The second Shinsedai Cinema Festival, co-programmed by Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye and Chris Magee of Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, presented another exciting selection of films this year. As part of the festival’s aim to showcase the work of a diverse ‘new generation’ of filmmaking talent, many of the big features were preceded by short films. The festival also debuted the Jishu Eiga (self-made film) Room where festival-goers could watch a selection of experimental animation and indie films by Kazuhiro Goshima, Yu Katsumata, and Yuki Kawamura.
The opening event, attended by Deepa Mehta, followed in the footsteps of Raindance and Nippon Connection in putting a focus on young women directors. Momoko Ando’s much talked about Kakera: A Piece of Our Life was preceded by Akino Kondoh’s animated short Ladybird’s Requiem. Kondoh’s animation is an extension of her work as an artist and manga-ka: the central character Eiko carefully sews red buttons onto her dress, symbolising the ladybirds with whom she has a complex relationship. The animation is made up of approximately 3,000 images, hand-drawn using graphite and marker. The stark contrast of black, white and red is striking, and was the most memorable of the festival (Kondoh’s eye-catching 2004 painting Red Fishes was used as Shinsedai’s poster art for 2010).
Ladybird’s Requiem was not the only example of Japanese ‘art animation’ – as non-animé animation is called colloquially in Japan – at the festival this year. Dome Animation featured work by students of the Tokyo experimental film and animation school Image Forum with Nasuka Saito’s A Labyrinth of Residence, which shows the influence of her mentor Takashi Ito, being a real stand-out. In addition, a special programme of puppet animation shorts by Kihachiro Kawamoto (who passed away on 23 August), which Jasper Sharp presented throughout the UK in 2008, was also screened. As the grandfather of puppet animation in Japan, Kawamoto may not fit the profile of a ‘new-generation’ filmmaker, but his work has served to introduce ancient Japanese storytelling and puppet traditions in a modern format to younger generations in Japan.
Other short films of note included Jellyfish Boy, Shoh Kataoka’s touching exploration of childhood friendship and sexuality. Hiroshi Iwanagi surprised with his award-winning film That’s All. It was remarkable that such a young male filmmaker, who also wrote the screenplay, could reproduce with such raw emotion the myriad of conflicting desires and emotions that an adolescent girl goes through in the course of a day. On the surface, the central protagonist does ‘nothing’ with her summer holiday, but this film charts the course of her internal journey through puberty. In stark contrast to the more serious short film fare, comedian Shaq’s Gunman Champion was a hilarious episodic ride following the adventures of a ‘Mexican’ bandit. There were nods throughout the film to slapstick silent comedy Ã la Buster Keaton, Spaghetti Westerns, The Matrix and more.
Another nod to silent cinema came with the screening of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1933 film The Water Magician with live accompaniment by psychedelic, experimental band Vowls. The Water Magician would normally be screened with a live benshi (narrator) performance, and the brevity of the Japanese title cards suggest that it was edited with such a narration in mind. In place of this, Vowls performed a variety of instruments, including electric guitar, keyboards, harmonium, and a wide range of percussive instruments, which emphasised the emotional impact of the film. Brendan Hocura composed some themes specifically for the film, and many moments such as the knocking at doors were scripted into their music. Although they did prepare a skeletal framework for the film, much of the performance was improvised, with Naomi Hocura singing in a wordless, haunting fashion during some of the more lyrical passages of the film. It was a unique cinematic experience that seamlessly connected this almost 80-year-old film with a contemporary audience.
The real core of Shinsedai were the Canadian premieres of independent features by young directors who have been making waves at Raindance, Nippon Connection and Japan Cuts in the past year. Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s Island of Dreams makes for fun viewing for fans of Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku with its tongue-in-cheek visual and plot references to the director’s favourite films. Yasunobu Takahashi’s Locked Out uses Pulp Fiction-esque dream sequences to lead the audience astray as to the true nature of his main protagonist’s character. Naito Takatsugu’s The Dark Harbour weaves a delicate blend of comedy and tragedy to depict the lonely life of a fisherman who dreams of having a wife and family. With Our Brief Eternity, Takuya Fukushima uses a science fiction plot as a device to examine the fabric of human love and relationships, and Kota Yoshida’s Yuriko’s Aroma is an unusual black comedy that explores the fine line between normal and dangerous desires. The Toronto Premiere of Marie Miyayama’s The Red Spot was also a big hit with its touching story of a young woman trying to come to terms with her tragic family history.
The two most powerful films of the festival were Gen Takahashi’s Confessions of a Dog and Tokachi Tsuchiya’s award-winning documentary A Normal Life, Please! Both films bravely confront institutionalised corruption in Japan despite the grave risks to the directors’ own personal well-being. Confessions of a Dog is a three-hour epic of Shakespearean proportions that follows the downward spiral of Takeda, played by character actor Shun Sugata, from idealistic police recruit to corrupt detective. The film unravels the intricate web of corruption in Japanese society implicating everyone along the way from the Japanese CID to judges, politicians and even the press, and its general release was blocked in Japan because of its sensitive content. It positions itself as a modern-day Monsieur Verdoux, with the main protagonist even breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly.
Company corruption is the theme of Tsuchiya’s A Normal Life, Please! which follows the story of cement truck driver Nobukazu Kaikura as he tries to get better working conditions for himself. There are two arcs in the story: the first is Kaikura’s fight for ‘a normal life’, and the second is that of the documentary filmmaker who goes from being an accidental tourist filming evidence for the union to having an active interest in Kaikura’s well-being and in the rights of the common worker. As a testament to this, during the Q&A following the screening Tsuchiya remarked that it was the first time he had ever been punched in the face during the making of a film. An excellent documentary in a style reminiscent of the best work of former NFB filmmaker Michael Rubbo.
Guests on hand at Shinsedai included Momoko Ando, Akino Kondoh, Shaq, Gen Takahashi, Yasunobu Takahashi and Tokachi Tsuchiya. The guests were warmly receptive to audience questions and feedback, which contributed to the convivial atmosphere of the festival. The four feature filmmakers present participated in a ‘master class’ entitled ‘Jishu Eiga: How Independent Japanese Filmmakers Challenge Cultural Imperatives of the Established Japanese Film Industry’, which was hosted by the Canadian Film Centre.
Catherine Munroe Hotes