Ninja Girl シュシュシュの娘(こ)Director: Yu Irie (2021) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]

Ninja Girl   Ninja Girl Film Poster

シュシュシュの娘(こ) Shushushu no Musume (ko)

Release Date: August 21st 2021

Duration: 88 mins.

Director: Yu Irie

Writer: Yu Irie (Script)

Starring: Saki Fukuda, Ryoka Neya, Matsuo Yoshioka, Mayumi Kanetani, Shohei Uno, Arata Yamanaka, Arata Iura,

Website IMDB

The shushushu onomatopoeia in the Japanese title of Ninja Girl is the swishing sound of shuriken thrown through the air. However, the titular character at the heart of this film is probably the least able shadow warrior one could find with shurikens not in her armoury and, even if they were there, she would probably not able to use them.

This is the comedy of Ninja Girl, the latest work by Yu Irie, a veteran director whose name has more recently been attached to many major mainstream films like Memoirs of a Murderer (2017). His film shows the least likely person taking a stance against conservative political orthodoxy. In order to make it, he had to turn to crowd-funding since no major studio would be likely back a story with subject matter critical of the establishment, especially not during the Covid-19 pandemic which is when this was filmed with a small team as a quick and fun pick-me-up for an industry afflicted by the cancellation of projects. Since it is an indie film, Irie returns to the cheaper rural locations featured in his earlier titles, like 2009’s 8,000 Miles (aka SR: Saitama Rapper), and makes great use of them to bring about a deliberately bumbling action film set in what looks to be a boring part of Japan defined by low-rise buildings, featureless fields, and winding roads.

The ninja girl we follow is Miu Komaru (Saki Fukuda), a timid and somewhat naïve young woman who lives on the edge of rural Fukuya City, Saitama. We watch her quiet quotidian routines and see her time is split between her work at Fukaya city hall, where she is snowed in by paperwork, and her home, where she looks after her bedridden paternal grandfather, her last living relative. While she is pensive and obsequious, he is a political firebrand who is at odds with the local government who have co-opted nationalist thugs and xenophobia to influence the area.

Continue reading “Ninja Girl シュシュシュの娘(こ)Director: Yu Irie (2021) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]”

An Interview with Atsuko Miyake, Stop-Motion Animator on JUNK HEAD

Welcome to the world of JUNK HEAD

 JUNK HEAD is a dark, dystopian sci-fi-horror film that alternates between the grotesque and the cute. Told through the medium of stop-motion animation, it presents a unique film world and unforgettable dolls animated to perfection in an experience that has wowed all who have seen it.

Its story is set in the far future at a time when humanity has achieved immortality through gene manipulation, but has lost the ability to procreate. An explorer is sent deep bowels of the Earth to recover genetic information from mutants. His journey across a landscape dank industrial landscape is always gripping due to the dense atmosphere created by moody lighting and highly detailed sets, highly cinematic due to camerawork, editing and animating that conveys thrilling action, and really fun to follow due to the dangerous creatures and demented characters who crash together over the course of the story.

The film is a true indie work in that it is the singular vision of its director, Takahide Hori. He is an interior director by trade but he had a sci-fi story he needed to tell and created an award-winning 30-minute version that attracted attention. Soon after, he quit his job to work as writer, director, editor, actor, (and more – watch the credits) with a small team over the course of seven years to complete the project, everyone creating sets, dolls, and special effects and then animating everything to bring the feature film to the big screen. His team included freelance creatives like stop-motion animator Atsuko Miyake, Ken Makino and Yuji Sugiyama who made props, sets, and worked on technical aspects like using Adobe After Effects to bring to life this unique and twisted animated vision. Once the film was finished, professional translator Emily Balistrieri, a freelance translator who has worked on novels like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (here’s my review of the film), brought the language of the characters to life with puns and neologisms that fit the world perfectly – probably best seen in the “mashroom” scene where the main character goes on a mushroom hunt for a weird-looking penis-like vegetable growths that crawl around once plucked from their grotesque “beds.”

