Japanese Films at the Cannes Film Festival 2017

Cannes Film Festival 2017 Poster

This year’s Cannes Film Festival (17th – 28th May) is the 70th edition of the event and the festival head Thierry Fremaux announced the Official Selection of films programmed last week. Critics are salivating over the fact that there are two Netflix films: the monster movie Okja by Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and The Meyerowitz Stories by Noah Baumbach (writer on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and director of Mistress America). There will be two TV series for audiences to watch: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake and lots more familiar faces such as Sofia (Somewhere) Coppola’s The Beguiled, Michael (Code Unknown/Cache) Haneke’s Happy End (knowing Haneke, it’s probably an ironic title…). More importantly, there are also nine first-time filmmakers getting their works screened.

Why is that important?

The Cannes Film Festival comes into 2017 with a need to find fresh blood and this is seemingly strong selection because may be it. Since this is the 70th anniversary of the festival and the fact that, last year, organisers faced fierce criticism last year for their lack of female directors, commentators identified that they needed to do a couple of things: broaden out its programme so that there are filmmakers other than the old guard (Campion, Haneke, Kawase, Haynes, the Dardennes brothers etc.) and increase the number of female-centric stories and female-led films across the programme. The old guard are back but just by glancing at the lists of announced films, it is clear that the festival has achieved some of its goals and will probably avoid the criticism it faced last year – hopefully, no high-heels and breast-feeding baby incidents will crop up). Things are a bit of a mixed picture when it comes to the Japanese films.

So far, there are four Japanese films programmed, and three come from festival regulars: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Naomi Kawase, and Takashi Miike. Two of the four are adaptations while the other two are original dramas. Out of the dramas, one is made by a seasoned professional while the shorter one at 45 minutes is from a student. The presence of a fresh director is always something to cheer when it comes to Japanese films at international festivals and this director is a lady to boot: Aya Igashi. She is a graduate from Toei Gakuen Film College’s movie production department and is already working on her third film.

So, while we can all sigh and shrug our shoulders at the lack of original content, we can take comfort in the fact that Aya Igashi is on the radar of people who programme the festival.

What are the films playing this year?

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Nagisa Oshima, March 31, 1932 – January 15, 2013

Nagisa Oshima on Set Nagisa Oshima, one of the great figures to emerge from the Japanese New Wave, passed away from pneumonia on January 15th 2013 at the age of 80.

Oshima was born on March 31 1932 in Kyoto into a family of samurai decent. Following the death of his father his mother worked to support him and his sister. He enrolled at Kyoto law school in an era of great upheaval and student protests following the war. It was the place which moulded his political leanings as he became a socialist and highly critical of the Japanese establishment and sought to explore the way people repress themselves. His politics would be reflected in the themes of his future works which tackled social issues and taboos ranging from sex, homosexuality, capital punishment and racism.

Following his studies he thought film would be the best way to get his message out and so Nagisa Oshimaapplied for the position of assistant director at Shochiku studio where he worked on films like Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and Kuroneko from 1954-59. Not that being an assistant director was his only job as he wrote scripts and developed a body of film criticism that attacked the Japanese film industry.

His ascent reflects a mixture of the traditional path for Japanese filmmakers, following a sort of apprenticeship with a more experienced director and what was happening with the French new wave where film critics like Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard and Claude Chabrol branched out into film attacked “Papa’s Cinema”, films that adapted safe literary works in a staid way, and branched out into making films themselves, films that threw away the formulaic ways of making films, the staginess and respectability of the past and engaged in telling stories in a much more visual an inventive way.

Indeed, he is one of a number of directors including Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara to emerge from the Japanese New Wave from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Their generation followed the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, masters of Japanese cinema who have cast long shadows that some modern directors still feel the need to challenge.

Oshima’s efforts at writing brought him to the attention of producers and executives but it The Boy Who Sold His Pigeonwas actually a canny move on the part of the Japanese studious to let him directors create their works since Godard et al were making a lot of money for their producers. Oshima’s first script to be filmed was The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon (1959) which as renamed A Town of Love and Hope. The titular boy lives with a disabled sister and sick mother. To support them he shines shoes and sells pigeons. A bourgeois schoolgirl buys one of the pigeons in sympathy a homing pigeon keeps coming back. It was a film about the gap between rich and poor and it portrayed it with great realism.

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