Catching Up with the Tiger and the Bear

Movies
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The two big festivals occuring at the start of the year have come and gone. While it would have been optimal to talk about the Japanese movies featured in each before either event began, the realities of pursuing Indievisual as a side project often means being a little late to the party. Nevertheless, here is an overview of the Japanese movies of particular interest to me here at Indievisual which were presented at the 2019 IFFR and Berlinale.

International Film Festival Rotterdam

Domains

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©Kusano Natsuka

It has been 5 years since Kusano Natsuka released her award-winning Antonym. However, she is back with an even more intriguing movie that, while touching upon themes of friendship similar to Antonym, boldly upturns the conventions of structure and storycraft, marking Kusano as an inventive filmmaker who embodies the indie spirit. Click here for more information.

The Garden Apartment

In my thoughts regarding this movie after viewing it at OAFF 2018, I indicated the work as a whole, while visually competent (Ishihara Umi is a photographer and artist), seemed like a work-in-progress. The narrative shortfalls on view often plague visual creators who have little experience in cinematic storytelling. Whether those shortfalls have been corrected remains to be seen, but Ishihara’s visual style might be more suited to short form storytelling than feature length (see below). Click here for details.

The Pioneer

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©Ishihara Umi

At 27 minutes, Ishihara’s “glamorous dystopian sci-fi” tells a story set in an alternative Japan prior to the 2020 Olympics–a set up perhaps more suited to her artistic sensibilities. The stills and trailer certainly lend credence to such supposition. Details here

Memento Stella

Makino Takashi’s Bright Future entry appears to be a mid-length sound & visual experience and, by intention, an experience completed by each and every audience member’s own base of reference. Like Koyaanisqatsi but without concrete imagery, what the viewer takes away from the movie depends on what they bring inside of them to the theater. Click here for more information.

On the Border

A dialogue-less experimental piece making a simple statement with its simple imagery. Details here

Asako I & II

Much has been said about Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s unique love story. Those appraisals can be found around the internet. Suffice it to say, Hamaguchi, the director of Happy Hour and Intimacies, is sure not to allow the movie’s fascinating concept to play out simply. Find out more here

Killing

After Fires on the Plain, Tsukamoto Shinya takes on his first ever period film, but as always, through his distinct sensibility. And like his previous work, he steers the chambara genre to a new direction as it throws into relief the state of contemporary violence. Click here for details.

The Monster and the Woman

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©Visual Industry Promotion Organization (VIPO)

There is a monster terrorizing a village. The authorities seem ineffective to do anything. What does the titular woman intend to do about the monster? Ikeda Akira’s short seems poised to deal with prevalent social themes. Find out more here

Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie)

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©Vitamin Creative Space

It may be difficult to categorize Tanaka Koki’s movie as fiction or documentary. The concept and execution seem to blur the lines between the two. However, unlike other Japanese entries at IFFR 2019 which also deal with Japan’s social issues, Tanaka makes no clever analogies, choosing instead to tackle the issue of an increasingly polarizing society directly through conversations between two people positioned by-and-large on the periphery of the “homogenous society.” Click here for more information

The Better Way Back to the Soil

Hirakawa Yoki assembles the titles of movies lost to time and presents them against a black background to form this 8 minute prose, equal parts cinematic and literary. Details here

Berlin International Film Festival

37 Seconds

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©knockonwood

Director HIKARI’s empowering tale of a wheelchair bound manga artist finding a new sense of liberation is the kind of movie not often made or seen in Japan. Then again, HIKARI has spent quite some time abroad which could explain this atypical and endearing look at a young woman’s journey of self-discovery. Not only was this world premiered at Berlin, but it also took home the Panorama Section’s Audience Award as well as the C.I.C.A.E Art Cinema Award. Find out more here

Complicity

Chikaura Kei’s debut feature-length adds to the collective of titles dealing with the seemingly unofficial issue of migrants, foreigners, and immigration at festivals recently. Though not political in any regard, the China-Japan production is Chikaura’s contribution to discussions as told through the tale of a foreigner illegally in Japan connecting on a human level with the proprieter of a soba shop. It is perhaps a reminder those macrosm issues are first solved at the microcosm level. Read more here

We Are Little Zombies

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©”We Are Little Zombies” Film Partners

Four 13-year-olds who just lost their parents but can’t seem to feel anything decide to form a band in order to regain some semblance of emotion. Nagahisa Makoto follows up his unique And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool with this debut feature-length bursting with hyperbolic pop style yet grounded in genuine explorations of grief and loss. Sundance awarded the movie its Special Jury Award for Originality, which in a festival founded on independence and originality, is quite an achievement. More details here

Leaking Life

An animated short created through painted illustrations, Hayashi Shunsaku, who has won awards for his previous short movies including at Slamdance, plays with movement and textures over its 15 minute runtime. It seems as mesmerizing as it is delightful to watch. Find out more here

