Documentaries are often about diving into an unknown subject and discovering something new - and ‘Ama-San’ takes that concept quite literally. It offers up a fascinating subject, but does its execution do it justice?
A Japanese tradition, the ama (translated as “women of the sea”) have launched themselves beneath the ocean’s surface to hunt for seafood for over 2,000 years. With no air tanks, they must rely solely on their body to be able to gather abalone, sea snails and shellfish - an amazing feat, considering the average age of these divers is 67. This gruelling work reaps its benefits though - the money they sell their hauls for makes them their families' breadwinners. We board the Minemaru with Mayumi, Masumi and Matsumi, part of a group who have been diving together for 30 years.
‘Ama-San’ has a non-intrusive style of documentary - we watch the women go about their everyday lives, caring for their families, gardening, then going off to work. We the audience watch from a distance and observe their existence, and while this an insightful glimpse at their days, there are so many more questions left unanswered. How did they become ama? How long have they been doing this? And most importantly, why is this something done solely by women?
The latter can be answered with a little research: around 2,000 years ago in Japan, the men would leave on lengthy fishing voyages, leaving the women to provide for their families. When the weather was warmer, they would gather shellfish from the ocean and sell what they brought back. Pearls from oysters brought weath to the ama, and “associated them with a symbol of power, beauty and spirituality”.
This is an intriguing evolution of tradition for a country like Japan, a society which is implicitly patriarchal, yet this skill gives these women power, independence and authority. The modern ama becomes part of a community - the tight-knit group we journey with work together, eat together, and inevitably sing karaoke together. Intriguingly, virtually no men appear in this film - the only male figures who appear are either children or the captain of the boat who takes them to sea.
The modern ama becomes part of a community - the tight-knit group we journey with work together, eat together, and inevitably sing karaoke together.
The construction of the film itself is where issues arise. It features stunning cinematography to rival any fiction film, focusing on intricate details - neoprene pulled over skin, close-ups of masks being put on, as the women don their diving outfits like a surgeon kitting up for an operation. Underwater, time appears to slow as lights flicker from above, and these women expertly propel themselves towards the ocean floor to uncover their treasures. As they hold their breaths, shots linger uncut for what seems like minutes in hypnotic sequences. Yet the non-intrusive method leaves a lot to be desired: there is no music in the entirety of the film (besides a few aforementioned karaoke numbers), and events can end up feeling a little too sparse at times - while the divers' everyday lives are interesting to observe, the film could easily have been further compressed from its 112-minute running time.
The beauty of ‘Ama-San’ is also its downfall; for all its aesthetic charm, we miss out on vital factual information and frequently dwell too long on certain scenarios. Still, the tradition of the ama is one which has to be seen to be believed, and is captured here with impeccable artistry.