11th Japanese Film Festival: Those Left Behind

Last year, I didn’t get farther than writing about the First Day of the 11th Japanese Film Festival. With the 12th Japanese Film Festival starting tomorrow, this situation should be remedied at once, upon my honour as a Japanese Film Festival attender.

Rest assured! I will be brought to justice! And keep in mind that this is based on a few potted sentences I wrote at the time and my vague recollections of each film. I will try with all my might not to be a revisionist historian, because I hate when people do that with movies.

This is the list of the films for last year, for reference.

Day Two

Second day of the festival, and we’ve got a film which is what Rocky would have been had Rocky been a middle aged father and Apollo Creed a teenaged punker kid (and Burgess Meredith a Korean immigrant), and an excessively meandering meditation on Korea/Japan relations in the sixties – with guest star Odagiri Joe and unbelievable exposition!

Fly, Daddy, Fly!

Gonna Fly Now

The heartwarming tale of Suzuki, a man whose daughter is beaten to the point of hospitalisation, and his Summer in training to knock out the brigand who brung her low! The first twenty or so minutes of Fly, Daddy, Fly! are in black and white, deal in interesting angles (let’s shoot this conversation from the perspective of the dripping tap), inform Suzuki of his impotence to stop political corruption, and are generally responsible for the worst comedy ever.

Then Pak Sunshin enters the scene and the movie transcends into colour. Unfortunately, Suzuki is still somewhat crazed and has to be disarmed by Pak when he goes to school with a knife. Thus begins hard training! Fly, Daddy, Fly! offers very little in the way of surprises, although one probably would question why a man would fail to visit his daughter in hospital for a solid three months. Tsutsumi Shinichi is charming as ever in the role of Suzuki and he forms a pretty warm bond with Pak and, to a lesser extent, all of the kids who have turned the match into a betting racket. As a comedy, it’s not too whacked out, although they did go the extra mile of having a tumbleweed roll over a battle ground, only to pan out the shot to reveal a student throwing a series of tumbleweeds from a box. And, of course, there is the obligatory Game of Death suit worn.
Overall, this was a nice movie, with just that hint of sentimentality that all Japanese films are required to feature by law.

It’s at this point that my prose ran out: unless noted, I wrote the rest of this today.

We Shall Overcome Someday (Pacchigi!)

What I’ve always loved about the Japanese Film Festivals is that they frequently have a series of films that love to pretend that Korea and Japan can overcome all of their differences and become the best of friends. This is much more overt than Fly Daddy Fly, which only suggested that Korean Japanese can be unfairly shunned by society in a very small voice. From what I recall, this is set in the sixties and features a pair of kids who wear Beatles wigs, then rumble with some Korean students, and eventually want to learn more about Korean culture (in no small part thanks to being interested in pretty Korean girls).
It’s a bit preachy, and it makes the very obvious point that “the children are our future” – that is, one can’t expect the middle-aged to elderly of Japan (and Korean Japanese) to change their ways, but little by little the youth can fall in love and put aside all cultural differences to create one great country where everyone gets along: Japan.
I honestly don’t remember my final impression of this film: I think it was probably enjoyable but it felt very long, as period pieces often do. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the optimism was probably tempered by Japanese and Korean people doing horrible things to one another – although I know at least one Japanese student got to hang around the Korean students totally cool-style.

Day Three

The day of disappointments!

Stormy Night

First children’s thing I’ve watched all the way through for years that has nothing to offer adults. I remember this fairly well because it wasn’t very good. Oliver watched it with me and left partway through so he could get some sleep before he went to his next movies. It’s the story of a lamb and a wolf who become friends one stormy night in a barn – without realising that they are, respectively, a lamb and a wolf. When they see each other in the harshlight of day, they realise that the problem is wolves and lambs can’t be friends. When it’s eventually found out that the wolf and the lamb are friends, their respective elders banish them: the lamb for being a liability, in that he might lead the wolf to the secret sheep grounds, and the wolf for not wanting to lead his brethren to the secret sheep grounds.
So they go off together and have a not very exciting adventure that involves almost starving to death and amnesia. I’m surprised I managed to stay awake for it. You know how a lot of anime has cross-generational appeal, which makes cynics dubious? None of that is to be found here; this is just boring children’s fare.