A Tiny Place That is Hard to Touch

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©Shelly Silver

Reading the synopsis for Shelly Silver’s movie at first paints it as the “culture clash” narrative one might expect from an American director filming a story in Japan. However, something happens either toward the middle or the final third in which the story, according to Berlinale programmers, “is hijacked into science fiction territory.” In this regard, there seems to be something more to Silver’s movie which certainly entices curiosity. Read more here

Ten Years Japan Screening

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There was considerable anxiousness in the days leading up to the “Ten Years Japan” press screening. This is a project I’d been keeping my eye on and as information was released, my enthusiasm for the movie began to build as did my expectations. Could it live up to the Hong Kong version? I was guardedly hopeful. However, I was equally concerned about the typhoon which was forecast to be around the Tokyo/Kanto area the day of the screening. I had originally intended to go to an earlier screening date, but work necessitated a postponement. The typhoon eventually raced passed the Kanto area much faster than expected leaving unusually hot, summer-like conditions in its wake that day, entailing a little toil on the journey to the Shochiku building in East Ginza. Compared to the Kinohaus theater where I am accustomed to seeing press screenings for independent movies and smaller productions, the screening room at Shochiku was certainly roomier with wider seats and ample legroom, though the size of the screen and room itself did not seem much larger. Taking a quick scan of the other audience members, I spotted Teruoka Sozo, the Programming Director of Osaka Asian Film Festival a few seats away in the next row. I also recognized a few other faces but could not recall or place the names. My apologies to you if you were there. After a brief greeting by Fujimura Akiyo, one of the participating directors, the film began.

The Movie

PLAN75

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© 2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

A powerful first salvo, nothing more needs to be said about Hayakawa Chie’s PLAN75 beyond the glossy promo video which opens the movie for the future government’s initiative at dealing with Japan’s aging population. The promise versus the realities confronting the program’s participants and the civil servant tasked with conducting consultations and “fulfillment” with the elderly (think insurance salesman in a Logan’s Run world) are tragic and woeful in all respects. As one elderly man who submits to the program says: “Is a long life a disgrace?”

Mischievous Alliance

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© 2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

Today’s advancement toward A.I. and big data influencing our lives is given an intriguiging extrapolation in Kinoshita Yusuke’s short. The algorithms serving as annoyances or conveniences today are determining the future path of children as personified by Promise, a HAL-like ever watching eye and artificial voice. When thoughts or actions begin to create deviations from its data recommended life path, Promise attempts a “stern talking to” before resorting to negative behavioral reinforcement–a blast of ear piercing music in this case. But there is something inherently unbridled in children that society (and now an A.I.) has always attempted to condition out of them. The three “miscreants” of the title act out of a pure sense of what seems right–the rules of society and the voice of Promise be damned. In doing so, they learn about themselves and one another, something even the A.I. manages to acknowledge as not erroneous. It’s a shame societies are not as easy to upgrade.

DATA

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© 2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

Tsuno Megumi imagines a time people leave digital inheritances for posterity. A daughter played by Sugisaki Hana gets access to her deceased mother’s memories from the cloud and tries to connect with the mother she never knew through photos, emails, message threads, etc. As with today, however, these pieces of data only give a hint of things and lack any context provided by experience and emotion. These are filled in by her father who at first seemingly fits the daughter’s suppostions based on the digital information alone until he makes it clear the one who knows her mother best is the one who shared time with her the longest. In so doing, the daughter begins to understand who her mother was rather than merely the person the data suggested. Tanaka Tetsushi is terrific as the father, but Sugisaki certainly steals the show. She delivers one particular line so well it was the only time the audience audibly reacted.

The Air We Can’t See

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© 2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

The only film in the omnibus to reference the Fukushima Nuclear Powerplant Accident, Fujimura Akiyo’s The Air We Can’t See starts off like a cautionary tale. The populace now lives in underground, concrete bunkers for fear of radioactive contamination and have been doing long enough for infants taken down or birthed there to have grown never knowing the “world above”. But despite warnings about the dangers of that world or anything from it, Mizuki and Kaede are curious, fascinated by “artifacts” from the surface and what they imagine it is like up there. As children are aught to do, what is forbidden is incentive for doing the opposite. Mizuki and Kaede’s inquisitiveness is practically uncontainable. So, when a tape of the sounds from above apparently made by Kaede also hint at an escape, Mizuki decides to venture out to what she believes is true about a world she has never seen. The film is a powerful reminder of how adults can suffocate their young with fear (the air they can’t see) instead of allowing them to hope for and work toward a brighter future. Fujimura must be applauded for truly holding back through cinematography and lighting until the very last to show us Mizuki’s fate.

