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Unforgettable: #JFTFP24

Of course, if a Japanese person was reading this poster, they'd think the season was called Te Tl Reb Noga Uf.It's that time of year again: the time when I start a review of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme with a snarky dig at whatever ridiculously generic theme they've chosen for this one. The 2024 collection of Japanese films being sent around the UK during February and March has the full title of Unforgettable: Memories, Times and Reflections in Japanese Cinema, and...

...dammit, that actually works this time. I've only seen eight of the twenty-four films doing the rounds this year, but themes of nostalgia and memory are to the forefront, accompanied by time jumps both forward and backward, plus a circular one for good measure. It's nice that, for once, they haven't chosen a framework so broad that you could fit any film into it. (Having said that, the first film we saw after this week-long binge was All Of Us Strangers, which would fit this season's brief perfectly, and has the bonus of being a loose adaptation of a Japanese novel that was already filmed back in 1988 [possible spoilers for both films in that last link].)

The season's been running in various locations since February 2nd, and tours the country until March 31st. Here are some dispatches from its week-long residency at London's ICA.

What time are you showing Thundercrack?If you're making a movie about nostalgia, then nostalgia about movies is a sure-fire way to get people's attention (and, let's be honest, to get the attention of film festivals like this one). Hideo Jojo's Twilight Cinema Blues is set in a Ginpei fleapit with a staff of four and a regular audience of around double that. Our route into the cinema is via Kondo (Keisuke Koide), a young homeless man who finds it a convenient place to crash. He gradually gets to know the other people who hang out there, and they get to find out why Kondo is so fond of films.

For me, one of the most amusing things about this film is the cinema's name - it's called the Ginpei Scala, like that King's Cross cinema which had a documentary released about it earlier this year. This may be why former Scala employee Helen de Witt was in the audience for the ICA screening, presumably freaking out at a major plot point that echoes a story told in the documentary. You could definitely argue that both films, and both Scalas, are centred around the idea of a movie theatre being a community - a place where people who don't quite fit into society can come together for a couple of hours. Twilight Cinema Blues has an underlying message that, to quote Stewart Lee from the Scala!!! trailer, 'you won't get that in a multiplex': but it delivers it with a light touch that distracts you from the homelessness, alcoholism and depression lurking under its whimsical surface.

Theoretically, if you're curating a season about memory and time, you could throw in any movie more than 50 years old and get away with it. But this year's Japan Foundation archive choice, Kaisuke Kinoshita's 1959 drama The Snow Flurry, does enough slippery things with its chronology to make it an even better fit. The plot of this one, to be frank, is ludicrously melodramatic: a young man who's effectively the collateral damage from a failed double suicide has been brought up in a landowning family that doesn't really want him there, and over time the conditions are set up for history to repeat itself. But the visual style is everything.

The widescreen photography (holding up well in the 35mm print on display) is impressive in the usual way that Japanese widescreen photography can be, with frequent use of compositions featuring tiny figures in extreme long shots. But the big surprise is the non-linear way in which the story's told, with frequent unannounced leaps back and forward in time. There are a couple of jaw-dropping match cuts between two shots of characters in the same location but several years apart, which feel surprisingly modern for 1959. A couple of years later, French cinema would be playing similar games with film grammar, but it's astonishing to see its predecessor.

Yes, these are the two main characters looking at the unseen presence.Yoshihiro Nakamura is a director who's had a couple of festival hits in the UK over the years, like Fish Story and The Snow White Murder Case. As a known quantity, it therefore seems a little ominous that it's taken his film The Inerasable nine years to get an outing over here. Ai (Yūko Takeuchi), a writer who specialises in true-life ghost stories, is contacted by young student Kubo (Ai Hashimoto) with one of her own to investigate: a mysterious unseen presence that she can feel in her apartment. The two of them start to investigate, and dig their way through the history of the apartment block to work out where it all began.

It's not worth waiting to find out the answer, really. As the main character is a writer, there's some discussion of how ghost stories start, and how they make their way through the culture, and that's kind of interesting. But it's telling that at the three-quarter mark the investigators work out between them what's causing the evil to spread, and then KEEP ON DOING THAT. The promise of an invisible terror disintegrates into smudgy CGI creatures, and rather than picking up the pace at the climax the film actually slows to a crawl, thinking this will make it suspenseful rather than unspeakably dull.

Sometimes people hold onto stuff for far too long, to give them a connection to the past. Presumably that's the justification for Takayuki Kayano's Hoarder On The Border being in this festival. When concert pianist Ritsuki (Ryo Shinoda) loses his ability to play, he decides to make a career change and starts work with a house cleaning company. It's quite a specialist one, judging from the clients we meet in the chapters of this film, all of whom have elevated house cluttering to the level of installation art.

You'd imagine from this synopsis that Hoarder could either be a bittersweet study of a genuine social problem, or a gross-out comedy laughing at the messy people: but to quote Stewart Lee again in a similar context, this film is here to show you that it could be neither. Dramatically, it's paper-thin, happy just to state that something happened to each of these people which stopped them caring about the state of their homes, without going any deeper than that. Setting up tiny random links between the characters isn't a substitute for having characters. None of this would matter too much if they'd leaned into the comedy side of things, but the few jokes they have here are basic slapstick business, and there aren't nearly enough of them. It's admirably non-judgmental of its subjects, but forgets to do anything else with them instead.

