Well, you've missed it all, I'm afraid. The 2021 edition of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme was only online between February 19th and March 10th, and now it's all gone apart from a few of the accompanying webchats (specifically the season introduction, a discussion on realism in Japanese cinema, and a chat about Bizen pottery that ties in with one of the films I didn't see). Yes, the final part of this writeup of what I saw in the season is a bit late, but at least it's not three months late like last year's.
So, assuming we can skip the basics because you've already read part one and part two, here comes part three of my review of this year's programme, which of necessity has to start by explaining why the photo at the top of this page is meant to represent a menstruating woman.
As visual metaphors go, the one at the core of Little Miss Period - both the original manga by Ken Koyama, and the movie version by Shinada Shunsuke - is simultaneously a stroke of genius and wrong on every possible level. Because the title character Seiri-chan is the literal embodiment of the menstrual cycle. For teenage girls, she's a doll-sized pink fluffy creature that perches on their shoulder: for adult women, she's a six foot tall monster who pounces on them when it's least convenient, and regularly punches them in the guts for good measure. The film interweaves the stories of three women with period problems: an office lady with a workplace romance, her teenaged sister who's just starting to discover boys, and the cleaning woman with a dark secret.
If you're prepared to accept the negotiable taste of the central conceit, Seiri-chan is a fun way of symbolising the many issues that women encounter (and there are some additional gags to be had regarding their male equivalents). But for some reason it's been decided that this conceit on its own isn't strong enough to support an entire feature film, even one that's only seventy-five minutes long. So after a couple of reels, the focus on periods is put to one side, and all three women spend the rest of the movie suffering the usual romantic comedy crises, accompanied by the Sad Piano that plagues middlebrow Japanese cinema. All three ultimately end up seeking relationship advice from their period, which isn't how metaphors are meant to work at all. Still, at least there's a fun theme song by The Peggies to take your mind off the Sad Piano. Though none of this is as fun as learning that one Japanese euphemism for the monthly cycle is ペリー来航.
Translating titles is a subtle art: Little Miss Period is a fairly precise translation of the Japanese Seiri-chan, and it's up to you to decide whether it was a deliberate move or not to make it sound like the Roger Hargreaves book from hell. But at the other extreme we have Narushima Izuru's Farewell: Comedy Of Life Begins With A Lie, which is an odd thing to call a film whose original title is literally the English word Goodbye transliterated into Japanese script. The subtitles on this print call it Goodbye as well, and the word's used several times in actual dialogue, so I've no idea what's going on there. Anyway, in a curious overlap with last year's JFTFP highlight Ten Dark Women, Shuji (Oizumi Yo) has ten ladies on the go simultaneously, but is getting bored with the idea. A friend comes up with a cunning plan to help him, suggesting that Shuji should get himself a pretend superwife who makes all his other girlfriends leave him out of shame. He finds one in the unlikely shape of black marketeer Kinuko (Koike Eiko), who's a bit of a rough character but scrubs up nicely. Where can the plot possibly go from here? Well, they may have a few surprises for you, and not necessarily good ones.
Who 'they' are is an interesting question. Farewell/Goodbye/Whatevs is based on a serialised novel by Osamu Dazai, who unfortunately died before completing it. Other hands have taken the story through to a conclusion, and you can't help but try and spot the join, because it's very much a film of two halves. In the early stages it has a pleasing episodic structure, as Shuji shows off Kinuko to one girlfriend after another, and finds to his horror that their stories, rather than winding up, are starting to collide into each other. But the light comic tone of the first half turns into something else with a series of increasingly ridiculous twists, and any sense you had of these as characters goes out the window as they become pieces in a much less interesting and overly contrived plot.
It's always touch and go as to whether an exclamation mark in a film title is a sign of quality, or not, so we have to approach Inudo Isshin's Samurai Shifters! with a degree of caution. It helps that it falls into one of my favourite samurai genres, playing down their martial aspects and concentrating more on the admin side. It's the story of a clan that’s fallen out of favour with the shogun for queasily homophobic reasons, and so is forced to relocate on a faraway Japanese island as a punishment. Organising the move is a job nobody wants, and it ends up being dumped on librarian Katagiri Harunosuke (Hoshino Gen). With the help of a colleague who bullies him regularly, and the orphaned daughter of the last guy who organised a similar relocation, he’ll have to find a way to move a couple of thousand people on a budget of a couple of thousand yen.
Samurai Shifters! isn't as goofy as that exclamation mark might make it sound. It reminds me of my early days of watching Asian cinema - genre movies in particular - and finding it very difficult to handle its frequent switchback changes in tone. After you've got used to the idea that this will be a gentle samurai comedy without violence, the second half suddenly launches into a battle where lots of people get carved up. But I guess they're all baddies, so that's okay. As it stands, it's less actively offensive than any of the other films we saw in this final weekend of the festival, and ultimately becomes the sort of solidly middlebrow film that JFTFP is generally based around. (But without the Sad Piano, thankfully.)
Wrapping up the ten films we saw in this year's programme, we're finishing as we started, with a traditional drama featuring a one-word English title - in this case, the irritatingly lower-cased his, directed by Imaizumi Rikiya. The film opens with the breakup of a student gay couple, Shun (Miyazawa Hio) and Nagisa (Fujiwara Kisetsu). Several years later, Shun is living a quiet and generally solitary life in the countryside, which is unexpectedly interrupted by the sudden appearance of Nagisa with a six year old girl. There’s obviously some catching up to be done. Maybe not quite so traditional a drama, perhaps: maverick directors like Oshima and Miike have played with gay themes before now, but his is apparently a rare example of a mainstream Japanese film taking on the subject.
It should be noted that The Belated Birthday Girl and I interpreted it in two different ways. For me, it felt like a country’s early attempt at gay cinema: trusting in subtext is apparently too risky, so every inner thought has to be spelt out in dialogue. Whereas The BBG thinks that it’s less to do with outdated cinema, and more about outdated Japanese attitudes – in this film, not just towards homosexuality, but also towards working mothers like Nagisa's ex-wife. It's a shame that the genuine drama of Shun and Nagisa's on-off relationship is shoved into the background for the second half of the movie, which turns into a custody battle for the most annoying child in the world. But there’s still a decent humanity at the film's core, and by the end you feel more accepting towards these people who seemed so terrible when they rolled unannounced into Shun’s life.
Overall, it was a pretty good JFTFP this year: nothing spectacular to shout about, though Not Quite Dead Yet was the most fun and Labyrinth Of Cinema was the most ambitious. I don't think moving the whole festival online caused any major issues: mind you, in previous years I've watched large chunks of the programme at home on press screener discs, so maybe I was better prepared than most for a home-based festival. Given the issues of distribution discussed all the way back at the start of this collection - where only the biggest names make it into UK cinemas, and even a cracking genre premise can't guarantee you a theatrical slot any more - it's good that the Japan Foundation keep bringing these films over here, and I hope they'll continue to do so. Being a monkey, and all.