“I consider it my job to look for evidence of human life, and photograph it.” This mantra of Japanese photojournalist Ryuichi Hirokawa has taken him to some of the world’s most perilous places. He has spent much time documenting the testimony of Palestinian refugees, as well as residents near Chernobyl a few years after the nuclear disaster. Hirokawa’s work does not stop with his reportage, but continues into relief work to help sick children. This new film takes viewers on a personal journey with the photojournalist, as he returns to some of the people and places that have defined his five-decade career.
Ryuichi Hirokawa: Human Battlefield is a lovely tribute to a journalist of staggering importance. Hirokawa’s pictures have helped to expose human rights abuses and government ineptitude. His still photographs appear onscreen for longer than expected, allowing the viewer to absorb their more unsettling details. Director Saburo Hasegawa braves some difficult moments, such as facing tear gas fired by Israeli police (toward Palestinian activists) in an early scene. (His commitment to showing this on film aligns with Hirokawa’s code of ethics.)
The film achieves its most intense power by simply lingering on the subject as he talks about a devastating life in the field, and how it has informed his sense of doing good in the world. It is fascinating to hear the subject speak, with dignity, about how his work around Chernobyl makes him fearful of the radiation still in Fukushima, Japan.
Still, at times, Ryuichi Hirokawa: Human Battlefield is aimless and draggy. Hasegawa and his crew are often content to follow their subject anywhere. Some of this more observational footage feels extraneous, lacking the urgency and intimacy of Hirokawa’s most startling work.