29 June 2011

Shinsedai Cinema Festival 2011

The 3rd annual Shinsedai Cinema Festival runs from July 21st to 24th in Toronto. In addition to an exciting selection of independent feature films, the programme also features a screening of Keita Kurosaka’s masterpiece Midori-ko (2010) and the CALF Animation Special. It’s an amazing opportunity for Torontonians to see some of the best in recent indie Japanese animation.

Featured guests of the festival this year include actress and producer Kiki Sugino, star of the opening night film Hospitalité. Actor, director, comedian Devi Kobayashi will be on hand to present a double bill of his quirky comedies (Mariko Rose the Spook/ Hikari). 15-year-old film-making prodigy Ryugo Nakamura will presenting the North American premiere of his drama The Catcher on the Shore. All guests will be participating in post-screening Q&A’s and all of their films will be competing for the very first Kobayashi Audience Award.

To learn more about the indie animation in the programme, you can read my reviews of Midori-ko, its opening film Man Eater Mountain, and the CALF Animation Special.  Individual reviews for most of the films featured in the CALF Animation Special can also be found on this site.

Thursday, July 21st
Hospitalité – 7:00PM Reception
- 8:00PM Screening

Friday, July 22nd
Shirome – 7:00PM
Midori-ko (w/ Man-eater Mountain) – 9:00PM

Saturday, July 23rd
Azemichi Road – 12:00PM
Kid Commotion (w/ live sound foley) 2:30PM
Footed Tadpoles – 4:00PM
The Catcher on the Shore – 6:00PM
Wandering Home – 8:00PM

Sunday, July 24th
CALF Animation Special – 1:00PM
KanZeOn – 3:00PM
Devi Kobayashi Special – 5:00PM
Sawako Decides – 7:00PM

Japan Cuts 2011

Summer is here, which means the return of JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema to The Japan Society.  The festival runs  from July 7th to July 22nd with 32 titles and 33 screenings, including 10 co-presentations with New York Asian Film Festival. They will be presenting a wide selection of films from uplifting family fare to brooding dramas, blockbusters and thrillers. Special guests will include directors Masashi Yamamoto and Tak Sakaguchi, and actress Sora Aoi.  

The July 20th screening of Haru’s Journey, which stars legendary actor Nakadai Tatsuya, will see 50% of the proceedings go to Japan Society’s Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.

Other festival highlights include screenings of Sketches of Kaitan City (dir. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri), Into the White Night (dir. Yoshihiro Fukagawa), The Last Ronin (dir. Shigemichi Sugita), Ninja Kids!!! (dir. Takashi Miike), The Seaside Motel (dir. Kentaro Moriya), Heaven’s Story (dir. Takahisa Zeze), A Liar and a Broken Girl (dir. Natsuki Seta), Milocrorze: A Love Story (dir. Yoshimasa Ishibashi), A Night in Nude: Salvation (dir. Takashi Ishii), Toilet (dir. Naoko Ogigami), and Vengeance Can Wait (dir. Masanori Tominaga).  

I recommend seeing Mai Tominaga's  Rinco's Restaurant (食堂かたつむり, 2010), which I enjoyed at Nippon Connection this spring. 

Shokudo Katatsumuri / Japanese Movie
Here is the JAPAN CUTS line-up:
Thursday, July 7
Buddha 6:45 PM
Ringing in their Ears 9 PM

Friday, July 8
Love & Loathing & Lulu & Ayano 7 PM
Battle Royale  9:15 PM

Saturday, July 9
Gantz: The Movie, Part 1 12:30 PM
Gantz, Part II: Perfect Answer 3 PM
Ninja Kids!!! 6 PM
Yakuza Weapon 8:15 PM
+ After Party!

