29 April 2009

Ain't No Tomorrows (俺たちに明日はないッス, 2008)

Director Yuki Tanada, a special guest at Nippon Connection this year, is one of a number of women directors creating a niche for themselves in Japan. Traditionally, the role of director has been seen as a man’s job, but at the Podium Discussion: What’s Up With the Women?, producer Yukie Kito said that women make up 70% of filmgoers in Japan. Therefore, it only makes sense that more women should go into directing. Women have played key roles behind the scenes since the inception of the cinema industry, doing continuity (like Kurosawa’s assistant Teruyo Nogami) and screenwriting. According to Kito, women dominate the fields of producing and marketing films in contemporary Japan.

If Ain’t No Tomorrows (Oretachi ni asu wa naissu, 2008) is representative of what women directors have to offer, then I am truly excited about the future of Japanese cinema. On the surface, Ain’t No Tomorrows begins as a standard drama about the life of teenagers. Standard teenage types are set up: the rabble-rouser, the fat kid, the teacher’s pet, and so on. Rabble-rousing teen Hiruma (Tokio Emoto) leads his friends in the bullying of fat student Andou (Ini Kusano). They give him the nickname ‘Boobs’ because of the extra fat on his chest, and pay him ¥100 to feel up his man-boobs while they fantasize about their big-chested classmate Akie (Ayame Misaki). Akie, meanwhile, resents that boys lust after her only for her looks and aren’t interested in her as a person. Rounding of the main characters are Miné, the good-looking guy who generally follows what the crowd is doing and bespectacled Miwako plays the role of teachers pet.

The stereotypes begin to get overturned with the introduction of Chizu, a naïve girl who Miné discovers face down in a park with blood running down her thighs. Although her uniform indicates that Chizu is from the same school as Miné, he has never seen her before and we share with him his initial fear that she has been the victim of a rape. When he wakes her, he discovers that she has only been the victim of her own panic. Chizu has gotten her period for the first time quite late, and being motherless doesn’t understand what is happening to her body.

The introduction of Chizu leads to the male and female characters pairing off and tentatively negotiating their first sexual experiences together. The film gives a raw depiction of teenage sexuality and the peer pressure to have sex in all its awkwardness and embarrassment. Tanada foregrounds the ignorance of teenagers about the mechanics of sex and the functioning of their own bodies. Receiving little or no information from their parents and their school, the young people have to learn from each other about how things work.

By the end of the film, each of the six central teenaged characters has risen above character ‘types’ and evolved into complex characters with hidden facets. Tanada has managed to nuture some remarkably sensitive performances out of her young cast. The characters of Miné and Andou were the most nuanced depictions of teenaged boys that I have ever seen. Ini Kusano, who plays the fat boy Andou, appears to actually lose a lot of the weight for the final scenes.

During the Q&A that followed the screening, Yuki Tanada explained that she had had low expectations for the films success because of its limited release, but had been quite pleased so far with the critical response. The film has struck a particular chord with audiences in their 30s and 40s who recall their teenage years with some bitterness.

This film is due out on DVD on May 22nd in Japan. Links are provided below for other films by Yanada that are available on DVD. The original manga for this film is also availabe.

Oretachi ni Asu wa Naissu / Japanese Movie

Director: Yuki Tanada (タナダユキ)
Based on a manga by: Akira Sasō (さそうあきら)
Screenplay: Kōsuke Mukai (向井康介)
Cinematography: Yutaka Yamazaki (山崎裕)

Tokio Emoto (柄本時生)as Hiruma (比留間)
Yūya Endō (遠藤雄弥)as Miné (峯)
Ini Kusano (草野イ二)as Andou aka An-pai (安藤 aka 安パイ/Boobs)
Sakura Andō (安藤サクラ)as Chizu (ちづ)
Ayame Misaki (水崎綾女)as Akie (秋恵)
Miwako (みわこ)as Tomono (友野)
Dankan(ダンカン)as Chizu’s father(ちづの父)

