New Directions in Japanese Cinema (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS / OSAKA ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2019]

New Directions in Japanese Cinema (ndjc) is a programme which has been in operation since 2007 with the express purpose of cultivating talented young filmmakers through putting them together with experienced actors and crews in workshops for the production of a 30-minute narrative short shot on 35mm film. The 2019 selection of shorts are all well-crafted dramas in production terms and deal with themes of either fractured families or the influence of fathers.

Farewell Family     Sayonara Kazoku Film Poster

サヨナラ家族 Sayonara Kazoku

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 29 mins.

Director:  Kohei Sanada,

Writer: Kohei Sanada (Screenplay)

Starring: Hoshi Ishida, Toshie Negishi, Yui Murata, Shiori Doi, Kazuhiro Sano, Yosuke Saito,

Website

I first encountered Kohei Sanada’s work at the 2017 edition of the Osaka Asian Film Festival. The title was, Icarus and Son, and its story of a father reconnecting with his son left me cold, not least because the father was unsympathetic and the conclusion of the story too obtuse to actually be moving. Sanada continues to mine father-son relationships in this short film which was the first of the five titles to screen when I saw it at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019.

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Bullet Ballet バルットバレエ Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto (2000)

Bullet Ballet                                                  Bullet Ballet Film Poster

バルットバレエ 「Barutto Baree

Release Date: March 11th, 2000

Duration: 87 mins.

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto

Starring: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kirina Mano, Tomorowo Taguchi, Tatsuya Nakamura, Kyoka Suzuki, Hisashi Igawa, Takahiro Murase, Keisuke Yoshida, Hiromi Kuronuma

When you say bullet ballet I think of Hong Kong gun-play movies the likes of which made John Woo famous. That isn’t the case here with this Shinya Tsukamoto film which is distinctly him as it features a visual and aural style reminiscent of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (even shot in black and white) but closer in tone to the existential enquiries of A Snake of June and Tokyo Fist.

Shinya Tsukamoto takes the lead role of Goda, a thirty-something filmmaker working in advertising. His work aside, life is absolutely average – long hours at the office, drinks after work, an equally busy girlfriend named Kiriko. They have been with each other for a decade but never committed to marrying because they are both pursuing careers. No surprises. No detours. No shocks. That is until Goda returns home one night to find police cars and ambulances surrounding the entrance to his apartment building. Kiriko has committed suicide with a gun.

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Orphan’s Blues オーファンズ・ブルース Dir: Riho Kudo (2018) [Japan Cuts 2019]

Orphan’s Blues      Orphans Blues Film Poster

オーファンズ・ブルース O-fanzu Buru-su

Release Date: May 31st, 2019

Duration: 89 mins.

Director: Riho Kudo

Writer: Riho Kudo (Screenplay),

Starring: Yukino Murakami, Takuro Kamikawa, Nagiko Tsuji, Sion Sasaki, Tamaki Kubose, Yu Yoshii,

Website

Orphan’s Blues was the winner of the Grand Prize at the Pia Film Festival 2018 and was screened at last year’s Nara and Tokyo international film festivals where it earned some critical buzz. It makes its North American debut at Japan Cuts 2019 where its narrative dissonance will either capture imaginations or leave audiences bewildered.

The world seems to be ending. Grim pronouncements about rising temperatures and global warming are made on the radio and it seems to be true considering the sights and sounds of a sun-soaked stifling summer scored by cicadas provide the backdrop for a road trip taken by characters to find a missing man. Initiating this journey is a young woman named Emma (Yukino Murakami). She lives a lonely life working as a bookseller on a dusty roadside patch and she is furiously fighting against her fading memory. It is a battle she wages by creating canopies of post-it notes at home and writing in notebooks. Her present-tense thoughts are scattered around but dominated by her memories of her past in an orphanage with her best friend Yang. When she gets a painting of an elephant from Yang (elephants’ never forget), Emma decides to drop everything and search for him.

