Spank The Monkey previews the Japan Foundation’s 2014 touring film programme, which brings a selection of recent Japanese movies to cinemas across the UK from January 31st to March 27th.
Kids, eh? What are they like? Well, the most reliable answer to that question would have to come from the movies. If we take Japan’s movies as a case in point, then we could conclude that girls all wear tartan miniskirts and squeal at kittens, and boys are all either psychopathic bullies or bespectacled nerds being bullied. If that seems like a bit of a stereotype, then maybe it’s the fault of the limited selection of films from Japan we get to see in the West.
This is why we should be thankful for the Japan Foundation, who annually package up a themed collection of recent Japanese films and send them out on tour across the UK. This year’s collection, East Side Stories, stiffly announces its theme as ‘Japanese Cinema Depicting the Lives Of Youth’. We still get the stereotypes of bullying and kittens, but there’s lots more depicted here as well.
If Japan’s contributed anything to global youth culture over the last couple of decades, it’s the concept of the otaku, a word that’s nowadays used whenever terms like ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ aren’t quite geeky or nerdy enough to do the job. The title Otakus In Love would suggest an Asian Big Bang Theory, but it’s actually a little broader than that, if such a thing is possible. Mon (Ryûhei Matsuda) is a self-styled ‘manga artisan’: his incomprehensible work is constructed out of bits of found rock. Koino (Wakana Sakai) is a much more successful creator of graphical romantic comedies: she also has a serious cosplay fetish. Of course they’re totally incompatible: of course you know where this is heading. This is an incredibly clichéd romcom at heart, but director Suzuki Matsuo hurls everything at the viewer in the hope that you won’t notice, in a style that’s become a cliché itself since the release of this and the similarly hyperactive Kamikaze Girls in 2004. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, though. J-culture buffs will enjoy spotting Takashi Miike in a microscopic cameo, and Shinya Tsukamoto in a more substantial supporting role, but you don’t need to understand all the in-jokes to enjoy being with these characters. The finale is a little too keen to tell you how it’s sending up the conventions of romantic comedy as it does so, but it satisfies regardless.
Which is more than the similarly otaku-themed Love Strikes! is capable of doing. 30-something ‘second virgin’ Yukiyo (Mirai Moriyama) lands a dream job with an entertainment website, and through it he meets up with fellow journo Miyuki and her friend Rumiko – whereupon he has two women to deal with, which from available evidence appears to be two more than he can handle. Director Hotoshi Ohne uses cultural references almost as a substitute for character development: there are frequent breaks for songs, many of them pre-formatted as karaoke videos for the audience, and one spectacularly over-the-top dance sequence. Where it all falls down is in the character of Yukiyo, who starts off from a position that any attractive woman that fancies him is somehow damaged, and never really moves on from that. His innate dickery ultimately becomes such a turn-off that we never really care who he ends up with: the same appears to apply to the film itself, which chooses to simply stop rather than come up with any emotionally coherent resolution.
The one animated film in this year’s programme, Colorful, is also the one that veers the most into fantasy territory. In an intriguing opening, a recently-departed soul (“Guess I must have died … I’m OK with that”) is refused entry into the afterlife, as punishment for an unspecified earlier crime. Instead, the soul is sent back to earth to inhabit the body of Makoto, a 14-year-old who’s literally just killed himself. Effectively, both Makoto and the soul are being given a second chance in life, but they’re left to find out for themselves why this is. There are some deep philosophical ideas at the core of Colorful – what it would be like to take over someone else’s life fourteen years into it, and how you can interpret your reactions to events when you’re not entirely certain who you are any more. But Kelichi Hara handles all these questions with the lightest possible touch, choosing to place the story over the philosophy. There are some effective choices in the art, too: the most interesting characters are drawn in the least realistic styles, and hand-drawn and CG animation are blended in unusual ways. A story about dying children – hell, worse than that, a Japanese story about dying children – is a sure-fire recipe for oversentimentality, but thankfully Colorful only falls victim to that sin in a couple of scenes on the way to its smartly-plotted conclusion.
