Nippon Connection launches next month and the programme has been released. It looks incredible.
This is the 15th Nippon Connection festival and it takes place from June 02nd to 07th, 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany. This is the first year that I will write about this festival.
It is a chance to get a deep and varied insight into Japanese cinema with everything from classics to contemporary titles, anime and live-action, a healthy dose of the latest films not yet released in Japan and many from the ‘80s. There are more than 100 short and feature films, and a retrospective of the works of director Shinji Somai. There are also stars in attendance with the super actors Tadanobu Asano and Sakura Ando and the director Ryuichi Hiroki at the festival. Tadanobu Asano will receive the first Nippon Honor Award and he will perform a live soundtrack concert together with the band Stereo Total.
If you check the festival site you will see many great films on offer at the festival but placing so many trailers into one post would be a bit much so I will highlight what I think are the best out of each category, the notable titles and the ones that will be rarer for Europeans/Westerners to catch outside of the festival. Of course you can ignore all this advice and just click on the links to be taken to the film’s page on the festival website where more coherent text, a trailer, and images are located. Without further ado here’s the highlights and all of the rest of the films that will screen at this year’s Nippon Connection:
There are a lot contemporary titles in here and it gives a great indication of the strength of films on the more mainstream front with films from familiar favourites such as Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto, SABU, Nobuhiro Yamashita, and Ryuichi Nakamura getting screened. This section allows the audience will once again be able to bestow the Nippon Cinema Award upon their favourite film with a cash prize going to the winner.
From my perspective the main thing about this category is making the most of seeing what will look great on the big screen, the presence of actors/directors at a screening, and seeing films that probably won’t see on DVD (or online) any time soon. There are plenty of titles that will probably disappear once they leave the festival circuit so this is an opportune chance. The two exceptions to that rule are The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi which is a fun film and there will be a breakfast buffet(!!) and The World of Kanako (getting a release in the west courtesy of Third Window Films) which was a breath taking when I saw it in a cinema. That still leaves plenty of other films to choose from so here would be my selections:
FIRES ON THE PLAIN, 野火, Nobi (2014 ) Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto
The film Fires on the Plain follows a demoralised Japanese army in the Philippines. We see how bad things are for the Japanese troops through the desperate struggle of a conscript named Tamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) who is sick with TB and forced into the field by a commander who cannot waste resources on a dying man. Tamura doesn’t want to give up so easily and clings to life but it is a struggle that will lead him down a dark path that hint at some of the atrocities carried out by soldiers…
Fires on the Plain is based upon the 1951 Yomiuri Prize-winning novel of the same name and that was then adapted into a film in 1959 by Kon Ichikawa. It took Tsukamoto 20 years to bring his adaptation of the film to the screen and from what I have read, it’s tough, brutal, troubling, and realistic and, thanks to Tsukamoto’s vision, it puts you right in the heart of war. This is an anti-war film so it has to be brutal… and that trailer. It looks. Wow! I think this will be an intense journey. His visual imagination has been incredible in past films such as Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tokyo Fist so seeing Fires on the Plain on the big screen will be quite the experience if you have the stomach for death and destruction.
KABUKICHO LOVE HOTEL, さよなら歌舞伎町, Sayonara Kabukicho (2014) Dir: Ryuichi Hiroki
Ryuichi Hiroki has two films at the festival, this and Her Granddaughter. As far as I am concerned this one has the superior
cast and the more interesting story with its set-up plunging us into the disparate lives of people connected to a love hotel over the course of 24 hours in Tokyo’s Kabukicho. Ryuichi Hiroki is a master at maneouveing multiplie narratives in modern tales as I discovered in Kimi no Tomodachi so I believe in the promise of drama and dry comedy from performances by great actors!
Shota Sometani, Jun Murakami, Tomorowo Taguchi are the male actors and between the three of them they have amassed an impressive set of performances with great directors. I am excited by the presence of former idol girls such as Atsuko Maeda and Miwako Wagatsuma who are going beyond the typical idol girl confines of popcorn flicks and frothy romances and challenging themselves, working on interesting projects with notable directors.
There’s a good chance this will be at other festivals but will Ryuichi Hiroki be at that festival? Will you be able to ask him questions about films like Vibrator or his pink films?
