Inside the Making of "Japan's Disposable Workers"

Not all the stories are visual. That was the case for “Overwork to Suicide” story, one of the four-part series, “Disposable Workers in Japan.” The story is about Japanese workers who commit suicide from depression brought on by sleep deprivation and stress due to overwork. I interviewed widows who had lost husbands driven to suicide by oppressive workloads and a young systems engineer who had suffered from severe depression, also attributed to overwork. The interviews were powerful, but it was challenging to come up with images to accompany their narratives. How does one visualize the crushing absence of loved ones? What kind of images could accurately convey the depression and exhaustion of the victims?

From the start, I knew the visual aspect of the project would not be literal. One editor even told me I should not pursue this story because it was “not visual.” But there was no way I would back down once I had heard the widows’ heartbreaking stories. After every interview, I transcribed, translated and highlighted what I thought most powerfully told these women's stories. During the shoot, I tried to shoot B-roll that could be shown with these narratives.

Ideally, I would have liked to film people at a workplace, putting in long hours and sleeping over at the office. But it was very hard to get access to Japanese companies, to say nothing of the fact that it was for a story about laborers being overworked to death. My solution, therefore, was to shoot employees outside the office, commuting, working on their computers at cafes, and eating and drinking with colleagues after work. It was not hard to find weary off-duty workers after all. It was also important to shoot abstract and moody footage of urban landscapes and commuters to visually suggest the depressed mental state that I was conveying.

Another challenge was choosing the main character. I had interviews with eight widows, and I wanted to include all of them because each had something powerful and unique to contribute to the overall story. However, the more characters one introduces in a film, the more complicated the story becomes to viewers. I showed my rough edit to my friend and award-winning filmmaker Marlo Poras, and we thought that Ms. Nanbu would be a powerful character. Her husband jumped in front of a train where he could see their old apartment. The way she told the story was so moving that it made me tear up every time I saw the footage. The problem was that I didn’t have any B-roll of her, except interviews. With a shoot list based on Marlo’s suggestions, I went back to Japan again to spend some time with her to get additional footage of her at home and work.

There is a huge difference in shooting video and still photographs. In order to build a still photo essay, I need a collection of decisive moments from different scenes. For video storytelling, I need to build visual sequences of one scene and shoot a variety of wide, medium and tight shots. I need to think about what editors would need later in order to build the scene I captured while shooting. I also need a lot of detail shots, which are useful for editing video. As a still photographer, I need to move around in search of the best angle and the best moment at any given scene. On the other hand, as a videographer, I need to anchor down and dissect the scene.

Eric Maierson from MediaStorm edited the final film, and Joe Fuller created cool motion graphics. Eric went through the transcripts and made the paper-cut, where he cut and pasted narratives with timecode. In paper-cut, the editor boils the story down to its essence and simplifies what the story is. It's counter-intuitive, but a majority of the time at an editing suite is spent working with audio — editing and mixing the narrative and the ambient sound, while pulling in music underneath the visual layer. The big challenge for this piece was to strike a balance between the poetic and the literal. I appreciate everything Eric did to the film: Every edit, effect, music and sound made the story stronger.