A Preview of Nippon Connection 2021 – Highlights

Nippon Connection Logo

The 21st Nippon Connection will take place from June 01st to the 06th and there is a roster of 80 films that will be screened online. On top of that, there will be talk sessions with directors and over 40 interactive workshops, talks, performances, and concerts.

The complete program as well as tickets for all films and events were made available on May 22nd on the website NipponConnection.com and the films can be accessed from June 1st on Watch.NipponConnection.com – whether a film can be streamed in your region or not can be discovered via here. One film costs 6€ / £5 and can be viewed within 24 hours of it being started. Some titles will be region-locked while others are available to stream worldwide.

This is a highlight post which gives an overview of the festival and some of the films I recommend (basically me plugging reviews).

All of the films are special in some way but there is so much to cover. Here are some highlights. I will provide follow-up articles to cover other sections. Click on the titles to be taken to the corresponding Nippon Connection page which has details on dates and times.

Nippon Cinema

This section is dedicated to the big films that have recently been released and may have done the festival circuit. It gives a good idea of the types of things that make up contemporary Japanese cinema, with youth movies and first love mixing with family dramas, the occasional title that leans into the art house side of the spectrum, and the rare political movie. Here’s the full line-up. Here are the highlights:

 

Can’t Stop the Dancing   Dance With Me Film Poster

ダンスウィズミー  Dansu Uizu Mi-

Release Date: August 16th, 2019

Duration: 103 mins.

Director: Shinobu Yaguchi

Writer: Shinobu Yaguchi (Screenplay),

Starring: Ayaka Miyoshi, Yuu Yashiro, Chay, Takahiro Miura, Tsuyoshi Muro, Akira Takarada,

Website IMDB

I haven’t reviewed this one but I have watched it and it is absolutely one of the most fun and enjoyable films to have been released in Japan in the last five years. It has an uplifting story about chasing one’s dreams and making the best of a bad situation, a great soundtrack made up of pop hits reimagined with big band music, and dance scenes rife with comedy as it plays with the heroine’s desperate attempts to rid herself of the urge to dance, a feeling which strikes at the most awkward moments. Ayaka Miyoshi is simply stunning in this.

Synopsis: Shizuka (Ayaka Miyoshi) is a salarywoman preparing for a big meeting but after visiting a shady hypnotist and being left under a spell which causes her to break into song and dance whenever she hears music, even if it’s just a ringtone, Shizuka needs to get her head fixed and goes on the hunt for the hypnotist who has disappeared. Thus starts a road-trip musical!

 

The Day of Destruction   The Day of Destruction Film Poster

破壊の日Hakai no Hi

Release Date: July 24th, 2020

Duration: 57 mins.

Director: Toshiaki Toyoda

Writer: Toshiaki Toyoda (Script),

Starring: Kiyohiko Shibukawa, MahiToThePeople (of the band GEZAN in his debut film role), Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka, Ryuhei Matsuda, Itsuki Nagasawa, Shima Onishi, Misa Wada,

Website IMDB

Toshiaki Toyoda (Blue SpringPorno Star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan) teams up with loyal actors Kiyohiko Shibukawa (Porno Star) and Ryuhei Matsuda (The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan) along with MahiToThePeople (of the band GEZAN in his debut film role), Issey Ogata (Tony Takitani), and Yosuke Kubozuka (Giri/Haji), to make a “state of the nation” type of film which would have been released on the opening day of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games. Corruption and indifference are in the air and Toyoda exhorts people to stand up to it. A year on, the Olympics are still on the horizon and those factors are still in play and still making people in Japan sick.

You can read my review here.

Synopsis: After a mysterious monster is found deep in a rural coal mine, rumours of a plague spread across the country and people experience an unexplainable mental illnesses. A young Shugendo practitioner named Kenichi (MahiToThePeople) is determined to exorcise the monster in all of its forms.

