This is the third article out of a series of three (parts one and two can be found here and here, respectively) and includes the 2010 film discoveries of the VCinema blog writers who are on self-selected feature article projects which will be published in the VCinema blog in 2011:
Throughout 2010, I was lucky enough to have some good, but not exactly mind blowing Japanese film related experiences; seeing some creepy, wild and fresh jishu eiga at the always inspiring Pia Film Festival was one of them. Watched in an almost empty Nagoya movie theater, the powerful and underrated The Hero Show (2010) directed by Kazuyuki Izutsu, was another. I’ve always liked filmic experiences that are able to open up new paths and disclose unseen landscapes, so for this 2010 wrap up, I’d like to spend some words on Masato Hara. By absolute chance, I bought his only available DVD, 20th Century Nostalgia (1997), a very peculiar teen love story, part coming-of-age , part musical and part speculation on the destiny of the human race as seen by the two young protagonists who are continuously going around with their video cameras. The story is nothing special, although not as banal as it might appear and the acting is amateurish. However, there where some scenes in which I sensed some sort of artistic-like vision, so I picked up the booklet to learn more about the director. Hara was an enfant prodige in the Japanese avant-garde scene of the ’60s and ’70s. Born in 1950, he co-wrote at the young age of 20 the script for The Man Who Left His Will on Film, one of my favourite Oshima films and one year before he was involved in Matsumoto Toshio’s masterpiece, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969). And most important for me is to discover that the almost 8 hour-long First Emperor (1973) is one of the few works referred to as “landscape film”, following a terminology used by certain filmmakers and critics in the ’70s ( Fukeiron or landscape theory, AKA: Serial Killer (1969), Masao Adachi, Masao Matsuda are some terms and names that call for further inquiries). Rewatching 20th Century Nostalgia with all this in mind was then something completely different from the first time. I could appreciate deeply its quasi-metafilmic elements and the merging of memory with the process of filming by the two teenagers, resonate now with the urban landscapes of Tokyo. Again, not an unforgettable filmic experience per se, but a door, a map that invites us to further explorations. Nothing better then to start the new year with.
Matteo Boscarol is an Italian film critic based in Japan, who mainly writes for the newspaper Il Manifesto and the cinema website Cineclandestino.it. He has contributed essays on Japanese directors such as Nagisa Oshima, Satoshi Kon, Shin`ya Tsukamoto and Yoshihiko Matsui to several periodicals and volumes. He also has edited a volume of William S. Burroughs interviews and is doing independent research on the connections between Deleuze & Guattari and Japan. He is currently working on a monograph about the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano.
I had heard much about Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, Ha Ha Ha (2010), from the positive buzz at Cannes, but didn’t think much of it before actually viewing it on DVD. It turns out to be a wonderfully quaint film centered around a conversation between two friends. As these friends talk over drinks, we’re shown alternating flashbacks of their recent experiences and soon realize that the two stories are quite interconnected, though they don’t know this themselves. Although the film centers on such topics as uncertain love, heartbreak, and adultery, it retains a light and pleasant tone, drawing the viewer in and never letting go.
Ultimately, director Hong Sang-soo shows his expertise at crafting human relationships and presenting them in a unique fashion for film. Despite the sometimes sad or awkward moments the two friends describe to each other, they always laugh it off, showing that recollection can be a way to get over the past and move on. Also, the aspect of uncertainty in love is prevalent in the film, though thankfully it is not delved too deeply into. How do we know that we truly love someone? Can love last? Does fake love exist? What is love?
“You’ve stolen everything forever…what exactly did you gain?”
Hip soundtrack of drums, horns and bass; vintage Ford living under Tokyo streetlights; skin-tight red trousers and leather jacket to match: Takeru Hayakawa’s ‘cool’ quotient is absurdly high. He nonchalantly wraps up a sweet business deal, kisses his model girlfriend goodbye, and dismisses his photography assistant. Swaggering out the door of his movie-set apartment, ‘Tak’ almost forgets that his next destination is a funeral and he is dressed like a Shibuya cherry tart. Any old suit will do, then. After all, his mind is already on vacation in Okinawa. He strokes an unusually tender caress over the stuttering old Ford, and heads out of the city.
Director Miwa Nishikawa begins her 2006 effort Sway with a rolling opening. Jo Odagiri’s Takeru reeks of casual sex and devilish success, with his perfect body and heartthrob pout. He seems so damn made that you just want to slap him.
Fortunately, we don’t have to. Tak’s destination is his home town and the funeral is for his own mother. The hipster duds look ridiculous in among the hard-working classes of the insignificant town, and the dusty pre-war wooden houses aren’t built for city boy swagger. His appearance at the funeral is like a rude hand gesture directed at the sombre ministrations of a Buddhist sermon.
Enter the small and sweet grace of big brother Minoru, portrayed in the usual quietly devastating style of Teruyuki Kagawa. Minoru is the invisible strength bonding together his fractured relatives, and he helms the family service station that keeps this little town in it’s place on the lifelines of suburbia. An easy parallel would be a Japanese Jimmy Stewart character, the nice guy who seems an endless reserve of patience. Little brother Tak, however, has been insidiously filling his own debts toward good by taking far more than his fair share from Minoru.
Nishikawa covers an incredible amount of emotional groundwork in the beginning of the film and the work shared between Odagiri and Kagawa builds with unaffected depth and sincerity. As with all male families when the sole female presence has evaporated, the Hayakawa boys begin to devour each other. When Tak blithely chooses to disintegrate the woman his brother had hoped one day to marry, love goes literally over the edge and dashes irrevocably into pieces.
The ensuing trial has left many reviewers tipping toward or away from overall satisfaction with the film. The familiar format of murder mystery and courtroom family drama would be misleading in their expected highs and lows. Sway has a focus high above the officiating of judges (one of whom is a soft-cheeked Tomorowo Taguchi) and typical frenetic build to a crime’s resolution. Mishikawa’s direction urges viewers to follow the piercing gazes, familiar touches of hands, and bleeding hearts of two brothers locked in an eternal binary orbit.
Much as all the cameos are delightful and effortlessly pitched – Keizo Kanie as the bumptious lawyer uncle, and cherubic then-rising star Hirofumi Arai as Yohei – the casting of Odagiri and Kagawa was a turn of crucial genius. The former portrays men who always seem to walk in the sun, and Kagawa’s everyman catches every passing raincloud. They share on screen an unflinching insight into a side of Japanese family life rarely exposed even on screen. No affectionate mawkishness or overly casual jostling; the realistic inequality in the Hayakawa brotherhood can lead them as often to fisticuffs as to painfully tight hugs. After watching Tak run so determinedly from the all-consuming love and dedication of brotherhood, it is an exquisitely gutting experience to watch him break down.
Sway marks a mid-point for Miwa Nishikawa’s limited but elegant oeuvre, and deserves a better reputation than the pretty double portrait of Jo Odagiri on many of the film’s posters. This is a decidedly caddish role for Odagiri, and not at all in a charming sense of the word. Without Minoru there would be no Takeru, as there would be no Odagiri worth watching without Kagawa. As Tak’s beloved Ford lurches one last time into Hayakawa fuel station, we are reminded that moving out and moving on doesn’t always mean letting go.
Katie is a self-professed “newbie Japanophile”. Her personal blog can be found here.