The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019 (Part 2)

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019
People Still Call It Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema

This year the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented 18 mostly contemporary films on the theme of People Still Call It Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema. A selection of the programme travelled to 20 venues across the UK from 2 February to 28 March 2019. We previewed highlights of some of the films in Part 1 of our 2019 review. Part 2 below includes an anime feature, a LGBT documentary and a rarely seen classic from the 1950s that further show the variety, range and quality of Japanese cinema that rarely reaches these shores.

Penguin Highway
Director: Hiroyasu Ishida
Cast: Kana Kita, Yû Aoi, Miki Fukui
2018/118 min

Not for the first time one of the highlights and one of the most ambitious films of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme turns out to be an animated film. While most other features build themselves around a single theme, Hiroyasu Ishida's Penguin Highway uses the techniques of animation to operate on a number of levels of metaphor, symbolism and personal identification to probe more deeply into the subject of love and destruction that is the theme of this year's touring programme.

Ostensibly a children's film in that it takes the point of view of a 10 year old child, it's almost inevitable that any Japanese animator working in this field will be compared to Hayao Miyazaki and indeed there are parallels in how Ishida sets a young protagonist against the received wisdom of elders, taking a fresh outlook on the world with an enlightened ecological viewpoint. The protagonist of Penguin Highway, Aoyama, is certainly advanced in his thinking; giving all his time towards conducting experiments that explore the mysterious nature of the world.

One very unusual observation is the appearance of penguins in the vicinity of his small suburban town. Aoyama eventually deduces that their appearance is connected to a lady who works as a receptionist for a dentist, but being a 10 year old, his scientific studies are distracted somewhat by a separate interest he has around the phenomenon of ladies' boobs. Aoyama also has to deal with other childhood issues such as bullying at school and it seems that his parents are divorced or separated. Together with his friend Uchida and another exceptional girl student in their class, they trace the path of the penguin highway through the woods outside town and make other extraordinary discoveries.

Penguin Highway is an exceptional film in a number of ways. An awareness of the ecological disaster that is affecting the planet is just one of the subjects it approaches, and the floods of water that run through the town at one stage in the film bring to mind another subject that is foremost in the minds of many in Japan, but the director brilliantly blends this with a childhood perspective where nothing is taken for granted. Using surreal imagery, impressions and the sounds of nature, the film manages to touch on and awaken deeper subconscious memories of childhood, getting back to a sense of wonder of the possibilities of what the world really could be. It's the sort of thing that you expect from the best Japanese animators and Hiroyasu Ishida does that extraordinarily well in his first feature.

Tonight, at the Movies
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Cast: Haruka Ayase, Kentarô Sakaguchi, Akira Emoto
2018/109 min

Films about the movie industry can be somewhat sentimental when they look back with nostalgia on a classic period and try to recapture a magical age of cinematic potential. There's no question however that there is a mystical attraction to the golden age of cinema and Tonight, at the Movies taps into that source in the same way as Ken Ochai's Urusama Limelight, or perhaps more closely in this case, Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Kenji (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is a young assistant director at a studio in decline around the 1960s. In his spare time Kenji rummages through long abandoned reels of old films in the projection room of local cinema. There he discovers and is in thrall to The Tomboy Princess, a low-budget black-and-white movie featuring the rather feisty Princess Miyuki (Haruka Ayase), but strange as it might be, it seems that the Princess has also noticed her admirer. One night during a storm Miyuki is able to step off the screen and into the colourful 'real world'. Unfortunately, Miyuki brings with her the attributes of her character, treating Kenji as her subject, forcing him to obey her every command. Kenji is too love-struck to care.

But is this a 'true story' or a fiction created by the older Kenji as he reads over an old script that he was working on, a script that was intended to be his big break into movie directing? Now an old man ill in hospital, Kenji relates the unfinished script to a young nurse there. Tonight, at the Movies is a real sentimental crowd-pleaser in that respect, a love-letter to the power of storytelling, to the ability of movies to transform and carry their magical charm down through the years like a time capsule; a story that has never quite finished. Director Hideki Takeuchi makes those intentions clear and it's not too difficult to work out where the film is going, but the charm of Tonight, at the Movies proves irresistible.

Of Love & Law
Director: Hikaru Toda
2017/94 min

Japanese cinema is good at establishing certain characteristics of the Japanese people, but often you can find out more about the nature of Japanese society (or indeed any nation) by how it treats people at its margins; those who don't conform or fit in with the very rigid laws and traditions of the country. Hikaru Toda's fascinating documentary feature Of Love & Law follows the lives and work of Fumi and Kazu, two lawyers in Osaka who have established the country's first and only law firm operated by an openly gay couple, whose main purpose is to stand up for those who lie outside the protections of outdated and inflexible laws.

It's not just the LGBT community that Fumi and Kazu represent, although there is considerable work to be done to challenge prejudice and attitudes there, but there are others who fall foul of archaic laws and deeply conservative values. As well as representing a comic and performance artist who is charged with obscenity for making models of her vagina, Of Love and Law also looks at the cases of several individuals who through no fault of their own have no legal status and are restricted from essential services simple because they have been born outside of marriage, making them effectively 'invisible' people.

