At some point, we'll need seriously to address something that regular readers will have noticed by now. Back in 2006, I had a major personal overhaul in two departments: I changed my job to one that was more part-time in nature, and I changed this site to a blog format that allowed for more frequent posting. It never really occurred to me how closely the two were interrelated, or how much work I was doing on the site in the downtime between assignments - until late 2018 when I moved back into full-time employment, and suddenly discovered that I didn't have the free time to write four or so posts a month any more.
In the old days, I'd have seen as many Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme movies as possible during their London run in the first full week of February, and within a couple of days I'd have reviews up on the site, so that people in non-London cities would be able to read them as the programme toured the country. As it stands, I've just managed to write them up by the end of February, which counts as a bit late in my book. Apologies if you've been waiting for them.
Anyway, enough of my work-life balance issues (which, to be honest, are just me learning to cope again with the amount of work that most regular people do for a living). I've already covered half a dozen of the seventeen films in the 2019 Japan Foundation programme, People Still Call It Love, in Part One: here come another half dozen in Part Two. You'll have to fend for yourselves with the rest, I'm afraid.
There's a bit of a Western indie sensibility to this one: from the diegetic twee music of the singer Sugar Me, via the constant dropping of Japanese modern pop culture references, to the simple truth that virtually everyone here is a dick to some degree or other. The latter makes this a rare example of a Japanese comedy of embarrassment, with the awkward silences being some of its funniest parts. (Usually, alienated young men in Japanese films go all stabby by the end, and awkward silences are infinitely preferable.) It kind of meanders a bit, and has a rather pat not-quite-an-ending, but it's still an interesting watch.
If there's one thing I've learned from a decade or so of these programmes, it's that the anime will always sell out first, even when it's as batshit insane as Hiroyasu Ishida's Penguin Highway. A small suburban town is suddenly invaded by penguins, and no-one knows why: the main person determined to find out the answer is a ten year old boy who's as obsessed with the scientific method as he is with boobs. And he's incredibly obsessed with boobs, to the discomfort of the parents who brought their kids along to this screening.
Apart from some clumsy mixing of 2D and 3D animation, this is a fun ride, taking itself as seriously as its child protagonist takes the events he's caught up in: part of the joy of the story is having him say lines like "please stop manifesting penguins for the time being" without anyone thinking it unusual. The film gradually concocts an increasingly ludicrous explanation for what's happening as it goes, and then brilliantly throws it out at the climax for an even more ludicrous one. It's the perfect movie for ten-year-old fans of science and tits.
Tonight At The Movies is the work of Hideki Takeuchi, the director of the Thermae Romae films. Those were just simple gagfests, whereas this movie is trying for something a bit deeper. Set in the 1960s and overly pleased with the period detail of its costume design, it's about a young assistant director who becomes obsessed with an old black and white movie about a tomboy princess (Haruka Ayase), watching it so much that the princess comes off the screen and into the real world to see what all the fuss is about. Effectively, it's The Purple Rose Of Cairo remade by someone who isn't a sexual predator.
It makes for slightly awkward viewing, mainly because the princess is a total cow, refusing to accept that people in this world won't obey her every command. But then the plot takes several meta turns (how many framing devices can you count?), and becomes my favourite sort of romance: one where people have to deal with literally impossible emotions and play them dead straight. It manages to choke you up a bit by the end despite its sheer daftness, and that's quite an achievement.
On the subject of sheer daftness, though more of the accidental kind, there's the grim-sounding premise of Blindly In Love: a 35 year old virgin is set up by his parents with a potential marriage partner, who turns out to be blind. Given the Japanese love of sentimentality, this could have been appalling, but it manages to take some interesting turns. In particular, the film feels unique in its treatment of otaku-style social inadequacy, not so much as a source of cheap laughs, more as a disability on a par with blindness.
For the first hour, director Masahide Ichii runs with that angle in interesting ways. The film's best scene involves the first arranged meeting between the pair and their respective parents, where we get to see him both grow up and grow a pair for the first time in his life. It loses its way in the second hour, because after a charming run of scenes involving the couple slumming it with lunch at Yoshinoya, the film's forced to develop a plot, which it does by abusing its hero more and more. But, to be fair, it could have been so much worse.
The London screening of Bone Born Bone was a bit of a coup for the Japan Foundation, coming literally one day after the film's opening in Japan. To celebrate, we got a pre-screening performance of some Okinawan music: I've always assumed (based on my own experience) that Okinawa only has two tunes, both of which I first heard via Ryuichi Sakamoto, but we got to hear a couple of other ones as well. Okinawan culture has always been a world apart from that of mainland Japan, so this film about an awkward family reunion has an edge beyond the usual unveiled secrets and surprise pregnancies. That edge comes from the traditional Okinawan ceremony the reunion is centred around: the four-year-dead matriarch being exhumed from her grave and having her bones washed by her family. "Is this Japan?" asks an astonished outsider who's accidentally become part of the ceremony. "On paper, I guess," is the reply.
It's not exactly Hirokazu Kore-eda, obviously. But not everyone can be the single greatest director working in the world right now. The director here is actually Toshiyuki Teruya, better known in Japan as the comedian Goro: and let's face it, thanks to Takeshi Kitano we know that stand-up comedy to film direction is a perfectly valid career path. Teruya's former job is evident in the way he brilliantly bursts the tension in several scenes with an unexpected gag. But there's also a surprising delicacy to the more emotional scenes, and there are plenty of those. Even when you've been warned throughout the film of what the final scenes will entail, you're not prepared for how they feel, climaxing in an extraordinary final shot which would knock your legs out from under you if you weren't already sitting down.
Our twelve-film binge wrapped up with Three Stories Of Love, which meant that we got to follow up the best film of the season with the worst. Ryosuke Hashiguchi (whose family drama All Around Us impressed me at the LFF a decade or so ago) has, as the title implies, taken three separate love stories and interwoven them with each other. A woman trapped in a loveless marriage sees her escape route in the form of a renegade butcher. A bridge engineer teeters on the edge of sanity three years after the murder of his wife. And a gay lawyer sees his life go into a downward spiral, following what may or may not be an accident.
The interweaving is all that counts here: without it, there wouldn't be anything here at all. Once you've unpicked the chronology, you realise that each story just rambles on for a period of time before coming to a halt in a rather inconsequential fashion. Considering the director's own sexuality, it's surprising that the gay lawyer's tale is the weakest of the three: and given the presence elsewhere in this season of Of Love And Law, the excellent documentary about the ups and downs of a real life gay law firm, it almost seems an insult to have it there. Three Stories Of Love is the longest film we saw in this season at 140 minutes: it turns out somehow to be simultaneously undeserving of that length, and incapable of bringing any of its stories to a satisfying end in that time.
Still, eleven out of twelve isn't bad. Aside from the ones I've reviewed here, there are five more films in the main season we didn't get to catch - My Friend 'A', Thicker Than Water, Dear Etranger, Yurigokoro and Pumpkin And Mayonnaise - plus a few one-off screenings of the aforementioned Of Love And Law as part of the Japan Now special strand. You can see the Japanese trailers for all of the films below in the order in which I've reviewed them here (apart from Where Chimneys Are Seen, which is a shame because vintage trailers are the bestest thing), and catch the films themselves at various UK locations between now and the end of March 2019. As ever, see the official site for full details. And hopefully, we'll be back to do it all again next year.