Wednesday, October 3, 2012

INTERVIEW: Director Yuki Tanada and The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky

Yuki Tanada at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival (L), The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky theatrical poster (R)

by Chris MaGee

“Wow! Three great filmmakers!” Yuki Tanada exclaims when I mention her name alongside those of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi. There are only a handful of filmmakers like Tanada in Japan today, those whose work so keenly and unsentimentally examines the inner lives of everyday Japanese. It seems appropriate then to cite this Holy Trinity of Japanese cinema who so consistently captured the quiet triumphs, bitter heartbreaks and grinding struggles of their nation; but what I’m after, here in Tanada’s room at Toronto’s Hyatt Regency Hotel during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, are the names of some non-Japanese filmmakers who have inspired her work. “The two brothers who make the crazy comedies... The Farrelly Brothers!” she laughs, “I love them!” A surprising answer, but the 37-year-old writer and director has spent the past eight years surprising and challenging movie audiences with her frank depictions of 21st-century Japan. Now, after a 4-year break from the director’s chair, Tanada has returned with her most accomplished work to date, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky.

Based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky begins as a love story, albeit a dysfunctional one. Lonely housewife Anzu (portrayed by former child actress Tomoko Tabata) and high school student Takumi (Kento Nagayama) are caught up in a tempestuous affair, one fueled by Anzu’s obsession with a popular romantic manga. Their cosplay love-making sessions, in which Anzu adopts the persona of a Princess and Takumi her manga Prince Charming, lie in stark contrast to their daily lives. Despite costly medical treatments and excessive pressure from her husband and mother-in-law Anzu is unable to conceive, leaving her self-esteem in tatters. Conversely Takumi is constantly exposed to the often messy details of childbearing and birth by his mother, Sumiko (Mieko Harada), who runs a holistic midwives’ clinic out of their home.

Tomoko Tabata and Kento Nagayama as Anzu and Takumi
“Takumi and Anzu were the most difficult part,” Tanada admits when discussing bringing Kubo’s novel to the screen, “I really had a concern about how I could deliver their message to the audience, but in that sequence what I wanted to do is show that these two characters are looking at the same things, but are also two people living in different environments.” Still, Anzu and Takumi aren’t the only “cowards” in Tanada’s film. Soon what started out as a love story moves into much more complex territory. After a decisive crisis between the two lovers the narrative branches out to explore the lives of Takumi’s mother and her pregnant patients as well as Takumi’s good friend, convenience store clerk Fukuda (Masakata Kubota), who struggles not only with a senile grandmother, but also with his own mother whose oppressive debt has left Fukuda’s home bankrupt. Still, it was one the novels most conflicted and ultimately least likable characters in the original novel who drew Tanada to the project.

“Taoka has very strange sexual preferences,” Tanada acknowledges of Fukuda’s co-worker at the convenience store, a young man who both helps Fukuda to study for his University entrance exams while secretly molesting neighborhood children, “At first my thoughts never went beyond what kind of pain he caused, but after reading the novel I realized that these people who have this very negative sexual behaviour have real difficulties trying to blend into society. They are trying to find a way to get along with society. It was realizing that I had never thought about those issues that really made me become attached to this character.” It was just a happy accident that saw both Tanada and producers at Toei Studios considering an adaptation of Kubo’s novel. “It was perfect timing,” Tanada says of her chance to tackle characters like Taoka on the big screen.

Sexuality and odd sexual practices have been a recurring theme in the films of Yuki Tanada. Her confessed love for the low-brow antics of the Farrelly Brothers makes sense in light of Tanada’s debut feature film, 2004’s Moon and Cherry. Ostensibly a sex comedy, the film centers on the relationship between a virginal male university student who is deflowered by his classmate, an aspiring author who uses the details of their sexual exploits as fodder for her fiction. 2008’s Ain’t No Tomorrows would further explore the sexual misadventures of a group of high school students (including a girl on a sexual fact-finding mission and another who has a fetish for sumo wrestlers); but Tanada isn’t convinced that sexuality has been a connecting thread in her work. “Actually I never thought that was a theme to my films. I'm just taking it as a very normal thing. As people living together, sex is just a part of their lives.” 

