Zero Focus ゼロの焦店 (2009)

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Zero Focus                                            

Japanese Title: ゼロの焦店

Romaji: Zero no Shoten       Zero Focus Film Poster

Release Date: November 14th, 2009

Running Time: 131 mins.

Director: Isshin Inudo

Writer: Seicho Matsumoto (Novel), Isshin Inudo, Kenji Nakazono (Screenplay)

Starring: Ryoko Hirosue, Miki Nakatani, Tae Kimura, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Takeshi Kaga, Tetta Sugimoto, Hiromi Sakimoto, Toru Nomaguchi, Fukumi Kuroda, Hirotaro Honda, Hana Matsumoto, Yoshie Ichige, Shunta Watanabe, Kansai Eto

The final film I saw at the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme was the sold out screening of Zero Focus where the film’s director Isshin Inudo was present and gave an enlightening Q&A at the end (and I had my picture taken with him!). Part of the reason for my selection is because I like a good mystery but I had no idea how popular the source novel was in Japan. Lengthy review with some slight spoilers.

Sadako (Hirosue) has just married Kenichi Ubara (Nishijma) after meeting him through a matchmaker. The two know little about each other apart from surface details like the fact that she can read and write English and adores the classic English novel Jane Eyre and he enjoys swimming, he was wounded in war and now works for Toyo Advertising and is stationed in Kanazawa in the snowy north of the country. His marriage means that he asks for a transfer back to Tokyo. Despite not knowing each other they feel comfortable together and look forward to starting a new life.

1 week later, December 01st, 1957

Zero Focus Bye Kenichi (Nishijima) Hellooo Sadako (Ryoko Hirosue)

Sadako is at Ueno Station with Kenichi. He must depart for Kanazawa to wrap up his business dealings and pass on contracts to his replacement. “It’s only a week,” he assures her but he never returns. He just vanishes.

Against the advice of her brother-in-law Sotaro (Sugimoto), Sadako heads to Kanazawa where Kenichi’s replacement Yoshio Honda (Nomaguchi) guides her around a town which undergoing tumultuous political changes thanks to a woman named Sachiko Murota (Nakatani) the wife of a powerful industrialist named Gisaku (Kaga). Zero Focus Sachiko Murota (Mikitani) and Her HusbandSachiko is helping a woman become the first female mayor of the city. With her organisational skills, money and her influence it could happen. Sadako approaches Sachiko for help when she learns that her husband once worked with Kenichi. Sachiko and her husband Gisaku comply but they seem to be hiding something.

Whilst at Murota’s company, Sadako encounters a receptionist named Hisako Tanuma (Kimura) who seems to act oddly around her and has poor secretarial skills. As Sadako meets these people she learns that they are connected to Kenichi in more ways than she could ever have imagined and she knew so little about him.

Continue reading “Zero Focus ゼロの焦店 (2009)”

Mai Mai Miracle / Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium-Old Magic マイマイ新子 と千年の魔法 (2009)

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Mai Mai Miracle / Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium-Old MagicMai Mai Miracle Poster

Japanese Title: マイマイ新子 と千年の魔法

Romaji: Mai Mai Shinko to Sen Nen no Mahou

Release Date: August 15th, 2009 (Japan)

Running Time: 93 mins.

Director: Sunao Katabuchi

Writer: Nobuko Takagi (Autobiography), Sunao Katabuchi (Screenplay)

Starring: Mayuko Fukuda (Shinko Aoki), Nako Mizusawa (Kiiko Shimazu), Ei Mai Mai Miracle Film Poster 2Morisako (Nagiko Kiyohara), Tamaki Matsumoto (Mitsuko Aoki), Keiichi Noda  (Koutarou Aoki), Manami Honjou (Nagako Aoki), Eiji Takemoto (Tousuke Aoki)

Mai Mai Miracle was the third film I saw at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme and it was the first anime to have been screened at the festival.¹

The film is based on Nobuko Takagi’s autobiography and is set in 1955, Hofu City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. One thousand years ago during the time of the Heian Period (794-1185) Hofu was the site of the ancient capital of the Province of Suo (Suo no Kuni) named Kokuga and ruins are still dotted around the rural city. Shinko Aoki (Fukuda) is one of the modern-day inhabitants. Born in1946, she is a nine-year-old elementary school student and a bit of a tom-boy. She lives with her sister, parents and grandparents. Her grandfather was a teacher and taught her all about the local area and its history and so Shinko loves constantly wandering around the countryside and daydreaming about the past and wishes to travel back to the days of the Heian period. The only nuisance in her life is a curl of hair she can never make straight. She has named it Mai Mai and thinks it powers her imagination which is all well and good but trying to get it to stay in place is hard to do!

Hofu city has a new arrival in a doctor named Shimazu from Tokyo who has taken a job in a factory. He is moving into a new housing development in the suburbs of the city and brings his daughter Kiiko Shimazu (Mizusawa) who is very withdrawn. When she appears in Shinko’s class as a transfer student Shinko is curious about her in a way her classmates are not. Indeed, the classmates rather cruelly ignore Kiiko but Shinko follows her home. After breaking the ice the two begin playing together and Shinko invites Kiiko to ‘time travel’ by the power of imagination and join her circle of friends. The two begin to form a deep friendship right around the time they learn about the story of a princess who moved to Kokuga. Her name was Nagiko and like Kiiko she came from a bigger city and was isolated and wanted friends but finds circumstances are difficult.

Mai Mai Miracle Princess Nagiko (Ei Morisako)The story of both Kiiko and Nagiko run almost parallel and the two learn a lot about real life and the power of imagination.

The poster and animation feel a lot like a Ghibli film but it was animated by Madhouse who are known for brilliant psychological thrillers like Paranoia Agent, Perfect Blue and Monster. It was directed by Sunao Katabuchi, a man with an eclectic filmography including directing the explosive first season of Black Lagoon. Crucially he acted as assistant director of Kiki’s Delivery Service. The latter title is a perfect comparison as Mai Mai Miracle hits all the magical realism notes that Ghibli are known for. It fits the magical (in this case, the power of imagination and small miracles) into the everyday.

I had little idea what to expect but tagged it as Totoro in 1950’s Japan. The visuals and Mai Mai Miracle Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) and Her Sister Mitsuko (Tamaki Matsumoto)plot are similar: two extremely cute girls and the power of imagination in rural Japan. Such a reading was glib because unlike some of Ghibli’s stories which feel like dark fables with clear-cut endings (I am being extremely glib here), Mai Mai Miracle reflects the messy and uncaring nature of the universe and the unexpectedness of life much like The Wolf Children did. Indeed, while I detected a child-friendly message about using your imagination and persevering to overcome tough situations you may encounter in life and find a better future, the narrative is involved what with its magical fantasies and jumping back and forth in time and delivers situations with an unexpectedness that is real and very dark.

My dismissiveness was washed away when I became absorbed in the simple yet effective way of delivering the story and the great animation.

We get a kids eye view of life and the world. We only ever see and hear and things at the pace they do and we only uncover important things related to the plot like character motivation in moments like the kids getting into very serious scrapes or overhearing adults gossiping and it is sometimes a cruel shock as it is not glossed over. Like real life, Shinko, Kiiko and Nagiko find their concerns are just a selection amongst many and that life can be very different from what they expect. We see that even on summer days full of imagination and play death and dishonour can be found under the same sun.

Mai Mai Miracle Sadness Strikes Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa) and Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda)

This is where things take a real dark turn as the world of adults intrudes on that of children and makes them question reality. Characters are forced to grow and it can be affecting to watch (and it was affecting!) because there is a feeling of verisimilitude and reality. You feel like life is being lived an even the most minor of characters gets something of an arc that feels real. I was surprised at the force of feeling (I had to wait in the cinema before leaving just to compose myself!) but I was sucked in.

The animation was intoxicating in its detail and the camera work was assured. It is like total immersion as every scene and character design help to convey a sense of place as well as the tones of the story, situation and character.

The film is animated with a high degree of detail and life. The audience are always aware of things on a global scale like the age we are in thanks to hindsight of over 50 years. It is post-World War 2, an age of growth after devastation so there are signs of renewal and reconstruction with new buildings being put up on idle land and cranes about town. It is an age of innocence, children play with mud, marbles and kewpie dolls and wander about everywhere in complete freedom and safety. Characters marvel over such modern wonders like gas-powered refrigerators and the mere idea of television. It evokes tones of nostalgia and transports us to a simpler age.

The animation is more than just for setting as everything from colour, shading and character animation it also informs the audience of the character’s mental space.

Mai Mai Miracle Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) DaydreamingShinko and Kiiko are totally different characters. Shinko lives in a colourful and vibrant world full of sunshine streaming from skies of infinite blue on fields of gorgeous green. We hear the sounds of lively shouting and nature. She likes lazing around in tall grass and dashing through wheat fields. Highly energetic, brave and a bit of a rebel, her demeanour is lively and she throws herself around the screen causing the camera to become ever more active in trying to chase her and keep her in frame.

Mai Mai Miracle - Shinko's Imagination at WorkThis life is reflected in her imagination which she uses to make houses and people of the period pop up in her everyday surroundings. A city develops around her, starting off as crayon drawing from a colouring book to almost accurate reconstructions straight from text books all the way to the real thing populated by people from the time. At first the contrast in animation is garish but it becomes a joyful evocation of inspiration. I personally loved Shinko all the more for it!

In complete contrast is Kiiko, a girl who is totally timid and withdrawn and marked by a degree of sadness in life which is reflected in her physicality and her surroundings.

She is highly contained and walks at solemn pace, following people at a distance in Mai Mai Miracle Outsider Named Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa)silence, head down and closed off to the sights around her. Shinko loves wildlife while Kiiko is absolutely terrified of it and knows little of nature. Her home is a silent place wreathed in shadows and a pallid light there is a definite sense of coldness. The audience could be witnessing something submerged in the sea. She is extremely pale when compared to the tanned children who surround her in her new classroom and something of an outsider both physically and mentally. She does not don a school uniform and her clothes are subdued colours.

As the two become friends, Kiiko’s world becomes all the more and filled with the liveliness of Shinko and she discovers an inner-strength through imagination and friendship that gives her new life. This story is also played out through the tale of Princess Nagiko which runs adjacent. It is not merely a flight of fantasy and imagination but a reminded that things in life are timeless. Even though there are a thousand years separating the girls they deal with similar problems, ones where a character is forced to confront the fact that life is not clear cut and there are many curved balls and no overarching narrative to set things right and they must find inner-strength and imagination to overcome their problems and take control of their future.

Mai Mai Miracle Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa) and Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) at Play

It is not trite. It is thoroughly absorbing. The use of imagination and reality, playing on what the audience knows and what the children believe and shaping a narrative in which the growth of the characters is compelling and their world feels so vital and alive is done here to perfection. The changes in tone from light-hearted to serious are delivered matter of factly. Things happen just like in real life. Deal with it. This, like all the changes in tone and the switching between imagination and reality is handled with such confidence that I have to admire the film and I think that it carries a great message for kids and is also adult enough to entertain grown-ups. Indeed, this review turned out longer than I thought it would but it is just because I hold the film in high regard. With the chances of this being shown on the big screen in the UK again being slim, I am very happy to have watched it!


¹ It was sold out and there was an audience made up of children and adults. If  the screening is considered successful, the Japan Foundation may programme more anime for future festivals. Judging by the positive reaction of the audience that is probably a dead certainty because I heard nothing but praise for the film. Consider this review another voice of praise!

Mai Mai Miracle Imagination Run with Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) and Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa)

Ninja Kids!!! 忍たま乱太郎 (2011)

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Ninja Kids!!!                                         Ninja Kids!!! Film Poster

Japanese Title: 忍たま乱太郎

Romaji: Nintama Rantaro

Release Date: July 23rd, 2011 (Japan)

Running Time: 100 mins.

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Soubee Amako (manga), Yoshio Urasawa (Screenplay),

Starring: Seishiro Kato, Roi Hayashi, Futa Kimura, Mikijiro Hira, Susumu Terajima, Anne Watanabe, Takahiro Miura, Arata Furuta, Koji Yamamoto, Renji Ishibashi, Yusuke Yamamoto, Rei Dan, Akira Emoto

Ninja Kids!!! was the second film that I saw at the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Festival 2013 and there was an audience made up equally of adults and kids. I felt everybody was engaged and laughed at all the comedic moments and even sniffed at the more emotional ones thanks to its good natured handling by director Takashi Miike.

Ninja Kids takes place in 16th Century Japan during the Sengoku period. We first see Rantaro (Kato) at home with his parents in a farm house. He is from a low-class ninja family. Things will change because Rantaro, upon his father’s recommendation, is heading to the ninja academy to train to be an elite ninja and raise his family in terms of status. “I’ll do my best” he cries before setting off.

The academy is somewhere deep in the mountains of the Kansai region. His journey is long and we see him running through blossoming cherry trees, a town and a forest and even in between a samurai battle but he eventually makes it to the academy which is a spectacular and colourful vision of fun packed with eager, fresh-faced children and CGI ninja shimmying up and down ropes and other obstacles that look like a lot of fun.

Ninja Kids Classroom 2And this is how most of the film continues. Rantaro makes a lot of friends like Shinbe (Kimura), the son of a wealthy merchant family who has a nose that constantly runs and a case of narcolepsy, and Kirimaru (Hayashi), an orphan who lost his parents in the war who now has a job babysitting to pay his way.

Indeed we get to meet nearly all of the students as we see their training like throwing grenades, fighting, evasion and deception through disguise and all sorts of ninja gadgets but these kids will soon prove their worth when assassins from the Usetake clan target a fellow student named Takamura (Mizoguchi) who want to kill his father Yukitaka (Kaga) for leaving their clan to become a hair stylist.

A hair stylist? Yes. What makes ninja kids a comedy is the sheer absurdity of the situations.

Continue reading “Ninja Kids!!! 忍たま乱太郎 (2011)”

The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme 2013

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The second film festival of the year which I am covering is a roving one! The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme

The festival’s name and theme for this year is “Once Upon a Time in Japan: Reinventing the Past Through the Eyes of Japanese Contemporary Filmmakers”. The festival programme has works from notable directors who “all share the same aspiration to reinterpret and relive moments of times gone by through a variety of genres, styles and tones.” Said notable directors include Takashi Miike, Koji Wakamatsu, Lee Sang-il who has two films screened with Hula Girls and one of the four sections of Kaidan Horror Classics. The other two sections are directed by Hirokazu Koreeda and Shinya Tsukamoto. There will also be anime in the form of Mai Mai Miracle which is directed by Sunao Katabuchi.

Before I get into that, here are the locations:

London – Institute of Contemporary Arts: February 1-7,
Sheffield – Showroom Workstation: February 8-17,
Birmingham Mac Birmingham: February 18-27,
Belfast – Queen’s Film Theatre: February 22-28,
Edinburgh – Filmhouse: March 1-7,
Newcastle Upon Tyne – Tyneside Cinema: March 3-24,
Bristol – Watershed: March 9-16,
Nottingham – Broadway: March 22-27,

What I like about this festival is that it covers a lot of the major periods of Japanese history through different genres and it has a variety of talent in each film. I will be attending the London part of the tour and I am hyped up. Tickets have been ordered. Supplies and transport have been arranged. Where are the films???

Rebirth                                                                                   Rebirth Film Poster

Japanese Title: 八日目 の 蝉

Romaji: Youkame no Semi

Running Time: 147 mins.

Director: Izuru Narushima

Writer: Mitsuyo Kakuta (Novel), Satoko Okudera (Screenplay)

Starring: Mao Inoue, Hiromi Nagasaku, Eiko Koike, Jun Fubuki, iwako Ichikawa, Yoko Moriguchi, Kimiko Yo

This sounds like an intriguing mystery/drama and it comes from Izuru Narushima who had a hit at the end of 2011 with Admiral Yamamoto. This is totally different and much more feminine by the look of things. It has a script by Satoko Okudera (The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, Kaidan, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and there is a strong female cast with names like Mao Inoue (Kaidan), Hiromi Nagasaku (Doppelganger), Eiko Koike (2LDK, Penance), Yoko Moriguchi (Key of Life) and Jun Fubuki (Séance).

Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust        Bubble Ficiton Boom or Bust Film Poster

Japanese Title: バブルヘ GO!! タイム マシン は ドラム 式

Romaji: Baburuhe GO!! Taimu Mashin ha Dorama Shiki

Running Time: 116 mins.

Director: Yasuo Baba

Writer: Ryoichi Kimizuka

Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Ryoko Hirosue, Hiroko Yakushimaru, Kazue Fukiishi, Yuko Ito, Naoko Jijima, Hiroko Moriguchi, Masahiro Sugisaki

Okay, this looks like the most fun at the festival and I won’t be seeing it! Darn! The film looks at Japan in the 80s at the height of its economic bubble. It was a time when it reigned supreme thanks to its mega-corporations, technology and so forth. Just before it came crashing down thanks to its poorly managed banking system which doled out huge amounts of money at low interest rates to all and sundry. I think that about sums it up in a slap-dash way (I’m probably over-simplifying things to death). Anyway this helped start a recession. The story starts out in the present day but thanks to time travel we get to see the glitz and glamour of the 80’s as one character aims to stop the recession from happening! It has a ridiculous plot and lots of physical humour and it stars a hell of a lot of actors I am love like Hiroshi Abe (Survive Style 5+), Kazue Fukiishi (Noriko’s Dinner Table) and Ryoko Hirosue (Key of Life), it is written by Ryoichi Kimizuka (Infection, Parasite Eve, Bayside Shakedown 4: The Final). I love a good time machine story like Day of the Tentacle and Back to the Future and this one looks good.

Mayumi Tanaka (Hirosue) is a debt-ridden bar hostess. Her mother Mariko (Yakushimaru) is a brilliant research scientist. When Mariko turns an ordinary washing machine into a time-machine and she disappears, the Japanese government turn to Mayumi to head back to 1990 and prevent the announcement of a landmark fiscal policy that sparked the recession. Why Mayumi? It just so happens that this ill-qualified time traveller is the only other person the machine accepts. She agrees and so hilarity should ensue, right?

The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya          The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya Film Poster

Japanese Title: 紙屋 悦子 の 青春

Romaji: Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun

Running Time: 111 mins.

Director: Kazuo Kuroki

Writer: Kazuo Kuroki, Masataka Matsuda, Hideki Yamada (Screenplay)

Starring: Tomoyo Harada, Manami Honjou, Kaoru Kobayashi, Shunsuke Matsuoka

This is the only Second World War story in the festival it was the last film of Kazuo Kuroki and received its theatrical release a few months after his death. It stars Tomoyo Harada (The Summer of Ubume, Tokyo Oasis) is a tragic romance about a navy officer who arranges a marriage between his girlfriend and a friend before taking part in a kamikaze attack.

Castle Under Fiery Skies          Castle Under Fiery Skies Film Poster

Japanese Title: 火天 の 城

Romaji: Ka Ten no Shiro

Running Time: 139 mins.

Director: Mitsutoshi Tanaka

Writer: Kenichi Yamamoto (Novel)

Starring: Kippei Shiina, Toshiyuki Nishida, Shinobu Otake, Saki Fukua, Tokuma Nishioka, Taro Yamamoto, Renji Ishibashi

A lavish costume drama with a large cast by a director who specialises in such things. It looks epic.

1575, Oda Nobunaga (Shiina) defeats Takeda Katsuyori in the Battle of Nagashino after an epic siege. 1576, Nobunaga builds a lavish new castle named Azuchi castle. It must be seen from the capital city of Kyoto and defend the city and it must symbolise the unification of various factions and intimidate rival clans. This is the story of the carpenters led by Okabe Mataemon (Nishia).  

Mai Mai Miracle                                        Mai Mai Miracle Film Poster

Japanese Title: マイマイ新子

Romaji: Mai Mai Shinko

Running Time: 93 mins.

Director: Sunao Katabuchi

Writer: Nobuko Takagi (Autobiography), Sunao Katabuchi (Screenplay)

Starring: Mayuko Fukuda (Shinko Aoki), Nako Mizusawa (Kiiko Shimatsu), Ei Morisako (Nagiko Kiyohara)

Sunao Katabuchi has quite an eclectic filmography. He directed the explosive first season of the awesome anime Black Lagoon and was assistant director of the equally awesome and magical Kiki’s Delivery Service. This is a title that comes highly recommended by Alua from Otherwhere so I made this one of my choice. Plus it’s anime and I love anime!

1955, Hofu City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. One thousand years ago during the time of the Heian Period it was the site of the ancient capital Suo no Kuni (Province of Suo) and ruins are still dotted around the rural city. Shinko is a tom-boyish elementary school student from a venerable local family. She loves dayreaming about the past and wishes to travel back to the days of the Heian period. When a transfer student from Tokyo named Kiiko appears in Shinko’s class, Shinko invites her to time travel by the power of imagination and the two form a deep friendship.  

Continue reading “The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme 2013”