There’s a style of modern Japanese cinema that always seems just a little bit precious to me, in danger of being too arch, too cute, too sentimental, often with syrupy music that juts out even amongst all that. I’m not saying this is entirely one of those films, but it’s on a spectrum — one that, to be fair, also includes the work of Naomi Kawase and the very fine films of Hirokazu Koreeda. There is restraint in this story set in Kobe of a thirty-something seamstress Ichie (Miki Nakutani), following her grandmother’s designs, but wondering whether to update them, do her own designs, move into the modern world of branding and shopping centres. Even that thematic focus makes the film a little out of time itself, and it has a sort of quiet classical beauty to it. It’s based on a manga series, which only makes it clear that my idea of manga is pretty narrow, if they include ones about middle-aged women sewing suits and dresses for even older people. I like, too, that the film toys with a romantic subplot but doesn’t make it the core to our protagonist’s narrative, has a character in a wheelchair whose disability doesn’t define her entirely, and isn’t rushed in its storytelling. It does still have rather too big an orchestral soundtrack for my liking, but on the whole, it’s fairly inoffensive.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Japan Foundation Touring Programme
Director Yukiko Mishima | Writer Tamio Hayashi (based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe) | Cinematographer Kazutaka Abe | Starring Miki Nakutani, Takahiro Miura | Length 104 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 February 2017
By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016
Unquestionably a singular and odd film by veteran filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, revisiting themes in his early-career masterpiece Branded to Kill, albeit with a woman assassin. The ‘opera’ aspect of the title shouldn’t be underestimated, as, although without songs, it has a lot of the theatricality of that format: the frontal staging, addresses to camera, the high-key lighting in a very clear and uncluttered frame, and the very frugal use of movement. Suzuki at times prefers to use empty shots with strong sound effects over people doing things in frame. So in short, it’s not your ordinary film. Like opera, though, the plot is actually fairly straightforward: an assassin (Makiko Esumi), ranked #3 by her Guild, has to contend with her fellow assassins (not least the mysterious Hundred Eyes, #1), in order to claim the first place, while also being stalked by a 10-year-old wannabe (Hanae Kan). It may be filmed in a very idiosyncratic way, but it’s never without visual flair and parades an array of gorgeous saturated colours.
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writers Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura | Cinematographer Yonezo Maeda | Starring Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 17 January 2017
I feel like I’ve seen live action versions of this mystical, supernatural, body-swapping elegiac romance but animating it somehow makes the sentimentality more palatable. Also, let’s be fair, it makes it gorgeous to look at. There’s a lot going on here under its slightly twee premise — an attempt perhaps to grapple with a troubled 20th century — and the storytelling is quite dense (a lot of play on language means subtitles at the top and bottom of the screen at times), but it creates a wonderful atmosphere.
(PS Also, yes, the full stop is part of the film’s title.)
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Makoto Shinkai (based on his novel) | Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 January 2017
A strange film, at once adapted from a puppet drama and also self-consciously taking some of its formal characteristics. The story follows a relationship which has tragic overtones, involving a man out of step with his society. However, the presence throughout of these puppeteer characters, at once mutely witnessing and manipulating what’s happening, is pretty powerful.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda | Writers Taeko Tomioka and Toru Takemitsu (based on the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon) | Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima | Starring Kichiemon Nakamura, Shima Iwashita | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 June 2016
There is no doubting this film moves at a slow and deliberate pace and makes as much use of silence as it does of sound, but these are feelings that pass fairly swiftly as you get drawn into the uncanny atmosphere created by the studio sets and bold non-naturalistic use of colour (Kobayashi’s first film in colour, after a career of monochrome political and social dramas, some of which will show up later in the collection). There are four stories here, the longest being the third, “Hoichi the Earless”, but all of them largely revolve around the living betraying the secrets of the dead and being punished for it. The other stories are likewise strong, from the shortest, “In a Cup of Tea”, in which an author (Osamu Takizawa) is haunted by a face in his tea, to the first two: “The Black Hair”, following a poor swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who foolishly leaves his first wife to seek his fortune; and “The Woman of the Snow”, wherein a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) saves a young fisherman (Tatsuya Nakadai, doing his best gormless expressions), but with a caveat. It’s all set in a mythologised era in which the living and dead seem to live closer to one another, with characters like Takashi Shimura’s priest in “Hoichi” being unfazed by the idea of an undead army gathering in an amphitheatre to listen to blind bard Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura)’s epic oral tale unfold. We listen to it, too, and it’s a wonderful thing, but then Toru Takemitsu’s score throughout is revelatory, with its musique concrète textures integrated into the action almost as a chorus (and sometimes replacing diegetic sounds altogether).
