Zipangu Fest was created by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp to challenge yakuza-and-Godzilla clichés about Nippon cinema and with a programme that encompassed 60s experimental cinema, horror underground animation, new and old features as well as documentaries about subjects ranging from a mysterious porn actress to graffiti and Japanese rock, the inaugural edition of the festival easily succeeded. One of the best things about the festival was that, unlike so many bigger festivals, it wasn’t just a more or less random programme of recent feature films, but many of the screenings were carefully curated events around a theme or a specific type of film. This curatorial attention and the impressive knowledge Sharp and his team have of little-known, fascinating areas of Japanese cinema made the festival a very special and hugely enjoyable event, despite some technical problems.
Sarah Cronin, Virginie Sélavy, Tom Mes, Helen Mullane and Pamela Jahn report on the programme and feature highlights of the festival.
Zipangu Fest Opening Night
I fell in love with PyuuPiru. It was a cold November night in London’s Brick Lane, and I was huddled up on a leather sofa in Café 1001 for the opening of Zipangu Fest. The event promised to be an evening full of fascinating, unknown films, and the programme easily exceeded expectations.
Before my introduction to PyuuPiru 2001-2008 (2009), there was Suridh Hassan’s RackGaki (2008), a visually arresting film devoted to Japanese graffiti. Made by London’s SRK Studios, it uses time-lapse photography and a trip-hop soundtrack to totally immerse the viewer in Japan’s street scene. The audience was also treated to a selection of shorts, involving a house party filled with weird and wonderful creatures in Dotera Asayama’s PsychoMediaParty (2007); a hideous, red claymation creature hunting down a poor little girl in Takena Nagao’s Bloody Night (2006); a boy who is visited by a carp in Taijin Takeuchi’s 2010 A Song Like a Fish (I recommend watching his terrific stop-animation short A Wolf Loves Pork on YouTube); and a samurai film made in Tunbridge Wells, Taichi Kimura’s Spiral (2010).
But the night’s highlight was PyuuPiru, an irresistible, moving portrait of a unique and eccentric artist whose personality is deeply intertwined with his art, directed by friend and collaborator Daishi Matsunaga. Matsunaga and PyuuPiru met when the future artist was making his own flamboyant outfits for the club scene, and this superb documentary charts his artistic and psychological evolution. The film perfectly captures PyuuPiru’s creative process – a dress-like cone made of thousands of paper cranes is incredible – but the documentary also captures a physical and mental transformation. Uncomfortable living as a man, PyuuPiru starts hormone therapy, eventually taking ever-more drastic steps to turn himself into a woman after falling in love with a straight man, until plastic surgery becomes a part of his art and personality. Despite the pain he puts himself through, he remains a generous, warm-hearted and incredibly charismatic artist. Daishi’s film is a work-in-progress, and it will be fascinating to see what direction he and PyuuPiru take next. Sarah Cronin
Nippon Year Zero
The previous night, as a pre-opening night warm-up event, Zipangu had presented a programme of 60s experimental Japanese cinema in collaboration with Close-Up at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Transformed into a makeshift cinema with a projector whirring at the back of the room, it was the perfect setting for an evocation of a turbulent, volatile time of political unrest and intense creativity. The selection of films by Donald Richie, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masanori Oe was meant to establish a dialogue between Japan and the USA, with Richie providing an American viewpoint on Japan, and Oe articulating a Japanese perception of American society. The differences between the films were not merely down to nationality, but also style: Richie’s poetic, meditative filmmaking was contrasted with the frantic editing, experimental use of sound and image, and sensory overload of Jonouchi and Oe’s films.
In War Games (1962), Richie wordlessly follows the actions of a group of small Japanese boys who find a goat, crafting a visual tale of cruelty and innocence framed by the eternal ebb and flow of the ocean. Opening with a quote from a poem by Mutsuro Takahashi, Dead Youth (1967) was a homoerotic cine-poem set in a Japanese cemetery, in which Richie’s almost tactile filmmaking, with its focus on physical textures – skin, fur, hair, sand – was developed in a more sexual manner.
