Spank The Monkey previews the Japan Foundation’s 2015 touring film programme, in UK cinemas from January 30th to March 26th.
For some reason, the title of this year’s Japan Foundation tour is written in Australian? At least, whenever I read a declarative sentence with a superfluous question mark at the end, that’s how I hear it in my head? According to the press release, It Only Happens In The Movies? is a collection of Japanese films in which ‘characters experience seemingly unusual meetings, plunge into unexpected circumstances and new environments, as well as collide with different generations, ideals and ideas – asking the question, does it really only happen in the movies?’ So I guess what they’re trying to say is… these are stories? It may be a flimsy premise, but as ever the programmers have assembled a strong collection of old and new Japanese movies (much as they did in 2014, 2013, 2012 and all the years before I started covering the tours for Mostly Film).
Dig back through those reviews – as well as my earlier coverage of the Terracotta Festival – and you’ll spot a couple of complaints regarding the absence of Japanese comedy director Koki Mitani. It’s possible that the appearance of an early Mitani in this year’s programme is partly down to my pal The Belated Birthday Girl obsessively asking for him in every Japan Foundation post-screening feedback form she’s completed. It should be pointed out, however, that 2001’s All About Our House isn’t entirely representative of his current work. It’s the story of a young couple, Naosuke (Naoki Tanaka) and Tamiko (Akiko Yagi), attempting to build their dream home. Tamiko has a couple of contacts who she’s sure can help with this – old schoolfriend Yanagisawa (Toshiaki Karasawa) is a respected modernist designer, while her aging father Chouichirou (Kunie Tanaka) was a fine builder in his day. They’ll be able to work together without any personality clashes, won’t they? Of course they will.
There’s a large cast of supporting characters (including the splendid bunch of old geezers who make up Chouichirou’s crew), but the primary focus of House is on that central group of four people. It’s one detail that sets this film apart from Mitani’s later work: his recent films have been notable for their large ensemble casts, and intricately interwoven plotlines. This feels more like the work of a playwright making tentative steps into film, and the photography makes it even more so – each scene is shot in a single unbroken take with occasionally clumsy camera movement, to the extent that characters reacting to something happening just past the edge of the frame almost becomes a leitmotif. But these niggles aside, the big question is, does it work as a comedy film? Absolutely, yes: the inclusive good humour of Mitani’s big ensemble pieces is here in abundance, with the laughs coming from character rather than obvious gag lines. Although it’s a stepping stone to those larger-scale movies – and can we see some of those over here now, please? – it’s perfectly enjoyable in its own right.
Another film from the early noughties in this collection is Blood And Bones, which I’ve actually seen a couple of times already – the first occasion was on its original theatrical release in Japan in 2004, viewed under the conditions we would nowadays associate with the popular Mostly Film feature Monoglot Movie Club. Yoichi Sai’s film catches its star Takeshi Kitano at the turning point of his popularity in the west: just after the box office smash of Zatoichi, and just before the trilogy of self-indulgent introspective comedies that scared distributors away from him. Kitano plays Kim Shun-pei, a Korean immigrant who steps off the boat in Osaka in 1923. Over the next sixty years – count ’em – we watch him punch, kick and rape his way through everyone he encounters in his life. Whether he’s running a fishcake business, loaning money at extortionate rates, or fathering multiple families in adjacent houses, he’s always driven by that warped sense of entitlement we associate with Japanese men in the movies, or tweets with a #GamerGate hashtag.
If Kim’s non-stop bastardry wasn’t being depicted by one of Japan’s most charismatic movie stars, this would be impossible to watch: even with Kitano in the lead, it makes for tough viewing. He does an astonishing job at making Kim almost entirely irredeemable, and it’s the ‘almost’ which escalates this into a career-best performance. But it’s one that you can only admire, rather than actually enjoy. The film’s cavalcade of grimness is so unrelenting, it’s nearly hilarious: the closest it gets to cracking a smile are in its big fight scenes, which are choreographed to look exactly as rubbish as real-life fights do. Still, it’s worth seeing just for the star turn at its core.