Mieko Harada as Sumiko
This refreshing matter-of-factness may also be the reason why her work has featured some of the most fully realized female characters in Japanese film since, well, the work of the abovementioned and universally praised Naruse and Mizoguchi. Before working with Tomoko Tabata on The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, Tanada regularly teamed with some of Japan’s most talented actresses, such as Noriko Eguchi (Moon and Cherry), Yu Aoi (One Million Yen Girl) and Sakura Ando (Ain’t No Tomorrows), to breathe life into her female protagonists. Even when Tanada wasn’t the one calling the shots behind the camera her depictions of women ring true. Her 2006 screenplay adaptation of Moyoco Anno’s popular manga Sakuran, brought to the screen by photographer-cum-director Mika Ninagawa, perfectly captures its sensual, headstrong heroine, the courtesan Kiyoha (portrayed by Anna Tsuchiya). So, why has she had such great success with her female characters? “Because I don't have fantasies about women,” she bluntly, but politely, states.          

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky will be receiving a theatrical release in Japan this November, just in advance of Japan’s film awards season next spring. By then, though, we may not only see Yuki Tanada gaining praise for her directing, but also for her skills as an author. Her absence from filmmaking since 2008’s Ain’t No Tomorrows was largely due to the fact that Tanada has been hard at work writing her debut novel. “If I had to describe the novel in one word I would have to say ‘revenge’,” she says of this new literary venture, “It’s very dark.” Despite its darkness the book will also delve into some happy memories from Tanada’s youth. “It also includes a lot about a Japanese matsuri [festival] that I experienced and that touched me when I was little, so the festival is part of the story.” There are no plans, at least at the moment, for Tanada to adapt her own novel to the screen. Her main focus now is simply meeting her publisher’s deadline. “The first deadline was two years ago!” she chuckles, “but it is almost completed, so next year it should be out.”             

Monday, May 14, 2012

Festival Report: Nippon Connection 2012

by Marc Saint-Cyr

Those initially scanning the program for the 12th Nippon Connection film festival, hosted in Frankfurt, Germany from May 2nd to the 6th, probably would have noticed the especially impressive selection of new works from some of Japanese cinema’s biggest names. This year, established auteurs were a more frequent sight alongside lesser-known and still-emerging directors, whose efforts – from my personal festival experience, at least – for the most part offered healthy competition against their better-known colleagues. In fact, I ended up being quite pleasantly surprised by how many positive viewing experiences I managed to discover in both the Nippon Cinema and Nippon Visions programs, the latter focusing on independent and digitally shot productions.


The festival’s opening night film was “Postcard,” the 49th and intended final film by Kaneto Shindo, who celebrated his 100th birthday on April 22nd. As Eric Evans ably illustrates in his full review, this is a markedly odd film that erratically dips and spikes in its emotional atmosphere. Shinobu Otake stars as Tomoko, a woman who experiences a spectacular avalanche of misfortune brought about by World War II. Bound to her in-laws’ isolated farm, she encounters Keita (Etsushi Toyokawa), a veteran who arrives to fulfill his promise to deliver a cherished article – the titular postcard – previously owned by her deceased husband, Jouzukuri (Naomasa Musaka). Otake’s performance is especially remarkable as she channels quiet resolve, solemn despair and raw, unbridled agony, yet she is but one element in a piece that seems intent on packing in a full spectrum of moods and spectacles rather than constructing a more even narrative arc. Thus, we get nearly implausible depths of hardship, the absurdities of wartime fervor, the refreshingly lighthearted exchanges between Keita and his uncle, a comically persistent suitor (Ren Osugi), the rough fight between him and Keita, a celebratory play and hopeful signs of fresh beginnings. While that last ingredient, encapsulated in the idyllic final scene, is somewhat at odds with the actual climate of post-WWII Japan, it still seems fitting for both the characters and Shindo himself, who, after all, by now knows a thing or two about marching onwards and finding fulfillment through productivity.

Casting Blossoms to the Sky

While not quite yet at Shindo’s centennial level, Nobuhiko Obayashi, now 74, still remains impressively productive for his advanced age and, more importantly, is capable of proving he is still as full of surprises as he was when he made his now-beloved 1977 cult classic, “House.” His latest effort, “Casting Blossoms to the Sky,” is surely unlike anything else that will be screened this year. Over the course of its breathless 160 minutes, it uses a reporter’s desire to visit and investigate Nagaoka as a framework for its nearly essay-like exploration of the city’s links to the events of WWII and personal accounts of those who survived the destructive events of the past (with some of the real-life inspirations behind certain characters actually making onscreen appearances). Jumping from speaker to speaker at hot potato speeds and virtually pelting the viewers with facts and stories, Obayashi weaves together the hidden details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing operations, incendiary bombing incidents, Pearl Harbor, 3-11, the art of firework creation, a young student’s ambitious theatrical production and more into an exhilarating and touching cinematic symphony. Its ardent plea for humanity to work towards a more hopeful future by learning from history might have come across as being exhaustively preachy had it not been presented in such a wholly sincere and original fashion, all the while accompanied by a rich Joe Hisaishi score. And the daring, dreamlike quality of the imagery only sweetens the deal, often reaching pulse-quickening heights – who could ever forget the sight of a group of uniformed students perched upright on their unicycles coasting across the frame in single-file along a country road? Like many other shots, so odd, but so beautiful.


