Journeyed Reflections – Select Short Cuts [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Wheel Music

Within its Shorts Showcase, JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film presents three sub-sections according to style-approach: narrative, documentary, and experimental. Yet if one goes through the titles from one sub-section to another, one could also curate a section of one’s own according to theme(s), regardless of style-approach. In the case of the three shorts reviewed here, the general shared theme is journey, be it local, international, and intercultural; between the past and present and even the present and the future perfect; and physical, historical, and/or metaphorical. More specifically, however, what cuts across Wheel Music (2019), Blind Bombing, Filmed By A Bat (2020), and Lost Three Make One Found (2019) is the use of the journey — via bicycle, drone camera and montage, and camper van — as a way to induce reflections on either what has come or what is/may come to pass.

A journey both local and between the present and future perfect is Nao Yoshigai’s latest work, Wheel Music. For this film, Yoshigai revisits a template that she has used in her previous shorts, namely, Stories Floating on the Wind (2018) and Bicycle Girl (2013): a woman cycles through a landscape and thereby provides perspectives in motion of that landscape and the sightings and goings-on found in it. The area in question through which the woman cycles this time in Wheel Music, shot in 2018, is Sendagi, Tokyo, which has been undergoing redevelopment for the 2020-now 2021 Tokyo Olympics and thus may disappear altogether. Consequently, footage of the woman cycling, from light to twilight, either following from behind or from varying degrees of distance that encompasses the spaces through which she cycles, is the core of the film. Yet also contributing to the film’s registering of spaces is footage independent of the cycling motif: of varied patches of an expansive green where people are not only biking but also walking, taking photos, and playing baseball on the one hand, and of closely framed scenes of stuffed hamster displays and goldfish on the other hand. In tandem with the cycling footage, such scenes almost serve as visual pit stops, as if to weigh in on the myriad parts that constitute a place and its histories, personalities, and perspectives and, additionally, really compel the viewer to look at it all and contemplate its potential-probable disappearance. In this regard, the film certainly possesses an endearing and even somewhat charming quality. But truth be told, if not for the larger context of anticipated disappearance, the film leans to the side of forgettable.

Blind Bombing, Filmed by a Bat

Visual artist Kota Takeuchi’s Blind Bombing, Filmed by a Bat, in contrast, leaves one simultaneously intrigued and perturbed, despite its rough-hewn form in comparison to Wheel Music. While Wheel Music could arguably be described as a visual essay, Blind Bombing is more so, with its nearly oblique, somewhat folkloric, and explicitly auteurist approach to the World War II-era manufacture of fire balloons (fusan bakudan,literally, “balloon bombs”) by the Japanese state and military in 1944-1945 and sent floating to the United States. The folklorisation of this still little-known part of WWII history is due to framing the historical details of Japanese building, secrecy, propagandisation of the fire balloons and American censorship of sightings, deaths, and reporting of them with 1), the flight and nature of bats, particularly their echolocation abilities, and 2), the monstrous figure of the tenome (手の目) whose eyes are located in the palms of its hands, as the name states. These actual and fantastical species alike come to denote a clandestine menace and mobility that surprises with its distinct perspective, which come to signify the fire balloons and the contexts in which they were made and received, enhanced by the visual motif of present-day footage shot by a drone camera that mimics the swooping of the fire balloons in the actual areas of several states where they had landed in the past. The film also consists of a montage of clippings, stills, and even brief interviews with those who had seen these fire balloons in the U.S. and those who had known about their existence in Japan. Even more compelling is the fact that remains of one such fire balloon testing/launch site in Japan was found in Fukushima prefecture. Historical remembering is clearly at work here. Admittedly, if the theme of historical remembering is clear, the linking of (post-3-11) Fukushima and the particular history of fusan bakudan is less impactful in its handling. Moreover, whatever the intention may be, the automated voices for the voiceover narrations ultimately have a deadening effect that runs counter to the highly creative folkloric framing.

Lost Three Make One Found

In many ways combining Wheel Music’s whimsy and soft charm and Blind Bombing’s formal adventurousness is Atsushi “Sushi” Kuwayama’s Lost Three Make One Found. With its frank emotion, open-arms-ness, sense of the spontaneous, and nomadic encounters, Kuwayama’s road trip film very much takes Agnès Varda’s cue from Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), despite the difference in issues addressed. Though he does not go into detail about it in the film outside of stating that heartbreak is the impetus for the road trip across Portugal, Kuwayama makes clear that refracting the journeys and encounters witnessed therein is his perspective. With his friend Krish and a camper van christened “The Little Donkey,” Kuwayama goes in search of the Sacred Fountain of Fornalha, whose waters are said to heal those suffering from a broken heart. Yet the visual motif of the camper van’s door opening, as if to let someone in, at various stops of the road trip nicely metaphorises the film’s real focus on the journey itself rather than the destination. While an overly familiar metaphor, it is hard not to give in to it since the film’s affability and honesty is undeniable, not to mention immediate, most obviously from the people whom Kuwayama meets. Though, unlike Varda’s film, Lost Three does not give a good sense of places traversed, like the quality of interactions between Varda and the people whom she meets, a palpable respect and spirit of inquiry drives the conversations here, at least those who allow Kuwayama to film them. Among them are a man who operates a mobile cinema as well as a small cinema house and even becomes a collaborator of the film when he directs a scene of Kuwayama and himself; a former smuggler of coffee to Spain until the 1974 Carnation Revolution and to whom Atsusi and Krish give a ride; another man who takes Kuwayama to a different fountain and speaks of his own experiences with heartbreak. While brief, still another man who cultivates rice segues to the subject and short footage of Kuwayama’s grandparents in Japan, also rice farmers themselves. Like Varda, though with little to no solitary or autobiographical moments that find him addressing the camera, Kuwayama has found that elusive empathetic balance of self and other wherein learning about oneself is precisely through (reaching out to) others. An overly familiar idea but in fact quite rarely practiced.

Blind Bombing, Filmed By A Bat, Lost Three Make One Found and Wheel Music are streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.