Honey & Clover

“When you give your beloved a charmectomy.” – my notes from one year ago
Honey & Clover was one of my favourite anime, way back in the day. I was probably always going to be disappointed in this movie, but I don’t think it would have been any good either way (my friend Casper probably begs to differ, I think he found it “nice”). This tells a severely protracted account of kind of the first series of the anime, rendering the characters bland and tearful. The manga and anime were firmly intrenched in interior study, but if you just provide a surface reading of that story it’s not going to be very interesting at all.
The funniest thing about the movie is its descriptive soundtrack. The characters go to the beach, and a song accompanies them that pretty much goes “let’s get goin’ to the sea…”. Even Mario and Luigi aren’t all that they could have been, and Morita goes from zany to severely unlikable.

I suppose I should attempt to give a summary: group of Art students all have feelings for various members of their group, and some of them have crises as to their goals in life. These feelings get expressed in a superficial manner that deeply dissatisfied me.

Day Four

The day of mixed blessings.

Linda Linda Linda

Linda Linda! Linda Linda Linda!

It’s another movie … with a Korean outsider! A group of three girls need a fourth member to complete their band, so they recruit a Korean student to sing for them. Her Japanese isn’t very good, but she only needs to know one song: “Linda Linda Linda”.
Linda Linda Linda doesn’t have narrative drive. Not much happens. The goal for the characters is the culture festival, and there’s a lot of stuff that goes into this film that is very strictly left unsaid. There are established relationships between the girls in the band, and various members of other bands, that are alluded to but never realised. A bit more probing would have improved this movie’s chances, but you have to take it as it is: charming, if a little bland. It’s a good song, though.

Spring Snow

ENTIRELY PREVENTABLE – my note from 2007
Yep, it’s a tragic romance. You know what would have made this tragic romance better? If the characters hadn’t brought everything bad that happens in this film upon themselves. Pulling this entirely from memory (and I’m going to spoil it here: in the Taisho era, there’s a young man, and a young woman. The young woman has always held feelings for the young man, and vice versa. The young man is too proud to reveal his feelings, however, and the young woman is betrothed into the Imperial Family.
Realising that this situation is not conducive to his ending up with the woman, the man intervenes. Various shames are committed that culminate in the woman shaving her head, becoming a nun and never re-entering society, and the man waiting outside her nunnery in order to be reunited with her until she freezes to death.
This is told over three hours. It rides towards its inevitable conclusion with scarcely a thought given to the fact that the man could have prevented all of this from happening. Japanese society may have been rigid at the time, but honestly, taking an opportunity when it is handed to you is entirely different to chasing after it after it’s long gone.

The Milkwoman

Now this, this was good. The story of a woman who does nothing with her day but deliver milk in the mornings (on foot, as her town is too steep and staired for any other method) and work at a supermarket thereafter, and the man she used to love in high school, a similarly unhappy council worker with a terminally ill wife, The Milkwoman is a good example of suburban melancholy and making the most of what you’ve got.
The director was present for Q&A, and he acknowledged that the film does not work precisely as real life would: a man’s dying wife would not likely force him to reconcile with the woman that he loved in high school, but it works well enough for the purposes of this film. Understated performances and a powerful ending that may have left the viewer of any other film feel ripped off make The Milkwoman a worthy, if not exactly happy film.

Day Seven

Cancer begins. You’ll see what I mean.

Bizan: Mountain of Mother’s Love

It begins: the evidence that every Japanese film is about cancer. Somehow I’d dodged it earlier in the festival, but it came to haunt me as the movies wore on. From reading the summary of Bizan, I clearly don’t remember it as well as I thought I did. A successful business woman returns home to care for her mother, who has contracted cancer. She finds evidence of her father’s existence (I honestly don’t remember this part of the movie), and also finds romance with a local boy that she left behind all of those years ago.
I know I liked this movie, I may have sniffled without crying, but I can’t tell you much more about it other than that it set a precedent, and a cancerous one at that.