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And Your Bird Can Sing きみの鳥はうたえる Dir: Sho Miyake (2018) [Japan Cuts 2019]

And Your Bird Can Sing   Kimi no tori wa utaeru Film Poster

きみの鳥はうたえる Kimi no tori wa utaeru

Release Date: September 01st, 2018

Duration: 119 mins.

Director: Sho Miyake

Writer: Sho Miyake (Screenplay), Yasushi Sato (Novel)

Starring: Shota Sometani, Tasuku Emoto, Shizuka Ishibashi, Makiko Watanabe, Ai Yamamoto,

Website IMDB

Film adaptations of stories by the writer Yasushi Sato have slowly been made over the last decade with Sketches of Kaitan City (2010) by director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Mipo Oh’s The Light Shines Only There (2014) and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence (2016) joined by Sho Miyake’s And Your Bird Can Sing which premiered at the 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival. All are set in the author’s native city of Hakodate in the north of Japan and all centre on the lives of working-class people, showing them with subtle shades of sadness in slow moving dramas struck through with moments of beauty for some uplift. And Your Bird Can Sing is the least dramatic of the bunch but no less engaging.  

The film takes place over one summer in Hakodate and follows an unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto), simply referred to as “Me” in the credits. He is a freeter who works at a bookstore while sharing an apartment with his unemployed friend, Shizuo (Shota Sometani). They pass their time together drinking from dusk until dawn and shambling home in a fit of giggles after some mild caper. “Me” will frequently roll into work with a hangover while Shizuo will potter around during the day in anticipation of the night to come which promises a repeat of their antics. They are young, aimless and content. However, their lethargic days are shaken when “Me” begins dating his co-worker Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi). Independent and quietly rebellious, she is attracted to “Me” and his laid back nature. Curiosity turns into companionship as she gets roped into his hang-about life and meets Shizuo.

For “Me” and Sachiko the future appears so far off as to be inconsequential especially with more immediate pleasures at hand which consist long nights spent bopping to beats in clubs or slipping in and out of a lover’s embrace but change will happen because there is an ever so gentle forward motion to the story driven by Shizuo’s growing attraction to Sachiko. Sho Miyake’s camerawork loves Shizuka Ishibashi’s spirited performance as she slinks and grooves through scenes and she imbues a liveliness to her character which naturally holds the attention of the audience as well as other characters, Shizuo especially as his snatched glances and side-eyed stares segue into touchy-feely interactions during their many trips to karaoke bars and clubs.

“Me” seems to just accept the situation with indifference but the subtle shifting of emotions presages bigger changes as the three friends start to slowly slip away from each other at a time when employment and family pressures mount and provide unwelcome pricks of reality that let the air out of the snug and comfortable world they created. Responsibilities avoided come crashing down and it seems like the fun is over as the story forces them to reassess their situation and recognise a general malaise they feel from having held life in stasis for some time. 

This is a soft drama rather than something hardscrabble, something that explores the harmony of companionship where the pace of the film is affected by the lifestyle of the three as they while away their time but the emotional fluctuations are there and they lurk under the surface of scenes, usually in subtle movements of the actors. When the pressure mounts, hints of nastiness emerge, Shota Sometani and Tasuku Emoto able to turn their character on a dime and launch into aggressiveness and then reveal a more sympathetic worry to add welcome layers of emotions to characters that initially just seem aimless. 

Sho Miyake chooses to use this slow pace to delicately tease out the changes felt between these people in moments of low drama so the film ends up feeling like a tender and caring examination of characters preparing to face complicated feelings rather than something harsher as experienced in other adaptations of Yasushi Sato’s work. Miyake probably captures the freeter lifestyle accurately as he respects and translates the pleasures of their lives, shooting everything with a pleasant light, often during dusk and dawn, giving the image a quality that softens everything and renders their activities and the city of Hakodate more beautiful than it could possibly be in reality. Reality can be harsh but there is some hope at the end of this film as they have to leave behind their freeter lifestyles. As much as they like hanging out, at some point the party has to end but who will leave with the girl…?

