Along the Sea is the second feature from writer-director Akio Fujimoto. A co-production between Japan and Vietnam, it is similar to his debut Passage of Life (2017) in that it charts the tensions of being outsiders in a foreign land in a near-documentary style. The script is based on stories drawn from real-life interviews, the camera observes a mix of professional and non-professional actors, and melodrama and artifice are kept to a minimum.
However, Along the Sea has a much more cohesive and concise dramatic structure as it takes place entirely in Japan and over a few weeks. Furthermore, as close to social realist as it may be, there are moments of poetic beauty captured by Kentaro Kishi, Fujimoto’s go-to director of photography. As breath-taking as some of these moments are, they never obscure the people at the heart of the narrative.
I’m still working on Osaka Asian Film Festival reviews and interviews and hope to get a few out next week. This week saw me review the earnest student film Young Birdsand the fun romantic musical Make-Believers.
Big news came twice, the first being the announcement that Uplink: Shibuya would be closing, the second being the State of Emergency declared by the Japanese government. The SoE means that cinemas and mini-theatres have been asked to shut their doors. Not all of them will but the ones that do will be offered a paltry financial compensation. Films and theatres will be hit by government incompetence, once again. Never vote for conservative parties. Just never.
What is released this weekend? A decent selection of films!
When I think of musicals, it is usually the big, brassy, and ballsy American studio productions that transport audiences to a heightened sense of euphoria through elaborate sets given a Technicolor sheen, widescreen views, honking energetic scores, and dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire tripping light fantastic.
From Busby Berkeley, to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), to Damian Chazelle (La La Land) and, beyond Hollywood, the bonkers Bollywood productions in India that go the maximalist route, my expectations for musicals have been set so high that it is easy to forget they can be small and intimate affairs where the spectacular is toned down to capture the most intimate.
Which brings me to Make-believers, a film on the indie end of the spectrum which I found on Kickstarter a year ago. It is billed as a romantic musical that aims to be “a first-of-its-kind, Hollywood-influenced, musical romance set in Japan.” In its way, the film succeeds as it has the requisite parts and puts them together successfully. Tone down expectations of glamour and sweeping emotions and you have a fun and sweet indie musical that utilises some dazzling costumes and agile dancers to make cute dance sequences which are built into a solid dramatic core featuring a universal story of being true to oneself.
Young female directors are gaining ground in the male-dominated Japanese film industry and nowhere is this more in evidence than in film schools across the nation where women make up an increasing number of students, a great example being Aya Miyazaki and her university work Good-Bye (2020) which has now entered cinemas on a theatrical run.
Eriko Izumi is one of the latest names to emerge withher debut feature Young Birds. It is an original work produced by herself and 12 students, some from China and Thailand, at Digital Hollywood University over a year and a half. While rough around the edges, it presents an easy-to-understand coming-of-age drama examining the insecurities felt by a young woman trying to find her path in life.
Since it’s the 25th anniversary of Resident Evil, I’ve been replaying the original Resident Evil 2 and completed the “Leon A” and “Claire B” storylines. Coming back to the game after so many years makes me appreciate the design and art that went into it and also the fantastic effort that was put into recapturing the spirit of the original and updating it with new graphics, sound, acting, and direction for the remake.
Another thing I revisited was the world of Wong Kar-Wai by watching Days of Being Wild, As Tears Go By, and Happy Together in order to discuss the latter film on episode 2 of the Heroic Purgatory podcast. Please have a listen. Wong Kar-Wai is one of my favourite filmmakers. Have you watched any of his works?
For the last few years, Osaka Asian Film Festival has been screening MOOSIC LAB films. These works are the result of the pairing together of up-and-coming directors, actors, actresses, and musical performers into a unit to create a movie. The final products are almost always idiosyncratic in some way since they are the results of the combined talents of whoever has been grouped together. This year’s entry was POP!, a quirky drama featuring dry comedy and existential angst. It plays on the unique combination of director Masashi Komura (小村昌士), lead actress Rina Ono (小野莉奈), and DJ/producer Aru-2.
Rina Ono takes the lead role of Rin Kashiwakura, a 19-year-old who is on the cusp of turning 20, the official age of becoming an adult. With the approach of such a momentous occasion in her life one would expect excitement but what she feels is frustration and confusion as she struggles to understand how she fits in with others and the world at large, and just what she wants to do. An early dream of becoming an actress has become side-tracked and she works part-time as an official mascot on a struggling local TV charity program and part-time at a remote mountainside car park where nothing much happens. An encounter with a mad bomber leaving explosive packages around town gives her some impetus to move forward.
This description may seem full of random elements but they are deliberate and filmed in such a way by Masashi Komura that they form a collage of situations that form the entry point into Rin’s existential crisis – nothing seems to join together story-wise, long sequences happen in empty locations, and scenes can be devoid of propulsive action and sound and time. At its centre is a strong yet reticent performance from Rina Ono who keeps our attention. Overlaying everything is the downtempo lo-fi musical tracks of of Aru-2. Its lazy beats, samples, and various audio imperfections are indicative of both what a person Rin’s age might listen to and also how she feels. When combined, at times, this experience is frustrating, tiring, and confusing but there is also a lot of humour and heart as Rin struggles to make sense of things. These myriad of emotions reminded me of what I felt in my own adolescence. In short, the film had successfully made me feel Rin’s existential crisis as she tries to pull herself out of her stagnant life and move forward like the adults around her. The final result is a truly unique film (my review).
