As is traditionally the case with the annual Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, we need to spend a little time poking fun at the utterly generic season title and theme. To quote from their website: "Everybody wants to be part of something, no matter what you do or who you are... But what is it that people mean when they say ‘my place’; when they refer to their sense of existence and belonging?"
So, it's a season of films about people in places. Got it. To be fair, there are a couple of movies in this programme that explore a common theme in Japanese cinema, where someone fails to fit in to what's generally thought of as a very conformist society. But there's not so much of the opposite of that, where people find themselves part of something that outsiders simply can't understand. When the theme of this year's programme was announced, I hoped that they might have found room for Tonde Saitama, which we saw unsubtitled during our 2018 holiday: sure, many of the local references may not travel, but the idea of a small community revelling in how much it's hated by the big city next door is universal, and the end title song sums that up perfectly.
Sadly, we didn't get that one in this season, mainly because it was ridiculously popular and award-winning, which probably put it out of the Japan Foundation's budget. So instead, following on from the first part, here are four more films that they could afford.
We start with Murahashi Naoki's Extro, which isn't the terrible British monster movie from the eighties like you thought, but turns out to be a portmanteau word describing how the people hovering around in the background of movies are both extras and maestros. It sets itself up initially as a fly-on-the-wall documentary following Haginoya Kozo, a retired dental technician who now works as an extra at the local movie studio. We get to watch him for a bit causing havoc on the set of a samurai drama, but then the film drifts away from him to focus on other people – first the extras agency that gives him work, then a couple of cops working undercover on a set as part of an investigation.
It takes a while to warm to Extro: it’s a bit short on solid laughs, particularly as one of its primary gags involves showing multiple takes of the same movie scene falling apart in subtly different ways. Plus, its inability to stay focussed on any one character for any length of time becomes rather frustrating. But both of these problems resolve themselves as the film goes on. The gag rate increases, helped largely by a splendid running joke about the ultimate fate of all the films we see being made. And although there are far too many characters for the movie's own good, they're all rather charming people to hang out with. The film's main trick is to make them not great at their job, but adequate enough and keen to do their best: it's an attitude you don't see much in films generally, and Japanese films even more so, so it's rather refreshing.
I always like it when I can come into work after a film festival and stun my colleagues with a berserk one-line synopsis of something I've just seen, and the premise of Hamasaki Shinji’s Not Quite Dead Yet fits the bill perfectly here. Here's your one line: the boss of a pharmaceutical company has been tricked into testing a drug on himself that makes you dead for 48 hours, and now his death-metal loving daughter has to stop his business rivals from a) performing a hostile takeover and b) cremating him before he wakes up again. Maybe you could suggest that it doesn't count as one line if it contains a pair of bullet points, but in that case I could suggest that you shut up.
This one's definitely a highlight of the programme so far, and justifies Junko Takekawa's plan to try and put a bit more fun in the selections than in previous years. It's a blindingly daft premise, sure, but it’s supported by a rock-solid script that sets up the rules of this universe early on, and sticks to them rigidly. There’s very little moral ambiguity here - the characters are either goodies or baddies - but it’s played with a surprisingly light touch and has oodles of decent jokes, including some gloriously constructed payoffs at the climax. It's rare that a film gets any sort of UK release outside of these programmes, but it would be nice if an exception could somehow be made for this one.
Sadly, we don't have any archive films in this year's JFTFP. The closest we get is Labyrinth Of Cinema, a film that plays with the nostalgia value of old Japanese movies, and was the final work of a director who made many of them during his lifetime: Obayashi Nobuhiko, probably best known over here for his loony seventies horror movie House. At the age of 81, he capped his career with this experimental three hour epic set on the last night of a cinema in Onomichi: a town with a venerable cinema history, as I’ve mentioned before. Their final show is an all day programme of Japanese war films. Three young men – a romantic, a film buff and a gangster – find themselves sucked into the events on screen, and get to experience the last couple of centuries of Japanese wars first hand, along with a side quest to protect the mysterious Noriko.
For a director in his eighties, Obayashi has chosen to go out with a bang, if you’ll pardon the pun (a history of Japanese warfare only has one possible end point). He’s made a film that revels in the artificiality of cinema, using disruptive editing and extensive green screen, pushing the latter so far that it creates the same warmth that an obvious studio-bound set does. Lines of dialogue, visual images and sounds all turn into motifs that reoccur throughout the film, layered on top of each other with increasing complexity. The result isn't just a study of Japanese war cinema, but of Japanese attitudes to war, and one that shows a bit more self-awareness than you'd usually associate with the country. It’s a fascinating - if slightly jumbled - watch on a TV screen, and you’d imagine it would work on a whole other level in a cinema. Not Quite Dead Yet may well be the most entertaining film I've seen here so far, but Labyrinth Of Cinema may well be the best.
To finish this portion of JFTFP21 with something a bit lighter, we have Haga Takashi and Suzuki Sho's Me And My Brother’s Mistress. Since the death of their parents, brother and sister Kenji (Iwago Satoshi) and Yoko (Kasamatsu Nanami) have shared the family home, an arrangement that's about to change with Kenji's upcoming wedding. When Yoko finds out that her brother is seeing someone else behind his fiancée's back, she's enraged, and after a period of surveillance decides to confront the other woman in a cafe. But when Yoko meets Misa (Murata Yui), the situation becomes a lot less black and white than she originally expected.
Comedy dramas in Japan tend to veer far too much in one direction or the other - either becoming goofily comic or grimly dramatic. Me And My Brother's Mistress is notable for managing to steer straight down the line between the two (apart from, perhaps, a tiny detail thrown away in voiceover towards the end). Played delicately with a lack of sensationalism, it's a film that shows its protagonists reacting realistically to the mess they’re gradually finding themselves in - the sort of thing Japan's most humanist directors tend to do as standard, but here you get some laughs as well.
I've still got four more films to review in this festival, so expect to hear about those soon.