Shinya Tsukamoto was present at the festival with his first film after a string of more mainstream studio projects: “Kotoko,” which was given the Orizzonti Award at the Venice International Film Festival last year. This up-close character study of singer Cocco’s titular single mother as she struggles with mental illness is an unquestionably powerful piece of cinema. Entering it, viewers have little choice but to be confronted with her claustrophobic head space, which plagues her with hallucinations of menacing doppelgangers, bursts of brutal violence and a devouring sense of dread. Brilliantly orchestrating camerawork, sound design and surrealist storytelling strategies, Tsukamoto has produced an utterly terrifying viewing experience that may very well come to be regarded as one of his finest accomplishments.


Fortunately, there were other films that proved to be more gentle with audiences’ nerves, two of them being Tetsu Maeda’s “Sukiyaki” and Shûichi Okita’s “The Woodsman and the Rain,” which ended up winning the audience-voted Nippon Cinema Award. The latter follows Kôji Yakusho’s lumberjack as he gets pulled into a zombie film shoot led by an insecure 25 year-old writer-director (Shun Oguri) while the former, with its “One Thousand and One Nights”-style narrative concerning prison cellmates who share personal stories about their most cherished meals in a contest for extra morsels, proves itself to be a worthy thematic counterpart to such films as “Tampopo” and “Still Walking” with its own extended, sumptuously photographed send-ups to the special links food shares with memory and love. Certainly, like those films, “Sukiyaki” is bound to leave viewers with a deeper appreciation for at least the next few dishes they enjoy after the credits roll.

Ten Days Before Spring
Over a year has passed since the earthquake, tsunami and ignition of Fukushima's nuclear troubles that occurred on March 11th, 2011, and in that time film festivals have received numerous cinematic responses to the monumental events that left a still-reverberating impact on Japan. Nippon Connection presented a varied selection of mostly non-fiction films addressing the disasters, some of which earning official recognition: Masaki Kobayashi’s “Fukushima Hula Girls” came in third place in the audience vote for the Nippon Cinema Award (Tatsushi Omori’s “Tada’s Do-It-All House” earned the second place spot). Additionally, the jury for the Nippon Visions Award (consisting of journalist Andreas Platthaus, filmmaker Yonghi Yang and the Pow-Wow’s own Chris MaGee) gave a Special Mention to Yojyu Matsubayashi’s documentary “Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape” while bestowing the main award to Juichiro Yamasaki’s feature debut, “The Sound of Light.” My personal reflection on 3-11 during the festival occurred via a short and feature pairing that began with “Ten Days Before Spring,” written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Stefanie Kolk. Following a Japanese woman living and working in Amsterdam (Misaki Yamada) who desperately tries to make contact with her mother shortly after the tsunami hits, the fictional film perfectly captures the utter helplessness and agonizing worry that so many like the heroine must have experienced while waiting to hear from their loved ones in Japan. She has no choice but to go through the motions of her daily routine while ominous signs like the unanswered phone calls and a package from Japan sent prior to the disaster emphasize the inescapable, terrible sense of ambiguity. Not wasting any of its 13 minutes, the film wisely utilizes a lean, observational style to depict with commendable clarity the main character’s emotional state. Jumping from that distant vantage point straight into directly affected zones on the Japanese coast shortly after the tsunami, Koichi Omiya’s “The Sketch of Mujo” maintains a very specific approach to make its own impression on viewers. No music, no voiceovers, no direct allusions to the filmmakers’ presence behind the camera – just occasional interviews with survivors and shot after lingering shot of the immeasurable quantities of debris, ruins and scattered belongings left in the wake of the waves.

 The Egoists
Arriving late in the festival lineup, Ryuichi Hiroki’s “The Egoists” supplied an electrifying jolt of sexiness and tragic recklessness to its lucky audience. Small-time thug Kazu (Kengo Kora) and topless dancer Machiko (Anne Suzuki) decide to ditch Tokyo and start a new life together, but disagreements with his father, difficult patches in the relationship and, most seriously, a towering debt to some particularly nasty yakuza soon begin to press heavily upon their initial dreams of bliss and escape. Strongly evoking Jean-Luc Godard’s classic tales of doomed love – think “Breathless” or “Pierrot le fou” – “The Egoists” captivates with its ode to the glorious highs and cruel lows of passionate, destructive youth. Another film that very nearly managed to be just as compelling was Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “My Back Page,” which portrays a young reporter’s immersion in the revolutionary activities of 1970s Japan and bond with an alleged member of a radical group. The storytelling and character development is multi-layered and engaging, though some may leave the film craving a deeper immersion in the nitty-gritty of investigative research (as in David Fincher’s “Zodiac”) or the narrative trajectories and details of history (as in Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos”). Fortunately, festival-goers had opportunities to further educate themselves in this tumultuous era of Japan’s political history through the efforts of Vertigo Magazine commissioning editor and film curator Julian Ross, who delivered a talk entitled “Images of Protest, Images as Protest: Japanese Cinema and Political Activism,” which covered the early May Day protests of the 1920s and ‘30s; such filmmakers as Shinsuke Ogawa, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masao Adachi; and the more recent protest activities in the wake of 3-11, among many other subjects. The festival also featured a series of Japanese protest film screenings including works by Ogawa and Jonouchi at Frankfurt’s Deutsches Filmmuseum.

The Great Rabbit 

Another guest present throughout the festival was Dr. Catherine Munroe Hotes of the Nishikata Film Review blog, who was involved in multiple events representing another facet of Japanese cinema: animation. A specialist in the field, Dr. Hotes assembled the animated shorts program entitled “Spaces In-Between: Indie Animated Shorts from Japan,” which included works by Tomoyasu Murata (“Lemon’s Road”), Akino Kondo (“Kiya Kiya”), Koji Yamamura (“Muybridge’s Strings”), Ryo Hirano (“Holiday”), Mirai Mizue (“Modern,” “Modern No. 2”) and Atsushi Wada (“In a Pig’s Eye,” “The Great Rabbit”). Dr. Hotes also delivered a talk on puppet master Kihachiro Kawamoto, whom she has written about for the “Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2,” and conducted an onstage interview with Wada about his work.

Our Homeland

Easily the most moving film I encountered this year at Nippon Connection was, fittingly, the very last one I saw, sneakily lying in wait in the lineup to trump the previous offerings (despite their respective strengths) with its calm, controlled power. Two years previous, I was greatly impressed by Korean-Japanese filmmaker Yonghi Yang’s documentary “Sona, the Other Myself” when it was screened at the festival; now, making her transition into feature filmmaking with “Our Homeland,” she continues to explore the troubling effects of North Korea’s controlling regime and, more specifically, how it has divided her family by preventing her from maintaining regular contact with her three brothers since they moved back to the isolated nation in the 1970s. Based on Yang’s personal experiences, her new film stars Arata Iura (better known simply as Arata) as Songho, a Japanese man who has lived in North Korea for 25 years away from the rest of his family. Permitted a three-month visit to Japan to treat a brain tumor (an opportunity that took five years to secure), he is reunited with his family and friends, among them his gruff father (Masane Tsukayama), who still remains firmly devoted to North Korea’s ideology, and his caring sister Rie (Sakura Ando), who is unafraid to voice her disgust at the absurd conditions that define Songho’s situation. A painful sense of restriction and temporality permeates every second of Songho’s visit, underlined by the physical presence of his stoic North Korean escort Mr. Yang (Yang Ik-Joon, the writer and director of 2008’s “Breathless”). Iura’s performance does so much to reflect the traumas suffered by his character – his cautious reservation, nervous smiles and extreme shyness are all the signs of a man who has spent most of his life afraid of testing the dangerous authority he lives under, and who can still feel its hold on him during this all-too-brief reprieve. Besides being a perfectly rendered consideration of a political subject through an intensely personal story, “Our Homeland” reveals with incredible insight just how much many might take for granted because they are closer to Rie’s situation than Songho’s, and thus able to enjoy the closeness of family, freedom of expression and privileges of a liberal society without fear of dire and immediate repercussions. We need a film like this every now and then (and maybe a little more often than that) to be reminded of both our own good fortunes and the grotesque injustices that still persist in certain parts of the world. After the diverse array of delights, shocks and food for thought that my selection of films left me with throughout the week, it seemed proper to finally conclude the festival (and, ironically, begin my journey home to my own family) on a note of grateful contemplation.

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Throughout the festival, attendees could watch artist Kozue Kodama as she "live-painted" a new picture from scratch

Catherine Munroe Hotes during her talk with animator Atsushi Wada

Group picture of assembled guests and staff

Nippon Visions jurors Andreas Platthaus, Chris MaGee and Yonghi Yang during the awards announcements

Yonghi Yang introducing her film "Our Homeland" with festival director Marion Klomfass

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Personal Top Ten:

1) Our Homeland (Yonghi Yang)
2) Kotoko (Shinya Tsukamoto)
3) Casting Blossoms to the Sky (Nobuhiko Obayashi)
4) The Egoists (Ryuichi Hiroki)
4.5) Ten Days Before Spring (Stefanie Kolk)
5) Sukiyaki (Tetsu Maeda)
6) The Woodsman and the Rain (Shûichi Okita)
7) The Sound of Light (Juichiro Yamasaki)
8) My Back Page (Nobuhiro Yamashita)
9) Come As You Are (Kôta Yoshida)
10) Postcard (Kaneto Shindo)

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Other films featured throughout Nippon Connection 2012 that have been reviewed on the Pow-Wow:

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Nippon Cinema Award: The Woodsman and the Rain (Shûichi Okita)
2nd Place: Tada's Do-It-All House (Tatsushi Omori)
3rd Place: Fukushima Hula Girls (Masaki Kobayashi)

Nippon Visions Award: The Sound of Light (Juichiro Yamasaki)
Special Mention: Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape (Yojyu Matsubayashi)

VGF Nippon in Motion Award: Koi-Man (Micaela Fonseca)

2nd Place: Bōru (Florian Gautier, Stephan Altenhein)

3rd Place: Chado: The Way of Tea (Andrej Uduc)

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Both Chris and I would once again like to thank all the hard-working organizers, volunteers, technicians and press relations personnel who so warmly welcomed us and the other attendees and made this film festival such a positive and memorable experience.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


ソーローなんてくだらない (Sôrô nante kudaranai)

Released: 2011

Director: Kôta Yoshida

Tateto Serizawa
Nagisa Umeno
Saya Yasuda

Running time: 102 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

The setup for Kôta Yoshida’s latest film sounds like it wouldn’t at all be out of place in one of Judd Apatow’s projects: a young slacker named Haruo (Tateto Serizawa) who is stuck in his job as a video store supervisor faces an embarrassing problem that impedes his ability to form proper romantic relationships: premature ejaculation. After Momose, an alluring new employee, arrives at his store, he decides to actively attempt to cure himself. However, this task is not that easy to pull off in his apartment, where his roommate Noriko (Nagisa Umeno), limited living space and thin walls eliminate any privacy he hopes to achieve. When the website he consults instructs him to find a partner to help him, Haruo comes up with a bold proposition: in return for chipping in more money for rent and keeping the place clean, he wants Noriko to assist him in his goal to endure sexual activity for fifteen minutes. After much pleading and sucking up, she agrees to do him this very personal favor.
“Come As You Are” certainly contains the sex comedy ingredients one would expect from that description (not to mention the cheeky English title). Multiple scenes show, through careful camera positions and blocking, Haruo desperately testing his endurance with several masturbation sessions and engaging in intimate encounters that end in awkwardness and failure. At one point, the poor guy can’t even keep himself from cursing and yelling at his own malfunctioning member. But rather than simply fishing for laughs to be had at his characters’ expense, Yoshida ensures that the latter – particularly Haruo and Noriko – are properly developed and given personalities that extend far beyond the comic situations. In doing so, both Yoshida and his talented actors are to be commended. Serizawa’s portrayal of Haruo is especially impressive for how he constantly uses body language and facial expressions to reflect his character’s bound-up insecurities and tormented yearning. The sad attempts at feigning indifference, the all-too-brief flashes of confidence, the brutally frank confessions and humiliations – they all give real weight to Haruo’s plight and make him intensely sympathetic. Opposite him, Umeno’s Noriko acts as the more practical and mature one who keeps herself focused on her own priorities, which include a crucial school exam. Her thrice-daily “help” sessions with Haruo are dutifully carried out with an old sock of his (eventually replaced by gloves) and are aurally portrayed by way of some wonderfully detailed sound effects.

Perhaps predictably, the unique arrangement between Haruo and Noriko eventually reveals the genuine feelings they have for one another. But don’t be fooled – this is not a simple, meet-cute romantic comedy. Instead, the film remains focused on the problems that plague and, in fact, define Haruo’s personal life. Having worked at the video store and lived in the same apartment for eight years, he prefers to tell people he is pursuing acting jobs on the side when in fact he has clearly abandoned that dream. Directionless and lazy, the only real control he seems able to exercise is over the shift schedule at work, which he mostly uses so he can attempt to woo Momose. Yet through Noriko and others, he steadily realizes just how sad and self-destructive his current lifestyle has become. After a certain point, one wonders if his performance problem is in fact the latest warning sign that he needs to make some serious changes for his own good.
Kôta Yoshida is probably best known for his 2010 film “Yuriko’s Aroma,” another refreshingly honest and insightful work about people’s sex lives and the complications within them that can spawn alienation. This is an area he has proven himself to be quite talented in, as he clearly understands that, unlike so many other films that take such matters for granted, human sexuality is a strange and complex thing that everyone experiences differently. Yoshida has openly demonstrated his sympathies for the less confident underdogs of the world, in the process exploring the more sensitive issues that can lie in waiting when affections and simple human urges are involved. His characters not only search for personal acceptance and fulfillment, but also a way they can achieve that ever-elusive thing called happiness without getting trampled upon by the so-called social norms they are so often challenged by. Indeed, Yoshida’s films seem to leave us with an important question: is there such a thing as being “normal?” If Yoshida suggests that the answer is no, then he also makes it clear that that is not such a bad thing.


ひかりのおと (Hikari no oto)

Released: 2011

Director: Juichiro Yamasaki

Yoshitomo Fujihisa
Toyoyuki Sato
Yoshiko Nakamoto
Eri Mori

Running time: 89 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

“The Sound of Light” is a film entirely set in one of the tougher corners of the world; a place where hard work is a minimum requirement for making a living – and not even that can guarantee prosperity or even survival. Yoshitomo Fujihisa plays the main character Yusuke, a young man who, three years prior to the events of the film, moved back to his family’s farm in the mountain town of Maniwa in Okayama Prefecture from Tokyo after his father (Toyoyuki Sato) badly injured his foot. This move put Yusuke’s ambitions of pursuing a musical career on indefinite hold – a necessary sacrifice so he could lend a much-needed hand in the many physically demanding tasks dutifully upheld by his father and grandmother (Junko Sato) over the years. A small dairy farm fighting off debt, the business requires the constant feeding and milking of its cows, among other chores. Here, routine and dedication are the defining factors of daily life, bringing a regular flow of early mornings and toil.

The events of “The Sound of Light” are overshadowed by a past event described in an opening title card: three years ago, a dairy farmer named Natsuo Asano was killed in a car accident that spared his wife Yoko (Eri Mori) and son Ryota. These characters are tied to Yusuke’s family in various ways: Natsuo was best friends with Yoshiyuki (Takeshi Masago), Yusuke’s uncle, and the two men worked hard together to establish their own dairy farm. But in the wake of Natsuo’s death, Yoshiyuki’s life and business collapsed into ruin to the point that he now bears the reputation of a madman. Also, Yusuke is in love with Yoko and hopes to marry her – a plan complicated by Ryota being the only remaining male in the Asano family. If Yusuke and Yoko were to get married, the boy would have to go live with his grandmother on Natsuo’s side so as to continue the Asano family name, thus presenting Yoko with a difficult decision – and indicating another way how family responsibilities shape the characters’ lives.

One of the clear strengths of “The Sound of Light” is the total immersion into small-town farming life it gives. The impressive Chugoku mountains surround the town’s scattered farms, businesses and homes, emphasizing the rural isolation in which the characters eke out a living. Work maintains a strong grip on daily life: whether tending to vegetable patches, preparing meals or, most often, tending to the cows, Yusuke and his family – including his sister Haruko (Yoshiko Nakamoto) and her boyfriend Takashi (Soichiro Tsuji) who visit and lend a hand in the various chores – constantly see to the tall order of responsibilities that need to be met. Writer and director Juichiro Yamasaki, himself a Maniwa farmer, admirably approaches such actions with a still, observant eye that ably captures the quiet dedication of the farmers. The viewer is made quite aware of the tolls such a lifestyle demands – especially through Yoshiyuki, who is publicly regarded as a failure and a cautionary tale. Having driven away his wife, he burns down his barn, gives in to drinking and attempts suicide. His misfortunes show that it takes more than hard work to survive in farming; that loyal friends and family serve as irreplaceable supports for perseverance. But even then, the farmers are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. In one integral dialogue scene, Yoshiyuki explains to Yusuke how he and Natsuo had to contend with a sudden rise in feed costs and, more importantly, people’s indifference to local businesses in favor of convenience. “The harder you work, the less you get,” he says, underlining the dire consequences of the growth of world markets at the cost of the farmers’ hard-won labors. This bitter truth is not dwelled upon for too long, but its weight is certainly not lost on the viewer.

Impressively, Yamasaki maintains an even balance between depicting the real-life textures and issues of the farming community and the more narrative-dependent strand of the film dedicated to Yusuke’s personal situation. Visiting a graveyard of amplifiers in the woods and uncovering a hidden guitar and the organ his mother gave to him before leaving the family (alluding to a rift between her and Yusuke’s more farming-oriented father), he still clearly holds onto his love for making music. His father even offers to give him a saved bundle of one million yen to help re-ignite the distant dream of returning to Tokyo. Yet Yusuke remains bound to the important sense of duty that has kept him at the farm. As a son and the heir to the farm, the weight of expectation lies heavily upon his shoulders, even if his family grants him the permission necessary to break away.
“The Sound of Light” gives an even and honest portrayal of farming life, neither exaggerating the great endurance it requires nor holding it up as a utopian alternative to the light and bustle of Tokyo, which has never felt so distant in a Japanese film as it does here. But occasionally, Yamasaki allows for moments of hope and beauty: the night scene in which an actual calf is born, Yusuke’s song to his mother quietly performed in a cold barn, the annual climb up a nearby mountain on the morning of New Year’s Day to see the first sunlight of the year. Such scenes make Yusuke’s journey seem worth the challenges it has brought him, confirming that the sacrifices he made were willingly and, at times, perhaps even gladly chosen.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

NIPPON CONNECTION ’12 REVIEW: The Woodsman and the Rain

キツツキと雨 (Kitsutsuki to ame)

Released: 2011

Director: Shûichi Okita

Kôji Yakusho
Shun Oguri
Kengo Kora
Asami Usuda
Kanji Furutachi

Running time: 129 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

We first see the woodsman hard at work felling a tree. In fact, we hear him first, his chainsaw buzzing away in an otherwise peaceful, sun-lit forest. However, he is eventually interrupted by a bespectacled man who emerges from the wilderness and, after nearly getting crushed by a falling tree, timidly asks him to stop working. He explains that a film crew is shooting nearby, and they need quiet for the scene. The woodsman gruffly complies. Little does he know that this will in fact be the first occasion of many in which the film crew will ask for his assistance, the next one involving tracking down the perfect river for a scene.

Played by Kôji Yakusho, the woodsman, Katsu, lives a quiet and simple life in the mountain town of Yamamura. The two-year anniversary of his wife’s death is nearing, and he lives alone with his teenage son (Kengo Kora), whose laziness and difficulties in finding a new job have caused some tension to arise between them. Katsu’s steady routine of neatly preparing meals for himself, interacting with his three work buddies and cutting down and moving timber is gradually overturned by the arrival of the film crew. The location scout for the river, wherein Katsu’s sincere attempts to find the crew a “pretty” spot are initially rejected for being too impractical for the shoot’s requirements, eventually leads to another, totally unexpected request: for Katsu to don a wig and ghoulish makeup and play a menacing zombie for the movie! Afterwards, he is invited to see the dailies with the rest of the crew, which really sparks his curiosity and begins to turn his impatience with the demanding moviemakers into genuine excitement.

As he first begins to help the film crew, Katsu notices – and actually berates – a young man with an untidy mop of hair and a sweatshirt who seems all but paralyzed by shyness, hindering any possibility of being useful to the rest of the team. He turns out to be Koichi Tanabe (Shun Oguri), the terribly inexperienced writer and director of the zombie film, which is entitled “Utopia.” He unsuccessfully attempts to flee from his duties at a train station and is forced to return to the set the next day, where he is daunted by the many questions and demands thrown at him by his actors and technicians. Yet Katsu compulsively returns to the film set and proves to be a source of comfort and reassurance for the flustered director. One of the nicest scenes between the two very different men is a lunchtime conversation in which Katsu points out two pine trees – one twenty-five years old, one sixty, matching Koichi and Katsu’s respective ages – and says that it takes one hundred years for a pine to fully mature, suggesting that they naturally both still have some growing up to do.

“The Woodsman and the Rain” mainly chronicles Koichi’s steady acceptance of his role as director while Katsu all but pounces on new ways of helping out the production. He soon starts getting the whole town involved, recruiting its inhabitants to play pale-skinned zombies and members of an all-female, bamboo spear-wielding army. The infectious joy and enthusiasm the townsfolk give off as they devote themselves to the shoot highlight filmmaking as a truly collaborative event. As in François Truffaut’s classic tribute to the craft, “Day for Night,” filmmaking helps bring people together in a spirit of fun and productivity. Notably, there are two occasions when Katsu demonstrates his talent for predicting the weather: first near the beginning, when a rainstorm halts the logging crew’s efforts, then later on when another torrential downpour halt the filming of a crucial sequence. Such scenes, indicating the woodsman’s instinctive bond with the rain (hence the film’s title), are perhaps meant to show how the duties of a lumberjack aren’t that different from those of a filmmaker: both involve hard work and dedication, and are ultimately at the mercy of such larger forces as nature and circumstance.

