The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020 (Part 1)

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020 (Part 1)

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020
Happiness is A State of Mind: Joy and Despair in Japanese Cinema

Now in its 17th year, the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme brings a diverse selection of contemporary Japanese cinema to a number of venues across the UK. Very much under-represented in UK foreign language cinema distribution, this is often the only chance a UK audience might have to see a range of films each with a unique voice that present an alternative but accessible perspective on common issues that affect us all.

Regardless of the theme, whether dealing with gender, cultural, social or geographic issues in the country, the films in previous Japan Foundation Touring Film Programmes have always managed to connect with essential, recognisable human qualities, and none more so than this year's theme, Happiness. As something that is subjective, difficult to define and never a stable condition, it's no surprise however that in a programme comprising of 20 films that take in its highs and lows, there are many different ways of viewing this subject.

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps
Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Cast: Ryoko Shinohara, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Kentaro Sakaguchi

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (Initiation Love, 20th Century Boys) is good at finding a way to draw a deep and sometimes dark aspect of human behaviour out of fantastical situations, and in The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps the human tragedy is such that you are almost willing him to find a miracle for a resolution. A bright young girl Mizuho is on life support after an accident at a swimming pool, but the doctors have declared that she is brain dead with no chance of recovery. Her parents, separated, have a difficult choice to make and feel pressured to consider organ donation, but a flicker of movement in their daughter convinces them not to give up.

Driven to do anything they can, Mizuho's father enlists help of Hoshino, a scientist working on experimental treatments for limb replacements controlled by signals from the brain. The technical assistance helps Mizuho with movement, muscle tone and breathing but are they helping stimulate Mizuho to health or just animating a corpse? All this effort is also preventing the living from getting on their own lives. The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps explores a medical as well as an ethical grey area, one where the line is increasingly difficult to draw with advances in technology, robotics and neural stimulation. Should we expect a miracle this time from Yukihiko Tsutsumi? At the very least the film presents a fascinating and thought-provoking human story with a few unexpected twists along the way.

Sea of Revival
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Cast: Shingo Katori, Yuri Tsunematsu, Lily Franky

The sea can be a powerful metaphor but, as the people of Japan know too well, it is also a powerful and destructive force. Set in the seaside town of Miyagi, a town destroyed by the 2011 tsunami, it's this double purpose that Kazuya Shiraishi puts to use in Sea of Revival. When Ikuo Kinomoto (Shingo Katori) finds himself unemployed and struggling with gambling debts, he and his partner Ayumi move to her coastal hometown and Ayumi's daughter Minami. Ayumi's father, a fisherman, is dying of cancer and she wants to look after the old man, but for Ikuo who has arranged a job in a printing plant it's a second chance to start over again and prove he's not a loser. Unfortunately, it's not all plain sailing.

Anyone who has seen Kazuya Shiraishi's previous film Birds Without Names (2017) which featured in the 2018 JFTFP programme, will perhaps not be surprised that, as bad as things are, Ikuo has quite a bit further to fall before he sees any possibility of a revival of fortunes. Although the film does deal with real-life problems recognisable to many, there's no doubt that the director lays the misery on a bit thick in Sea of Revival and not every behaviour or twist of fate has a ring of authenticity about it. If it goes to extremes however, it's necessary to make a point that redemption is always possible. Extremes are exactly what the people of these coastal regions have lived through with the 2011 tsunami, and while people can suffer and make mistakes, the good that also comes through in such troubled times can outweigh the bad, and outweigh it by some measure.

Director: Hiroshi Okuyama
Cast: Yura Sato, Riki Okuma, Chad Mullane

Some films are uncategorisable and you could probably tell from the synopsis and maybe even from the title alone that Jesus is one of those films that is just a bit different (the original Japanese title translating as 'I Hate Jesus' even more so). It seems like a fish-out-of-water film when Yura and his family leave Tokyo to live in a small town in the frozen north of the country. The school Yura starts there is a Christian school where religious observance is part of the whole culture, but it's not a culture the young boy is familiar with. When a miniature Jesus appears to him, granting him wishes to help him find a friend that makes it easier to adjust to this new life, you can see that there's going to be nothing typical or predictable about Hiroshi Okuyama's 2018 remarkable debut film.