This year’s programme also contains a couple of pictures from the period of ancient history that we call the 20th century. It’s always a pleasure to encounter the back catalogue of Seijun Suzuki, the director who was Japanese cinema’s enfant terrible back when Takashi Miike was still at primary school. Carmen From Kawachi was made in 1966, and is very much a product of its time, combining the new permissiveness with the visual ideas that were coming out of the nouvelle vague. Don’t let the title fool you – although there are some enjoyable bits of rock ‘n’ roll Bizet on the soundtrack, the only thing this film has in common with the opera is a prominent female lead. Our heroine is Tsuyuko (Yumiko Nogawa), who’s fed up with life in her small village. She walks out on her family and heads for the bright lights of Osaka, without too much of a plan as to what she’ll do there. She drifts from one job to another – sometimes a bar hostess, sometimes a model, once the star of a ninja porn movie – and finds that Osaka men are just as bad as those in Kawachi.
It’s become fashionable these days to complain about characters having their agency taken away from them. Generally, it’s a phrase I try to avoid using unless I’m discussing season 6 of Mad Men, but it’s a concern that could be legitimately raised here. Tsuyuko tends to have things happen to her, rather than make them happen: much of the film involves her evading the clutches of various stereotypical baddies, from a leery old sugar daddy to a predatory lesbian. But Suzuki was always one of Japan’s most subversive directors, and isn’t interested in warning kids of the dangers of the big city. Gradually, you realise that this is a film about Tsuyuko’s resilience – never dwelling unnecessarily on the perils she encounters, but focussing more on how she learns to cope with them. Suzuki’s wild visual style gets you over some of the stickier bits of the plotting, like the sequence of convenient accidental deaths that propels us towards the climax. Sleazy without a single frame of nudity, and with all the frenetic energy of the best pulp fiction, it’s worth catching on a big screen.
The rest of the films I’m going to be talking about here were all released in Japan over the last year or two. The Light Shines Only There is one of the most recent, a 2014 release that was Japan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It didn’t get nominated, and to be honest that’s not too much of a surprise: it’s the sort of fashionable arthouse grimness that any country could produce these days. Set in the coastal town of Hakodate, it’s the story of Tatsuo (Gô Ayano), a quarryman who’s fled there after some trouble at work. He spends his days in a pachinko parlour, where he meets up with fellow drifter Takuji (Masaki Suda), and subsequently encounters the rest of Takuji’s fascinatingly damaged family. His sister Chinatsu (Chizuru Ikewaki) is the one who interests Tatsuo the most – but inevitably, she’s got the biggest problems of all of them.
It’s hard to get particularly interested in these people, with the possible exception of Takuji – his manic cheerfulness, oblivious to everything else going on around him, is easier to get a handle on than the glum blankness that Tatsuo and Chinatsu have in common. And once you’re tuned in to the melodramatic tone of the story, you find yourself anticipating the worst case scenarios that each of the characters could encounter, and not being in the least bit surprised when they eventually happen. Even the decision to set the story in one of Japan’s prettiest towns is botched, as the location is barely used apart from a couple of beach sequences at the beginning and end of the film. For all its taboo-breaking potential, Light‘s problem isn’t that it’s offensive, more that it’s over-familiar.
One of my favourite films of 2014’s Japan Foundation programme was Capturing Dad, in which a pair of sisters rediscovered their love for their father while dealing with his death. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but in fact it’s a sensitively handled story with plenty of understated comedy in the telling. Keisuke Yoshida’s 2013 film My Little Sweet Pea attempts something similar, but doesn’t quite succeed to the same degree. It’s the story of Mugiko (Maki Horikita), a young woman who’s sharing an apartment with her brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda). Out of the blue, their estranged mother Ayako (Kimiko Yo) comes to stay. Pretty soon Norio has moved out, and it’s just the mother and daughter left to get on each other’s nerves. We sort of know where this is going to end – the opening sequence of the movie shows Mugiko carrying Ayako’s ashes back to her old home town. Except that isn’t really where it ends at all.
