I've been writing Monoglot Movie Club articles for Europe's Best Website since the beginning of this year, but regular readers will know when it all really started. It was ten years ago, in 2002, when The Belated Birthday Girl took me on our first trip to Japan. At that time, the latest films by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Takashi Miike (The Happiness Of The Katakuris) were playing in local cinemas. They weren't subtitled in English, but why should that stop us? And it's failed to stop us ever since.
It's now 2012, and we've just come back from our sixth visit to Japan. A full and detailed discussion of what we did there will follow on this site in the near future: but for now, I want to concentrate on the stuff relating to Japanese cinema, which I've decided to separate out from what will eventually become Rising Monkey 2012.
So on Mostly Film today, you can read Monoglot Movie Club: Japanese Screens, in which I review the five films we saw in Japan last month without the benefit of subtitles. Meanwhile, over here in the Bonus Content section, I'll be telling you about the film-related activities we encountered along the way: a museum, an art exhibition, and a shameless promotional tie-in.
The story behind our discovery of the museum is moderately interesting. Every time I go to Japan, I try to find yet another way to learn just a bit of the language beforehand, and this year my method of choice was the NHK World TV show Meet And Speak. I didn't learn too much from the programme, preferring instead to speculate rudely about how that two-girls-and-one-boy arrangement worked out after dark. But in one episode the team visited Shibamata, "home of a famous movie character," and we started researching from there. (Like I said: moderately interesting.)
Shibamata is close to being a Tora-San theme village. There's a statue of the character in front of you as soon as you exit the station: signs featuring his trademark hat and suitcase are all over the place: and the main street is a beautifully unspoiled recreation of old-style Japan, albeit one that's largely made up of shops trying to sell you souvenirs with pictures of Tora-San on them. But ultimately, it all leads to the museum, a small but perfectly formed celebration of one of the most popular characters in Japanese cinema.
If you don't know much about Tora-San going into the museum, and you don't speak Japanese, then you may not know all that much more by the time you leave: but the visual displays are varied, and enjoyable to look at. After a short introduction to the main crew members on the films (with special emphasis on writer/director Yoji Yamada, naturally), the rest of the building focusses on the fictional world of Tora-San. You get a series of charming dioramas setting up his story prior to the first movie, models depicting Shibamata as it looked when the films were made, and the chance to walk around the actual set of Kuruma-ya, the shop where his sister and uncle live. There are also the modern knick-knacks that young people expect from a museum these days: push-button video displays playing classic clips, and a photo booth that allows you to have your picture taken with the man himself.
It's all delightfully nostalgic, but inevitably short on hard analysis: if you're looking for an explanation as to why Tora-San has such a firm grip on the hearts of the Japanese, you won't find it here. Still, the museum gives you a measure of how firm that grip is, and how it still holds nearly two decades after the last film was made. (Actually, Tora-San's made a bit of a comeback recently in a set of Orangina adverts, although the casting is bound to make Western viewers do a double-take.)
As the Tora-San series reached its fortieth film in the late eighties, a very different side of Japan's movie industry was starting to make an impact internationally. Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, adapted from his hugely ambitious comic series, appeared on the festival circuit in 1988 and blew Western audiences away almost instantly. We simply hadn't seen anything like it before: an animated story that started with the adventures of a teenage bike gang and ended with the creation of a new universe, told with a visual style and ferocity that live action cinema simply couldn't match (although it's been trying to ever since).
Otomo recently held a career retrospective at 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Tokyo - unfortunately, it finished on May 30th, so you've already missed it. It was difficult enough for The BBG and I to get hold of tickets for Genga while it was running: we only had a couple of days during the show's final week when we could attend, and it was close to selling out completely. It didn't help that the exhibition had a massively confusing entrance policy, with only four timed entry slots available per day, and tickets only available from the machines in Lawson convenience stores. (If you ever have to buy tickets from one of those things, this may help.)
Thankfully, the exhibition turned out to be worth all the hassle. It's an incredibly concentrated collection of Otomo's artworks from all the periods of his career, grouped by theme rather than chronologically. The main part of the show is crammed into a single room, with several hundred works spread across four walls and along the sides of four central pillars. It seems overstuffed when you first encounter it, and initially you find yourself focussing on the broad themes rather than on individual works: but gradually, you realise that the excess of content nicely mirrors the excess of detail that Otomo crams into his drawings.
For a viewer whose only exposure to Otomo has been through his films, the breadth of work on display is breathtaking. Standalone images - adverts, cover pages, sketches - sit alongside narrative sequences from his comic books, typically arranged right-to-left in the Japanese style. (It confuses you temporarily when you get to a set of pages from a Batman comic Otomo drew for DC, which of course are laid out left-to-right.) The films leave you with an impression of the depth of Otomo's visual imagination, and of course this comes across here too: what I hadn't really appreciated before is what an extraordinary draughtsman he is. Once you get past the sprawling cityscapes and warped biomechanics, you realise that Otomo can bring the same level of dynamism to more humdrum subjects. A lovely sequence of sketches of bicycle races demonstrates this perfectly.