 

To the Ends of the Earth     To the Ends of the Earth Film Poster

旅のおわり世界のはじまり  Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari

Release Date: June 14th, 2019

Duration: 120 mins.

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Screenplay),

Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Ryo Kase, Shota Sometani, Tokio Emoto, Adiz Rajabov,

Website     IMDB

Kiyoshi Kurosawa teams up with a great cast to make a movie which is a co-production between Japan and Uzbekistan to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Two of the leading actors have worked in his films before, Atsuko Maeda being the lead in Seventh Code and having a supporting role in Before We Vanish, Shota Sometani having a supporting role in Real. It may seem like an odd mix of subject and performer but Kurosawa works some magic for a melodrama/musical/travelogue. I have to admit that I was crying at the end. You can read my review here.

Synopsis: Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a reporter for a TV variety program and her assignment is to host a series of segments of a travel programme at various place in Uzbekistan. This is a country that once flourished as the centre of the Silk Road but Yoko and her crew find a place that is alien and a people who are hard to understand. Things don’t quite go according to plan for Yoko and her crew and it turns into a slog. This is especially true for Yoko who is suffering from an existential crisis but, one day, drawn by a mysterious voice, Yoko departs from the company of her compatriots and loses herself in various aspects of the country. Doing this will help her find herself…

Under the Open SkyUnder the Open Sky Film Poster

すばらしき世界 Subarashiki Sekai

Release Date: February 11th, 2021

Duration: 126 mins.

Director: Miwa Nishikawa

Writer: Miwa Nishikawa (Script), Ryuzo Saki (Original Novel)

Starring: Koji Yakusho, Taiga Nakano, Isao Hashizume, Meiko Kaji, Seiji Rokkaku, Masami Nagasawa, Narumi Yasuda, Yukiya Kitamura,

Website   IMDB

Under the Open Sky is the latest work from Miwa Nishikawa, one of Japan’s best directors. You may know her from Sway (2006) or Dear Doctor (2009). This is the first film she has directed that isn’t based on a novel or script written by herself. It is based on a novel by Ryuzo Saki named Mibuncho.

Synopsis: Masao Mikami (Koji Yakusho) has spent 13 years in prison for committing a murder while living the life of a yakuza. Upon his release, he struggles to re-integrate and even begins to think about his mother, from whom he was separated from as a child. However, he becomes connected with various people including a crew from a TV station who want to make a programme that shows his life. 

 


Nippon Visions

This section is a space for new talents and experiments with indie films and genre cinema getting represented through shorts. The subjects vary but all of the films have individuality and something that will intrigue and entertain audiences. There are so many highlights, so please check the Nippon Connection website and check back in with this blog later this week to see more. Here’s the full line-up. Here are the highlights:

 

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes   We Are at the End of the Droste Film Poster

ドロステのはてで僕らDroste no hate de bokura

Release Date: June 06th, 2020

Duration: 70 mins.

Director: Junta Yamaguchi

Writer: Makoto Ueda (Script/Original Story)

Starring: Kazunari Tosa, Aki Asakura, Riko Fujitani, Gota Ishida, Masashi Suwa,

Website

I have not seen this film but I am hearing very good things from people who have as it is a funny comedy done in the one-take style – think potential hit like One Cut of the Dead.

Synopsis: The film is a time manipulation comedy set in a multi-tenant building where a café owner named Kato discovers that his PC monitor shows what will happen two minutes in the future. A TV downstairs in his café shows the past of two minutes ago. His friends decide to place these screens opposite each other, which creates a loop to see into the future…

 

Kamata PreludeKamata Prelude Film Poster

蒲田前奏曲Kamata Zensoukyoku

Release Date: September 25th, 2020

Duration: 115 mins.