For the most part, this is a sensitively complex depiction of the awkwardness of family relationships, made all the more personal by showing it exclusively through Mugiko’s eyes. We really get a sense of the confusion she feels as she learns more about her mother – not least because the semi-senile inhabitants of Ayako’s old town keep mistaking Mugiko for her mum. Sadly, the film can’t quite resist the lure of a final-reel mush-out: after a clear-headed eighty minutes or so of maintaining Mugiko’s ambivalence about her past, the film has to come down on one side or the other, and goes for the easiest possible option. It would be too much to expect every film to have the lightness of touch of Capturing Dad, I guess. Still, up until that ending it’s warm, funny and wise, with Maki Horikita’s performance acting as the glue holding it all together.
If you’re going to programme a film season about ‘encounters’ and how they change people, then it makes sense to include the director Shinobu Yaguchi, who’s made a career out of the subject. His two most famous films show young people gradually getting to grips with an activity outside of their gender’s comfort zone, whether it’s boys learning synchronised swimming (Waterboys) or girls playing big band jazz (Swing Girls). By comparison, his 2014 film Wood Job! is a more conventional rom-com, but with the comedy training montages still in place. Yuki (Shota Sometani) has failed his exams and is looking for a new direction in life: he ends up taking a one-year placement with the Japanese forestry department, purely because their recruiting brochure has a picture of an attractive woman on the cover. By the time he’s spotted the small print at the bottom – “illustrative purposes only” – he’s too far in to get out again, and has to battle through an intense training programme followed by an extended stay with a logging company out in the back of beyond. But when he discovers that the brochure cover wasn’t quite the con he first thought, things start to turn around a bit.
Watch enough of these sorts of films, and you realise that there’s a comic stereotype of the young Japanese male that turns up virtually everywhere: slightly dim, pitifully shy around women, unaware of his own failings while far too quick to point out everyone else’s. (The British equivalent would involve every teenage boy in films acting like Harry Enfield’s Kevin.) Shota Sometani starts out embodying this stereotype to perfection, but slowly opens Yuki out to make him a much more appealing character. Yaguchi, meanwhile, is too canny a director to oversentimentalise Yuki’s development – he’s a comedy craftsman, squeezing little gags into every possible crevice without them feeling forced. The film drops hints along the way regarding its climax – a local festival that will take place towards the end of Yuki’s placement – but there’s very little that can prepare you for the delightfully ridiculous setpiece that it builds into. The most obviously crowd-pleasing film of the six I’m previewing here, it’s easy to see why the Japan Foundation is highlighting it on the posters, and bringing over Yaguchi for post-screening Q&A sessions in London, Bristol, Derby and Sheffield.
That covers less than half of the films on this year’s programme. Also included (but not available for preview) are Tsutomu Hanabusa’s debut comedy The Handsome Suit; the return of Katsuhiro ‘Akira’ Otomo with the animated anthology Short Peace; Mikio Naruse’s final film Scattered Clouds; Ryoichi Kimizuka’s study of the impact of social media on a murder case in Nobody To Watch Over Me; Naoto Kumazawa reference-heavy rom-com Jinx!!!; Gekidan Hotori’s adaptation of his novel Bolt From The Blue; and Hiroyuki Okiura’s animation A Letter To Momo. Various permutations of these thirteen movies are travelling to eleven places across the country, including Derby and Kendal for the first time. You should catch them if you can. Sorry: you should catch them if you can?
It Only Happens In The Movies? will visit the following venues: check their websites for specific screening dates and times.
ICA, London, 30 January – 5 February
Watershed, Bristol, 1 February – 28 February
Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, 1 February – 22 March
Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, 5 February – 15 March
QUAD, Derby, 6 February – 15 February
mac birmingham, Birmingham, 10 February – 3 March
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, 21 February – 25 February
Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, 22 February – 26 March
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 26 February – 5 March
Brewery Arts Centre, Cumbria, 18 March – 25 March
Broadway, Nottingham, 20 March – 26 March