Sarah Cronin reviews the Japanese strand of the 2010 Raindance festival. The review of Symbol is by Alex Pashby.
In past years, Raindance has always been a good place to discover independent, offbeat Japanese films, with highlights including films like Love Exposure, Kakera, Lalapipo, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and Fine, Totally Fine. But in 2010, the Japanese strand proved to be something of a disappointment, the films – with a few exceptions – lacking imagination and flair. It’s difficult to know if this has merely been a bad year for Japanese films: Tony Rayns, in his preview for Sawako Decides, which showed at the London Film Festival, describes 2010 as ‘a year in which the creativity in Japanese mainstream cinema all but curled up and died’. The same might be true for independent cinema.
There was something quite sentimental about many of the films; one of the more watchable was Lost and Found, in which the ensemble cast learn a series of lessons about love and life as their paths cross at a train station’s lost and found department. It was a tender, warm-hearted film, if a little trite. Less successful was Lunar Child. Told in three parts, it’s a film about troubled women all seeking love in some form. Despite a promising, visually interesting first sequence, in which a lonely, unhappy woman finds shelter for the night in the home of an enigmatic man with a debilitating illness, the rest of the film lacked style and creativity. Interesting stories could have been taken further: Mizuki betrays her girlfriend for a meaningless fling; Hikari, dissatisfied with her married life, provides a home and money for a boy barely out of his teens, who prefers men to girls. But the film lacked any sense of style, the storytelling was flat and lethargic, the tone, again, mawkish. This seemed to be a common problem with several of the films: a failure to match style and technical skill with ideas.
Another film that suffered from a similar problem was Yellow Kid. Although it was one of the better films in the strand, and worth seeing, it just didn’t quite hold together as a whole. The paths of a nerdy, timid comic-book artist and one of his fans, a bullied and lonely young man, cross at a boxing gym, their lives becoming intertwined, until the boxer blurs the boundaries between real life and the comic-book world of his favourite super-hero, Yellow Kid. It was a compelling story about frustration, anger and revenge, not to mention love and obsession, but there was almost too much going on, leaving the film feeling jumbled and incoherent (although it’s a good idea to watch until the very end of the credits). While it had a fantastic animated title sequence, the mix of manga and live action never quite lived up to expectations.
There was something else that struck me when watching these films – an over-reliance on a certain type of male character that seems to litter Japanese cinema. Similar to the comic-book artist, Tanishi in Boys on the Run is painfully geeky, utterly timid and a total failure with women – the only ones he really comes into contact with are prostitutes. He is the quintessential Japanese nerd, and his object of desire the usual pretty, timid young woman, who falls for the wrong man – a smooth-talking salesman at a rival company that also sells vending machine toys. The film started off feeling like a sex comedy (although women will be scratching their heads at men’s mind-boggling stupidity), but it lost its way when it turned into a coming-of-age film as Tanishi, vainly, tries to stand up for himself.
One of the more likeable films was Lost Girl, a very low-key short film that slowly draws the viewer into the story of a once-successful chef suffering from bulimia after she poisons someone at her restaurant. Instead of the gourmet French food she once prepared, she stuffs her face full of junk food, while her husband, also a chef, does everything in his power to tempt her to eat more refined fare. It was an unusual melodrama, with something charmingly subversive to it, despite its flaws.
Three very different films really stood out at the festival: Autumn Adagio, USB and Symbol. Autumn Adagio was the more grown-up of the three; a nun, on the verge of menopause, rediscovers her sense of self and the world around her when she starts to play piano at a ballet academy. It was an intimate, elegant and lovingly told (if sentimental) story, with a terrific performance from the musician Rei Shibakusa.
USB opens with a loud, incessant buzzing sound, as white light flickers on a black background. Yuichiro, a slacker in his mid-20s, decides to go to medical school after the death of his father, a doctor; a submissive girlfriend needs more attention than he’s willing to give; a demented friend goes on the run with the daughter of a local gangster, who also has a chilling hold over Yuichiro. Meanwhile, warnings of low-level radiation are broadcast to the public after an accident at a nearby nuclear power site, and soon people are being paid large sums of money for mysterious clinical trials at the local hospital, and the source of the buzzing becomes clear. It was a great mix of drama tinged with sci-fi, and a subtle re-imagining of a post-nuclear disaster.
In Symbol, a Japanese man (actor/director Hitoshi Matsumoto) in clown-like pyjamas wakes up in a big white room with no discernable exit. Meanwhile an out-of-shape Mexican wrestler prepares for a match his family fears will leave him injured. Could the two be related? After railing against his captors for a bit, the Japanese man discovers a knob in the wall, presses it and is suddenly swarmed by thousands of CGI cupids. As the cupids recede, it turns out that the knob and the now thousands just like it are in fact stylised cupid genitalia. With nothing else to do, the man presses another cupid penis, a hatch opens in an opposite wall and a random object falls out. Hundreds of presses and objects later, a door appears in a wall before disappearing again quickly. Hilarious scenes ensue, including one that gives the audience an insight into the man’s thought processes in the style of a manga (for some reason in English), as he tries to use the various objects now at his disposal to press the right penis, reach the door in time and escape. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s plays, Symbol is a very cheeky film with a great payoff, which makes the point that when it comes to what’s signified, one sign is as good as another. A definite highlight of the festival.
Sarah Cronin and Alex Pashby