Yuki Tanada Filmography

2001 The Mole (モル)
2004 Takada Wataru: A Japanese Original (タカだワタル的, documentary)
2004 Moon and Cherry (月とチェリー)
2005 Sakuran (さくらん, screenplay only)
2007 Hatsuko’s World (赤い文化住宅の初子)
2008 Aoi Yū X Yottsu no Uso: Camouflage (蒼井優×4つの嘘 カムフラージュ, TV drama)
2008 One Million Yen & the Nigamushi Woman (百万円と苦虫女)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

21 April 2009

Digista Vol. VII

Collections of short animation at film festivals are usually hit or miss affairs. This is particularly true when the assembled films are all by students or first time animators. Not so in the case of Digista, which is sponsored by the NHK. The assembled shorts which screened at Nippon Connection on Friday were all of a very high quality.

Digista is an abbreviation of ‘Digital Stadium’. The name of the program is slightly misleading because the films are not necessarily produced digitially. Rather the forum for screening (television) is digital. The films actually represent a wide range of animation styles including watercolour, cel, puppet, pixilation, and CG.

Speaking to producer Hiroko Namba of Directions (producers of Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Time of Eve, among other projects), at the festival I learned about the process by which the Digista films are chosen. First a ‘curator’ is selected. The curators are already established artists. First time animators are then invited to send their work in to the curator for consideration. The curator then selects the best work for screening. The Digista films are screened on Saturday night at midnight on BS2 and repeated Monday night at 1am and Friday at 11pm on BShi. They can also be screened on the NHK website and on Youtube.

The Digista program has an excellent track record for discovering new talent. Previous animators featured on the program include Richiro Mashima, who has had viral video success on the internet with his film Ski Jumping Pairs (2002) and this year’s Oscar winner Kunio Kato whose film Around appeared on the program.

Digista Vol. VII represents the best of last year’s Digista shorts. Hiroko Namba was very interested in collecting feedback from the audience that she could take back to the animators. This included polling the audience about their favourites. I learned from her after the screenings that the curators had selected a ‘best of the best’ for a special prize. The winner was Masanori Okamoto (岡本 将徳) for his film Mending a Puncture (パンク直し).

Mending a Puncture is a very interesting film for its turning of a mundane event, the repair of a bicycle tire, into something extraordinary. Apparently he spent a month observing workers in a bicycle repair shop so that he could get the detail just right. The result is a technically brilliant animation.

My personal favourite film was Taijin Takeuchi (竹内 泰人)’s The Wolf Loves Pork (オオカミはブタを食べようと思った). It is a very complicated stop motion animation that involved animated photographs inside a room. The photos feature a boy in a wolf costume and a model of a pig. The photos themselves depict a scene shot outside, but the photos themselves occupy and interior location (an average apartment). As the photos multiply, a scenario is animated in which the wolf boy chasing the pig. Takeuchi has done a remarkable job in matching exterior shots to the interior shots. For example, the pig is shown in the photos to be escaping down a flight of stairs, while in the interior space he is descending from the table to the floor (see image above) . Another great match is when the photographs reach the kitchen sink. The wolf boy in the photos swims across a pool, while the ‘photo’ of him floats across the water in the sink. It really is a film that defies description and must be seen to be believed. An exceptionally creative animation.

Another animator who impressed me with his innovation was Sho Yamaguchi (山口 翔) whose film Trip takes us on the self-reflexive journey on an artist whose sketches transform from line drawings into 3D-CG figures around the city. The film cleverly combines elements of cel animation, pixilation and computer animation with a great storyline to boot. The most memorable for me was the 3D-CG whale floating over the city street.

Other great films included two by Hiroco [sic.] Ichinose (一瀬 皓コ) who does humorous animations which reminded me of the films of Koji Yuri and Taku Furukawa. Tomoyoshi Joko (上甲 トモヨシ)’s film Buildings was also very amusing. K oshi Shimada (嶋田 晃士) and Shunsuke Saito (斎藤 俊介) had some impressive surrealistic works. Sonoko Yamada (山田 園子)’s film Wash used watercolour paintings washed out by sponges in a mesmerizing way. Yumika Koide (小出 悠美香)’s puppet animation Give and Take (持ちつ持たれつ) was also excellently done and reminded me of the early films of Tomoyasu Murata (who apparently is also a curator this year).

