Pink film director Shinji Imaoka delivers a downbeat indie drama that has its roots in the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Written at the time of the disaster, Imaoka had just made his debut as a film director and wanted to capture the atmosphere and emotions of the situation but no production company would provide backing. It wasn’t until 2016 when Imaoka received funding from one of his fans that he could initiate the project. He began shooting his script in January 2017, finishing it in time for the 25th anniversary of the disaster. The result is a melancholy film that follows the travails of regular people left reeling from tragic caused by the earthquake.
There are few filmmakers capturing the zeitgeist of youth culture like Daisuke Miyazaki. His characters, often smartphone-wielding young women, make their way through a chaotic world with what little resources have been given to them by society. This scarcity of support engendered a spirit of defiance in Yamato (California) (2016) and an openness for change in Tourism (2018) which helped the protagonists of those films define their own identity. VIDEOPHOBIA is Miyazaki’s darkest work yet, one that shows the shadowy side of technology as revealed through online pornography.
Writer/director Takeshi Kushida makes his feature debut with Woman of the Photographs, a story where a middle-aged photographer living a carefully controlled existence finds everything disrupted by the intrusion of a vivacious model whose presence triggers change. At 90 minutes, the film flies by but has depth as it asks questions about how people get mired in the past and confused over how to perceive themselves. With wit, drama and some special effects, the film goes beyond merely being topical and an “opposites attract” movie and becomes an absorbing drama about neuroses and love.
At a time when minimalism is trending as a style in Japanese indie cinema, Noriko Yuasa distinguishes herself through adventurous use of color and editing to add to the emotional space of her works. Her colorfulness enriched Looking For My Lost Sunflowers (2014) where the bright yellow of the flowers symbolized the warmth of a salaryman’s hometown nostalgia, the sharply contrasting blues, reds and grays in Girl, Wavering (2015) reflected a teenage girl’s rough adolescence, and the visual tricks of Ordinary Everyday(2017) created a reality that became increasingly fractured until a shock ending. With her latest short film, Coming Back Sunny, Yuasa uses strong colors to visualize the emotions of a high school girl’s first encounter with love.
Coming Back Sunny follows 17-year-old Shiori (Riria Kojima) who lives in the small city of Kawagoe. Shiori suffers from achromatopsia which means she cannot distinguish between the colors red and green, both of which look brown in her eyes. Interacting with the world can be frustrating since she misses the beauty that others see. This frustration has not only left her feeling uncomfortable in social situations but has even made her prematurely misanthropic. One source of relief is her best friend, Yumi (Honoka Yoneyama), who is a constant companion and the person closest to her heart.
Tokyo-based rapper SEEDA used his life to inform his hit 2006 album Flowers and Rain and he goes a step further as all of this forms the basis of this autobiographical film which exhumes some painful memories to show how he made his first album which was informed by his life of crime and his sister’s own struggle.
The film begins in media res with the main character beat up pretty bad before he explains how he got to this point.
Isamu Hirabayashi moved from the world of advertising and graphic design to indie films in 2001 and has made a number of shorts that have been selected for festivals like Locarno and Berlinale. Shell and Joint (2019) is his first feature and it is a truly unique title that shines with a visual opulence derived from someone with an eye for framing and a deep consideration for angles and colours, while its script shimmers with a comedic wit that tackles universal themes in a variety of genres and tones in ways that are enhanced by the look and sound of the film.
Opening proceeding are Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) and Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), two people who have been friends from childhood who now work together at the front desk of a capsule hotel. Nitobe has a particular fondness for philosophy and crustaceans while Sakamoto is fixated on suicide and winding up her friend during their long conversations. They form the manzai duo whose interactions rise in silliness as the film keeps revisiting them while guests come and go.
In 2017, the Japanese word karoshi, death from overwork, entered the global lexicon when news organisations covered the case of advertising firm Dentsu which was fined by a Tokyo court for violation of labour laws following the suicide of an overworked employee named Matsuri Takahashi who had been clocking up 100 hours a month in overtime prior to her death. Her story came out around the same time as the one of NHK journalist Miwa Sado who died two years earlier after she logged 159 hours of overtime in a month. Analysts, public health experts and cultural commentators published articles stating that they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Although karoshi is a term that has been around since the 70s, the unhealthy work culture that results in depression, suicides or strokes amongst workers has been identified as being linked to the post-war economic miracle when employees were asked to dedicate their lives to their jobs. However, in the 90s after the economic bubble burst, things worsened as worker protections were sacrificed on the altar of free market capitalism and people were chewed up by their employers. In response to this, and a falling birth rate, the government has introduced measures to give employees more time off work. Things have yet to get better.
