Release Date: June 19th, 2021
Duration: 94 mins.
Director: Tomoya Ishida
Starring: Tomoya Ishida, Osamu Jareo, Shizue Sazawa, Megumi Mitsui, Daisuke Suzuki, Miki Koga, Makoto Nozaki,
Transform! is an enjoyable and informative film that will expand the way you think about how disabled people participate in the arts. The debut work of Tomoya Ishida, who is disabled himself as he requires an electric wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, this was his graduation project from Rikkyo University. It would go on to become the 2020 Pia Film Festival Grand Prix winning film which granted it the honour of being played at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
A documentary in which Tomoya Ishida takes the lead role, he interviews people with a variety of disabilities to learn how they transform their bodies and minds to take part in artistic events. His interest in this field was sparked in school after he made a movie about his experiences on a holiday trip to Asakusa and edited it on an iPad. Getting the creator’s bug, he took a course in body expression and cinematic arts at Rikkyo University and thus this film was born.
With a crew of three people consisting of Ishida and two fellow students who act as camera operator and sound recordist, we track his daily life getting around Tokyo as he meets various people. These quotidian moments serve the dual purpose of leading us to sit-down interviews with creators and seeing them in action and how they overcome any obstacles in their life/environment.
The discussions are frank and can be seen as taboo-breaking as the interviewees speak honestly about their backgrounds, interactions with able-bodied and disabled people, and how they express their inner selves through their bodies. These interviews are punctuated with examples of their work on stage and screen which serves to display their artistic ethos in action. For example, Megumi Mitsui, a blind actress and musician, is shown in didactic but comedic stage plays where the content directly address the issue of being blind and how to navigate awkward interactions. The most compelling and eye-opening for me was Shizue Sazawa, a sign-language instructor at Rikkyo and an actress herself, who is shown in an excerpt of the omnibus film LISTEN wherein she tells a love story with her real-life husband solely through the expressive use of hands, upper-bodies, and gazes. The film was silent but the actions felt passionate and convincing as they moved individually and yet in synchronicity and each movement conveyed a strong emotion.
In taking a leading role himself, Ishida’s own personality colours the film as he pays attention to how he makes a movie that involve the people around him. Ever aware of his own physical presence and how others perceive him, he has developed a laidback and open personality that dictates his approach to people as he draws out and disarms potentially difficult subjects in a discourse. You get the sense that he allows others the space to elaborate on ideas which leads to genuine artistic and human connection/collaboration. It stands in contrast with something like Goodbye CP (1972) where, due to the confrontational nature of director Kazuo Hara and subject Hiroshi Yokota, a man with cerebral palsy, there was a deliberately aggressive and almost humiliating edge in the public acts of art and acting in a deliberate attempt to provoke strong reactions. The two films would make an interesting double-bill that show how in the 45+ years that have elapsed since Hara’s work, Japanese society has changed to be more inclusive of the disabled, as shown by something mundane like how trains are more accessible and how people talk openly about what was once a taboo subject usually hidden away. How much has changed is best left for experts but there is a sense of more inclusivity in this film.
Ultimately, it is Ishida’s traits that reveal this inclusivity push the film’s investigation forward in a collaborative manner and we see how he allows himself to be drawn into a dance by Osamu Jareo, a choreographer whose work includes people with disabilities and gives them a chance to express themselves. Jareo talks about how disability is just movement in a different physical context and he is right as we see a fun and uplifting dance routine involving the various people Ishida has met over the course of his films. It radiated joy as Ishida and his subjects danced together and I felt it deeply also felt that it opened up my perception on how people with “differences” can collaborate together as Transform widens the field of self-expression beyond the traditional paradigm of the able-bodied to explore the wealth of possibility that each individual can contribute to public life.