Directors: Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe

Writers: Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa, Hirobumi Watanabe (Script)

Starring: Urara Matsubayashi, Kotone Furukawa, Ren Sudo, Sairi Ito, Mayuko Fukada, Noa Kawazoe, Ryutaro Ninomiya, Ryutaro Kondo,

Website    IMDB

The directors involved are a new generation of talent from the Japanese movie industry including Ryutaro Nakamura whose work ranges from Plastic Love Story to Silent Rain, the latter of which was screened at both the 2019 Busan International Film Festival and Tokyo Filmex where it won the Audience Award. Mayu Akiyama’s debut work, Rent a Friend, won the MOOSIC LAB Grand Prix and was screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2018. Hirobumi Watanabe’s film Cry won Best Director at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2019 in the Japanese Cinema Splash section. Yuka Yasukawa was one of a number of emerging talents tapped to helm one of the shorts from 21st Century Girl which has been screened around the world. They each bring their own style to four stories that range in tone and content.

Urara Matsubayashi, the film’s producer and one of its cast, is a rising star active on the stage, TV drama, and on film. She will be most familiar to audiences from her performance in The Hungry Lion which was screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and New York Asian Film Festival in 2018. She is joined by many seasoned actors, including Sairi Ito (Love & Other Cults) and Kumi Takiuchi (It Feels So Good, Greatful Dead) and Ren Sudo (Last Judgement).

Here’s my review and here’s my interview with producer/star Urara Matsubayashi and director Mayu Akiyama.

Synopsis: A four-part film done in the unique style of each director, Urara Matsubayashi gives a portrayal of a struggling actress named Machiko who lives in Kamata. Machiko is the central axis of the movie as the film comically depicts what it means to be a “woman” and an “actress” in society through showing the patterns of life as conducted by her and the people that surround her.

Kontora

コントラKontora

Release Date: March 20th, 2021

Duration: 145 mins.

Director: Anshul Chauhan

Writer: Anshul Chauhan (Script) 

Starring: Wan Marui, Hidemasa Mase, Takuzo Shimizu, Taichi Yamada, Seira Kojima,    

Website     IMDB

This is a distinct and impressive sophomore feature from Anshul Chauhan after his debut Bad Poetry Tokyo (2017). It has a gorgeous monochrome sheen behind which is a dark and mysterious story powered by absorbing dramatic acting. 

Here’s my review and an interview with the director Anshul Chauhan.

Synopsis: When Sora’s (Wan Marui) grandfather passes away she loses the last person she feels she can communicate with. Her relationship with her father is very uneasy and so when Sora discovers her grandfather’s wartime diary which hints at hidden treasure she hides it in the hopes it can provide some outlet for herself. At this time a mysterious mute vagrant who only walks backwards appears in town and his presence provides a catalyst for change between father and daughter.

yes, yes, yes

Release Date: N/A

Duration: 74 mins.

Director: Akihiko Yano

Writer: Akihiko Yano, (Script), 

Starring: Kazuma Uesugi, Kazunari Uryu, Minami Inoue, Nahoko Kawasumi,

OAFF

Here’s my review and here’s my interview with director Akihiko Yano.

Synopsis: In this ensemble drama, we watch a few days in the life of a family of four people who have to wrestle with the devastating news that the mother, Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi), may not be able to come back from hospital after the return of a serious illness. Each member of the family is personally devastated but the one who seems to take this news the worst is teenage son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi) who lacks the maturity to process what it all means and so he bristles with nihilistic angerIn contrast, his older sister Juri (Minami Inoue) knows enough to put on a brave face but her mind is also elsewhere as she faces her own lonely struggle on her way to single-motherhood. Meanwhile, their father, Masaaki (Kazunari Uryu), has adopted a false mask as he desperately tries to play the patriarch to hide his own fear and sadness. At this moment of crisis when they should all be pulling together, each person retreats into themselves and their family begins to fall apart. However, it is only in facing death that each person can learn to cherish life.

Then I Add Colors to a Panda and a Zebra.

そして私はパンダやシマウマに色を塗るのだ。Soshite watashi wa panda ya shimauma no iro wo nurunoda

Release Date: N/A

Duration: 39 mins.