In some respects Jesus might not appear to be a typical Japanese film, but it provides a refreshing outlook on some of the many familiar issues seen in Japanese cinema. It has an almost indie sensibility that allows the viewer to see youth, coming of age, alienation, adjusting to tradition and relating to society from a different angle and in a way that shows just how richly diverse the culture is. The indie sensibility also applies to the filming techniques, the film shot in academy ratio, running to 75mins instead of the more typical 120, but that doesn't mean there's any lessening of quality. The film has a unique visual look, astonishingly realistic special mini-Jesus effects and a more open narrative style with wonderful little touches that give the characters room to develop and connect with the viewer. Jesus is one of the highlights of this year's programme.

Our Meal for Tomorrow
Director: Masahide Ichii
Cast: Yuto Nakajima, Yuko Araki, Karen Miyama

Like the director Masahide Ichii's previous film, Blindly in Love, Our Meal for Tomorrow is one of those films that is fun and light-hearted in its treatment of young love, looking simple enough on surface with an innocent charm and a few quirks. The directing shows no particular flair, the script is functional and the performances appear straightforward and unexceptional, but the truth of the sentiments comes through clearly, the film dealing with issues that are real for many young people in Japan as much as anywhere else.

Ten days before sports day, the red team are missing a partner for the vital third rice bag stage in the mixed relay, so Uemura has no option but to ask Hayama, the quiet awkward outsider in the class who reads novels by dead people, whether he will help them out. Uemura eventually confesses that she has feelings for Hayama, but he hasn't got over the death of his older firefighter brother and isn't not sure he is ready for something like that.

Uemura has issues in her own background that she doesn't talk about or even seem to let affect her, but there is something there that has taken a long time to come to terms with. With a few quirky touches involving bonding over Colonel Sanders and KFC, Our Meal for Tomorrow deals with loneliness and coming to terms with the fact that the world isn't always fair. It shows how easy it can be for young people to get lost and how difficult the world can make it to get you know your true self. There are challenges ahead for Uemura and Hayama as a couple and who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Her Sketchbook
Director: Masaya Ozaki
Cast: Mugi Kadowaki, Takahiro Miura, Yu Hirukawa

Mami Konuma is another of those young people we've all seen before in Japanese films. She's a massive fan of manga comics, doesn't fit in with others, she's perpetually clumsy, awkward and uncommunicative (she speaks to father in next room by text). Having lost her job at a machine parts factory - the only place that would employ her - after damaging her hand in an accident, her father manages to get her a job debugging video games. When Mimi overhears that the company are under pressure to make amendments to a game that the director's art department can't deliver, she sends in some revisions anonymously. The work is clearly that of a gifted individual.

In another Japanese film with a character like Mimi, this would be an excuse to make a wild quirky hyperkinetic geek movie making good-natured fun of awkward 30 year old late-adolescents and their efforts to adjust or integrate into the real world. Her Sketchbook treats the matter of youth alienation a little more sympathetically, managing to look at the problem of the hikikomori (shut-in) and recognising it as relating in some cases to autism and to some extent to social conditioning. Director Masaya Ozaki however doesn't need to sacrifice humour or imaginative situations to get this point across.

It may seem trivial but the manga anime and game industry is big business in Japan and it does gainfully employ young people who otherwise might not easily fit into traditional employment working social hours. The minute anything becomes either work or personal however, having to manage schedules, deadlines or socialise, Mami's confidence falls apart. Many young people will be able to identify with Mami's predicament, but Her Sketchbook also helps educate how ways can be found to reach out to alienated youth and, not surprisingly, it does so in a way that is sweet and charming, like Mami.

Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Cast: Masayoshi Yamazaki, Machiko Ono, Takumi Kitamura

As a thief Shuichi Makabe is in a league of his own, so they say, a professional burglar with ninja like skills who strikes in dead of night leaving no trace. Unfortunately for Shuichi, the person saying these words to him is a police detective in an interrogation room, his old classmate Sosuke Yoshikawa. It looks like Shuichi has finally met his match in the long-running rivalry with his former friend.

Shuichi's downfall comes during a burglary at the residence of Michio Inamura, an employee for the Prefectural Assembly, when the thief comes across Inamura's wife Yoko preparing to burn the house down. While in prison Inamura goes bankrupt, is charged with embezzlement and his debts are taken over by Tatsuyoshi Shinoki, a known yakuza who is also said to have taken over Yoko as well. Two years later when he is released from prison Shuichi wants to know what was going on that night, suspecting some kind of set up that involved the police, and as famous burglar with connections, he has the means to do so.