This was followed by Jonouchi’s chaotic, kinetic Shinjuku Station (1974), which evoked the district at the centre of Tokyo’s art scene and political rebellion through a fast, shaky montage of various images of the area – the station, protests, the police, etc – accompanied by the filmmaker reciting sound poetry. Later, this frenzy of tumultuous images and sounds gives way to longer shots of nature before the screen goes black and the film ends with a long, purely musical section. In Gewaltopia Trailer (1978), Jonouchi juxtaposes images of mushroom clouds, children running, Hitler, a political rally and student demonstrations with scenes from King Kong and Nosferatu, and images of words (in Japanese) inscribed on parts of an actor’s naked body. The remarkable soundtrack mixes voices talking and moaning with drones, rattling noises and blowing wind, creating an oppressive, unnerving, sinister atmosphere that connects and unites the images.
The last film on the bill, Oe’s Great Society (1967), was an ambitious split-screen piece that investigated American society through six simultaneous strands of images. News footage showing the Kennedy assassination, civil rights demonstrations, Ku Klux Klan members, fast cars, American sports, festivals, a rocket launch, Vietnam and mushroom clouds, among other things, was compiled to a soundtrack of iconic 60s musicians including The Byrds, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane. The six screens interacted and contrasted with one another, sometimes forming a united picture, sometimes divergent ones, with some of the screens at times left blank, creating a complex, contradictory and dynamic picture of the USA in that crucial decade. Virginie Sélavy
Live Tape ‘Live’ Night
Zipangu’s rock night on November 25 presented two music-themed documentaries and a live performance at Brick Lane’s Café 1001. Rock Tanjo (‘The birth of rock’) sounded promising: a chronicle of the birth and growth of ‘New Rock’ – a wave of Japanese bands heavily inspired by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, which in the early 1970s replaced the previous generation of Beatles-influenced ‘Group Sound’ combos.
The vanguard of this movement was formed by the Flower Traveling Band, whose heavy, psychedelic magnum opus Satori a few years ago formed the soundtrack of Takashi Miike’s Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. (Recently released on DVD in the UK by Arrow, Rekka also features the band’s founder/mentor and its singer, Yuya Uchida and Joe Yamanaka, in supporting roles.)
Great bands and a fascinating musical scene unfortunately never get their due in Rock Tanjo, a plodding documentary whose interview/performance format soon grows repetitive, due to a lack of narrative or dramatic build-up and songs that are rarely among the bands’ best work.
Vastly more successful was the evening’s second film, Tetsuaki Matsue’s Live Tape, which already gathered praise both at home and at festivals abroad (Nippon Digital award at Frankfurt’s Nippon Connection festival last April). In a single, uninterrupted 90-minute take, it follows tousle-haired busker Kenta Maeno as he strums his way through the crowded streets of Tokyo’s Kichijoji suburb on New Year’s Day. As Maeno belts out his repertoire, the interplay between subject and director lends the film first a great sense of tension and eventually a touching personal and emotional core.
Just as Live Tape culminates in a full-band performance at a park bandstand, the evening at the 1001 climaxed with the interruption of Kenta Maeno and Chinese harpist Yuki Yoshida, in mid-performance after having replayed the Live Tape set-up in Brick Lane. Like a certain rat-catcher, Maeno drew additional crowds off the street and into the café, where he continued with an amplified set of the most memorable songs from the film. Tom Mes
Ero Guro Mash Up Night
This selection of grotesque, supernatural or horror-inflected animated films from underground filmmakers Naoyuki Niiya and Hiroshi Harada offered an insight into a strand of Japanese animation that is rarely seen on Western screens. Niiya’s Metempsychosis (Squid Festival, 1993), plunged us into an underground universe of darkness, interspersed with the lights of a mysterious celebration, possibly the squid festival of the alternate title. Next came Niiya’s Man-Eater Mountain (2008), which used paper theatre to tell a gruesome folk tale. Serial killer Tashiro is taken to the mountains to find the bodies of his victims, but soon the police inspectors and their guide face the demons of the mountain. The beautifully atmospheric black-and-white drawings emphasised the nightmarish, Bosch-like horror of blood-sucking trees, impaled animals, bodies torn apart or eaten by demons. Closing the programme, Harada’s Midori: The Girl in the Freak Show (1992) is a 52-minute film following the misadventures of a young girl who is sold to a travelling circus and mistreated by its freak performers. Violent and disturbing, elaborate both in the cruelty of the story and the beauty of the images, it was a memorable ending to the evening.