Criterion Extras: This new disc presents the full 183 minute cut (the older Criterion release only had the shorter cut), and adds some more extras. There’s a 15 minute archival interview with the director reflecting on his work, as well as a fuller piece with an assistant director who worked on the film and explains the genesis of this latest restoration.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi | Writer Yoko Mizuki (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn) | Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima | Starring Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Takashi Shimura, Osamu Takizawa | Length 183 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016
A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.
Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Haruko Sugimura, Chishu Ryu | Length 94 minutes || Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015
Hirokazu Koreeda makes delicate small-scale films, often about familial relationships, and that’s certainly the case here, which as the English title indicates is about a group of sisters. That’s not to say the film is devoid of men, just that it’s very much focused on the sisters and their relationships with one another, and very little with their relationships outside the family unit. Indeed, despite some discussions from the middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) about moving on, the three of them still live together in their childhood home in their small seaside home town. When they go to the funeral of their father (who left them when they were young), they meet his teenage daughter Suzu (Suzu Hirose), and she moves in to the sisters’ home for a bit. The film depicts quite a bit of fluidity to familial relationships beyond the stable nuclear family unit, without pushing it too strongly, and indeed most of the film’s revelations are very much underplayed. That said, it’s not without sentimentality (it has a tone not too far from the director’s 2011 film I Wish), but it doesn’t wallow egregiously in this. It’s a comedic film not in the sense of being filled with jokes (there is some gentle humour), but because you swiftly get a sense that nothing really bad is going to happen to the family as long as these sisters stick together. This does mean that the narrative has a meandering aspect that never quite resolves on any particular moment of drama or crisis, but then again it’s never exactly boring either. A quiet mood piece, then, and rather a delightful one.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda (based on the graphic novel by Akimi Yoshida) | Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto | Starring Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 18 April 2016
These two documentaries by veteran English documentarian Kim Longinotto (co-directed by Jano Williams) have titles which nicely complement one another, as well as both being filmed in Japan. They also share an interest in looking into underrepresented aspects of Japanese culture, respectively women’s professional wrestling and female-to-male transgender nightclub hosts. Both are fascinating in their ways, though they don’t aim to provide full context — the wrestling documentary, Gaea Girls, doesn’t get into the foundation of the Gaea Japan league or any backstory about the figures involved, while Shinjuku Boys doesn’t really go beyond the confines of the Marilyn Club in Tokyo. Still, what’s there is still engrossing, particularly in the feature-length Gaea Girls, which throws us into an organisation run by the buzzcut and imposing Chigusa Nagayo to train up wrestlers, though at times it seems more like a ladies’ reformatory school as we see parents dropping off their sullen daughters to take up the wrestling lifestyle. Few of them seem cut out for the sport (and several drop out or run away over the course of the film) but as the documentary progresses, we start to focus on Takeuchi, who despite her diminutive stature seems determined to make it, even as she’s seen effortlessly swatted about by Nagayo — and in a few disarming sequences, brutally bloodied and beaten (within the ring, of course). Her monosyllabic responses and lack of clear reasons for her persistence are in contrast to Nagayo’s engagement with the documentary, as she talks about her own violent upbringing. On the other hand, the Shinjuku Boys seem not to come from the same kind of background, though the film’s thematics fit in with a wider discussion in modern times about transgender issues and rights. The language deployed by the interviewees covers a range of identities, from one who still uses the female pronoun and considers their work as dressing up, to another who is committed to his new identity and has a male-to-female transgender partner. It’s a relatively short work, but it remains interesting throughout, and both are made with care and respect, as with Longinotto’s other films.
Gaea Girls (2000)
Directors/Writers Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams | Cinematographer Kim Longinotto | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 21 January 2016
Shinjuku Boys (1995)
Directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams | Cinematographer Kim Longinotto | Length 53 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 January 2016
Another film I’ve belatedly caught up with for my 2015 New Year’s Resolution (one of the co-writers is a woman), I must confess that I’m not familiar with the source material or either of the two previous films in the trilogy, so this is all a bit of a blur. However, it’s an attractively-mounted 19th century period film blur, awash with rich costume design and the swish of samurai swords. If anything, the film resists the lure of its comic-book origins to give in to a videogame or clip-show editing style, and instead essays an almost traditional filmic sense of the jidaigeki, the camera movements more calm than the frenzy of blades one might expect. That said, the heroes all have floppy fringes in the modern style, and beyond their matinee idol looks, I’m not entirely sure a lot more is going on. Still, it’s a good deal better than one might fear and if I just had an investment in the story, this might be a more attractive proposition.
Director Keishi Otomo | Writers Kiyomi Fujii and Keishi Otomo (based on the manga Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki) | Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka | Starring Takeru Satoh | Length 135 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015