Japan Foundation Touring Programme 2015

First published (in slightly shorter version) by Grolsch FilmWorks

There are plenty of festivals dedicated to collating the best new products of one national cinema or another, but what distinguishes the annual Japan Foundation Touring Programme from the rest is its showcasing of films from past as well as present, unified by a common (if often loose) thematic thread. Last year the subject was ‘youth’, enabling viewers to see a cross-section of Japanese films from different eras that showed both individuals – and the country – coming of age. This year’s theme – ‘encounters’ – is even broader in scope, indeed so broad that it might be applied to almost any narrative film every made anywhere. After all, wherever there is dialogue and character, there is also an inevitable collision of values, perspectives and ideology. Still, half the fun here is trying to determine why these particular titles have been chosen to fit the ‘encounters’ remit – and the other half is getting to see an eclectic mix of quality Japanese cinema.

Pride of place here is given to two very different recent films. Set in the town of Hakodate, Hokkaido, O Mipo’s The Light Shines Only There (2014) concerns two characters, trapped as much by their circumstances as their insular environs, who seek a fragile refuge in each other. Tatsuo (Ayano Gou) is a former demolition overseer at a mountain quarry who, haunted with guilt after a workplace accident, has drifted into aimlessness and unemployment. Chinatsu (Ikewaki Chizuru) works in both a seafood factory and a hostess bar to provide for her mother and stroke-afflicted father, and continues an abusive affair with a married businessman to keep her paroled brother Takuji (Suda Masaki) in work and out of trouble. A subtle, broody film, no doubt included in the programme because it is Japan’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 87th Academy Awards, this is perhaps the hardest title to fit neatly into the ‘encounters’ slot (an encounter between a man and a woman? between mountains and sea?), but it certainly rewards the viewer’s time.

  Also from 2014, Wood Job! is a fish-out-of-water, coming-of-age, boy-meets-girl comedy in which a feckless city boy Yuki (Sometani Shota) signs up on a whim for forestry training, and over the course of a year finds himself unexpectedly becoming a “real mountain man”, and acquiring between his legs “one big woodie”. In other words, this involves the encounter between the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional, the mundane and the spiritual, not to mention, thanks to a bizarre fertility ritual practised in this woodland community, a (metaphorical) merging between the phallic and the yonic. Director Yaguchi Shinobu (Waterboys, Swing Girls!Happy Flight, Robo-G) will tour the UK with Wood Job! as the festival’s guest of honour.

Tsuyuko (Nogawa Yumiko), protagonist of Suzuki Seijun’s Carmen from Kawachi (1966), heads in the opposite direction, escaping the abuse and oppression of rural Kawachi for the more sophisticated city life of Osaka (and then Tokyo), where her encounters with a succession of male would-be exploiters teach her the power of her own feminine sexuality. This is, as its title suggests, a self-conscious adaptation of the opera Carmen (complete with a flamenco score, a flower clenched between Tsuyuko’s teeth, and even a hep guitar-band cover version of the aria Habanero), except that, once transplanted to the shifting mores of Sixties Japan, Bizet’s tragic heroine cannot help but become a more triumphant figure, taking full control of her own destiny. Along with Naruse Mikio’s Scattered Clouds (1967), this is one of the oldest – and best – films on the programme.

Old (apparently) contrasts with new in Mitani Koki’s All About Our House (2001), a broad comedy in which a young urban professional couple try to build their dream home on a suburban lot, only for their hip interior designer to clash with the wife’s father (a retired contractor) in divergent visions of how Japanese identity should be constructed. The rather obviously polarised antagonism between tradition and modernism is ultimately reconciled when the trendy designer turns out himself to be something of a traditionalist. All of which, peculiarly, marks Mitani’s film as far more conservative and old-fashioned in nature than Suzuki’s offering from three-and-a-half decades earlier. Perhaps the time-travel element in Hitori Gekidan’s Japanese box-office hit Bolt from the Blue (2014), also in the programme, will better bridge the gap between past and present.

Meanwhile, Sai Yoichi’s ambitious Blood and Bones (2004) is a family saga spanning 60 tumultuous years of Japanese history, from 1923 to the mid Eighties. Korean-born brute Kim Shun-pei (played by celebrated comedian/actor/filmmaker Kitano ‘Beat’ Takeshi) makes the boat trip to Osaka looking for a new life, but along the way mistreats everyone, including his long-suffering family, with a miserly selfishness matched only by his ruthless violence. Shun-pei is a vicious brute occasionally capable of great tenderness, and a monomaniacal capitalist who will eventually return to Kim Il-sung’s Communist North Korea – and from all these contradictions emerges a potted history of Japan told from an exile’s perspective. With this contrast Kumazawa Naoto’s Jinx! (2013), which instead presents the clash of Japanese and Korean sensibilities as breezy romantic comedy.

Also donning the costumery of romantic comedy is Hanabusa Tsutomu’s alter-ego campfest The Handsome Suit (2008), in which a new experimental costume enables its wearers to find their beautiful outer (and ultimately inner) selves. In this guise, tubby, woman-repelling diner chef Takuro (Tsukaji Muga) becomes super-handsome Annin (Tanihara Shosuke), but still struggles to impress pretty ex-waitress Hiroko (Kitagawa Keiko), portly new waitress Motoe (Oshima Miyuke), or smile-free fashion model Raika (Sada Mayumi). It’s a cross-dressing, identity-swapping parable that comes with a very mixed message: for even as Takuro learns to embrace his outer ugliness, he still, as a reward for this self-discovery, gets the beautiful girl. Meanwhile flamboyant CGI and animated inserts are added in an apparent attempt to cover up an over-obvious, already over-stretched plot, not to mention a rather forced sense of hilarity.

If The Handsome Suit is decidedly comicbook in style, no representative showcase of Japanese cinema could do without some genuine anime, and so the programme also includes A Letter to Momo (2012), Okiura Hiroyuki’s long-awaited follow-up to Jin-roh: the Wolf Brigade (1999). This is the story of Momo’s move from Tokyo to remote Shio Island where the 11-year-old girl must contend with her own unresolved feelings about her father’s recent death, with leaving childhood behind, and with a comical trio of heaven-sent goblins (as well as some local woodland spirits). Though made by the studio Production I.G, this is a markedly Ghibli-esque affair, overtly referencing Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997) amongst others. Also in the programme is the more adult four-part animated dystopian anthology Short Peace (2013) which, with contributions from Otomo Katsuhiro (Akira), Katoki Hajime, Ando Hiroaki and Morita Shuhei, sounds fantastic.

Production I.G. also provided the background animated sequences for Yoshida Keisuke’s My Sweet Little Pea (2013), a live-action drama about a young woman. Mugiko or ‘Sweet Pea’ (Horikita Maki), who aspires to become a voice actor for anime, but is held back both emotionally and financially by unresolved family issues. Travelling to her ancestral home town to bury the ashes of her estranged mother Ayako, Mugiko gets stuck there too. Encountering traces of Ayako’s own hopes and aspirations from when she was roughly Mugiko’s current age, the daughter finds the missing pieces to complete her own identity, and can leave ready to face an adult future. It is a well-observed tale of mothers and daughters, and the important things that often remain unsaid between them.

For more information and the full programme – which also includes Kimizuka Ryoichi’s intense family drama Nobody To Watch Over Me (2009) – go to http://www.jpf-film.org.uk

Anton Bitel