As a crime thriller Shadowfall appears fairly conventional, but not unlike the Kore-eda's The Third Murder it has a brooding character to its drama with its associations of guilt. The situation with Hisako, Shuichi's former girlfriend who has been waiting on his release and with Shuichi's mother brings a human element to the film as a psychological drama, capturing a sense of crime having wider consequences beyond the perpetrator and the victim. The film also makes a point that crime is not confined to low-lives on the streets and that its source could come from higher up, but although this element tends to get overshadowed and not resolved entirely satisfactorily, the film very much delivers on its thriller credentials.

And Your Bird Can Sing
Director: Sho Miyake
Cast: Tasuku Emoto, Shizuka Ishibashi, Shota Sometani

As seen in other films like Her Sketchbook (reviewed above) a significant proportion of youth in Japan have problems with sociability, adjusting to adulthood and accepting conditioned rules and responsibilities. Sho Miyake's And Your Bird Can Sing represents another perspective on youth being a time for carefreeness and enjoyment of life, but this route to adulthood doesn't come entirely without consequences either.

Taking an essential first-person-pleasing perspective, 'Me' doesn't have any grand ambitions for life. He enjoys the easy-going pace of living in Hakodate, drinking, playing pool and fooling around. Spending late nights drinking and dancing until dawn, he not too troubled about missing appointments or even turning up for work for that matter, living in the moment and taking what comes. He's not even getting too hung up on relationships, casually going out with Sashiko, a girl who works with him at a bookstore, prepared to even entertain the idea of sharing her with Shizuo, a friend and drinking buddy who shares an apartment with him. He just does whatever feels good at the time, drifting in and drifting out. Easy come, easy go.

And Your Bird Can Sing more or less follows the same principle, not following any set structure. There's consequently a Hou Hsiao-hsien Millennium Mambo feel to the film, the audience vicariously sharing in the carefree joy of the moment, of young people being able to enjoy themselves with no concern for the future. It doesn't need a plot or a hook, but if there's a nagging worry about where the film is going this is also exactly what we see gradually dawning on the young people in the film. Even if the best they can do is asknowledge it as "a bunch of stuff I can't figure out", the time comes when they have to work out what it is they really want out of life and what is important.

Another World
Director: Junji Sakamoto
Cast: Goro Inagaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Chizuru Ikewaki

Japanese films where a city dweller heads off to live in a provincial village are often a metaphor for getting back to basics and getting in touch with one's true nature. That initially appears to be the case in Another World when Eisuke comes back to a small mountain village after eight years away. Now divorced, he has quit his secure job as a government employee and returned to his now rundown home, neglected after death of his mother. And in a way the change of pace of life is and working out what is important is an essential component of the film, but it's not just about Eisuke. His return is a way for others to reconsider where they are and what happiness means to them.

One of his old classmates Koh runs a charcoal making business used principally for cooking specialist dishes in restaurants. Like every small traditional home enterprise Koh sees that times are getting tougher and customers expecting more for less. His son Akira is also at a difficult age, bullied at school, neglected by his father, he's not happy at home or in the village. Another old classmate Mitsuhiko is a car dealer who has been having trouble with rough customers. Despite all these problems, there's something else that unites the three former classmates, a tragic incident that weighs particularly heavily on Eisuke and affects their ability to remain friends.

Another World is similarly deceptively simple but beautifully balanced between characterisation and dramatic situation. It benefits from some lovely cinematography (by Shimgo Gima), every scene beautifully framed and lit, with foregrounding creating a three-dimensional feel. None of these elements draw attention to itself but allow you to enter wholly into this world with its different pace of life and different concerns, which is essential to the purpose of the film. That three-dimensional character applies to the development of the drama, with its elements of humour, love, friendship, family and work, all components that in balance bring some measure of happiness here amidst all the serious issues being worked through.

Following the programme at the ICA running from 31 January – 29 March 2020, the nation’s largest season of Japanese cinema will tour a further 21 venues in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Venues include: Belfast, Kendal, Dundee, Leicester Stamford, Chester, Sheffield, Bristol, Derby, Cardiff, Colchester, Manchester, Newcastle, Halifax, Lewes, Stirling, Exeter, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Nottingham.

Details on other 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)
JFTFP 2019 - Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction (Part 1)
JFTFP 2019 - Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction (Part 2)

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