by Philip Concannon
How does cinema react to a tragedy as enormous as the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th this year? Director Koichi Omiya reacted to the disaster in the simplest way possible; he visited Tohoku and pointed his camera at a town destroyed. The Sketch of Mujo is a 75-minute documentary that captures the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, as piles of wreckage sit where houses once stood and families begin the arduous process of rebuilding their lives. He holds his camera steady on scenes of utter devastation and allows us time to pick out resonant details – an upturned car on the roof of a two-storey house, a child’s toy amid the rubble of a former nursery – and he speaks to residents who discuss their woes with philosophical outlook, and a staunch resilience. “A belief in mujo is at the centre of Japanese life,” a Buddhist priest tells us, mujo being the Japanese word for transience or impermanence, and The Sketch of Mujo successfully evokes the way this entire region was altered in an instant, both on a widespread and personal level.
The Sketch of Mujo was one of six Japanese films screened at the 7th annual Premiere Japan event, which took place at the Barbican this weekend, and as well as being the shortest film in the programme, it felt like the most vital; a portrait of the country that felt necessary and relevant. The only other film that came close to having that sense of immediacy was My Back Page, which depicts a period of social unrest that has echoes with today’s disillusionment. Ambitious in its scope, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s film begins in 1969 and charts the rise of a radical student group through the relationship between a passionate rebel (Kenichi Matsuyama) and a wide-eyed young journalist (Satoshi Tsumabuki), as their actions lead to violence and their idealistic notions gradually fall away in the face of harsh reality. Yamashita’s storytelling can prove a little clumsy here and there but he compensates for those minor misjudgements with an authentic sense of period detail, a number of impressively staged sequences, and fine work with a cast of convincing young actors (Matsuyama, so anodyne in Norwegian Wood, is a revelation here). My Back Page is an absorbing, intelligent drama, and it just about does enough to justify its generous running time.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the three other live-action films in the programme, all of which outstay their welcome to some degree. Tokyo Park, A Man With Style and Sweet Little Lies have major pacing issues and each could do with the services of a brutal, unsentimental editor, but at least the latter two films have a few redeeming features, while Tokyo Park is a total misfire. The premise is intriguing enough: an aspiring photographer is hired by a jealous husband to photograph his wife on her daily strolls around the park, and the young man inevitably finds himself being drawn to this beautiful stranger. Is the film a voyeuristic thriller? A study of obsession? Perhaps even a romantic comedy? If screenwriter/director Shinji Aoyama had settled on one genre then we might have ended up with something more coherent and endurable than the banal, half-assed mess Tokyo Park has emerged as. Crippled by a limp, passive protagonist (Haruma Miura) and a flimsy narrative that is stretched to breaking point across the film’s two hours, Tokyo Park never comes close to establishing any kind of narrative momentum. The revelation that one character is a ghost offers a potentially interesting kink in the proceedings – or at least it would, if the whole ensemble’s lifeless performances didn’t suggest they were all members of the walking dead.
Sweet Little Lies has a bit more to commend it. Hitoshi Yazaki’s film is classy, confident and blessed with excellent central performances. Miki Nakatani gives a remarkable, subtle display as Ruriko, an artist whose marriage to Satoshi (Nao Ohmori) has quickly grown stale, with the pair practically living separate lives and only coming together at mealtimes. Yazaki observes this empty façade of a relationship with a clinical eye and he intrigues with suggestions of a darker, more subversive movie bubbling under the surface, with the enigmatic Ruriko frequently ruminating on the theme of double suicides and lightly informing her husband that she’d stab him if he cheated on her. As the pair drift into affairs with younger lovers, however, the film starts to lose its focus and its sense of humour, and the pace begins to sag. It becomes increasingly difficult to care about this couple’s fate and whether they’ll end up with each other or not, and the director’s heavy-handed symbolism – from teddy bears to red & white rose petals – elicits groans towards the end of the picture. It’s a film that doesn’t do a great deal wrong, but it simply fails to deliver the imagination or boldness that a familiar story like needs in order to feel fresh.
The film I had highest hopes for in this selection – and the film that proved most frustrating – was A Man With Style, the new film from Yûya Ishii, who recently scored comedy hits with Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers. In this picture, veteran character actor Ken Mitsuishi relishes a rare lead role as taciturn widower Miyata, who struggles to communicate with his college-bound offspring and enlists the help of his loyal pal Sanada (Tomorowo Taguchi, an appealing comic foil) to do so. Ishii has a sharp eye for deadpan gags and absurdities and he gets a number of laughs out of Miyata’s attempts to get on his kids’ wavelength, while simultaneously allowing plenty of room for emotional interludes, but he doesn’t always get the balance right. The film frequently threatens to plunge into sentimentality and things become particularly unwieldy towards the end, where some of Ishii’s most inspired touches rub shoulders with his most lugubrious patches. A Man With Style is another film that could have used some serious tightening, but the most disappointing aspect of the film for me was its dull visual style. The film is shot in a flat, washed-out manner that makes watching it far more of a chore than it should be, and a distinct lack of visual flair was actually a common theme among these pictures.
The exception to that rule was Legend of the Millenium Dragon, a sensationally animated family adventure that sends an ordinary teenager back in time 1000 years to lead the fight against some monsters because…well, he’s the chosen one, you see, and… OK, I admit I lost the thread of the narrative at some point, despite the endless exposition. Towards the end of Legend of the Millennium Dragon, characters were switching allegiances, transforming into different entities and being introduced at such a bewildering rate I felt it was best to simply sit back and enjoy the show – and what a show it is! The hand-drawn animation in Hirotsugu Kawasaki’s film is breathtaking to behold, and it’s particularly extraordinary during the dynamic airborne action set-pieces that its climax is built around. The use of colour and lighting effects are really quite stunning, and even if I only had a shaky grasp of who was doing what towards the end, I found myself getting quite excited as various dragons swooped so beautifully across the sky. It certainly held the younger members of the audience rapt throughout, and they seemed to have no trouble following the plot, which put me in mind of a quote from Groucho Marx: “Why a four-year-old child could understand this report…run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head nor tail out of it.”
Premiere Japan aims to present the best of recent Japanese cinema, but whether or not they have achieved this goal is open to debate. I felt that only half of the features screened this weekend succeeded on their own terms, with the other three being too bound by convention, too sluggish or too unbalanced to work. In a year when filmmakers such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takashi Miike and Sion Sono have produced such accomplished and adventurous work, a festival such as this should surely be setting its sights higher than some of these forgettable pictures. I’d love to see a prime cut of Japanese cinema’s best offerings showing in London, but this is not it.