Label Conscious: Japanese Cinema through the Third Window

How important is a label when purchasing DVDs?  If the amount of status updates and comments in my Facebook network regarding the recent Criterion Collection sale are anything to go by, they are very important indeed, at least with regards to connoisseurs of what can generally be termed ‘world cinema’.  One of my friends is considering investing in the oeuvres of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu. Another has finally been able to get his hands on a copy of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s deliriously demented House (1977).   Someone wants to purchase Lars von Trier’s horror excursion Antichrist (2009), and almost everyone else in the network is asking, “Why?”  In this sense, niche film distributors operate in much the same way as independent or specialist record labels, of which Blue Note, Rough Trade, and World Circuit are prominent examples.  These DVD labels cater to the kind of customers who are willing to ‘blind buy’ based on brand identity and the track record that the label has in the distribution of classic, cult, foreign, independent, or underground movies. Connoisseurs exhibit an unwavering loyalty to these labels, even when they happen to be the American distributor of Antichrist.

For labels that handle relatively recent releases, as opposed to re-issues, the field of foreign film distribution is more challenging in that it requires an awareness of, and appreciation for, new films and filmmakers rather than a budget big enough to buy up the back catalogues of directors who are already established on the international pantheon.  In terms of Japanese cinema, this is where Adam Torel’s UK-based Third Window Films has succeeded where other fledgling foreign-specialists have failed; Third Window has developed relationships with such directors as Satoshi Miki and Tetsuya Nakashima, then marketed films like Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005) and Memories of Matsuko (2006) in a manner that makes them at once adventurous and accessible.  It should be noted that Third Window is not only a distributor of Japanese films; the label has also handled a wide range of South Korean titles, from the blatant cash-grab of Nam Gee-woong’s digitally-shot exploitation item Teenage Hooker Becomes a Killing Machine (2000), to the difficult disability drama of Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002), to the political satire of Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005), and the extreme eccentricity of Lee Je-yong’s Dasepo Naughty Girls (2006).  Throw in Johnnie To’s typically gripping Hong Kong cop thriller PTU (2003), and you have a selection of success stories from recent Asian cinema that have immense international appeal despite being almost defiantly local in their initial audience ambitions.  Yet it is the label’s Japanese releases that prove to be the most consistently enjoyable as they generally convey cultural insight through offbeat humour and quirky characterisation.

Taken collectively, the films from Japan that have been released by Third Window provide a tapestry of the emotions, fashions, fears, personal and professional challenges and sexual preferences of the younger members of Japanese society.  The house-wife in Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers wonders if she has settled for domesticity too early after comparing her lifestyle that of her free-spirited best friend, and embarks on a secret life as a spy.  Daihachi Yoshida’s Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers! (2007) focuses on a dysfunctional family that includes an elder daughter with a borderline-psychotic ambition to become an actress, and the young sister that has written a successful manga inspired by her sibling’s exploits.  Strained familiar ties also feature in Miki’s Instant Swamp (2009), which follows the editor of a struggling magazine who becomes a shopkeeper as a means of getting to know her real father.  Parental figures are notable by their relative absence in Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (2004), with the teenage heroines left to cultivate Westernised identities by shopping at Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, or by donning biker gear.  Sexual curiosity and perversity are explored by, respectively, Momoko Ando’s Kakera – A Piece of our Lives (2009) and Masayuki Miyano’s Lala Pipo (2009), with the former dealing with the on-off relationship between two girls and the latter consisting of six stories that occur in and around the porn industry.  Love Exposure (2008) also has sex on the brain, but Sion Sono’s scatological satire is radically resistant to succinct summary.

Third Window releases are more playfully suggestive than sexually explicit, and the teasing marketing campaigns effectively emphasise this aspect of the label’s Japanese acquisitions. The pink colours and mild sexual provocation seen in the promotional artworks for Kakera – A Piece of our Lives and Lala Pipo indicate that, although these films might be pretty kinky, neither is going to be the next Tokyo Decadence (1991).  While you should never judge a film based on its poster (or DVD cover), Third Window is certainly putting the fun factor into Japanese cinema through its marketing materials; the poster for Kakera – A Piece of Our Life caused problems with the authorities of the London Underground for showing a bit of bum, while the promotional artwork for Love Exposure was so striking that eventual Australian distributor Madman ‘incorporated’ it into their own advertising strategy.  For the uninitiated seeking to sample that ‘Third Window feeling’, this VCinema contributor would recommend the double-bill of Yosuke Fujita‘s Fine, Totally Fine (2008), a deadpan delight in which an aimless dreamer tries to build the world’s scariest haunted house, and Yoshihiro Nakamura‘s Fish Story (2009), a multi-narrative genre-bender that links the birth of punk to the end of the world.  2011 will see the label heading into the darker territory that was once associated with Tartan’s Asia Extreme division by distributing Nakashima’s classroom revenge thriller Confessions (2010) and Gen Takahashi’s police corruption epic Confessions of a Dog (2005).  Discount deals on Third Window titles may not yet inspire the same shopping activity as the annual Criterion Collection sale, but this is certainly a label that will continue to make its mark in the collections of connoisseurs of Japanese cinema.

Editor’s note: An interview with Adam Torel of Third Window can be found in episode 14 of the VCinema podcast.