Documentary Will Dive into the Private World of the ‘Ama,’ Female Japanese Freedivers

Eighty-year-old women hunting at the bottom of the sea.

Amidst a typhoon warning, a group of Ama women head out to sea for their first dive of the day. Photo: Sarah Lee

Skilled freedivers are a special breed of human. As a freediver, you've learned how to tap into being comfortable with the uncomfortable, acquainting yourself with flora and fauna of the underwater world on a single breath. You've learned how to be in tune with your body, and you possess a keen and unequivocal sensory intellect, having learned the rhythm of the ocean like no one else.

In principle, freediving is swimming in its most simple and unadulterated form. Using little to no assistance outside of your body’s natural abilities - meaning no oxygen tanks, no breathing apparatus - it pushes the mental and physiological limits of human possibility.

Your body goes through involuntarily changes to quickly acclimate to the pressure, cold and lack of air, constricting your vessels to rush blood to the brain to provide it with that sweet oxygen.

On the surface, the sport seems straightforward, effortless even. Yet the thresholds to which competitive freedivers push their bodies is no joke, which is why Outside once ranked the sport as one of the most dangerous in the world (falling not too far behind BASE jumping).

The “Ama” (roughly translated to "women of the sea") are female Japanese freedivers with a long history of diving as a means of hunting. The tradition has been passed along from one generation to the next, and those who perform it are venerated in Japanese culture.

They dive to make a living, primarily selling their catch at local markets, but their numbers have diminished to one-sixth of their size in the last 60 years.

Independent filmmaker Devyn Bisson (director and producer of the Paige Alms biopic “The Wave I Ride“) has made this group, and the story behind the past, present, and future of their tradition, the subject of her next documentary.

We interviewed Devyn as she finished up her first round of shooting in Japan to get insight into this cryptic group, progressing in age but fervent in maintaining their tradition.

Hut life. Producer Devyn Bisson on set during the first round of filming. Photo: Katie Rodriguez

How did you find out about the Ama?

I had just finished "The Wave I Ride," which was my last feature, and the final place I really wanted to screen it was Japan. I was really attracted to Japan and the detail and attention to craft that they had.

While screening there, someone sent me an article about the Ama. They had seen my past work, saw females and water, and reached out and said 'Hey, we have water women here, you should go check them out.' And that was the first I had ever heard of the Ama.

A couple of Ama members discuss the water conditions, deciding whether or not to dive. Photo: Katie Rodriguez

What makes this group so remarkable for you personally and historically?

[Some of] these women are 80 years old. I’ve grown up around the ocean and would consider myself somewhat of an elite-ocean-goer, and I would not be able to do what they do. I don't have the breathing experience and techniques that they do.

It's not just freediving, they're in a sense hunting, and their knowledge has been passed on to them from their mothers, and their mothers' mothers, and so on.

Aiko [an Ama member and the main character of the film] explained to me that it takes them a really long time to learn exactly where an abalone [their primary catch to hunt for this time of year] would be hiding.

The reason why it's so impressive is because I don't think this is a place or thing that many of us could live in or do. But then you have someone like Aiko who is sacrificing everything to do it.

On an athletic level, nowadays everyone has so much access to all the information in the world you could want. How to get your health to be at its highest level. How to get your training up to par. But you cannot learn what these women know. Freedivers have tried to come down here and learn it, but it's just so intrinsic.

Lunch break in between boat dives. Photo: Sarah Lee

How did you find out about this group of Ama in particular?

You can literally go on any coast in Japan and within six to 10 hours you might hear of a group that still exists. That was difficult for me when I didn't have much of a lead on where to go. I was getting a lot of mixed messages.

I started with this map of places I could go to that might have clearer water or better weather. I was asking these professors, all of the people that I had been researching with, and they were giving me different answers that weren't concrete.

Then I asked my closest friend in Japan if she knew an Ama member. That ended up leading me to a kid who had gone to school with someone who had recently become an Ama diver. The woman he knew has now become the main character of the film.

The daily grind. Photo: Sarah Lee

What is the story behind this film?

To me, the full story is about what we decide to preserve and what we allow to let go of as time evolves.

Whether you're in Ijica or California, our modern lives move forward. How do we keep balance with the ocean, with nature, with ourselves, with relationships?

For this film, Aiko is having to make those decisions. She's moving from Tokyo to Ijica to do the craft and document it and take it to others.

The main character, Aiko, heads back to the surface with her catch. Photo: Sarah Lee

Biggest challenge faced in production so far?

Easiest access to food: raw fish & raw squid. Closest shower: up the mountain. Easiest place to house team: in an abandoned house. Ability to speak to locals: about upwards of 10 words. Weather: 98 percent humidity & rising. Access to characters: very, very, shy.

Logistically this film was almost impossible. Add the normal issues of a documentary film (funding, funding, funding), and it’s a headache just to think about.

Sunset in the small fishing town of Ijica. Photo: Sarah Lee.

Are you the first person to make a documentary on this group?

Documentaries are funny, you think you’re the first person on the edge of this exhibition, and then you realize many people's eyes have been attracted to the same thing and they’ve also documented it.

I found a group from the '50s who went through much greater lengths than I did to shoot the group long before they were this “dying craft.” At the same time, it takes an extraordinary effort to get close to this subject and I’d say I’m one of few who have opted to live with the group in order to gain intimacy with the subject.

What's been so unique about the filmmaking process for this film?

As murky as summer water in Japan, this filmmaking process felt like I was swimming around blind. My research before this shoot led to so many dead ends, I really got zero clue into any information.

But my gut, curiosity and passion still gave me the instinct to fly over to Japan and dive deeper. That’s what I mean by this being an unknown, impassioned, must-go shoot for me.

What's next for you? What stage are you at in the making of this film?

It feels like we just toppled the mountain, but this is when the true grit begins. I need to take the art I see in my head and make it a reality with a collaboration of artists (editors, musicians, visual artists) and share my vision with funders and platforms. I’ve got to convince people what I see is worth watching.

Producer Devyn Bisson (right) and Director of photography (left) Katie Wise. Photo: Sarah Lee

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