28 August 2008

Last Quarter (下弦の月, 2004)

This 2004 film is an adaptation of the short manga series Last Quarter (Kagen no Tsuki, 1998-1999) by popular manga-ka Ai Yazawa (矢沢あい). The adaptation was released at the peak of Yazawa's fame as she had just wrapped up the series Paradise Kiss and was basking in the success of the Nana series. The film also garanteed a wide audience because it stars the lead singer of L'Arc en Ciel (ラルク アン シエル), Hyde (ハイド), as love interest Adam. The film also stars popular actors Chiaki Kuriyama (栗山千明) and Hiroki Narimiya (成宮 寛貴 ) and Mizuki Mochizuki and Tomoki Anzai.

It is difficult to encapsulate the story of Last Quarter without giving away too much of the plot. It's a kind of a supernatural love story à la Patrick Swayze's Ghost, but with a complicated past and present twist. A young girl named Hotaru Shiraishi discovers a young woman living in an abandoned house who is unable to remember anything about herself excpet that she has a boyfriend named Adam whom she desperately wants to see again. Hotaru enlists the help of her friends (in the manga she has three friends helping her but the film only uses one) but they are unable to see the girl, whom they christen Eve. They believe that Eve must be a ghost and so they set out to find out her identity and how they can help her move on into the next life. The manga mixes elements of several genres including shōjo, romance, detective, and ghost story / science fiction.

With any adaptation, I expect a great deal of excising of the original story from a screenwriter. As the plot of the manga Last Quarter, gets more and more complicated and unlikely as the story progresses, my expectation was that writer-director Ken Nikai would have to choose a couple elements of the story to focus on in order to capture the imagination of a cinema-going audience successfully. Unfortunately, Nikai stripped away the charm of the original manga and replaced it with over-the-top special effects and a plot with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Perhaps if I had not read the manga before seeing the film, I might have enjoyed it more in the 'so bad it's funny' kind of way, but for me Nikai cut all the things that I found charming about the original story. In the manga, I found it easier to put up with the cheesy, unbelievable aspects of the romantic ghost storyline because Hotaru and her group of friends provided comic relief and were very realistically drawn, sympathetic characters. In fact, I could imagine a whole series of stories involving the intrepid four solving local mysteries.

The two main failings of the film were unneccessary use of special effects and a lack of chemistry between the actors who are meant to be passionately in love with each other. Ken Nikai should have taken a page from the minimalism employed by Yazawa in the manga because these overly elaborate sets, particularly in the house and fence scenes made the film look like a gaudy B-movie. The special effects used to make Mizuki/Eve's eyes look glassy moved the film closer into the horror genre, so that I thought that at any minute she was going to turn into a vampire and start attacking poor Hotaru and Masaki (who is a mixture of the two boys in the original manga).

While I was willing to suspend my disbelief regarding the logistics of ghosts of people who died 20 years before in England turning up in central Tokyo, it would have helped if they had actually appeared to have an attraction to each other. I believe that the film may have pulled it off with Asian audiences in a way that it didn't with me because of the wide fan base of Hyde and L'Arc en Ciel. I could imagine that a female fan might transfer her own passion for Hyde onto Mizuki and thereby make up for the complete lack of chemistry between Hyde and Chiaki Kuriyama. I also found chemistry lacking between Kuriyama and Hiroki Narimiya, whose character Tomoki Anzai was inflated in order to make him more of a starring role.

So much of the symbolism of the original story (the ring, the white dress) was altered in the film so as to lose meaning. I think the film would have been more successful if it had focused more on the detective story than on the romance, as it was that aspect that had me turning the pages in the manga. Also, if a film expects us to believe the supernatural aspects of a story, then the details of the 'real life' portions of the film have to be spot on. For example: how does Adam know how to use a modern Japanese cellphone if he is a ghost from England 20 years ago? How could Mizuki get hit by a car in the middle of a street with no traffic on it (in the manga she was in busy Shibuya)? Why does Miura turn up at the haunted house when we haven't even been introduced to his character yet? Why is Adam (half)-Japanese? I really could only recommend this film to fans of Hyde, Chiaki Kuriyama, and Hiroki Narimiya – though one might find it amusing after a few glasses of wine. Shōjo fans should just read the manga. It is well worth it for the delightful rapport between the four kids solving the mystery of 'Eve'.

25 August 2008

Ask? Film Festival 2008

The Ask? Film Festival 2008 opens today and runs until September 6th. The programme includes films by Yoji Kuri and Tomoyasu Murata, among other filmmakers from Japan and abroad.

ASK? Film Festival 2008

Venue: ASK? Art Space Kimura
Schedule: From 2008-08-25 To 2008-09-06
Address: Kimura Bldg 2F, 3-6-5 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0031
Phone: 03-5524-0771 Fax: 03-5524-0772

17 August 2008

Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (カフカ田舎医者, 2007)

Kōji Yamamura (山村浩二)'s most recent short animation, Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (Kafuka Inaka Isha, , 2007) has been making a big splash at international festivals around the world this past year. It won the Grand Prize earlier this month at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival and has also scooped up the top prizes at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, Stuttgart's Internationales TrickFilm Festival, Monstora Lisbon Animated Film Festival, among many other honours. The sheer pleasure of watching the film was described at Anipages last month in another great review by Ben Ettinger. For lots of screencaps of the film, see iwanihana.

Along the way, many reviewers have been baffled as to the meaning of the film because it adapted from a surreal short story by Kafka that relies heavily upon symbolism rather than a linear narrative in order to tell its tale. Kafka is well known for his use of ambiguous language in his literary work, which always poses great difficulties for translators. The original short story translated into English can be found here and the original German is here.

Yamamura's film belongs to the tradition of using cinema to depict the subjective world on screen. Kafuka Inaka Isha remains true to much of the literal text of A Country Doctor, but it also provides an interpretation of the work. Through Yamamura's unique animation technique, he is able to express the internal, psychological state of the doctor, using many of the same techniques of distortion, symbolism, montage, and music as were used by the German Expressionists (esp. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Jean Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet (1930), and Bunuel & Dali's Un chien andalou (1929), not to mention the long line of experimental filmmakers and animators who followed in these early poets of the cinema's footsteps [in honour of Franz Kafka, I am using unnecessarily long sentences today ;) ].

As I had read the original story with its European setting before screening the film, I was surprised by the incantation that opened the film which sounded like the opening to a Noh drama. I don't know anything about the history of the translation of A Country Doctor (I've just ordered the book tie-in to have a look at the Japanese text) but it was clear from the breathtakingly beautiful and haunting soundtrack that the translator has not only given a literal translation of the text but has also interpreted the poetic sound values of the original German text into a Japanese poetic form: the dramatic narration. The successful execution of this rests largely on the fact that Yamamura was able to acquire the services of the Shigeyama (茂山) family to do the voice acting. The Shigeyamas are masters of Kyōgen ( 狂言), a comical form of traditional Japanese theatre that originally developed as a kind of entertainment to lighten the mood between the acts of a Noh drama. The Shigeyama family has specialised in Kyōgen since around the turn of the 19th century, and the patriarch of the family, Shigeyama Shigeyama III (茂山千作) has been received the rare honour of being designated a Human National Treasure. He does the main voice for the doctor and four other members of the family do the other voices apart from the children's choir and the award-winning novelist Hitomi Kanehara (金原ひとみ) who does the voice of Rose.

On the surface, Kafka Inaka Isha tells the story of an aging country doctor whose horse has died and he and his maid, Rose are desperately seeking a replacement horse for the doctor to borrow so that he can get to the sick bed of a young boy. A strange man appears out of the doctor's pig stall and lends the doctor two ghostly steeds and tells the doctor of his intention of raping Rose while he is gone. The doctor is unable to control the horses who whisk him off and take him to his destination, through a winter landscape, at great speed. When he arrives at the house, the cause of the boy's illness is at first unclear and the doctor is plagued by guilt and worry about Rose. It is a fairly complex story to summarize, so I would advise you to read the original story.

Yamamura provides the audience with many clues that this tale is a psychological one. The most obvious is the distortion of the doctor's head from small to grotequely large throughout the film. At times it looks as if we are seeing his head through a fisheye lens. There are also the two small ghostly figures of boys who appear over the doctor's shoulder. Their doubling is accuntuated by the doubling of the narrator's voice – the story is told by the doctor in the first person with two voice-over narrators.

Other visual clues that this is the distortion of the foreground and borders of the film. In some scenes the foreground bubbles like a disintegrating silver nitrate film. In conjunction with this bubbling and blurring, some scenes feature a border of small lines that look almost scratched on. The animation style is similar to his film Atama Yama (Mt. Head, 2002): a layered style of cel animation. Interestingly, Atama Yama is also a film that uses a dramatic narration as a theme and employed the great rakugo (落語) voice actor Takeharu Kunimoto (国本武春).

My own interpretation of Kafuka Inaka Isha is that we are witnessing a psychological journey into the madness of the doctor. The old doctor is reaching the end of his life, and his conscience is haunted by children that he has been unable to save and are represented by the two little shadowy figures of boys. When the doctor is stripped naked and put into the bed with the boy, I had the impression that he is actually having a conversation with himself. I read the scene in this way because during the shot reverse shot we see the image of the person 'listening' instead of the person 'talking' – a stylistic choice that inverts our expectations as viewers. My suspicion that the action of the film is taking place entirely inside the head of the main protagonist was confirmed during his naked ride back home, when the doctor's head rolls back and is replaced by Rose and then by her attacker. At the end of the film, the house is filled with doppelgängers of the doctor: a sure sign of madness or perhaps the imminent death of the doctor.

Like a good poem, Kafuka Inaka Isha requires repeated viewing for the many nuances of the film to be explored. The DVD is only available in Japan currently and comes with 3 postcard-sized stills from the film, a short bio of Kafka, a review of the short story by German literature Osamu Ikeuchi (who also briefly interviews Yamamura among the extras), a profile of Yamamura, and short bios of the voice-actors. My favourite extra is a slow pan of the storyboards complete with some of the film's haunting sound effects.

Kafka Inaka Isha / Animation

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

12 August 2008

Yamamura Wins Grand Prix at Hiroshima

Koji Yamamura can add the Hiroshima International Animation Festival's Grand Prix to his long list of awards for Kafuka Inaka Isha (Kafka's A Country Doctor, 2007). The festival wound up yesterday and by all accounts was a great success.

Other winners included Tsumiki no ie (La Maison en Petits Cubes, 2008) directed by Kunio Kato, who walked away with both the Hiroshima Prize and the Audience Prize. Jean-Claude Mbotti Malolo of France won the Debut Prize for his film Le Coeur est un Métronome (2007). Izabela Plucinska's Sniadanie (Breakfast, Poland/Germany, 2006) won the Renzo Kinoshita Prize (named in memory of the co-founder of the festival). The Rene Laloux Prize went to François-Marc Baillet for D'un peu plus loin (A Little Farther, France, 2007).

The wide range of countries reprented at the festival demonstrates the truly international flavour of the Hiroshima Festival, whose aim since its inception in 1985 has been to promote love and peace between nations. I really admire Sayoko Kinoshita for the hard work she has put into continuing this biannual festival for so many years.

Jury special prizes went to Madame Tutli-Putli (Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, NFB, Canada, 2007), KJFG No. 5 (Alexey Alekseev, Hungary, 2007), Oktapodi (Julien Bocabeille, et al., Talantis Films, France, 2007), Zhiharka (Oleg Uzhinov, Russia, 2006), Candid (Zepe, Portugal, 2007), and Don't Let It All Unravel (Sarah Cox, UK, 2006).

Other special pizes were awarded to John and Karen (Matthew Walker, UK, 2007), Minuscule-La Coccinelle (Miniscule - the Ladybug, Thomas Szabo, France, 2006), Beton (Ariel Belinco & Michael Faust, Israel, 2006), Lapsus (Juan Pablo Zaramella, Argentina, 2007), Lavatory-Lovestory (Konstantin Bronzit, Russia, 2007), and Lost in Snow (Vladimir Leschiov, Latvia, 2007).

04 August 2008

Passing Fancy (出来ごころ, 1933)

While in Canada, I picked up Criterion’s Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu – Three Family Comedies. Watching Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 1933), I was reminded how one can always count on Ozu to serve up a perfectly balanced mixture of pathos, humour, and human interest. Passing Fancy has enough slapstick to make the audience laugh, but not so much that it falls into the realm of an unlikely farce (à la the Farrelly brothers). Ozu adds just enough sentimentality to warm the heart without causing the audience to feel nauseous (J-dorama directors take note!). The film is also filled with many moments that the audience will recognize in their own lives.