I wasn’t the only one, it seems. The film won the Grand Prix and Rina Ono also nabbed the Best Actress Award at the MOOSIC LAB awards, thus showing that quality of the film. Director Masashi Komura kindly agreed to take part in an interview to explain how the different elements of the film match up and he furnished many interesting answers.
A relatively new filmmaker, Komura has worked on a number of projects including co-writing the screenplay for The Man Who Was Eaten, which was featured at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2016, writing and directing the 2017 film LEO, and appearing in Ken Ninomiya’s The Matsumoto Tribe (2017). Komura talked more about POP!, how the project came together, his inspirations, his approach to manipulating time, and working with Aru-2 and gifting his sound to audiences.
This interview was done with the massive help of Takako Pocklington, who translated between English and Japanese to help bring director Komura’s answers to the page.
Premiering at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021, Shinji Imaoka’s short film A Rainbow-Coloured Trip feels like it is a response to his previous work, the downbeat and dour drama Reiko and the Dolphin, which premiered at the same festival a year earlier. While that film charted the dissolution of a marriage following the death of a child, A Rainbow-Coloured Trip takes the same story archetype but tells it from a child’s perspective and with upbeat musical sequences.
Haruka (Yuune Sakurai) is an 11-year-old girl who is experiencing the first blush of love with a boy in her class. Despite feeling a giddy sensation of joy over this, she finds herself dragged down by the fact that her parents Nobutaka (Ryujyu Kobayashi) and Kumiko (Yuri Ogino) are about to divorce. It is a situation she will be stuck with over a weekend.
As a family, they are taking one last holiday together in a cabin in a nature park at the foot of Mount Fuji but her parent’s constant bickering makes Haruka head deep into the forest that surrounds the campsite to escape them. Her destination is a special waterfall where she can pray to a dragon god for her family to start over again but can life really be so simple?
While getting a World Premiere in the Competition section of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021 would be a sign of quality for director Satoko Yokohama and her film Ito, her work ended up taking two high-profile accolades at the event as judges awarded it the Grand Prix (Best Picture Award) and viewers selected it for the Audience Award. These wins are richly deserved as Ito laces a youth film and a heartfelt tribute to all-things Aomori around a charming central performance from rising actress Ren Komai (駒井蓮).
In the film, Komai plays Ito Soma, a high school girl who lives with her father (Etsushi Toyokawa – 豊川悦司) and maternal grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa – 西川洋子) in a small town just outside Hirosaki city, Aomori. Ito embodies various aspects of the local culture, from having a thick Tsugaru accent to an innate skill in playing the Tsugaru shamisen, an ability inherited from her late mother. Alas, Ito refuses to practice and stays silent due to her embarrassment over her country roots and also her melancholy over never having known her mother. What puts the girl on the path of self-acceptance and self-expression is an unlikely job at a maid café where she meets a coterie of kind people who offer encouragement and get her to embrace her cultural and family heritage on her own terms. You can read my review here.
The film is based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya and while its Japanese title “Itomichi” was shortened to “Ito” for the international version, the story still communicates all of the charms of Aomori. It is the latest project from Satoko Yokohama (横浜聡子), a graduate of the Film School of Tokyo who independently produced her first feature German + Rain (2007) which won the Directors Guild of Japan Newcomer Award. Next came Bare Essence of Life (2009) and The Actor (2015) which have both been screened at international festivals. Both she and lead actress Ren Komai hail from Aomori Prefecture, the setting of the film and audiences will be able to detect their knowledge and closeness really brought out deep details and atmosphere.
Director Yokohama kindly took part in an interview where she talked about adapting the novel, working with Ren Komai to get a moving portrayal of the main character plus an impressive shamisen performance, and what it means to be a filmmaker from Aomori and returning there to shoot a film.
This interview was done through the translation skills of Takako Pocklington and the film/festival staff who set everything up.
While I was watching Wong Kar-Wai films last week, this week was all about Osaka Asian Film Festival titles and Peninsula, the sequel to Train to Busan, which is on Amazon Prime. In terms of the Osaka films, I posted an interview with Hiroshi Gokan, director of Gotō-sanand I rewrote my review here and sent it to V-Cinema where it was published alongside the interview – a similar case with JOINT and that film’s director Oudai Kojima. Thanks go out to the directors for making the films and to everyone involved in taking part in the interviews!
Very rarely the setting of a film, Shimokitazawa is a trendy little district in western Tokyo that lies in the shadow of Shibuya and Shinjuku. Home to independent shops, theatres, cinemas, live music venues, bars, and restaurants, the place vibes with youthful energy as students, actors, second-hand booksellers, and bar owners, all with a seemingly average age of 20-something, engage in artistic revelry and nights of frolicking. It is also a place constantly changing as commercial redevelopment is ongoing – when I last visited, a new station and an adjacent department store were being constructed – and it has its quiet parts. It is a slice of Tokyo different from everywhere else in the city.
Using Shimokitazawa as his sandbox, director Rikiya Imaizumi brings us Over the Town, his latest film and his second in 2021, which is full of characters and locations you would encounter in real life.