Japanese Film Festival Day Four: The Mamiya Brothers and La Maison de Himiko

Of the four movies offered on day four of the Japanese Film Festival, I attended only two. I am, after all, only human. Two of the films looked quite heavy. They were Face of Jizo (described by my comrade Oliver as “good, but more like a play than a movie”) and Castle of Sand (“excellent,” says Oliver). I would have liked to see Castle of Sand, but … until next time.

The two films that I did see were a combination of the distinctly strange and the powerful yet emotionally distant.

The Mamiya Brothers

Priorities are subjective.

What a strange movie. It just ended without really explaining itself. Did the brothers have a revelation? Did they return to the status quo, as I fear they did? It’s a movie that perhaps has a message, but that message is muddled to the point of indecipherability.

Regardless of the muddy result, The Mamiya Brothers was a nice, fun movie. The tale of two brothers in their thirties who live together and have never had any friends apart from each other, The Mamiya Brothers features characters that many would represent as “pathetic” in a sympathetic and kindly light. When they decide to interrupt their simple life by attempting to become more social, not all is well for them.

Real life is complex stuff!

The core cast of four suffer from various deficiencies in their communication skills, which naturally endear them to us. The brothers themselves fortunately have senses of propriety, despite the fact that they’re not entirely certain how to act around women. The two women of the piece, Naomi and Yoriko, have been treated as doormats for too long and are uncertain themselves of how to react to men who aren’t pushy and demanding. The sort of silences that these characters share end up more companionable than awkward, and that is a major achievement for any film.

After their first curry party, the brothers’ interests diverge and they speak to each other less and less. In the instances that they are together, there is a constant use of voice over conversations between the two that imply that they can speak for hours upon hours on topics of entirely no relevance to anything. It’s a nice relationship.

It is for this reason that they ultimately gravitate towards each other. Is this a story of brotherly love, with the two realising that all they really needed in the end was each other? I would be tempted to say so, except the ending has one of those “golden briefcase” incidents that defy explanation.

It’s not strictly the best thing to lock yourself away from the rest of the world, but if you find more happiness with your brother than you can with anyone else, there’s little shame in it. Human companionship is vital, but does it really matter who it comes from?

The Mamiya Brothers isn’t really that deep, but it’s a decent facsimile of that depth. Besides which, it’s worth watching for the truly bizarre iPod Shuffle scene.

La Maison de Himiko

Homecoming is a bitch.

After this movie concluded, I realised that I didn’t expect anything stellar from the festival afterwards. With the summary provided, I had expected a real tearjerker, but none were forthcoming from my eyes. The reason is that La Maison de Himiko is allowed to speak for itself and it offers precisely none of the tricks of sentimentality provided by the cinema.

Someone I consulted said that they love the sentimentality techniques, and I of course am not one to object – if I think that a movie deserves my tears, I don’t mind if it tells me to cry.

The fact of the matter is that the situation presented in La Maison de Himiko is one where the characters themselves have conflicting feelings. If the characters can’t decide how they feel, how can the film tell its audience what to take from it? The feeling that you get isn’t so much as one of liberation as it is of coldness, but that coldness is richly deserved. At least you know when to smile – and this movie will make you smile unbidden. Homophobia will prevent many people from consuming La Maison de Himiko, but it prevents a lot of things anyway.

Saori is a 24 year old woman who works for a professional painting contractor. Haruhiko, the boyfriend of her estranged father Himiko, informs her that Himiko is in the final stages of his terminal cancer. To that end, he would like her to help at La Maison de Himiko, a nursing home for gay people. Money to pay off debts incurred after her mother’s own cancerous death is the only carrot offered.

Perhaps the best thing about the early stages of La Maison de Himiko is that Saori and Himiko are both singularly unsympathetic. Saori is one of those infuriatingly silent women who will glare angrily at people and not answer questions asked of her until well past when is polite. Himiko is what I might uncharitably refer to as a “sneering queen”, but this, too, is understandable: cancer is not a very friendly illness.

The conceit of La Maison de Himiko is one that is handled clumsily and heavily in other properties (A Good Year is a recent example): a sort of sea change for a rediscovery of values. The other residents of the house have to act as conduits for Saori to gradually come to accept that her father chose this way of life all of those years ago. This is done effectively through the use of characters who wear dresses and makeup, and those who have simply chosen to sleep with men.

I’ve followed with interest for the six years or so that I’ve been watching Japanese cinema the treatment of homosexual people and transvestites. In anime you’ve got the type that the community charmingly refers to as “traps’, and you’ve got the unshaven, obviously very manly, type. La Maison de Himiko is brave in that it takes the unshaven type and makes it more than a simple figure of fun. The characters are frequently aware of how silly they look to the rest of the world, and that is a battle that must constantly fought: the balance between caring about what other people think of you, and caring about what makes you feel good.

The characters aren’t victims, either: Ruby qualifies for the second best line of the festival (after Always’ “Drink soy sauce and die!”) with her attack on the homophobic children who frequently torment the home: “go home and masturbate, you virgins!”

The residents of La Maison de Himiko are all understandably vulnerable, existing in an arrangement still considered largely taboo, but they’re old enough to have largely conquered their fears and doubts. It’s a sensitive fashion in which I’ve not seen this theme tackled before, and the film is infinitely more enjoyable than if it had been a simple one note treatment of the subject matter.

La Maison de Himiko effortlessly balances humour with drama, and never once tries to force emotions on its audience. From the pure joy of a dance scene to the unbridled horror of a magical girl dance routine, La Maison de Himiko is a carefully measured film that can give its viewers hints but respects them enough to leave the ultimate decision in their hands. That takes a kind of courage rarely seen in an industry that measures its worth on the amount of tissues disposed of.

I forgot that I hate updating on my PC; I will re-edit this entry on my Mac tomorrow.

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