Krakow Film Festival 2024

Life without papers

MODERNITY / Revealing the hidden world of the evaporated.

Ms Saita started her night escape service around twenty years ago. Today, her company, TSC, is one of Japan’s biggest of its kind. Johatsu – Into Thin Air delicately follows her as she performs her daily chores of night-moving, disclosing a world we didn’t know existed: every year, between eighty and one hundred thousand people are reported missing in Japan. Most of them are found or return home, but thousands of others simply vanish. They are known as Johatsu, «the evaporated.» This German-Japanese production, directed by Andreas Hartmann and Arata Mori, just won the main prize at the DOK.fest Munchen. Apart from revealing an unknown world, the directors also manage to show that the phenomenon of people disappearing without a trace, marked by traditional Japanese cultural values, also bears universal traits and relevance.

Johatsu - Into Thin Air Andreas Hartmann, Arata Mori
Johatsu -Into Thin Air, a film by Andreas Hartmann, Arata Mori

Avoiding the shame and harassment

Night Escape Companies emerged in the 1990s when thousands of people fled their debt after the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble, as we learn at the start of the film. These companies operate within the law, but some of their activities fall into a grey area. Given the delicate subject, the film does not reveal much about the legal procedure of the disappearance. More attention is paid to the relationships between Ms Saita and her clients: she is helping them escape by driving them away from their former homes, packing their belongings, and giving them emotional support in distress. From her clients’ first-person testimonies, fragmented and cryptic, we learn that avoiding responsibilities and finances in the first place is not the only motive for people to change identities and leave their former lives without a trace. Among «the evaporated,» as the Japanese vividly defines them, are people who suffered domestic abuse, were victims of organised crime, and were blackmailed by abusive employers.

Among «the evaporated,» as the Japanese vividly defines them, are people who suffered domestic abuse, were victims of organised crime, and were blackmailed by abusive employers.

The new normal

Just like they avoid the legal aspects and procedures of the Night Escapes, the authors are also careful not to openly connect the practice of voluntary disappearance to the Japanese cultural norms, social stigma, and shame. Rather, they concentrate on the routine of life after the «evaporation,» the normality of the new life. Proving that, yes, there is no official evidence of these people, but they do exist. Contemplating what they did, speaking about their afterlife and the problems they have, they do not mention the problems with the authorities or the state. They are missing their previous life – some their parents, some their children, and others, again, simply miss the «normal life.» On the other hand, through a parallel story from the opposite side, we learn that those left behind are also missing those who disappeared. We observe the mother and a private detective she engaged to find her missing son. In vain.

The state and its subjects

«There is no such thing as society,» Margaret Thatcher claimed in 1987. Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and whose policies (along with those of US President Ronald Reagan) paved the ground for what we know today as liberal capitalism. The documentary by Hartmann and Mori indicates that her statement might have become the truth.

Modern society has been closely tied to the notion of personal identity. The notion of the person as an active subject of their destiny and history is built into the Renaissance model of representation of space, organised around one central point, the viewing point of the spectator, re-asserted in the vanishing point of the representation. One subject with one identity was essential for the rise of capitalism and for the modern state, which had its «raison d’être» in its’ citizens’ registers and control over them.

Johatsu - Into Thin Air Andreas Hartmann, Arata Mori
Johatsu -Into Thin Air, a film by Andreas Hartmann, Arata Mori

Grey zone

One of the first known areas where the state had no control over its citizens was Nigeria. Scholars (Brian Larkin in Signal and Noise, 2008) warned that official statistical, demographic, and economic data only partly correspond to the factual situation. It was proof that the state does not have control over the whole country and that part of its territory, economy, and demographics is not completely outside the law but somewhere in between, a sort of grey zone, very much like the evaporated people of Japan. However, Nigeria is a country of the global south, and in a certain sense, forced to cope with the Western norms of modernity. Japan is one of the most developed parts of the global north. Johatsu – Into Thin Air outlines a novel, hybrid reality suspended between the abandoned, unbearable normality of before and the new normality in the making, where people can live and work without a legal personal identity. Without papers.

Modern society has been closely tied to the notion of personal identity.

The society vanishes

Hartmann’s and Mori’s careful observation presents a complex and ambiguous reality. If providing escape service is lucrative, the number of people ready to «evaporate» is not negligible. It might be a sign that the modern state itself is evaporating in the air. A sort of dark side of what has been the major concern during the last decades: the weakening of the powers of the state compared to corporations and the reduction of responsibilities of the state towards its citizens. This was exactly what Thatcher’s discourse was about. She said, I quote, «You know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.»

There is another view, though. The contemporary state has developed along various citizens’ identification and control systems, with names and family names, city streets and addresses, photographic portraits and identity cards, and compulsory birth records. Considering the tragic destinies of people who find themselves without papers, for example, among migrants, the news that there is life without identity papers can also be liberating.

Johatsu – Into Thin Air, a precious documentary surprise, starts as an intimate portrait of its protagonists’ feelings, and ends as an invitation to think about the future of human life.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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