One filmmaker who has been tracking stories of everyday people being sacrificed for the economy is Tokachi Tsuchiya who started out as a freelance videographer and became a documentary filmmaker with his award-winning debut A Normal Life, Please! (2009) where he exposed the exploitation of workers through an average truck driver named Nobukazu Kaikura who was made to work by his company “552 hours a month without benefits or sick pay, a regime that barely affords him time to wash or eat” (source). The film covered Kaikura’s decision to join a worker’s union and the unsavoury characters hired by his company who tried to crush the workers who were simply defending their rights.
Since then, Tokachi has worked for an NPO making films about capitalist exploitation and state oppression while also doing “making-of” videos for Momoko Ando’s 0.5mm and Gen Takahashi’s Court of Zeus. With An Ant Strikes Back, he is back with a story of a worker who fought for years for better treatment at his job after horrendous exploitation and mistreatment and it is a shocking eye-opening insight into unfair labour practices in Japan and how unions protect workers.
An Ant Strikes Back starts with a prologue that introduces some sobering facts about karoshi before introducing the director to viewers and here he relates how his friend “Yama-chan” was a victim a number of years before. We understand that his perspective will be a factor in understanding karoshi. Then we are introduced to the worker “ant” at the heart of the film, Yu Nishimura.
The design and feel of a book is very important. Although it usually takes second place to the ideas in the text when we discuss what we read, elemental things involved in the physical aspects of the book, such as the texture, typography and images, confer a vital character onto the text that captures a reader’s interest by stimulating their senses and placing various demands on their attention. The writer’s intent is being mediated through the perspective of the designers, editors and bookbinders involved in bringing it to the shelf. This is something we might not normally think about but the wonderful documentary book-scissors-paper proves to be an enlightening and enthralling exploration of this part of the publishing process by offering up a portrait of a world-famous book designer and his work to elucidate these ideas.
book-scissors-paper is the sophomore feature of Nanako Hirose, one of the young talents at Bunbuku-bun, the production house set up by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It is where she worked on features such as Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, After the Storm and Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse, it is also where she made her debut feature, His Lost Name, which recently toured the festival circuit. That she made a documentary about book covers seems like something completely out of left-field until one discovers that her father was a book designer and that the subject of this documentary, Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, was responsible for many of the covers on the books in her parents’ house. From this personal background comes this documentary which is a tribute to the art of book design.
Daigo Matsui is famous as a director who has worked on mostly youth-oriented movies like Afro Tanaka (2012), Sweet Poolside (2014),How Selfish I Am! (2013) andJapanese Girls Never Die(2016) but did you know he is a former manzai performer and has his own theatre company? Matsui takes on the theatre world here with an adaptation of British playwright Simon Stephens’s coming-of-age drama “Morning”. However, instead of simply recording a performance to screen in cinemas, we are delivered into how the original story is translated into a Japanese setting and how universal its message of teenage angst is. What plugs us into this creative space and new and unique understanding of the text is that the film is done in a flawless 74-minute take that gets behind the scenes of the play and shows all the pressures and risks for the actors involved in bringing their roles to life.
In 2017, a stage performance of “Morning” is scheduled to run in a small town. It is a savage play that has been attracting attention in the theatre world for its story of a violent act by two best friends fighting through a rough adolescence. The film starts a month before the opening night. A cast of six young actors are being pushed to their limit by a director who gives out abstract plans and demanding instructions:
“I want to show you all really living on the stage.”
Koji Fukada is regarded as one of the leading lights of Japanese cinema and he is someone who I have covered on this blog, from his opener Human Comedy Tokyo(2008) to his Cannes award-winner Harmonium (2016) and other titles. He has the ability to tackle subtle elements in human relationships with black humour and seriousness as well as a light touch. Inabe stands as one of my favourites because of its simplicity and earnestness but more is lurking underneath the honest emotions shared between two siblings who are reunited after years apart.
Tomohiro (Hiroaki Matsuda) is a 30-something guy who hasn’t seen his older sister Naoko (Ami Kurata) in 17 years. He is surprised and suspicious when she returns to their hometown of Inabe with a baby, her son Naoki. Their meeting is out of the blue. She steps off a train, walks to the pig farm he works at, and waits for him to clock off. Initially awkward, they talk as they head to the family home where Naoko reintroduces herself to relatives and soon she is digging into Tomohiro’s current marital woes. This digging gets deeper and more personal as the two wander around childhood haunts.