I am going to have to watch Shuichi Nishikoji (西小路 修一)’s film Sho-chan’s Summer (しょーちゃんの夏休み) again, because I was distracted by it’s lack of a soundtrack and did not fully appreciate the film. Hiroko Namba informed me that this was artist’s intention, but as there are often technical snafus at Nippon Connection I didn’t realise this until the film ended. Namba also told me that Nishikoji made this, his first animation, at the age of 65. He has had a career as an illustrator, which would explain the high quality of the cel animation.

All of these films and more are available for viewing on the NHK's website here, so check them out!

Films Screened at Nippon Connection:

ha・P ( 4’05, Hiroco ICHINOSE)
BUILDINGS (5’44, Tomoyoshi JOKO)
WASH (2’30, Sonoko YAMADA)
KARERAHA (6’47, Kiminori ITO)
YUME (2’26, Shunsuke SAITO)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

17 April 2009

Serial Dad (小森生活向上クラブ, 2008)

Ikki Katashima’s directorial debut film Serial Dad (小森生活向上クラブ/ Komori seikatsu kōjō kurabu, 2008) had it’s first screening outside of Japan at Nippon Connection last night. It is a black comedy along the lines of Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Harmer, 1949) and Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), but with the quirky fantasy mixed with unease found in many recent Japanese films like Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2006).

Serial Dad tells the story of a salaryman called Komori (Arata Furita) who is stuck in middle management and bored with his life. This is visually portrayed by him fiddling over the fried egg breakfast his wife has prepared for him at home, as well as his ambivalent attitude towards his family and co-workers.

On a train ride home one day, the woman standing behind him loudly complains to her friend that he is a chikan (someone who gropes women on crowded trains). The next day, when he sees her doing the same thing to another innocent man, his blood boils and he fantasizes about pushing her in front of an on-coming train. This fantasy leads to a comical nightmare in which the woman, drenched in blood, crawls up from the railway tracks and taunts him in the style of the ghosts of old Mizoguchi movies. The dream ends with a figure of Jesus (inspired by the Christian messages Komori regularly sees posted on walls about town) hands him a gun with which to finish the woman off.

This success leads to Komori regaining his appetite for his wife’s heavy breakfasts and being more pleasant and in-charge at work. It also leads to him fantasizing about becoming a Clint Eastwood-style vigilante in a direct spoof of the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976). Soon, his fantasy life becomes reality, as Komori begins to knock off people whom he feels are making the lives of others worse. With each success, Komori’s sex life with his wife improves, his family life improves, and his cheerfulness and industriousness at work increases.

Komori’s efforts begin to spiral out of control as one after another, more work colleagues discover his mission and join in his efforts. They form the Komori saviour and execution club, known as “Komori seikatsu kōjō kurabu” (Komori’s Social Betterment Club), which is the original Japanese title of the film. At about three quarters of the way into the film, it becomes clear that the director is faced with the dilemma of how to end the film. On the one hand, the audience has grown to love the Komori character with his affable charm, but on the other hand he has taken justice into his own hands and become a serial killer. In Kind Hearts and Coronets and Monsieur Verdoux, the eventual end for the main protagonist is inevitable, but in Serial Dad there are so many elements of fantasy that other possibilities are opened up by the script. I will not spoil the ending here, suffice to say that I found it a bit disappointing. However, the film is well worth watching for its comic charm and send-ups of American action movies.

Komori Seikatsu Kojo Club / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

16 April 2009

Tokyo Sonata (トウキョウソナタ , 2008)

The premiere film at Nippon Connection in Frankfurt am Main last night was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s critically successful film of last year, Tokyo Sonata. It tells the story of Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), a salaryman in his late 40s who suddenly loses his job but out of shame cannot bring himself to tell his family. Instead he pretends to go to work each day, when in actual fact he is looking for work and lining up to get a free charity lunch with other jobless and homeless men.