SEVEN WEEKS 野のなななのかNo no nanananoka (2014) Dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi
The story kicks off with the funeral of doctor Mitsuo Suzuki which brings his family back to snowy Sapporo. From there, a family story unfolds that dates back to the Second World War.
Nobuhiko Obayashi is a legend and he’s still cranking out films even though he has reached his 70s. People in the west know him for House and (maybe) School in the Crosshairs but little else. In effect, based on these two films, he has the reputation of having a crazy visual style and making films that are fun to watch. I think it would be fascinating to see what he makes now.
I remember having trouble translating the story for a trailer post and didn’t expect it to travel to the west but it has and it looks like a rare opportunity to catch a genuine indie film from a venerable talent. Some film critics based in Japan have sung the praises of this film. Don Brown at the Asahi Shimbun, “Numerous domestic dramas are made in Japan every year with little ambition other than capturing the mundaneness of everyday life. But the jaded viewer will be shocked by Obayashi’s sprawling family saga and its distinctive stylized approach that diverges into various thematic tangents.”
A rare gem then!
100 YEN LOVE, 百円の恋Hyakuen no koi, (2014), Dir: Masaharu Take
Kazuko (Sakura Ando) is a hikikomori who lives at her parents’ home but that situation changes when her younger sister divorces and moves back with her child. Kazuko and her sister’s relationship is pretty rocky and the two fight which makes Kazuko move out and find a place of her own. While working at a 100 Yen shop she keeps encountering a middle-aged boxer (Hirofumi Arai) who practices at a local boxing gym. She is attracted to him and the two start a relationship which will fuel the continuing change in her life.
This film has Sakura Ando in the lead role as a hikikomori who uses boxing to turn her life around. I would watch her in anything. Alongside Fumi Nikaido, she is one of Japan’s best young actors and Sakura Ando will be at the festival!. It has gotten great reviews as seen in Variety and Japan Times and it offers a positive story.
These are my top choices for this section. Here’s the list of films in full:
HER GRANDDAUGHTER, KABUKICHO LOVE HOTEL, KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER, LA LA LA AT ROCK BOTTOM My Man (My Review) OUR FAMILY, OVER YOUR DEAD BODY, PALE MOON PARASYTE: PART 1 PARASYTE: PART 2 THE ROUND TABLE SEVEN WEEKS SILENT COLOR SILENT VOICE
The indie side of Japanese cinema is located in this section and again there are many choices from a wide range of styles and genres with many directors here to introduce their works.
There are a variety of documentaries that focus on normal people in tough circumstances such as -1287 which focusses on a woman dying from cancer and Walking with my Mother which tells the story of an elderly woman (the mother of the director) dealing with the death of her husband and daughter and finding comfort in her sister who comes to her rescue. There are quite a few Fukushima documentaries that chart the aftermath of the disaster on people such as farmers in Going Against the Grain in Fukushima and children in Little Voices from Fukushima and a series of short films by Hikaru Suzuki. On the more positive side of things is The Cockpit about a group of musicians making a hip-hop track, and A Little Girl’s Dream which charts one girl’s journey from student to vet.
In recent years there have been collaborations between Japanese and Korean film production companies and universities and the two shorts Kim / Brakemode, the first a serious drama about a boxer forced to retire and forced to face debts, and Brakemode, a comedy about Japanese an Korean employees of car manufacturers working to save their prototype car after it is stolen.
There are short films from Tama Art University graduates and experimental films from Japanese/half-Japanese who have left the country and are based elsewhere in the world. Other shorts aim for the more comedic end of the scale in HELLO ZOMBIE / USE THE EYEBALLS!.
I am excited to see a number of titles from the indie world and
Here are my selections:
Hold Your Breath Like a Lover息を殺してIki o koroshite (2014) Dir: Kohei Igarashi
Here’s the description of the story from the film’s page: December 30, 2017: A handful of workers spends the night in a seemingly abandoned factory, playing video games, battling out love conflicts and aimlessly walking through gloomy offices and corridors. In between, a dog gets lost and ghosts of the dead return. A dark view on a future pre-apocalyptic Japan, presented in ambiguous images exerting a unique pull.
