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.


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