Here's what programmer Jasper Sharp has to say about A Life More Ordinary: A Portrait Of Contemporary Japanese People On Film, a short season of movies touring the UK in February and March 2008: "there are no bullets to the head or blood splatter, no clashing katana or bizarre ghosts with long hair."
Um, he wouldn't be referring to this lot, would he? Nevertheless, he does have a point: the only movies from Japan we tend to see in the UK these days are genre pieces. Unless you attend film festivals, you may not even be aware that the Japanese are still making movies about normal people and their non-superhuman lives. It's a failing that A Life More Ordinary is trying to rectify, as it takes six recent Japanese films out to London, Bristol, Belfast, Edinburgh and Sheffield over the next two months.
Although it's a season of six films, I'm afraid you're only going to read reviews of five of them here. The Belated Birthday Girl and I are trying to fit both this season and the British Animation Awards Public Choice programmes into a single week of filmgoing, and something was always going to have to fall by the wayside. In this case, it's No One's Ark, directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita - but as The BBG and I have both been disappointed to varying degrees by the last three films of his we've seen, missing that one doesn't seem like too much of a hardship.
Which is why we officially start with Strawberry Shortcakes, directed by Hitoshi Yazaki. It's the story of two pairs of girl friends living in contemporary Tokyo. One pair works at the Heaven's Gate escort agency: Satoko (Chizuru Ikewaki) is on reception, while Akiyo (Yûko Nakamura) is more aggressively client-facing. The other pair shares an apartment: Toko (Toko Iwase) the artist, and Chihiro (Noriko Nakagoshi) the Office Lady. (It's an official term over there, honestly.) All of them are looking for love in various ways. Satoko has ludicrously high expectations of what romance will mean to her: Chihiro is trapped in a relationship with a disinterested work colleague: and Toko is throwing herself a little too obsessively into her work in the wake of a recent break-up. Meanwhile, Akiyo is leading an exhausting double life, power dressing in the daytime for her job, but frumped up with glasses by night when she meets her old college sweetheart.
Based on a comic by Kiriko Nananan (the real name of the actress Toko Iwase), Strawberry Shortcakes may be light on the genre trappings that Jasper Sharp mentions, but it's surprisingly heavy on the sex. At the London ICA screening, a Japanese family in the audience (complete with small child) had to leave after fifteen minutes once it became apparent what Akiyo's day job is: good job they didn't hang around for longer, and have to explain the concept of a facial afterwards. The sex adds a surprising touch of grit to what's mainly a whimsical study of what love means to women today, contrasting the idealism of the younger girls Satoko and Chiriho with the world-weariness of their older mates. The switches between drama and comedy sometimes come a little out of the blue when judged minute by minute, but the film works well as a whole: and the method by which the two stories finally come to overlap is neatly handled.
By comparison, The Milkwoman is a lot more traditional. It's the story of Minako (Yûko Tanaka), a Nagasaki woman who decided quite early on in life to keep her expectations low. At the age of fifty, she's settled into a quiet rut, living on her own while holding down two jobs on a milk round and a supermarket checkout. In the early part of the film, we follow her early morning route and see the various people she encounters each day. But gradually, we come to settle on one of them in particular - Minako's former childhood sweetheart Keita (Ittoku Kishibe), now a social worker whose wife is dying of Sad Movie Cancer.
Akira Ogata's film gets more conventional the longer it goes on, and that's a shame. The earlier, more digressive part has a lot going for it, and quite a few surprises - particularly in a subplot involving Minako's uncle, a former English professor whose Alzheimer's is depicted by having him menaced by animated intertitles (which is a lot better than I've made it sound). Once the film drifts into a more traditional romance, it still has its moments, mainly due to lovely performances by the two leads. Unfortunately, the film can't resist taking a huge lurch into melodrama just to give the story some sort of climax: I'm all for subverting the audience's expectations, but the ending just seems calculated to annoy you immensely if you've bought into everything else that's come before. (Although, paradoxically, it does put the audience in the curious position of rooting for the death of a child.)
You might have noticed that the selections in this season have been a little... well, I'll have to ask The Belated Birthday Girl if there's a Japanese word for 'chick flicks'. Lots of female protagonists so far, and that's still the case after we consider Nami Iguchi's The Cat Leaves Home. Suzu (Yôko Fujita) has finally walked out on her idiot boyfriend, and decides to seek refuge with her old school chum Abe (Eiko Koike). Unfortunately, Abe is just about to fly off to China for a year-long study break, leaving another schoolfriend Yoko (Kanako Enomoto) on house-sitting duty. Suzu and Yoko are forced to live together in Abe's house, which is a dangerous situation given their past history of stealing each others' boyfriends.
