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This year's American Film Market gives us a peek at the best of contemporary Japanese cinema, though that's hardly representative of the industry as a whole.
Don't let the majority of these reviews about families and small towns fool you -- Japan has had a tremendous year both critically and commercially at the box office, but moving forward, the biggest hits and movie expectations are extravagantly-financed blockbuster epics and action films. It's never much of a surprise that the strongest films of the year -- and this year there are many -- don't make very much money in Japan if they're not backed by major distribution arms. A small-scale film like Departures, with Shochiku's financial muscle, can turn a tidy profit while new films by independent filmmakers like Ryosuke Hashiguchi, Ryuichi Hiroki, and Yoshihiko Matsui fall by the wayside despite being the very strongest efforts this year.
Still, the shift to action and epics is surprising. Films from effects wizards like Shinji Higuchi or Eiichiro Hasumi have not recently been as bankable as star-driven romantic melodramas starring a quality young actor like Maki Horikita or Jo Odagiri, but the latter, save for the Hana Yori Dango phenomenon, has been in a rut for the past two year. High-profile entertainment has made a comeback in a big way this year, starting with the TV smash detective series Partners and Suspect X, to the disaster epic 252: Signal of Life (of Umizaru heritage), to the more generic action films K-20: Legend of the Mask and Ikigami, and culminating in the first installment of the 20th Century Boys trilogy, based on Naoki Urasawa's hugely popular manga and -- with a budget of $60 million for the three films -- is set to be the most expensive Japanese film project ever produced.
Nearly all of these films screened at AFM, and all, save for the massive 20th Century Boys, will have difficulty landing American distribution. On the other hand, the three Japanese films reviewed below, films about mundane things like family trauma and self-discovery, are almost sure to be picked up due to the incredibly strong audience reaction at film festivals. What the Japanese want is their own version of Wanted; what the rest of the world wants, apparently, is more Kore-eda and Kurosawa. Or, in other words, what looks Japanese.
For APA's reviews of other films at this year's American Film Market, including Missing, Inju: the Beast in the Shadow, Dachimawa Lee, and 100, click here.
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)
dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Kore-eda, Japan's most quietly great director, channeled the close community of Sadao Yamanaka in Hana, and in Still Walking he appears to be conjuring up the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu. His story about an urban family visiting its aging parents at a seaside town outside of Yokohama for the 15th anniversary of the death of a son resembles in structure an inverse Tokyo Story. But the particulars are Kore-eda's, from his documentary-like lens to his talent at drawing natural performances from his children and stars (in this case, Hiroshi Abe is wonderfully a match for his parents, played by veterans Kiki Kirin and Yoshio Harada, who sports the Hayao Miyazaki look), to his insights on trauma -- not overcoming or being burdened by it, but the more monotonous reality of how we shoulder it, and in the case of Still Walking, the chilling suggestion that it can even give us a sense of purpose and identity.
There's little of Ozu's poetic dialogue or disorienting editing -- Still Walking is a much simpler affair, but also Kore-eda's most contemplative and downright transcendental piece since his breathtaking After Life. The entire story takes place over a 24-hour period in the Yokoyama household, but Kore-eda and his DP find numerous ways to shoot the cramped quarters without any feeling of claustrophobia, and the naturalistic, occasionally Altman-esque overlapping dialogue is never accidental -- each character is saying what is particular to that character's personality.
Kore-eda's comparison to Ozu is correct in this respect -- the martinet control. His script is filled with humorous asides and comic dining table banter, and yet every dialogue at day and night displays what unites and divides this family. The most offhand conversations between parents and children can take the ugliest, most uncomfortable turns, but some family member always manages to right the ship before it crashes. When the protagonist's pop remarks that widows are harder to marry off when they have children, we're privy to not just his worldview and his feelings about his son's new wife, but his character as a father: he may be right, but he's also more wrong. And yet after a brief silence, one of the ladies -- a blunt mother or sardonic sister -- will make a joke to smooth things over. By stripping the domestic setting of the genre's usual melodramatic histrionics, the principal characters gradually reveal the power and pain in the quotidian that, in usual dramatic arcs, would be a "bit on the side."
As George Bernard Shaw once observed, "There are no greater strangers than parents and their own children." The generational paradox is subtle, since the parents here are contemporary; they play pachinko and watch soccer. But the kids no longer see, if they every did, who their parents are, and vice versa. A deeper understanding is often a word away but is always met with comic interruption and non-sequiturs. Much is said and left unsaid in the film's chatty comedy, but the characters are revealed to be gentle knaves who can't find much of meaning in any of the tragedy or misfortune they've been dealt, suggesting one critic's line that comedy was ultimately a sadder art form than tragedy. In comedy, the characters don't learn in the end.
dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
The anti-Still Walking. Kurosawa's contemporary urban domestic drama is harrowing and hysterical. This review agrees with some of the critics' laudatory comments (including the review of the film in APA) for its many merits, especially its incredible performances from the principal parents -- Teruyuki Kogawa acts the hell out of his flubby everyman role even better than usual, but the real revelation here is Kyoko Koizumi's embattled housewife. Who knew former idol Kyon Kyon could really act?