Sunday, July 10
Buddha 12:30 PM
Heaven’s Story 2:45 PM
Milocrorze: A Love Story 8 PM
+ Q&A with Yoshimasa Ishibashi  

Tuesday, July 12
Sword of Desperation 6:30 PM
The Last Ronin 9 PM

Wednesday, July 13

Rinco’s Restaurant 6:30 PM
Birthright (a.k.a. Umbilical Cord) 9 PM

Thursday, July 14
Rail Truck 6:30 PM
Yuki and Nina 9 PM

Friday, July 15
Toilet 6:15 PM
ThreePoints 8:30 PM*
+ Q&A with Masashi Yamamoto and Sora Aoi  

+ After Party!

Saturday, July 16

Love Addiction 2:30 PM
The Seaside Motel 4:30 PM
+ Q&A with Kentaro Moriya 

A Liar and a Broken Girl 7:15 PM
+ Q&A with Natsuki Seta  

Love and Treachery 10:30 PM

Sunday, July 17
The Knot 2 PM
Torso 4 PM
Strangers in the City 6:15 PM
A Night in Nude: Salvation 9 PM

Tuesday, July 19
Sketches of Kaitan City 6:30 PM
Control Tower 9:30 PM

Wednesday, July 20
Haru’s Journey 7 PM
+ Q&A with Masahiro Kobayashi and Reception

Thursday, July 21
Vengeance Can Wait 7 PM
Wandering Home 9 PM

Friday, July 22
Into the White Night 7 PM
+ Closing Party

28 June 2011

Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (カケラ, 2009)

It is rare to find an individual who is completely happy with themselves.  Most people, especially those without love in their lives, find themselves constantly searching for a way to improve or replace these pieces of themselves that they find lacking.  Momoko Andō’s Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (カケラ, 2009) is peopled with characters who are unhappy with their present circumstances and are looking without rather than within in order to fulfill their needs and desires.

Kakera tells the story of a college student named Haru  Kitagawa (Hikari Mitsushima of Love Exposure), who stays with her boyfriend (Tasuku Nagaoka of Moon and Cherry) despite the fact that he treats her quite badly.  One day in a café, she is approached by an older woman named Riko Sakata (Eriko Nakamura) who finds her attractive.  This awkward, yet tender scene marks the beginning of a complicated relationship between the two women which runs the gamut of emotions from warmth and affection to jealousy and confusion.  

Momoko Andō has managed to capture the fragile beauty of a romance between women with an authenticity and sensitivity rarely seen in feature films.  Each of the characters in the film has a kind of void in their lives that they try to fill with the love they have for another character and as in real life the course of these relationships never runs smooth.  Riko’s love for Haru is complicated by Haru’s unresolved feelings for her boyfriend and her own sexuality.  Haru’s boyfriend is one of those types of people who seem to always desire what he cannot have.  And Riko’s client and lover Tōko (Rino Katase) is also consumed by desires that remain only partially fulfilled.  This theme is visually represented in the film by the prosthetics that Riko designs for people who have lost body parts.  Prosthetics allow their wearers to disguise the ravages of illness or accidents that they have suffered, but they are not a permanent replacement for what has been lost.

Kakera is a film that examines female sexuality in all its ambiguities.  Riko’s love for Haru is complex.  She can be loving and kind, but she can also be possessive and jealous.  It is a brave film in many respects, though might have been even braver if Andō had included less chaste lovemaking scenes between the female protagonists.  This would have been a welcome contrast to the cold, empty sex scenes between Haru and her boyfriend that look more like rape than love-making.

The film has a feeling of authenticity about it thanks to not only the sincere performances of the actors but also the use of recognizable locations from around Tokyo, which ground the film in a very realistic, contemporary setting.  As a female spectator, I also took great delight in Andō’s use of female spaces that normally get left out of films.  There is one wonderful scene in which Haru is shot from a high angle using a public squat toilet to put a menstruation pad into her underpants.  It is an intimate moment that marks a new phase in Haru and Riko’s relationship.  This scene should not have been as surprising as it was as it’s a part of women’s everyday lives, but  startles because these moments always get omitted from films.  

