Spank The Monkey previews the 2017 edition of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, showing in cinemas around the UK for the next two months
Here at Europe’s Best Website, we’re big fans of the way that the Japan Foundation takes a bundle of recent and classic Japanese films around the UK every year: we’ve been previewing their programmes since as far back as 2012. That shouldn’t, however, prevent us from teasing them a little about how broad their programme themes have become. 2015’s collection effectively boiled down to Films About People Meeting Up: this year, Odd Obsessions is a collection of Films About People Wanting Things. Even with a brief this generic, it’s hard to see exactly how some of these films fit into it, like the documentary about the fish market that, um, wants to move to another location. But who cares, really? It’s another fine collection, and as ever I’m here to take you through some of its highlights.
Let’s start with The Mohican Comes Home, directed by Shuichi Okita, who’s had some small-scale festival hits in this country with quirky human dramas like The Woodsman And The Rain and The Story Of Yonosuke. By comparison, this is a much more conventional tale: Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda), the singer in a death metal band, returns to his family’s island home after several years away, just in time to discover that his dad has terminal cancer. The familiarity of the story means it never quite hits the heights of Okita’s earlier work, but he avoids the mushiness of most Japanese cancer films by throwing in enough surprises on a scene-by-scene basis to keep his fans happy.
The Japan Foundation’s determination to avoid genre pieces in these programmes is admirable, but does seem to result in them being rather heavy on stories of terminal illness. That’s certainly the case this year, with The Mohican Comes Home being joined by Daishi Matsunaga’s Pieta In The Toilet. It follows failed artist turned window cleaner Hiroshi (Yojiro Noda) from the point where he’s diagnosed with stomach cancer. Pieta’s approach to avoiding the usual sentimentality is to make Hiroshi the kind of emotionally blank young man that we see a lot of in Japanese arthouse cinema. Unfortunately, having removed the sentiment, nobody seems sure what to replace it with, leaving the film feeling rather hollow as Hiroshi tentatively makes new friendships with a nihilistic schoolgirl, a young boy from the children’s ward, and the cheerful sex pest in the bed next to his. It’s all a bit meandering, but has a couple of glorious visual images (notably the one which gives the film its title) that almost justify the journey.
On a more upbeat and less cancerous note, Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colours is based on a novel with the terrific title How a Teen Girl Went From Academic Absurdity to an Elite University in One Amazing Year, which tells you almost everything you need to know about the film. The teen girl is Sayaka, a stereotypical airhead only interested in clothes and makeup, until she’s informed that she’ll need a major change of attitude if she wants to get on. Panicking, she signs up to a cram school for her final year. Throw in a domineering father who cares more about getting his son on the baseball team than anything his daughter might be doing, and you could probably write the entire script yourself from there. But even if every single story beat is predictable, the charm of the two main characters carries it through: Kasumi Arimura plays Sayaka’s gradual development with terrific subtlety, and she’s ably balanced by Atsushi Ito as Tsubota, her enthusiastic cram school teacher.
Pale Moon is set in 1994, at the tail end of Japan’s bubble economy: if you like, you can think of it as being the equivalent of one of those yuppies-in-peril movies we used to have in the eighties. The yuppie in this case is bank employee Rika (Rie Miyazawa), whose back office job and stale lovelife are starting to bring her down. An encounter with an unpleasantly hands-on customer – and more importantly, his grandson Kota (Sosuke Ikematsu) – leads her into a small experiment in embezzlement that grows rapidly out of control. One big advantage of the film’s nineties setting is that fiddling people out of millions of yen requires the meticulous construction of a physical paper trail, which is much more entertaining to watch than the equivalent few keystrokes a similar crime would entail today. You can probably guess how it’s going to end, but the tension is cranked up with exquisite restraint, as director Daihachi Yoshida keeps us waiting for the moment when Rika drops the ball.
A season of films on obsession will inevitably have to cover sexual obsession, and the first of two archive films in the programme certainly does that. Ko Nakahira’s Flora On The Sand was made in 1964, and is a lovely time capsule of period attitudes. Its protagonist is Ichiro (Noboru Nakaya), an unhappily married travelling salesman convinced that his wife has slept with his father. He picks up a young girl, who sleeps with him and then sets him a challenge: to seduce and then ‘destroy’ her elder sister. It’s a perfect example of where world cinema was in relation to sex in the early sixties, with coy representations of the act itself but endless ‘frank’ conversations about it – here, that frankness runs to three salarymen discussing the facial expressions of animals in bestial porn. It’s all very much of its time, but thankfully that applies to the visual side of things as well, with some interesting choices in the use of framing and colour.
