Editor’s Note: Sydney’s supercinephile Barrie Pattison has been filing short reviews of films in the current Japanese Film Festival Online. The event is intended as a response to the crisis of film attendance created by Covid. For various reasons I have been slow to post them but the festival is finishing at midnight on Sunday 27 February so here are all of Barrie’s thoughts in one package. Sorry about the length.
The JFF website intro says this: Hello! and warmly welcome to the Japanese Film Festival Online, where you can enjoy watching movies from the most comfortable space, your home! Let’s dive deep into various aspects of Japanese culture through the different genres of movies ranging from documentary, fiction, animation, to novel-inspired films. The steps to relish the films are very easy. After creating an account, just click on the preferred film from the list below, you will find yourself on a trip to new experiences for free.
During the time when out-of-house activities wouldn’t be your first choice, we have brought fun and refreshment into your living room (or bedroom) We hope that this festival will offer you a new and jolly journey. Thank you so much for your interest in our festival.
*Films streaming are available for 48 hours from the moment you click ‘Play’. On the last day, the streaming will be terminated at 23:59 JPT regardless of the time remaining.
That doesn’t say that you can watch each film once for FREE
And so to Barrie…
The Japanese Film Festival online is running. It's free and on a user-friendly site, even if they do watermark the transmission with your email, presumably to discourage piracy. Without knowing the mechanism that generated the event, we can't help feeling it's been made up of material whose owners had given up on placing it commercially.
ARISTOCRATS (Yukiko Sode)
They've pole positioned Yukiko Sode'shandsome Anoko wa kizoku/ Aristocrats. It offers a female perspective on class division in contemporary Japan - not as dreadful as that sounds. In numbered segments, the film contrasts Tokyo privileged Mugi Kadowaki with provincial working class Kiko Mizuhara, who has had to study and move away from her distant home. They meet when a mutual friend reveals the girl is involved with Kadowaki’s husband.
At the formal family meeting, where the kid playing his Game Boy at table was the only discordant element, the appealing Kadowaki was a source of concern, being in her twenties and still single. Arranged marriage is comically unsuitable and being set up with her manicurist’s friend in the working class bar had her fleeing the scene after a glimpse of the toilet. Then she met handsome, polite, well presented Kengo Kôra and she couldn’t believe her luck.
Turns out he’s part of the ruling class Aoki clan and patriarch Masane Tsukayama has had detectives check her out before giving his approval. The marriage goes ahead but all is not well. An elegant woman who left her family husband has been shunned and forced to leave her child.
Meanwhile Mizuhara had studied and made her way as a Tokyo event organiser. In the nearest thing to a sex scene, we glimpse her ten-year association with once fellow student Kôra, who never did return the lecture notes he borrowed.
Rather winningly, little blame attaches to Kôra, one of those weak Japanese males found in their films. He has a scene of self-revelation, musing “I just want the family to continue. It’s not my dream. It’s the way I was brought up.” Particularly telling is Kadowaki being invited to the girl worker’s flat and asking permission to examine the unfamiliar articles she finds there. The brief flash of anger when her sister-in-law slaps her gets no emphasis, though it is the nearest thing to passion in this film.
Ritual underlays lives - the contrasted family get-togethers, the tatami mat funeral, group photos, putting out dolls for Xmas.
Minimal film form prefigures the static dialogue scenes with handsome scenics - cherry blossom in bloom, a vista of snow covered roofs, groomed gardens. Insets are rare - the dripping umbrella. Beautiful people in nice clothes behave winningly - with only the occasional hint that it is a performance. Nobody guts fish or washes the car in this picture. Eat your heart out Douglas Sirk.
Aristocrats holds attention well and suggests the work of emerging talent.
MASKED WARD (Hisashi Kimura)
Hospital thrillers used to be a minor genre, especially in Canada. Think Jean-Claude Lord’s super-scary 1982 Visiting Hours or David Cronenberg’s grim 1998 Dead Ringers. Hisashi Kimura’s new Kamen byôtô / Masked Ward wants to join the club
Everyone seems to like the opening half-hour. It would be good to show to film students, with each new shot advancing setting, plot, character, or the lot, but enthusiasm wilts rapidly after that, with the film wobbling on for another eighty-five minutes. Most of the titles in this event push past the two-hour mark.
Kentarô Sakaguchi is the substitute night doctor at the private hospital which still has its iron bars from time as an asylum. Even before the convenience store robber shows up, suspicions mount - the locked emergency operating room, the forbidden fifth floor records.
We glimpse the robbery by the hold-up man in his leering clown mask (the film’s best invention, above) who takes the girl he shot to the hospital for treatment and holes up there to avoid the police search. Geriatric patients and cases identified only by the districts in which they were found are used as hostages to complicate matters before the predictable revelation and protracted climax - a feeble attempt at romance and significance.
Personnel, with a background in Japanese TV unknown to us, handle the material smoothly, mainly in yellow night time colour.
