The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019
People Still Call It Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema
Every year the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presents a selection of Japanese cinema across cinemas in the UK. It’s a unique and sometimes once-only opportunity to see a selection of rare films that otherwise have a very limited distribution in the west. This year’s theme is Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema and the programme presents its usual wide selection of films on this theme through a number of different styles and genres with the emphasis on contemporary cinema, but also with perspectives from the past, in animation and in documentary features.
The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019 opens at the ICA in London on 2nd February. Noel Megahey previews a selection of films showing at venues across the UK.
Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Cast: Masato Sakai, Mitsuki Takahata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi
We tend to associate magical fantasy in Japan with manga and anime and Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is indeed based on a manga series by Ryohei Saigan. Adapting it as a live action feature by Takashi Yamazaki, the only limitation in these days of sophisticated computer visual effects – apart from budget obviously – is imagination. It’s appropriate then that the use of some terrific effects in The Tale of Kamakura is more than just for the sake of spectacle, but is indeed about having the imagination to believe that there’s more to the world than we see.
When Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) marries the author Mr Isshiki (Masato Sakai) and sets up home in the small coastal town of Kamakura, she soon discovers that it is no ordinary town but a centre for mystical energies with connections to the other world. The creatures Akiko meets seem harmless enough and she quickly adapts to being afflicted, possessed and befriended by all manner of spirits, but when one malign spirit separates her soul from her body, Isshiki has to find a way to travel to the Underworld, spectacularly realised with Yamazaki himself handling the VFX, to try to retrieve her from the clutches of a powerful demon.
The Tale of Kamakura is not at all like Yôjirô Takita’s Oscar-winning Departures (2008), but tapping into that same vein of Japanese tradition and folklore that inspires Hayao Miyazaki’s world, Takashi Yamazaki’s feature does suggest that we should be open to the idea there’s more to life and death than we imagine. Passion, affection and even destruction – the themes of this year’s Japan Foundation programme of Japanese cinema – are a way of connecting to something universal and eternal, something we are reminded of when we look again at the objects found in the Night Bazaar in the film’s clever end-titles sequence.
Pumpkin and Mayonnaise
Director: Masanori Tominaga
Cast: Asami Usuda, Taiga, Joe Odagiri, Kôdai Asaka
Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is based on a manga by Kiriko Nananan, a writer/artist who deals with more mature subject matter than we usually find in the Japanese comics that are published in the UK and USA. Often dealing with women facing difficulties in relationships, her work has been successfully adapted to the screen before in Blue (2002) and Strawberry Shortcakes (2006), a film in which she even played a leading actor role.
Primarily related to a couple of 27 year olds going through difficulties, Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is another of Kiriko Nananan’s insightful looks into relationships, but in contrast to the adolescent perspective of Blue and the more mature women looking for love in Strawberry Shortcakes, Tsuchida and Sei would seem to be both young enough and mature enough to have more options available to them. Somehow however both also always seem to be struggling with the fact that the choices they make tie them down and lead to unforeseen consequences.
Earning enough money to simply pay the bills however is a necessity that both drives and limits choice. Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) may be acting out of the best intentions, supportive of her unemployed boyfriend Sei (Taiga) while he sits at home and writes songs, but her work in a hostess bar presents her with some difficult decisions and challenges. Sei, meanwhile, may be a useless layabout at home, but he is sticking to his principles, accusing his former bandmates of selling out for the sake of a record contract. In both cases, compromises have to be made, but is it possible to ever regain the loss of integrity?
‘What am I doing?’ Tsuchida asks herself at one point in the film and – to judge by Nananan’s work as a writer – it’s a question that everyone can relate to and one which it seems doesn’t get any easier to answer whatever age you might be. Pumpkin and Mayonnaise director Masanori Tominaga captures both the spoken and unspoken sentiments of two people going in different directions with a lovely natural flow that captures the rhythms of life and the implications and consequences of the choices they make. Ultimately everyone has to follow their own path and have the strength to accept where it might lead.
Her Love Boils Bathwater
Director: Ryota Nakano
Cast: Rie Miyazawa, Hana Sugisaki, Aoi Ito, Joe Odagiri
Considering the rather subject matter of a single mother putting her affairs in order after a diagnosis of terminal cancer, first time director Ryota Nakano’s Her Love Boils Bathwater seems like a rather gloomy prospect. The fact that the film won several Japan Academy Awards however including Best Picture and Best Actress, and was nominated as Japan’s entry for the 90th Academy Awards however suggests that there might be more to the film.
Futaba’s husband disappeared a year ago “vanished like steam” leaving the Sachino family bath house to fall into closure with Futaba left to look after her 16 year old daughter Azumi alone. Azumi has issues with bullying at school, but Futaba has her own problems. Having been suffering from dizziness and fainting, she is diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer which has spread all over her body. With possibly only months to live, Futaba tracks down her errant husband and tries to bring the family back together, but it’s not going to be easy and she gets rather more than she bargained for.
The situations in Her Love Boils Bathwater could be a little emotionally manipulative and indeed there is something schematic about the film and how it advocates strong moral messages about family, forgiveness, strength against adversity and facing up to problems and responsibilities. Futaba takes no prisoners however, her attempts to set things in order extending even out beyond her own family, showing that there are no limits to the influence we can exert outside our immediate circle and indeed even in the legacy and memory we leave behind.
Inevitably, the film is accompanied with a plaintive piano score, but despite the simple moral of the film and the direct treatment of its subject, Ryota Nakano rarely (perhaps only in the ‘Egypt’ scene) indulges in sentiment. A strong cast featuring Rie Miyazawa (Pale Moon), Joe Odagiri (every Japanese filmmaker’s favourite unfaithful unreliable partner) and a couple of impressive performances from the film’s two young actors ensure however that the characters feel real, their experiences are authentic and the sentiments they deal with are heartfelt. The film even has a novel way of ending on a ‘warm’ note.
Blindly In Love
Director: Masahide Ichii
Cast: Gen Hoshino, Kaho, Sei Hiraizumi
Quite a few films have been made in Japan that deal with the problem of a generation of socially inadequate thirtysomethings, but as seen in previous Japan Foundation touring programmes of new cinema like Otakus in Love (2004), Love Strikes! (2011) and I’ll Give It My All Tomorrow (2013) it’s more often played from a comic angle. Getting young people to marry and bring up a family is however a serious issue for a country with an aging population, and director Masahide Ichii manages to address that quite well in the romantic comedy drama Blindly in Love.
Kentaro (Gen Hoshino) is 35, still lives with his parents, has been working for 13 years at the Records Department in City Hall and comes home for lunch every day. He doesn’t drink or smoke, has no ambitions for career advancement and is saving up his money for retirement. His parents are keen to marry him off, not least because he is the last to carry the Amanoshizuku family name, but the painfully shy and introverted young man is going to be a hard sell.
The Imai family however are looking for a husband for their daughter Naoko (Kaho) and meet Kentaro’s parents at a matchmaking event. Naoko is young and beautiful but there’s one thing standing in the way of them making a successful marriage for her; she’s blind. Even so, Kentaro is quickly ruled out as unsuitable, but fate in the form of a chance meeting between the two young people brings them together. It’s not however going to be a smooth or conventional romance by any means.
Blindly in Love is of course not with a touch of comic absurdity, but it does have sympathy for its characters rather than just laugh or make fun of them, and it does address the underlying social issues and concerns well. The first half of the film is delicately paced and directed to explore all the human issues at the heart of it, soaking up every moment of shy awkwardness running up against social formality and expectations. It might go a little overboard in the second half, but Blindly in Love‘s awkward romantic comedy remains thoroughly sweet and charming.
Thicker Than Water
Director: Keisuke Yoshida
Cast: Masataka Kubota, Hirofumi Arai, Keiko Enoue
Seen in a previous Japan Foundation Touring Programme, director Keisuke Yoshida’s My Little Sweet Pea (2013) was a warmly humorous film about family relationships that managed to draw out all the joys as well as the complications that families can bring with a distinctly Japanese touch. The director’s latest film Thicker than Water takes a similar approach to family relationships, but more ambitiously uses two family relationships that overlap to heighten the complications and explore the complex sentiments behind sibling bonds.
