Taking place across six days, the 14th Nippon Connection film festival, held in various venues around Frankfurt, continues to act as the vanguard for showcasing both populist and independent Japanese cinema in Europe. As with previous years, the festival proudly presented the latest efforts from up-and-coming talents alongside some of the biggest directing names working today. With a hugely diverse selection of features, shorts, documentaries and experimental films in four main strands – ‘Cinema,’ ‘Visions,’ ‘Animation’ and ‘Retro’ – it is impossible to see everything that’s on offer. Below is an attempt to collect some thoughts on a cross-selection of films from each programme.
Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats (Yosuke Fujita, 2014)
The festival’s opening film, and one of the more warmly received, Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is a sometimes absurd, sometimes crass, but always charming comedy from the director of Fine, Totally Fine (2008) and Quirky Guys and Gals (2011). Residing in the titular FukuFuku apartment building, Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima) is a kind and chubby decorator who lives on his own but always has time to solve the problems of his dysfunctional neighbours. But despite his popularity, Fukuda – or Fuku-chan – has always been unlucky in love, partly as a result of an embarrassing episode involving a conniving girl during his school days. His fears are put to the test when the girl (Asami Mizukawa), now an aspiring photographer, re-enters his life. The film is very much like its protagonist: slightly flabby but with a big, smiling heart. Its absurdities and eccentricities are regularly counteracted with moments of disarming pathos, and it also manages to make you care about its otherwise oddball cast of characters. Co-produced by Asian cinema distributor Third Window Films, expect to see Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats on UK release at some point.
Band of Ninja (Nagisa Oshima, 1967)
Around the time when Nagisa Oshima was directing many of what would become his seminal works of the mid-to-late 1960s – Violence at High Noon (1966), Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967), Death by Hanging (1968), etc. – he found the time to make Band of Ninja, an innovative motion-manga that photographs the panels of Sampei Shirato’s popular manga series of the same name, complete with dialogue, music and sound effects. It’s useless to try and fashion a pithy plot summary, as the two-hour runtime covers a lot of ground, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on. Therein lies an issue with directly adapting from the page: an advantage of reading graphic literature, as opposed to watching it, is that you can absorb the material in your own time. But it is better to be confused than bored, and Band of Ninja certainly isn’t boring. Its slightly rickety appearance is belied by its frequently violent imagery, compounded further by Oshima’s quick cutting during these sequences, making the inanimate seem animate for the briefest instance. Band of Ninja is both thrilling and perplexing in equal measure.
Unforgiven (Lee Sang-il, 2013)
Although it is always amusing – and sometimes bemusing – to see the polarity of US/Japanese film remakes reversed (the 2009 Japanese version of 2004’s Sideways springs to mind), was there really much point in remaking Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist Western Unforgiven (1992)? This is a question that looms large over Lee Sang-il’s version of David Webb Peoples’s story of a retired gunslinger teaming up with his old partner and a cocky, young rookie for one last murderous hurrah to assassinate a couple of cowboys who cut up a whore. Many of the narrative beats from the original film are handsomely replicated here, with only some minor deviations. The main draw, though, lies in the cultural transplantation from the American West to the dawn of the Japanese Meiji era, and the recasting of Eastwood’s grizzled shootist to Ken Watanabe’s shogunate relic. Another interesting detail is the new government’s detestation of the Ainu aborigines that hail from Hokkaido, which serves as the story’s new location. However, while finely made in its own right, this version is not quite as gripping as the original, possibly due to its overt familiarity and, for all its minor narrative additions and immaculate photography, lacks much of the shading that made Eastwood’s film so compelling the first time around.