I first saw this trailer at the end of last year and tweeted it to friends after seeing an interview with the director on Midnight Eye. I have watched the trailer so many times and even had it on my phone at one point. It’s beautiful and mysterious and there’s so little known about it which makes this an exciting title to venture into blindly.
Obon Brothersお盆の弟Obon no ototo (2015) Dir: Akira Osaki
Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Ken Mitsuishi, Makiko Watanabe, Yoji Tanaka, Koki Okada, Erika Yanagita, Yumi Goto, Aoba Kawai, Miyoko Inagawa,
Takeshi is a struggling film director, with a fractious home life. That’s an understatement, actually, since he has been kicked out of his house by his wife and forced to move in with his ill brother. Can Takeshi turn his life around and save his marriage?
This is another film I tweeted about after the trailer was released
and it’s simple why: great cast with a story and style of filming that will get the most out of them. The trailer reminds of lovely and strange And the Mud Ship Sails Away what with the meandering, talk-heavy action shot in black and white. This film stars some great actors like the cool Kiyohiko Shibukawa, the exceptional Makiko Watanabe, and the super solid Ken Mitsuishi. There is also Aoba Kawai and Yumi Goto, two names I have gotten used to over the past year after seeing the give great performances in different films. The director and writer are in town so ask plenty of questions.
Sharing (2014) Dir: Makoto Shinozaki
Eiko (Kinuo) is a psychology teacher in a university. She lost her husband in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and this pushes her to research cases of individuals who claim to have had precognitive dreams about the disaster. One of her students, Kaoru (Asuka), is a member of the drama club, and is writing a stage a play about the disaster. The two become so engaged in their projects that it pushes friends and colleagues away from them as they become more extreme in their work and lost site of reality…
There are a number of films with backing from Office Kitano at this festival and I like the look of Sharing which was at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. The director is a graduate of Rikkyo University where he now teaches psychology, and has collaborated with Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Ingredients for intrigue!
There are a set of interesting looking dramas headed by 0.5MM, Chigasaki Story, Dual City, and Sceneries of New Beginnings. Out of those 0.5MM has to be the one to watch because that stars Sakura Ando!
There is a variety of anime on show and I would say that people with kids who want to attend the festival see The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, a stunningly beautiful and intelligent film that mixes artistic skill of a highly talented director and animators to convey a story deep in Japanese culture, heartfelt tale that can appeal to adults and children who will find something to laugh at and relate to. It has already had a theatrical and home video release in Germany so you can skip it if money is an issue since we’re going after titles you may not ever see again. This being the case you can drop Appleseed Alpha because that’s already available in the West plus it’s a CG Shinji Aramaki film which in my experience means that it is guaranteed to be of less importance than some of the other titles on the programme. Another one you might want to miss is Psycho-Pass: The Movie which has great reviews but it’s only worth watching if you are familiar with the television anime. If you can get yourself up to speed with the gloriously brilliant first season and awful second season and you like your dystopian sci-fi tales this might be for you.
Here’s what I would pick:
Shinsengumi 新選組 Shinsengumi (2000) Dir: Kon Ichikawa
I had no idea that the great director Kon Ichikawa directed an anime. Not only that it’s about the Shinsengumi, the shogun’s samurai special forces, in effect. It looks pretty awesome and the festival webpage describes it as a “long-forgotten animation masterpiece… never before been screened outside of Japan.” This is why you go to film festivals. Gems like this.
I would also try out some of the shorts, student films, and indie anime. This is for people who want to go beyond the glossy anime that regularly gets streamed/sold in the West and we can see what independent talents outside of the studio system and across Japan are doing. There are films created by using stop motion, hand drawn, and CG animation and it comes from a diverse array such as the Tokyo University of the Arts and indie titles from all sorts of people and studio.
Everything Visible – Japanese Indie Animated Shorts is an interesting selection and not just because of the diverse works but because Dr. Catherine Munroe Hotes has programmed this section and she will be present for the films and will talk about her selections. I talked to her about programming shorts for a festival, interested in seeing how people reacted to them since they are harder to sell than features (in my mind, at least) and she kindly responded:
Catherine: “The audience in Frankfurt really loves experimental / alternative fare. I am from Canada so I was amazed at first to find sold out crowds for experimental works. For this programme I chose films that had some buzz at festivals in Japan and overseas… They are not for everyone’s taste – it’s for people who want something different – I think of them as being visual poetry. I grew up watching a lot of NFB [National Film Board of Canada] animation from a young age so when I came across indie animation in Tokyo in 2006 I understood a bit. Some films I don’t get at all after a first screening and I need to watch them more than once before I understand what the artist is trying.”
