Kamata Prelude (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

Receiving its world premiere as the closing film of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020, Kamata Prelude is an omnibus movie split between four different directors with four distinct styles. Each director is part of a new generation of talent in the Japanese film industry and this mix of approaches ensures that the pace changes often enough to keep audience interest level high.

Holding these disparate elements together is the depiction of the life of a struggling actress named Machiko who lives in Kamata. As portrayed by Urara Matsubayashi of The Hungry Lion (2018), she is the film’s producer as well as recurring star and the center of stories which depict her learning what it means to be a “woman” and an “actress” in a society through showing the behavior and perceptions of those who surround her and how these people perceive her. By turns comic and dramatic, all sorts of emotional hues are touched upon.

The first segment is by Ryutaro Nakagawa who has attracted attention ever since Plastic Love Story (2014) all the way through to his latest work Silent Rain (2019). He applies his signature ethereal style to a story that starts off as a naturalistic depiction of the close sister-brother relationship between Machiko (Urara Matsubayashi) and Taizou (Ren Sudo). When Taizou introduces his girlfriend Etsuko (Kotone Furukawa) to Machiko, a falling out seems to be on the cards as Machiko is floored by this news. That’s not what happens.

Initially jealous of the woman, Machiko gradually opens up to the possibility of a relationship as she gets to know Etsuko. Furukawa essays Etsuko as someone who is innocent and charming, like an angel untouched by mortal desires but desperate to experience them. Through this, the film takes on a melancholy magical-realist hue as the girl becomes a supernatural presence, seemingly a being from another time as revealed through Furukawa’s recitation of poetic dialogue, her costume changes, and a day out with Machiko punctuated by a litany of regrets.

The second story is from director Mayu Akiyama, who made her debut with, Rent a Friend (2018). Her film is thoroughly modern as it features a collection of actors usually cast in supporting roles portraying career-minded women who seemingly have it all. As Machiko and her friends talk about their lives, it becomes clear they hide their everyday struggles and anxieties behind bravado. When they head to an onsen in Kamata, they shed their clothes and also the lies they tell to make themselves look better than they actually are. Although the story is tied up nicely at the end, it addresses notions around loneliness and interrogates whether a woman can really have a career and family in a patriarchal society. A collection of great performances bring the characters to life, the standout being Sairi Ito of Love and Other Cults (2017) fame as a straight-talking friend named Hana who is able to bring about clear thinking with her direct attitude.

The third story by 21st Century Girl (2019) director Yuka Yasukawa offers pointed commentary on gender relations via #MeToo and is probably the most bracing entry. A sophisticated take on a subject of great interest to many people, it’s built around an audition process involving a panel of guys getting women to talk about actual experiences of sexual harassment. The guys display varying shades of altruism and the very misogyny they wish to pick apart in their film. Of the ladies, only two actors are able to stand out, Kurokawa (Kumi Takiuchi), and Machiko, both of whom are asked to act out a traumatic experience. Reality and fiction crash together and this is brought with force to the screen by Takiuchi who absolutely nails the anger and frustration that is felt by a woman who has been treated so poorly by the casting team that she can no longer constrain those emotions.

How does one continue this film from that moment of almost hopeless anger? Pick the most idiosyncratic director going.

Since debuting with his indie feature And the Mud Ship Sails Away (2013), Hirobumi Watanabe has created a cinematic world centered around the rural parts of his native Tochigi Prefecture. His films are shot in black-and-white and feature friends and family. Here, he manages to work Machiko’s life into this world. While Machiko doesn’t physically feature in this one, the action takes place in her hometown of Otawara where Riku-chan, Machiko’s cousin, takes part in a sci-fi movie shoot that is made tough due to a demanding director, played Watanabe himself. Here, Watanabe comments obliquely on the art of acting and uses Riku to show the pure innocent adulation for movie-making.

This parody of a film set is done in the inimitable style of Watanabe who uses dry humor to lighten the mood. This relieves the tension felt in Yasukawa’s entry, allowing the audience to revel in dreams rather than hardships. It provides a welcome ending to the omnibus, especially as he has a cast of cute kids to remind the audience of the sheer fun that can be had through collaboration, imagination and shooting movies.

When the final credits role, there’s a definite sense that project works as a whole as it provides a good overview of Machiko’s life, her career and personal travails, hopes and dreams, and those faced by a variety of women of her generation. The wealth of characters, tones, styles and stories allow for plenty of opportunities for engagement in a fresh-feeling omnibus that captures contemporary times with brightness and ingenuity.

This review was first posted at Genkinahito.

Kamata Prelude was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 15.