Dream Doll
On Your Way To Somewhere Else: Pick Of The Year 2010

Back To The Future: Japanese Cinema Since The Mid-90s

They should make a scarier version of this called 'Sadako Decides' [this caption for Japanese film geeks only] Whisper it quietly, but I let my ICA membership lapse at the end of last month. I've stuck with them for over a decade, and I appreciate that times are tough for arts funding: but over the last couple of years, the value of the membership fee has been whittled down until it's virtually non-existent. The building is now closed two days out of every seven: the programme booklet has been cut down to a single sheet, and they don't even mail that to members any more.

The final straw was an event of theirs that I would love to have attended - a Comica Festival presentation of a new film about comics writer Grant Morrison - being so lousily promoted that I didn't hear about it until a couple of weeks after it happened. The only contact the ICA has with me nowadays is an irregular email of highlights, and they didn't consider it worth mentioning on there. So sod 'em, I'm out. (It strikes me as symptomatic of the current attitude that there's been no followup mail from the ICA reminding me that my membership's expired.)

Having said that, just five days after I stopped being a member, I had to sneak back into the place as a guest of The Belated Birthday Girl to catch the Japan Foundation's latest programme of little-seen Japanese films. Curses!

We've done this before, of course. For the last few years, the Japan Foundation has been taking a collection of half a dozen movies around the UK each winter, typically stopping off in London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Bristol and Sheffield. At the time of writing, the 2011 tour has just finished its London run at the ICA, and is about to hit the other five cities on that list. (Jump to the end of this piece if you're looking for dates.)

This year, though, things are a little different. Previous Japan Foundation programmes - for example, the ones in 2008 and 2010 - have focussed on new and recent cinema from the country. But as the title of Back To The Future: Japanese Cinema Since The Mid-90s suggests, this year they're taking a wider look back at the last 15 years, with work from directors both established and up-and-coming. The aim of curator Jasper Sharp was to give a British screening to films that have rarely been seen over here: and for me, it's the word 'rarely' that's the problem. Many of the movies here have had the odd festival screening, or have been available on English-subtitled DVDs from places like Hong Kong, which means that some of this programme would already be familiar to serious fans of Japanese cinema.

For my part, I'd seen four of the seven already, and owned a fifth one on DVD (albeit with a caveat I'll explain later). Still, at least it means I can actually cover all the films in the programme this year, even though I'll have to rely on my memory or previous blog posts for a couple of them. The most awkward one to write about is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (1998), as I saw it several years ago at a non-festival screening and didn't take any notes. It was a one-off Sunday matinee at the Bristol Watershed, paired with Takashi Miike's Shangri-La: a double bill of such exquisite rarity that The BBG and I made a day trip to Bristol just to see them. Cure was Kurosawa's first outing into the horror territory that he subsequently refined in Pulse: both films deal in the creepiness of the not-quite-visible, but Pulse wins on the visceral imagery it pulls out of the bag for its apocalyptic climax. Cure, in my memory, is a much quieter film, and the one thing I can remember clearly of it is its final shot - a wide view that forces you to scour it for the one crucial detail, much the same way as Michael Haneke did when he stole the idea for Caché several years later.

The next two are films that have played at the London Film Festival during the lifetime of this website, so I could just lazily link to my reviews from back then and say no more. But I won't. Linda Linda Linda (2005) has its fans, but for me it's just another disappointment in Nobuhiro Yamashita's career-long series of them. Japanese cinema has been full of this sort of thing for the past decade: light comedies about teams of teenagers banding together to perform some sort of activity, usually one that's not expected of their gender. It's a genre that takes in the male synchronised swimming team of Water Boys, the big band efforts of Swing Girls, and that film I mentioned a month or so back called Tits Volleyball that you all assumed I was making up. (I wasn't.) The only unusual thing Yamashita does with his schoolgirls-in-Battle-Of-The-Bands scenario is fail to give us the expected crowd-pleasing finale, making it utterly useless to anyone but school uniform fetishists. (Except perhaps The BBG, who at least got an enjoyable introduction to the music of The Blue Hearts from it.)

And then there's Sawako Decides (2010), which I saw just a few months ago at its LFF screening. You haven't heard the last of it yet, as Third Window Films have picked it up for a UK release later in the year. Yûya Ishii's self-effacing comedy is visually distinctive enough for Sawako in her white jumpsuit to have become the signature image of the Japan Foundation season: and it's the most recent of the films in the set, indicating a possible way forward for Japanese narrative cinema. Certainly, the film industry's been rather mediocre for the last couple of years - as The BBG noted during her 2008 stay, pretty much every film they make is an adaptation from another medium - so a good original screenplay like Sawako's needs to be praised to the skies when it comes along. Even though, paradoxically, its key message is that mediocrity is nothing to be ashamed of.

Everybody's heard about the bird (people of China) One consequence of this programme containing older films is that I already own two of them on DVD - although Go (2001) is a slightly peculiar one. As soon as I saw it in the programme listings, I knew it sounded familiar, and a quick bit of online research confirmed it - I bought the DVD from a Hong Kong online retailer, sight unseen, back in the summer of 2002. And I never watched it. I have a large box full of DVDs I put away a couple of years ago with a view to selling them, and I have to assume it's still sitting unwatched in there. Why did I buy it back in 2002? I have no idea any more. It's possible it had picked up some buzz at that year's Edinburgh Film Festival (the one British screening it had prior to this one), and that may have inspired me to pick up a cheap HK copy out of curiosity. But anything beyond that is guesswork.

Actually, after all that, Isao Yukisada's film turns out to be worth the wait. Racial identity has been a common theme in Japanese cinema over the years, but this is a rare attempt to use that theme as the basis for a post-Trainspotting teen movie, all jump cuts and wild variations in film speed. Just the opening reel has enough energy for an entire film, taking in a basketball game that turns into a 20-on-one brawl, a game of chicken played against a subway train, the ensuing cop car vs bike chase, and our hero Sugihara (Yôsuke Kubozuka) having the crap beaten out of him by his dad while in police custody. It's played at such a cartoony level of abstraction, you wonder how the film can keep it up. It can't, but more importantly, it has no intention of doing so.

From that opening, while still keeping the attitude, it slowly mutates into a family drama about what it means to be of Korean descent while living in a country which can be somewhat unwelcoming to outsiders. As Sugihara keeps saying, 'this is my love story', and the focus shifts towards his relationship with a Japanese girl, one that develops so awkwardly it can't help but feel anything other than real. It becomes a fascinating mix of cross-cultural tensions, as Japan, North Korea and South Korea all feed into Sugihara's background somewhere. But Go happily turns out to be one of those rare Japanese teen pics where the tensions don't automatically erupt into violence. (In fact, there's one sequence that virtually accuses the viewer of expecting that to happen.)

Similar cross-cultural shenanigans emerge from the plot of The Bird People In China (1998), which I definitely know I own on DVD - that's how I first watched it several years ago. If I'd been more aware at the time, I could have seen it at that year's London Film Festival: sadly, Takashi Miike wasn't a big name on the film festival circuit until 2000 or thereabouts. He's certainly a big name now, which is presumably why this was the one screening in the ICA run that played to an almost capacity audience. Back when I saw it in the early noughties, the accepted critical line was that this was an unusual departure from Miike's regular mixture of yelling yakuza and torn flesh. Nowadays, the fanboys (and fangirls, of course, darling) are more aware of Miike's astonishing range as a filmmaker, and are just sad that his (comparatively) restrained pictures like this and the aforementioned Shangri-La get virtually no exposure in the West.

So here's why The Bird People In China is the second best Miike film you've never heard of. (Shangri-La is still better, though.) It starts out as a simple fish-out-of-water story: Wada (Masahiro Motoki) has been sent to China by his boss to investigate a valuable jade source within a small village. On the train from the airport, he's quickly wrong-footed by the locals: even more so when he discovers he's being tailed by yakuza Ujie (Renji Ishibashi) looking for repayment of a loan. The two of them embark on an epic journey over land and water to get to the village: what they find there will change them both dramatically.

From its beginnings as a simple clash of cultures, the film quickly escalates to a much more complex web of such clashes: China vs Japan, salaryman vs yakuza, town vs country, even generations of the same family turn out to have been misunderstanding each other for quite some time. Miike keeps all these conflicts weaving in and out of each other, leavening the drama with his usual touches - salty wit (mainly thanks to the constantly swearing yakuza), visual surrealism (one of his earliest examples of unexpected CGI fakery), and just the one scene of violence this time thank you. It may not be as different from his other films as we originally thought, but there's an elegiac tone that I've rarely seen in the rest of his work, culminating in a final scene which simply takes your breath away with its audacity, even if you know it's coming.

Better, stronger, faster: the One Million Yen GirlAs those were a couple of boysie films, let's wrap up with two for the girls. Josee, The Tiger And The Fish (2003), directed by Isshin Inudô, is more or less a traditional romcom: even its undeniable quirks feel like part of the formula that these films work to the world over. There's a boy, Tsuneo (Satoshi Tsumabuki), studying at college and not quite sure what to do with himself. There's a girl, Josee (Chizuru Ikewaki), paralysed from the waist down, living with her grandmother and only leaving the house for the odd secret ride in a pram. The two meet, initially drawn together by a love of Josee's cooking.

All you need to do is throw in Tsuneo's cute female college buddy and her interest in social work, and you could probably work out most of the rest of the plot from there. Like many romcoms, it relies on a couple of contrived misunderstandings to keep the story ticking over for the full two hours: just because they're in a foreign language, it doesn't make them any less obvious, or any more forgivable.

But where Josee scores is in its depiction of the lead character's disability - or, more precisely, everyone else's attitude to it. Old people like Josee's gran see her as damaged goods and something to be kept out of sight: young people look on her more as a cool fashion accessory. Hard to say if this is a true depiction of the way they feel in Japan: The BBG's limited experience is that it's a subject people are reluctant to talk about, which may be part of the point. Still, contrivances aside, the leads are both fun to be with (for very different reasons), and the final resolution is the most interesting of the small number of surprises the narrative has to offer.

Finally, One Million Yen Girl (2008) is by writer/director Yuki Tanada. It turns out I already knew her work as a writer from Sakuran, where she was part of an all-female crew along with director Mika Ninagawa and composer Ringo Shiina. Here, Suzuko (Yû Aoi) is another one of those alienated young people popular in Japanese cinema: by the end of the second reel, she appears to be the sworn enemy of every single person in Tokyo, through no real fault of her own. So she comes up with a plan - she'll save up one million yen (about seven and a half grand at current rates) through a series of temp jobs, and then move out of her family home (because they hate her too). Once in her new place, she'll keep working till her savings are back up to ¥1,000,000, then move to another town and start the process again. After a few runs through the cycle, she starts to spot certain patterns emerging.

It's a nice change to the normal male version of this story, which would typically end up in violence and tragic death. But Tanada's handling is curiously unbalanced. There are long stretches of subtle, character-driven storytelling, and then every so often the film loses its nerve and has Suzuko blurt out the subtext out loud to whoever's listening at the time. And in order to set up her story, the film has to frequently stack up all the odds against her in a ludicrous fashion. But the gradual change in Suzuko's character is nicely calibrated, making for a satisfying left turn in the final scenes - albeit one that, yet again, requires the viewer to be told what's happened rather than shown it. Yû Aoi's winning performance is a large part of what keeps the film afloat: even when she's making obviously bad decisions, you end up sympathising with her regardless.

Personally, I'd like to have seen a few more films I'd never heard of before: but that's just me, and I'd imagine that next year's programme will contain more of that sort of thing. In the meantime, those of you outside London can see Back To The Future at the Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast (Feb 21-24), the Filmhouse in Edinburgh (Mar 4-10), the Broadway in Nottingham (Mar 11-16), the Arnolfini in Bristol (Mar 18-20), or the Showroom Workstation in Sheffield (Mar 22-28). Meanwhile, I'm now going to see if I'm capable of staying out of the ICA until the next London Film Festival. Being a monkey, and all.


[Warning to anyone thinking of following one of the amazon.co.jp links below. From left to right: Sawako Decides has no English subtitles, but if you can wait till Autumn 2011 there should be a UK DVD with the subs you need. Go has no English subtitles, and the subbed Hong Kong DVD I bought in 2002 appears to be currently out of print. Josee, The Tiger And The Fish does have English subs, so hooray for that. One Million Yen Girl is unsubbed: there's a Taiwanese subbed DVD, but again it's currently out of print. All the amazon.com links, meanwhile, are for American DVDs which have English subtitling as standard.]


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