Me: “You actively look for artists to screen and I assume artists contact you as well.”
Catherine: “I wanted to have filmmakers from all over Japan / different animation schools. “There are also people in the programme that NC regulars ask me about a lot. Like: whatever Like: whatever happened to Kato Kunio after he won the Oscar. I went to Hiroshima last year. If you check my post from last August (I think the screening was called Japan’s Animation Today) you can see who had works at that festival. I saw a work by Osamu Sakai at Wissembourg in Dec & wanted him…. I also check to see who won at various other festivals like Japan Media Arts Festival. Iwasaki is a young artist whose film won a top prize at HAFF this year so I checked him out on Vimeo & had him send me his latest work. Oh – in addition to JMAF I look at the Image Forum Festival line up every year – their curator Takashi Sawa finds amazing new works
I should also mention that our animation guest Yuichi Ito (here’s his profile) is a wonderful stop motion animator. My kids loved his short short series Knyacki on the NHK when we lived in Tokyo. His visit has been made possible through the Yokohama- Frankfurt sister city organisation. It’s not on the main animation program but he’s giving a stop motion workshop for kids on the Saturday”
Thanks go out to Dr Catherine Munroe Hotes. I highly recommend checking out her website Nishikataeiga for all sorts of fascinating posts on Japanese animation and live-action films as well as adventures in Japan and elsewhere. For more on the films at the festival head to each of the web pages I linked to so you can see videos of some of the works.
This section is all about Shinji Somai and he’s pretty important in Japanese cinema but pretty much unknown in the west. His style of very long takes and letting actors do their work (Regardless of genre) and his ability to capture the most acute emotions social drama allowing stories to develop naturally has had a massive influence on other directors (Including my favourite Kiyoshi Kurosawa).
I remember that the 2012 Edinburgh Film Festival had an incredible Shinji Somai retrospective (I wish I wrote about that one but didn’t focus on festivals back then). Here’s festival director Chris Fujiwara (just after he took over the festival) talking about Shinji Somai.
I’ll admit that I have only watched the drama Moving and idol action title Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (and they are very good) so instead of reading my rambling notes the best thing to do is to check each film’s webpage on the festival site and make a choice. Better yet, watch the above video and listen to Chris Fujiwara who recommends Typhoon Club, Moving, The Friends, PP Rider, and Love Hotel. I will say that certain films have actors it would be fascinating to watch earlier in their career like Kaza-Hana (Tadanobu Asano, Kyoko Koizumi), Dreamy Fifteen (Shingo Tsurumi). Other films in this retrospective include Stepchildren and The Catch.
There will be film introductions and a lecture “Shinji SOMAI and the Long Take” by Aaron Gerow (Professor of Film Studies and East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University).
What makes Nippon Connection impressive is that none of this stuff is happening in isolation like in other festivals, there are film screenings and connected to many of them are workshops and talks aimed at illuminating Japanese and cinema culture.
It’s great to see a section for children that will get them interested in film/Japanese culture and thinking about things outside of their normal lives. There’s all sorts of things like kamishibai, kendo, drawing and makeup sessions and voice acting workshops as well as a Japanese language course taught via manga and anime. There’s also The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
There are talks and workshops galore in Nippon Culture with an animation workshop run by Yuichi Ito, the chap who made the animated film Harbor Tale. There’s the obligatory food and art sections and an aikido workshop for people interested in martial arts and Tadanobu Asano is going to be performing with his band Stereo Total. Want to try your hand at Benshi and give voice and sound to silent movies? That’s become popular recently and there’s a workshop for that. The film talks are many and cover the famous Sakura Ando and Tadanobu Asano and indie directors, festival programmers and film lecturers and reviewers.
You’ll be glad to read that this is the end of the post. I now know why I have avoided writing about this festival for so long! There’s so much on offer and I find it hard to edit myself!! Make no mistake, this is a line-up of films to die for but then I love Japanese films so I am biased. I hope you guys have fun watching some of these films!