Atsuko Miyake is animating

Earlier this year, JUNK HEAD became a word-of-mouth hit in Japan where it played to sold-out screenings at mini-theatres for many weeks. It has since been picked up for festival play at the New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia, and prospects for theatrical releases seem good. I have had the chance to watch the film as part of the New York Asian Film Festival (review here) and now Atsuko Miyake, the film’s stop-motion animator, has generously given me the opportunity of an interview to explain her inspirations, her part in the production, what it was like working on the project for so long, and what she hopes happens next for the world of JUNK HEAD.

Continue reading “An Interview with Atsuko Miyake, Stop-Motion Animator on JUNK HEAD”

Junk Head ジャンク ヘッド Director: Takahide Hori (2021) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]

Junk Head         JUNK HEAD Film Poster 2021

ジャンク ヘッドJanku Heddo

Release Date: March 26th, 2021

Running Time: 99 mins

Director:  Takahide Hori

Writer:  Takahide Hori (Screenplay),

Starring: Takahide Hori, Atsuko Miyake, Yuji Sugiyama,

Website   IMDB   MAL

Director Takahide Hori’s debut feature is dark, dystopian sci-fi-horror film JUNK HEAD, an unforgettable stop-motion movie that is unlike anything you will have ever seen. Alternately grotesque, blackly-comic, and weirdly cute, it is totally unique and sure to please those into the weird, body-horror, creature features, animation, and adventures.

It is a road movie filled with sets rich with details that absorb viewers it’s world while carefully crafted and cool-looking models are animated with such liveliness that they come to glorious life and leave us spellbound. Its effects on viewers already has been to spawn a monster word-of-mouth hit that dominated mini theatres across Japan and even garnered television airtime on variety shows. It has also become one of my favourite films of the year.

JUNK HEAD’s story is set in the far, far, far, future at a time when the human race has advanced enough to achieve immortality through gene manipulation and cybernetic bodies but has lost the ability to procreate. While humans dwell at the tops of towers close to the sky, mutants they created for slave labour, known as Marigans¹, toil away in the lower levels. It is from these mutants that human scientists hope to recover genetic material to restore their ability to breed.

Continue reading “Junk Head ジャンク ヘッド Director: Takahide Hori (2021) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]”

Hydra (2019) Director: Kensuke Sonomura

Hydra   Hydra Film Poster

Release Date: November 23rd, 2019

Duration: 77 mins.

Director: Kensuke Sonomura

Writer: Jiro Kaneko (Screenplay),

Starring: Masanori Mimoto (Takashi), MIU (Rina), Tasuku Nagase (Kenta), Takaya Aoyagi (Shinichi), Takashi Nishina (Masa), Kaoru Gotou, Naohiro Kawamoto, Hironobu Nomura, BoBA, Tomorowo Taguchi, Yoji Tanaka,

Website IMDB

After its initial theatrical run in 2019 in Japan, Well Go USA Entertainment have picked up HYDRA for home release to give American audiences a taste of an indie action title from Japan. Lasting 78 minutes and featuring veteran stunt performers and genre movie actors, it feels like an introduction to its lead actor’s martial arts skills as well as a proof of concept that could lead to more films.

Continue reading “Hydra (2019) Director: Kensuke Sonomura”

Reiwa Uprising れいわ一揆 (2019) Dir: Kazuo Hara

Reiwa Uprising   Reiwa Uprising Film Poster

れいわ一揆  Reiwa Ikki

Release Date: September 11th, 2020

Duration: 248 mins.

Director: Kazuo Hara

Writer: N/A

Starring: Ayumi Yasutomi

Website IMDB

Popular discontent and disillusionment with governments and traditional media are increasingly a feature of societies worldwide as economic conditions and alienation deepens for many. People are now seeking alternative voices that promise some semblance of change, even in Japan where the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has maintained a near unbroken grip on the steering wheel of the country since World War II. While this continuance of command has conferred the veneer of stability to the nation, beneath the surface is a history of corruption, incompetence, and persistent social problems which many people have linked to regressive official attitudes and an uncaring ruling party. What one finds is that these factors have led to a general sense of malaise amongst the populace. So, what hope is there for change?