While the film is very timely with the current recession, the story is based on the situation in Japan in the late 1980s when the economic bubble burst and many salarymen found themselves living on the streets or doing menial jobs to get by. The original screenplay was written by an Australian Max Mannix but was rewritten by Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka. At last night’s screening, producer Yukie Kito said that the original story focused on the relationship between the Sasaki and his youngest son Kenta (Kai Inowaki). Kurosawa expanded the roles of Sasaki’s wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and elder son Taka (Yu Koyanagi).

Critics have seen this family drama as a departure for Kurosawa, who is better known for his horror films like Cure (1997) and Kairo (Pulse, 2001). However, Kurosawa has shifted the horror from an externalized force to an internalized one. The horror that Sasaki faces is not only the realization that he has no skills with which to find another job but that he risks losing his authoritarian role at home due to his own hypocrisy. His wife faces the horror of realizing that after dedicating her whole life to being a housewife and mother, she may need to start all over again on her own. Their sons face the horror of realizing the fallibility of their father. Kenta’s grounding is also shattered by his loss of respect for his school teacher.

The film gets its name from the piano sonata played by the young son at the end of the film. As in a sonata, each character in the film elaborates upon the main theme of self-discovery and personal change. Sasaki must learn to swallow to his pride and take a lower class job, his wife must play a stronger role as a decision maker in the family, Taka joins the American military in order to find a purpose in life, and Kenta finds his path through music. Many issues are left unresolved in the film, such as the lack of communication between the family members.

This could have been a very morose film, if not for the quirky injections of humour throughout. The most enjoyable of which is a cameo appearance by Kōji Yakusho, a long-time Kurosawa collaborator, as a hapless burglar. Kanji Tsuda also puts in a tragicomic turn as Sasaki’s old school friend Kurosu, who has also lost his job and puts on the façade of the working salaryman with his constantly ringing keitai-denwa.

The look of the film is beautifully rendered. The film stock had a sepia quality about it that reminded me of art films of the 1960s and 1970s. The framing of scenes, particularly within the Sasaki family home, is beautifully done. When the family sits to meals at their Western-style table, they are usually framed through the stairs or kitchen shelves in a manner that reminds us visually how trapped they all are by their various circumstances.

Tokyo Sonata will be released by Eureka on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 22nd.

Tokyo Sonata / Japanese Movie

Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

09 April 2009

Aquatic Language (水のコトバ, 2006)

Hokkaido-born CG animator, Yasuhiro Yoshiura (吉浦康裕), has in recent months been creating a big buzz on the internet with his Time of Eve (イヴの時間) series. Most of the hype is from fans desperate to see the next episode, whose release has been delayed by several months. The episodes are not made for TV but for release onto Yahoo Japan and Crunchyroll, so the release dates are not set in stone. Yoshiura runs his own little studio, Studio Rikka, and I’m sure that the delays are probably due to the growing pains that any small indie studio goes through when they’re first starting out.

There are a lot of fans of Yoshiura’s 2006 short film Pale Cocoon ((ペイル・コクーン), but the film that really impressed me the most is Aquatic Language (水のコトバ). You can tell that it was made while Yoshiura was a film school student because he hasn’t yet learned to edit with an objective eye and the film is still a bit rough around the edges. However, these quirks are also what make the film so exciting. He’s not afraid to take risks and mix 2D and 3D animation in innovative ways. There are literal references (via text that pops up from book pages into title cards) to Jules Verne (the theme of water) and Isaac Asimov (the relationship between robots and humans) as well as visual references to silent movies (irises), avant-garde film, and 1960s art cinema.

In both theme and visual style, Aquatic Language can be seen the Time of Eve series in its infancy. The setting is the café that appears in Time of Eve and the camera and sound move back and forth between several conversations in the café in an interweaving manner reminiscent of Robert Altman in films like Nashville (1975).

