The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2021 (Part 1)

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2021
This is My Place: Carving out a sense of existence and belonging in Japanese Cinema

Bringing contemporary, classic, documentary and anime features every year to all parts of the UK, out of necessity the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme went online for the first time in 2021 and showed all its films for free. Despite registration and other technical measures having to be put in place to ensure rights protection, the process worked fantastically well and brought to a wider audience another fine selection of international cinema that otherwise would be difficult to see. It also provided an opportunity to attend some informative Zoom conference talks with directors on their films and on the themes they approach in their work, giving some idea of where they fit in the diverse world of contemporary Japanese cinema.

That tied in well with the theme of the 2021 JFTFP, This is My Place: Carving out a sense of existence and belonging in Japanese Cinema. It’s another universal and important theme – all the more so in the current difficult circumstances we are all currently living under – and typically, the selection of films approached this in a wide variety of ways. Some took on that perennial theme in Japanese cinema of young people trying to find their place in a changing world where hierarchical and traditional structures are inflexible – and finding new and original ways to do so – but others looked at other groups of people and individuals struggling with other bonds, conventions and expectations to discover and live their own lives.

Director: MARIKO Tetsuya
Cast: IKEMATSU Sosuke, AOI Yu

In one of the JFTFP talks organised alongside this year’s screenings, director Tetsuya Mariko noted that he was tired of minimalist, everyday life cinema prevalent in Japan at the moment and wanted to shake things up a bit. He already did that with his last film Destruction Babies, and he certainly carries that sense of pent-up rage – or perhaps not so much pent-up rage as full-blown violence – through to his latest thrilling film, Miyamoto.

The theme of young people struggling under social pressures, work commitments, to tradition and the need to conform in order to make the successful transition to adulthood is a common one, and in fact, the source for Miyamoto is a manga that was popular 20 years ago, ‘Miyamoto kara kimi he‘ by Hideki Arai. Mariko’s adaptation, first as a TV series and extended out into a feature film, shows that the themes are still relevant today, and the director certainly captures a sense of the freshness and energy of a manga in a hard-hitting film that is far from the formal conventional cinematic style.

There are more than few hard-hitting punches thrown literally and metaphorically at Hiroshi Miyamoto. At the start of the film we see him battered, bruised, missing a few teeth having been in a fight that has apparently left his opponent in hospital. Definitely a case of you should see the other guy (and believe me, you will!). Miyamoto is in trouble at work, his parents aren’t amused when he brings back his girlfriend Yasuko to tell them they are getting married and that she is pregnant. Either Miyamoto is uncontrollable, or life has spun out of his control.

The truth is that it’s a bit of both. Miyamoto is trying to protect Yasuko from a violent partner, and is trying to correct an injustice against her. But is he up to it? Although the situations in Miyamoto tend towards extreme and exaggeration, as is often the case in manga derived material and anime, there’s a sense that the style taps deeper into something real that is felt by its young characters. Knowing when to cut loose and when to step back and toe the line isn’t always easy, and Tetsuya Mariko’s film shows just how much of an impact that can have on people’s lives.

The balance between happiness and unhappiness is remarkable“, Yasuko observes early in the film, and Miyamoto certainly demonstrates that with scenes that you have to see to believe. There’s a whole lot of violence, pain, enthusiasm and humour in a frantically paced film of gut-wrenching intensity that taps fearlessly into the deepest – and sometimes darkest – of human feelings.

Director: ITO Tomohiko

Using state of the art graphics Tomohiko Ito’s 2019 anime feature deals with familiar science-fiction subjects; the use of technology, time-travel and the unintended consequences that come with trying to alter events in the past. Being a Japanese anime however the treatment also has wider concerns and, as is often the case, that relates to young people finding their place is a rapidly changing world.

Kyoto high-school teenager Naomi Katagaki is naturally shy, indecisive and withdrawn but is unexpectedly presented with an opportunity to change direction. It’s 2027 and Kyoto has made technological advances in digital 3-D mapping with the ALLTALE quantum memory device which allows them to open up historical views of the city. A glitch in the system however has allowed a hooded man to come from the future with a warning. Something terrible will happen unless Naomi becomes more confident and decisive and acts to change events, but first he needs to find himself a girlfriend!

With its advanced graphics, complex plotting and its dealing with the use of technology to create and potentially get lost in digital worlds, HELLO WORLD can sit comfortably alongside The Matrix or any of Christopher Nolan’s work. In anime terms it’s perhaps not anything new either, clearly influenced greatly by Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, but with time slip elements and a teen-to-adult tragi-romantic streak that you’ll find in superior anime serials like Noein, Clannad and Sword Art Online.

Visually HELLO WORLD is impressive and, since it deals with digital worlds and technology, it makes good use of its digital CG effects, but the storyline is also extremely well-paced and designed to draw you in. It also helps that the situation is relateable. Who wouldn’t want to reboot the world at the minute? Tomohiko Ito’s film shows that in a way it is possible to restart things, at least as far as individuals are concerned. For all its quantum physics complexity, the underlying message of the film is simple; believe in yourself and you have the power to shape your own destiny.

One Night
Director: SHIRAISHI Kazuya
Cast: SATOH Takeru, SUZUKI Ryohei, MATSUOKA Mayu

Having seen Kazuya Shiraishi’s previous films Birds Without Names (JFTFP 2018) and Sea of Revival (JFTFP 2019), I kind of knew what I was letting myself in for with the director’s latest film; a bleak situation filled with desperate characters in a melodrama that packs a punch. Even so, the opening of One Night still hits hard, as a taxi driver coolly reverses to intentionally run down a drunk and abusive passenger who has just stepped out of the cab. Meanwhile, Yuji, the youngest of three children who has ambitions to be a writer, fantasises how their father might kill each of them. The two situations are not unrelated.

