The UK’s biggest Japanese film festival is back. Here, James Balmont takes us through a mix of vibrant films that showcase the bustling and versatile country national cinema
The UK’s largest Japanese film festival, Japan Foundation Touring Film Program, returns this week for its 19th edition – with a program of 20 films traveling to cities including London, Manchester, Belfast and Dundee from early February to late March.
The festival has an impressive legacy – previous editions have provided UK premieres of works by directors as varied as Takashi Miike (Hearing), Nobuhiko Obayashi (lodge) and Japanese new wave director Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Wanderer). This year’s edition promises no less variety, with Japanese Oscar-nominated studio features and creative indie dramas appearing alongside rare and forgotten anime works and classics.
The theme of this year’s festival is “dark spirits.” The questions posed by this year’s lineup surround what constitutes such a definition – with mysterious personalities, psychological deterioration, criminal escapades and unconventional stories from corners of society. It all adds up to an array of works from a blend of vibrant cinematic voices, each remarkably unique in tone and style, yet united to showcase the country’s vibrant and versatile national cinema.
AnOther got into the heads (or more likely the orbits) of this year’s event programmers to give our take on some of the festival’s most compelling works. Check them out below and catch them in regional cinemas across the UK for a limited time only in the coming weeks.
When opening Life: Untitled, a shirtless girl tells her first sexual experience directly to the camera. This took place on Christmas Day when she was seventeen; she had been drunk to illness with a friend from school. Now she’s about to try her hand at being a sex worker. She challenges the viewer by addressing the camera directly: “Is my life worth anything?
A feeling of loss of self-esteem is at the heart of Life: Untitled, a drama about a series of tumultuous relationships between escorts at a cynical call girl agency in Tokyo – where the feeling that “we are worthless” is widely shared and accepted. But the film — adapted from a play written by director Kana Yamada, in her feature debut — is far less pessimistic than the premise suggests.
A cast of memorable characters (including a maniacal, TV-addicted “sex junkie” and a call girl who fell in love with her driver) bring warmth, humor and heart, while lead actor Sairi Itō (last seen times in Netflix’s The Naked Director) is one of many artists making an impression. Some critics call it the Japanese answer to Lizzy Borden’s Manhattan indie classic, working girls.
A power struggle develops in a failing publishing house after the unexpected death of its beloved CEO. Amidst the chaos, a maverick magazine editor hatches a series of audacious plans to safeguard the company’s future.
A vibrant and funny drama (with intensely funky musical cues), Kiba: fangs of fiction is particularly notable for its impressive cast and crew. Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill, audition) plays a top writer celebrating a 40-year career; Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo, Iron Man) is an affable bookseller; Yo Oizumi (Taken away as if by magic) plays the charismatic lead, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s favorite Lily Franky (Shoplifterslisten)) also appears in a cameo as a mystery man.
The film is the latest from Daihachi Yoshida, nominated in particular for the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for dramatic comedy Funuke: Show some love, you losers! in 2007.
Peroxide-haired rookie photographer Shu (Daichi Kaneko) has his portfolio rejected and ridiculed by a potential employer as he tries to seize his chance. But he gets a chance to prove himself when he’s asked to take pictures of a shy young woman named Yuka (Ruka Ishikawa, Howling in the rain), who became a kind of muse for him. It doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with her – and sparks fly as his career takes off. But despite their chemistry, Shu can’t help but suspect that Yuka might be hiding a secret.
Colorless, the feature debut of writer-director Takashi Koyama, treads on difficult ground when it comes to gender politics. But as an urban coming-of-age drama, it’s a gripping hit. Beyond the convincing work of the two main actors, it is the colors and the images of Colorless which really impress (something you would expect from a film about photography).
The camera work shifts from clinically framed snapshots to candid, wearable movement – with shots of pastel green shrubbery, graffiti-strewn alleyways and chain-link fences caught in the soft blue morning light providing a signature sumptuous visual here.
While Hollywood has hit heavy hitters like angry bull and Rocky, Japan’s best are often more modest in scope – with Shinya Tsukamoto‘s Fist of Tokyo and Takeshi Kitano Return of children among the best of the post-bubble economic era.
To add Blue, a new film from director Keisuke Yoshida, to this list. The film follows a series of captivating characters who each pursue boxing for different means: Tsuyoshi (Tokio Emoto, movie maze) is a shy arcade game player who struggles to impress a co-worker after losing in a fight with a schoolboy. He learns from a talented rival that his instructor, Nobuto (Kenichi Matsuyama, norwegian forest) has long eluded success in the ring. His teammate Kazuki (Masahiro Higashide, Asako I & II), meanwhile, aspires to fame despite the advice of his doctor.
Visceral fight scenes filmed up close in the ring with a handheld camera provide some of the Blue‘s best times, but there’s a heavy dose of The wrestler about it too – especially in the most sentimental moments.
Director Eiji Uchida won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film in 2020 for Midnight Swan, a drama about a transgender woman working as a dancer in a Tokyo nightclub. In 2021, he follows this success with Howling in the rain – which explores the struggles of a young director (Marika Matsumoto) who faces antagonistic crew members, indulgent actors and intrusive producers on the set of softcore porn in 1988.
The film is the latest in a long line of hyper-creative and innovative films Japanese Movies About Filmmaking, which include major crossover hits A cup of the dead (about a film crew making a zombie movie whose production is interrupted by an actual zombie invasion) and 2021’s micro-budget time travel fantasy Beyond the infinite two minutes.
Director Uchida dabbled in the genre before him, with the 2015 drama Lowlife Love telling the story of an independent filmmaker failing in his attempts to rebuild his career while maintaining his artistic integrity. The two works form a fine double bill – especially since the aforementioned lead artist, Kiyohiko Shibukawa (wheel of fortune and fantasy; 9 souls), appears in a total reversal of roles in Howling in the rain.
The stories of two women from different social classes unfold in several chapters in director Yukiko Sode’s latest work: Aristocrats.
At a decadent family dinner, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki, Hanagatami) announces that she has just broken off her engagement. Her family and friends insist she must find a new suitor, which leads to a series of incompatible dates before she finally falls in love with an aristocrat. At the same time, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara, norwegian forest) struggles to find her place in Tokyo after leaving her less well-off family in the countryside; she also finds herself taken by a rich man.
With women’s agency as the central theme in both stories, Aristocrats takes a critical look at themes such as gender politics, class, tradition and society in contemporary Japan. The result is a thought-provoking study that transcends national boundaries.
The sound of grass is one of three films screened this year at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Program starring Masahiro Higashide (Asako I & II; Blue), and for good reason – it’s a magnetic leader, as pictured here.
Opening with a leisurely-paced tracking shot of the handsome protagonist rolling through a dull, gray city on a skateboard, the film quickly shows that Higashide’s character, Kazuo, suffers from a mental health issue – one that requires medication. and regular visits to the doctor. . You could easily be fooled into thinking the rest of the film was a study in the regenerative power of jogging, as Kazuo works on his recovery to the sound of a ruminative, elegant piano score while racing along the coast of Hokkaido. But the road ahead is bumpier than it first appears.
An additional layer of meaning is revealed when you learn that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Yasushi Satô (author of the books And your bird can sing and The light only shines there) – who tragically committed suicide in 1990. Director Hisashi Sato, who also wrote the screenplays for Shinya Tsukamoto Fist of Tokyo and Hideo Nakata Chaos, brings the original novel to the screen in a delicate way in this meditative drama.