The 18th edition of the Nippon Connection Film Festival (NCFF) runs from May 29th to June 03rd in Frankfurt am Main and it continues to be the biggest and best event to see Japanese films in the world. That’s no exaggeration because it has more than 100 short and feature length films ranging from documentaries to anime to indie films and there will be an incredible slate of supporting programmes aimed at a wide range of people. Not only that, there will be many Japanese and international filmmakers, musicians, and artists travelling to the event as guests who will introduce their works and talk about films. This year’s guest of honour is the renowned actress Shinobu Terajima who will receive the NIPPON HONOR AWARD 2018.
There are lots of films programmed and just as many events and with so much to see, I’ll try and cover everything in one post. To find out more about a film, click on section titles to be taken to the festival page. Here are some highlights of what’s on offer:
The Opening Film is a highly-rated one from Shuichi Okita, an expert in dramedy. He will be in town to introduce what is billed as an “ironic comedy [that] shows a day in the life of the famous Japanese painter Morikazu KUMAGAI (1880-1977)”.
モリのいる場所 「Mori no Iru Basho」
Running Time: 99 mins.
Release Date: May 19th, 2018
Director: Shuichi Okita
Writer: Shuichi Okita (Screenplay),
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kirin Kiki, Ryo Kase, Ken Mitsuishi, Kitaro, Nobue Iketani, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Munetaka Aoki,
Synopsis from Nikkatsu International: He lays among the shrubs and trees in his garden and observes the scurrying ants. This 94-year-old bearded man is Morikazu Kumagai, aka Mori, and he is a painter. For the last 30 years he’s hardly left his property. Most of his day is spent tirelessly observing his garden and all living things in it, which he renders into paintings. He paints every evening in a studio he calls the “school.” While he goes about his business, his wife Hideko attends to a string of visitors. In the garden there are the critters and insects and on the porch, birds in cages overlook the garden. Mori and Hideko live peacefully, surrounded by the things they love. But then some developers decide to build a condominium next door which puts their small paradise at risk. It will block the sun and the garden will be uninhabitable. Mori and Hideko decide to take action to protect the garden they cherish… The film is a humorous depiction of a summer day in the life of an old couple who’ve been together 52 years, in the more affable social atmosphere of the 1970s.
The highlights for the festival are many with Kitano’s finale to his bloody yakuza trilogy, Outrage Coda lined up alongside Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder. Those two crime films are at opposite ends of the spectrum with the Kore-eda one being a murder mystery with intense courtroom scenes while Kitano uses shoot-outs and black humour to entertain audiences. There’s a new one with The Blood of the Wolves, which harkens back to the old-school crime films of the 70s:
孤狼の血 「Korou no chi」
Running Time: 126 mins.
Release Date: May 12th, 2018
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Writer: Junya Ikegami (Screenplay), Yuko Yuzuki (Original Novel)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Tori Matsuzaka, Yoko Maki, Tomoya Nakamura, Pierre Taki, Shido Nakamura, Yosuke Eguchi, Renji Ishibashi,
Synopsis: It is the summer of 1988 in the fictional city of Kurebara, Hiroshima. The disappearance of an employee of a financial company leads to squeaky-clean cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) getting paired with veteran detective and rumoured-to-be corrupt cop Shogo Ogami (Koji Yakusho) just as a war between yakuza clans heats up.
Far away from crime, but no less thrilling are the dramatic turns that can be found in some really fascinating and moving character-driven dramas that reveal interesting insights into contemporary Japanese life. It is in this territory that Kazuya Shiraishi showing up again in this section with Birds without Names. Shinobu Terajima is the guest of honour at this year’s festival and there are three films in which she stars in in this section, The City of Betrayal and Vibrator, a film most Japanese movie fans will recommend including me. Dear Etranger is the third film and it’s a convincing drama that shows the strains that family life have on people. Director Yukiko Mishima will be there.
幼な子われらに生まれ 「Osanago Warera ni Umare」
Running Time: 127 mins.
Release Date: August 26th, 2017
Director: Yukiko Mishima
Writer: Haruhiko Arai (Screenplay), Kiyoshi Shigematsu (Original Novel)
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Rena Tanaka, Kankuro Kudo, Shinobu Terajima, Sara Minami, Miu Arai, Raiju Kamata, Shingo Mizusawa, Narushi Ikeda,
This isn’t the flashiest or most complex of films but it and the actors consistently builds up characters who offer a fascinating portrait of a patchwork family and offers up a lot of nuance for its characters. Here’s my review.
Synopsis: Dear Etranger is based on a novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu and tells the tale of 40-year-old Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano), an assistant manager at a company trying to balance two families and be an ideal father at a time when others give him or are going through crises. Free from melodrama and idealism, it paints a believable picture of the stresses and strains of maintaining a loving family unit built from the scraps of past relationships.