Takeshi Sakamoto stars as Kihachi, a single father of a boy called Tomio (Tomio Aoki aka Tokkan Kozo) who is just barely able to look after himself and his son because he is illiterate and has a weakness for sake. One night as he stumbles home from a drinking binge with his friend and co-worker Jiro, he happens upon a jobless girl called Harue who is desperate for help. He takes Harue to Otome, the woman who runs the local eatery/izakaya. Otome takes Harue under her wing and soon a three way love triangle develops. Kihachi fancies Harue, although she is much too young for him, but Harue likes Jiro, who keeps his own feelings hidden out of loyalty to Kihachi.

Passing Fancy is the first of a series of films Ozu made featuring the working poor. As movies during the pre-war period were cheap entertainment, the nagaya-dwelling characters likely represent a large swath of the viewing audience of Ozu’s films during this time, in contrast to the post-war middle-class families of his later films like Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953).

Another cheap form of entertainment, naniwa-bushi storytelling takes place in the opening scene of Passing Fancy and provides conceit on which the film is based. Tomio's jokes are a running gag throughout the film, Kihachi tells a lot of tall tales, and Kihachi twice cites the the traditional story of Ohan and Choemon as evidence that Harue might be persuaded to marry him. Although the story is not told within the film, Ozu’s audience would have known the story of forty year old man, Obi-ya Choemon who falls in love with a fourteen year old girl called Ohan who loves him in return. Her family opposes the relationship which ends in elopement and double-suicide. Based on a true story, the tale of Ohan and Choemon has appeared on woodblock prints and was a popular oral tale throughout the Meiji period.

One has to admire the subtlety Ozu employs in order to give nuance to the story. Ozu is known for his use of a static camera, so when a camera does move it acquires an added significance. I noticed two tracking shots in the film. The first occurred at the very beginning, tracking slowly along the floor to reveal the extent of the audience watching the naniwa-bushi performance. I recall identical shots of a theatre audience being used in Ukigusa Monogatari (1934), which also featured Kihachi and Tomio, and its remake Ukigusa (1959). The second tracking shot was of Kihachi's meagre possessions laid out on the floor as he looks for things to pawn to pay for Tomio's medical treatment. This scene, and the scene when Tomio's teacher visits him at the medical center, are perhaps the two most humbling moments for Kihachi in the film.

The seasonal setting of the film is also referred to through subtle visual hints. Kihachi spends much of the film in his underwear and is often scratching himself: a sure indication that it is midsummer in a humid, mosquito-ridden Tokyo. The fireworks that are intercut with the dramatic climax of the film confirm the fact that the story takes place during the month of August. The repeated shots of Kihachi undressing from the legs down also act as a foreshadowing to the end of the film, when he undresses for the last time and makes his final rash decision. The title Passing Fancy refers to the whims that Kihachi makes throughout the film. I like that the original Japanese idiom used in the title – 出来ごころ (Dekigokoro) - contains the word for `heart` (kokoro), because the decisions that Kihachi makes on a whim always come from the heart and are full of good intentions.

Passing Fancy is truly a delight to watch. Even my six-year-old son enjoyed it, laughing out loud at all the slapstick humour. It also reminded me that Ozu is often unfairly put into a box labeled `traditional`, `Japanese`, and `minimalist` when his films are much more complex than meets the eye.

Yasujiro Ozu / Japanese Movie
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

02 August 2008

Kumo Ga Haretara (1987)

Although not an example of his best work, fans of Taku Furukawa's animation should check out Kumo Ga Harata (雲が晴れたら), a Minna no Uta animation with music by Etsuko Sai. The animation style is typical of Furukawa and the story fulfills the brief by convincingly animating the themes of the song. The only element lacking is the wit evident in Furukawa's independent work such as Jyōkyō Monogatari (1999), a modern take on Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). The use of umbrellas for the lower half of the bodies as they dance is a nice touch. My favourite 'artsy' moment occurs near the beginning when the camera tracks towards the window and the young woman brushing her hair in the background is blurred by the rain on the window in the foreground. Publish Post


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