It shouldn't be such a big deal coming back to the cinema for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme - after all, I spent a fair chunk of the tenties experiencing it largely at home, thanks to all the press screener discs arranged for me by MostlyFilm. But it has to be said, one year on from the 2021 programme which was held entirely online, there's something comforting about returning to the ICA for 2022. Junko Takekawa is still giving the introductions, and making us fill in surveys afterwards asking what we've learned about Japanese life: the films are still prefaced by a unique mix of adverts for Japanese tourism and Yakult: and the ICA's cafe is still run by staff so slow-moving that you feel it must be a performance art piece of some sort.
The official title of this year's programme is What Lies Beneath: The Intricate Representations Of A 'Dark Mind' In Japanese Cinema. Which is a long-winded way of saying that the 20 films on show across the country are largely about people trying to conceal things. It's a similar theme to that of 2018's programme (Un)true Colours, and as a result The Belated Birthday Girl can be currently heard going around the house while doing her best Timothy Spall/Mike Leigh impersonation: "Secrets! And lies!"
None of this will, of course, stop us from watching and reviewing a reasonable number of those 20 films. They're going to be all over the UK from now until March 31st, but from the run at the ICA I'm going to report on four now, and five more soon.
Let's start with Iwane – Sword Of Serenity, because you wouldn't expect to get through one of these programmes without a samurai film. (Although you could say the same about anime, and we made the tactical decision to skip this year's one.) The Iwane of the title, played by Tori Matsuzaka, is a samurai swordsman whose special move appears to be just being remarkably chilled about everything. After three years of service in Edo, he’s going back to his hometown with two of his best mates. As we see lots of cheerful male bonding and happy family reunions, we suspect that things are going to go south soon. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock just how quickly a pile of corpses suddenly builds up, forcing Iwane to return to Edo and go full ronin, hiring himself out as bodyguard to a moneychanger.
Katsuhide Motoki’s film is based on a series of bestselling samurai novels by Saeki Yasuhide, and from the way this one ends you suspect that it's intended to be the opening instalment of a franchise. You’d hope that future episodes aren’t quite so intensely focussed on discussions of the ins and outs of currency manipulation, during which the closest thing to visual interest is a small graphic for viewers who have trouble with sums. You’d also hope that Iwane is a less passive protagonist in any sequels that emerge, given that in this one several of the biggest plot beats take place with no onscreen involvement from him at all. Still, the main thing you look for in a jidaigeki these days is swordplay that’s shot and performed by people who know what they’re doing, and happily it delivers on that score, without too much 21st century flash in the filmmaking.
We move into the present day with the irritatingly lower case colorless – although the Japanese title translates as See You In Sarugakucho, a more direct reference to its key Tokyo location. To make it quite clear how contemporary it is, it opens with a middle-aged man complaining to a younger man about ‘you millennials'. The younger man is Shu (Daichi Kaneko), who's applying for a job as a photographer: the older man suggests that his current work is too lacking in passion for him to get the job, But he puts Shu in touch with a young model, Yuka (Ruka Ishikawa), to try him out on a fashion shoot. It goes well, and Shu and Yuka start to see each other more regularly. But given the theme of this season, it’s inevitable that there’s more going on under the surface.
A question: why is it that the films about sex in JFTFP programmes are always so bloody grim? At least in this case, director Takashi Koyama comes from a background in commercials, so colorless is nicely lit and grim rather the usual murky and grim. But what purports to be a story about the trials of moving from the sticks to the big city becomes the tired old story of shitty men abusing doormatty women. There’s some intrigue in the structure, where an extended mid-film flashback gives us another perspective on what we saw earlier: notably how Yuka has rebuilt her personality from scratch, using input from everyone else she meets. But the narrative payoffs from that setup aren’t interesting enough to justify everything else.
Things get a bit more cheerful - actually, a lot more cheerful - with Saiji Yakumo's Liar x Liar. It's based on a girls' manga, but the slightest amount of consideration of its plot and style would tell you that. Minato (Nana Mori) shares a house with her stepbrother Toru (Hokuto Matsumura), and they're constantly at odds with each other. But their relationship takes an unexpected turn when Toru bumps into Minato in the street while she’s dressed as a schoolgirl for a fashion shoot. He fails to recognise her, and asks for her number, like the scuzzy womaniser that he is. Intent on teaching him a lesson, she agrees to go on a date with him. At some point, of course, she'll have to hit him with the big reveal. At some point...
Even though Junko dismisses the film in her intro as a bit of fluff for a Sunday afternoon slot, there's a lot going on in Liar x Liar. It starts off as a gloriously daft romcom, with rapid fire editing and voiceover narration from Minato, and you assume that it's going to stay in that register throughout. But it changes so gradually that you barely notice it happening: by the middle there's a layer of dread caused by Minato's realisation that actual stepincest might be on the cards, and by the end it's ended up somewhere else entirely. As director Yakumo says in his pre-recorded intro, none of this would work without his two leads, who balance their characters perfectly, taking unexpected emotions and managing to make them not seem ridiculous.
There's always an oldie from the archives in these programmes (apart from last year's online one), and for 2022 we've got The Hunter's Diary, dating back to 1964. It’s the one thing in this year's programme that's being shown in 35mm, so inevitably we spot our old FU chum Das Boot in the audience, because apparently there's some sort of Batsignal they display in the sky over cinemas that have a celluloid print in their projection booth. He's probably not the only person there for that reason, which makes Junko's intro all the more awkward – as far as she’s concerned, her main thought about 35mm is ‘it might break down halfway through'. Anyway, it doesn't, so we get to enjoy an archive presentation that's once again a sixties film about a terrible man. In this case, it's playboy or operator type Ichiro Honda (Noboru Nakaya), who has one night stands with countless women, and documents every conquest in his diary. But he's forced to reconsider his lifestyle when those women start getting murdered one by one.
It's hard to explain why colorless felt like such a seedy film, while The Hunter’s Diary pushes its seediness so far that it comes out the other side and becomes riotously entertaining. It's not too surprising to learn that the director is Ko Nakahira, who's been responsible for a couple of other sleazy Japanese classics I've seen - Crazed Fruit and Flora On The Sand. This one has a similar degree of frankness in its dialogue, but is enhanced by the wild nature of the plotting, presumably coming from Masako Togawa's original source novel (the author's also got an acting role in the film herself). I don't want to spoil its ending too much, but it's fascinating to see how many of the bits you can still remember from Presumed Innocent seem to have been stolen from a Japanese novel written a quarter of a century earlier. Some of the period-specific detail has dated hilariously – it'd be a ballsy move these days for a thriller to start with a five minute illustrated lecture about blood analysis. Nevertheless, The Hunter's Diary's two hours just rocket by.
I've got five more films to talk about in this season, and I'll discuss those in the next post. In the meantime, if you're based in the UK and it's before March 31st 2022, have a look at the JFTFP site to see if they're coming to an arthouse near you.