The Raindance Film Festival has a history of screening independent Asian cinema, and this year was no exception, with 13 films showing in the Way Out East strand, including the world premiere of Gen Takahashi’s Court of Zeus. Below, Sarah Cronin takes a look at some of the highlights.
The Kirishima Thing (Daihachi Yoshida, 2012)
A polished, intelligent and entertaining film, Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing won the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards. Taking place over a period of five days, a series of events is revealed from different points of view in this compelling high school drama. The title relates to star pupil and athlete Kirishima, who mysteriously quits the volleyball team and disappears from school, leaving behind a trail of teen angst. He won’t answer his girlfriend’s texts; his best friends, who skip the virtually compulsive after-school activities to hang out playing basketball, are left in the dark; while his replacement on the volleyball team is bullied for not being Kirishima’s equal out on the court.
With its obvious focus on cliques, the films has well-known elements of the American teen drama: there are the attractive, popular kids; the shy, nerdy outsiders (in this case, they’ve all joined the cinema club, sneakily making a zombie film), and the rebels. There’s the popular, pretty girl who secretly wants to join the cinema club but knows she never will, and there are the familiar heartbreaking crushes, and the devastating disappointments of adolescence. But despite these familiar tropes, the film still feels refreshing. Yoshida shines a light on the pressure inflicted on Japanese teens, with the after-school clubs seen as necessary for future success. Ultimately, that’s why Kirishima’s disappearance is so disturbing to his fellow students; it’s like the near-equivalent of suicide.
Sake-Bomb (Junya Sakino, 2013)
There are some genuine laugh-out loud moments in Sake-Bomb (admittedly mostly in the first 30 minutes), an entertainingly diverting film about the insecurities of growing up Asian-American in California, packaged in the form of a road movie of sorts. Sebastian (Eugene Kim) is unemployed, obnoxious, arrogant, and spends most of his time trying to develop a following for his YouTube channel, where he posts endless videos ripping apart Asian stereotypes. Justifiably dumped by his girlfriend, he has nothing else to do when his small-town cousin, Naoto (Gaku Hamada), arrives from Japan on an ill-fated quest to find the love of his life, his former English teacher, who suddenly returned to California without an explanation. As they travel north to San Francisco, a series of encounters with a dizzy cast of characters reveal Sebastian’s spiteful cynicism, which thaws when he meets Joslyn, a cool, equally misanthropic writer always up for fun. But it’s Naoto, charming and likeable, if hopelessly naïve, who eventually makes Sebastian confront the bitterness that he feels as an outsider.
Sake-Bomb is a charming, if slight, film that appears more interesting for its subtext rather than how it’s put together. Sebastian’s rants about the under-representation of Asian-Americans, for example, is spot on, and it’s refreshing to see Japanese-born director Junya Sakino trying to do something to redress that balance in a comedic, painfully honest way.
Watch the trailer for Sake-Bomb :
Court of Zeus (Gen Takahashi, 2013)
Director Gen Takahashi’s follow-up to Confessions of a Dog, shares the same ethos as its predecessor: a concern for the corruption that eats away at any notion of fairness in the Japanese legal system. In turn, Takahashi’s films expose the wider problems with the society at large: deference towards elders, the obsession with saving face, and the treatment of women.
But where Confessions of a Dog was a riveting film with elements from both the action and thriller genres, Court of Zeus is a far less successful courtroom drama, about a newly appointed, work-obsessed judge, Kano, and his young, neglected fiancé, Megumi, who is arrested for murder after an altercation with her lover. While it is disturbing to learn that most cases in Japan are decided before the protagonists ever enter the courtroom, and the film tellingly reveals the misogyny that taints women’s domestic lives (once engaged, it’s impossible for her to work, and even her choice to take a floral arranging course has to be approved by her future husband), stylistically the film just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The cinematography is clunky in places and feels rather dated, and there are just too many awkward set-ups that lead to an unrealistic conclusion. Still an interesting watch, but sadly something of a disappointment in view of Takahashi’s promising previous work.
Shady (Ryohei Watanabe, 2012)
Ryohei Watanabe’s Shady initially seems like a middle-of-the-road, coming-of-age story about two high school girls who develop an unlikely friendship. The plain, painfully shy Misa, called ‘Pooh’ by her taunting classmates, clearly has no other friends than a goldfish and pet parrot to keep her company. But suddenly she finds herself adopted by the pretty, cutesy Izumi, and the two soon become best friends.
Although the film gets off to a slow start, making one wonder what direction it is heading in, and how it can remain so tightly focused on its two main characters, it soon becomes clear that this film is far more complex than it first seems. There are a few clues, like the disappearance of a fellow student, that are revealed in the first few minutes of the film, but in the end even the twists might not be what they first seem. Instead, Shady gradually builds into a disturbing, multi-layered drama, with impressive performances from its young leads.
Watch the trailer for Shady: