Documentary Filmmaker Explores Japan’s Rigorous Education Rituals

The defining experience of Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s childhood left her with badly scraped knees and her classmates with broken bones.

During sixth grade in Osaka, Japan, Ms. Yamazaki — now a 34-year-old documentary filmmaker — practiced for weeks with classmates to form a human pyramid seven levels high for an annual school sports day. Despite the blood and tears the children shed as they struggled to make the pyramid work, the accomplishment she felt when the group kept it from toppling became “a beacon of why I feel like I am resilient and hard-working.”

Now, Ms. Yamazaki, who is half-British, half-Japanese, is using her documentary eye to chronicle such moments that she believes form the essence of Japanese character, for better or worse.

To outsiders, Japan is often seen as an orderly society where the trains run on time, the streets are impeccably clean, and the people are generally polite and work cooperatively. Ms. Yamazaki has trained her camera on the educational practices and rigorous discipline instilled from an early age that she believes create such a society.

Her films present nonjudgmental, nuanced portraits that try to explain why Japan is the way it is, while also showing the potential costs of those practices. By showing both the upsides and downsides of Japan’s commonplace rituals, particularly in education, she also invites insiders to interrogate their longstanding customs.

Her latest film, “The Making of a Japanese,” which premiered last fall at the Tokyo International Film Festival, documents one year at an elementary school in western Tokyo, where students align their shoes ramrod straight in storage cubbies, clean their classrooms and serve lunch to their classmates.

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