Fifty years later, the contemporary equivalent of Flora might be Kabukicho Love Hotel, an ensemble drama about 24 hours in the life of one of those Japanese hotels that rents its rooms by the hour. Over that time we meet many of the staff and their temporary guests: some of those guests, the so-called ‘delivery girls’, are less temporary than other. Thankfully, Kabukicho has the edge over Flora in that it’s not all about sex: in fact, the couple of explicit scenes we get (one of which requires an intervention from the Japanese censor’s pixilation department) come dangerously close to unbalancing the film altogether. It’s a carefully arranged mixture of tones and styles, showing the day-to-day minutiae of keeping a love hotel running, as well as looking at contemporary issues like Korean immigration, the grooming of future delivery girls, and the ongoing impact of the 2011 earthquake. Director Ryuichi Hiroki keeps the multiple story threads running briskly, aided by Atsuhiro Nabeshima’s remarkably fluid hand-held camera: the result is possibly my favourite of the films under review here.
The other film from the archives is a curiosity from the legendary Kon Ichikawa. Odd Obsession opens with a young doctor giving a lecture to camera about how men’s bodies deteriorate decade by decade. (Yeah, thanks, guy.) But he then goes on to deliver a case study of a man who’s trying to fight the ageing process: in fact, this man is Kenmochi (Ganjirō Nakamura), the father of the doctor’s fiancée. Kenmochi’s rejuvenation strategy is to manipulate his wife into having an affair with the doctor, because jealousy gets him hard. That’s quite a perverse scenario for a 1959 movie, made all the more so because everyone’s completely open about it: the wanton cruelty of its characters reminded me of nothing so much as early Almodóvar but without the nice weather. There are a couple of clunky scenes here and there – the introduction in act one of Chekhov’s Insect Poison, and a montage of train carriage couplings that occurs precisely where you’d hope it would – but Ichikawa’s storytelling skills carry it all through to its darkly funny conclusion.
Finally, staying with Odd Obsession‘s theme of septuagenarian sexuality, Bunji Sotoyama’s A Sparkle Of Life is the rather more charming story of a 77 year old widow who joins a dating agency because she feels the need for one final thrill. There are so many ways that a film like this could become totally unwatchable, particularly given that sentimental streak in Japanese cinema I’ve already mentioned. Somehow, this film manages to avoid all those pitfalls. Part of this may be down to the low stakes involved: everyone from the dating agency downwards is initially shocked at the idea of an old woman looking for a man, but they’ve usually changed their mind by the end of the scene. Time and again Sotoyama’s script does a fine job of avoiding all the usual clichés, and it’s bolstered by a sprightly performance from Kazuko Yoshiyuki in the leading role.
There are six more films in the programme that weren’t available for preview. There’s the aforementioned documentary about Tokyo’s legendary fish market, Tsukiji Wonderland: the rare chance to see a live-action adaptation of a dressmaking manga in A Stitch of Life: violent teenage angst (always the best sort) in Destruction Babies: a fun-looking tale of an apprentice geisha from Shall We Dance? director Masayuki Suo, Lady Maiko: another story of forbidden love with the off-putting title Somebody’s Xylophone: and finally, your anime for this season is the hearing-impaired romance A Silent Voice, which sold out its London screening two whole weeks ago because that’s what happens with the anime.
Various permutations of these fourteen films will be whizzing around fifteen UK cinemas from today until March 29th. Pick and choose the ones you like, and don’t feel you have to see every single film. Because that would be obsessive, wouldn’t it?
Odd Obsessions is visiting the following cities on these dates:
- London, ICA, Feb 3 – Feb 9
- Bristol, Watershed, Feb 4 – Feb 20
- Manchester, Home, Feb 5 – Mar 1
- Belfast, Queen’s Film Theatre, Feb 5 – Mar 26
- Sheffield, Showroom Cinema, Feb 7 – Mar 27
- Exeter, Exeter Phoenix, Feb 8 – Mar 29
- Derby, Quad, Feb 10 – Feb 12
- Birmingham, mac birmingham, Feb 10 – Mar 28
- Leicester, Phoenix, Feb 11 – Mar 29
- Inverness, Eden Court, Feb 15 – Mar 11
- Stirling, Macrobert Arts Centre, Feb 19 – Feb 23
- Dundee, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Feb 25 – Mar 1
- Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre, Mar 10 – Mar 16
- Nottingham, Broadway, Mar 17 – Mar 23
- Edinburgh, Filmhouse, Mar 20 – Mar 29
See the Odd Obsessions website for full programme information.