There's a lot of Japanese stuff in my Work In Progress folder at the moment. You may have noticed. In fact, I had ambitious plans for all my various Mostly Film and Rising Monkey posts to merge together in some sort of crazed synergy this week, which could have come off if I didn't have lots of real work to do as well.
So, pick the bones out of this lot. This week on Mostly Film, there's a new Monoglot Movie Club piece by me entitled All In The Game, based on the films we saw during our visit to Japan last Christmas. The backup material for that was intended to be part three of the Rising Monkey journal of that holiday. This plan has been somewhat scuppered by my not having actually finished part two yet. I should have both parts of that piece completed some time this month, hopefully. In the meantime, can you take this as a reminder to go look at All In The Game? I reckon I've managed to sneak more oblique references to the C word past the editors than any other writer for Europe's Best Website, and this contains yet another one.
Meanwhile, last week on Mostly Film, I reviewed six of the thirteen films in the Japan Foundation's touring film programme It Only Happens In The Movies? I didn't review the other seven at the time because I hadn't seen them yet. But I've seen them now, as the London run of the tour has just finished at the ICA. So...
Comedian Gekidan Hitori's directorial debut occupies the grey area between Back To The Future (a young man's opportunity to tamper with his family's timeline) and Life On Mars (a seventies-set psychodrama but with the ironic casual sexism replaced by ironic casual consumption of whale meat). It doesn't attempt the creepy incestuous vibe of the former - the period Haruo has gone back to is too specific for that - but it's not afraid to dabble in the occasional existential bleakness of the latter, at least for its first two acts. The time-travel gimmick isn't hammered for laughs: Haruo manages to impress the inhabitants of 1973 with a trick that the subtitles insist he calls by the special name of 'spoonbending', even though on the soundtrack you can quite clearly hear him giving it the impromptu title 'urigeller'. But the sentimentality that affects most Japanese comedies in their third act kicks in with a vengeance almost bang on cue, and even a pleasingly enigmatic coda doesn't quite undo the damage that causes. It's a pity, because before it becomes obvious where the story's heading, it's a smart piece of work.
Nobody To Watch Over Me requires you to buy in completely to the statement made in its opening caption: when a murder is committed in Japan, the perpetrator's family are held as much to blame as the murderer themselves. All too often, the police have to guard the immediate relatives of a killer from being harmed by others, or even themselves. That's the job faced by detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato), as the apparently simple task of babysitting Saori (Mirai Shida), the sister of a double murderer, turns into a chase through Tokyo and out the other side.
Director Ryoichi Kimizuka tries to have it both ways here - he wants to make it obvious that this attitude to the families of criminals is ridiculous, but for dramatic purposes has to imagine a version of Japan where Katsuura is the only person who thinks that way. The result is a massively overheated melodrama, where every shred of common human decency is completely abandoned in the attempts by everyone else in the country to bring Saori to some form of justice. If you're prepared to take it on the level of melodrama rather than a reasoned social critique, however, it's actually surprisingly tense, with Kimizuka's jittery documentary-style camerawork keeping you on edge throughout. Having said that, you can't help but be amused by its depiction of internet gossip using the hackneyed visual language of anti-video piracy adverts from the noughties. (It's also quaint to see a film from 2009 depicting social media in terms of bulletin boards.) In the end, the film fails because it's raised the stakes so high, it leaves the impression that Saori will never be free of this torment - and then it forgets all that for the last ten minutes, for the sake of an upbeat ending. If you're looking for a film that shows the impact of gutter journalism and web chatter on a criminal investigation, The Snow White Murder Case (as seen at Terracotta last year) does it all much better.
A Letter To Momo played to a full house at the ICA: this season has had pretty splendid audiences throughout its London run, but anime is always going to get those extra few punters along. Hiroyuki Okiura's first feature since Jin-Roh back in 1999 focusses on the Momo of the title, an eleven-year-old girl who's recently lost her father in tragic circumstances. Momo and her mother have left Tokyo to live with her grandparents on the island of Shio: inevitably, she finds it hard to adjust to the change. Particularly when she discovers that a trio of hungry kleptomaniac monsters is haunting her grandparents' house, and that she's the only one who can see them.
When I wrote about Wood Job! in the earlier piece, I mentioned the stereotype Japanese teenage boy you see in the movies. And it strikes me that Momo encapsulates the female equivalent - quiet and shy to the point of appearing massively anti-social when she fails to interact with anyone who comes into contact with her. But this is, as you'd imagine, the story of her learning to interact, and her character development through the course of the film is beautifully paced. Which is surprising, as you'd imagine the fantastical yokai interludes would distract from any emotional engagement. Instead, they counterpoint it wonderfully, building to a gloriously gargantuan setpiece for its climax. This is such a beautifully realised adrenalin rush that, for once, I'm prepared to forgive the movie for getting soppy in its final scene - and to be fair, the closing image of reconciliation it presents is a ravishing one.
Jinx!!! Be honest now, have you ever seen a good film with three exclamation marks in the title? (And before you ask, Tora! Tora! Tora! doesn't count.) Korean pop star Hyomin plays Ji-ho, a young girl who's emigrated to Japan for a few months to get over the death of her boyfriend in tragic circumstances. Her fellow students at the college she's gone to are incredibly friendly and welcoming, but Ji-ho chooses instead to latch onto the one girl who sits on her own in the canteen - Kaede (Kento Yamazaki), a bit of a loner who doesn't really want the attention. When she discovers a microscopic history of romantic interest between Kaede and a young lad called Yusuke (Kento Yamazaki), Ji-ho makes it her life's work to bring the two together. She uses re-enactments from Western rom-coms as a teaching tool to show both Kaede and Yusuke how they should behave - after all, that's what Ji-ho and her late boyfriend used to do. Ah. So that's what's happening.
