Always Evolving: #JFTFP23
I've been covering the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme both here (2008, 2010, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022) and over there (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017) for so long now, it probably deserves its own blog category. This is actually the 20th year of the programme, and its brief is still the same: to create a showcase of current and classic Japanese films, take them out on tour across the arthouse cinemas of the UK, and come up with the most ridiculously contrived theme to tie them together into a single season.
I've had a giggle at some of the excuses the Japan Foundation has used in the past to say a particular collection of films belongs together, but the full title of the 2023 season - Always Evolving: Japanese Cinema Then, Now And For The Future - is really clutching at straws. Here, basically, are some old films and some new ones. Still, as ever it's an interesting collection, so let's look at seven of the twenty that are travelling the country until March 31st.
When I went to my first JFTFP back in 2008, the stated aim of the programme was to show British audiences the sort of Japanese films that weren't making their way into normal distribution, specifically avoiding genre pieces: "no bullets to the head or blood splatter, no clashing katana or bizarre ghosts with long hair" was the exact programme note. So it's interesting that fifteen years later, the first film we're seeing is It Comes, a very traditional slice of J-horror. It starts off like a typical family drama, as Kana (Haru Kuroki) travels with her fiancé Hideki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) to meet her future in-laws for the first time. During a predictably awkward evening, a couple of the more boisterous children there are threatened with the bogiwan, an evil spirit that takes away naughty kids. A couple of years pass, and Hideki and Kana get married and have a child. You can probably guess the rest from there.
This is exactly the sort of film that these programmes were originally designed to be an alternative to: however, season programmer Junko Takekawa says people keep asking for them in the post-screening surveys, so here we are. The presence of director Tetsuya Nakashima (previously seen here with Kamikaze Girls) ensures that It Comes has a degree of visual style, but it’s incredibly erratic: the constant cutting between multiple angles for even the simplest dialogue scenes looks indecisive rather than unsettling. The broken-backed structure does allow for some clever retelling of parts of the story from different perspectives, but it just gets sillier and sillier as it progresses, building up to an arena-sized exorcism at the climax. Still, it might just be a problem of tone: The BBG enjoyed it a lot more than me, deciding it was knowingly silly. There's a good case made for that interpretation by the final scene, which is set up carefully throughout the film but still a surprise when it happens.
As ever, one of the Japan Foundation's aims with these programmes is to showcase various bits of Japanese culture that we don't usually see over here, not just films. With a film like Ito, this brief feels a little forced. You can almost imagine them going to a production company and saying ‘we want something that showcases the ancient and modern aspects of Japan,’ and getting the reply ‘how about a film with shamisen playing and maid cafes?’ and them saying ‘yes, that’ll do nicely thanks.’ So we get this paper-thin story about Ito (Ren Komai), a socially awkward teenage girl who somehow accidentally applies for a job in a maid cafe which kind of helps her to open up a little bit.
Satoko Yokohama's film is part of a genre that gets represented in these programmes every couple of years: the culture clash you get when someone from a small village finds themselves in the big city, lumbered with the sort of rural accent that can only be depicted in English subtitles by using lots of mediaeval language and misspelling. These things are always fun for Japanese speakers like The BBG, while the rest of us can just imagine the sort of nightmares the subtitling team had working on this. Apart from that, there's not much else happening. There's a little bit of conflict between Ito and her dad, and some backstory about how she learned to play the shamisen from her late mother. (The pre-publicity for this film really hyped up the appearance of ancient Japan's answer to the banjo, but there are only a couple of scenes where it plays any part in the story.) It’s a pleasant enough film, but it barely touches the sides as it goes down.
Given the stated theme of this year's programme, it's nice that we get a couple of archive restorations rather than the usual one: and for once, one of them is a rare chance to see some pre-war cinema from the country. The Million Ryo Pot - made in 1935, and ravishingly cleaned up to look and sound as good as new, barring one or two scenes – starts with a lord who buries his fortune for safe keeping, documents the secret burial place under the glaze of a basic-looking pot, and then carelessly gives the pot away to his brother-in-law as a gift. As the pot changes hands via a pair of junk collectors to several other owners, lots of people are trying to track it down. One of them isn’t the legendary one-armed one-eyed swordsman Tange Sazen (Denjiro Okochi), but he ends up in the middle of the chase anyway.
Directed by Sadao Yamanaka – a promising young director who tragically didn’t make it past the age of 28 – this is a terrifically entertaining film, though you have to make one or two allowances for its age. There’s one gag repeated several times, where a character insists “I’ll never do [a thing]! Never! Never!”, which is immediately followed by a cut to a scene where they’re doing [a thing]. And these days, a film would never attempt to get five minutes of comedy out of two adults struggling to tell a young boy that he’s just been orphaned. If you get past these occasional missteps, it’s smartly plotted and crammed full of memorable characters, all of whom get their own bit of business.
Heading back to the genre films that the festival has avoided in the past, it’s time for a Yakuza movie. You can’t deny that debut director Ouda Kojoma gives Joint a modern visual sheen, but the bones of the tale are familiar enough. There’s a criminal (Ikken Yamamoto) back on the streets after a couple of years in the nick, trying to stay clean but unable to keep away from his old gang. A gang that’s trying to go more legit, and has purged itself of its more old school violent members, who’ve started a rival gang of their own. That's plenty of tension to be getting on with, before you factor in the suspicion the Yakuza have for the local immigrant gangs.