Enter documentarian Kazuo Hara who, in his first film made without his wife and producer, Sachiko Kobayashi, spent three months in 2019 tracking a set of outsiders who tried to break into the conservative world of Japanese politics. He turns in a fun film that presents an optimistic picture of citizen engagement and collective action that upturns any cynical assumptions of what a politician should be and just how normal people can challenge the status quo.

Reiwa Uprising starts with Hara receiving an invitation to join a political campaign run by Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender Tokyo University professor who specialises in economics and whose hobby is horse riding. She is one of ten candidates handpicked at short notice by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto (Kawada in Battle Royale) to represent his then newly established Reiwa Shinsengumi party in their first national election. Up for grabs are seats in Japan’s House of Councillors. There is an understanding that the politically and financially dominant LDP are sure to retain power, but the hope is that some sort of breakthrough can be made and the party established. After briefings lay out a general strategy, each of the candidates sets off to campaign however they want.

And so Hara and his team follow Yasutomi with handheld cameras and smartphones. They record her as she goes on a whistle-stop tour of Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, selling her message and listening to local issues like the Henoko base move. Her PR methods are lo-fi, especially when compared to the moneyed LDP figures: armed with a banner, sash, and microphone, Yasutomi travels alongside a horse and a small orchestra whose instruments include kazoos, melodicas, and an iPad and, as a group, they rock up in front of train stations, on street corners, and in community centres where Yasutomi gives speeches while her eccentric orchestra plays and spectators are invited to contribute, by dancing, drawing, and commenting.

reiwa_sub01

It is easy to dismiss these rallies as cute, especially when the film shows the quality gap between the focus-group-tested precision-engineered messaging of the LDP candidates who ride along on vans with a huge entourage of handlers – we see them in action when the LDP candidates send heavies and spies in to shut Yasutomi down – but she remains a calm and intelligent figure even if her presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Initially, her wandering speeches espouse two vague messages – “save the children” and “bring horses into cities” – and she is light on policy but as election day approaches, a clearer political rhetoric emerges as she takes inspiration from what she has seen and she rails against the strictures of society and unites it with the humanism and environmentalism she believes in. This stands in contrast to the LDP candidates who are like automatons who parrot insincere lines with inauthentic smiles that seem to wash off the crowds who breeze by with nary a glance. And this is where the film begins to show how the LDP can be overturned.

What we notice is that the novelty Yasutomi’s outreach catches attention and her sincerity and progressive and inclusive messaging inspires people to join in until her audiences grow larger, more diverse, and more dedicated. Even kids joyfully contribute drawings and comments praising her. While Yasutomi is never perfect on messaging, as evidenced by a talk about LGBTQ rights which feels too blasé, the public are genuinely swayed by her. Hara shows this through vox pops and in the many rally scenes caught in cinéma vérité style where we see people are drawn in to participate and are moved to tears by the increasingly impassioned Yasutomi who, herself, frequently bursts into tears, especially as she returns to her home prefecture of Osaka near. Sometimes, Yasutomi’s methods are magic, especially a Michael Jackson-inspired street concert that is definitely toe-tapping and grin-inducing, but what we see is her steadily building coalitions and active engagement with all sectors of society, especially those who are marginalised, and this provides the impetus for change. It is something that leftist parties tend to forget as they retreat away from working with unions and charities and communities and become professional politicians divorced from reality. The fact is status quo parties, especially conservative ones, tend to have the money, the way to beat them is to bring the people.

reiwa_sub03

While the film follows Yasutomi, we are introduced to the other candidates including Teruko Watanabe, a single mother, Eiko Kimura and Yasuhiko Funago, who are both disabled, and Taro Yamamoto himself who is using his star power to boost the prospects of his fellow party members. There are others, some slightly more polished, others more rough around the edges, but what is felt is that they are real people and of the people and committed to bringing difficult issues that the LDP ducks to the docket.

One of the other compelling strands in the film comes near the end where normal people begin to berate of the fourth estate. One woman, inspired by Reiwa Shinsengumi to travel from the distant Awaji islands to the election night gathering in Tokyo – watch the audience for raised eyebrows when she announces where she is from – chastises big news outlets for offering little coverage and this is followed up by many other stern comments. The lack of  media interest is an idea that is seeded throughout the film by Hara who uses YouTube and social media visuals to convey how Reiwa Shinsengumi use the internet to disrupt the normal political narratives and this allows them to secure recognition for their party. This really gets across just how grassroots and genuine the party are. Whatever the election results, it does seem like change is possible.

If Hara’s early works focussed on individuals and gave a glimpse of the collectives that formed around them, his late work, starting with Sennan Asbestos Disaster, is all about collectives and the individuals within them, each of whom pulls together to make a change. Through following Reiwa Shinsengumi, the film shows picture of people championing the rights of the disabled and the marginalised and offering an alternative vision for the way society is run. It’s a refreshingly unvarnished and cheerful experience that offers real slices of Japan, from Henoko base protests to stump speeches in Nishinari where the local crowd have little time for airs and graces. As the film played out, I felt myself swept along by the messaging and even getting emotional alongside Yasutomi whose genuineness definitely won my vote. Alright, I was really impressed by Taro Yamamoto, too!

Uplifting, fun, and hip to contemporary issues, Reiwa Uprising breezes through its near 5-hour duration quite easily and offers plenty to think about and relate to.

Reiwa Uprising was part of a season of films made by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi run by Japan Society.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村 (2018) Director:  Kazuo Hara Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Sennan Asbestos Disaster   Sennan Asbestos Disaster Film Poster

ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村 「Nippon Kuni VS Sennan Ishiwatamura

Running Time: 215 mins.

Release Date: March 10th, 2018

Director:  Kazuo Hara

Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Writer: N/A

Starring: N/A

Website IMDB

Following on from their first – and only – fiction feature, The Many Faces of Chika (2006), Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi returned to documentary filmmaking with the release of Sennan Asbestos Disaster in 2018. It is a heart-breaking and infuriating document of the bitter legal battles between people who found their lives blighted by asbestos and the Japanese government who failed to protect them despite knowing the dangers the material posed. 

Continue reading “Sennan Asbestos Disaster ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村 (2018) Director:  Kazuo Hara Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi”

A Dedicated Life 全身小説家 (1994) Director: Kazuo Hara, Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

A Dedicated Life   

全身小説家 Zenshin Shosetsuka

Release Date: September 23rd 1994

Duration: 157 mins.

Director: Kazuo Hara

Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Writer: N/A

Starring: Mitsuharu Inoue, Jakucho Setouchi, Hiroshi Noma, 

IMDB

Released seven years after The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, you might expect A Dedicated Life to pale in comparison to that excoriating and exciting experience but it proves to be an enthralling documentary as it explores the myth-making of leftist writer named Mitsuharu Inoue and offers a fascinating and complicated biographical portrait of a larger-than-life personality in the few years prior to his death.

Continue reading “A Dedicated Life 全身小説家 (1994) Director: Kazuo Hara, Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi”

The Many Faces of Chika またの日の知華 (2005) Dir: Kazuo Hara, Producer/Writer: Sachiko Kobayashi

The Many Faces of Chika    The Many Faces of Chika Film Poster

またの日の知華 Mata no Hi no Chika

Release Date: January 05th 2005

Duration: 114 mins.

