Volcano Museum 5. Documentary

Mike GristFeatured Story, Gunma, Haikyo, Haikyo in the Media, Museums 9 Comments

Well over a year ago now a Belgian film-maker called Jeroen Van der Stock got in touch with me about making a haikyo / ruins documentary in Japan. He had the concept but seemingly no solid structure at that time, so we met up for coffee to discuss ideas. I went along because it seemed a kick- I’ve had other meetings about haikyo books and TV shows that fell through quickly- so I didn’t have high expectations.

A year and a half later, Jeroen has pulled the first stage of his haikyo documentary vision together. He got funding from a film body in Belgium, a film company to produce it (Savage Film, who also produced his first documentary about Chinese day-laborers), a crew to come over to Japan, rescheduling around the 3/11 earthquake, and 3 or 4 haikyoists to take part- including me.

His funding is enough to make an extended trailer for the movie. He’ll take that back to Belgium and leverage it for full funding- come back for more extensive shoots, and in a year or so’s time, his full haikyo documentary will be ready to roll.


And I’m pretty much all done already. My shoot was last weekend, at the Asama Volcano Museum; my fourth trip back.

The documentary crew, L to R- soundman Andrei, director Jeroen, assistant Ken, and DP Aman.

I’ve never been in a documentary before- the closest I’ve come is SY following me around the Queen Chateau with my camera rolling. My dad was in a documentary on witchcraft once, because he was kind of a bigwig in the uk in that arena for a while, and he told me about how scripted and to some extent fake shooting a documentary felt.

So I understood that. It makes sense- cameras want to get footage that looks natural, but to achieve that, there’s already tons of artifice involved; ignoring the crew, the cameras, doing things you normally wouldn’t because the cameras can’t capture it well a normal way. With that in mind, I headed out.

I met Jeroen and crew in Ikebukuro on a rainy Saturday morning, all of us stuffed into a 5-seat sedan with their gear filling up any extra space. Originally we had been scheduled to shoot the week after the 3/11 earthquake, but due to uncertainty over gas availability Jeroen postponed the shoot by a few weeks.

I crammed into the sedan, and off we went, 3 hour drive up to Gunma. Along the way Jeroen went over what kinds of shots he wanted to get, where we would film, which of my photos he’d hope to use in the finished film. I won’t go into much detail because that would spoil the movie. Plus of course I have no idea what will make it into the film.

Currently Jeroen and crew are still shooting, with a few Japanese haikyoists around Tokyo area. After that they’ll go cut the film in Belgium, and hopefully get funding to complete production.

Andrei looking disgruntled.

The first day the weather was crappy. Cold, rainy, and grey. A lot of what we did that day involved me walking around on the obvservation deck taking photos (as I normally would in a haikyo- so catching me in my natural habitat, I guess) while the crew shot me from various angles. Doubtless it was more miserable for them than for me, as I could duck inside while they were still out tinkering with setting.

Aman sets the camera.

The guys were great to work with- very friendly, interested enough in haikyo to make me not feel like a chump to be talking about it all the time (and I talked about it a LOT in talking head-style interviews), and also totally respectful of the place and its vibe.

On that first day after shooting outside we did some shots around the eruption diorama, featuring an old stuffed owl we found in one of the storage closets.

Up the eruption- black cotton wool

Owl in the diorama.

By the end of the first day I had a better idea of what being on a film set feels like. Basically- there’s a lot of standing around. The guys assured me that usually there’d be buffets laid on, comfortable rest areas, but of course we had none of that. So while they did their setup stuff, I wandered the museum.

This being the fourth visit for me, I now it very well. The areas that were dark I could walk in the dark because I knew what lay beyond. I re-discovered the old office I hadn’t seen since my first trip there. I found a few new vantage points to see the museum’s UFO dome from. Mostly though, I hung around- occasionally stopping to study Japanese on my iphone.

That night we stayed for free (sponsorship deal) at a gorgeous family-owned dog hotel right at the base of Asama mountain. They had a brand new stone bath onsen and laid on breakfast and dinner. I took a bath, then went to bed.

The next day was all-change- really bright, sunny, though still damn cold. We headed up into the volcanic rocks of Oni Oshi Dashi (see history post for more details) to shoot me approaching the museum from various angles, with various ‘friends’ along for the ride.

Director Jeroen with the museum stuffed deer. No animals were harmed in this production (and all animals returned to their original homes).

It’s a funny thing, walking. Breathing, too. When there’s no camera on you, and no mic at your chest, you don’t really think about it. But when the camera is watching and the mic is on, you become pretty conscious of those things. Many times I found myself thinking- Am I walking normally now? Am I breathing normally? Am I looking around in a normal way, or a fake way?

Any time I was walking towards the camera I couldn’t help but think of the beginning of Bobby Jindal’s Republican response speech- it’s hard to walk towards something and seem normal.

Anyway, those were little things. I walked a bunch, and they took their shots.

Dolly wheelchair.

Jeroen had also brought along a makeshift dolly, a wheelchair, to get smooth tracking shots of me walking. Aman had to perch on a couple of metal shelving units borrowed from the museum, settled across the armrests. It can’t have been comfortable, but we walked that path a few times adjusting my pace to his.

