The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020 (Part 2)

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020 (Part 2)

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

Unsurprisingly, a first look at the films in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme's 2020 in Part 1 of this feature revealed the usual diverse range of outlooks on the theme of Happiness. As well as presenting a wide variety of perspectives this second look as some of the other films in the programme shows the usual variety of genres. Included here is an animated fantasy, a sports movie and a historical war drama, all of them attesting to the continuing richness in Japanese cinema, of which regrettably few ever have any kind of presence in UK cinemas. All the more reason to make the most of this when the touring programme comes to your town or city next year.

Ride Your Wave
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Cast: Ryoko Shinohara, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Kentaro Sakaguchi
2018

Typically the anime feature in each year's Japan Foundation's Touring Film Programme has the ability to present a wholly different perspective on the underlying theme from the rest of the 'live action' films. And since that theme this year is 'Happiness is A State of Mind: Joy and Despair in Japanese Cinema', Masaaki Yuasa's Ride Your Wave certainly rides the whole wave of those emotions from one shore to the next.

If that sounds like stretching a metaphor you may get used to it, because the idea of riding the wave of life as a way of learning to master the challenges of life does tend to get somewhat over-emphasised in this animated feature. It starts out as a literal wave that Hinako Mukaimizu rides every year when she comes back to surf at the coastal town where she used to live as a young girl and has now returned to in order to go to university. Watching her glide gracefully and effortlessly over the waves every year, young fireman Minato Hinageshi has come to see her as his hero.

The favour is returned when the young fireman rescues Hinako from a blaze in her apartment caused by careless use of fireworks, and he becomes a hero to her. It's not just his fireman heroics that impress Minato, but he also seems to be capable of all the everyday things she's not good at, riding his own wave through life. She offers to take him out for a surfing lesson and - over a musical sequence, singing a song from their childhood days with lots of bonding over food - the two become a couple. It all gets very sentimental and slushy, but it's clearly too good to last and inevitably it all comes to an abrupt heartbreaking end.

Well, almost an end. The story then takes a somewhat fantastical turn, but that's pretty much the norm in Japanese anime features. Here it's obviously used as a way of expressing deeper sentiments and feelings that are difficult to deal with and impossible to carry off convincingly in a more traditional live action film. Ride Your Wave is indeed about finding a way to deal with life's challenges, accepting ones limitations, striving to be the best you can be and helping others. Even if the wave metaphor is somewhat laboured, there are some nice animation effects and sequences that successfully hit that important message home.

Lying to Mom
Director: Katsumi Nojiri
Cast: Mai Kiryu, Hideko Hara, Ryo Kase
2018

The issue covered in Katsumi Noriji's Lying to Mom is one that is addressed in many Japanese films, but it's not just an issue that is specific to or confined only to Japan. As the rather shocking opening makes immediately clear, the film is about the problems of youths known as shut-ins, about the high incidence of youth suicides and the difficulty of knowing how to deal with the problem. There are no easy answers or ways of saving someone, but the Suzuki family have an unusual way of dealing with the issue when their shut-in son Koichi commits suicide; they keep him alive by lying.

Denial doesn't sound like the best way of dealing with bereavement, but in this case it's a necessary one that comes about by accident. It's Koichi's mother Yuko who discovers her son hanging in his bedroom and she is so shocked and distraught that she is found lying unconscious by her daughter Fumi with cuts to her wrists. When she comes out of the coma 49 days later she doesn't remember what has happened. Afraid of her suffering another shock, her daughter, husband and her relatives pretend that Koichi has gone to work in his uncle Hiroshi's shrimp business in Argentina. Writing letters pretending that Koichi is doing well, the family become practiced in lying, but the longer it goes on the harder it is to keep up the elaborate deception.

What also becomes evident is that the family are doing this not just for Yuko's sake. Fumi and her father have also been struggling to come to terms with Koichi's death and this is their own way of imagining a better life that the young man might well have led if he had been able. Lying to Mom treats a delicate subject well with sensitivity and humour and in its own way expresses and brings out into the open feelings that many in similar situations would recognise. The only answer to this difficult situation is that everyone has to deal with their own grief in their own way.

A Banana? At This Time of Night?
Director: Tetsu Maeda
Cast: Yo Oizumi, Mitsuki Takahata, Haruma Miura
2018

Set in Hokkaido in 1994, A Banana? At This Time of Night? is based on a real-life story that treads a delicate balance between inspirational and sentimental, with exaggerated humour and potentially tragic consequences in its treatment of the case of Yasuaki Shikano, a 34 year old man who suffers from muscular dystrophy.

Because of the seriousness of his condition, Shikano had not been expected to live beyond 20 but an experiment in independent living seems to have worked for him. He has plenty of medical attention from student volunteers, but as the comical title of Tetsu Maeda's film indicates, Shikano can be a bit of a handful. As a consequence, Misaki hasn't been seeing much of her fiancé Tanaka, a student doctor who is helping Shikano, but when she tries to stand up to his controlling demands she also gets caught up in the circle of home help volunteers. Misaki's attitude intrigues Shikano and he asks her out on a date through Tanaka, not realising that she is his fiancée. Needless to say complications ensue,

It's not always easy to identify what exactly it is about Shikano that inspires admiration bordering on almost adoration, whether it's his ambition, his stubborn independence, his strength of personality or his determination to beat his illness and challenge medical advice, but he does draw people to him. What makes this intriguing is that Yo Oizumi gives a charismatic performance that borders edgily on creepy, but there's probably also some truth in the fact that it's not always easy to identify what motivates people and why they behave as they do. "Be honest with yourself", the watchword of the film, is clearly not as easy as it sounds.

