It's a difficult time to be thinking too hard about what'll happen in the future. But I suspect that whatever happens, in years to come we won't be hitting the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme as heavily as we have been in the past. Obviously, I've no longer got access to the free screener discs I was sent when I was previewing the programme for MostlyFilm, and I can accept that: but the tickets for the public ICA screenings have been getting more and more expensive, and this year they weren't even doing the four-for-the-price-of-three deal they've had in previous years.
So this is why you're only going to be reading seven reviews from a programme containing twenty films. As for why you're reading them about three months after the tour finished, well, try looking out of the window.
For those of you joining us late: every year, the Japan Foundation gathers a collection of new and classic Japanese movies and tours them around the UK for two months. The 2020 programme was called Happiness Is A State Of Mind: Joy And Despair In Japanese Cinema, although as ever it's hard to see how some of these films conform to the title brief. Theoretically, they were visiting 22 of the country's arthouse cinemas during February and March: in practice, the last couple of weeks of that tour didn't happen, as the UK hurled itself into lockdown.
I saw seven films during the London leg of the tour in early February. Spoiler: the first one was probably the best, as well as the oldest - the 1961 drama Ten Dark Women, the only thing in this programme shown on 35mm film (a few worrying jumps in the first reel, but otherwise a decent print). TV producer Kaze (Funakoshi Eiji) is married to one woman while seeing another nine behind her back: what he doesn't realise is that eventually, all ten of them will become bored with this arrangement and conspire to murder him. Like Odd Obsession in the 2017 programme. this is another pervy dark comedy from Ichikawa Kon (written by his wife Wada Natto, a detail which amused the audience at the ICA screening): the two films share a palpable delight in their transgressions, along with an interesting perspective on their female characters. As The Belated Birthday Girl noted, the women have all got jobs in this post-war world, making it a fascinating time capsule of the era.
Once we get to the modern stuff, things become a bit less interesting. Shinohara Tetsuo's Shadowfall is a thriller as bland and generic as its English title: the original Japanese (which translates as Walking In Shadow) at least gives you a hint of the twist hiding inside it. Makabe (Yamazaki Masayoshi) is in the middle of burgling a house when he comes across a woman about to set the whole place on fire. He stops the arson, but gets arrested for the burglary: and when he comes out of prison a few years later, he discovers that the story has several more layers still to be unearthed, some of them going back decades. Aside from the aforementioned twist - and I wish I could drop a vague hint as to which 15-year-old British film did it first and better, but I can't - it's an oddly structured story. The resolution of the main plot is thrown away so casually you assume there must be something else to come, but there isn't, just a coda that goes on far too long.
Shadowfall is typical of the sort of middlebrow film that JFTFP bills are built around: they're maybe not representative of the brasher, more commercial fare that gets actual bums on Japanese cinema seats. Which makes it all the more surprising to see Kakegurui - Compulsive Gambler here. It's got a typical lineage for a modern Japanese movie: it's already existed as a manga, an anime and then a live-action TV show, of which this is a spinoff with the same cast. (The TV show's viewable on Netflix in the UK: it's surprising that the film isn't, but that may just be a matter of time.) Hyakkoh Private Academy would seem to be your typical Japanese high school in terms of bullying and battles for status, but formalised to the extent that everyone's rank is determined by how good they are at gambling. It's a bit dull for the first half hour of typically bitchy schoolgirl behaviour, but perks up once it becomes a full-on gambling procedural, with characters explaining to camera not only how you run a rock-paper-scissors tournament for a hundred people, but also how you can win it. Hanabusa Tsutomu directs all this nonsense with just the right degree of seriousness, making for a shamelessly commercial bit of entertainment: one of the cast even says over the closing credits 'see you next time,' so expect a sequel at some point.
We go back to the serious middlebrow stuff with Another World, Sakamoto Junji's nicely drawn character study of three male schoolfriends. Two of them are approaching their forties, and still live in the village where they grew up: when the third one comes back after a traumatic stint in the army, they find it increasingly hard to connect with him. The rural setting emphasises the serene atmosphere (notably in the lengthy scenes showing you one of the men at work in his charcoal-making business), along with some smart observations about the way trios of friends always have a power imbalance at their centre, whether it's genuine or merely perceived. It's a shame that the film has to resort to lurches into melodrama to keep the plot moving, something which The BBG thinks is a failure of nerve rather than anything else.
There's been a lot written in recent years about the idea of hikikomori, those young people who refuse to interact with the outside world and spend as much time as possible locked in their rooms. [Looks at current coronaviral situation, opens mouth to say something, decides against it.] Ozaki Masya's Her Sketchbook is unusual that it depicts a female hikikomori, Mami (Kadowaki Mugi). After much badgering from her parents - notably the confusingly-named You, who with this and Nobody Knows seems to be cornering the market in terrible mothers - Mami gets a job testing video games, but her illustration skills come to light and attract interest from a variety of directions. The film obviously means well, but the frequent confused shifts in tone don't play well to a Western viewer, particularly in the sequence where an attempted rape is laughed off as a standard bit of drunken male behaviour.
You can spot manga adaptations from a mile off, especially when they go to extreme lengths to make the characters look just like their drawn versions. That's certainly the case with Kawai Hayato's My Love Story!!, and the monstrous lunk Takeo (Suzuki Ryohei) who's its main character. Despite his appearance, he's obviously got a heart of gold and is widely admired at his school. When he rescues Rinko (Nagano Mei) from the attentions of a street pervert, he falls hard for her, while suspecting that she's more interested in his conventionally handsome best mate Makoto (Sakaguchi Kentaro). The film's got a huge amount of wit and charm, but it's a little frustrating that it feels the need to fall back on standard romcom devices to keep its main couple apart. In this case, it's built around an unusual quirk of Japanese grammar: because the language doesn't attach pronouns to its verbs, the phrases 'I love him' and 'I love you' sound identical. They get an entire third act out of this, despite the English subtitles utterly failing to explain the confusion - I had to ask The BBG afterwards what had just happened.
There's more high school romance in our final film, Ichii Masahide's Our Meal For Tomorrow. In this one, introverted boy Hayama (Nakajima Yuto) and extroverted girl Uemura (Araki Yuko) bond during a couples sack race, and begin a tentative romance that goes on beyond them leaving school. The script has a pleasing structure to it, with scenes repeating themselves with small variations like a Japanese Hong Sang-soo tribute: and then it all goes to hell as you realise that we've somehow got this far into a Japan Foundation film programme without a terminal illness movie. Sure enough, we soon have to endure an appearance - two, if you're paying attention - by The Woolly Hat Of Death, the knitted headgear that's used in sentimental Japanese films as shorthand for 'this person has cancer but we can't afford a makeup artist'. Even a surreal bit of product placement by KFC at the climax couldn't get over my disappointment that the film had gone down that route.
That's it for this year: sadly, we didn't have the time or disposable income to catch A Banana? At This Time Of Night?, Organ, The Actor, Little Nights, Little Love, Jesus, Bento Harassment, My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler, Lying To Mom, And Your Bird Can Sing, Sea Of Revival, The House Where The Mermaid Sleeps, Ride Your Wave or I Go Gaga, My Dear. What we did see was a little patchy in parts, but I'd still maintain that the Japan Foundation is doing fine work in making these films available to British audiences. Hopefully we'll get the chance to do it all again next year, assuming cinema is still a thing by then.