There are a couple of supernatural tales such as Occult Bolshevism and Foreboding which comes from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but stick with the dramas. Here’s one which hasn’t been screened widely is this intriguing little drama:
南瓜とマヨネーズ 「Kabocha to Mayone-zu」
Running Time: 93 mins.
Release Date: November 11th, 2017
Director: Masanori Tominaga
Writer: Masanori Tominaga (Screenplay), Kiriko Nananan (Original Manga)
Starring: Asami Usuda, Taiga, Joe Odagiri, Ryuya Wakaba, Koudai Asaka, Ritsu Otomo, Kurumi Shimizu, Ken Mitsuishi, Sario Okada, Emina Kondo,
Synopsis: Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) lives with her boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga). He is an aspiring musician but he has no job and is struggling to write new songs. Tsuchida decides to work at a hostess club to support them both but doesn’t inform Seiichi. Things blow up when she gets herself involved with her customer Yasuhara (Ken Mitsuishi) and Seiichi finds out. Arguments ensue and he decides to get a job but around this time, Tsuchida runs into her ex-boyfriend Hagio (Joe Odagiri)…
There are two special films also in this section, one by a new director with massive potential to be a major force and the second coming from a veteran who has been in the game for a long time. If you have the chance, I’d recommend seeing both of these.
Running Time: 100 mins.
Director: Jun Tanaka
Writer: Jun Tanaka
Starring: Hironobu Yukinaga, Hiromi Nakazato, Misaki Tsuge, Toshi Yanagi, Yuki Katsuragi,
This one was at last year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival and since then it has started to be screened around the world. It’s a fantastic supernatural thriller that many critics have highlighted since it puts a new spin on J-horror! Director Jun Tanaka will be in town so please make him feel welcome. Here’s my review.
Synopsis: One day, Fumiko (Hiromi Nakazato) runs into Ryota (Hironobu Yukinaga), an old acquaintance from her college photography club. They would have missed each other had it not been for a mysterious red umbrella tumbling from the skies causing them to lock eyes. Soon enough they are making plans to get married. They seem like an ideal couple but, unfortunately, their relationship slowly ruptures because Ryota is troubled by a secret ability… he can see ghosts. Fumiko cannot and the two find themselves being torn apart by Ryota’s ability. Things get even more complicated when he encounters Sae Kimura (Misaki Tsuge), a woman with the same ability. She seems like a perfect match and Ryota leaves Fumiko but the bonds of destiny cannot be broken by the will of a mere mortal.
Running Time: 169 mins.
Release Date: December 16th, 2017
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Writer: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Chiho Katsura(Screenplay),
Starring: Shunsuke Kubozuka, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Keishi Nagatsuka, Tokio Emoto, Mugi Kadowaki, Yuriko Oo, Tetsuya Takeda, Takako Tokiwa, Hirona Yamazaki,
Hanagatami is the latest film from veteran director Nobuhiko Obayashi, probably best known in the West for his 70s horror-musical House. This was at the Tokyo International Film Festival where it got a myriad of reviews praising Obayashi;s vision in bringing a unique (Japan Times, for example) film an anti-war message as well as its exuberant colourful celebration of youth to the screen. This could be Obayashi’s last film so you’d be crazy to miss it!
Synopsis:It is the spring of 1941 and the setting is Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture. 17-year-old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka), who has just returned from Amsterdam where his parents are living, to live with his wealthy aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and attend the local boys’ high school. He lives life to the full with dinner parties and picnics, frolicking in the country and partying in the city. He does this with a close group of friends including a cousin named Mina who suffers from lung disease but the war is drawing closer and their lives will be changed forever…
Last year was all about Masaaki Yuasa with the world finally waking up and awarding the man for his genius and Nippon Connection has two films that should be seen.
The Night is Short, Walk on Girl
夜は短し歩けよ乙女 「Yoru wa Mijikashi Aruke yo Otome」
Running Time: 93 mins.
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Writer: Masaaki Yuasa, Reiko Yoshida (Screenplay) Tomihiko Morimi (Original Novel),
Animation Production: Science SARU
Starring: Kana Hanazawa (Kurokami no Otome), Gen Hoshino (Senpai), Kazuya Nakai (Seitarou Higuchi), Yuuko Kaida (Ryouko Hanuki), Nobuyuki Hiyama (Johnny), Aoi Yuuki (Princess Daruma), Junichi Suwabe (Nise Jougasaki),
The Night is Short, Walk on Girl is probably the join-first best work from Masaaki Yuasa (the first being Mind Game). I can guarantee you will have a good time with this one having seen it with an audience of anime fans who were totally absorbed in its fantastic story. Others seemingly agree since it took top awards. The 41st Ottawa International Animation Festival was where it won Best Animated Feature and the 41st Japan Academy Prize Animation of the Year went to the film. This film is the very definition of the word exuberant in terms of story and style and should cement Yuasa as one of the best anime directors around. Here’s my review!!!