Director: Karin Takeda

Writer: Karin Takeda (Script), 

Starring: Yuki, Kansaku Shinohara, Ryota Takeda, Kayoko Kimura, Keiji Murata, Mako Shimizu,

Synopsis: Shirahoshi is a girl who is a perfectionist. If she can’t be the best, then she might as well give up. That’s why she quit her dream of being a manga artist when she won the runner-up prize in a contest and that is why she is shocked when her boyfriend, who was her perfect match, dumps her. Looking for a new job and trying to cope with rejection, she meets a suspicious man and self-proclaimed ghost who warns her that not everything has to be “black or white.”

 

Stay    Stay Film Poster   

Release Date: September 05th, 2020

Duration: 38 mins.

Director: Naoya Fujita

Writer: Suzuyuki Kaneko (Script),

Starring: Keita Yamashina, Ruka Ishikawa, Takaki Uda, Yumi Endo, Kenta Yamagishi, Kohei Nagano, Suzuyuki Kaneko,

Website

Stay, by director Naoya Fujita, was screened at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in 2019, which is where I saw it as part of the package of films supported by the Housen Cultural Foundation. The inspiration for the story comes from the time when Fujita encountered a traditional Japanese-style home and was immediately taken with it, imagining what it would be like for a community to form around it and this idea evolving into one asking the question of what constitutes a family.

It stars Keita Yamashina (My Lovely DaysBody Remember) and Ruka Ishikawa (Colorless).

You can read my review here but, in short, the atmosphere is very strong and the acting compelling.

Synopsis: Yajima (Keita Yamashina) is a village official who has shown up at an abandoned house to convince some squatters to move into social housing or simply leave. What he discovers is a community of strangers who, despite having no ties to the house, have all gathered there and pitch in when it comes to doing chores.  There is a perky young woman named Maki (Ruka Ishikawa) who acts as a cheerleader binding people together, a kind 30-something woman named Saeko (Yumi Endo) who has taken on the “mother of the house” role, and a confident hands-on man named Suzuyama (Takaki Uda) who is remodelling the place to his own tastes even though nobody has asked him to. Yajima soon becomes part of this community…

 

Idol    Idol Poster No Creds Laurel 02    

アイドルAidoru

Release Date: September 23rd, 2020

Duration: 20 mins.

Director: Ryushi Lindsay

Writer: Ryushi Lindsay (Script),

Starring: Ryoka Neya (Miyabi), Miyu Sasaki (Kasumi), Sawa Takahashi (Ami), Akira Takanohashi (Yoshimura), Yui Matsuura (Rie), Yuki Mayama (Junya),

Website IMDB

Ryushi Lindsay is a British-Japanese filmmaker based in Japan and the UK. Even with just a couple of shorts to his name, he is beginning to carve out an interesting filmography and Idol is his latest work. A drama set in the world of idol groups, it peels back layers of exploitation in a story that focusses on a mother-daughter relationship that goes awry. It features class consciousness as well as a critique of the entertainment industry. It is all powered by strong mise-en-scene and compelling performances.

You can read my review here and my interview with director Ryushi Lindsay here.

Synopsis: Taking place over two nights in Tokyo, the story enters at the point of crisis for a young single mother named Miyabi (Ryoka Neya) as her daughter Kasumi (Miyu Sasaki) is unceremoniously dropped from the line-up of an idol group just minutes before a performance and replaced by someone more popular. This leads to Miyabi taking drastic measures to secure Kasumi’s place…



Nippon Docs

The documentary films in this year’s NIPPON DOCS section offer insights into various topics: sports and cults, ways of living and the desperate desire to live free. The film are done with different formal approaches, from experimental narrations, ethnographies, and political diatribes caught on hidden cameras. They interconnect with cautious biographical observations to paint a complicated picture of contemporary Japan. All films in this section are eligible for the NIPPON DOCS AWARD. Here’s the full line-up. Here are the highlights:

 

Me and the Cult Leader   Me and the Cult Leader Film Poster

AGANAI 地下鉄サリン事件と私 AGANAI Chikatetsu Sarin Jiken to Watashi

Release Date: March 21st, 2021

Duration: 114 mins.

Director: Atsushi Sakahara

Writer: N/A

Starring: Atsushi Sakahara, Hiroshi Araki, Shoko Asahara, Takako Sakahara, Takeshi Sakahara,

Website IMDB

Synopsis: In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult launched a deadly sarin gas attack in Tokyo’s subway system. Since then, the cult’s leader was executed and it was renamed Aleph.  One victim of th attack, the director of this film Atsushi Sakahara, travels with a member of the Aleph cult, Hiroshi Araki, and they spend time visiting each other’s hometowns and the university they both attended with Sakahara learning more about Araki. And so a relationship between two very different people on different sides of a deadly incident is born.

The Witches of the Orient
Les Sorcières de l’Orient Film Poster

Release Date: N/A

Duration: 100 mins.

Director: Julien Faraut

Writer: N/A

Starring: N/A

IMDB

Again, another film I have not seen but I have heard that this is very good.

Synopsis: The Japanese women’s volleyball team won the Olympic gold at the 1964 Games in Tokyo and achieved the record of 258 successive wins, a feat that remains unbeaten to this day. They were known as ‘The Witches of the Orient’ and achieved international fame as well as immortalisation in manga and anime. This status belies their origins as the team of a textile factory but that and their meteoric rise to legendary status is covered in this documentary which makes use of manga and anime sequences, archival footage of matches and training sessions, all of which is driven by rhythmic editing and great music from French musician K-Raw.


Nippon Animation

Japan is a titan of the animation world as reflected in the way it has so many films at Annecy every year and there are mainstream anime movies and indie shorts scattered around Nippon Connection (check back on this blog for a longer post on Wednesday). Anyway, this section has three features and a really exciting collection of shorts from indie and student animators.

The biggest highlight is:

On-Gaku: Our Sound   On-gaku Our Sound Film Poster

音楽  Ongaku

Release Date: January 11th, 2020

Duration: 68 mins.

Director: Kenji Iwaisawa

Writer: Hiroyuki Ohashi (Screenplay), 

Starring: Kami Hiraiwa (Morita), Shintaro Sakamoto (Kenji), Ren Komai (Aya), Naoto Takenaka (Oba), Tateto Serizawa (Asakura), Tomoya Meno (Ota),

Animation Production: N/A

Website ANN MAL

This anime is based on the manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi and the write up makes it sound good as “the film’s animation technique evolves as the story does, culminating in a rock ‘n’ roll spectacle for the ears and the eyes”.

The film won Best Feature Film at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and a review over at the Japan Times gave it 5 out of 5!

Synopsis: One summer’s day, three outsider high school students who haven’t touched an instrument in their lives decide to form a band to express their teenage angst and impress girls. Does it matter that Kenji and his friends have never played an instrument before? Of course not – he’s got a guitar at home and his friends have a bass and drums in theirs so in the true spirit of punk, with blind confidence and absolutely minimal effort they start to make friends and influence people.

 

In addition to the variety of films, the wide-ranging supporting program under the title Nippon Culture will be offering a selection of virtual workshops, lectures, concerts, and performances and even cooking classes. Highlights include:

Subtitling workshop / Manga drawing / Origami / Learning Japanese with film scenes

Panel discussion: Triple disaster 2011 / Book presentation: No Nukes / Art Talk: Soundscape Okinawa / Lecture: The aesthetics of Fumito Ueda’s computer games / Lecture: Sounds for the screen / Lecture: Japan’s beautiful South / Nippon Game Center Talk / Film Talks

More information on the complete program is available on the festival homepage: NipponConnection.com

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