The rest of that day we did talking-head stuff. I thought at the beginning that doing that would be some of my favorite parts- look direct to camera and talk about my haikyo passion. After a while though I came to dread it- pulling answers out that were different each time started to feel kind of exhausting, especially since many of the questions were very similar. This is surely another issue of documentaries- you harvest a LOT of material, perhaps chunks of it overlapping, and probably only use the best few percent of it all. When we wrapped the last interview session I was pretty relieved.

Shots taken while (again) wandering the observation deck for footage.

Ken solved the mystery of the orange-lined room, by tying it to the generator on the ground floor with KDDI labels. KDDI is a mobile phone/telecoms company, so perhaps that whole orange room is a giant aerial for signals. Ken’s phone was KDDI, and he had a 5-bar signal. I’m on Softbank, and barely had one bar, so that probably bears his theory out.

Broken glass and bits in the restaurant deck.

Loudspeaker, still endlessly playing rousing classical music.

The third and final day we started at 5am, and got snow. A snow storm, at one point. We were all freezing, walking around in the whirling snow, covered in it. It was the first time I got excited to do much photography myself- as I’d basically taken every shot of the museum already on the past three trips. But never in a snow storm, so I ran out while they were setting up and grabbed what shots I could.

Full frontal- I love how the lines of weeds make frosty jigsaws of the black tarmac.

Barbed wire fence (easily moved aside) with snow.

The snow was really coming down at this point.

The path up obscured by freshly snowed branches.

Jeroen waves down and says- come on in!

This one included because it compares well to the second image in this post- here it is again:

I guess I was in the exact same spot.

The crew struggle to keep the lens clear of snow while they shoot.

Indoors, with the wind-ravaged snow. A good spot for some talking head interviews? I guess so. We’ll see if they make it into the movie.

A lonesome shot. Required, really.

At the last, we didn’t think to take a photo of me with the crew in front of the museum, as we were worried about some parking lot guy who warned us we had to be out by 5pm. But down in the parking lot things were pretty calm, so we assembled in front of the mountain for this group shot- me in the middle:

The white cloud atop the volcano is coming from within- it is a live volcano after all. Occasionally we caught the whiff of sulphur on the wind.

See other posts on the Volcano Museum here-

1. First road trip

2. History

3. Return in HDR

4. Wedding shoot

5. Documentary shoot

See more Japanese ruins (haikyo) in the galleries:

[album id=4 template=compact]

You can also see a curation of world ruins in the ruins gallery.

Comments 9

  1. Wow so Jeroen really came through with all he was talking about! Impressive!
    Hopefully you’ll be able to post some of the video up here when it’s done.

    1. Post

      I hope I’ll have that chance yeah- though could be a year or longer til the whole film is done- if full funding comes through. Seems he had a bit of funding luck recently though- so he’s on his way!

    1. Post

      You’re making me very nostalgic Jon- especially with both you and Mike commenting on this post- reminds me of the good old days!

  2. It was very fun having Mike with us. All day long wearing the hidden microphone, touching 100 times a day to see if it’s still good on, changing batteries and doing that without worrying him I was going to be in his pockets….
    And always being folowed by some dad cat on a stick….

    The pictures look very good also.

    1. Post

      Cheers Andre, it was good fun, though having my pockets become public property took a little getting used to…
      As for the dead cat- well, I had my own raccoon dog to protect me, so I wasn’t worried there…

  3. This is another great set of photos, Mike. It’s interesting that you can find new aspects of the haikyo even after four trips.

    It would be interesting to see Jeroen’s documentary when complete, but I hope any attention it brings to the volcano museum doesn’t have the undesirable side-effect of increased traffic and damage by less-sensitive haikyoists, and/or increased security measures by the site owners.

    1. Post

      Well- I hadn’t really expected to find any new perspectives this time, David. The snow brought a great opportunity though.
      As for bringing excess attention- I don’t really expect it will. His film will be targeted mostly at Europeans in Europe- and they’re unlikely to come all this way to trash an old museum. I doubt anyone is going to come this far into the mountains just to trash it.

  4. Mike, greetings. Love exploring, and love your photos. I lived near the Asama site for several years, and made 4 trips into the very cool (and spooky) Guest Center. Last time I was there was in August 2011 and I noticed some changes.

    The door on the main (ramp) level had been boarded over, so no access there.
    The stair to the observation deck had collapsed / been torn down. We were able to get in though the “back porch” (broken) glass doors leading into the “cotton ball volcano” level.

    Your deer mascot was lying on the floor. It looked like it had been attacked by a predator. Not in good shape, especially the legs.

    On a previous visit, the floor of the top “round room” level had tons of those huge killer Japanese hornets (suzumebachi) all over. I mean _covered_ with them. Really made me think twice about ever going back. Anyway, the floor there had now been swept clean. The glass sliding doors leading out and down the steps to the observation deck were jammed closed and would not budge. Can’t get out there now unless you break glass….

    So it look like steps have been taken to reduce incursions. Still an amazing place with so many artifacts intact. Just wouldn’t want to be there if a quake hit.

    Any idea if there was a particular event or reason why the old center was closed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *