Saturday, August 7, 2010

Director We Love: Naoko Ogigami

by Eric Evans

Naoko Ogigami is one of the new wave of woman directors to somehow thrive in Japan's male-dominated film industry. Her work, while woman-centric in that most of her protagonists are women, does not pander to chick-flick stereotypes. You won't find any "Sex in the City"-style retail therapy here, but what you will find are well-rounded characters with peculiarities and problems—just like real people. Ogigami delights in placing these characters in situations which force them out of ruts, then showing how they react. The results are often comic and poignant.

Unlike her female J-film contemporaries Momoko Ando and Shimiko Sato, Ogigami hasn't seen any of her films released on DVD in English-speaking countries. But it's not for lack of quality work. Ogigami's films all feature similar approachability and charm that crosses borders; In fact, judging by the culture-crossing of her best-known work ("Kamome Shokudo") and her upcoming "Toilet", she might be one of the more borderless directors working today. Tonally you'd be hard pressed to categorize her, as her work coasts effortlessly between the lighter drama of "Good Morning"-era Ozu and the just-this-side-of-precious characterizations of Wes Anderson. As writer/director, she has an ease and fluency in crafting believable children; No one since John Hughes has created kid and teen characters as entertainingly honest and real as those in "Barber Yoshino" or "Koi Wa Go Shichi Go". And while she is prone to occasional flights of whimsy that threaten to derail her films (the early "Hoshino-kun and Yumeno-kun", "Megane"), she has so far managed to develop a narrative style that sets her apart from her contemporaries and delight audiences fortunate enough to discover her work. And foodies? Get ready to be tantalized: Ogigami will have your mouth watering for everything from onigiri to broiled fish to shaved ice.

This is a chronologic overview of her films so far. These titles are available on region 2 DVD from Japan, and "Kamome Shokudo" and "Megane" are also available in less expensive English-subtitled editions from Hong Kong, Korea, and elsewhere.

Hoshino-kun and Yumeno-kun (2000)

Shot on video (and understandably lacking the finesse of her later work), "Hoshino-kun and Yumeno-kun" establishes Ogigami's signature actor-friendly style. The film follows the misadventures of two extraterrestrials disguised as Japanese teen boys (titular characters Hoshino and Yumeno). Ogigami uses video to her advantage, staying mobile in an almost documentary style. As in all her work, she shoots longish takes and allows the actors the freedom to move and react to their environments. No one ever seems actorly in an Ogigami film; a character's bedroom feels like a character's bedroom due to the care and attention paid to the art direction but primarily because the director shows them at such ease and comfort in their surroundings. Not known for a Tarantinoesque fascination with movement or violence, Ogigami essentially creates a playfully neutered home invasion though the use of freeze-frames and sped-up audio. It's one of a handful of technical experiment seeds sown here which reap more accomplished work down the road.

"Hoshino-kun and Yumeno-kun" doesn't appear on IMDB or any other online filmographies, but is a PFF-produced DVD.

Barber Yoshino (2004)

The first proper film in Ogigami's filmography is an absolute charmer. "Barber Yoshino" tells the tale of a town with a peculiar tradition: All the boys wear the exact same pudding-bowl haircut, administered by the town's only hairstylist, Barber Yoshino (the inimitable Masako Motai, who appears in all of Ogigami's films). All of the local boys accept the situation until the arrival of a new kid from Tokyo who has spiked, blond-highlighted hair that attracts the attention of all the girls in junior high. The success of the film lies entirely in Ogigami's ability to get natural, believable, yet comic performances from a handful of preteen boys. Having written the roles with an uncanny insight into budding male adolescence (the boys are both fascinated and by and conflicted with gravure, looking for any clues about the girls in their class but feeling like it's above their heads; they all fancy the same girl, not too coincidentally the one with a training bra). Think "Stand By Me" but in a rural Japanese cultural context. For a 'first' film it is remarkably polished and assured. An English-subtitled print of "Barber Yoshino" traveled the film fest circuit briefly upon release but has since been swallowed up by time; the Japan-only DVD is sans subs.

Koi Wa Go Shichi Go! (2005)

If Imagine a teen comedy featuring an Americanized (but not Yanqui) tomboy, an innocently endearing almost-stalker, a ukulele-playing maybe-lesbian, a sweetly suicidal chubby girl, and a jock who secretly loved writing poetry. Interested? How about if all of them but the jock joined a competitive haiku club over their crushes on one another? Ogigami's stab at mainstream commercial film is the wildly successful "Koi Wa Go Shichi Go!", a losers-become-winners movie cut from the "Waterboys" cloth but in a league of its own by way of the writer/director's unerringly honest approach to teen angst. Channeling "The Breakfast Club" but without the neat categories, "Koi" manages to laugh with, not at, its misfit characters as they learn to navigate one another in competition and high school. Ogigami's visual trick of bringing the poems to life through isolated visualizations works beautifully; the characters recite, but the camera moves and shows them in a world of their own as they express themselves in 5-7-5. The teen cast never hits a wrong note.

Kamome Shokudo (2006)

New to Ogigami's work? Start here. Ogigami's biggest hit is an unlikely crowd-pleaser (adapted from the novel by Yoko Mure) about three women who find one another, and themselves, in Finland. Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) has opened a 'Japanese soul food' restaurant in Helsinki because she feels the Finnish have a similar palate and will appreciate the simple pleasures of Japanese cooking. The film follows the eatery's growing pains as two additional Japanese women (Hairi Katagiri, she of the angular, lanky frame and expressive face, and Ogigami favorite Masako Motai) show up and offer their services. As the movie's many vignettes unfold it becomes clear that the sum is greater than the parts. The (thankfully fictitious) U.S. remake would undoubtedly feature all three dancing and singing a song in the kitchen, covered in flour as they bond. No such tomfoolery here—Ogigami maintains a quiet yet propulsive pace that yields a genuinely unique, singular and satisfying movie experience.

As an aside, this is one of the films I've routinely used as a J-film ice breaker. If someone is unfamiliar with Japanese cinema, "Kamome"'s warmth, tone and characters all exemplify what's right about Japanese dramas without any of the clichés or stereotypes.

Megane (2007)

Spiritual journeys often make bad cinema, but Ogigami's study on Being Present isn't any kind of diatribe masquerading as drama. It's part travelogue, part comedy, and all intriguing. On the surface it's about Taeko ("Kamome"'s Satomi Kobayashi) taking a vacation to a small Japanese island, and the peculiar characters she meets there. But the questions it poses underneath the surface of beautiful beaches and delicious food are personal, and without easy answers. It was this aspect of the film that confounded American audiences: Speaking to a writer for the San Francisco International Film Festival, Ogigami says "Many people want some kind of an answer to every question that is posed. They want to assign some kind of meaning to everything presented in the movie." "Megane" is about the personal journey, not the destination. There are plenty of laughs on the way, however. Ken Mitsuishi is simultaneously puzzled and assured as an innkeeper who only wants to rent rooms to people who have the talent to find the place; Mikako Ichikawa is passive aggressive, then plain aggressive, as a young and single schoolteacher; Masako Motai perplexes as a mystery woman who is either a kindly guru or the world's least-assuming cult leader. The blue skies and bluer seas of the film's island locale will have you googling flights, and the food scenes are unparalleled for inducing appetites.

Toilet (2010)

Scheduled for release this year and slated for Pia 2010, "Toilet" once again stars Masako Motai as the mother of three Canadian siblings. You can read the Pow-Wow's preview of it here and watch the preview here.

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