New Directions in Japanese Cinema (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS / OSAKA ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2019]

New Directions in Japanese Cinema (ndjc) is a programme which has been in operation since 2007 with the express purpose of cultivating talented young filmmakers through putting them together with experienced actors and crews in workshops for the production of a 30-minute narrative short shot on 35mm film. The 2019 selection of shorts are all well-crafted dramas in production terms and deal with themes of either fractured families or the influence of fathers.

Farewell Family     Sayonara Kazoku Film Poster

サヨナラ家族 Sayonara Kazoku

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 29 mins.

Director:  Kohei Sanada,

Writer: Kohei Sanada (Screenplay)

Starring: Hoshi Ishida, Toshie Negishi, Yui Murata, Shiori Doi, Kazuhiro Sano, Yosuke Saito,

Website

I first encountered Kohei Sanada’s work at the 2017 edition of the Osaka Asian Film Festival. The title was, Icarus and Son, and its story of a father reconnecting with his son left me cold, not least because the father was unsympathetic and the conclusion of the story too obtuse to actually be moving. Sanada continues to mine father-son relationships in this short film which was the first of the five titles to screen when I saw it at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019.

Writer/director Kohei Sanada’s Farewell Family tells a straight story of overcoming loss with supernatural overtones to create something absorbingly atmospheric. We watch a soon-to-be father named Yohei (Hoshi Ishida) struggling over the death of his own father. As the time to return to his family home and commemorate his old man’s passing approaches, Yohei is plagued by menacing visions but with support of his family he comes to terms with the situation.

Kohei Sanada shows good control of atmosphere through the use of light and shadow and camera movement to create a haunted atmosphere through low-lighting. Those aspects are coupled with the tight spaces of the family home and Yohei’s visions to create an unsettling series of supernatural sequences made with a haunting of the J-horror aesthetic, both in terms of mise-en-scene and narrative, to build up to a good emotional pay-off. It works because of the simplicity of the story and the strong acting which radiates the raw loss the characters feel and then the reconciliation as they come to terms with death.

Quiet Hide-and-Seek   Uchi uchi no men-tachi (tsura-tachi) wa Film Poster

うちうちの面達(つらたち)は。 Uchi uchi no men-tachi (tsura-tachi) wa.

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 28 mins.

Director:  Kan Yamamoto

Writer: Kan Yamamoto (Screenplay)

Starring: Kanau Tanaka, Hiromasa Taguchi, Mari Hamada, Mayu Ogawa, Shun Yamamoto

Website

In Quiet Hide and Seek, a mother (Mari Hamada) disappears into the attic of the family house without warning to see how her self-centred husband (Hiromasa Taguchi) will react to her “running away.” Their son, Kojiro, is aware of everything going on, while teenage daughter, Shiho (Mayu Ogawa), is aghast at the situation.

The scenario is little more than a trifle but a welcome chance for character actor Mari Hamada to exercise her comedic potential. Her elastic face, with its big grin, and flexible body are showcased by director Kan Yamamoto as he has her dashing about the set and causing mischief. In some broad but neat characterisation and good acting, everyone establishes their personalities and different energies with Miyu Ogawa and Hiromasa Taguchi proving good foils for Hamada. The film’s set design is a little memorable thanks to the father’s boutique bathroom business which invites oddities in terms of furniture.

Cloudy, Occasionally Sunny   Kumori tokidoki hare Film Poster

くもり ときどき 晴れ Kumori tokidoki hare

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 30 mins.

Director:  Motoyuki Itabashi

Writer: Motoyuki Itabashi (Screenplay)

Starring: Megumi, Miyoko Asada, Kenji Mizuhashi, Masashi Arifuku,

Website

Cloudy, Occasionally Sunny, directed by Motoyuki Itabashi, tells the story of a busy career-woman named Haruko (MEGUMI) who lives with her mother (Miyoko Asada). She and her brother discover their estranged father is in hospital with dementia and she decides to visit him but wonders whether it is the right thing to do and over the course of the story we discover why: he was abusive.

The extent of the abuse is never described beyond an ominous reference to physical beatings but the alternating cold and hostile reactions of the mother and brother are telling and as Haruko tries to browbeat them into seeing the old man she turns into an almost insufferable protagonist. Itabashi, with his script, bites off more than he can chew with the limited run-time as there is so much painful history dwelling beneath the surface for the characters that 25 minutes cannot tell everything. It bubbles up in some good acting but the road to forgiveness and the conclusion are a little too easy, the drama proving hollow.

Saaya’s Box   Hazure Kazoku no Saaya Film Poster

はずれ家族のサーヤ Hazure Kazoku no Sa-ya

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 30 mins.

Director:  Mikiko Okamoto

Writer: Mikiko Okamoto (Screenplay)

Starring: Naho Yokomizu, Mei Kurokawa, Sue Masukoshi, Taijirou Tamura, Yurito Mori,

Website

Saaya’s Box, written and directed by Mikiko Okamoto, follows a girl named Saaya (Naho Yokomizu) who comes from a patchwork family. Saaya lives with her grandmother while her mother, Mai (Mei Kurokawa), now lives with her new partner and their son Mitsuki. Saaya longs to be the centre of her mother’s attention, so when she meets a mysterious toy-seller with a magical box which makes things disappear, Saaya gets the chance to be the only child again…

Okamoto’s script is simple and her direction is effective with confident camerawork and staging catching the biggest of emotions in even the smallest of her actor’s movements so that a smile and a little gesture can mean a lot. Okamoto elicits great performances from experienced actress Mei Kurokawa and the two child actors, both cute as a button, with Naho Yokomizu really impressing and proving sympathetic.

Last Judgement / Saigo no Shinpan    Saigo no Shinpan Film Poster

最後の審判 Saigo no Shinpan

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 29 mins.

Director:  Shinya Kawakami

Writer: Shinya Kawakami (Screenplay)

Starring: Ren Sudo, Miru Nagase, Asuka Kurosawa, Kiyomi Aratani,

Website

Last Judgement by Shinya Kawakami is the best of the ndjc 2019 films. It burrows into the mind of a young man named Inaba (Ren Sudo) who has failed the Tokyo University of the Arts entrance exam five times and is jealous of a talented high schooler named Hatsune (Miru Nagase) who exhibits genius-tier artistic abilities. However, she helps him unlock his potential through a challenge to produce street art…

While the four other ndjc films are quiet and considered in story and effect, Kawakami aims high and unleashes 25-minute cinematic firework display of editing and audio techniques to take us into the world of Inaba and colour the screen with his emotions and the overblown sense of drama, thus giving a simple story a propulsive and all encompassing feel that lights up the cinema’s screen with meaning. From painting sessions scored by percussive jazz music to the talky moments full of rapid and witty dialogue, it’s held together by tight editing which ships in a deeper backstory through flashbacks showing Inaba’s family situation and the pressure he places on himself.

The lead performances of Ren Sudo and Miru Nagase are perfectly pitched at displaying their character’s abilities with passion and slightly cartoonish conflict, combining with all of the technical fireworks to make a film which will get audiences bouncing in their seats and grinning.

Here’s my full review for this film. It was the last film I saw of the NDJC shorts and I was on the edge of my seat and feeling truly happy to have seen it.

My review was originally published on July 19th at VCinema

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