And for each of the four characters in Thicker than Water, their relationships with their other sibling couldn’t be any more incompatible. It might be convenient sometimes to have a brother who is a big shot gangster, but for Kazunari (Masataka Kubota) who is trying to make a steady life and career for himself, Takuji (Hirofumi Arai) turns out to be a constant source of embarrassment and money trouble when he is released from prison having done time for armed robbery.
One of Kazunari’s clients is the Ikuno printing business, which is run capably by Yuria (Keiko Enoue). Yuria has romantic designs on the similarly hardworking and serious Kazunari, but her qualities and diligence both at work and at home looking after her aging father are overlooked on account of her being overweight. It doesn’t help that Yuria is in competition with her sister Mako (Miwako Kakei), who might not be as bright or resourceful, but she her looks and glamour make her a much more superficially attractive prospect.
As you might expect, the simple moral that Thicker than Water seeks to get across from the sibling rivalry is that appearances can be deceptive and that you need to look beyond surface impression. Keisuke Yoshida’s original script however applies that principle to each of the characters, presenting a lovely balanced view of people and their differences from a male and female perspective. It might take some dramatic shortcuts and uncomfortable turns of events to underline points, but Thicker than Water does nonetheless get to the essential feelings in a way that is just as amusing and heart-warming as his earlier film My Little Sweet Pea, and by delving deeper manages to find more universally recognisable sentiments.
Born Bone Born
Director: Toshiyuki Teruya (Gori)
Cast: Ayame Misaki, Eiji Okuda, Michitaka Tsutsui, Yoko Oshima
While nearly all the films in the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme have their own moments that are unique to Japanese cinema, you tend to find the more extreme ones at the extreme ends of the country. Often that involves characters getting back in touch with nature and their roots in the extreme environments of Japan and more often that takes place in the frozen beauty of the northern island of Hokkaido. Just for a change however in Born Bone Born Toshiyuki Teruya introduces the viewer to some of the more unusual aspects of Japanese life in the southern tropics of Okinawa, some two hours and fifteen minutes off the mainland.
We know that’s how far away it is because that’s how long it takes for Yuko to travel on the ferry back to the family home on the Okinawan island of Aguni, arriving with a scream to join her father for fourth anniversary of her mother Emiko’s death, where they will enact a particular funeral rite known as senkotsu that is customary in the region. Yuko surprises her family by turning up heavily pregnant, which causes some outrage in the family and quite a bit of gossip among the islanders, but there are other issues that the other family have been struggling to grapple with in the years since Emiko’s death.
As is customary in such films, it’s all very much about getting in touch with one’s roots again in order to face up to reality though reconnecting with nature, with family, home and tradition; facing up to troubles together. What is very different about Born Bone Born is that the means by which the family come together and the nature of the island traditions that they are going to take part in are indeed rather extreme and even shocking in places. Inevitably things have to get worse before they start to get better.
Toshiyuki Teruya (a Japanese comedian known as Gori) captures all the sense of the extremes of life in his film. It’s funny, strange and warmly affectionate one moment, painful and difficult to watch in others as it touches on all those difficult issues and questions of human existence. The use of his home island in Okinawa, where one side is populated by the living and the other by the dead, permits the director to go even beyond that and into ‘the other world’ of great mystery, one that delves very deeply and thoughtfully into fundamental questions of birth, life, death and rebirth.
The touring programme will bring selected films to 20 venues across the UK from 2 February to 28 March 2019. Details on the films showing can be found at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme website.
Previous Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme reviews:
JFTFP 2013 – Once Upon A Time in Japan
JFTFP 2014 – East Side Stories
JFTFP 2015 – It Only Happens in the Movies? (Part 1)
JFTFP 2015 – It Only Happens in the Movies? (Part 2)
JFTFP 2016 – Ikiru: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema (Part 1)
JFTFP 2016 – Ikiru: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema (Part 2)
JFTFP 2017 – Odd Obsessions
JFTFP 2018 – (Un)true Colours (Part 1)
JFTFP 2018 – (Un)true Colours (Part 2)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum