Thoughts – The Coil Bits
At the end of the decade, the Japanese Film Festival presents films of all sizes that pave the way for the future.
As we come to a close on the cusp of another ten years of Japanese cinema, the 23rd Japanese Film Festival in Australia marks a resurgence in international recognition of Japan’s idiosyncratic charms.
After all, this is a time when Hirokazu Kore-eda Shoplifters (2018) saw the first Japanese Palme d’Or since that of Shohei Imamura eel (1997), while Makoto Shinkai your name (2016) crossed demographic boundaries.
Thinking back to JFF 2010 – which saw 7,700 people and sold-out sessions such as Hanamizuki, confession (now cult) and The top – the decade promised an assortment of cinematic discoveries. write for METRO magazine the following year about the 2011 festival (in a piece called ‘Laughter on the Road to Recovery’), I noted that the festival’s many comedies could be “considered part of the international healing process following of the devastating March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.” Over the next eight years, Japanese cinema became a bit more introspective.
Think local, act local
So the last Japanese Film Festival of the 2010s followed this broader trend of Japanese cinema, something from James Hadfield of Japan time called it a “closed country cinema”. It has become more common to adapt existing television or manga properties, ones that may not translate outside the confines of FujiTV, TBS, or the Akihabara and Ikebukuro billboards.
For example this year, the adaptations of kakegurui, Masquerade Hoteland the pseudo-commercial Brave Father Online – Our Final Fantasy XIV Story. kakeguruifor example, has already proven itself in the Japanese market (and overseas) as a manga, anime series, and live-action drama series, so the film does a great job “recreating reactions and textual styles which should really only work on the page or in the animation. Masquerade Hotel is based on a series of bestselling Japanese novels, while Final Fantasy is a series of video games since 1987.
Yet some films also take a distinctly introspective approach. NOISE (ノイズ) flips the script on the tourist hub of Akihabara, with first director Yusaku Matsumoto showcasing a darker side to the electric town as she explores three young people trying to get by several years after the massacre of ‘Akihabara in 2008.
Take me to Saitama, based on the manga by Mineo Maya, is “the most Japanese of Japanese films” due to the large number of in-jokes and cultural references, the people who will get the most out of it will undoubtedly be the locals or the people who spend a lot of time in Tokyo. Or maybe those of us who love his cinema.
little love songs
‘Little’ and ‘love’ were the hallmarks of several films screened this year. In fact, at least two of them had the word in the title!
Little nights, little love and just love were two films offered by rising star independent filmmaker Rikiya Imaizumi, both of which deal with love and city life in a low-key way. Little nights, little love has a short, hyperlinked narrative that explodes the idea of relying on giant signs to change your life, focusing instead on the informal interactions between people. Or, as one character puts it, “Don’t bash the cogs.” Similarly, Shô Miyake And your bird can sing focuses not so much on an overarching narrative as on depicting floating lives as they intersect and interact in this contemporary adaptation of a modern classic novel.
The other “small” film is that of Kojiro Hashimoto little love song, a conscious assault on the tear ducts manages to win over through an enthusiastic cast and a catchy set of soft rock songs. It also takes place against the backdrop of a US Army base, continuing the theme of very regional issues specific to Japan. Other Musicals J.K. Rock and Dance with Me are less overtly political, alternately recounting the fictional origins of a real band that formed from a fake (get it?) and charming our pants with their old-school dance numbers.
Not all independent films were equally popular, and two films in particular consciously challenged audiences. Melancholy is a solid debut from Seiji Tanaka, shot on a 3 million yen (or less than US$28,000) cobbled together and managing to surprise us through multiple twists that push our notions of morality. Yet it is that of Shinzo Katayama Cape Siblings this might be too uncomfortable for many viewers, as it’s about a woman with an intellectual disability who is repeatedly pimped by her brother. The conversations I’ve had about this have been divisive.
From love to friendship, Rent a friend deals with the (very real) premise of Friends for Hire in Japan and puts this quirky rom-drama on the right foot, but even the short length can’t stop this from getting back on the rom-com track very quickly. SAINT☆ YOUNG MEN 2nd century shows the ultimate friendship: Jesus and Buddha. Continuing the adventures of the divine duo (played by Kenichi Matsuyama and Shota Sometani) living in modern Tokyo, including a pilgrimage to Akihabara and an extension of the two-handed low-fi into a small room we’ve seen in their previous work.
kingdom of hits
At the other end of the scale Kingdom (another manga adaptation) played out as a large-scale action-adventure that’s timed for wider appeal. In fact, Funimation is planning a summer 2020 screening in North America, and it’s not hard to imagine there’s a market for a movie from the director of Gantz, Bleach and Inuyashiki.
samurai joysticks is a deceptively large film, filled with a stellar cast and meticulous production design to make this semi-comic adaptation of Akihiro Dobashi’s novel better than the average bear.
Meanwhile, with Ride your wavedirector Masaaki Yuasa (read on the wall, Devilman Crybaby, and the sublime The night is short, step on the girl ) makes a (mostly) grounded romantic comedy. What’s even more surprising is how well it works, and I don’t mind saying that I had a lump in my throat for much of it.
Always animated, Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire is the twenty-third (!) film released in the long-running anime and film series based on the Case closed manga. There’s a tendency to think that if you’re invested at this point, you’re unlikely to quibble much now.
So if I had to narrow down all of these movies to a personal Top 5, I’d probably tell you to check out my Letterboxd account. Failing that, here’s a list in some sort of order:
An honorable mention is A banana? At this time of night?, a movie title I’ve been obsessed with since I saw the poster on AsianWiki last October. Yuko Hakota’s first movie blue hour announces the arrival of a strong new voice on the scene in a story that examines whether you can really go home.
A path to the future
With social media and think pieces constantly telling us about the incursion of blockbusters, the Japan Film Festival is a timely reminder that there are plenty of opportunities to see independent Asian cinema if you’re looking for it. Indeed, the big cities have a new movie showing almost every week.
With 30 films, the JFF is quite a far cry from the 3 free films it screened in the mid-1990s. Yet even this expanded list can’t cover everything. There are a few choices – including Mika Ninagawa more human and Makoto Nagahisa We are little zombies (who played MIFF) – which I would have loved to see released locally.
Nevertheless, there are so many new favorites that have been found this year. Throughout 2019, The Reel Bits covered several festivals – from the local Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival – not to mention the more specific international festivals like Japan Cuts from New York and the Asian Film Festival from New York. The Japanese Film Festival can proudly sit alongside these programs as not only one of Australia’s top festivals, but one of the strongest and oldest festivals in the world. We look forward to 2029 and beyond.
You can see all of The Reel Bits coverage here on our JFF 2019 stream. The Reel Bits proudly keeps Asia front and center throughout the year.