Director: Kazuo Hara

Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Writer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Starring: Takami Yoshimoto (Chika Chapter 1), Minoru Tanaka, Makiko Watanabe (Chika Chapter 2), Seiichi Tanabe, Kumija Kim (Chika Chapter 3), Yoshikazu Kotani, Kaori Momoi (Chika Chapter 4), Isao Natsuyagi, Toshie Negishi,

IMDB

Following on 11 years from their award-winning documentary A Dedicated Life (1994), husband-and-wife filmmaking team Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi made The Many Faces of Chika, their first and only fiction feature. Although drawing from history, the mysterious nature of the central character makes it into an allegorical film about the male gaze, the subjection of women, and the destructive nature of passion, interlinking these ideas with the destruction of leftist movements. It has a dreamy air to it that stands in contrast to the usual dedication to realism that Hara and Kobayashi have consistently shown in their work and it makes the experience absorbing in its own way.

For this project Hara assumed directorial duties while Kobayashi penned the script as well as her acting as producer. This is in line with her first forays into cinema as she attended writing classes taught by politically active New Wave directors such as Kaneto Shindo and Nagisa Oshima in the late 60s and early 70s. Kobayashi’s screenplay for The Many Faces of Chika uses the cultural and political upheaval of that very time period as the background for a drama that has an experimental conceit: four actresses play the part of the eponymous Chika to portray the different ways she is perceived through the eyes of different men.

Chika_sub07

Continue reading “The Many Faces of Chika またの日の知華 (2005) Dir: Kazuo Hara, Producer/Writer: Sachiko Kobayashi”

Heroic Purgatory Podcast Covers Japan Society’s Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi (June 04 – July 02)

Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi are a husband-and-wife team of filmmakers who emerged out of the Japanese New Wave and have spent their careers documenting iconoclasts and outsiders in Japan. Their films have had a major impact on filmmakers and now audiences in North America can view them from their own homes.

From: https://www.japansociety.org/arts-and-culture/films/cinema-as-struggle-the-films-of-kazuo-hara-and-sachiko-kobayashi

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of Shisso production, Japan Society is currently screening the films of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi in the US (and in some cases, Canada) via their virtual cinema in a season called Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi (June 04 – July 02). This season contains many of their works (7 documentaries and 1 narrative feature) made during this period.

Thanks to the people at the Japan Society, I have been able to review the films and also talk about them on the Heroic Purgatory podcast with fellow writer, John Atom (here’s a link to his work).

In the podcast we cover each of the films in this retrospective series, starting with their first production, Goodbye CP (1972), their most famous work, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), the rarely-seen The Many Faces of Chika — the pair’s only narrative feature – and, briefly (very briefly because we had yet to watch it), the five-hour long MINAMATA Mandala (2020), which is currently on the festival circuit. I hope you take the time to listen to the podcast and get the chance to watch some of these films.


Here are links to where you can rent the films:

Goodbye CP    Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974    The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On    A Dedicated Life     The Many Faces of Chika    Sennan Asbestos Disaster    Reiwa Uprising     MINAMATA Mandala

Here are the prices:

Rentals: $10 / 20% off members

Bundle 1: $30 / 20% off members
Includes: Goodbye CP, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, A Dedicated Life and Sennan Asbestos Disaster – Available in the US and Canada.

Bundle 2: $20 / 20% off members
Includes: The Many Faces of Chika, Reiwa Uprising and Minamata Mandala

 

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On ゆきゆきて、神軍 Dir: Kazuo Hara, Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi (1987)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On  The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On Film Poster

ゆきゆきて、神軍  「Yuki yukite, shingun

Release Date: August 01st, 1987

Duration: 122 mins.

Director:  Kazuo Hara

Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi

Writer: N/A

Starring: Kenzo Okuzaki, Shizumi Okuzaki,

IMDB

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 war crime by any means necessary. In his journey he ends up indicting Japanese society and its silence over the war. The idea of a documentary about him was first envisaged by Shohei Imamura but due to the refusal of television companies to touch such a controversial subject, it fell to Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi to film it.

Continue reading “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On ゆきゆきて、神軍 Dir: Kazuo Hara, Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi (1987)”