 

My review for this film was originally published on July 21st at VCinema

A Japanese Boy Who Draws  ある日本の絵描き少年 Dir: Masanao Kawajiri (2018) [Japan Cuts 2019]

A Japanese Boy Who Draws  Aru Nihon no ekaki shonen Film Poster

ある日本の絵描き少年 Aru Nihon no ekaki shonen

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 20 mins.

Director:  Masanao Kawajiri

Writer: Masanao Kawajiri (Screenplay),

Starring: Takeshi Uehara, Yasumi Yajima, Kenta Abe, Yoshiko Ishii, Shota Suzuki,

Website

Masanao Kawajiri’s experimental short animation depicts the life of a boy aiming to be a manga artist. It took the Runner-up Award for the Grand Prize at last year’s Pia Film Festival awards (missing out to Orphan’s Blues) but took the Gemstone Award which is given to, “the most progressive and daring film made beyond the common ideas of filmmaking”. A Japanese Boy Who Draws definitely fits this bill as it marries the magic of art and animation and their many different styles to a mockumentary to tell an enjoyable story of someone pursuing their dream.

The film follows the life and career of Shinji Uehara, someone who pursues his passion for drawing, from the age of one to his life as a professional enduring the vicissitudes of the manga industry.

Continue reading “A Japanese Boy Who Draws  ある日本の絵描き少年 Dir: Masanao Kawajiri (2018) [Japan Cuts 2019]”

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram Interview [Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019]

If you travel to Kyoto then it is recommended you try travelling from scenic Arashiyama to the bustling city centre by the Randen trams. They cut through many areas and they prove to be the perfect setting for three intersecting stories in a film.

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram (review) features a writer named Eisei Hiraoka (Arata Iura) has travelled from Kamakura to Kyoto to research supernatural stories but, instead, relives memories of time spent in Kyoto with his wife; Kako Ogura (Ayaka Onishi), a shy local woman helps an actor from Tokyo named Fu Yoshida (Hiroto Kanai) practice speaking with Kyoto dialect; Nanten Kitakado (Tamaki Kubose), a high school girl from Aomori, who falls for a local train otaku (Kenta Ishida).

Quite unlike many other films screened in 2019, Randen revels in creating a magical atmosphere of heightened romance and folktales that could only take place in Kyoto. It was the opening film of the 2019 edition of the Osaka Asian Film Festival and it will play on the final day of Japan Cuts 2019 in New York. I had the chance to interview the director of the film, Takuji Suzuki, at Osaka and he revealed how the film was a put together with love and care by his team which included Kyoto University film students and local people living along the Randen line.

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The Kamagasaki Cauldron War 月夜釜合戦 Dir: Leo Sato (2018) [Japan Cuts 2019]

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War  The Kamagasaki Cauldron War Film Poster

月夜釜合戦 Tsukiyo kama gassen

Release Date: March 09th, 2019

Duration: 115 mins.

Director:  Leo Sato

Writer: Leo Sato (Screenplay),

Starring: Naomichi Ota, Yota Kawase, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Kazu, Makoto Nishiyama, Shoji Omiya, Naori Ota, Tsumugi Monko, Maki Nishiyama, Marie Decalco, Susumu Ogata, Masao Adachi

Website IMDB

Kamagasaki is a slum-like part of Osaka’s Nishinari district which is notorious for having a high concentration of day labourers, homeless and a history of civil unrest, not to mention its proximity to the Tobita Shinchi red-light district. When I lived in Japan and moved from Tokyo to Nishinari I was given warnings and advice from friends. The way some people talked about the history of Kamagasaki made it sound anarchic and dangerous. By the time I got there things had become tamer thanks to gentrification driven by the boom in tourism and my experience was positive. Indeed, as soon as I was off the train a day worker with a sunny disposition struck up a conversation and offered to buy me a drink before my landlady rescued me from the surprise invitation and showed me around the district. They were the first of quite a few residents who took the time to talk to me and dispelled myths by telling me different stories of a poor but proud community who have had to fight for their human rights and dignity. The history and feel of Kamagasaki is strong and director Leo Sato has managed to bring it to life in his debut feature fiction film which creates a feel for the place.

