(Un)true Colours part 1: Secrets
I'll be brutally honest with you: the things I'll miss most when MostlyFilm finally closes down are the freebies. We didn't get many of them, but they were highly appreciated: a press preview with drinks and nibbles here, an advance screener DVD there. For me, for the years 2012 to 2017, January was basically my Christmas: because the Japan Foundation had their annual Touring Film Programme to promote, and happily sent me ridiculous numbers of watermarked Japanese DVDs to watch and report on in a series of preview articles.
But now it's 2018, and MostlyFilm is on the verge of shutting up shop. (More on that in a couple of weeks.) We couldn't really justify trying to squeeze one last set of screeners out of the Japan Foundation. Nevertheless, even before 2012 I was regularly attending the programme under my own steam. That was never going to stop.
What I'm saying is, the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018 - titled (Un)true Colours: Secrets And Lies In Japanese Cinema - is touring the UK throughout February and March, starting off with a ten-day run in London. And I'm seeing all sixteen films during that run. I can't give you previews, but I can offer you reviews: eight now, and another eight in a week or so. That okay for you?
Room For Let is this year's archive presentation, a rare 35mm print dating back to 1959. It's best described as picaresque: we meet the dozen or so inhabitants of an apartment mansion - a wild mix of conmen, voyeurs, prostitutes and nymphomaniacs - and flit between their various stories. The film's got a very theatrical feel to it: there are lots of long, unbroken static shots, where everyone in the frame has got some bit of comic business to do. This unfortunately makes for a lot of shouting and falling over. It gets a bit wearing after a while, and the occasional lurches into a more serious tone don't really come off: but there's no denying the energy that director Yuzo Kawashima brings to it.
I've seen films in the past which ask you at the end not to give away their surprises: Les Diaboliques is the one that springs immediately to mind. But Initiation Love, directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, is the first one I've seen which makes that request in the opening titles, a move which immediately puts the viewer on their guard. The love story between Suzuki and Mayu starts conventionally enough with a meet cute at an after-work social: but as Suzuki is gradually persuaded by his new girlfriend to change his nerdy image bit by bit, our suspicions start to rise. Bedecked with lots of 1980s trappings - the film's even split into a Side A and Side B like a classic mixtape - Initiation Love enjoyably teases you with several possibilities as to where the story will end up, and keeps you guessing all the way up to the balls-out audacity of its final reel.
The Long Excuse, directed by Miwa Nishikawa, stars Masahiro Motoki as a celebrity novelist whose life falls apart after the accidental death of his wife. His immediate response is to withdraw into himself and avoid contact with anyone else. But his former schoolmate Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), whose own wife died in the same accident, has a very different and incompatible view. For a Japanese film on death and the grieving process, this is a lot less sentimental than it could have been, although it does cross the line once or twice towards the end. There's a definite streak of black comedy that keeps things watchable, notably in the satirical portrayal of the media's coverage of the tragedy. But the main asset this film has is Masahiro Motoki, who also appeared for a fun Q&A afterwards: his protagonist is a man with infinite shades of grey to his personality, and he nails them all perfectly. Nishikawa is a longtime collaborator with Hirokazu Kore-eda - like her previous JFTFP selection Dear Doctor, this film shares his humanism and affection for its characters.
Sing My Life is a typical example of the aggressively whimsical Japanese comedies we see so many of nowadays, which makes it surprising to learn that Nobuo Mizuta's film is a remake of a Korean original. Katsu, a fantastically irritating woman in her seventies (Mitsuko Baisho), visits a magic photo studio and comes out looking like her 20-year-old self again (Mikako Tabe). This inevitably leads to all sorts of misunderstandings with her daughter, grandson and old boyfriend. But when it turns out that Katsu now has a decent singing voice, additional complications start to arise. Aside from the expected age-swap fun, there's also some satire at the expense of the Japanese music industry: Katsu looks like all the other girl singers on the market, but the implication is that her accumulated life experience gives her an edge over the rest. It's a predictable story (especially given a flashforward at the start which isn't as mysterious as it thinks it is), and towards the end can't even be bothered to stick to the ridiculous rules it's made up for itself, but that doesn't stop it being cosily entertaining.
MUMON: The Land Of Stealth was the first of the films to sell out in this season's London run, with audiences presumably drawn by the prospect of ninja action. It's set in samurai times in the province of Iga, where there are continuous battles involving bands of mercenary ninjas, with Mumon (Satoshi Ohno) the self-proclaimed best ninja of all. They're fun battles with clearly designated knocking-off times each day, and apart from the occasional death everyone's happy. But when the ruler of an opposing clan tries to invade Iga, things get more serious. Well, a little more serious: this is a slacker ninja film with a laid-back hero and plenty of laughs to go along with the every-visual-trick-in-the-book fight scenes. Its only problem is that it runs a little too long towards the end, but it's enjoyable enough, with the light touch you'd expect from Yoshihiro Nakamura, the director of Fish Story.
In her introduction to its London screening, Junko Takekawa of the Japan Foundation described Birds Without Names as "an unusual love story, because they're all scumbags." According to the excellent programme notes, the official term for this is 'iyana misuterii' or 'unpleasant mysteries', a popular literary genre in Japan: this film is Kazuya Shiraishi's adaptation of a bestselling novel by Mahokaru Numata. Towako (Yu Aoi) is still distraught over her separation from her former abusive boyfriend, and driven to distraction by the slobbish nature of her current one. An encounter with a handsome watch salesman suggests an alternative life, but it inevitably leads to even more trouble. One of those grimdark arthouse mysteries full of terrible people having bad sex that nobody enjoys, it has a couple of interesting visual flourishes, but keeps piling on the agony until the only sensible response is to laugh.
Joy Of Man's Desiring sets off alarm bells by the dozen when you read its synopsis. Two young children, orphaned by an earthquake, and the younger of the two hasn't been told he's an orphan yet? It's got grief porn written all over it, even before you factor in its country of origin. It has to be said, though, that director Masakazu Sugita largely avoids the obvious sentimental traps, despite the sad two-finger piano that underscores almost every scene. The film's more of an impressionistic exploration of the grieving process: the central tragedy is depicted largely though sound, the big emotional closeups are shot in low light to reduce their voyeuristic appeal, and the glacial pacing accurately captures the way loss distorts your perception of time. All these devices could, of course, just end up alienating viewers from the film altogether: it successfully avoids melodramatic emotion, but doesn't quite find something to replace it with. Nevertheless, it's an unexpected approach for a Japanese film on this topic, and should be welcomed for that.
At the time of writing, the Un(true) Colours programme is running at the ICA in London, and scheduled to visit seventeen other cities over the next two months: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Chester, Colchester, Derby, Dundee, Edinburgh, Exeter, Inverness, Kendal, Leicester, Lewes, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Stirling. Visit the Japan Foundation website for full details of the dates when it's visiting your town and the films to be screened there. And come back here in about a week or so, by which time I should have seen the other eight films in the programme and be able to tell you what they're like.