The dysfunctional family in Kurosawa's urban horror attempts to resolve its demons in extremes and excesses, represented in indelible images of city detritus -- Kurosawa's Tokyo is an urban wasteland populated by militant unemployment staff, sadistic schoolchildren (who grow up to be sadistic bureau chiefs), and shrouded gangs of unemployed salarymen marching lockstep to the free food line. His film is full of indulgences, but never formally – as with the piece of tape in Pulse, or the "X" in Cure, he masterfully achieves scares with the most minimal affects, in this case, with meaningful glances, peeks, and some supremely uncomfortable exchanging of glares between family members rendered as transparent as ghosts to one another.
And yet for all of its technical strengths, there's something unspecific about Tokyo Sonata that feels untrue to today's world. Maybe that's because the original script was written by Australian Max Mannix over twenty years ago when he first arrived in Tokyo, and thus the slightly novel contemporary observations then have over time devolved into cinematic clichés -- the fired salaryman (especially reminiscent here of Aurelien Recoing in the French Time Out), the rebellious college kid, the unmoored housewife (although in all fairness, this has been a cliché since Kate Chopin penned The Awakening). There are some modern touches by Kurosawa -- outsourcing of jobs to the Chinese, American intervention in the Middle East -- but these issues ultimately go unaddressed. Kurosawa asks his Japanese audience what it means to be Japanese in a post-Bubble world, but that world has since acquired several post-scripts.
dir: Yojiro Takita
Departures recalls the television series Kita no kuni kara (From the North Country -- think a Japanese Northern Exposure), where a young, failed cellist returns with his wife to his rural hometown to start a new life by being a sort of mortician's assistant (okay, Northern Exposure with a twist). Departures is about many things, and they're all very simple – finding one's path in life, finding one's love in life, and experiencing all the joys and sorrows this entails. It's this simplicity that has possibly made it so popular with the domestic audience, as the film has become a surprise financial success due to terrific word of mouth and the top prize (unexpectedly) at the Montreal Film Festival.
The film's director, Takita, is the most acclaimed studio workhorse you've never heard of. He's won countless Japanese Academy directing nominations, and yet next to zero recognition at any of the biggest international festivals. Departures is more of the solid studio product he's become accustomed to producing -- it's lean, slick, and fits neatly within the conventions of the melodrama genre. It's also artfully mounted, beautifully written, and incredibly moving because its emotion and sentiment creep up on you. This is quite possibly the strongest mainstream picture from a major Japanese studio (Shochiku) since Hidden Blade of Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy. In fact, it conjures up a gentle humor and cinematic vitality in life's visceral pleasures that is reminiscent of even Juuzo Itami's great works.
No doubt that effect is aided by the work of Tsutomu Yamazaki's sagacious hipster, whose presence in Itami's dry comedy is the Japanese equivalent to Bill Murray's. He calms, he guides, and he's pretty funny at it, too. Recalling his most famous work on ramen shops, his presence also reminds us that Departures is ultimately a lesson about art, how we come to define it, and its astonishing effect when it arises in the most humble of circumstances.
Lock and Roll Forever
dir: Chris Grismer
The sole American-produced film here financed with Japanese and American cache. The film's premise is simple: Oreskaband, a large group of teen girls who play brass instruments, is coming to American to Make It Big. They are helped by American promoters to realize their dream. The production values here are...how does one put this? Like that of soft-core porn: badly lit, poorly written, falsely acted, and broken up intermittently with slightly more pleasing interludes. Instead of mechanical thrusting, we have the catchy hijinks of Oreskaband music videos, which isn't that awful since Oreskaband's version of pop and ska is somewhat more pleasing.
But do we need the bad cross-cultural jokes? Do we need the Japanese gal and white fellow bowing to each other incessantly in a scene of "miscommunication?" Do we really need the band's Japanese voices dubbed into English that does not even remotely sync with their lips? Oreskaband's efforts here are earnest -- they seem to enjoy hamming it up and they have plenty of help from the cast and crew. It's rather amazing that we even have this thing on our hands, symbolizing some kind of cross-cultural progress. But these sorts of band-turned-movie affairs are never any good, even when they're purposefully trying to be bad -- hell, even when you have the greatest rock band in the history of the universe starring. If Help! is merely mediocre, what makes anyone else think they have a chance with this stuff?
Date Posted: 11/28/2008