Shorts Showcase: New Directions in Japanese Cinema [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

New Directions in Japanese Cinema (ndjc) is a programme which has been in operation since 2007 with the express purpose of cultivating talented young filmmakers by putting them together with experienced actors and crews in workshops to shoot 30-minute narrative shorts on 35mm film. The 2019 selection are all well-crafted productions dealing with themes of either fractured families or the influence of fathers.

Writer/director Kohei Sanada’s Farewell Family tells a story of overcoming loss with supernatural overtones to create something absorbingly atmospheric. We watch a soon-to-be father named Yohei (Hoshi Ishida) struggling over the death of his beloved father. As the time to return to his family home and commemorate his passing approaches, Yohei is plagued by menacing visions but with support of his family he comes to terms with the situation. Sanada demonstrates considerable control of atmosphere through the use of light and shadow and camera movement to create a haunted atmosphere through the use of low-level lighting and the tight spaces of the family home while the visions are unsettling. The simple story builds to an emotional pay-off especially because of the strong acting which radiates the raw loss and then the reconciliation as the characters come to terms with their loss

In Quiet Hide and Seek, a mother (Mari Hamada) disappears into the attic without warning to see how her self-centred husband (Hiromasa Taguchi) will react to her “running away.” Their son, Kojiro, is aware of everything going on, while teenage daughter Shiho (Mayu Ogawa) is aghast at the situation. The scenario is little more than a trifle but a welcome chance for character actor Mari Hamada to exercise her comedic potential. Her elastic face with a big grin and flexible body are showcased by director Kan Yamamoto who has her dashing about and causing mischief. Through some broad characterisation, everyone establishes their personalities and different energies with Ogawa and Taguchi proving suitable foils for Hamada. The film’s set design is memorable thanks to the father’s boutique bathroom business.

Cloudy, Occasionally Sunny, written and directed by Motoyuki Itabashi, tells the story of busy career woman Haruko (MEGUMI) who lives with her mother (Miyoko Asada). She and her brother discover their estranged father is in hospital with dementia and she decides to visit him but wonders whether it is the right thing to do and over the course of the story we discover why: he was abusive. The extent of the abuse is never described beyond an ominous reference to physical beatings but the alternating cold and emotional reactions of the mother and brother are telling and, as Haruko tries to browbeat them into seeing the old man, she turns into an almost insufferable protagonist. Itabashi bites off more than he can chew with the limited running time as there is too much painful history dwelling beneath the. It bubbles up in some good acting but the road to forgiveness and the conclusion are a little too easy with the drama proving hollow.

Saaya’s Box, written and directed by Mikiko Okamoto, follows a girl named Saaya (Naho Yokomizu) who comes from a patchwork family. Saaya lives with her grandmother while her mother Mai (Mei Kurokawa) now lives with her new partner and their son Mitsuki. Saaya longs to be the centre of her mother’s attention, so when she meets a mysterious toy-seller with a magical box which makes things disappear, Saaya gets the chance to be the only child again. Okamoto’s script is simple and her direction is effective with confident camerawork and staging catching the biggest of emotions in even the smallest of her actor’s movements so that a smile and a little gesture can mean a lot. Okamoto elicits great performances from experienced actress Kurokawa and the two child actors, both cute as a button, with Yokomizu really impressing and proving deeply sympathetic

Last Judgement by Shinya Kawakami is the best of the 2019 ndjc films. It burrows into the mind of a young man named Inaba (Ren Sudo) who has failed the Tokyo University of the Arts entrance exam five times and is jealous of talented high school student Hatsune (Miru Nagase) who exhibits genius-tier artistic abilities. However, she helps him unlock his potential. While the four other ndjc films are quiet and considered in story and effect, Kawakami aims high and unleashes 25-minute cinematic firework display. Editing and audio techniques take us into the world of Inaba and colour the screen with his emotions and the overblown sense of drama, thus giving a simple story a propulsive and all encompassing feel that lights up the screen with meaning. From painting sessions scored by percussive jazz music to the talky moments full of rapid and witty dialogue, it’s held together by tight editing which ships in a deeper backstory showing Inaba’s family situation and the pressure he places on himself. The lead performances of Sudo and Nagase are perfectly pitched and combine with Kawakami’s technical prowess to make a film which will get audiences bouncing in their seats.

Shorts Showcase: ndjc, vol. 1 is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 22. Shorts Showcase: ndjc, vol. 2 is showing on July 23.