Crying Out Love From The Centre of the World

Yep, cancer again. This is a fairly oldish movie about a man recalling his childhood in the form of listening to the audio letters that he shared with his first girlfriend, back in the day. Their relationship develops, but takes a challenging turn when his girlfriend is diagnosed with leukaemia.
Unfortunately for Sakutaro, all of these years later he’s clearly not over Aki – and this is a problem, considering he’s engaged to be married to Ritsuko. This is a standard doomed teen romance with elements of redemption: that is to say, this is a genre that Japan knows well and is therefore pulled off with finesse. The parallel story telling is also effective, as is Ritsuko’s investment in both Sakutaro and Aki.
Crying Out Love From the Centre of the World is also notable for the fact that it ends in Australia, where the citizens act like no Australians I’m ever likely to know. This movie comes recommended if you’re a fan of this kind of movie.

Day Eight

I missed the propaganda film that was on today and settled for some more sentimentality … and cancer.

Tokyo Tower: Mum and Me and Sometimes Dad

Cancer III! No, seriously. I don’t want to sound flippant, here, but there are a lot of Japanese films in which someone dies of cancer. By this point I was feeling a bit paranoid. That does not detract from the appeal of this film.
Masaya (the always charming Odagiri Joe, even if >Princess Raccoon was pretty awful) had a difficult childhood, with a loving mother and a father who was very infrequent in his attentions. As he grew up and went to university, Masaya’s life was generally aimless, and his mother just a bit neglected. When his mother falls ill, however, their relationship begins anew, and this film chronicles their interactions across the years. Masaya becomes serious about his career, becoming a successful radio personality and, I believe, author of children’s books. His mother moves in with him and becomes a firm fixture in his life and those of all of his friends.
You may have heard of the “parent who is beloved of all his or her children’s friends”; you may have one yourself. This is a grand example of that. In just a bit more than two hours, you get to see the creation of a firm family unit, and even a bit of redemption on the part of that elusive dad. You may have guessed that the conclusion of the film is somewhat foregone, and you’d be right – but again, Japan knows how to do these things well, and Tokyo Tower is a worthy addition to the “dying parent” genre. (I seriously can’t believe that’s a genre, but I’ve seen too many “dying parent” films to know that it is).

Day Nine

Cancer gives way to blindness and death from a different hand in this, my final day of the festival. I regret not having attended the closing film of this festival – it may have been nice – and can’t for the life of me remember what prevented me from going to it. Hopefully it was a matter of life and death, or similar.

Love and Honour

Shinnojo (Kimura Takuya, clearly the most successful member of SMAP) is a samurai and the poison taster of his clan. Unfortunately, one of the items that he eats leads to the loss of his sight and his subsequent suicidal intentions. The love of his wife saves him from that but unfortunately, matters of trust arise in the attainment of his stipend and the relationship is thrown into turmoil.
I don’t recall how this film sustained itself over two hours, but I know that, despite Shinnojo’s understandably ornery nature, it was good. The relationships were well developed and the understatement of this particular ending was perfect. Not a blood and danger samurai film, to be sure, but worthy nonetheless.

The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker

The crowning achievement of the festival was, coincidentally, the final film that I saw. It’s a bait and switch type of movie: a new kid goes to university in Tokyo – but the film isn’t actually about him at all! No, it’s about the story that his neighbour tells him, about the shared pasts of an old girlfriend and a Bhutanese friend he came to know.
To describe more of the story of this film would be to give away something that is like a present: the joy is in unwrapping it yourself. It’s not confusing in any way, but it has layers that are gradually stripped away to reveal the slightly melancholy truth. It’s films like this one that make the Japanese Film Festival worthwhile: pleasant surprises that nothing beforehand gave any hint of, and copious use of “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

It does lose some points, though: about twenty minutes before the end, the alleged hero with whom the story began receives a letter from his mother telling him to come home, because his father has cancer. Casper laughed at me and, with that, the festival closed.

Will the 12th festival bring further and greater delights? Time will only tell. Nothing particularly jumps out at me, but that only leaves me more room to be pleasantly surprised.

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