Friday, March 19, 2010

TSJFF'10 REVIEW: Momo & Mikan Programs

by Chris MaGee

This Thursday saw the 7th annual Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival kick off in the city. Like its previous six offerings Festival Director Akiko Ohata and fest staff have pulled together a fantastic line-up of short films from Japan that have both garnered huge buzz (Kunio Kato's Oscar-winning "La Maison en Petits Cubes"), films that have become viral hits online (Tsuneo Goda's "Komaneko: The Curious Cat"), but the vast majority are films unknown here in North America by filmmakers who should have a higher profile. That's what makes TJSFF so important, and for Japanese film fans so much fun. As an added bonus TJSFF have brought two filmmakers to meet their new Canadian audiences - Riichiro Mashima, one of the dozen directors behind the 2008 animated comedy "Tokyo OnlyPic", and Masaya Kakehi, the 32-year-old filmmaker who gained international attention by directing Takeshi Kaneshiro in the 2008 supernatural romance "Sweet Rain: Accuracy of Death." Kakehi was honoured by having a selection of his short film work open this year's TJSFF... but don't worry if you think you missed it. It will be screened again Saturday, March 20th at 10:30PM. For the full TJSFF schedule click here.

Today we'll take a look at the films that make up two of the five programs at this year's Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival - Momo (Peach): Masaya Kakehi on the Cusp, and Mikan (Orange). Check back in the coming days for more coverage of this year's fest.

Momo (Peach) Program: Masaya Kakehi on the Cusp

Love Story of Fingers

Yusuke and Yujiro are inseparable. They went to school together, they play in a band together, they're as tight as two guys can be. Sayako and Sachiyo are the same, two girlfriends that have never been apart. These two sets of friends are as close as fingers on the same hand... literally. "Love Story of Fingers" is filmmaking that uses the bare minimum of elements - a story of romance that comes between these friends using a simple story and finger puppets. Regardless of its non-existent budget this film had the audience at this year's TJSFF guffawing with laughter, especially during those intense love scenes!

Life in Additional Time/ Life in Additional Time 2nd Leg (above)

What would happen ifat the very last moment of your life you were given a little bit more time? Even if it were just a half hour? To celebrate the skewed imagination of Masaya Kakehi the TJSFF programmers are premiering two of the short episodes of the Fuji TV comedy series "Life in Additional Time" that ask those very same questions. In the first short a man named Miura is about to get knocked off by a thug pointing a gun to his head, but when the bullet hangs suspended in mid-air and a group of soccer referees appears Miura gets, if not a new lease on life, then 40 extra minutes of it. It turns out he'll use his time to try and convince his girlfriend Lisa to spend the rest of his life with him. A shot life, yes, but it's the thought that counts. For the "2nd Leg" of "Life in Additional Time" a suicidal woman named Yumiko figures her only option after a break-up is to jump off the top of her apartment building, and she does, but the whistle is blown, the refs intervene and she gets a gran total of 44-minutes to sort her head out. Both episodes of "Life in Additional Time" play up these brief reprieves with broad visual comedy (the scene where Yumiko tries to gas herself is priceless), but besides the hilarious play-by-play commentary given in voice over the actual stories of each episode, no matter the imaginative detours they end up taking, ever fully gel. Both noble efforts though.

Canned Beauties (Bijyo-Can)

Yuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is mystified as to how his homely otaku neighbor, Fujiro, can attract such gorgeous women... and in such great numbers! Dozens of tall busty women spill out of the next door apartment each morning and they're usually lugging garbage bags filled with empty tin cans. When his girlfriend heads out of town on a business trip Yuta gets to the bottom of this mystery. It turns out that Fujiro is buying these women, not from an escort service, but buying them sealed in cans filled with liquid tht can then be reconstituted into ideal girlfriends! Yuta steals the last full can from Fujro's apartment to try this crazy technology for himself, but he doesn't get exactly what he expected. "Canned Beauties (Bijyo-Can)" was also shot for Fuji TV, but instead of the just-for-laughs "Life in Additional Time" this surreal 23-minute romance is worthy of being included alongside the very best of the vintage "Twilight Zone" shows. Yes, there are laughs aplenty at the beginning of the film, but Kakehi quickly injects a healthy amount of pathos and some very intriguing plot twists. The best of the Momo Program, "Canned Beauties" also showcases Kakehi's impressive directorial, production design and editing skills.

Honda Green Machine

Here's one of the funnier entries into the Kakehi retrospective, but one that was very oddly programmed. "Honda Green Machine" is made up of multiple comedy shorts about the creation of Honda's 2010 Insight, a hybrid vehicle that utilizes Honda's new Integrated Motor Assist System to reduce harmful carbon emissions. A zany pair of automobile engineers take a car abandoned by its eco-friendly owners and rework it into the ultimate green car, and Kakehi's decision to have the cars played by actors and actresses wearing car hats is very funny... for the first 10-minutes. The problem is that all the episodes, which combined run for a half hour, were screened back to back. By the last episode the audience was glad to see the Insight drive into the sunset. The episodes that make up "Honda Green Machine" would have been better served if they'd been been split up and screened between the other films in this Kakehi program.

