Text by Alison Frank
The Japan Foundation has hosted an annual touring film programme since 2004. This year, between 10 February – 28 March, a set of 9 contemporary Japanese films will tour 7 UK cities (London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Bristol and Nottingham). Two directors with films in the programme have been invited to introduce their work: Masayuki Suo (I Just Didn’t Do It, 2007) at London’s ICA and Katsumi Sakaguchi (Sleep, 2011) at both ICA and Sheffield’s Showroom & Workstation cinema.
The Japan Foundation selects a different theme for its touring programme every year: 2012’s provocative title, Whose Film It It Anyway?, suggests that the auteurs included defiantly resist interference in their artistic vision. Strangely, all the leaflets and web pages from the Japan Foundation and ICA seem to offer different explanations of the theme. In the absence of a clear rationale, insisting on a theme seems like a nervous attempt to keep the touring programme fresh. The Japan Foundation need not worry: the West’s fascination with Japan’s culture is nowhere near abating, and the opportunity to see Japanese films is more than enough to keep audiences coming back every year. Although the programme could have benefited from greater publicity in London, in UK cities with fewer cinemas showing art films it should be impossible to miss the programme’s visit.
All of the films in the programme are by writer-directors: they are based on scripts written by the film-makers themselves. While writing and directing are separate skills, the programmers have chosen directors who are talented in both, resulting in films which tell unusual stories in a pleasing way. While none of the four features I saw from the touring programme could be classified as masterpieces, all were good-quality films worth taking the time to watch. They were, without exception, entertaining, surprising and very moving.
About Her Brother (2010) is by the oldest and most experienced director of the programme, Yoji Yamada, who has 77 films to his name. About Her Brother was selected as the closing film for the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, where Yamada received a Berlinale Camera for his contribution to film. About Her Brother centres on two siblings: a widow and her younger brother who is middle-aged and more troublesome than ever. The widow’s only daughter is about to marry and leave home, and the film evokes Ozu in its examination of domestic life and the emotional family ties within it. Its gentle treatment of even painful subject matter, and its sympathy for child-like points of view, also give this live-action film an unexpected affinity with Miyazaki’s anime.
Dear Doctor (2009) by Miwa Nishikawa, the only female director in the programme, may be familiar to ICA’s audiences from the 2011 London Film Festival. It is the story of a village doctor and his new trainee, and is told in flashback. In the present, the doctor has disappeared, and a secret is being revealed: in the flashbacks, the audience is put in the position of re-evaluating the past to look for clues. The film balances the humour of seemingly unsophisticated villagers and their folksy doctor, with the melancholy of illness and awareness of parent-child pressures. The director’s visual style makes occasional refreshing departures from the calm, contemplative approach traditionally used to depict rural life.
All Around Us (2008) takes a traditionally chronological approach to examine the relationship of a thirty-something couple over six years. A baby’s death adds to the normal strains of habit and routine to distance them from each other. Whereas a mainstream film would clearly point to single causes for the relationship’s ups and downs, All Around Us paints a more realistic portrait where circumstances converge confusedly but their cumulative impact is painfully clear. Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s approach to male-female relationships is unusual in its refusal to dwell much on real or imagined infidelity; equally surprising are its wordy, frank, and entertaining dialogues about sex.
A Stranger of Mine (2005) is the Japan Foundation’s most popular film ever, and it’s easy to see why. Like All Around Us, the film boasts surprising and witty dialogue but has a much clearer narrative drive. While this sounds like a deliberate crowd-pleasing approach, A Stranger of Mine has the most inventive narrative of all four films discussed here. It focuses on one night in the overlapping lives of a young businessman, his detective friend, a new love interest, and a shady ex-girlfriend. While other films of the mid-2000s dramatically showcased different perspectives on the same events, using this device for comedy is unusual. The audience laughed out loud as earlier scenes from the film were repeated, revealing utterly unexpected events going on in the background. If director Kenji Uchida’s directorial debut is this impressive, audiences will be anxious to see his name feature again in future touring programmes.
If this has sparked your interest in the programme, the ICA is hosting a Q&A session with director Katsumi Sakaguchi in conjunction with its screening of Sleep. The screening starts at 6:30pm and tickets are available here.
Whose Film Is It Anyway? continues in venues across the UK until 28 March 2012. For further details, screening dates and times and tickets please visit www.jpf-film.org.uk
Aesthetica in Print
If you only read Aesthetica online, you’re missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.
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1. Ryosuke Hashiguchi All Around Us (2008)
2. Tomoyuki Furumaya Bad Company (2001)
3. Masayuki Suo I Just Didn’t Do It (2007) © FUJI TELEVISION / ALTAMIRA PICTURES / TOHO
4. Kenji Uchida A Stranger of Mine (2005)