. The students picked up weapons — especially rocks, clubs, long spears and Molotov cocktails. Many farmers joined in, adding bags of excrement to the arsenal. The violence became increasingly intense. And then people started dying. Combined with the bloody self-destruction of the Red Army, the student movement basically met a swift death in the mid-1970s. The student movement abandoned Sanrizuka and as the airport started flying jets nearly all the farmers capitulated and sold their precious land.

One of the two directors of The Wages of Resistance was Otsu Koshiro, who passed away just as the film was being completed. Otsu was the cameraman for legendary director Ogawa Shinsuke, who had become a key figure on the left for three films he made with the student movement. When the airport was announced, he and some of the young people he worked with formed the collective Ogawa Productions and moved from the streets of Tokyo and halls of academia to Sanrizuka.

Wages of Resistance film analysis

When Ogawa Productions began its work in Sanrizuka, they sniffed out the most tenacious and committed farmers they could find and set up shop in the hamlet of Heta. Today this same location sits at the airport border, squarely under the roaring planes leaving the second runway. All of the houses are gone. However, when Ogawa arrived, the farmers were joined by activists from across the country and their protests transformed into an epic struggle, a new and modern episode in Japan’s long history of peasant uprisings.

Ogawa and his collective carefully documented this process over nine years and seven films, which constitute a monument in the history of Japanese cinema. Cameraman Otsu shot the first film before becoming Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s partner on the Minamata Series, a series of independent documentaries focusing on an infamous mercury poisoning incident in Minamata, Japan. The rich archival footage in The Wages of Resistance comes from their collection of outtakes. No doubt the effort of Ogawa Productions culminated in their masterpiece Heta Village. They shot this film in 1973 in the emotional wake left by the murder of three policemen and the subsequent suicide of their young neighbor Sannomiya Fumio. Elsewhere in Japan, the resistance was reaching the extremes of arson, torture and murder. A weariness set in as the Vietnam War wound down, the older generation of activists started families, and Narita Airport began flying planes. Movement politics swiftly deteriorated, resistance all but died, and the roar of jet engines replaced the cries of demonstrations in Sanrizuka.

Ogawa’s Heta Village is notable for the manner in which it captures this moment. Their previous films were chock-full of violent spectacle, but in this quiet film those clashes are pushed off-screen. The filmmakers focus instead on the spiritual and emotional dilemmas provoked in villagers by the recent deaths. Otsu’s and Daishima’s The Wages of Resistance is a fitting companion piece to Heta Village, for its heart and soul is this very same episode in the story of the struggle. Despite the passing of time, those deaths continue to weigh heavily on people’s souls. Yanagawa Hideo — Sannomiya Fumio’s best friend — eloquently explains this in what is The Wages of Resistance’s most important line. He is speaking shortly after yet another suicide of another friend, an activist that had married into a farmer’s family and ultimately sold the land. Yanagawa said,

In this, the Sanrizuka Struggle, no matter how much time passes, is still a heavy burden on people. Those who took part in it made a deep commitment. They put their lives on the line and they still carry that with them today. In this sense, the Sanrizuka Struggle has left many unresolved issues at the site. But even more important are the many people who were involved and the feelings they still carry with them. I think of this as the spiritual problem of Sanrizuka.

Wages of Resistance film analysis

The Wages of Resistance introduces us to a collection of people who all feel this burden and deal with it in their own individual ways. Indeed, this is precisely what the English title points us to. Those of us who have taken up causes know all too well the sacrifices demanded by political commitments. Anger and passion are powerful drivers, but ultimately not enough. There are those happy times when resistance results in success — even revolution. But usually it does not. Usually the successes are modest, and perhaps failure is even more typical. What do people do when the wages of resistance fail to sustain the movement?

This film presents us with a set of fascinating people whose passions led to very different life paths. The most memorable are probably Yanagawa and Koizumi Hidemasa, who continue to resist by tilling the earth of Sanrizuka; Koizumi’s land is literally surrounded by tarmac, and the second runway cannot be extended for jumbo jets until Yanagawa gives in — which he won’t. The wages of their resistance are the redemptions of those friends who died for the cause so long ago. Other characters in the documentary finally submitted to state power at different times and in different ways. However, they all reached a point where the wages of defiance no longer sustained their passions, hopes and dreams.

The burden that Yanagawa spoke so eloquently about is also felt by those for whom the low wages of struggle were unattractive, those who took the government’s money from the get go, sold their land and left neighbors to fend for themselves. They are represented here by a single figure in an extraordinary scene. Directors Otsu and Daishima accompany one old mother to the grave of young Sannomiya Fumio. Incredibly, the Ryuzaki girl comes to pay her respects as well. Hers is the family described in the opening scene of Ogawa’s Heta Village, the family that sold out and whose ostricisation was so complete they feared for their lives at the hands of their neighbors — neighbors like the old mother before the grave. Four decades on, Ryuzaki continues to bear the spiritual problem of Sanrizuka, despite not having even participated in the Struggle.

The Wages of Resistance has had a very successful run across Asia since its release. One reason is the vast influence Ogawa Shinsuke has had on Asian filmmakers. Indeed, the film opened the 2014 Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, which held an Ogawa Production retrospective in conjunction with the screening. Otsu was to attend, but fell deathly ill just weeks before. Notably, Hong Kong International Film Festival also staged a similar retrospective and screening of Otsu and Daishima’s film. The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan also fuelled enthusiasm for The Wages of Resistance, with audiences flocking to the film because of the lessons it offers.

The Wages of Resistance invites us to consider the profits and losses of all attempts to resist state power, no matter where they are or when they happened. The film points us to look for the life choices thrown up to those who take up a cause. It also inspires its viewers to crane their necks upon landing at Narita Airport, searching for Koizumi’s pumpkin patch and contemplating the spiritual burden felt by all survivors of the Sanrizuka Struggle.