The narrative is simple: A black haired girl (voiced by the ubiquitous and super-talented Kana Hanazawa) is attending the wedding reception of a friend. As far as she is concerned, the party doesn’t have to end there and she walks around the streets of Kyoto at night from the alleyways and izakayas of Pontocho to the university campus, following the Komagawa river and making detours along the way. She is pursued by a male admirer, Sempai (voiced by the musician Gen Hoshino who also played the hapless lover in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?), who tries to catch her attention by appearing before her as often as possible. As this rather one-sided romantic dance unfolds, they experience surreal magical-realist moments that grow increasingly absurd thanks to a cast of unique characters, all of which tests Sempai’s resolve in love and the girl’s capacity for drink and fun because all the while, everyone keeps drinking and having a good time.
夜明け告げるルーのうた 「Yoake Tsugeru Lu no Uta」
Running Time: 112 mins.
Release Date: May 19th, 2017
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Writer: Masaaki Yuasa, Reiko Yoshida (Screenplay)
Animation Production: Science SARU
Starring: Kanon Tani (Lu), Shota Shimoda (Kai), Akira Emoto (Grandfather), Minako Kotobuki (Yuuho), Shinichi Shinohara (Lu’s father), Souma Saitou (Kunio),
Lu Over the Wall was huge last year where it picked up awards including at Annecy, where it took the “Cristal for a Feature Film”. It was directed by Masaaki Yuasa with a script written by Reiko Yoshida, a woman who has written many different anime such as A Silent Voice, Yowamushi Pedal, and Shirobako. It was produced by Yuasa’s protege (and a highly talented animator) Eun young Choi, and animated by Science SARU and these folks are the geniuses behind Mind Game, Ping Pong: The Animation, and The Tatami Galaxy amongst other great artistic titles.
It has the look of the 2009 Ghibli film Ponyo if I were to make a glib comparison but the animation and style are pure Science SARU, a studio finally picking up fans in the mainstream. The film has been picked up for UK distribution by Anime Limited.
Synopsis: Middle school student Kai finds himself forced to move from Tokyo to the declining fishing town of Hinashi to live with his father and grandfather following his parents’ divorce. For a kid from the big metropolis, there’s little for him to do besides composing music and sharing it on the Internet. One day his classmates Kunio and Yuuho invite him to join their band, and when he reluctantly accompanies them to practice on Mermaid Island, the three of them meet a mermaid named Lu. Through meeting her and playing music, Kai is slowly able to open up about his emotions but calamity soon strikes the town and he must find a way to avert it with his new-found friends and community!
There are many other great anime including the charming, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the dark French-Japanese co-production Mutafukaz and a collection of shorts from the talented students at Tokyo University of the Arts.
This is a new program section which aims to show diverse approaches and content in documentary filmmaking: “patient and tentative explorations, intimate long time observations, and entertaining portraits”. It features everything from cooking (Ramen Heads) to the daily lives of people in a housing complex (Danchi) Kazuhiro Soda’s latest work, Inland Sea, which looks at a small fishing community on the Seto Inland Sea.
There are two fascinating-looking documentaries which have high review ratings and with the directors present at the festival to talk about their works.
恋とボルバキア 「Koi to Borubakia」
Running Time: 94 mins.
Release Date: December 09th, 2017
Director: Sayaka Ono
Starring: Oji, Ayu, Mihiro, Harumi Hasumi, Kiri Anzu, Ichiko Aizawa,
Synopsis: Wolbachia is a symbiotic bacteria that sexually transforms the host. This documentary is about “sexual minorities”. That explains the title. We get eight stories including lesbians, cross-dressers, transgender people and those who are in between categories. Humans, in other words. We see them humanised as we get glimpses of their everyday lives and their dreams and fears. They look like a nice bunch so I hope they have found happiness and hold onto it.
Running Time: 94 mins.
Release Date: 2018
Director: Hikaru Toda
Starring: Kazuyuki Minami, Masafumi Yoshida, Yae Minami, Kazumi Tsujitani, Rokudenashiko, Hiroko Tsujitani, Masae Ido, Natsuo Yamamoto,
Hikaru Toda is a documentary director/editor based in London and Osaka who has had her worked screened on BBC Storyville, France Televisions, NHK, The Guardian and at major international film festivals, including Hot Docs, CPH DOX and Melbourne International Film Festival. Hikaru moved back to Japan for the first time in 22 years to make Of Love & Law. Here’s the Kickstarter trailer:
Synopsis: Fumi and Kazu are partners in love and law; they run the first law firm in Japan set up by an openly gay couple. Together for 15 years, the lawyers want to raise a family of their own in a country where their partnership has no legal recognition or protection. Driven by their own experience of being ‘outsiders’, they attract a range of clients who reveal the hidden diversity of a country that prides itself on its obedience, politeness and conformity. Tired of being silenced and made to feel invisible, the lawyers and their misfit clients expose and challenge the archaic status quo.
There’s also a fascinating art documentary about Katsushika Oi, a special lady who got the anime treatment in Miss Hokusai.
Kurara: The Dazzling Life Of Hokusai’s Daughter
眩（くらら）～北斎の娘～ 「Kurara – Hokusai no Musume」
Running Time: 75 mins.
Release Date: September 18th, 2017
Director: Taku Kato
Writer: Mika Omori (Screenplay), Makate Asai (Novel)
Starring: Aoi Miyazaki, Kyozo Nagatsuka, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kimiko Yo, Hideki Noda, Hiroki Miyake,
Synopsis: There were a series of shows made about Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)when the British Museum held their exhibition, “Hokusai: Beyond the Wave” last year. The BBC made a couple, one of which was shown in a cinema in Japan, and NHK made a couple including this dramatized biopic of Katsushika Oei, daughter of Hokusai. She was a great artist in her own right, but channelled a lot of her power into nursing her father after his stroke and working closely with him for nearly 20 years. She was recognised for her talents then and is now being recognised by contemporary audiences.
The show also features the star visiting London to see an exhibition at the British Museum called Hokusai: Beyond the Wave, which also featured works by Oei.
This section is full of interesting-looking features but the biggest one took the Audience Award at the Udine Far East Film Festival quite recently.
カメラを止めるな！ 「Kamera wo tomeru na!」
Running Time: 96 mins.
Release Date: November 04th, 2017
Director: Shinichiro Ueda
Writer: Shinichiro Ueda (Screenplay),
Starring: Kazuki Nagaya, Manabu Hosoi, Tomokazu Yamaguchi,
Synopsis: A film crew shooting a zombie movie in the mountains finds that their work turns real when honest to goodness zombies start showing up and chowing down on the crew. Does the director stop? Hell no! He keeps on shooting.
Other highlights include, Party ‘Round the Globe by indie star Hirobumi Watanabe, and Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops.
泳ぎすぎた夜 「Oyogi Sugita Yoru」
Running Time: 79 mins.
Release Date: 2018
Director: Kohei Igarashi, Damien Manivel,
Writer: Ichiro Kusuno (Screenplay), Sui Ishida (Original Manga)
Kohei Igarashi, (Hold Your Breath Like a Lover) and Damien Manivel (A Young Poet, The Park) met at Locarno earlier this year and decided to collaborate. The resulting film was unveiled at the 74th Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti category back in August. I missed it at the time but it turned up at Tokyo FILMeX which is where I caught up with it and it looks special since it charts a magical day in the life of a little boy who takes a detour from school and explores his local area. No dialogue, just the sounds of the world coupled with images that show the young character demonstrating the innocence and curiosity of a child his age.
Synopsis from the Venice Film Festival: Snow covered mountains in Japan. Every night, a fisherman makes his way to the market in town. His 6 year old son is awoken by his departure and finds it impossible to fall back to sleep. In the sleeping household, the young boy draws a picture he then slips into his satchel. On his way to school, still drowsy, he strays off the path and wanders into the snow…
There are way too many highlights in this section (like, I’d watch all of these at the festival if I had the chance to attend) but a personal favourite of mine is the next film which I saw at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.
優しい日常 「Yasashii Nichijou」
Running Time: 27 mins.
Release Date: February 03rd, 2018
Director: Noriko Yuasa
Writer: Noriko Yuasa, Rie Mashiko (Screenplay),
Starring: Shin’nosuke Abe, Tamae Ando, Karin Ono, Motohiko Kawano, Eito Suda,
This special gem was originally part of the omnibus movie “Kuruibana” (2017) but has taken on a life of its own and it is filled with shocks and fantastic style. This has to be one of the highlights of the festival. Director Noriko Yuasa has used inventive sound and visual design to create a great thriller! Here’s my review.
Synopsis: Mr Tsuda is a handsome teacher who is coaching a dance club. Concerned about one injured member, Ami, he visits her home in the middle of Tokyo. What he finds is a bright and bubbly schoolgirl with a seemingly perfect family living an idealised ordinary everyday life. She lives in a well-furnished home with Kanako, her lovely-looking mother, and Sho, her cute brother. Ami’s father is missing but nobody talks about him.
Everyone has smiles on their faces. Tsuda finds the mother’s smile is especially inviting and pretty soon his thoughts start straying to parent-teacher relations. What he doesn’t realise is that this is a two-faced family who lead anything but a very ordinary life.
There are many more films on offer including NIPPON RETRO and this is just a glimpse. The complete program as well as tickets will are available via the festival website. I hope you find something you like and enjoy.
Past coverage of the festival: