It's fun looking back at my writeup of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme from two years ago: a set of films I saw shortly before the entire planet went tits up, but written about after that. My main issue at the time was that the cost of tickets - particularly at the ICA - ruled out the sort of full-season binges we used to do in the old days. After the anomaly of 2021's free online fest, we're back in meatspace for 2022's programme What Lies Beneath, and sadly the ticket prices are still as bad as ever.
The bottom line is this: if you came here wanting reviews of Eternally Younger Than Those Idiots, Will I Be Single Forever?, Kiba: The Fangs Of Fiction, Tomorrow's Dinner Table, Blue, The Lone Ume Tree, The Confidence Man JP: The Movie, Life: Untitled, Aristocrats, The House Of The Lost On The Cape or The Sound Of Grass, then you'll have to look somewhere else. As for the other nine films in this year's programme, I reviewed four of them in part one. Here are the other five, all watched in London over the space of a single weekend.
We start off our weekend with First Love – not the only Japanese film with that title released in the last couple of years, but this isn’t the one by Miike. You can’t deny it’s got an attention-grabbing opening – a crane shot gradually coming to rest on the corpse of an art teacher, as seen through the window of a college bathroom. Meanwhile, his daughter Kanna (Kyoko Yoshine) is walking around town with a knife covered in his blood. It seems like an open and shut case, but nobody knows why she did it, least of all her. Enter psychologist Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa), who glimpses the possibility of a lucrative case study in there, and interviews Kanna to see what she can find. Given the overall theme of this season, you won’t be surprised to learn that dirty laundry starts coming out – but not just Kanna's.
It’s not the most subtle of thrillers (based on a novel by the author of last year’s similarly overwrought Shape Of Red), but Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s adaptation acknowledges the male gaze in a way that I haven’t seen in Japanese cinema before, as it delves into Kanna’s past leading up to this moment. It’s not without its flaws – in particular, the one non-screwed-up character in the story is so aggressively non-screwed-up that they’re positively creepy. And your heart sinks a little as you realise that the climax is going to take place in court, as Japanese cinema does like dragging out its courtroom scenes for far too long. But it’s a film that’s got something to say, and it does it efficiently and in a decently entertaining fashion.
That was on Friday. Then we get to Saturday, and the two best films of the nine we're seeing hit us more or less back to back. Shuichi Okita’s Ora, Ora Be Goin' Alone opens with a CGI sequence that you think is an overblown production company logo, but turns out to be the first scene of the movie proper, showing all the events that have happened before the start of the story, from the big bang onwards. We eventually come to rest on the lead character Momoko (Yuko Tanaka), who fled to Tokyo around the time of the 1964 Olympics, to escape an arranged marriage. We’re now approaching the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, by which time the love of Momoko’s life has died, and her kids barely speak to her. She’s all alone in her little house, apart from the three imaginary friends who alternate between taunting her loneliness and entertaining her with song and dance numbers.
I was kind of dreading this one, which seemed to be selling itself as a warm hearted look at the lighter side of dementia. But Ora, Ora (the title’s an attempt to get across in English that part of the story involves the rural dialect of Momoko’s hometown) hits the balance between sentimentality and dark comedy beautifully, never quite toppling into either direction. It helps that Momoko’s always aware of what’s going on, and has a solid enough grasp of her past not to be fooled by her memories of it. If anything, her main achievement on the story seems to be persuading her past self that things aren’t that bad really, as if to try and reassure us too.
Then Spaghetti Code Love takes us from old people to young people - 13 of them in total, if the introduction is to be believed. It’s also a very Tokyo film, with the director Takeshi Maruyama citing Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland as an influence from the way that film depicted London. This one rapidly hops between the stories of those 13 people – a photographer having to cope with the sudden appearance of an underage fan, the busker whose confidence in her musical ability is shaken by a chance encounter with an ex, the couple who spend far too much time romanticising death... and that’s just for starters.
There’s something of the whimsy of early Wong Kar-wai in here, especially in the story of the delivery boy who plans a major life change once he gets to 1000 deliveries. But that whimsy is balanced with bits of surrealism, philosophy, melancholy and genuine surprises. Astonishingly, this is Takeshi Maruyama's first feature, having previously made his mark in music videos. There’s technique to burn here – notably in a mid-film flourish that pivots all the plotlines on a single word – but none of it ever gets in the way of the storytelling. The director kind of spoilt the ending(s) in his intro by saying that he wanted to make a positive film in these shitty times, but the result is a joy to watch even if you know that in advance.
After two top films on Saturday, it’s predictable that Sunday is a letdown by comparison. Eiji Uchida's Shrieking In The Rain, according to Jasper Sharp's programme note (and he should know), is part of a long-standing tradition of Japanese movies depicting the goings-on behind the scenes of an adult film. (Though for me, the closest point of comparison is the Hong Kong film Vulgaria.) Director Hanako (Marika Matsumoto) is making her first feature, a melodrama with a couple of softcore bits, and encountering all manner of problems. As a woman, she’s predictably getting grief from her more experienced (and largely male) crew. She’s got to somehow pull off the balancing act between making a raunchy film that relaunches the career of its female star, while keeping its rating low enough to attract teenage fans of its male star. And she’s got to shoot her climactic sex scene with the censor literally on set.
Films about filmmaking always go down well with festival audiences, but this one never quite takes off. It’s largely down to the character of Hanako, unfortunately: yes, her oppression at the hands of the patriarchy is the main theme, but she’s so utterly feeble in her response to any setback that you can’t believe she was ever put in charge of a film in the first place. Most of the problems she encounters are because she fails to speak up: if she just responded in the way that any normal person would, then there wouldn’t be a film. There are enough fun digs at the industry and Japanese men on general (it’s deliberately set in the 1980s before sex equality was considered a thing in the country), but it could have been a bit more than that.
We finish off with Nobuhiro Doi’s The Voice Of Sin, based on a novel which was in turn inspired by one of Japan’s most notorious cold cases. In the 1980s, a group of extortionists attempted to get huge amounts of money out of a confectionery company through the double whammy of kidnapping its boss and releasing poisoned candy into the shops. But the extortionists went suddenly quiet – no money changed hands, and nobody was hurt. Several decades later, journalist Eiji (Shun Oguri) is tasked with raking over the few remaining leads to see if there’s any more of the story to tell. By pure coincidence, over in Kyoto, tailor Toshiya (Gen Hoshino) has just discovered that as a child, he unwittingly played a major part in the crime.
It’s a long film at around 140 minutes – sure, so was Ora Ora, but that one flew by and this doesn’t. Part of it's down to the structure, which for the first part involves the reporter and the tailor going from person to person making their enquiries, sometimes interviewing the same people at different times. The film gets across the painstaking process of investigative reporting, but it ends up being both dull and confusing for the viewer, as it’s impossible to remember who knows what at any given moment. Once the two leads join forces, the film gains a lot more focus, and the story seriously drills down into the collateral damage arising from this apparently victimless crime. It's the biggest and most obviously commercial of the films we've seen in this year's programme, even managing to squeeze in a couple of English-language sequences in London and York without embarrassing itself, which is pretty good going.
The London run of What Lies Beneath is now over, I'm afraid, but the twenty films in the programme are popping up in various permutations in 23 other venues across the UK during February and March 2022. Check out the list of venues and see if any of them are coming near your town.