The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018 (Part I)

Every year the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presents a selection of contemporary Japanese cinema across cinemas in the UK.  It's a unique opportunity to see a selection of recent films that otherwise have a very limited distribution in the West.  This year's theme is (Un)true Colours: Secrets and Lies in Japanese Cinema, and the programme explores this through a number of different styles and genres from new and established film directors.  As usual, this covers everything from samurai period drama, relationship drama, murder-mystery thriller, comedy, anime and a rarely seen classic film, all of them with a unique Japanese approach.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018 opens at the ICA in London on 2nd February, and films will be shown in selected venues across the UK throughout February and March.  Noel Megahey previews a selection of films showing, including: Initiation LoveMemoirs of a MurdererWhere I BelongThe Dark MaidensBirds Without NamesMumon: The Land of Stealth, and Joy of Man's Desiring. 

Initiation Love Dir. Yukihiko Tsutsumi (2015)

Cast: Shota Matsuda, Atsuko Maeda, Fumino Kimura, Takahiro Miura, Tomoya Maeno

You don't really take it in at the time, but there's a clue at the start of Initiation Love that alerts you to the dual nature of the film.  It seems like just a nostalgic reference to the film's 1980s' setting but the image of a cassette tape makes the point that it has an A-Side and a B-Side, and there are definitely two sides to Initiation Love.

Side A plays out like a typical romantic comedy of innocent geek love.  In Shizuoka city in 1987, overweight and socially awkward Tatsuya Suzuki can't believe his luck when an attractive young woman shows an interest in him.  He had only been invited to a group dinner date to make up the numbers, but somehow he immediately makes a connection with Mayuko Naruoka, a beautiful young woman who is clearly way out of his league.  Soon however not only are Mayoko and 'Takkun' a regular Friday night item, but Mayoko manages to inspire him to lose weight and transform his whole image.

The transformation is abrupt - involving an entirely different actor - but the changes and the affect it has on the couple's relationship is more gradual as the film flips over to the B-side.  Suzuki is transferred to his work's head office in Tokyo and for a while he makes the long commute back to Shizuoka to be with Mayoko at the weekends, but can their long-distance relationship survive?  When Miyako, a colleague in the Tokyo office starts to show a romantic interest in him, Suzuki finds himself almost literally torn between the two women.

The dual nature of Initiation Love is important then, and director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (20th Century Boys) is clever in how he lets the innocent bright and colourful lightness of the 80s' romance in the first part of the film develop into something unexpectedly darker in tone.  The contrast highlights the division between youthful innocence and the complications of adult life, the difference between life in the provinces and the city, but the passing of time is also a divisive factor, where the nostalgic view we hold of the past and dreams for the future don't always match up with the reality.  As the film's opening and potentially confusing twist conclusion highlights, we can't imagine the unexpected and unplanned for changes we go through in life.  A cassette doesn't just have an A-Side and a B-Side, but it can be a mixtape as well.

Memoirs of a Murderer Dir. Yu Irie (2017)

Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Hideaki Ito, Kaho, Shuhei Nomura, Anna Ishibashi, Ryo Ryusei

Yu Irie's remake of Jung Byoung-Gil’s mindlessly entertaining Korean thriller blockbuster Confession of Murder tones down some of the original's more over-the-top action stunt sequences and in its place gives the film a Japanese context where it feels very much at home.  Irie adopts a manga-style approach in Memoirs of a Murderer that is not a million miles removed from the conspiracy thrillers of Naoki Urusawa (20th Century Boys, Monster), providing a suitable comic-book like context for the somewhat incredible twists, turns and revelations that literally explode off the screen in this ridiculously entertaining film.

A newly introduced 15 year statute of limitations law has left the Tokyo police force frustrated at their inability to capture the notorious Tokyo Strangler, who in 1995 brutally murdered five victims in front of witnesses from their own family.  In 2017 however, now no longer able to be tried for his crimes, the killer reveals his identity when he comes forward to promote a book that describes the killings in detail.  The handsome murderer Masato Sonezaki immediately becomes a media sensation and a celebrity , embarking on a series of book signings and TV interviews where he mocks the police for their incompetence and failure to capture him.  Detective Makimura is outraged, as are the families of his victims who long for justice, but suspicions start to emerge that the celebrity killer is actually a fraud.

Yu Irie's reworking of the Korean original rightly doesn't forgo the simple pleasures of the thriller by attempting to make it more credible or realistic, but Memoirs of a Murderer does try to place the themes in some kind of meaningful context in regards to Japanese society.  1995, the year of the Strangler's killings, is significant as it is also the year of the Kobe earthquake, and although the connection might be tenuous, references to this event do succeed in tapping into sentiments of trauma and guilt, as well as the idea of forces beyond our control that cause unjust, inexplicable and indiscriminate horror.  It also challenges the society's unhealthy worship of the cult of celebrity that is whipped up and exploited with some dynamically staged scenes that take place in the full sensationalised glare of the media.

There's really no need for subtext or justification required however for Memoirs of a Murderer; its intentions are purely to provide entertainment in a non-stop jaw-dropping thriller.  Irie's manga and anime -influenced pacing, characterisation, exposition and staging of the drama is dynamic and gripping, never leaving any room for the viewer to start questioning credibility when it's tricky enough to just keep up with the outrageous succession of constantly shifting twists and revelations.

Where I Belong Dir. Shinji Azuma (2017)

Cast: Kazuyuki Aijima, Mina Fujii, Kento Hayashi, Etsuko Ichihara, Katsuhiko Watabiki

Films that contrast the horrors of city life with the more honest back-to-nature lifestyle in the countryside are fairly common in Japanese cinema.  Foolish young people who think they know it all tend to struggle when they find that they haven't got access to high-speed broadband and a decent WiFi signal, and they eventually learn valuable lessons about human values when they return to traditional ways and rely on the advice and experience of their elders.  More often such stories are told in the context of a comedy (The Mohican Comes Home, A Farewell to Jinu, Wood Job!), but Shinju Azuma's Where I Belong aims to find a more redemptive quality in its return to roots story.

A petty thief, Izumi, has attacked a woman in the subway with a knife trying to steal her purse and has fled the scene in a hurry.  He ends up in the mountainous region of Miyazaki in southern Japan, far from civilisation.  When he comes across an elderly lady who has had a scooter accident his first reaction is to steal the bike, but he helps her back to her home where he is welcomed and fed by the small village community and adopted by Suma as if he were her own grandson.  Izumi has nowhere to go, he's being well looked after and the weather is great, so he decides to hang around for a while.  Another 'old geezer' Shige brings him out foraging and hunting in the woods and he gets to know a young woman preparing for the Heike festival.  It's hard work but Izumi could get used to the lifestyle.

It would seem that there is going to be nothing much more complicated than this in Where I Belong, which settles into a gentle rhythm after the violent opening scene.  The folk of Miyazaki however are not immune from the problems of modern life, nor indeed from the kind of human problems that affect us all, and Izumi knows that he has to confront some of those deeper issues if he is to move on.  What makes Izumi's otherwise unrealistic turnaround in character a little more convincing is that it doesn't rely on the usual simplistic dichotomy of city versus country, of young versus old, of an aimless modern life versus solid tradition, but rather it is from surrounding himself with people and real human feelings that make his chances of redemption more likely.  To play on the back-to-nature theme however, you could say that what Izumi really experiences in Where I Belong is a breath of fresh air.

The Dark Maidens Dir. Saiji Yakumo (2017)

Cast: Fumika Shimizu, Marie Iitoyo, Yudai Chiba

With a title like that and the setting at a girl's school, The Dark Maidens does raise expectations of a certain type of Asian horror film, but while director Saiji Yakumo's feature certainly delves into the dark side of an elite Catholic girls school, it doesn't rely solely on the supernatural for the shocks and revelations that occur.  With a script from noted anime writer Mari Okada (The Anthem of The Heart, Anohana), The Dark Maidens is a clever and self-referential murder-mystery that effortlessly trips through a number of genres without compromising on any of the thrills associated with each of them.

Rumours circulate around the Virgin Mary Christian Academy that the school's top student Itsumi Shiraishi has been murdered and that the murderer is one of the six members of the very select Literary Club that she established.  The group have gathered for one last session where, as a literary exercise, the acting chairperson Sayori Sumikawa has invited the remaining members to present their own account of what they believe led to Itsumi's death.  Perhaps somewhere amidst the conflicting accounts they can find out the truth about why the girl who was regarded as the 'sun' of the academy was found dead in a flower bed holding with a lily of the valley in her hands.

The opening scene of the film, the literary group meeting in a western-styled drawing room, gathered around a 'cauldron' while a storm rages outside, is only the first of a number of self-conscious references and plays on genre.  Each of the "dark maidens" of the literary club  - who are evidently fond of Agatha Christie - gives their own account of the events that led to the death of Itsumi, the personal perspective of the stories genre-hopping between murder-mystery, erotic, supernatural horror and romance.  There's even a surprise extra account that presents a Rashomon-like spin on events, but twists and revelations are very much the order of the day.

Putting aside the artificiality of the set-up, The Dark Maidens has a delightfully intricate, cleverly plotted and almost airtight script where, despite the conflicting views, any one of the stories could be true.  In fact, all of the stories do actually carry a measure of truth, if not in relation to the objective nature of what has occurred, at least in what they tell us about female rivalry, social hierarchy and the secrets and hidden facets that often determine the balance of power in Japanese society.

Birds Without Names Dir. Kazuya Shiraishi (2017)

Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi

"Humans are lonely by nature" says one of the unappealing characters in Kazuya Shirashi's Birds Without Names, and essentially it's a struggle against loneliness that defines most of the characters in the film, and indeed it probably accounts for what makes them unappealing as well.  Taking on a murder-mystery aspect, the film then becomes a question of how far each of the characters are willing to go to survive or fight against their own nature and the loneliness that lies at the heart of it.

Towako is trapped in a dead-end relationship living with Jinji.  She describes Jinji to her sister as "filthy, vulgar, mean, drab, weak, timid and uncouth" and you couldn't disagree with that assessment.  On the other hand, Jinji, a construction worker who is 15 years her senior, protects and cares for her, cooking, giving her money, doing everything to try to make her happy.  Towako is more than a little bitter and unpleasant herself.  Nasty and abusive, she still looks back on what she saw as a more idyllic relationship with Kurosaki, even though it soon becomes apparent that there was an ugly side to that relationship as well.  When Towako discovers that Kurosaki has been reported missing for five years and starts to notice Jinji following her as she embarks on a new relationship with watch salesman Mizushima, she starts to have suspicions about just how far Jinji might go to keep her for himself.

There is a thriller aspect to Birds Without Names then, but the truth about what happened to Kurosaki is just another way that is more or less equivalent to Towako coming to terms with the reality of her own nature, with her loneliness, and with how she lets that affect her relationships.  While that might sound simple enough, Birds Without Names takes into consideration that this characteristic is not solely the condition of Towako, but also Jinji and even Mizushima, and the combined force and desperation of each of those conflicting needs creates a more complex matrix of emotions.

The film's darker exploration of loneliness, jealousy and abusiveness in relationships could potentially make this unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing, but there are two outstanding performances from Yu Aoi and Sadao Abe that fully support the director's aim to not just depict such characteristics in unflinching detail, or indeed to solve a murder-mystery, but to explore the very real and imperfect human drives that lie behind such actions.

Mumon: The Land of Stealth Dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura (2017)

Cast: Satoshi Ono, Satomi Ishihara, Ryohei Suzuki, Yuri Chinen, Makita Sports, Yuna Taira, Denden

We are all familiar now with the nature of Japanese jidaigeki (period drama) epics set in the age of the samurai.  By going back to what appears to be relatively simpler times when everyone knew their place in the social order, films like Yoji Yamamoto's Twilight Samurai (2003) and The Hidden Blade (2004) try to remind us that what is really important in life is respect for order, attention to duty, and acting with honour and loyalty.  Director Yoshiho Nakamura, known for somewhat off-beat dramas, presents a more modern and comic outlook on the jidaigeki epic in Mumon: The Land of Stealth, where there is only one thing that is important to the citizens of Iga; it's all about the money.

Skirmishes are an everyday occurrence in Iga, the Land of Stealth, home of the ninja.  Which makes you think that they would know by now that Mumon (named after the fact that 'No gate' is closed to him), the greatest ninja in the land, is pretty much invincible, so there's not really much point in taking him on.  If they did that however, life would be fairly dull (and there wouldn't be much of a film), but life is cheap in 1579, and the ninja love nothing more than a good fight.  As long as they are being paid for it.

The opportunity of a handsome pay-packet comes their way with the news that the warlord Nobunaga Oda has been conquering neighbouring provinces.  Ise has just fallen and, vastly outnumbered, Iga is sure to follow.  Rather than being concerned, Iga's Council of Twelve see it as an opportunity to make some money and decide to invite Nobunaga Oda into Iga, where - for a modest salary - they will even build a castle for him in the heartland of the country.  Oda however has warned his son, who has taken up command of Ise - on no account to make war with Iga as it is nothing but a "swamp of rabid beasts", but headstrong junior thinks he knows better and ignores his father's advice...

Filled with comedy and irreverence, if Yoshihiro Nakamura's Mumon is not what you traditionally expect from a samurai film, it at least delivers where it matters most; in the spectacular fight scenes that inevitably ensue.  Battle sequences and individual duels are thrillingly choreographed and intensely staged, with hordes of flying ninja warriors leaping around, appearing out of rocks, trees and from underground, without over-reliance on CGI.  Just as importantly however, director Nakamura doesn't indulge in sepia-tinted nostalgia but rather - amidst all the comedy - has something relevant to say about the 'ninja warriors' of today, where it is indeed all about the money.

Joy of Man's Desiring Dir. Masakazu Sugita (2014)

Cast: Ayane Omori, Riku Ohishi, Naoko Yoshimoto, Koichiro Nishi

Masakazu Sugita's debut feature Joy of Man's Desiring takes a surprisingly low-key and intimate look at a huge event that nonetheless gives some indication of the vast implications it can have on people.  In this case the event is one that is of considerable concern and the experience of many people living in Japan; the impact of an earthquake.  It's an experience that the director has experienced himself as a survivor of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and the film's power lies in how it views this life-changing event from the perspective of two very young children.

Haruna and Shoto are survivors of an earthquake that destroys their home and kills their parents.  Haruna is old enough to be aware of the horror of what she has witnessed, but Shoto is too young to understand what has happened or why they are now being looked after and brought up by relatives.  It's not just the two children who find it difficult to cope with the change in their circumstances.  Their aunt, uncle, young cousin and grandfather who they share a home with are taking on more than just the responsibility of bringing up the children now that their parents are dead; they will have to help them deal with loss, with trauma and give them the time they need to adjust to a new life.

The childlike perspective on children having to cope with adult problems is very much in Hirokazu Kore-eda territory, but first time director Masakazu Sugita adopts a more naturalistic approach in Joy of Man's Desiring, particularly in relation to narrative.  He allows the subject to dictate the pace of the film, the underlying tragedy of the earthquake and the devastation it causes rarely being specifically referred to, yet remaining always there in the background.  You can feel its presence bearing down on the children as they attempt to move on with their lives, unable to comprehend the nature of what has occurred or know how they are supposed to behave in reaction to it.  It's slow cinema, but for the reason that these things take time.

The simplicity of the film and the manner in which it treats its subject also takes it far beyond being merely a film about surviving in the aftermath of an earthquake.  In Haruna and Shota we can recognise the same kind of difficulties, losses, secret sadnesses and unknown pain that most of us carry around with them and have to learn to live with.  Find a way to relate to the world, to take pleasure in it again can sometimes seem impossible with the enormity of hidden dramas that no-one really knows about.  It's the wide openness and raw honesty of the director's approach that provides the room, the time and the means to reflect and consider how sometimes we can all need a little help and understanding.

Selected films in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme are showing at the following venues from 2 February to 28 March 2018

•Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
•Broadway, Nottingham
•Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee
•Eden Court, Inverness
•Exeter Phoenix, Exeter
•Filmhouse, Edinburgh
•HOME, Manchester
•ICA, London
•Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham
•Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling
•Phoenix Leicester, Leicester
•QUAD, Derby
•Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast
•Showroom Cinema, Sheffield
•Watershed, Bristol
•Depot, Lewes
•Firstsite, Colchester
•Storyhouse, Chester

Details on all the films showing can be found at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme website.

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