What’s new is the nature of the crimes – as Jasper Sharp says in his excellent programme note for the film, the turf wars and property acquisitions of the sixties genre classics have been replaced by data harvesting scams, with USB drives changing hands for large amounts of money, and dodgy deals being done on burner phones in the back of moving cars so the police can’t track them. It’s a classy and slow-burning thriller, and occasionally made me yearn for the vulgarity and baseball bats of a Kinji Fukasaku joint. But the director’s definitely one to watch in the future.
For the 20 years that JFTFP has been running, there’s been one standard rule: The Anime Will Always Sell Out. Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? isn’t an anime - like Joint, it's a rare example of a current Japanese film that isn't an adaptation of something else - but its setting in the world of manga production seems to be enough to draw a pretty big crowd at the ICA. It’s based around a married couple of manga artists whose relationship is going through a rough patch, not helped by the wife Sawako (Haru Kuroki) currently being a lot more successful and productive than her husband Toshio (Tasuku Emoto). When Sawako discovers that Toshio's having a fling with her editor, something finally snaps. She spends all her days taking driving lessons, and her nights drawing her next big work. When Toshio sneaks a peek at what she’s been working on, it turns out to be the story of a cuckolded woman seeking solace in the arms of her driving instructor...
“It’s just a manga, it’s not real,“ he keeps telling himself. But is it? Part of the fun is how much director Takahiro Horie keeps you guessing where the divide between fiction and real life is – the transition from one to the other is frequently signposted by no more than a change in lighting or colour grading, and even then you’re not entirely certain which side of the line you’re on now. Remarkably, these metafictional games never feel contrived, and just serve to stir up the heady emotions of the main players. Who knows, maybe one day they'll make a manga adaptation of it.
Occasionally, these programmes present a film as being Important when it’s really just Fucking Miserable, so a title like My Broken Mariko raises all manner of red flags. It doesn’t help that Junko introduces this film with what basically amounts to a list of trigger warnings. The first one is right there in the opening scene, in which office lady Tomoyo (Mei Nagano) is shocked to discover that Mariko (Nao), her best friend since school, has killed herself. Mariko had a miserable life of family abuse and bad relationship choices, climaxed by her scumbag father having her hurriedly cremated rather than holding any sort of funeral. She used to say to Tomoyo that one day they should go on a trip to the sea. Maybe now’s the time for them to do that.
In the tradition of previous JFTFP films like Capturing Dad and Bone Born Bone, this turns out to be another slightly sad, slightly whimsical film about the grieving process and the inappropriate handling of human remains. Yuki Tanada’s previous films in these collections (and by the way, three cheers to COVID for helping to normalise the idea of pre-recorded director introductions) have involved uneasy mixtures of tones, such as The Cowards Who Looked To The Sky. But Mariko gets it pretty much spot on – it’s never too mawkish, never too grim and never too flippant. A slight misstep could have sent the whole thing tumbling in any one of those directions, but the director's instincts are perfectly judged throughout, all the way up to the final scene, which makes a bold choice that wouldn’t have worked any other way.
We finish off with what the Japan Foundation is calling What A Wonderful Family!, though the English title’s not an exact translation, as is often the case. More accurately, you could render the Japanese title as It’s Tough Being A Family, which is a direct reference to the 1969 comedy It’s Tough Being A Man. That was the first in a series of fifty films about the lovelorn travelling salesman Tora-San, all of which were directed by Yoji Yamada: and in 2016 he directed the film we’re talking about here, so he’s allowed the reference. It’s the story of a family, with three generations (and a dog) all living under the same roof. Sure, they have their disagreements, but they all seem to be getting along together – until Grandma announces that she’s had enough after 45 years of marriage to Grandpa, and demands a divorce. (Apparently old age divorces are a thing in Japan, as husbands retire to stay in the house all day, and wives finally discover that they don’t like their company all that much.)
With the Tora-San series and the screenplays of another long-running franchise under his belt (Tsuribaka Nisshi, a bit like if Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing had a 20-film cinematic universe), audiences know the sort of gentle comedy to expect from Yoji Yamada, and What A Wonderful Family! delivers on that score. But this isn't the work of a director who's stuck in the 1970s - the opening scene is a neat inversion of a telephone scam that was targeting pensioners at the time, and there's a mixture of smart topical references along with cheeky callbacks to Yamada's enormous back catalogue. The whole thing noodles along quite charmingly, to the extent that you know the final shot will involve the dog somehow. It hasn't been as long-running a series as Yamada's others - just two sequels and a soppier-looking Chinese remake so far - but give him a break, he's 91 years old now.
The BBG suggested we made this our final film of JFTFP23, because it seemed like a cheerful way to finish our ten-day binge. So I'm afraid you don't get any reviews for Wandering, Tsuyukusa, Lesson In Murder, Under The Open Sky, Angry Son, Samurai Hustle, Goodbye Cruel World, The Past is Always New, the Future is Always Nostalgic: Photographer Daido Moriyama, BL Metamorphosis, Till We Meet Again, The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade Of Blue, Hold Me Back, Blue Thermal or Intolerance. But if any of those take your fancy, and the Japan Foundation circus hasn't rolled into your town just yet, you may still get the chance to see some of this season before it wraps up on March 31st. Visit the official website for details and times.