 Kakera: A Piece of Our Life ( Kakera ) ( A Piece of Our Life ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - United Kingdom ] 

Kakera was adapted by Andō from the popular manga Love Vibes by Erica Sakurazawa  and was filmed beautifully by cinematographer Hirokazu Ishii.  The soundtrack was written by James Iha, the former guitarist of Smashing Pumpkins.  It is available on DVD in the UK from Third Window Films.  It is also available from cdjapan (JP only).

This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs. To read more LGBT posts from the blogathon click here.

27 June 2011

Manji (卍, 1964)

The impassioned voice of Kiyoko Kishida in the lead role of Sonoko Kakiuchi dominates the narrative of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1964 classic feature film Manji (卍, 1964). Just as in the original novel Quicksand (Manji/卍, 1928-30) by Junichirō Tanizaki, the story is told from Sonoko’s point of view to a man she refers to as “sensei”.
Sonoko is stuck in a loveless arranged marriage to Kotaro Kakiuchi (Eiji Funakoshi). The marriage is childless because Sonoko is secretly taking measures to prevent pregnancy, and she fills her empty days with art. She attends art lessons at a local women’s college. During life drawing classes, it is brought to Sonoko’s attention that she has become the subject of gossip because instead of drawing the model’s face, she has been drawing the face of beautiful fellow student Mitsuko Sido (Ayako Wakao).

Sonoko is brought to her knees by Michiko's unadorned beauty

The two women develop a friendship with each other that blossoms into a full-fledged love affair. The passion Sonoko feels for Mitsuko is so strong that she brazenly conducts the affair in her own marital bed and defies her husband’s wishes for her to end the relationship. It does not take long however for cracks to appear in what Sonoko believed to be a perfect love. She soon discovers that Mitsuko has a secret fiancé Eijiro Wakanuki (Yuusuke Kawazu), a man whose impotence leads him to behave in a jealous, irrational manner. This awkward ménage-à-trois becomes even more complicated when Mitsuko also draws Sonoko’s husband into the fray.
Michiko embraces Sonoko.

It’s a frenetic narrative that rarely stops for air as it races towards its dramatic conclusion. Set among the Osakan upper classes, we rarely see a glimpse of the city streets as the story for the most part unfolds in the interiors of the Kakiuchi home or in anonymous rented rooms. The use of interior spaces and frequent use of close-ups adds to the stifled atmosphere created by the oppressive passions of the four narcissistic lovers. The Japanese title “Manji” is the Buddhist swastika with its four arms representing each of the four lovers. Sonoko also uses Mitsuko as the model for her painting of the Goddess of Mercy, which serves an ironic function in the plot as Mitsuko turns out to be anything but merciful in the way that she skillfully manipulates her lovers.
Sonoko and Michiko's love letters.

In the wrong hands, Tanizaki’s story of obsession and jealousy could have easily been turned into a tawdry film exploiting love between women. Masumura avoids this thanks to Kaneto Shindō's poignant script and his use of highly stylized framing. Love scenes are rendered in fragments with each frame carefully composed with the elegance of an oil painting. The pureness of Sonoko's love for Michiko is emphasized through one of the few outdoor scenes in which the two women stroll through a verdant forest and pause in front of some Buddhist statues.  Throughout it all, the tremulous voice of Kyoko Kishida as Sonoko reminds us that with all the lovers’ threats of suicide at the very least one passionate woman will survive the maelstrom that is Manji

This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs. To read more LGBT posts from the blogathon click here.  This film is widely available on DVD (Fantoma in the US, Yume Pictures in the UK - who have interestingly dropped the swastika from the poster).  Click here to order from Japan (no subs).

18 June 2011

Naomi Kawase’s Genpin (玄牝, 2010)

“The valley spirit never dies. It is named the mysterious woman (genpin).” 
The valley spirit at the source of a large river ceaselessly gives birth to life and never dies out. Like the valley spirit, women are the source that gives birth to all life, and that function never ceases.
– Naomi Kawase on the words of Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu (source)

A self aware menstruating woman feels an elemental affinity with the natural world as her mood rises and falls with the cycles of the moon. This feeling grows even stronger during pregnancy when a woman feels at the height of her powers. During pregnancy a woman goes through a complex range of emotions from exhilarated delight to deep-rooted fear. The top pregnancy fear is that of the unknown: a woman asks herself if she will be able to endure the labour process and if her child will be born safe and healthy.

Unfortunately for many women, modern medicine actually increases rather than allays such fears. Despite all our advances in medicine over the centuries, modern medicine has actually distanced women from enjoying a natural childbirth. Things are not as extreme as they were when Adrienne Rich wrote about her personal experiences in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) – women are not gassed during childbirth anymore and babies are not carted off to sleep in separate rooms – but there are many practitioners of modern medicine who continue treat pregnancy and childbirth like an illness rather than a natural process.
Fit for Birth: a woman scrubbing the wall behind Dr. Yoshimura (L) / A woman chopping wood (R)

I have a rather unique perspective on Naomi Kawase’s documentary Genpin (玄牝, 2010) having experienced two very different approaches to pregnancy and childbirth. My son was born in an NHS hospital in South West England, and my daughter was born in the Red Cross Medical Centre in Hiroo, Tokyo. Although in both cases, midwives were on hand for the births, in England I felt that my hospital midwife’s advice during labour was overridden by the high-handed opinions of the hospital doctors whose insistence on speeding up the labour ended up making my first childbirth experience more traumatic than it should have been. In Japan, I was not only supported but encouraged by my doctor to have a natural birth and there were only midwives present in the delivery room. This was a deliberate choice on my part, as the first maternity hospital we had visited was a fancy, white-walled, machine filled place with English speaking nurses. I was repulsed by how impersonal it was so we instead sought out a clinic where regular working and middle class Tokyoites give birth.

Yet even the Red Cross Medical Centre with its friendly midwives is too clinical for some. In recent years, many urban mothers in Japan have been seeking out more traditional childbirth methods. Genpin tells the story of the Yoshimura Clinic in the city of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture through the perspectives of Dr. Tadashi Yoshimura himself, his staff, and the women who use his clinic. Expectant mothers from across Japan come to this clinic in order to experience a natural childbirth. Many of them are pregnant for the second time and bring with them tales of disappointment from their first experience of childbirth due to medical intervention such as induced labour. Dr. Yoshimura offers these women a place to commune with other expectant mothers and a traditional childbirth experience.

Dr. Yoshimura’s approach is based on Japanese traditional childbirth practices. Rather than prescribing rest, as many Japanese doctors do, Dr. Yoshimura encourages his patients to make their bodies prepared for birth through manual labour. Rural women in Japan traditionally continued to work in the home and in the rice fields right up into the final month of pregnancy. Dr. Yoshimura prescribes a regime of gardening, cleaning walls, and chopping wood - the latter two activities basically involves the expectant mothers doing hundreds of deep squats per day.  The idea is that by making their bodies physically fit, the women will be prepared for a safe, natural childbirth.
Back to Nature: an expectant mother gardening with Obaasan.  Obaasan says that when she was young women worked in the rice fields right up until giving birth.

The doctor is not so extreme in his belief of natural childbirth as to eschew modern medicine altogether. He still offers women reassuring glimpses of the growing child in their belly through regular ultrasounds. Yet on the day of the birth, the woman does not give birth in a cold medical facility but at home on the tatami floor, surrounded by her family including older siblings of the baby.

The naturalness of the setting is reinforced by the ease of the relationship between Naomi Kawase’s documentary camera and the pregnant women. The intimacy of her interviews with the women suggests that she has built up a relationship of trust and understanding with them and the doctor. Indeed, according to an interview with Kawase, her interest in making this documentary stemmed from her own experience of the natural birth of her son. On her first visit, she and her film crew went to meet the doctor without any cameras or equipment in order to become comfortable with each other before the filming started. (source)
The beautiful faces of the women at the Yoshimura Clinic: chopping wood (L) and moments after giving birth (R)

The women unabashedly share remarkably intimate information with her. From the details of their personal lives to allowing the film crew to record them giving birth. One woman, for example, is in the later stages of her pregnancy and struggling with the fact that her husband appears to have abandoned her. She shares these details with Kawase, but admits that she has not yet told any of the staff or other patients at the clinic because the situation is so mortifying. She even allows Kawase’s camera to follow her home as she struggles to move her heavily pregnant body, with her daughter on her back, up the hill to her home. The most awkward moments in the film come when the straying husband turns up again for the birth and is confronted with the documentary camera.

Adding to the sense of intimacy are the warm colours of the film. Kawase has achieved a soft look for the film through her use of 16mm film. This also meant that the camera could not be on all the time. A 16mm reel is only 10 minutes long and so Kawase had to judicially choose when to have the camera on. One thing that struck me about the film was the beautiful faces of the women during their pregnancy and immediately after birth. Their faces, devoid of make-up, open to the world, quietly determined to make their experience of child birth both positive and natural.

Genpin is the most beautiful documentary I have ever seen about child birth.  It is also the most informative for the way in which it records the varied experiences, hopes, and fears of the women.  Although the birthing methods might not appeal to all women, I would encourage pregnant women to watch the film for an alternative perspective on pregnancy and child birth. 

Follow Nishiakta Eiga on Facebook to find out when this film becomes available on DVD.
Other recommended works by Naomi Kawase on DVD:

16 June 2011

Clap Vocalism (人間動物園, 1962)

In many ways Yōji Kuri’s 1962 animated short Clap Vocalism (人間動物園/Ningen Dōbutsuen) is a partner film with his work Love (愛/Ai, 1963). Not only did both films, together with his short works The Chair and AOS and Tadanari Okamoto’s A Wonderful Medicine jointly win the Ofuji Award in 1965, but they also share similar themes, motifs, and animation styles. Kuri uses his characteristic illustration style in this film, but without the Japanese cloth/paper cutouts of Love.

As with Love, Clap Vocalism is based on a poem by Shuntarō Tanikawa (谷川 俊太郎, b. 1931) with music composed by Tōru Takemitsu (武満 徹, 1930-96/Pitfall, Ran). The voice actors are also the same: H. Mizushima and Kyōko Kishida (The Woman in the Dunes, An Autumn Afternoon). The film actually has two titles – one in English, the other in Japanese – which point to two important thematic concerns of the piece. The English title “Clap Vocalism” refers to the experimental style of composition used by Takemitsu in the piece. Instead of using classical composition or song, Takemitsu has composed a piece that uses the male and female voices in an animalistic manner - sometimes staccato, sometimes sustained as if moaning.

I have deliberately used the term “animalistic” because as the Japanese title “Ningen Dōbutsuen” – “Human Zoo” – indicates, the human characters in this film are pictured as caged animals. A series of scenes are presented of male/female couples in a cage. As in the film, Love, Clap Vocalism is another example of misogyny in the works of Kuri. The women are all larger and dominating the male figures. There is the motif of the man being held on a leash like a dog, beaten with a broom by the woman, a prone man being poked with an umbrella, a man in a bird cage being prodded by a stick, and so on. Female sexuality is depicted as being threatening to men. Illustrating this are a small man trapped between the exaggerated breasts of one large woman and a woman’s breasts suddenly growing in order to injure a man trapped by the bars of the cage.

The male figures bark like dogs or moan when abused by the female figures. The images are in complete harmony with the soundtrack in a way that suggests that there was a close collaboration between the composer and the animator. The film is significant for the way in which it presents a rather bleak male perspective on the changing roles of women and men in the politically turbulent 1960s.  The film won the Special Jury Prize at Annecy in 1963 and the bronze award for animation at the 1963 Biennale in Venice.

You can support this artist by purchasing his work here:

Yoji Kuri Sakuhin shu / Animation

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

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

15 June 2011

Yoji Kuri’s Love (愛, 1963)

I think that it is safe to say that Freud would have had a field day with the animated shorts of the grandfather / bad boy of Japanese alternative animation Yōji Kuri (久里洋二, b. 1928). His black, and often bawdy, sense of humour pervades the mood of most of his films.  In his 1963 film Love (愛, 1963), a big woman with prominent breasts breathily gasps the word “Ai” (Love) repeatedly as she chases a man who is much smaller than her. The woman is depicted as being so desperate for love that she even embraces trees in frustration. In contrast, the man seems repulsed by her attention and races to keep himself out of her clutches. 
Examples of the woman dominating the man in Love

In one moment, the woman clutches the man as if he were an infant or a ragdoll and he transforms into a giant drop of water in order to slip from her grasp and escape. The man also chants the word “Ai” but in a less passionate, more matter-of-fact manner. The couple play a kind of hide-and-go-seek amongst a row of trees. The woman chases the man with a net as if he were a butterfly. Once captured, she consumes him whole, only to have him come out the other end and escape again.

She chases him through a gallery lined with portraits of the man and through an empty café with identical tables. Their chants of “Ai” are sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted at top volume, increasing in tempo and desperation. The woman’s arms stretch out to an impossible length in order to grab the man again. In another scene, he stands on all fours like a doll on a leash and eats his food on the floor.
The chase grows increasingly desperate with the woman beating the man into submission with a baseball bat, reducing him to a stuttering idiot in their shared bed, and putting a leash on him and taking him on a walk. The ends with the soundtrack fading out as the man leads the woman into the horizon like a dog on a leash.

This animated short is based on a poem by Shuntarō Tanikawa (谷川 俊太郎, b. 1931) with music composed by Tōru Takemitsu (武満 徹, 1930-96). Takemitsu is perhaps best remembered today for his composition of soundtracks for the films of great directors like Akira Kurosawa (Ran, Dosdesukaden), Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes), and Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, Kaidan, Samurai Rebellion) and for his significant contributions to aesthetics and music theory. I am a fan of Takemitsu’s early experimental period, and his anti-academic Jikken Kōbō (experimental workshop) had a profound impact on the animator Yōji Kuri, who has used experimental composers like Takemitsu extensively in his films.

Examples of Kuri's use of Japanese cloth/paper in Love

The soundtrack of Love does not fall into the category of “music” in the classical sense, but in the postmodern sense of creating music using unconventional techniques and instruments. The recorded voices (H. Mizushima and Kyōko Kishida) have been distorted using a synthesizer. Sometimes the voices draw out, like a record playing at the wrong speed, or at other times they playback at pitches impossible for the human voice to attain. The tempo and volume is varied in order to create tension.

Love demonstrates the misogyny that is a prevalent theme in Kuri’s work. He frequently depicts women as either obese or having exaggerated or grotesque features. The portrayal of a large woman dominating a small, seemingly helpless man is a common motif in his work. The film unambiguously suggests a fear of female sexuality and a man’s fear of being controlled or dominated by a female partner.  Kuri emphasizes the feeling of entrapment through his use of perspective with the long labyrinthine art gallery, row of trees, and long arcade.  Kuri's depiction of "love" is claustrophobic and abusive.

Love is a fine example of Kuri’s characteristic minimalistic animation and illustration style. The characters are drawn in a clean, minimalistic style reminiscent of the work of New Yorker illustrator Saul Steinberg. Kuri’s illustration style is antithetical to the popular manga and anime styles of the day. The film is, however, given a Japanese aesthetic through Kuri’s choices of cloth and paper cut-outs: the pattern behind the title card and the pattern used on the tables in the café and on rooftops are all very typical of traditional Japanese paper and cloth patterns.

Kuri’s films Love, Clap Vocalism, The Chair, and AOS were joint winners of the Noburō Ōfuji Award in 1965 along with Tadanari Okamoto’s film A Wonderful Medicine. In fact, this review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s  2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011


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