THE FLOATING CASTLE (Shinji Higuchi and Isshin Inudô)
Shinji Higuchi and Isshin Inudô's unfamiliar Nobô no shiro / The Floating Castle, a handsome 2012 Samurai piece leaves you wondering how many more of these, that we never hear about, are still tucked away on the shelves in Japan. It’s impeccably made and nicely played with good action staging but when it was over, I had the feeling that they hadn’t pulled off their obvious intention of doing one of these where the buffoonish lead is more involving than the macho guys getting about in armor and waving spears.
It’s 1582 and ambitious Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi/Masachika Ichimura at the head of his red outfits army is well on his way to uniting Japan. He wins a decisive battle by flooding the enemy position in the sight of his impressed vassals. (“Power comes from gold”) It only takes a few more years before he gets around to Oshi known as “The Floating Castle” for its location in the marshes. Its lord gets a message from the Daimyo that he and the neighboring fortresses should surrender and the Oshi commander goes off to meet the clan head, secretly leaving instruction that his people should surrender to the imperial force at first sight rather than face forty to one odds. His bellicose marshals are outraged as they go about canceling preparations for battle
When the old Lord is incapacitated, Takehiro Hira / Bone (for “bonehead”) his son, who is more interested in nursing peasant children than battles, finds himself running the show and astonishes his generals and the warrior Princess, who is into spearing rapists, by determining to fight though outnumbered.
This gets us about halfway and the rest of the two and a quarter hour movie is the battle where the terrain and the Oshi Castle strategies outfox the enemy. Hira goes the full Shadow Warrior route waiting in the inner castle surrounded by the women, as exhausted messengers stagger back with accounts of the fighting - a rousing one-man defense in a battle on the gate road though the swamp, mounted fusiliers and coal oil fires all inflicting embarrassing defeats on the enemy. The peasants flock to the castle’s forces. The invaders’ leader decides on a repeat of the flood strategy damming the rivers that feed the swamp but our hero has a plan for that too. His surprise performance is the film’s high point.
Turns out it’s all for nothing - but there’s still the negotiations.
The structure is7 Samuraibut Kurosawa’s warriors were better defined. Mind you that’s a pretty high standard to hold any movie to. There’s the usual anti-war sentiment mixed in with cheering for our brave lot. “Prepare to feel the spears of warriors from the East.” Can’t help thinking the Princess gets the rough end of the pineapple but that appears to be historical. Technique is assured and performances are good when you consider that the costumes are most of the character.
TIME OF EVE (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)
Yasuhiro Yoshiura's Eve no jikan / Time of Eve animé dates from 2010 and cartoon film making has added some razzle dazzle since then but the content marks it out for attention. Without obvious citations (well maybe Tex and THX) it evokes Blade Runner,RUR, Isaac Asimov, Alien Nation and a squad of familiar Science Fiction models.
Schoolboy Rikuo (voice Jun Fukuyama) is disturbed that his peers treat their humanoid robot servants abusively. Even his friend Masakazu Masaki (voice Kenji Nojima), who comes from one of the few families who don’t have an android, seems to have issues. Also his own robot maid (voice RieTanaka ) has taken to modifying her behavior, something forbidden in the Laws of Robotics which govern them.
At the other extreme, the powerful Ethics Committee is investigating ways to limit Human-Android interaction with the threat of melting down divergent machines. They find musical androids menacing - “After art, then love!”
Many streets have “No Robots” signs but following the clue of the “Are you enjoying the time of Eve?” merchandise, associated with the improved Everlends beverage, takes the boys to the unsegregated side street cafe where androids can turn off the laser halos that Identify them and interact with humans. All there are forbidden to discriminate. The regulars prove to be androids on errands to support their owners in their difficulties and the boys find themselves becoming involved with them - the tiny who insists she’s a cat or the troubled couple, with the lead taken with the girl’s cleavage in a rather curious aside.
The bulk of the film considers this environment, now threatened by the Ethics Committee. One striking sequence has an early-model tin man clanking into the cafe and attempting to blend with the humanoids despite breakdowns and clouds of steam. The climax reveals the personality damage Masaki is suffering when the emotional support of his round head android nanny is withdrawn. The shift from a menacing first appearance to welling sympathy, with no apparent change in the drawing, is the film’s showpiece.
The Time of Eveuses limited animation with considerable skill, throwing in child art, cuts to black, and striking AI displays. It has the feeling of a work in progress with scenes not followed up, like the lead’s personal girl android experimenting at the mirror to improve her appearance. These may relate to Yohiyura’s 2008 TV Series version.
While the handling is adequate, it is the thought content that gives this one resonance and makes it notable.
HAPPY FLIGHT (Shinobu Yaguchi)
Happî furaito / Happy Flight, the 2008 ensemble piece from Shinobu Yaguchi, director of Swing Girls andShall We Dance,looks like it will be a fluffy piece about ditzy flight attendants pairing off with cool pilots (think back to Henry Levin’s Come Fly With Me) but while it never aspires to the seriousness of the Airportseries orUnited 93, Happy Flight adds a layer of documentation which gives it conviction. These could be a requirement for the collaboration of All Nippon Airways whose product placement is a dominant element. The film even starts with a Safety Video.
As an example, trainee first officer Seiichi Tanabe complains about the peaked pilot caps that they have to use though they don’t wear them while flying and a short time later oil drips on his impeccable uniform with his experienced supervisor Saburo Tokito, who wasn’t around when he made the comment, remarking wearing a cap would have avoided that.
The film takes in a simulator exercise (which ends badly), drilling flight attendants where mature Shinobu Terajima will calm an angry passenger that flustered Haruka Ayase had antagonised with her apology, the terminal desk operators wanting to get flights out on time because running late will screw up their social lives, striking multiple angles on operating the landing gear, bird control with a shot gun, the maintenance crew whose lost spanner may be causing a crisis in the air or the Operation Control Center where a computer failure has the staff stealing a foyer airport display to plot troubled ANA Flight 1980’s landing, with pen cap planes and a dessert plate storm. Toho sound stage filming is integrated with location shooting.
All this is all actually quite instructive and holds attention. Along with some nice shots of bad weather conditions - crows landing on a “Stop” sign in the same rain which lashes an open hangar door, lightning strikes and panic are cut to the wide air to air shot of the distant plane serene in flight.
The personal stories are superficial but engaging. The front desk worker enterprisingly rescues the passenger’s bag and arranges a date that the chaos will stop her having. The toupe-wearing passenger spots his resemblance to the fallen man in the safety pamphlet illustration. A winning young computer-smart operator and veteran supervisor Ittoku Kishbe combine skills - and about a dozen more. Even then the panic stricken honeymooners and the doting parents vanish.
This one is not a perfect match for the other Shinobu Yaguchi films that have come our way but together they suggest he’s a talent we should know more about.
HER LOVE BOILS BATHWATER (Ryôta Nakano)
2016'sU wo wakasuhodo no atsui ai / Her Love Boils Bathwater has been around and comes with good word of mouth.
We kick off with single mum Rie Miyazawa packing young Hana Sugisaki of to school, where the mean girls daub her with paint from her art kit and steal her uniform. Mum, still in her bread shop job uniform has to retrieve her. Next day Miyazawa faints in the store and has to be rushed to hospital where they diagnose not the un-named non-disfiguring ailment that movie mothers usually contract but Terminal Cancer stage IV.
There is a brief cut of her weeping in the disused bathhouse tank with her ‘phone beeping, which director Ryôta Nakano ran the camera on for a couple of minutes to get the feeling right.
Rather than fold, Miyazawa has a P.I. track down Sugisaki’s dead beat dad Joe Odagiri, whose housekeeping she finds inadequate (“you have to brown the onions before you add water”) and retrieves him with the new little sister Sugisaki didn’t know she now has. They do a celebratory Shabu Shabu meal round the shared cooking pot.
Rather than buy Sugisaki a new uniform or let her mope in her room, mum Miyazawa sends her off in her gym gear and best undies for one of the film’s first strong scenes where she shames her class mates into restoring the outfit and comes home to mum triumphantly convinced that she does have some of her tough it out genes.
Miyazawa convinces Odagiri he has an obligation to restore the family bath house - only a couple of shots of business resuming with smoke issuing from the chimney again. It’s not that sort of movie. The little girl takes off (“she went to look for her mum”) and is found waiting anguished at the old flat.
Miyazawa’s iron resolve asserts “I don’t want to lose the reason for my existence just so I can live a little longer.” She packs the girls into their red car, which attracts a hitchhiker who just likes the colour. Nice comic scene of rolling the car windows up and down to talk. They pull up for a brief view of Mt. Fuji.
However, at the motorway diner where they eat rare spider crab, Miyazawa slaps the winning, mute waitress. We have to do a rapid catch-up to another irresistible scene where Sugisaki proves to be able to use sign language because Miyazawa thought it could be useful one day.
Our heroine vomits blood in the loo just to remind us of the core plot. With the aid of the P.I. who becomes part of the blended family, they locate Miyazawa’s own mother, glimpsed through a window with her later family. She won’t have anything to do with her separated daughter.
Our heroine is rushed into hospital which Odagiri won’t face but he organises a human pyramid (cf. the wooden one he carved - this is a bit obsure) on the lawn below her balcony.
OK we’ve got another one of those weepies where the doomed mother sorts out the future life of her intimates - Margaret Sullivan inNo Sad Songs for Me or the awful new Isabelle Huppert Frankie. Well yes but this version has surprises for us. On the mother score card we get two rotten, one heroic and one excusable. There’s even a bit of the plot of Gyokou no Nikuko-chan / Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko mixed in there - coincidence or a regular feature of Japanese weepies?
The piece is nicely made and beautifully played. Half the battle is the casting. Dutch-Japanese lead Miyazawa has had rough life and its traces on her features give conviction. The young people are irresistible and Odagiri, first seen wearing a hair net just to clue us in, manages to make the difficult character endearing as well as spineless.
I’m not a damp hanky person but I must admit the occasional dewy-eyed moment. I sat there thinking that this was another one in the line of female director movies, which are about what people eat and what they wear, that goes back to Lois Weber, but it turns out that Ryôta Nakano is a bloke and the film repeats issues from his first film, the 2012 Chichi wo torini / Capturing Dad.
All the viewed copies in the Japanese Film Festival have been excellent.