With just the tiniest shift in emphasis, Jinx!!! could be a horror movie rather than a romantic comedy - because Ji-ho is an absolute monster. "She's grieving," insisted The Belated Birthday Girl as if that's some sort of excuse. But Ji-ho repeatedly tramples over all manner of personal boundaries to get what she wants, cheerfully ignoring or ridiculing what anyone else thinks. (Hey, she snorts derisively at Kaede's love of Jackie Chan movies, that's monstrous enough for me.) The conflict, at least, makes for an edgier watch than many other Japanese romances. The constant references to other films get a bit wearing after a bit, especially as they have to be reasonably unspecific to keep the budget down. But somehow the performances keep you watching even when the characters are behaving horribly, and it all just about works out by the end.
Scattered Clouds made for a bizarre climax to our Sunday viewing: following on from A Letter To Momo and Jinx!!!, it was the third film in a row whose initiating incident was the death of a man in tragic circumstances. In this case, it's the husband of Yumiko (Yoko Tsukasa), who was run over by Mishima (Yuzo Kayama) while he was on a dodgy errand for his company. With a child on the way, Yumiko is in dire financial straits. Mishima offers to pay compensation, despite having lost his job as a result of the accident: Yumiko doesn't really want anything to do with it, or him. Both of them will eventually end up trying to earn a crust in the same small town, and an unexpected bond will develop between them.
The Belated Birthday Girl subsequently summarised the plot of Scattered Clouds as "yeah, sorry I killed your husband, fancy a shag?" You can't really argue with that as a bare bones synopsis. What makes Mikio Naruse's handling of the story so extraordinary is that he almost convinces you over 108 minutes that this is a believable emotional trajectory. Almost, anyway. Some of the dialogue might have been acceptable in 1967, but sounds a bit painful now, notably the panic that breaks out when it looks like one character may have to travel to Pakistan, "the birthplace of cholera." But the slow transition of Yumiko from hatred of Mishima to something else is believable enough from moment to moment, aided by sensitive performances and lovely colour photography that's absolutely of its time.
Short Peace lives up to its title, being only 68 minutes long. But that's because we're only getting part of it here: alongside this portmanteau of four short animations, there's also a video game attached when you buy it in Japan. We didn't get the game at our ICA screening, but it was bolstered to feature length by a typically informative talk from anime guru Helen McCarthy. She revealed, among other things, that the synergy between anime and games is growing in the country all the time: these days, more animation is being produced in Japan for cut scenes than cinema screens.
The film is notable for having major input from Katsuhiro Otomo, best known for introducing anime to the West with Akira. His contribution, Combustible, is a quiet tale from the Edo period, beautifully rendered in the style of a traditional scroll painting, but with a solidly apocalyptic climax of the kind that made his reputation. His dark wit is also visible in A Farewell To Weapons (Otomo's story, but Hajime Katoki's direction), a tale of men versus machines with a deliciously satirical punchline. The other two feel more like mood pieces: Hiroaki Ando's Gambo is an extended bear vs demon battle, while Shuhei Morita's Possessions is a traditional man-spends-night-in-haunted-house fable which also examines the frustration felt by abandoned household objects. All of the shorts feel just that bit too short - it makes for a frustrating viewing experience, as you feel you could easily spend a few more minutes with each of them. But that's probably better than finding them all too long.
Finally, since the Japan Foundation week at the ICA started with Wood Job!, it made sense to finish the season with another commercial comedy. The Handsome Suit sets out its stall early by showing us Takuro (Muga Tsukaji) and telling us how ugly he is. Or at least, some people in a mysterious clothing company office are telling us that, while watching him on hidden cameras. Sure, he's popular in his job as the cook at a small diner, and he has lots of friends: but his pudgy looks and crippling lack of self-esteem make him a total failure with women. After a particularly brutal knockback from a waitress at the diner, he's approached by the clothing company, who see him as the ideal test subject for their Handsome Suit - an all-over miracle garment that turns him into the best-looking man in Tokyo, as long as he avoids hot liquids. Pretty soon, he's leading a double life: beating off women with a shitty stick in his part-time job as a male model (where he's played by the significantly more handsome Shosuke Tanihara), while out of the suit he starts to get friendly with new waitress Motoe (Miyuki Ohshima).
This isn't as machine-tooled a piece of popular entertainment as Wood Job! - taking the opportunity to rewatch the latter at its ICA screening, it surprised me just how intricately constructed its script was. The Handsome Suit is still an enjoyable enough movie, with a pleasing sense of its own daftness (particularly in its realisation that the word 'handsome' sounds ridiculous when over-repeated, notably in the suit's advertising slogan "let's handsome!"). But the tone is all over the place: sad and tragic sequences are rammed up hard against surreal comic ones, leaving you utterly confused over how to react from one minute to the next. And the moral that it slowly meanders its way towards is rather predictable - it would be a genuine shock if Takuro ultimately preferred his handsome life to his regular one. But as a comedy, it does everything it sets out to do, and that should be more than enough to satisfy anyone. (Except for director Tsutomu Hanabusa, who's subsequently abandoned the genre to become the guy in charge of the Sadako 3D films.)
So that's the London run of the Japan Foundation tour over for another year. It's been delightful to see the ICA cinema so busy for all of the screenings, and completely full for the anime. If you're going to any of the screenings in the other cities where it's visiting, maybe you could let me know if these films are as popular there? I'm curious. Being a monkey, and all.
P.S. Thanks to @JamesMoar on Twitter for pointing out that Short Peace, along with the accompanying PS3 game Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day, is already available as a package in the UK - see Amazon link below.