Highs and Lows

Spank The Monkey presents his annual round-up of the Japan Foundation’s touring film programme, playing in selected UK cinemas from February 5th to March 26th 2016.


Most people, if they’re aware of the films of Akira Kurosawa, know him from his period movies: Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Rashomon and the like. His contemporary stories never had the same impact in the west, though there’s a case to be made for them being even better films. For my money, for example, his masterpiece was 1952’s Ikiru (aka To Live), the story of a man whose diagnosis of terminal cancer inspires him to throw all his remaining energy into one final project.

The Japan Foundation is using this film as the inspiration for their 2016 touring programme of new and classic Japanese cinema. IKIRU: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema promises “an exciting collection of films looking at the way in which Japanese filmmakers have been observing and capturing people’s lives.” There are fourteen films in this year’s programme, and they’ve provided me with preview copies for ten of them, assuming I’ll just pick a few that may be of interest. That’s not how I roll, unfortunately. So…

The obvious place to start would be Makoto Kumazawa’s Cheers From Heaven. Hikaru (Hiroshi Abe) runs a lunch restaurant with his family, and doesn’t look like the sort of man contemplating a sudden career change. But when he discovers a high school rock band looking for a place to practice, he hurls himself into the task of single-handedly building them a music studio in his back yard. Why would he do that? We’re into the second hour of the film before it’s made clear that what we’re watching is an unofficial remake of the film this season is named after. Putting aside the surprise twist that the film reserves for a post-credits sting, comparing Cheers From Heaven to Ikiru doesn’t do the former any favours. The smart thing about the Kurosawa film was the way it refused to make its protagonist’s illness the centre of the story, instead focussing on his determination to make the last months of his life count for something. The new film, on the other hand, is very much the story of a man dying, and wrings every plot revelation for maximum sentiment. Even the reliably solid presence of Hiroshi Abe can’t prevent this turning into just another cancer movie.

Miss Hokusai
Miss Hokusai

Keiichi Hara’s anime Miss Hokusai also has a terminal illness at its centre, but thankfully has other things in its favour too. It’s the story of O-Ei, the daughter of legendary Edo period artist Katsushika Hokusai. ‘Story’ is a bit too definite a term for the meandering plot we get here, though: it’s more of a disconnected set of vignettes from her life, as she struggles to come out from the shadow of her superstar father and make something of herself. The closest thing to a narrative throughline is her relationship with her younger sister O-Nao, whose illness has kept her estranged from her father for most of her life. Aside from the sentimental overload you’d expect from a Japanese film involving a poorly child, this is lovely to look at, mixing slick hand-drawn animation with recreations of Hokusai’s own loose brushwork. The two combine well, matching the narrative’s mashup of domestic trivia with fantasy undertones. There are a few jarring modern flourishes that don’t quite mesh with the style, notably some CG enhancements to the art and some bursts of rock on the soundtrack (although you’ll never hear me complain about a film that uses Ringo Shiina over the end credits, no matter what period it’s set in).

Nobody ever went broke making films about the Japanese love of food [citation needed], and Akira Ogata’s Noriben – The Recipe For Fortune fits nicely into the mild gastroporn continuum that encompasses Jiro Dreams Of Sushi and Tampopo. It opens with Komaki (Manami Konishi) walking out on her deadbeat husband to find her own way in life. Traditional office lady jobs won’t work with her childcare requirements, and part-time options like bar work have their own problems. What she’s failing to realise is that she already has a perfectly marketable skill: the ability to make world-class box lunches, or noriben. In other countries, this would be a simple tale of a woman’s growing independence, but here it gains weight by acknowledging an awkward fact about current Japanese society – that most men would rather die than be associated in any way with an unattached woman in her thirties. Ogata plays this with a light touch, balancing Komaki’s manic intensity with some delightful animated breakdowns of her box lunch contents: he gives the story and its consequences the messiness they would have in real life, rather than making this a mere wish-fulfilment fable.

Tale Of A Butcher Shop
Tale Of A Butcher Shop

From gastroporn to, perhaps, gastrosnuff, and Aya Hayabusa’s documentary Tale Of A Butcher Shop. Here’s a question: when, exactly, did audiences get so wussified at the idea of animal slaughter that any film depicting it now has to be buried in trigger warnings? As a self-confessed fence straddler on the subject (a carnivore who’s shared a kitchen with a vegetarian for several years now), it strikes me that any attempt to lay bare the process by which cows are converted into meat can only be a good thing. Having a warning in the programme makes you assume the film will only be about that, reducing it to the level of pornography, where viewing decisions are based on whether you see it going in or not. In this case, you do: twice, in fact. But this study of the Kitade family’s meat business isn’t entirely about that moment. It’s also about how they come from a long line of people in the trade who’ve been bundled into the lowly social class of buraku, and still face discrimination based on that. It’s also about how Japan’s meat consumption habits are changing, resulting in the Kitade slaughterhouse having to cease work. Ultimately, it’s a sensitively observed portrait of an extended family during a year when they have to make some tough decisions, and Hanabusa’s camera gets in close to them without ever feeling exploitative.

Suzuki Matsuo’s A Farewell To Jinu is, for the most part, a typical example of the light surrealism that characterises Japanese movie comedy nowadays. It starts from an undeniably daft premise – former Tokyo bank worker Takeharu (Ryuhei Matsura) hates his job so much that he develops a physical allergy to money. So he runs away to a remote village in the north almost entirely made up of old people, vowing to lead a life devoid of ‘jinu’ (the local dialect term for cash) by single-handedly reintroducing the barter system. This kind of fish-out-of-water comedy is ten-a-penny in Japanese cinemas, and Matsura’s charming dumbness makes him the ideal lead for such a tale. But the film – or, perhaps, the manga on which it’s based – throws in occasional curveballs that cause the story to jarringly deviate from the usual format, as murder, rape and divine intervention all play their part in the proceedings. It’s too gentle a story for those deviations to integrate into it properly, but at least it’s trying.