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Last Judgement / Saigo no Shinpan 最後の審判 Dir: Shinya Kawakami [Osaka Asian Film Festival / Japan Cuts 2019]

Last Judgement / Saigo no Shinpan    Saigo no Shinpan Film Poster

最後の審判 Saigo no Shinpan

Release Date: March 02nd, 2019

Duration: 29 mins.

Director:  Shinya Kawakami

Writer: Shinya Kawakami (Screenplay)

Starring: Ren Sudo, Miru Nagase, Asuka Kurosawa, Kiyomi Aratani,

Website     IMDB

New Directions in Japanese Cinema (NDJC) is a programme that has been in operation since 2007, it’s purpose being to help foster talented young filmmakers through workshops and the production of 30-minute narrative shorts, shot on 35mm film, with the help of experienced professionals. The resulting works are given screenings across Japan and at major festivals. I had covered their films in old trailer posts¹ but had never seen a whole programme until this year…

It was coming up to the end of the 2019 edition of the Osaka Asian Film Festival and there was a screening of this year’s NDJC titles early one morning. I was quite eager to see them and was truly thrilled by the final title, Final Judgement (Saigo no Shinpan) by Shinya Kawakami which is, hands down, the best of the bunch.

Inaba (Ren Sudo) is a talented artist who has tried and failed the entrance exam to Tokyo Art University many times. He is on his sixth attempt and has decided to make this year his final challenge. As he prepares to paint a portrait to pave his way into the institution, a very gifted rival named Hatsune (Miru Nagase) appears amidst the students and her unconventional methods and tremendous vision creates a work which roars with energy and snares the attention of everybody including their tutors. Inaba is incensed by this girl (who is still in school, no less!) but, at the height of his anger he takes a left turn and invites Hatsune to a cafe to find out how she is such a great artist…

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A Preview of Japan Cuts 2019 (JULY 19–28)

Japan Cuts 2019 is back with its annual showcase of the latest in Japanese films carefully curated by its team of programmers. It is due to kick off in New York in a month’s time and runs from JULY 19–28. The selection looks good and there’s a handy trailer to build up anticipation by revealing a glimpse of all the films on offer!

There is a distinctly youthful and fresh feeling to the roster of directors and writers as well as the stories they tell. Lots of directors are, or were, making their debuts after cutting their teeth in various production roles or they are at the indie end of the spectrum and under-exposed on the festival circuit. Then there is a lot of youth-oriented stories with a lot of coming-of-age tales. That’s not to say that the older generations are forgotten as a documentary and some legendary filmmakers are also on board with Shinya Tsukamoto in New York to show Bullet Ballet as well as his latest film Killing and there is also a doc called I Go Gaga, My Dear about an elderly couple which is getting a lot of play at different fests so that’s a good sign. I’ve seen quite a few of these films, mostly at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival, and so I’ll put links to my reviews if you want to read them.

Some of these films are going to be accompanied by directors and actors and a full list plus bios can be found here. This year’s recipient of the CUT ABOVE Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film is Shinya Tsukamoto, one of the first directors I went and wrote a biography for and reviewed a whole bunch of his films (my favourite being Vital). He is just one of many guests so please check the official website to find out more.

All information comes from old trailer posts and the JAPAN CUTS website.

Here is what has been programmed!

Continue reading “A Preview of Japan Cuts 2019 (JULY 19–28)”