Home Video Hovel- Red Persimmons, by Jack Fleischer
Red Persimmons is a DVD release of a Japanese documentary about a small agriculturally driven way of life that is rapidly vanishing. It is also a documentary, literally, about the processes necessary to watch persimmons dry. This DVD, much like it’s primary subject matter, has a niche audience but that audience may not be what it appears to be at first.
Perhaps you’re asking yourself, “What exactly is a persimmon?”
With the possible exception of those from Indiana, (which apparently has a “raucous” persimmon festival) most Americans probably don’t have a pedestrian acquaintance with this native Chinese fruit. In most forms it looks a little like a slightly orange tomato. It has no seeds or core, and is considered a “true berry.” There are many different versions of the plant, which is now grown widely in Brazil, Italy, and Israel with distinct variations in color, size, skin, and taste. Yet where our story takes place in Japan, its most common form is a red, fist sized package with a high tannin content that were you to eat it off the tree would taste like a very bitter shag carpet. The key to enjoying this bitter berry comes with a multistage aging process that crystallizes the sugars and turns the fruit sweet.
This is the story of letting these babies dry in the sun and over charcoal, the slow, small and traditional Japanese way.
The film itself is 90 minutes of discussing the finer points of how the fruits are processed, with the biggest bulk of time being spent on the 50 years of development that went into the fruit’s pealing process. Along the way there are some interesting insights into Japanese life before and after World War II, some local folklore, and an intimate look at what small town Japanese life is truly like. In some ways this film strikes me as a segment on the Dotch Cooking Show. I believe that fans of the “slow food” movement, and Japanese cultural anthropologists will be “blown away” by this film. The rest of you will probably need to be hardcore fans of Japanese documentary to get much out of it.
Speaking of which …
Since this is a DVD release, there are special features. Aside from the usual chapter selection, and a set of written director biographies, the film also comes with a sixty-minute documentary entitled A Visit to Ogawa Productions about the late Japanese director Shinsuke Ogawa (A Sea of Youth, Nipponkoku Furuyashikimura), by Jun’ichiro Oshige. Oddly enough, I think this singular extra feature is what should interest film fanatics, perhaps even more than the headlining film Red Persimmons.
Often considered the father of Japanese documentary filmmaking, Red Persimmons, was the last of Ogawa’s films. In fact Persimmons was only completed in 2001 by one of his protégé’s Peng Xiaolian (Shanghai Story), and along with a look at the fruit preparation, there are scenes from A Visit to Ogawa Productions in Xiaolian’s final cut of the documentary.
The reason this little documentary is so fascinating is because Ogawa believed in full immersion in his subject matter whether it was farmers, or student protests. This documentary is actually an extended interview with the director held on a rice-growing commune he operated with his film crew, as they were in preparation for a film about rice at the time. I didn’t imagine watching a film director talk about the process of rice growing would be so engrossing, but it offers terrific insight into the culture that bore Red Persimmons, along with an fascinating look at the director’s process. Also, I learned a lot about growing rice.
Both of these films are a tad cerebral, and slow in their approach, but the images and spirit of both Persimmons and Visit manage to be moving in their own way. I can’t say that these films are stunning, but if traditional Japanese agriculture and documentary filmmaking get you jazzed, this DVD set is absolutely the way to go.
There is, in fact, an American species of persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) that was used and cultivated by the Native Americans in the Southeast U.S. There are ethnographic accounts of the American Indians drying the fruit into dense loaf-like bricks to preserve them for later use.