Tokyo FILMeX 2020 runs from October 30th to November 05th. It’s the place to see arthouse films but, due to Covid-19, organisers have decided to shorten the duration of the fest and have it run alongside the Tokyo International Film Festival, although it’s still a physical event. This move positions the festival in a way to make it akin to Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. You can read a statement here which explains more.
Anyway, the festival has quite a few titles from Japan or set in Japan that are worth checking out.
Click on a title to be taken to the festival page:
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.
Naomi Kawase¹ (website) is in London in September for the Open City Documentary Festival 2019 where she will take part in three screenings and will introduce a selection of her works and take part in a Q&A and extended talk. Called, “Naomi Kawase: In Focus”, this particular festival strand, organised with the help of the Japan Foundation, is a unique opportunity to see some of the early films that helped make Naomi Kawase a major presence in world cinema as these self-documentaries show her nascent skull which developed while she recorded some of the most intimate details of her life as she searched for her identity on screen. Most prominent amongst the films is the influence of her adoptive mother, Uno Kawase, which is a bond that is put on screen in a moving set of films which have been highly lauded.
Here are the details. Just click on the titles to access the festival page and booking information:
Receiving its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) 2019, Shinjuku Tiger (2019) is a return to the world of documentary filmmaking for director Yoshinori Sato. Although he has a background in television documentaries, he will probably be best known for his 2016 sophomore feature about capital punishment and guilt, Her Mother, an intense film where the mother of a murder victim seeks to prevent the execution of the murderer. It won plaudits for the acting at different festivals including Busan 2016 and OAFF 2017. After a fairly bleak and heavy drama about coming to terms with murder, Sato steps back into documentaries with a film about a flamboyant guy who is all about spreading love and happiness.
Earlier in 2018 I had the chance to see three of Kazuhiro Soda’s early films which he made as a student at New York’s School of Visual Arts in the 90s and was surprised to discover he started out making a comedy and dramatic short films with well-contained stories and acting. He is still based in New York but is now renowned for observational documentarieshaving produced works of the cinema vérité variety that look at communities in Japan starting withDemocracy(2007).The Oyster Factorywas one I first encountered in the 2015 run of the Vancouver International Film Festival. This 145 minute film looks at life inside an oyster factory and as Soda explores this environment he discoverswider issues about the generational divide through the lack of young people entering the industry and Chinese-Japanese relations as Chinese workers are brought in to help keep two oyster factories running.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is regarded as one of the finest documentaries ever made. It derives its power from its subject, a World War II veteran and political agitator named Kenzo Okuzaki who is on a quest to expose a possible war crime as well as the irresponsible actions of Emperor Hirohito, the military, and post-war governments who carelessly tossed away the lives of their people and have imposed a sort of nation-wide amnesia over the wrongs committed during the war including the killing of their own soldiers.
Director Kaori Oda uses her film Towards A Common Tenderness to explore the way that cinema can be used to depict the space and feelings between people, how the camera has the power to understand and destroy what is recorded, the ethics of film-making, and her own personal journey as a film-maker.
Originally from Osaka, Oda moved to Virginia where she studied film at Hollins University. She made her debut with the short Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), a self-documentary about her coming out as gay to her family which won the Audience Award at the Nara International Film Festival. Following this came a period where she faced a creative and personal impasse which resulted in her travelling to Sarajevo to study at Béla Tarr’s film.factory film workshop from 2013 to 2016. Whilst studying she made a few shorts and then created her first feature-length film Aragane (2015) which depicted work inside a coal mine. It made waves at documentary festivals around the world due to its impressionistic form which Oda created by focussing on using the senses to convey the space in the mine rather than approaching the subject solely through more conventional means such as an analysis of class. Her time in Bosnia proved to be beneficial as a way of overcoming personal and professional questions over using her family as the subject of her debut film. With a wealth of experience and footage to root through, Oda dives into this issue, sinuously and seamlessly pulling together many threads to create a smooth stream of images and sounds in an exploration of her own character and creative urges as she makes herself the subject.
Documentarian and visual anthropologistHikaru Toda is based in London and Osaka and has worked on manyfilms to explore the differences between people and society. Love Hotel,a 2014 film she co-directed,was a look at the lives of the customers of a love hotel in Osaka. It eschewed going down the cheap route oftitillating and alternative sex to look at the pressures, inner-desires,and memories that drive the people who escape to such a private place. The film also offered a look at the creeping draconian politics of Japan’s government which is shutting down love hotels whilst alsotaking awaypersonal freedoms as it re-militarises the country. Two of the customers were gay lawyers Kazu and Fumi who lived out their love behind closed doors and reappear in this documentary out in the open.
Third Window Films’ recent release of The Whispering Star(2016) was paired up with The Sion Sono, a documentary directed by Arata Oshima, son of legendary filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. Both films were originally released on the same day in Japan and prove to be the perfect partners for a home format release since they capture moments in the evolving career of Sion Sono, Japan’s most maverick multi-hyphante talent.
Sono is a poet, painter, writer, filmmaker, and rebel who decries convention and has taken on the role of subversive provocateur daring to tackle all manner of subjects and genres in his films. Gory horror, family drama, political and social diatribes, comedy, and everything in between have been mined to create a truly unique filmography of over 40 films and this documentary traces the origins of his work ethic, his love of films, and give a glimpse of the real character behind the cult figure.
Art is life and life is art. That sounds like hyperbole but Yuko Nakamura’s documentary, A Room of Her Own – Rei Naito and Light, takes a look at a remarkable artist’s extraordinary installation work which uses light and delicate objects to make life-affirming works that give insight into the world and human existence. Again, sounds like hyperbole but this film is inspirational in the way its shot and reveals a lot about its subject even if she remains a mysterious figure.
Nakamura takes audiences to the genesis of this project, when she learned she would have to support her terminally ill mother. While contemplating how to look after her parent and feeling the serious weight of her connection, she took a trip to Teshima Art Museum, on an island in the Seto Inland Sea, and she encountered an integrated artwork named “Matrix” by architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito (more info). The visit was a profound moment that gave Nakamura an insight into life but how to explain it? How to understand it? How to understand the artist, Rei Naito? A film had to be made.