What the film really touches on is the idea of family; how the traditional idea of what constitutes a family is changing in Japan, as it is elsewhere, and how the law and the attitudes of many in a country with deep traditions and values are finding it difficult to adjust to the idea. That is done brilliantly not just in the cases that Fumi and Kazu have to deal with, but more directly in their own personal lives, in their fostering of a young boy and in efforts to change the law to make adoption legal for same-sex couples.

What is notable about several of the cases, and something that is evident from the opening scene at a gay pride parade, is the necessity of many of the participants in the film to remain anonymous, such is the stigma associated with their status under the law. The closing summation of the results of the cases covered in the film show that there is however clearly a long way to go. At best the small wins to date have only been partial, but while you might like to see better news of big successes, it's more realistic to achieve change in the law little by little and recognise that it's important to continue the struggle for justice.

Of Love & Law has a limited screening as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Programme, but is deservedly receiving a wider limited distribution to cinemas. See also the review here.

Three Stories of Love
Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi
Cast: Atsushi Shinohara, Toko Narushima, Ryo Ikeda
2015/140 min

Anyone expecting a compendium of three romantic love stories is likely to be surprised and perhaps even shocked at director Ryosuke Hashiguchi's treatment of the subject here, but Three Stories of Love does very much explore the depth of feelings of love for three very different people in a way that perhaps best encapsulates the theme of this year's programme of films. One common factor that the stories deal with is the situation where love turns out to be a one-way thing, and it's perhaps when it isn't reciprocated, cut-off or is hopeless that the true depth of love can be seen at its rawest and most emotionally transformative.

Love as something transformative doesn't initially seem to be an end that is within the grasp of the three principal characters. Toko is a put-upon housewife, treated coldly by her husband and his mother and forced to work part-time preparing lunches until she is offered a potential way out by an 'entrepreneurial' chicken salesman. Atsushi is a construction engineer for a small company hoping to win a bid for work in the upcoming Olympic Games, but his life is in tatters as he seeks redress from the law for the loss of his partner, randomly murdered just before they were about to be married. In the third strand, Shinomiya is a lawyer, a gay man who has just been jilted by his boyfriend who has had enough of his putdowns and arrogance. Shinomiya perhaps just hasn't found the person who would bring the best out of him, or rather he has, but that person is married and unavailable.

Three Stories of Love is tough going, both in figuring out where the stories intersect and who the main characters are as they emerge from the chaos of their lives, but more from the point of view of the amount of pain, humiliation, anger and disappointment that each of them have to experience. But it's truthful, it does indeed explore the deeply felt emotions of the other side of love that is not always noble or joyful, but still essentially human. And being human, Toko, Atsushi and Shinomiya - three non-professional actors giving remarkably authentic and relatable performances - find a way to endure and come out the other side in what is almost a mirror reverse of the opening scenes, perhaps not yet whole, but certainly transformed by their experiences, for better or worse.

Where Chimneys Are Seen
Director: Heinosuke Gosho
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Ken Uehara, Hideko Takamine

The title of Heinosuke Gosho's 1953 film Where Chimneys Are Seen places the film within a defined social context in the outskirts of Tokyo in post-war industrial Japan, but there's also an allegorical meaning that gives the film some mystical significance. Depending on where you are and the angle viewed, you can see an alignment of two, three or four of the prominent chimney stacks on the horizon. As well as exploring the conditions and challenges faced by ordinary working people struggling to gain a foothold in this developing new post-war economy, Gosho's film is also about gaining or establishing a social conscience in this new world and gaining a sense of perspective of where people sit within it.

The film centres on Ryukichi Ogata (Ken Uehara) and his wife Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka). Hiroko has remarried after the death of her husband in the war. The couple are childless and don't believe they can afford to have children, despite their poorer neighbours managing with seven. Any romantic life however is restricted by the presence of two boarders who live upstairs. Hideko starts to work at a cycle-racing track, keeping it secret from her husband, but the delivery of a young baby at their home, apparently abandoned by her former husband, threatens to reveal other secrets she has been keeping.

The challenges of dealing with a baby who is constantly crying and unwell opens up other social questions around a belief in justice and doing what is right, but the rules are by no means clear. What is perhaps most surprising about how Ryukichi and Hideko deal with their problems is that they appear to have little trust in the authorities to sort these matters out, much less have recourse to the law or social services. Working together, this little group of friends and neighbours find ways to work through their problems as best they can, creating their own social cohesion. By the end of the film a new perspective on the chimneys presents itself; the stacks all seem to have merged into one.

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 (Part 1)
JFTFP 2016 - Ikiru: The Highs and Lows of Life (Part 2)
JFTFP 2017 - Odd Obsessions
JFTFP 2018 - (Un)true Colours (Part 1)
JFTFP 2018 - (Un)true Colours (Part 2)
JFTFP 2019 - Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction (Part 1)

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