by Spank The Monkey
As far as I’m concerned, it was my pal The Belated Birthday Girl who spotted it first. In 2008 she spent three months in Japan studying the language, and while she was there she got in some additional practice by seeing a Japanese film at the cinema every week. (Yeah, it’s kind of a thing in our household.) When she looked back at the movies she’d seen, she noticed that almost every Japanese film on release was a remake, or an adaptation from another source, or a spinoff from a TV show. There were very few original stories out there that had been written specifically for the screen.
Four years on, that’s still the case. Even a maverick like Miike Takashi owes his current level of international fame to a remake of the 1960s drama 13 Assassins, and his new film is based on a video game. But the good news is, the Japan Foundation has noticed this as well. Each year they tour a themed programme of Japanese films around the arthouses of the UK, and this year’s collection – Whose Film Is It Anyway? Contemporary Japanese Auteurs – brings together nine films from directors who’ve come up with new stories entirely out of their own heads. The programme tours London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Belfast, Glasgow, Bristol and Nottingham during February and March.
Most of the directors in this season will be unfamiliar to British audiences, with possibly two exceptions. Masayuki Suo made a big splash internationally in the 90s with his ballroom dancing comedy Shall We Dance?, with both his original movie and Peter Chelsom’s American remake proving very popular. Ten years elapsed between that hit and his next film, which proved to be a very different proposition.
I Just Didn’t Do It is a visceral look at the deep flaws in the Japanese justice system, using the example of Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase), a young man falsely accused of molesting a schoolgirl on a crowded train. The accepted wisdom is that anyone accused of such a crime should just pay the fine and let it go: but Teppei is determined to prove his innocence, even though Japanese courts will do anything to preserve their 99.9% conviction rate. What follows is a detailed examination of how a results-focussed legal system will always have justice low on its list of priorities. But it’s one which could teach Ken Loach a few lessons on how to wrap social commentary within an entertaining movie.
The other name that may ring a few bells is Yoji Yamada, whose biggest hit over in the UK was probably The Twilight Samurai. But back home, Yamada is best known as the veteran behind a couple of epic-length movie franchises: writing and directing 48 Tora-san films, and writing the twenty entries in the Tsuribaka Nisshi (Fishing Fool’s Diary) series. All these films had very similar plots, in which a loveable buffoon drifts into a new town and sorts out other people’s love lives, while never quite getting to grips with his own. At first glance, it looks like About Her Brother could be a subversion of Yamada’s formula: as Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei) crashes his niece’s wedding and outrages her new posh relatives, you wonder if the loveable buffoon is actually going to make everyone’s life worse. Unfortunately, it’s not so much a subversion as a deconstruction. In the Tora-san films (or, at least, the one I’ve watched), there’s a delicate mix throughout of comedy and sentimentality: here, the two separate out like oil and water. It makes the first half of the film raucously entertaining, but the second half gets more and more sentimental, and the contrived mushiness towards the end becomes a bit much to bear.
Mushiness is not a criticism you could aim at Katsumi Sakaguchi’s Sleep. It has the grimmest pre-credits sequence of any of the films in this season, depicting the rape of teenage ballerina Kotono (Miyuki Komagata). By the time the film proper has started, there are three generations of Kotono’s family living under a railway bridge like common trolls, ploughing all the money from their massage business into tracking down the rapist. Unfortunately, when they find him, nobody seems quite sure what to do next. There are several ways in which Sleep resembles the work of the Korean director Kim Ki-duk: mainly in its repetitive, almost musical structure, and its fascination with how people behave when they’re pushed close to the edge. Sakaguchi controls his narrative well for the most part, only giving the viewer information precisely when it’s needed. But he hasn’t got the rock-solid control of tone that Kim has at his best, and can’t stop the film lapsing into melodrama when it hits its emotional peaks, particularly at the climax. But there are images in here that’ll stay with you for days – a paraplegic old man being carried to his bath, or an unexpectedly beautiful bit of nudity.
Sleep makes for interesting viewing in this collection because it’s determined, unlike many of the films in this season, to live outside the mainstream. Although for real arthouse rigour, you can’t beat the premise of Shunichi Nagasaki’s Heart, Beating In The Dark. Nagasaki first used this title in 1982, for a Super-8 quickie depicting a young couple’s long dark night of the soul in a friend’s apartment. This film, on the other hand, is a 2005 remake. Or, more accurately, it’s a film about the making of a remake. So we get two new actors playing the roles of the young couple, while the two actors from the original version are pestering Nagasaki for cameo roles. The final film mashes together bits of the old film, footage from the ‘remake’, a subplot where the characters from the first film meet up after twenty years apart, and sequences of the actors in rehearsal. It could all fall apart in a huge post-modernist mess, but somehow it all works – the multiple strands are beautifully interwoven, complementing and commenting on each other.
For a less satisfactory look at relationships, we turn to The Dark Harbour , in which Takatsugu Naito tells the story of Manzo (Kazuki Hiro-oka), a lonely fisherman looking for love. For the first half, this is almost Kaurismaki-like in its downbeat humour: there’s a gently surreal wit in the way his attempt to make a dating video goes impressively wrong, but leads to him getting hooked up anyway. All of this is intricately plotted, with subtle setups layered throughout the movie which pay off later on. But having built this premise, the director doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it, and the control of tone is lost completely: firstly in a needlessly goofy holiday scene, and then with an unpleasant twist that feels like a forced attempt to drive the plot towards an ending. The final shot is another smartly constructed payoff, but just emphasises how the good intentions at the start of the film have been casually chucked away by the end.
Still staying on the darker side of Japanese cinema: its films have shown a fascination with tormented teenage boys for some time now, and Bad Company feels like just another one in a series of disgruntled young men trying to find themselves. Admittedly, most of the examples of the genre we see over here are the more extreme ones – Battle Royale, Confessions, that sort of thing. There’s a more realistic feel to the story of young Sadatomo (Yamato Okitsu), his casual shoplifting and the effect it has on his schoolfriends. But even then, it’s set in a school system which appears to have been inspired by China circa the Cultural Revolution: the students go through endless torments involving ritual humiliation, enforced self-criticism, and enough slaps around the face to keep David Lammy entertained. You find yourself wondering if the sadism has been cranked up for satirical purposes, or if Japanese schools really are like this. The kids’ performances are utterly convincing throughout, and Sadatomo’s struggle to put his personality into words is interesting: but for someone unfamiliar with the Japanese education system, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on here.
Even the fluffier films in this season have a bit of an edge to them, such as Dear Doctor. In one of those quirky little villages where they set all the Japanese films that don’t take place in cities, Doctor Ino (Tsurube Shofukutei, the brother from About Her Brother causing trouble again) is a local legend. He’s indispensable to the old people in the village, curing their minor ailments and in one instance apparently raising them from the dead. But one day Ino vanishes, and the subsequent investigation reveals that he was carrying a secret. Quite a big one, as it happens. The film splits into two halves either side of this revelation, and for my money the second half works best. We’ve invested enough in Ino to care about what happens to him, and we’re intrigued by the moral debate at the heart of the story – if he was helping people, does his secret matter? It comes as no surprise to learn that writer/director Mina Nishikawa used to work as an assistant to Hirokazu Kore-eda, as she shares a lot of his love for people: nobody’s wholly good or wholly bad, they’re just trying to get through life as best they can.
Meanwhile, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us could almost be a traditional romcom. Almost. It looks at one decade in the lives of Kanao (Franky Lily) and Shoko (Tae Kimura). As the film opens, Shoko is expecting their first child, while Kanao has taken on a new job as a courtroom illustrator, giving him a front row seat at some of Japan’s most unpleasant trials. We’re introduced to their major character flaws – Kanao’s flirtatious nature, Shoko’s control freakery – and we check in at regular intervals over the next ten years to see how everything works out for them. Hashiguchi’s masterstroke is to identify the biggest thing that happens to the couple in those ten years, and refuse to show it to us. Nevertheless, everything that happens from that point onwards is coloured by that event and their memory of it. The balance between comedy and drama is perfectly defined, with enough of the former at the start to ensure that when the latter kicks in, we’re rooting for Kanao and Shoko to make things work. Beautifully detailed performances from Lily and Kimura definitely help on that score.
One of the best films in this season could also be considered a warped romcom of sorts: Kenjo Uchida’s A Stranger Of Mine. A girl who’s just split up with her fiance sits crying in a restaurant. Two guys on an adjacent table invite her to join them. You’d expect that this would lead to some sort of connection being made between two of them, and you’d be right: however, the connection happens in a terrifically roundabout fashion. Initially, as scene after scene features a musical score that abruptly terminates in mid-bar, it feels like cack-handed sound editing: but gradually it becomes apparent it’s a metaphor for the switchback storytelling style, setting up a scene in one direction and then revealing it’s going somewhere else. There’s lots of cerebral fun to be had as the film’s intricate structure gradually unfolds, but Uchida makes sure it’s not just pure game-playing: there’s a story and characters to engage with too. He’s subsequently repeated the same trick in 2008’s After School – coincidentally, one of the films The BBG caught at the cinema during her extended stay.
Some of the films in this collection of nine have their ups and downs, sure, but overall it’s a fine, positive picture of the less obvious end of Japanese cinema. And even then it has gaps. The BBG and I keep filling in the surveys at the end of Japan Foundation screenings, asking for two particular auteurs to be represented: the playwright-turned-director Koki Mitani and the stuffed-animal-satirist Minoru Kawasaki. Still no sign of them in the 2012 collection. Maybe in 2013, though?
Whose Film Is It Anyway? Contemporary Japanese Auteurs tours the UK throughout February and March:
- ICA Cinema , London, February 10-16
- Showroom Workstation , Sheffield, February 17-23
- Filmhouse, Edinburgh, February 24 – March 1
- Queen’s Film Theatre , Belfast, March 2-5
- Glasgow Film Theatre , Glasgow, February 28 – March 27
- Watershed, Bristol, March 14-25
- Broadway, Nottingham, March 23-28
Check individual venue websites for details and screening times.
Spank The Monkey has written three pieces for Mostly Film in 2012 so far, and is running out of things to say in this bit.