With last year’s Icelandic volcano and this year’s colossal earthquake in Japan, it seems Frankfurt’s annual Nippon Connection is perennially haunted by natural disasters. It was even announced that the festival team had toyed with the idea of cancelling the event in response to the recent tragedy, yet the woe at the opening remarks was soon dissipated thanks to the festival staff’s infectious enthusiasm and glowing spirit. With an assorted programme ranging between commercial blockbusters, such as the sci-fi manga adaptation Gantz (Sato Shinsuke, 2011), congenial comedies of the likes of Permanent Nobara (Yoshida Daihachi, 2010) and voices of the independent art scene represented in the appropriately renamed section Nippon Visions, which this report will focus on, Nippon Connection had at least one film to fit our every mood.
Heaven’s Story (Takahisa Zeze, 2010)
The best feature from Japan in recent years, and the FIPRESCI award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Zeze’s latest offering from his post-pink period clocks out at an epic four and a half hours. An intricately woven tale of revenge and redemption, trauma and forgiveness, crime and punishment, Heaven’s Story threads multiple characters into its embellished spiralling narrative. The metaphor involving monsters announced in the opening underpins the film’s meditation on the ethics of human encounters, a contemplation that is bookmarked by haunting performance-art footage of puppetry troupe Yumehine and dancer Hyakkidondoro. With stunning photography, the controlled balance of urgency and patience propels Zeze’s characters down their destined paths, which seem designed to cross, each encounter instigating new sparks.
Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)
Although on a much quieter scale, Studio Ghibli’s latest release, Arrietty, also dwells on the ethics of self-and-other relationships in its adaptation of Mary Norton’s tales, The Borrowers. The predictable winner of the festival’s Audience Award, the story paints the chance meeting of sickly youth Sho and tiny Arrietty, also a teenager, but from a different race of little people who reside underneath rural households. A child of an endangered species, Arrietty is initially wary of her neighbour’s presence, yet soon warms to his tender care and yearning for amity. Though entirely forgettable compared to Ghibli’s previous output, from which it ‘borrows’ quite heavily, Arrietty may be remembered for its serene animation that sees the directing debut of young animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. But let us all forget the theme song.
Midori-ko (Keita Kurosaka, 2010) / Still in Cosmos (Makino Takashi, 2009)
A double bill that would be hard to come by at any other festival, Midori-ko and Still in Cosmos may at first seem an odd couple, but screened together represented the cutting edge of non-commercial filmmaking in Japan.
Midori-ko is Kurosaka’s lovechild and took 10 years to nurture, a hand-drawn parable that borrows its pale aesthetics from Yuriy Norshteyn. Midori is a young, impoverished scientist who discovers a strange vegetable that has landed in her room as if it were a fallen star. Though rather simplistic and oddly paced, the skewered fairy tale is at times thought-provoking, and the subtle shades and tonal moderations of the drawings are captivating.
One of experimental filmmaker Makino’s latest collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, which fuse sound and moving image, Still in Cosmos shatters the screen surface in a composed piece of sustained tension and controlled ambience. Words prove inefficient to describe the experience of Makino’s experiments, where he transfers film into crepitant digital layers that vibrate into each other in pulsed drones.
The Duckling (Sayaka Ono, 2005-10)
It is no surprise that Kazuo Hara, a pioneering voice of personal documentaries in Japan, is said to have overseen the production of The Duckling, for Ono’s debut feature is steeped in his style of storytelling. Ono’s autobiographical documentary feels like a therapy session as she visits each member of her family to unravel the childhood traumas that have led her to the brink of suicide. Though the film succeeds in exuding a dense intensity that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it feels too much like an uncomfortable continuation of her self-harm. One question remains – at such a young age, what will Ono do now that she has exhausted her entire life within one project?
Teto (Hiroshi Gokan, 2010)
Part of the Tokyo University of Arts special programme, Teto is a feature-length graduation piece by Hiroshi Gokan and was the surprise triumph of the festival. Utterly unique, the film weaves together different generic codes from espionage thrillers and post-apocalypse dread to period set-pieces, performed by the characters, who run a theatre troupe of orphans. Teto sustains its despondent aura and a foreboding gloom with committed control, never caving in to spell out its own mysteries. The ability to conjure intensity from its spectral narrative evokes another recent East Asian debut, End of Animal (2010), yet Teto‘s chaos is more simmering and muted.