But what about Akira? After all, it's the work he's best known for both in Japan and the rest of the world. Once you get past the half-dozen or so beautiful pieces of cover art from Akira in the main exhibition, that's when you turn the corner and discover the room featuring the original story art from the comic. All of it. Over two thousand pages of the bloody thing. They're laid out in glass cases, stacked flat on wires in seven vertical layers, so your chances of following the story in this form are more or less zero. Again, as you make your way through the cases, all you can do is pick up the broad sweep rather than the detail: noticing, for example, how much of the comic involves closeups of Tetsuo making his o-face in reaction to something spectacular that's coming in the next panel.
The whole thing wraps up with a couple of photo opportunities - the chance to pose on Kaneda's motorcycle, or at the epicentre of a blast wave that wrecks one wall of the gallery - and then all that's left is a quick trip to the gift shop to pick up a CD of Haishima Kuniaki's entrancing background music. Genga is a hugely satisfying collection of work, which demonstrates that there's more to Otomo than just Akira (despite over 2000 of the pieces in this exhibition coming from there!). Plus, all the proceeds from the show go to earthquake relief charities - in fact, the exhibition was specifically conceived by Otomo as a 3/11 fundraiser.
Sadly, as I said, you've missed out on Genga by now. And you've also missed out on a rather splendid bit of movie PR, one that finished at the beginning of June. The Japanese love their tie-in stunts for movies: Sadako 3D went particularly nuts in that regard, with a Sadako parade through Shibuya, her opening pitch at a baseball game, and a 4D upgrade in selected cinemas. By comparison, Thermae Romae did something quite straightforward: they took their movie about bathhouse-related time travel, and plastered its branding all over one of the biggest bathhouses in Tokyo.
Ooedo Onsen Monogatari is more of a theme park than a proper onsen bath, if we're going to be honest about it. At its centre is a collection of gender-separated communal bathing facilities, such as you'd find in most Japanese towns. But they're located within an ornate period setting, one that requires everybody on site to be wearing traditional yukata throughout. Plus, once you're inside, there's a whole series of entertainment, shopping and dining options provided, to ensure that you don't leave for quite some time.
An English-language explanatory leaflet is available once you've paid your admission fee, but if you're anything like us it'll take you a while to get your head around the setup. So, here are a few pointers. First off, be advised that as you'll ultimately be getting naked into a bath, you'll be required to leave your possessions and clothes in a bewildering array of lockers. For the most part, once you're inside Ooedo Onsen you'll just have the yukata you're wearing, and a wristband holding the key to the locker where you've put your clothes.
That wristband's quite smart, because it has a bar code label on it, which people will scan whenever you buy anything inside the complex. That means you don't have to carry a wallet or purse around with you: you just rack it all up on the wristband, and pay what you owe at the end of the day when you leave. There are plenty of food and drink stalls around the building, and when we were there most of them were covered with pictures of Lucius from the anime version of Thermae Romae, accompanied by captions wondering what he would make of this. (I've only just realised something: even though this was obviously a stunt to tie in with the release of the movie, almost every bit of imagery on display came from the cartoon...)
Once you've fed and watered yourself, it's time to investigate the baths. (Be advised that although tasty beer is available from the stalls, signs warn you in multiple languages not to attempt bathing if you are 'dead drunk'.) The baths themselves are rather lovely, a selection of indoor and outdoor pools of various sizes and temperatures. Even the larger pools are structured with lots of indents and ledges, allowing you to sit in quiet contemplation trying not to think about all those naked men nearby. But the atmosphere is convivial enough that if you wanted to start off a conversation with your neighbour, you'd probably be welcomed.
After the bath, when you're reunited with any companions of the opposite gender you came with, there are plenty of other activities available. There's a relaxation room with lots of loungers - some with tellies installed, but most of them occupied by people grabbing a quick nap after a long soak. There's an outdoor footbath that's popular with couples and families. Of course, you can also go back and start hitting the food and drink stalls again. Or you can go outside and marvel at the establishment next door to Ooedo Onsen, which offers a similar range of bathing and relaxation facilities, but for dogs.
What did The BBG and I do after our bath? Well, we took the free shuttle bus that goes from Ooedo Onsen to the bayside area, we went to Cinema Mediage, and we saw Thermae Romae there. So it's true, advertising does work. Read about the movie in today's Mostly Film piece, then come back here soon to see what else we did in Japan during that fortnight.