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler
Director: Kyohei Fukimura
Cast: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Yoshino Kimura, Kokoro Terada
2018

Shota is puzzled. Everyone else in his class is able to boast about their dad's profession, but Shota's father is curiously reluctant to reveal what he does for a living. Some suspect that he might be involved in criminal activity, a gangster; he's certainly got the build for it and, when Shota's curiosity gets the better of him and he follows his dad to work one day, he certainly seems to mix with some disreputable looking heavies. The truth of course is even more surprising and embarrassing, Shota's dad is a wrestler and not just any pro-wrestler but the villain and dirty cheat that the audience love to hate; his dad is Cockroach Mask, a heel wrestler, the fall guy for popular heroes like Dragon George.

Cockroach wasn't always a heel wrestler. 10 years ago Takahashi Omura used to be a champion wrestler until a knee injury ended his career. The Z-1 Climax competition is looming again with one of his club's top wrestlers unable to compete, a replacement is needed. Could this be his chance for Takahashi to redeem himself in the eyes of his son and his son redeem himself in the eyes of his class? Well, at least one person is impressed, Michiko a local journalist and fan of Cockroach Mask. She wants to cover the contest and is about to get her big break and, through Shota, an exclusive insight into the return of a veteran champion.

As you can tell from the outline there's no sport movie or cute kid cliché left out in Kyohei Fukimura's film and the plot is very predictable, but My Dad is a Heel Wrestler is a hard film to dislike. It might try to play a few good-natured heel throws to manipulate its audience but it's all good clean fun, done with the best of intentions to provide heart-warming entertainment. With an excitable fight commentary and a no holds barred finale, Fukimura throws you wholeheartedly into backing his characters and the drama all the way through to the final bell.

The Actor
Director: Satoko Yokohama
Cast: Ken Yasuda, Kumiko Aso, Shohei Uno
2015

It's difficult to know how to judge films about cinema, whether they tend to satirise their subjects or end up being self-indulgent themselves. Satoko Yokohama's The Actor manages to have a foot in both camps, but it's has its own measure of creativity and inventiveness, with a good central performance from Ken Yasuda to keep you engaged despite what seems like a rather aimless plot.

Yasuda plays Takuji Kameoka, an actor who typically gets small roles on TV and movies, things like Cat Zombie Panic (that's one I want to see!), mostly as an extra. Somehow he has a screen presence that director's want; maybe it's his loneliness, maybe it's his superficially easy-going nature, but it gets him work, even that means hand-holding a Philippine star who doesn't know her lines, and even if a lot of the roles he is offered are playing a yakuza or a thief. Even those roles have been drying up however - unlike Kameoka who is rarely sober - but he has been offered an audition for a famous Spanish arthouse filmmaker that could change his fortunes.

There's a lack of direction in Takuji's life that reflects on the direction of The Actor. Partly it's a satire of the profession and partly a character study of a superficial man, but Ken Yasuda has a way of making that sympathetic. Not only Yasuda, but there are some good performances from Kumiko Aso as a bar owner he flirts with and Yoshiko Mita as a veteran actor and stage director, both of whom recognise that somehow the very nature of Kameoka's skill as an actor lies in the fact that he has no real depth of character of his own. Director Satoko Yokohama isn't beyond employing some arthouse symbolism either - whether ironically nor not - in a showcase sequence that nonetheless manages to perfectly express the loneliness of Kameoka's condition and state of mind; in limbo, fighting shadows, walking a desert between life and death.

Organ
Director: Emiko Hiramatsu
Cast: Erika Toda, Sakurako Ohara, Yui Sakuma
2019

The war remains a tricky subject to approach in Japanese cinema, considering ways to honour those who died serving their country with the questionable nature of Japanese war crimes and the trauma of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Organ attempts to find safer ground by dealing with another aspect of the war that isn't often considered, relating a potentially more uplifting true story of the many children that were saved from the horrors of the firebombing of Tokyo during the dying days of the war by evacuating them out of the city.

It might be intended to be uplifting but Organ shows that to even get such a thing organised and agreed was by no means an easy task, involving much persuasion, indecision and heartbreak. It's not just that the families of the 4 and 5 year olds at a day care centre are anxious about being separated from their children when the idea of evacuation is proposed, they also have to overcome the reluctance of the parents to accept that the possibility of Tokyo being attacked and the Japanese nation facing defeat. Eventually a place is found at an abandoned temple outside the city, but even then, the care workers find that there are many other obstacles and problems to resolve.

Even though it takes in domestic challenges like the increased incidence of bed-wetting, Emiko Hiramatsu's film doesn't attempt to minimise the challenges faced, but pays tribute to the foresight of the women of the day care centre whose efforts are clearly seen to have saved the lives of 53 children. The film does however unfortunately succumb on occasion to the cuteness of the children, the klutziness of Mitsune and it overindulges in sentimentality with painful silences and the dramatic hesitant delivery in the breaking of bad news. You're never far away from tearful children or tearful workers struggling with the challenges, but there are tears of anger there as well, tears of exhaustion and frustration and tears of relief. Regardless of the treatment, what comes though clearly and essentially is the debt owed to the foresight of the ordinary day care centre workers and the survival of these children has been a gift to the generations of the future.

Details of all the films shown 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)
JFTFP 2020 - Happiness is a State of Mind (Part 1)

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