Give It My All Tomorrow
Give It My All Tomorrow

I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow has a similarly barmy starting point. Shizuo (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, looking the spitting image of an East Asian version of Richard Ayoade) is a 42-year-old man trying to make his midlife crisis look like a lifestyle choice. He’s quit his job, lives in his father’s house with his teenage daughter, and has no idea what he wants to do next… until out of nowhere, he decides that he wants to draw manga. What ensues is a curiously rambly little story, centred around a leading character who never really convinces us that he’s anything other than a loser with delusions above his ability. There are some fun digs at the generation gap along the way, notably in Shizuo’s attempt to bring middle-aged concerns into a medium aimed at teenagers: and by the end his character has turned out to be a force for good, but not in a conventional way, and certainly not for himself. Director Yuichi Fukuda (best known for Hentai Kamen, a film about a pervert superhero whose costume is a pair of panties worn on his head) throws all manner of visual gimmicks at the story, and they just about distract you from the fact that there’s barely one there.

Pecoross’ Mother And Her Days is an example of the mile-wide sentimental streak that can bedevil Japanese cinema at its worst. It opens brightly enough with a cute animated sequence, inspired by the work of Yuuichi Okano, whose autobiographical manga is the source material. Here, Okano’s played by Ryo Iwamatsu, who describes the ups and downs of his young life. After a few minutes of whimsical reminiscing, he goes on to describe the death of his father and the descent of his mother into dementia, and it all stops being any fun at all. Harue Akagi’s performance as the mother Mitsue is magnificently judged, as she gradually shuts down from all contact with anyone else. But it’s a performance that’s frankly too good for the melodramatic slop that surrounds it, piling sibling death, alcoholism and the Nagasaki bomb on top of all of her other woes. The film comes off as being unnecessarily pleased with its emotional manipulation, particularly in a closing set of behind-the-scenes stills that appear to be there solely to marvel at how director Azuma Morisaki is 86 years old and not dribbling down his shirt.

Being Good
Being Good

Being Good is the latest film by Mipo O, whose arthouse grimdark feature The Light Shines Only Over There was, for me, a low point in last year’s Japan Foundation programme. Initially, this feels like it’s going the same way, with three interwoven stories of damaged children and even more damaged parents. An old woman looks forward to her regular encounter with a special needs child: a mother on the edge of breakdown cruelly takes it out on her daughter: and at the local school, a new teacher struggles to keep control of the horribly spoilt brats in his class. But unlike the earlier film, there are glimmers of hope throughout. The story builds to a beautifully pitched climax that proposes a way out of the cycle of abuse, and does it with a surprising lack of sentimentality. If it stopped there, it would be terrific: but everyone involved is determined that we must have All The Feelings, and the half hour following that natural end point comes close to undoing a lot of the good work preceding it. Nevertheless, it’s a huge step forward from Mipo O’s previous film.

Jiro Shono’s The Letter is based around the same culturally specific trope as the 2015 programme’s Nobody To Watch Over Me: in Japan, the family of a murderer is held to be as much responsible for the crime as the criminal themselves. In last year’s film, that resulted in an overblown thriller where a cop and the sister of a killer are hounded by what feels like everyone else in the country. By comparison, The Letter is a lot less hysterical, focussing on young Naoki (Takayuki Yamada) trying to maintain a normal life in the shadow of his brother Tsuyoshi (Tetsuji Tamayama). That isn’t easy, as the crime that put Tsuyoshi in jail was his attempt at getting money to put Naoki through college. The film wobbles on the border of melodrama quite a few times, and falls over it completely at least once. But its approach to this social problem is a lot more effective, simply by acknowledging that different people may feel different ways about it. There’s enough truth in its depiction of humanity to allow you to forgive it the occasional manipulative moment, or the hyper-treacly use of music.

The Cowards Who Looked To The Sky
The Cowards Who Looked To The Sky

For a season looking at the highs and lows of life, it’s a bit light on traditional boy-meets-girl romance: the closest we get to that is Yuki Tanada’s The Cowards That Looked To The Sky. Takuma (Kento Nagayama) is a high school student feeling the usual alienation from his peers: Satomi (Tomoko Tabata) is a housewife trapped in a failing marriage. Every so often, the two meet up to have sex in anime costumes. (Maybe not that traditional, then.) It’s a socially awkward situation, and it’s only a matter of time before their secret gets out. There are a couple of big flaws in the story: the biggest one is that several characters have to act like total bastards, not through any specific motivation, but because it’s the only way the plot can move forward. There’s also a frustrating middle section where the focus drifts away from our two main characters to Takuma’s less interesting schoolfriend. It’s a pity, because there’s a lot to like here: the story teasingly moves back and forth in time to gradually reveal itself from multiple perspectives, the less cartoonish characters are sensitively depicted, and – whisper it quietly – the cosplay canoodling is actually surprisingly hot.

There are four additional films in the season which aren’t available for review (…yet). There’s a pair of old black and white classics: Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1953 post-war drama A Japanese Tragedy, and Kihachi Okamoto’s 1963 salaryman comedy The Elegant Life Of Mr Everyman. Meanwhile, from this decade we’ve got Tatsuyuki Nagai’s anime Anthem Of The Heart, and nostalgia for the golden age of movies in Ken Ochiai’s Uzumasa Limelight. Together, they all add up to what might be the Japan Foundation’s most satisfyingly diverse programme to date. Truly, all human life is here – except, maybe, the bits that involve people in samurai armour attacking each other with swords.

IKIRU: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema will be visiting the following cities on these dates:

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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