Spoiler: it's all the boss' fault.Not many Japanese films get released in the UK these days, now that the 'extreme cinema' trend has fizzled to a stop. If there's been a trend that could have replaced it over the last couple of years, it's light comedies with a fluid approach to the passage of time, such as Summer Time Machine Blues and Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes - both written by Makoto Ueda, who last year tried to pull off the same trick again with River. It would seem like a perfect candidate for this season, but instead we have Ryo Takebayashi's Mondays: See You ‘This’ Week!, which has a similarly looping structure. Yes, it's Groundhog Day again: but instead of one guy it's happening to a whole office, and instead of them repeating a single day it's a loop of a whole week.

The expected satirical angle - hey, an office where every week is like the previous one, that's just like my office - is there as subtext, but it's not the main focus of the plot. Instead, it's based around three dilemmas - how the workers realise the loop is happening, how they find out why it's happening, and how they can stop it. And gradually, after the surface flash of the first few repeated cycles, Mondays turns into a delightful fable of workplace collaboration, almost like a team building exercise. With most timeloop stories, they're presented as a puzzle to be solved, and you watch them like you're looking over someone's shoulder as they're playing a computer game. Here, you're genuinely involved with the office staff and willing them to succeed.

For myself and The BBG, the highpoint of our week at JFTFP wasn't a film, technically. It was the introduction to a film by programme curator Junko Takekawa, who revealed that last year the post-film survey forms were dominated by one audience member repeatedly demanding that she programme anything directed by Koki Mitani, which was why we were about to see his Hit Me Anyone One More Time. You have two guesses at the identity of the audience member responsible. No, the other one. The Japanese title of this film translates literally as 'I Don't Remember!', the standard getout clause for any politician who's caught doing something dodgy. Mitani's terrific idea is to take a Japanese Prime Minister, create the most corrupt and despised man ever to hold the role, and then give him literal amnesia following a rock-throwing incident.

Once Prime Minister Kuroda (Kiichi Nakai) gets over the initial farce of having to be retaught what he does in his work and home lives, he realises he's effectively been given a clean slate, and can rebuild his personality from the ground up - much to the alarm of his colleagues and the general public. Like all of Mitani's comedies, this is an ensemble piece, with Nakai getting excellent support from a huge cast. He's too nice a filmmaker to really go for the throat, but his optimism about how Japanese politics could be better is a decent foundation on which he can lay a huge number of fine gags.

Non and the Fish Nonce HatThere's a Japanese TV personality called Sakura-kun, who's the person they always call up when they need someone incredibly knowledgeable about fish. Shuichi Okita's The Fish Tale is based on Sakura-kun's autobiography, but isn't a direct retelling of his life. For a start, its main character is now a fish-obsessed girl called Meebo, played by Non. Or is it? The whole question of Meebo's gender is kept ambiguous throughout, if you're paying close attention - for example, during the section set in their high school years, they're wearing schoolboy clothes.

Having an actress play Meebo does add a little extra jeopardy to some of the situations they encounter as they grow up, whether it's being theatened by a biker gang, or hanging out with a man whom everyone else in town assumes is the local Fish Nonce. But the fact that the latter is played by the real Sakura-kun presumably takes the edge off it for Japanese audiences. In fact, there's never any doubt that nothing bad will happen to Meebo at all, making this film a true successor to Okita's earlier film A Story Of Yonosuke - another charmer about someone who brings unambiguous joy to anyone who meets them.

I've been reviewing these films in the order we saw them, and Mondays, Hit Me and Fish Tale made for a solid trio of funny and heartwarming films back to back. Which made this the perfect time for Shinya Tsukamoto to come along with Shadow of Fire and bum us all out. Tsukamoto's debut Tetsuo The Iron Man was an astonishing 35 years ago, so I really should stop thinking of him as the robot cocks guy: his more recent movies have been more concerned with emotional and mental damage, rather than the physical kind. It's also worth noting, as Junko points out in her intro, that he's a rare example of a Japanese filmmaker who's stayed independent for that whole time, and still managed to sustain an international career.

At the start of his latest film, three people - a prostitute, a shell-shocked soldier, and a little boy - are cooped up in a shack in the ruins of post-war Japan, trying to form a surrogate family unit without getting on each other's nerves. I could have taken a whole film's worth of the claustrophobia that ensues, but halfway through the story opens out into the wider world, and loses a bit of its power until the coda. Still, it's Tsukamoto, so these damaged lives are compelling to watch, thanks to his still vivid visual sense: as usual with this director, it's hard to look away.

The days when I used to get screener discs sent from the Japan Foundation so I could preview their movies for MostlyFilm are long over, so you're only going to get eight reviews this year: you'll have to make do with just trailers for Do Unto Others, Egoist, From The End Of The World, Hand, Ice Cream Fever, Lonely Castle In The Mirror, The Lump In My Heart, A Man, Ripples, Sabakan, Thousand And One Nights, Undercurrent, Voices In The Wind, Winny, Yoko and The Zen Diary. Or, if you're in one of the bits of the UK that the tour hasn't got to yet, you could actually try to catch one or more of them for yourself. See the official festival site for full details.

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