2010's been a really good year so far for seeing Japanese films in UK cinemas. Still Walking has an arthouse release, a mere year-and-a-bit after I raved about it at the LFF. Ponyo is doing the rounds just in time for the kids at half-term, in both dubbed English and subtitled Japanese varieties. And BFI Southbank is wrapping up a two-month retrospective of the legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, including nationwide reissues of Tokyo Story and Late Autumn.
With all that lot going on simultaneously, it almost seems like overkill for the Japan Foundation to press on with their annual touring programme of newish Japanese cinema. But you're not going to hear any complaints about that here. If you live in London, you've just missed it: but if you can get to Sheffield, Belfast, Edinburgh or Bristol during February-March 2010, you may be luckier.
The Japan Foundation programmes have become a regular feature over the last few years: in London they tend to turn up at the ICA every February. You may remember my review of the 2008 collection, A Life More Ordinary. Then, as now, the aim is to showcase the sort of drama movies that rarely get seen in the UK: with the notable exception of Still Walking, the few contemporary examples of Japanese cinema that get released over here are fantasy or horror flicks. This year, in Girls On Film, programme advisor Jasper Sharp has chosen a selection of films by and about women.
There are six films in the season, but I'm afraid I'm only going to cover three of them here: you'll have to find out about ASYL: Park And Love Hotel, Fourteen and Non-ko for yourselves. (These might help.) And one of the remaining three has already been talked about in these pages. Satoko Yokohama's German + Rain played at the 2008 London Film Festival, and I enjoyed it well enough at the time, as you can see: though I'd be curious to find out why Girls On Film went for this one rather than Yokohama's superior followup, Bare Essence Of Life.
Though maybe it's just that German + Rain fits in better with the overall theme. As I said at the time, "the Japanese do love their stories about outsiders," and - WARNING: GRATUITOUS CULTURAL STEREOTYPING AHEAD - a season of stories featuring female Japanese protagonists is almost by definition going to have an outsider perspective. It's certainly the case in the two films from the BFI Ozu season that I caught recently, Late Autumn and Early Summer, both of which derive their drama from a young woman's decision that she isn't ready to get married just yet. Part of what makes Ozu such an acknowledged genius of cinema (aside from the stuff everyone always mentions, such as people talking directly to the camera like it's a character) is that in both films, he sets up the conflict, and then resolutely refuses to take sides: this is just how things are, and people have to learn to make compromises in life.
The movies in Girls On Film were made half a century after Ozu's peak, and there are two important differences to note. Firstly, Japanese society has embraced the idea of female independence to a much greater degree, so simply not wanting to settle down isn't a sufficiently dramatic premise to base a film around: the stakes need to be raised. And secondly, these films are firmly behind their protagonists all the way, to the extent of virtually ignoring any pressure from society for them to conform, other than that within their own heads.
Take Naoko Ogigami's Kamome Diner, for example. It's the story of Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi), who's feeling a little detached from life after a family bereavement. Her solution is to move to Helsinki and open up a restaurant: her thinking is that, if the Finns like salmon for breakfast, they've got to have some sort of affinity with Japanese food. After a month, she's only had one customer, a young anime fan called Tommi (Jarko Niemi) who may just be after her for her TV theme identification skills. Still, his enquiries about Gatchaman indirectly lead to Sachie meeting up with two more Japanese women adrift in Helsinki: Midori (Hairi Katagiri) and Masako (Masako Motai).
East-meets-west culture clash stories are ten a penny, but it's nice to see some variations on the theme that I've not really encountered in movies before. Like Midori's fascination at the produce on sale in Finnish markets - pretty much the same reaction I have when I'm looking at the freaky veg on sale in Japanese ones. Or her initially suspicious treatment of Tommi, as she reckons that with his geisha t-shirts and the like he's just a cultural tourist. But inevitably, it becomes a film about the building of bridges between Japan and Finland, as the Seagull Diner slowly assembles a clientele of vaguely lost people from both countries.
You realise quite early on that nothing bad will ever happen to the three women - their mutual support group colours their view of Finland as some sort of cuddly European version of Japan, and they have a completely different set of stereotypes in their heads to the ones we have. It almost comes as a relief when a drunk woman bursts in at one point and we think, "ah, yes, that's the Finland I know from Aki Kaurismaki films." (If I'd have been paying attention, I'd have noticed that one of the other visitors to the diner is the late Markku Peltola, who played The Man Without A Past.) Maybe it's the cross-pollenation of the upbeat Japanese sense of humour and the downbeat Finnish one that gives Kamome Diner its unique tone. There's the odd burst of surreal imagery to keep you on your toes (particularly where Masako is concerned), but for the most part the film's grounded in a warm sense of humanity, as shown in the unforced delight of its final scene.
The search for identity seems to be a common theme in the films in this season, and it's most explicit in How To Become Myself, based on a novel by Kaori Mado and directed by the late Jun Ichikawa (only really known in the UK for Tony Takitani). In its opening scene, narrator Juri (Riko Narumi) considers her place in her school's hierarchy, and reckons she's somewhere in the middle: "there's a bullied one, there's a chosen one, and there's one who's neither". But things change quickly at that age, and 'chosen one' Kanako (Atsuko Maeda) suddenly falls out of favour with her classmates. As Juri and Kanako move on to new schools, Kanako finds it even harder to regain her previous popularity.
Juri doesn't really know Kanako (they talked briefly once at graduation, but that's it), but takes it upon herself to help her. She sends Kanako anonymous text messages advising her on how best to cope in her new school, effectively rebuilding her personality remotely. At the same time, Juri's using this experience as the basis of a story she's writing for a class project. With so many fictional levels going on at the same time, how long can all this go on? And while Juri is spending time fixing Kanako's personality flaws, is she paying enough attention to her own?
If, like me, you were the sort of introspective teenager who found yourself thinking seriously for hours about who you really were, then How To Become Myself will hit you pretty damn hard. Whether you're male or female, it perfectly captures that moment when you realise that you behave differently with different sets of people, and try to synthesise all those behaviours into a single thing that you can call 'you'. Hefty portions of the film consist of characters sending texts to each other, but rest assured it's not done with the head-on focus of experimental Japanese film The Letter. Ichikawa depicts the drama with a fascinating mixture of styles, combining the low-key visuals of Tony Takitani with bursts of text captions and split screen images. And when it comes to the climax, he has his two characters face each other (and the camera) directly for a heart-to-heart video chat. Which just about brings us back to Ozu, surprisingly enough.
As I mentioned at the start, the run in London's ICA is now over, but for the next month the programme will be appearing in a small selection of UK arthouses: Showroom Workstation in Sheffield (Feb 22 - Mar 4), Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast (Mar 5-9), Filmhouse in Edinburgh (Mar 10-14) and Arnolfini in Bristol (Mar 13-21). It's a Japanese film season that's unusually low on Yakuza beatdowns and long-haired ghosts, but if that's a problem for you, well... don't you like girls?
[Purchase links below, from left to right: ASYL, Fourteen, Non-ko, German + Rain, Kamome Diner, How To Become Myself. Warning: Kamome Diner is the only one with English subtitles.]