Another Harada short, The Death Lullaby (1995), screened before NN-891102 (see review below). The tale of a boy bullied for his protruding teeth, it was an abrasive and powerful film. Set in Narita, showing the destruction of the old city to make room for the airport, The Death Lullaby suggests a parallel between the abuse of the boy and the abuse of the Japanese people by the government. Persecution, despair and violence lead to total destruction, but the boy’s revenge is followed by an apparent reversal of the devastation of Narita. Virginie Sélavy
Jasper Sharp is the author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema and his knowledge of pink film was reflected in the choice of the feature films selected for the festival, among which was ‘Four Devil’ Hisayasu Satô’s latest, Love and Loathing and Lulu and Anayo, which focuses on a shy office clerk who becomes a porn actress, as well as a documentary on porn actress Annyong Yumika.
Hayashi Yumika is a name well known to those who frequent a certain type of cinema in Japan. The Tokyo native was a prolific actress in the country’s pink and AV movie industries (equivalent to soft and hardcore porn), most famous for her role in the critically acclaimed Lunchbox, and the star of 400 other films. She died in 2005, the night of her 35th birthday celebration.
Tetsuaki Matsue’s moving and humorous documentary is clearly a labour of love, as the director journeys to unravel the mystery of Junko: The Story of a Tokyo Housewife, an obscure video and one of the earliest examples of a Korean/Japanese pornographic co-production in existence, starring Yumika. The film is amusingly inept with some pretty painful acting – so far so cheap porn, but the mystery stands: what on earth is one of Japan’s premier porno actresses doing in this film?
The question is tackled through interviews with Yumika’s former lovers and colleagues, and is handled with a light hand. Annyong Yumika never takes itself too seriously, but also never treats its subject with anything but respect and reverence. Matsuo’s low-fi, scrapbook style contains quirks that are at times jarring, but ultimately complements the film’s intimate feel. By the end of the documentary you are left with the feeling that even those closest to Yumika couldn’t unravel the mystery of this enigmatic woman, who remains intriguingly elusive to the end. Helen Mullane
‘I want to become a sound particle in the explosion,’ says the troubled central character of Go Shibata’s NN-891102 (1999), one of the two retrospective screenings in the festival. Having survived the bombing of Nagasaki – on 9 August 1945 at 11:02am – as a child, he becomes obsessed with recreating the sound of the explosion. We follow his efforts throughout his life, from early attempts to his ground-breaking experiments as a sound engineer. Dark and enigmatic, beautifully shot in high contrast and with a remarkable soundtrack mixing noise and music, NN-891102 builds a fragmentary, evocative, complex picture of unspeakable trauma and grief. Virginie Sélavy
Confessions of a Dog
The festival closed on a high note with Gen Takahashi’s Confessions of a Dog, in which a simple, honest beat cop wins the confidence of the Head of the Criminal Investigative Department and works his way up, finding out as he does how corrupted the system is. Too committed to his job to reject an order, Takeda (Shun Sugata) soon sees himself embroiled in the daily transgressions of the force, from seedy back room dealings to blackmail and brutal violence, which not only jeopardise his life but also cause him to become increasingly detached from his wife and daughter.
Although ticking in at a bum-numbing 195 minutes, the film’s length implicitly adds to its gripping intensity, allowing the viewer to become fully immersed in the correlations between crime, police corruption and the complicit media. Confessions of a Dog thrives on its deft pacing as much as on the towering lead performance given by Shun Sugata, who is increasingly unnerving as Takeda becomes trapped in the dirty business that goes all the way to the top of the force. It’s a mesmerising psychological ride that builds up to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as the broken Takeda has to face the consequences of his actions.
The fact that Takahashi has dared to tackle such a controversial subject and has turned it into one of the finest and most devastating films about the everyday politics of corruption has unfortunately led to the film being only marginally released in Japan. But Confessions of a Dog is a film that deserves to be seen widely, and thanks to Third Window Films it will be released on DVD in the UK in March 2011. Pamela Jahn