Watch the trailer for Unforgiven (2013):
Backwater (Shinji Aoyama, 2013)
While there was a strong showing of light-hearted comedies in this year’s ‘Cinema’ section, such as Robo-G (2012), Yokohama Story (2013) and the aforementioned Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats, all of which are pleasantly innocuous, it was strangely refreshing to see something as prickly and dark as Backwater. Taking place in a small, dead-end riverside town in the late 1980s, the film follows 17-year-old Toma (Masaki Suda), who lives with his father (Ken Mitsuishi) and stepmother (Yukiko Shinohara). His real mother (Yuko Tanaka) has moved out but lives nearby, as she could no longer endure the violence her husband exhibits while having sex. Engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his classmates, Toma is concerned that the apple may not fall far from the tree, and that he too may have a predilection for such tendencies. Equally threatening to veer towards both dour misogyny and histrionics, Shinji Aoyama’s iconoclastic psychosexual drama is largely carried by the unsettling vibe conjured by Takahiro Imai’s graceful yet downtrodden camerawork, and a sound mix where hyperbolic insect buzzes and swells of ominous discordant noise place us firmly in an environment of sweltering oppression. Backwater is certainly an interesting work with plenty to ruminate on, but whether it can be liked is another matter.
My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)
Shot in stark monochrome, My House looks at the meaning of ‘home’ through observing two groups of characters with two very contrasting lifestyles. The first is a collective of vagrants living in two makeshift domiciles (which can be packed down and wheeled away at leisure) in Nagoya Park, who scavenge for discarded odds and ends. The second group is a family, consisting of a mysophobic mother, a stern father and two kids, living in a reasonable modern suburb. Best known for the 20th Century Boys films, director Tsutsumi returns to his indie roots with this subtle and quietly thought-provoking work. The often enrapturing black and white cinematography not only reflects the harshness of destitute living, or by turn the sterility of a house scrubbed and cleaned within an inch of its life, but also lends the film a mythic quality that helps distance it from straight-up social realism. Tsutsumi’s observant style doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with messages, it merely suggests. My House proves to be an understated and rather endearing surprise.
Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon (Norio Osada, 2013)
A Japanese/Vietnamese co-production made on location during the closing months of the Vietnam War, Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon was recently unearthed by the National Film Centre of Japan. It was intended to be the directorial debut by Norio Osada, who worked as a screenwriter with Kinji Fukasaku throughout the 1970s and 80s. However, tumultuous political conditions and the production company going bankrupt left the film unfinished for nearly 40 years. It was finally completed in 2012. Number 10 Blues follows a Japanese businessman posted in Saigon (Yusuke Kawazu), who goes on the run with his Vietnamese club-singer girlfriend (Lan Thanh) and the son of an Japanese ex-soldier after accidentally killing a slightly deranged Vietnamese man who used to work for him. Cue foot chases on the mean streets of Saigon, clandestine cross-country travel and shootouts with a gang in close pursuit. Like many Asian genre films of its era, Number 10 Blues is overly macho and too earnest to be the fun and breezy potboiler it could have easily been, which is disappointing considering the effort undertaken to get the film finished after so many years.
Watch the trailer for Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon:
The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)
Nearly three hours long, The Tale of Iya was tucked away in a late-night slot in the ‘Visions’ strand, a risky programming decision that strangely paid off. There was something about watching this sprawling rural epic near the witching hour that lent it a dreamlike aura; one could simply melt in the chair and let its majestic 35mm imagery wash over the senses. Set in a small farming community, the film follows a disparate cast of characters whose lives overlap and impact on one another. An old man who lives alone on the mountain rescues a baby, the sole survivor of a recent car accident, from a blizzard. Now a teenager, Haruna spends her days going to school and helping her adoptive grandfather tend to the crops. Meanwhile, a disillusioned man from Tokyo arrives seeking a more humble life. He crosses paths with a construction company that is building a tunnel through one of the mountains, as well as the group of gap-year Westerners opposing its progress. Evoking past classics such as The Ballad of Narayama (1958/1983) and Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island (1960), the ambitions of the film’s young director – only 28 at the time of production – are highly commendable. However, the film perhaps overshoots, indulging in a final act set in Tokyo that doesn’t quite sit with what came before, even though it leads to the kind of wonderful moment that can only be realised in cinema. But even if it does meander, The Tale of Iya is by turns grounded and magical, and bears all the hallmarks and directorial assurance of a modern, almost masterpiece. It is a deeply impressive and immersive work.
Antonym (Natsuka Kusano, 2014)
In an era where most new Japanese films seem to be clocking in at over two hours, the presence of Antonym, a sprightly 73-minuter, was all the more intriguing. Partaking in an evening writing class, Aya (Yuri Ishikaza) wins a competition that will see her 10-minute radio play broadcast on a midnight time slot, but only on the condition that she take on a co-writer to rework the script. Intending to work on the project alone, the stubborn and selfish Aya asks a work colleague, Sachiko (Asami Shibuya), to pretend to be her co-writer and sit in on meetings with her teacher. However, Sachiko has a natural knack for writing and wants to get properly involved. What follows is a delicate drama on an intimate scale about two characters of opposing dispositions, but each lonely in their own way. Aya is insular, whereas Sachiko yearns for connection, going out of her way to be friends with the former who, frustratingly, does not wish to reciprocate. But as their relationship develops, it begins to unwittingly mirror the themes of Aya’s play, climaxing in the unlikely pair performing the re-developed script in a recording studio. Antonym is a decent little debut from director Natsuka Kusano, although, unfortunately, perhaps too modest and esoteric to find a broader audience.
Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, 2013)
With Studio Ghibli curiously absent from the animé line-up (especially strange considering the recent releases of Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed final film The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata’s less publicised return after a 14-year directing absence), the role of flag bearer for the ‘Animation’ strand arguably fell to Patema Inverted. A mind-boggling adventure set in two dystopian worlds that have opposing gravitational directions, the film follows teenager Patema (Yukiyo Fujii), who lives in an underground city. While out exploring in the ‘danger zone’, she falls down a vertical shaft and soon discovers an outside world where everything appears to be upside down. She befriends Age (Nobuhiko Okamoto), a fellow teen who is confused about the totalitarian state in which he lives, despite the educational propaganda that claims those who are ‘inverted’, like Patema, are sinners who need to be persecuted. While the narrative endeavours to keep us guessing over which ‘world’ is in fact the right way up, it also ensures that we never lose sight of the budding, gravity-crossed relationship at its centre, which gives the film a beating heart and plenty of emotional weight. Maybe a Studio Ghibli title wasn’t needed this year after all.
Watch the trailer for Patema Inverted:
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013)
Winner of the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the closing film of this festival, Like Father, Like Son poses an impossible dilemma no parent would want to experience. When two couples from different backgrounds find out that their six-year-old sons were accidentally swapped at birth, they must decide whether to swap them back or remain as they are. As with Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011), Koreeda continues to riff on the theme of broken families, but in doing so further solidifies his reputation as a world-class filmmaker, often showered with daunting comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu. But maybe these aren’t so daunting anymore as, with Ozu’s best work, Like Father, Like Son is humble, humanistic, deeply edifying and executed with such gentle precision you are barely aware of the mechanics at work in making you feel engrossed and moved. Certainly one of the strongest Japanese films of recent years, and seeing as it’s not long been released on DVD and Blu-ray, there really isn’t any excuse to miss it.
Short Peace (Shuhei Morita, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki, 2013)
An omnibus feature composed of four short animated stories, Short Peace is a mixed bag of minor successes and near misses, which has enjoyed exposure due to the involvement of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo: he wrote and directed the second segment, ‘Combustible’, and his manga served as the basis for the fourth, ‘A Farewell to Weapons’. The format of equally allotted segments is problematic. The first segment, ‘Possessions’, feels a little too long, whereas the aforementioned ‘Combustible’, a story about firefighting in feudal Japan, feels too short and ends just as it starts to get interesting. Segment three, ‘Gambo’, where a famed and mythical white bear fights a hulking red demon, and urban combat set piece ‘A Farewell to Weapons’ are better paced, although the latter is tonally mismatched with the first three due to its futuristic setting. Despite being assembled by some of the industry’s leading figures, Short Peace, while intermittently worthwhile, doesn’t quite coalesce as a whole.
However, special mention needs to be given to one of the screenings’ supporting shorts. The Portrait Studio (Takashi Nakamura, 2013), a beautifully executed story of a late 19th-century portrait photographer who tries to coax a smile out of a particularly stubborn customer over the course of several decades, was of a similar length to the individual segments of Short Peace and roundly upstaged them all with its pictorial animation style, nostalgic air and delightful piano score.
Watch the trailer for The Portrait Studio
The Ko Nakahira Retrospective
This year’s ‘Nippon Retro’ strand honoured the work of the little known Ko Nakahira, an early innovator of the 1960s Japanese New Wave who laid the groundwork for the likes of Shôhei Imamura, Nagisa Ôshima and Seijun Suzuki. Nine films were selected to be shown at the German Film Museum, which served to highlight the variety of styles, genres and production circumstances that Nakahira worked within while at Nikkatsu throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Nakahira often got into hot water with studio executives over the quick pacing of many of his films, concerned that audiences acclimatised to the more tranquil and metered styles of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse et al., would have difficulty keeping up. He also got into trouble with the censors over his frank handling of sexual issues. For instance, That Guy and I (1961) is a vibrant yet bawdy school comedy focusing on the new youth culture that rocked the archipelago at the turn of the decade. Characters openly discuss sexual desires with one another as well as bodily functions like menstruation. But the film also isn’t afraid to touch on serious political issues, such as the student riots and the rape of one of the female characters. Only on Mondays (1964) is about good-time girl Yuka (Mariko Kaga), whose life consists of little more than exploring her sexual prowess and her hold over several men, all the while eschewing genuine intimacy as the result of a psychosexually damaging childhood trauma. Stylistically, the film seems to be a reaction to the French Nouvelle Vague, which in turn was partly influenced by Nakahira’s work – reportedly, François Truffaut was particularly receptive to what would be Nakahira’s calling card, Crazed Fruit (1956).
The retrospective also looked at the other side of Nakahira’s career: his less personal, director-for-hire output. A highlight of this was most certainly The Black Gambler – Devil’s Left Hand (1965), the last in a six-part Black Gambler series of films starring Akira Kobayashi as a superstar gambler, who beds women effortlessly and often gets caught up in plots of international intrigue. A professor from the fictional nation of Pandora concocts a scheme to take over Japan’s gambling industry, and plans to build an army (it is revealed that the nation’s army consists of only 56 soldiers) with the revenue. For reasons that are never quite explained, the professor must defeat Koji, the Black Gambler, in order to fulfil his plans. He enlists the help of his three brightest students at Pandora’s University of Gambling: an old woman, a blind man and a precocious child, who each take Koji on. Tongue firmly in cheek, what follows is akin to a Roger Moore-era Bond film (although this was produced before Moore took over from Sean Connery), a franchise that the Gambler series emulated in a number of ways to capitalise on its popularity.
The Koji Yamamura Retrospective
The ‘Animation’ strand also had its own retrospective of sorts this year, a screening that collected several short works by independent animator and teacher Koji Yamamura. Yamamura attended the event to present 11 of his films. Standout pieces included the Oscar-nominated Mt. Head (2002), a modern interpretation of a traditional rakugo story of a man sprouting a small cherry tree from his head after eating cherry seeds; The Old Crocodile (2005), an amusingly macabre tale based on Histoire du vieux crocodile (1923) by Léopld Chauveau; and Muybridge’s Strings (2011), an exquisitely crafted visualisation of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 experiments of consecutively photographing each phase of a galloping horse’s movements. Filled with wit, intelligence and unusual ideas, Yamamura’s work shows a different side of animé, proving that there’s more to it than giant mechas, busty schoolgirls and fan service.