Water as a metaphor for language has a long history in the English language through idioms such as “stream of thought”, “flow of conversation”, and “life in a fishbowl.” Water metaphors are also used when taking about consciousness (ie. “stream of consciousness”, “river of dreams”), another key component of the robot/humanity theme that pervades Yoshiura’s work. Water metaphors are abundant in Japanese idioms as well, but I can’t think of many in this context. Please leave a comment if you know of any. One idiom, abstractly apt is 水到りて渠成る (Mizu itarite kyonaru/ As time flows, everything falls into place).

I see Aquatic Language as a kind of experimental film in the sense that Yoshiura has used it to try out a variety of different techniques: zooms, swish pans, abrupt changes in camera distance between cuts, and so on. He also tries out applying some of his philosophical ideas in a short story. It is a bit on the heavy-handed side in this film, but in Time of Eve he has begun to demonstrate maturity as an animator in terms of both quality of image and screenwriting.

Aquatic Language appears as an extra on the DVD for Pale Cocoon, which can be ordered here. I highly recommend both films as they show the promise of an exciting young animation artist. The only unfortunate thing about this DVD is the bad English dub. The voice actors sound very amateur and the sound edit is pretty bad (changing volumes with cuts). It would have been much better if Yoshiura had gone with subtitles, as he did with Pale Cocoon, instead of a dub. The kind of an audience interested in off-beat animation like this would much rather hear the original soundtrack and have the option of subtitles in their native language. A decent fansub of Aquatic Language is out there on file-sharing and streaming sites, but I would urge fans of Yoshiura to support this independent animator by watching Time of Eve on Crunchyroll and ordering the Pale Cocoon DVD.

Pale Cocoon / Animation (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

06 April 2009

Kirschblüten (Hanami/花見, 2008)

Doris Dörrie is one of Germany’s most praised filmmakers whose career really took off in the 1980s with her comedy Männer (Men, 1985). Her films over the years (features, made-for-TV, documentaries) have been rather hit and miss. The most difficult production must have been Bin ich schön? (Am I Beautiful, 1998) when her husband, the cinematographer Helge Weindler died on location in Spain. Dörrie managed to complete the film and it was a domestic success, winning several awards. Her husband’s death also set her on the spiritual journey that was to result in her big hit of last year Kirchblüten (Cherry Blossoms/Hanami, 2008).

Kirchblüten opened at last year’s Berlinale and has been a word-of-mouth success with audiences in Germany and at festivals abroad. It tells the story of an aging Bavarian couple from Allgäu who have become distanced from their children. This distance is both emotional and physical with two of their adult children living in Berlin and their youngest son who lives in Tokyo. The wife, Trudi, played with great depth of emotion by the always radiant Hannelore Elsner dreams of one day visiting her son in Japan. Her interest in Japanese culture takes form in the shape of images of Mount Fuji and Butoh dance.

Trudi finds out that her husband Rudi has a terminal illness and tries to convince him to consider a trip to Japan, and he puts off the idea to a later date. She is able however to get him to visit their ungrateful children in Berlin, followed by a holiday on the Baltic Sea where Trudi suddenly passes away. This sets Rudi off on a course to reconnect with his wife spiritually by taking the trip to Japan by himself.

The film has been praised highly by many critics, so I feel I must step in with a more cynical point of view. I’m not a big fan of Western films and books that ‘other’ and ‘orientalize’ Japan into something that it is not. This film would have been a much more honest film about a widowed spouse’s spiritual journey to Japan. If Dörrie had made a highly subjective documentary about her discovery of Germany-based Butoh dancer Tadashi Endo (who plays himself in the film) and how her exposure to Japanese culture helped her spiritually, it would have been a more honest, heartfelt film for me. Instead, Dörrie has taken her own personal experience of grief added the plot of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (東京物語,1959) and thrown in some Butoh dance, Mount Fuji, and cherry blossoms to make it visually authentic.

When I realized that the plot has following that of Tokyo Story, I found it disingenuous that she does not credit Kōgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu’s screenplay. Dörrie has taken exclusive credit as screenwriter, when the screenplay is clearly an adaptation. At first I thought that the biggest problem with the adaptation is that Tokyo Story does not work with German family. Where Ozu’s families (I do not say Japanese families because it is an unfounded stereotype to say that Japanese people are reticent) say little and show much through gesture and facial expression, it would be rare for a modern German family to be so taciturn.

This lead to many problems with the script that detracted from the emotional content of the film. For example, while we can understand that the children are distant from their father because of his self-centredness, but why are they so cold with their mother? Not one of the three children attends the burial in their hometown, which seemed very unlikely to me. Even if she had been a nasty character, Germans are just as likely to do things for ‘saving face’ as Japanese are. Furthermore, would they really have waited at the seaside resort after her death to await the arrival of the youngest son who has to fly all the way home from Tokyo? Surely they would have returned home with the body and done all the funeral arrangements there.

The oddest moment was when the father returned home to their small town without his wife. There is a reverse shot of a neighbour who looks up and sees him and says nothing. I live in a small town in Germany, and this is highly unlikely. At the very least, she would have greeted him. She certainly would have asked about his wife’s whereabouts. This is the moment in the film when I realised that my lack of connection to the film had nothing to do with the transfer of the film from one culture to another. Japanese film critics have for decades made the mistake of categorizing Ozu as the “most Japanese” of filmmakers because of the many traditionally Japanese elements of his films (the framing of the spaces, camera in the sitting position, etc.). However, Ozu’s true genius is the universality of the themes in his films. They are about families and small communities and the complexity of relationships within these small communities.

Tokyo Story also has a female neighbour, but she talks to the couple. She’s even a bit on the nosy side. Her part is not very big, but it is very realistic and an essential part of the believability of the story. I recognized this woman. I met her likeness when living in Nishikata, Tokyo. She was the woman working at the sakana-ya (fishmonger) who would question me about the whereabouts of my children if I walked by on my own. That women knew everything about everyone in Nishikata. I see her likeness here at the bakery in Germany when they ask me about where my children are if I stop in for a sandwich on my own. She too knows everything and everyone in our small town. Ozu had an uncanny ability to create character types whom we recognise in our own day-to-day lives, and within ourselves.

So, although many fans of Kirschblüten praise the film for the profundity of its story, I feel that it is only the outer layer of the proverbial onion. This is always a danger when a filmmaker goes into a culture that isn’t their own and makes it seem deeper and more exotic than one’s own culture. For me this was summed up by the scene in which Rudi goes shopping for cabbage so that he can try to connect with his youngest son by recreating the dish his mother cooked for him when he was growing up. Yes, Japanese grocery stores can be confusing if you cannot read the labels, but who needs help finding cabbage in a Japanese grocery store? It’s not a labyrinth. The layout is very similar to grocery stores anywhere else in the word. Although there are varieties of produce that are unique to Japan, one doesn’t need to read Japanese to recognize a cabbage.

In the same way, I have yet to see a film by a Western director set in Japan that really represents the Japan that I got to know and love. It is always disappointing when Japan (or any other country) gets used as a backdrop for a Westerner who is unable to find themselves at home. Films like Kirschblüten and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation always disappoint because their Japan is beautiful and exotic but populated by one-dimensional Japanese who are not believable. Dörrie has chosen the motif of the cherry blossoms, not only for its beauty and its importance to Japanese culture, but because it is a symbol of the transiency of life. Yet, the coming of cherry blossoms in Japan is also about a coming together of people and I wish that people going to Japan would look beyond the superficial and see the depth, warmth, and diversity of the people living there. At the same time, I think that in her eagerness to portray the disconnect between the children and their parents, Dörrie did a disservice to German small towns by making Rudi and Trudi's town a one-dimensional community.

Lost in Translation / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009


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