For Our Beautiful Country

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© 2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

Opening on a military recruitment poster, the fifth and final episode centers not so much around military conscription as it does the secret behind the rejected poster design. Taiga plays an advertising agency employee placed in charge of the publicity campaign. He visits the home of the poster’s designer, Amatatsu (Kino Hana) to apologize for the time spent working on the poster which was deemed too antiquated and lacking appeal with a younger demographic. What should have been a basic courtesy call turns into a day spent with Amatatsu as we learn more about her and more importantly the source of a design motif used on the poster. The story’s premise is deceptive but one that is ultimately very relevant for 2018 Japan–the importance of conversations with those who have direct experience and/or memory of war as their numbers, therefore their voices, gradually dwindle. Cliches aside, the moral of the story truly is: “Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

A Japanese Approach

The original Ten Years omnibus film was made under a certain political climate during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong at the time. The emotions of those events fueled the political fire of that film. To be honest, my personal feelings for the current socio-political climate in Japan swayed my expectation for a Ten Years Japan with as much snarl and teeth as the original. The final product is neither “angry” nor “antagonistic” and intentionally so. As a representative from distributor Free Stone Productions told me afterward, the team wanted to comment on Japan’s present and future but in a distinctively Japanese manner. The film must play domestically so an insurgent tone could potentially turn away audiences as well as media coverage. The movies are far more subtle in making their point and I was surprised how well the approach works. My immediate intuition pointed to Executive Producer Kore-eda Hirokazu’s guiding hand in the development of the project. Afterall, he has proven a master of understated stories about human relationships through which larger themes can also be inferred. The approach makes each of the episodes “viewer friendly” and arresting.

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A Crimson Star Press Screening

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Attending press screenings at the Kinohaus screening room located in the basement level of the Eurospace Theater can sometimes prove tricky. Due to some misjudgement on my part, I arrived at Shibuya station with less than 10 minutes before the screening began. I attempted to take a short cut, but as anyone who has been to Shibuya knows, the backstreets around the vicinity of the Eurospace Theater are complicated to say the least. My “short cut” ended up taking me farther away from the theater. Thanks to the GPS and map available on my smartphone, I arrived with barely a minute or two to spare. Normally I would take stock of those in attendance, but this time I could only manage to find a seat and get settled before a young woman associated with the movie walked to the front of the room in order to briefly thank those attendance for coming to the screening. She then introduced director, Igashi Aya, who seemed understandably nervous at this first screening of her latest endeavor outside the movie’s inner circle. After a few words from Igashi, the lights dimmed.

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Director Igashi Aya (left) greets the audience.

The Movie

A Crimson Star opens with a red paraglider emerging from behind a lush, green mountain ridge to drift out against a deep blue sky. It is a key image on the promotional materials and an important symbol thematically. At its core, the movie is about longing. Komatsu Miku’s teenage Yo, and Sakurai Yuki’s Yayoi are two women (people) in search of a loving individual which for all intents and purposes should have been inherent in their lives. But the reality they have faced has been quite the opposite. They are both damaged individuals who find in one another the unconditional care they’ve been longing, but it is a relationship ultimately limited by societal bounds. As the movie unfolds, deeper wounds or new hurts are revealed creating an even deeper loneliness and a yearning for one another’s company, but neither can truly be what the other needs despite all efforts. The red paraglider mentioned earlier symbolizes their liberation from a life of being lonely. Flight is the freedom to soar beyond their boundaries. The palpable melancholy one feels throughout the movie is primarily due to their own realization of their earthly bounds. What becomes obvious is the relationship between them will forever exist in a limbo between reciprocated feelings and unrequited love.

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Komatsu Miku (l) and Sakurai Yuki (r)

I wrote in my sight unseen write up this movie could potentially render a story that transcends conventional notions of heterosexual and/or romantic love. Upon viewing, however, I now understand it supersedes even these and what some may superficially see as LGBTQ themes, delivering instead a representation of the four types of love found in Greek language: Storge (familial love), Phileo (fellowship or friendship love), Eros (romantic love), and Agape (unconditional love). Whether intended by Igashi or not, Yo and Yayoi’s relationship touches on each of these as the movie develops. I will be interested to see how the ending will be interpreted by foreign audiences. It is both hopeful yet heartbreaking and leaves great potential for discussion.

The Production

Only in her early 20s, Igashi tackles emotional depths and complicated themes with an understanding belying her age. She has been able to render a sincerity in her characters and an honesty through her story which have often tripped up experienced filmmakers. This is also due in no small part to the presence of her two capable actresses. 15-year-old Komatsu Miku must portray emotions and situations one would think is not even in the mindset of someone so young, but Komatsu handily portrays Yo’s complex emotional layers and desires without being “cinematic,” imparting a tangible sincerity to her quest for compansionship and love. Complementing Komatsu is Sakurai Yuki’s portrayal of Yayoi. Necessarily providing the movie its “sexuality,” Sakurai also never loses sight of who Yayoi is as a woman. She imbues a subtlety and depth to her sadness camouflaged with a practiced air of strength. There is one scene where Yayoi tries and fails to fight back tears but does not want to let it show. Igashi’s framing of the scene and Sakurai’s delivery of Yayoi’s heartache breaking through her emotional dam still resonates with me a days later. Sakurai seems so perfect for the role it is hard to believe she was one of 300 who auditioned for the part. She and Komatsu’s commitment to the project from very early on is evident despite the difficult production.

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