Ryuichi Hiroki’s Your Friends, however, isn’t quite as reticent with its sentiment, putting the Dying Best Friend card on the table quite early on and waving it in your face whenever you try to pick up any of the other ones. Emi (Anna Ishibashi) is sorting through her old photographs in preparation for a show, and this triggers off a series of memories of the friends she made in childhood. The barrage of episodic flashbacks forces you to think of the film as a series of loosely linked vignettes rather than a coherent narrative, and some of those vignettes are very thin gruel indeed. (One of her friends had eyes that went blurry when she got jealous: that’s the sort of thing that counts as a story here.) The film might have had a chance if it gave us the opportunity to connect with these kids, but Hiroki’s made the curious decision to film huge swathes of it in long shot, meaning we never get close to them in any sense. A twee English language song soundtrack by the likes of Au Revoir Simone just reinforces the sense that Your Friends really wants to be an American indie film, even though we’ve got more than enough of those already.
Capturing Dad also has imminent death as a key component of its DNA, but manages to do something a lot more entertaining with it. The bare bones of the story – two teenage girls discover that their estranged father is dying, and set out to pay him a final visit – don’t look like much on paper. But then you notice the offhand delight with which the mother announces dad’s terminal illness to the kids. Not to mention what she asks them to do when they meet him. From there, Ryota Nakano’s story takes a whole series of unexpected left turns, but they never feel like quirkiness for its own sake. The moments of sentiment are carefully judged, always earned by their place in the narrative, and frequently undercut with unexpected humour. It barely lasts seventy-five minutes, which turns out to be the perfect length for a small, delightfully observed short story. And even if you’re one of those people who like to second-guess where a film is going, I defy you to say after Capturing Dad’s final two shots ‘yeah, I knew that was coming.’
Capturing Dad is Ryota Nakano’s first feature, and he’s someone I’ll definitely be looking out for in the future. On the other hand, I think I’ve now decided I’ve had quite enough of the work of Nobuhiro Yamashita, a director who’s never failed to disappoint me for over a decade now. You can always rely on him to take an interesting premise and convert it into a film that’s either dull or objectionable: The Drudgery Train manages to be a bit of both. Set in the mid-80s, it follows Kanta (Mirai Moriyama), a young man living in a squalid flat and working in a series of day labour jobs. He never has enough money to pay the rent, spending most of it on peepshows and porn: in related news, he can’t get a girlfriend, and is reduced to silently letching over a bookstore clerk through the window. He makes a new friend Shoji (Kengo Kôra) at work, but all that does is throw Kanta’s problems into sharper relief. We’re not given any reason to engage with Kanta, as his character is virtually a cipher: saying ‘boo hoo my dad was a sex offender’ a couple of times doesn’t count as motivation. By the time his inability to relate to women moves into abuse, we cease caring at all. It’s suggested at the end that if he told his story, Kanta could redeem himself: but that’s making the big assumption that anyone would want to read it.
The Japan Foundation supplied six advance screeners for the purposes of this preview, and huge thanks to them for that. But I’d say that the best film I know of in this eleven-strong programme is one that they didn’t make available for review. The Story Of Yonosuke was a huge hit at last year’s Terracotta Festival, and rightly so: Shuichi Okita’s earlier The Woodsman And The Rain was similarly popular the year before, and the two films share a non-judgmental delight in human beings. Over a surprisingly pacy 160 minutes, we see the disarmingly nice Yonosuke (Kengo Kôra) meet up with a variety of people, and then flash forward a couple of decades to discover the effect that he had on them. It’s a film whose impact would be easy to underestimate, in the same way that people underestimate Yonosuke himself: he isn’t that special a character, just someone that things happen to. But when I watched it at Terracotta, I was so charmed by the film that I spent most of it on edge, waiting for them to screw it up. They didn’t. And now I need to see it again, but a bit more relaxed this time.
You can see The Story Of Yonosuke, plus the six films reviewed above, plus another four that I haven’t seen yet (but may eventually write about in the comments below), in a variety of locations around the UK over the next two months. We don’t get to see much Japanese cinema in this country, apart from the big name directors: make the most of events like these whenever you get the chance.
East Side Stories visits the following cinemas in February and March – see venue websites for full details.
ICA, London, Jan 31 – Feb 6
Watershed, Bristol, Feb 1 – Feb 18
Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, Feb 9 – Mar 9
Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, Feb 9 – Mar 23
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Feb 28 – Mar 7
Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, Mar 7 – Mar 13
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, Mar 15 – Mar 18
Broadway, Nottingham, Mar 21 – Mar 27