The taxi driver who has run the man down at the start of the film is actually his wife, who works as a driver for the family business. She has just intentionally killed her husband so that she and their children don’t have to put up with any more of his violent beatings. She’s proud of what she has done for her family, even if it means she won’t see any of them again for 15 years. When we do catch up with them years later, the children’s lives don’t exactly seem to have flourished. The daughter Sonoko works as a hostess in a bar and drinks heavily, Yuji is a journalist writing for a porn magazine and Daiki’s marriage is on the rocks, heading for divorce. But what about their mother?

Shiraishi certainly doesn’t disappoint in providing a bleak situation that seems impossible for any of his characters to escape. One Night is however surprisingly subtle in how it makes it seem like happiness is just within reach for each of them, but it lies just beyond their capacity to achieve. Their mother can’t understand what has gone wrong, as she tried to save them from this 15 years ago, but the scars clearly run deep. Shirashi’s film intelligently identifies this as being as much down to their mother’s actions as their father’s.

If there’s going to be any kind of healing, you imagine that it’s going to be a long and painful process, but the film does take a bit of a shortcut to speed the process along with a little bit of manufactured drama at the conclusion. While this puts a strain on the realism of the issues raised, it does however successfully extend it out though to show that the problems are not just with one family, but are far-reaching and touch many families in other ways.

Me & My Brother’s Mistress
Director: HAGA Takashi, SUZUKI Sho

It’s a simple direct title and the premise of Me & My Brother’s Mistress is equally as direct in its treatment of the subject, but the underlying motivations are evidently likely to be more complicated. Difficult situations faced by ordinary people is the kind of thing that indie cinema can traditionally do very well, and often it’s young people in situations that are beyond their experience to grasp and deal with. Directed by cinematographer Takashi Haga with Sho Suzuki, the film manages to enter into that confusing place very well.

Yoko’s dilemma is what to do when she discovers that her brother Kenji, who is about to be married, is still carrying on an affair with another woman. Kenji’s fiancée however seems like she will fit perfectly into their family, even if she might not be quite as glamorous as the mistress. Yoko still can’t understand why he would risk their future happiness, so she decides to follow them and, after hesitating about what to do, she decides to confront the mystery woman. Misa however turns out to be not at all what she expected.

Inevitably the situation is complicated for each of them. Yoko and her brother have been living alone for almost a decade since the death of their parents, so perhaps they have a different idea about what it means to be a family, but it turns out that the other characters all have their own issues and motivations that make it even more difficult for Yoko to untangle and know what is for the best. Yoko tries to stick to her guiding principle is that it’s important to be a decent person, but finds that even that sometimes means hurting people. And, as she is about to graduate and doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, there is her own future to be concerned about.

The strength of Me & My Brother’s Mistress is that it raises such conundrums but doesn’t need to spell everything out for the viewer. With an authentic script, good performances and strong cinematography that focuses on faces and lets them express the inner turmoil of emotions, it’s very easy to get drawn into not just Yoko’s dilemma, but the issues facing all the protagonists, whose views are all are given equal consideration here.

Not Quite Dead Yet
Director: HAMASAKI Shinji

Humour doesn’t always translate well and Japanese films, anime and manga certainly have their very own exaggerated stylisations and conventions. Despite their peculiarities – or perhaps because of them – comedy films do nonetheless open up a whole other view of Japanese society in a way that can be as worthwhile as they are entertaining. Shinji Hamasaki’s impressive first feature film Not Quite Dead Yet is a perfect example of this. It’s hugely entertaining, filled with self-referential contrivances and seemingly random and anarchic in its plotting, but it does reveal some fascinating aspects about Japanese values and culture.

Nanase’s father is president of a pharmaceutical company specialising in the research and development of anti-aging drugs. He wants his daughter to follow in his footsteps and has been drilling her in science and order ever since she was a child. Nothing doing. Nanase has rebelled and started a death metal band Soulzz, whose image and songs are all based around Death. The two facts are not unrelated, since Nanase has been unable to tolerate her father ever since he put his work ahead of being with her mother when she was dying. In fact, she fervently wishes her father would drop dead. She is about to have her wish come true.

Sort of. Although Nobata Pharma haven’t had much success yet with the Romeo drug, their secret Juliet one – developed by a young scientist called Grampa – is looking promising. It’s not really clear what use a drug is that kills you, even if it’s just temporarily for two days, but hey, it worked for Shakespeare, so you can hardly complain about it just being a convenient device for complicating comedy film plots. And complicate it certainly does, because with her father apparently dead, the rebellious Nanase is forced to become president while another company tries to take advantage of the situation to force a profitable merger.

Not Quite Dead Yet wears its silliness openly. Even for all its manga-like exaggeration, it’s a little more mainstream friendly than the wilder ideas you find in the more outrageous side of Sion Sono or Takashi Miike – two better-known exponents of larger-than-life cinema. Although there are genuine laugh-out loud off-the-wall moments in director Hamasaki’s film, you end up admiring it more for how it actually neatly brings everything together in a tight script that keeps the film down to a consistently entertaining and engaging 90 minutes,. And yes, it does perhaps even give you another perspective on the peculiarities of Japanese society, culture and sense of humour.

Details on other films showing in this year’s programme 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)
JFTFP 2020 – Happiness is A State of Mind (Part 2)


Updated: Mar 10, 2021

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