The Japanese title translates as Dog and Cat, which seems a lot more appropriate: it's all about the contrasts between the two girls, albeit with a few overly schematic sections designed to show that they're not all that different really. With a little bit of pushing, the story could become that of 2LDK, a Japanese movie from around the same period in which the rivalry between two female housemates goes completely out of control. But it's obvious from quite early on that this won't be that sort of movie. If the film was any thinner, you wouldn't be able to see anything on the screen at all: but the carefully observed behaviour of the two girls (and the slightly retarded nature of the two men they chase) makes for fun viewing, and at 94 minutes it doesn't outstay its welcome.
Kaza-Hana is the oldest of the movies in this season: it dates back to 2000, when its director Shinji Sômai was still alive. Out of the five we saw, it's really the only one with a significant male role. It's a road movie of sorts, following an odd couple on their journey from Tokyo to rural Hokkaido. Yuriko (Kyôko Koizumi) works in a hostess bar: Sawaki (Tadanobu Asano) is a drunken salaryman who passes out in there one evening. On a whim, the two of them decide to head up north "to see the snow", although they're a little loath to admit to each other - or themselves - why they'd want to do that. Sawaki is running away from Tokyo, where his chronic arseholism has got him into trouble both at work and with his family. Yuriko, on the other hand, is effectively running back to the home town she fled from some five years earlier.
The story may take some predictable turns, but this isn't your average romantic drama. For one thing, it's not afraid to make its protagonists unlikeable - particularly Sawaki, who Tadanobu Asano plays as a dick for almost the entire length of the film. His drunk act is a delight, as he feels the need to verbalise every thought that comes into his head, no matter how offensive. As for Yuriko, we gradually come to discover that she's so obsessed with herself as to barely notice anyone else, including the family that's trying to look out for her. And that gradual discovery comes out of the other major plus point of Kaza-Hana: an incredibly ambitious flashback structure, based around the leaps of memory that something like 21 Grams would pull off to greater acclaim a few years later. It makes the early stages a little hard to follow, but it's a device that's used in a way that emphasises that this is an emotional journey rather than a chronological one. And if the story does tip into sentimentality at the end, at least it's gone the long way round to get there.
Finally, we have Kamikaze Girls, and I'll need to spoil its first good joke to give you a flavour of it. We open on a girl in a frilly dress riding a motorcycle at full speed through the Japanese countryside, shortly before a vegetable lorry smashes into her. As she flies through the air, there's a sudden freezeframe and the caption "Kamikaze Girls: The End". In voiceover, the girl suggests that we may have come into the story a little late, and need to go back a bit. The next scene is captioned "Versailles, The 1800s". Somewhere out of all this eventually emerges the story that comes between these two scenes - that of schoolgirl Momoko (Kyôko Fukada), ridiculed in her smalltown home for her obsession with Lolita-style fashion. To pay for her regular trips to the Baby, The Stars Shine Bright boutique, she sells off some of her Yakuza dad's fake designer gear: and that's how she becomes friends with Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya), a member of all-girl biker gang The Ponytails.
Shot like a Sunny Delight hallucination, edited at whiplash speed, and not afraid to directly tell its audience that the next scene will be in cartoon form to keep the kids happy: what on earth is Kamikaze Girls doing in a film season about real Japanese lives? Well, anyone who's spent an afternoon in Shibuya will know that Loligoths, biker girls and dozens of other youth cults are out there on the streets of Japan: and Tetsuya Nakashima's movie is one of the few Japanese movies I've seen that acknowledges that they even exist. And rather than just gawping at their bizarre costumes, it takes a wryly humourous look at the reasons for their choices, realising that Momoko's prediliction for all things girly and frilly is a much braver way of life than Ichigo's stereotypical bad girl. Kyôko Fukada's performance as Momoko is a fabulous thing to watch, though Anna Tsuchiya is obviously having great fun yelling like a Yakuza and headbutting everything that moves. A film doesn't have to be realistic to tell you about real life, and Kamikaze Girls is the best film in this season because it realises that.
Assembled by The Japan Foundation, A Life More Ordinary succeeds in its brief to show UK audiences a side of Japanese cinema we get to see all too rarely. And judging from the frequent full houses it gathered during its London run, it's a side for which there's a definite market. No bullets, blood, katana or ghosts. Okay, so they've been replaced here by motorcycles, suicide and cumshots, but you won't catch me complaining about that. Being a monkey, and all.
P.S. I've tried to set myself up an Associate account with YesAsia.com, but they're being a bit arsey about it so far. So in the meantime, here are some links to allow you to buy these films on DVD. I get no commission from these whatsoever, so this is just because I'm nice. Some of these don't have English subtitles, by the way.
The Cat Leaves Home
No One's Ark
P.P.S. And now (with invaluable Japanese language assistance from The Belated Birthday Girl), I've managed to set myself up as an Associate on Amazon.jp, so I can use the picture links below like I do with the US and UK versions. They're in the same order as the YesAsia ones above, in case you're having trouble reading them. Be warned, though, that the version of Kamikaze Girls listed below is the Japanese one with no English subtitles - the version linked to above is from Hong Kong, and does have English subs.