Through the warm bond that forms between Katsu and Koichi, “The Woodsman and the Rain” illustrates the universal process of discovering and seizing our true callings in life. This can involve summoning hidden reserves of courage and confidence, as Koichi hesitatingly experiences, or learning how to manage pre-existing commitments to family, as both Katsu and his son discover. But such worries can become so small and insignificant compared to the spiritual nourishment offered by clear sensations of purpose and passion – whether they come from cutting down trees or making the next great Japanese zombie movie.

NIPPON CONNECTION ’12 REVIEW: Die! Directors, Die!

死ね! 死ね! シネマ (Shine! Shine! Shinema)

Released: 2011

Director: Makoto Shinozaki

Kyoko Mori
Akemi Suzuki
Hiromasa Kaneko
Yoshiharu Fujii
Toshiki Kudo

Running time: 72 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

“Die! Directors, Die!” feels very much like a giant joke being played on its audience. But the question is whether it is a sneakily elaborate one that actually has some meaning behind its attempts at comedy or a winding, clumsily told one that botches its own punch line. The surface elements of the film will likely turn off some viewers right away: shakey, unpolished MiniDV camerawork; jarring, shrill jump scares and bursts of violence and a cheap, in-your-face approach to gore that seems directly inspired by the notorious “Guinea Pig” film series. In many respects, it cleanly fits in with the multitudes of v-cinema schlock that have come before it. But where it throws a curve ball of-sorts is in its numerous comments on filmmaking and the true roles of both directors and movies, which are first introduced through its amusingly provocative title.
“Die! Directors, Die!” opens with a student’s graduating film being shown in a screening room at the newly relocated Film School of Tokyo. The project is essentially a loud and clunky mash-up of horror movie imagery that the young director intended to be “the ultimate horror film.” His teacher, Shimazaki, harshly criticizes the film and labels it as a disgrace to filmmaking, but shortly after he in turn is denounced by another student who hurls such scathing remarks as, “Pure directorial visions suck!” This causes Shimazaki to suffer a mental breakdown, and he bursts back into the screening room armed with a spear attached to a camera that brings to mind a similar weapon from Michael Powell’s famous “Peeping Tom.” With it, he claims forty-two victims in an extended, over-the-top massacre sequence before attempting to kill himself, then vanishing. Four years later, a group of film students led by Natsuki, their controlling director, seek out the site of the incident to shoot their own film. However, odd paranormal occurrences and strange behavior from some of the crewmembers soon give way to a chaotic and unpredictable onslaught of events.

Perhaps to look too closely at – or react too negatively to – the rough, amateurish quality of “Die! Directors, Die!” is to miss or ignore the opinions declared by the young filmmaker at the beginning, who proudly claims he doesn’t care at all about film theory and believes he makes films for audiences, not himself. Or maybe it is the highly negative portrayal of directors, from the naïve student to Shimazaki to the crazed Natsuki, that is most important here. Several other characters also trash-talk cinematic authors, including a member of Natsuki’s crew who exclaims, “Directors are all a bunch of lunatics.” It could be that all of this is meant to address and attack the tendency of filmgoers – particularly cinephiles – to focus on the director and his or her voice as the main creative factors in a film. And in turn, perhaps cinema itself – or, at least, the kinds of cinema that commonly attract attention and praise – is being rejected outright, and “Die! Directors, Die!” is meant to be seen as a piece of anti-cinema that gleefully embraces its unattractive techniques as an extended middle finger to established habits and expectations.
But for every intriguing, potentially thought-provoking ingredient, including the anti-director remarks, a number of references to well-known films and filmmakers and a trip to snowy Yubari – of course, home to the legendary Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival – there are at least two that throw wrenches into the works, blurring any meaningful attempts at coherent commentary with goofiness, immaturity and befuddlement. The horror plotline, complete with classic pale-skinned, long-haired, contorting ghosts and a violence-inducing video recording, seems to suggest an attempt at a full-fledged genre product rather than a clever deconstruction. The purposely icky, gratuitous instances of violence come across as plain silly and designed solely to court shocks and laughs – especially when it reaches such ludicrous points as a newly-born, clearly fake baby being swung around a room by its umbilical cord. The characters are never fully developed enough to warrant a proper connection with the viewers, and their wandering trajectories are often cumbersome and tiring to watch unfold. Altogether, despite all the suggestions that there is something liberating and valuable to take away from the shamelessly crude nature of “Die! Directors, Die!” I simply felt that it was too muddled and unrefined to be taken seriously all the way. But then again, maybe I’m just blind to the inherent suckiness of pure directorial visions.