Mikan (Orange) Program

Sea and Life: A Tale of Urashima Taro - Sebastien Godard (2008)

Eat your heart out, Hayao Miyazaki. You've been driving your "Nature first" environmental message home through most of your feature filmmaking career, but it looks like a group of Japanese grade school students have bested you by animating an eco-friendly fantasy that might just out-do "Princess Mononoke". The school kids enlisted by Belgian director Sebastian Godard to retell the classic Japanese folk tale of Urashima Taro and his trip to the bottom of the ocean on the back of a sea turtle is rendered in bright pencil crayon colours, but it's the kids themselves who through their narration give this often told story it's ecological spin. Once Urashima Taro and his turtle companion reach the ocean floor and the magical Dragon Kingdom it looks more like a junkyard. All that dumping of waste into the sea has certainly taken its toll and Taro and the Princess of Dragon Kingdom take it upon themselves to clean things up. Funny, heartwarming, and with wonderfully playful animation "Sea and Life: A Tale of Urashima Taro" let's Japan's younger generation give us a piece of their mind.

Japan Bowling Council - Riichiro Mashima (2005)

While the inclusion of all of Masaya Kakehi's "Honda Green Machine" commercial shorts proved a bit exhausting for the audience I saw them with, the two commercial directed by Riichiro Mashima for the Japan Bowling Council had everyone in the theatre howling with laughter. In the past few years bowling has become hugely popular with certain sectors of Japanese society, and to promote this booming sport the Council commissioned these PSO's that Mashima revealed were designed to show the fun of bowling without actually showing the sport being played. Scenes where a man proposes to his girlfriend by placing her fingers into the holes of a bowling ball instead of a diamond engagement ring, or how he later stuffs the ball under his sweater to feel what his pregnant wife experiences were out-of-left-field hilarious, but the final shot of a baby sleeping beside a bowling ball with the tag line "No bowling, no life" is pure comedy gold.

Striped Tiger and White Rabbit - Kaoru Furuko (2009)

After the charm and ingenuity of "Sea and Life: A Tale of Urashima Taro" Kaoru Furuko's "Striped Tiger and White Rabbit" started with great promise. The tale of a friendship between a white rabbit and a jungle tiger the action is depicted using ingenious collaging of fabrics, jewelery, beads, paper, and all other types of material. The good will between these two animal friends ebbs though when the rabbit's true devious nature comes to the fore, but by that point the film has already gone on longer than it should. No matter how beautiful the materials used in the stop-motion animation process "Striped Tiger and White Rabbit" could have (and should have) been a much shorter film than its 14-minute running time.

Please Go Away - Esuke Naito (2008)

Here's the perfect example of a film that overcomes its budgetary constraints and a paper-thin plotline to deliver exactly what it set out to - laughs and scares. The premise is dead simple: a wife and her husband sit down for breakfast, but they are quickly plagued by the restless spirit of a dead woman. While that pretty much sums up the story of this 5-minute film it's not the narrative that makes "Please Go Away" so successful. From the couple's body language and the fact that the wife's breakfast consists of rice sprinkled with furikake and green tea while her husband chomps on toast washed down with milk we can tell how out of sync they are. It turns out that they're so out of sync that only he can see the chilling spectre of a woman in the room. Her appearances are downright frightening, especially when she appears from under the glass-top breakfast table, but the husband's reactions are just as funny as the ghost is terrifying. Why are the husband and wife not getting along? Who is this ghost? Irrelevant. What counts is the mood and the gory, belly laugh-inducing ending.

Hear from You - Kei Ishikawa (2006)

Kei Ishikawa's short documentary "Hear from You" probably has to be one of the most puzzling of this year's TJSFF line-up, and it's not because it was filmed in Poland. The film is a portrait of Margaret, a deaf mute polish woman who met her Japanese husband, Toshiaki who is also a deaf mute, when he was biking across Europe. They married and had two children, daughter Marta and son Adam, but due to a lack of work in Poland Toshiaki had to return to Japan. From there he sends back money to his family as well as video-taped messages. While Ishikawa's camera captures Margaret and her children using beautiful tracking shots through their home the documentary itself literally goes nowhere. Margaret's main goal is to get herself and her children on a plane to japan to be reunited with Toshiaki, but their trip never happens. They never even get to the airport. They never even get out of their backyard. "Hear from You" is wonderful technical filmmaking combined with an idea that just runs out of steam far too quickly.

A Lying Woman's Daybreak - Madoka Kumagai (2009) (above)

Infidelity is a tough subject, and portraying a woman who breaks up a marriage as anything other than a horned demon is an even more difficult task, but one that director Madoka Kumagai nearly pulls off with the half hour short "A Lying Woman's Daybreak". Piano teacher Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto) is just trying to give her young student a lesson when she's interrupted by the frantic wife of her lover. She yells outside her small house, hammering notices reading "Thieving Bitch" to her door. When Yuriko's husband discovers her trying to pull the notices down things go from bad to worse. Soon Yuriko finds herself stripped of everything she'd loved up to that point - her husband, her lover, her piano students and eventually her home. She's reduced to working in a deli assembling bento lunches, a job that has her delivering box lunches to the door of another adulteress who is being mercilessly harassed by the wife of her own lover. The pain written on this woman's face as she crumples to Yuriko's feet and howls "What did I do that was so wrong?! All I did was love him!" sent a chill down my spine. Madoka Kumagai won the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival for her film "Hakko", and it's good to see her continuing to make quality films that challenge our preconceptions as "A Lying Woman's Daybreak" does by sharing the blame and the emotional devastation of infidelity just as much with its absent male characters as it does with its female lead. The ending, which involves a nasty motorcycle accident, may be a bit rushed, but on the whole I felt this was the strongest entry into the Mikan Program.