Nippon Connection is now firmly established as the biggest festival of Japanese cinema held annually outside of Japan, and 2010 marked the 10th anniversary of the event with a diverse programme that ranged from major studio releases to independent films and digital video productions; the line-up included Toshiaki Toyoda’s psychedelic jidaigeki The Blood of Rebirth (2009) and Shûichi Okita’s warmly received documentary The Chef of South Polar (2009), while Momoko Ando’s Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009) maintained its festival profile en route to potential crossover success. Appropriately enough for a festival in its 10th year, the Nippon Retro strand revisited some of the highlights of the past nine years, such as Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital (2004) and Michael Arias’s Tekkon Kinkreet (2006). Festivities were sadly undermined by the eruption of a certain Icelandic volcano, although the variety of films and other events (workshops devoted to voicing animé and shiatsu massage, lectures about Japanese television drama and Haruki Murakami’s latest literary opus), not to mention the generous hospitality of the Nippon Connection team, meant that few were particularly concerned about their flight arrangements until the festival was winding down. Hopefully, some of the following films will make the move from the festival circuit to general release in the next 12 months.
A Big Gun (Hajime Ohata, 2008)
When their ironworks is threatened with closure due to a lack of clients, the owner and his brother accept a proposition from a local gangster: to manufacture 10 copies of a revolver and to deliver the weapons by a strict deadline. When they are then expected to make more guns despite not receiving payment, they take matters into their own hands. For the most part, A Big Gun is a sparse, intense examination of the financial difficulties facing businesses in small communities, and the desperate measures that some resort to in order to stay afloat, although the realism is somewhat undermined by a climactic lurch into ‘splatter film’ territory. A Big Gun was programmed alongside the altogether less focused Schneider (Yusuke Koroyasu, 2009), which explores how tensions in a small town community are accelerated when the owner of a restaurant goes missing. Schneider also features some shocking violence in its third act, and once again questions the effectiveness of law enforcement in rural areas.
Crows Zero II (Takashi Miike, 2009)
Crows Zero focused on a cast of teenage thugs whose ability to miraculously heal from even the most savage beating made it inevitable that they would all be back for a sequel that would up the ante in the brutality stakes. Genji (Shun Oguri) is now the top dog at Suzuran High School, but he has yet to fully unite all the factions, and must now face challenges from outside the institution. Takashi Miike delivers a testosterone-fuelled, youth-orientated action movie, which fully subscribes to the rule that sequels must be bigger, longer and louder – but not necessarily better – than their predecessors. With one particular fight sequence running for 27 minutes, there is little time for character development, and nominal hero Genji only manages three scenes with his love interest, the club singer played by Meisa Kuroki, between hyper-kinetic punch-ups and the navigation of plot machinations, which may not be entirely clear to those not familiar with the original manga.
Island of Dreams (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2008)
A young man works on Dream Island, an artificial wasteland in Tokyo made entirely of trash, and becomes a terrorist bomber. A police detective is assigned the task of tracking him down, and struggles to grasp the motivations for his crimes. Clearly influenced by the thrillers that Seijun Suzuki churned out in an almost unbelievably prolific manner in the 1960s, Island of Dreams is a rare Pia film that works as a genre exercise rather than as a social statement. The police procedural dialogue is leaden, and this is yet another thriller where the detective cracks the case by using Google and proceeds to provide exposition by reading from his laptop screen, but Island of Dreams excels when it is on the move; a foot chase through crowded city streets that takes in an underground club and the climactic race against time are both superbly handled.
Kaiji (Toya Sato, 2009)
Kaiji is a noncommittal job-hopper who lives month-to-month with little concern for his long-term financial security. When he suddenly finds himself burdened with a debt of two million yen due to the non-payment of a loan that he casually co-signed for a friend, Kaiji is forced to play a high-risk game onboard a cruise ship to try and clear it. It’s an ingenious premise, one that recalls the sinister escapism of David Fincher circa The Game (1997) and comments on current economic conditions in recession-hit countries where people are paying the price for taking out ‘easy’ credit. Unfortunately, Kaiji is undermined by an irritating central performance by Tatsuya Fujiwara, which makes the titular protagonist pathetic rather than emphatic, while Yuki Amani is merely window-dressing as the initially icy, ultimately sympathetic credit collector. An over-reliance on fast edits and swirling camera movements makes Kaiji an unfortunate case of a neat idea undermined by erratic execution.
Miyoko (Yoshifumi Tsubota, 2009)
Shinichi Abe became a well-known manga artist in the early 1970s due to his stories in Garo magazine, expressionistic portraits of doomed relationships that mirrored his own partnership with Miyoko, his regular model and later girlfriend and wife. This quasi-biopic of Abe represents the continuation of two trends in Japanese cinema: films about artists, either real or fictionalised, and films about long-suffering wives who stay with men who leave them unfulfilled. Miyoko moves at the same measured pace as Takeshi Kitano’s superficially similar Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), but is more lurid in tone and, by the time that Abe has acknowledged his schizophrenia, the audience probably feels as far removed from him as his strangely devoted spouse. The hermetically sealed world of Miyoko may not be particularly easy to engage with, but the film effectively blurs the real with the imagined as comic book panels fade in and out and the dual identities of Abe and Miyoko are emphasised through graphic re-enactments of the narratives that were published in Garo.
Oh, My Buddha! (Tomorowo Taguchi, 2008)
Jun is a first-year student at an all-boys Buddhist high school, who is more interested in listening to Bob Dylan and writing songs than he is in studying. He travels with two friends to the island of ‘free love’ for his summer vacation, hoping to lose his virginity, but things do not quite go to plan, and on his return to school he still struggles to break free of his middle-class constraints. Tomorowo Taguchi’s second feature is ostensibly a teen sex comedy, but Oh, My Buddha! is actually a much more culturally acute coming-of-age movie, mainly due to its copious references to pop culture; there are comparisons to Dylan ‘going electric’ as Jun listens backstage as a raucous rock ‘n’ roll group excite the crowd gathered in the high school gym, and realises that his heartfelt folk songs need more of an edge if he is going to compete. It is not clear whether the title refers to the three men who mentor Jun at various stages (his hippie tutor, the proprietor of the youth hostel, his father) or the counter-culture figure of Dylan that he worships, but Oh, My Buddha! is a genuine crowd-pleaser that blends brisk pacing with warm nostalgia.
One Million Yen Girl (Yuki Tanada, 2008)
Lightweight but likable, One Million Yen Girl finds writer-director Yuki Tanada following previous festival successes Moon and Cherry (2004) and Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008) with the story of Suzuko, a 21-year-old who moves from town to town, trying to conceal the fact that she has served a short jail sentence for a minor offence. Suzuko lives and works in each town until she has saved up one million yen (the amount needed for rent, deposit and fees in her next temporary home), and tries to avoid forming attachments to those she encounters. The irony of One Million Yen Girl is that, for all her moving around, Suzuko finds much the same experience in each town; a mundane job, the discovery of some ‘hidden’ talent, and a potential boyfriend. Tanada’s humour is mostly of an observational nature, although there is a hysterical scene in which a town council demands that Suzuko become their ‘peach girl’ and represent the community in an advertising campaign. Yû Aoi is almost defiantly low-key in the title role, building on her turn as a pizza-girl-turned-recluse in Bong Joon-ho’s segment of Tokyo (2008), and convincingly conveying the burden of a young woman who feels that she has brought shame to her immediate family.
Toad’s Oil (Kôji Yakusho, 2009)
Kôji Yakusho directs himself as Takuro, a private trader who takes great delight in earning – and even in losing – vast sums of money on the stock exchange, but has become somewhat disconnected from his family. When his son Takuya falls into a coma due to a collision with a van, Takuro learns about his offspring’s life through the history in his mobile phone. Making contact with his son’s girlfriend, Takuro keeps the youthful romance alive through a series of conversations and deceptions. Just as the film seems to be playing as an extended advert for the benefits of cellular technology, Toad’s Oil embarks on a wayward road trip when Takuya passes away and Takuro and his son’s best friend Saburo make the journey to Mount Fear to lay his remains to rest. There is a great running joke about the amount of money that Takuro pays in taxes, and the patriarch’s encounter with a black bear is also fitfully amusing. The more contemplative moments do cause pacing problems, but Toad’s Oil is a heartfelt directorial debut that offers some rich insight into Japanese familial life amid the occasional indulgences.
Zero Focus (Isshin Inudo, 2009)
In 1957, the naÃ¯ve Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue) enters into an arranged marriage with Kenichi, a Tokyo-based employee of an advertising agency. Seven days after their wedding, Kenichi takes a business trip to Kanazawa, his previous posting, but when he does not return, Teiko becomes suspicious and launches her own investigation. Upon arrival in Kanazawa, Teiko encounters two other women who may hold the key to her husband’s disappearance; Sachiko (Miki Nakatani), the socially prominent supporter of a female candidate for the role of mayor, and Hisako (Tae Kimura), a company receptionist who was appointed despite lacking the required qualifications. It is debatable as to whether this second adaptation of Seicho Matsumoto’s novel (following the 1969 film by Yoshitaro Nomura) is entirely necessary, although this latest cinematic incarnation of Zero Focus is impeccably crafted; the story may deal with a particular period in Japanese history, but its cinematic reference points are Douglas Sirk and Hollywood dramas aimed at a largely female audience. The lead actresses are uniformly excellent, with Nakatani offering a chilling portrait of rural royalty and Hirosue subtly conveying Teiko’s shift from optimism to disillusionment.