Tokyo International Film Festival 2017: Japanese Films

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In my last report (a little bit too long ago), I talked about my experience serving on the ratings panel at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival for the Asahi newspaper. Because I had to watch all fifteen Competition films I had much less time to view new Japanese movies than I hoped. Nevertheless, I did catch a number of interesting films, although the average level of the Japanese product I saw was disappointingly not that high.

First, there were two Japanese films in the Competition: Zeze Takahisa’s The Lowlife and Ooku Akiko’s Tremble All You Want, both of which produced complex but quite different reactions in me. With a background in pink film, Zeze was in some ways returning to familiar territory with a film about the AV porn industry, but The Lowlife focused on the actresses, having been based on AV actress Mana Sakura’s novel. Its boldest, yet clearly most controversial challenge, was the decision not to pursue the question of why these women appear in AV. I could agree with that, since the question itself is problematic, since it frequently revolves around social prejudices against sexuality that are not equally applied to men: people will obsess over why a woman appears in AV, but not over why a man does. Zeze instead focuses on the relationships of the women, with delicate portrayals that in the end emphasize female connections in the family. I ultimately liked the film, though some colleagues hated it and considered it no better than an AV film. I instead thought it consciously deviated from both AV and pink, in terms of narrative (the only spontaneous off-set sex in the film is a failure) and camera style (using shallow focus against the pan focus of AV), but I did recognize that with at least one woman (the older married woman Ayako), there was the danger that the hinted motivations hewed a bit too closely to the MILF genre in porn.

I wanted to like Tremble All You Want, but could not. I sympathized with Matsuoka Mayu and in general like unrequited love stories; the film itself was well-paced and certainly not boring. Yet even if it is based on a Wataya Risa novel, I found it depressingly sexist. Although the film devotes its first half to showing our heroine, who has silently maintained an unrequited love for a decade, rejecting a suitor the movie clearly represents as a jerk and a stalker, it makes an about turn by the end that can only be explained by the philosophy that women ultimately need a man and they should accept any man who likes them. Our heroine is at best neurotic, at worst mentally ill, but in this love story, illness gets revamped as cuteness deserving of support. While sharing a lot with Memories of Matsuko, the movie bears neither that film’s consistency nor its critique of fantasy. I found it disturbing in the end, in part because it says a lot about what one sector of Japanese society (including some women) thinks about women.

A far better use of fantasy was Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Hanagatami, which was arguably the best Japanese film I saw at TIFF. Based on Dan Kazuo’s prewar novel about youth, the film is, at first glance, a glorious mess, but it is one that gains much power from that mess. It is visually and narratively all over the place, with practically every shot featuring some process work, and editing that is more poetic and rhetorical than narrative. It resembles a style he’s pursued in several works over the years, most recently in Seven Weeks, and it succeeds here. Some might complain that an anti-war film should be more realistic, but Obayashi’s is not an argument about reality (he’s never thought film is meant to record surface reality), but about time and vitality—about war and loss. As usual for one of his works, the film overflows with nostalgia, especially for pre-sexual shojo adolescence, but Obayashi complicates that both through homosocial desire and casting against age. Obayashi might have been battling cancer as he filmed this, but he is more alive than ever. 

The remaining films did not excite me. Midnight Bus, directed by Takeshita Masao, about a bus driver trying to get over a wife who left him, was a well-made film where the term “well-made” is not necessarily a compliment (there are too many Japanese films that are produced with solid competence but little imagination). Morigaki Yukihiro’s Goodbye, Grandpa! was a quaint piece about a divided family having to put on a funeral for the grandfather, one featuring a creditable performance by Kishii Yukino, but remained predictable in the end. The Hungry Lion, helmed by Ogata Takaomi, could be commended for its condemnation of social media bullying, but its formulaic approach to the problem, which reminded me of Isaka Satoshi’s mediocre Focus, is ultimately undermined by an ending that, which ostensibly trying to include us, the viewer, in its accusations, ends up condemning itself. Finally, Ikeda Akira’s Ambiguous Places was frankly awful. Trying far too hard to be like Tsuge Yoshiharu’s Nejishiki, it doesn’t realize that just placing people in front of the camera doing odd things in a deadpan acting style does not make a film surreal. There is a craft to surrealism, and this exhibited little of it. 

Stay tuned for reports on some other recent festivals.

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