Japanese Independent Cinema Travels to Toronto: The 3rd Shinsedai Cinema Festival
- 1 September 2011
The selection of Japanese independent films for Toronto’s 3rd Shinsedai Cinema Festival chosen by the J-Film Pow-Wow’s Chris MaGee and Midnight Eye’s own Jasper Sharp yielded both a high amount of quality finds and an intriguing variety of genres and styles. Along with the refreshing abundance of some truly brilliant animated works scattered throughout the four-day schedule, attendees had the chance to experience a number of supernatural-themed films (including two with ghosts), a domestic dramedy, a pair of country-set coming-of-age tales, a silent-era comic treasure and one incredible documentary, among other entries.
The opening night ceremony on July 21st at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, the festival’s venue, was accompanied by an uncomfortable peak in a lengthy summer heat wave that had fallen upon the city. Oddly enough, the hot weather seemed to cross over straight into the opening film, Koji Fukada’s Hospitalité, which unfolds during a bout of sweltering temperatures. Starring Kenji Yamauchi and Kiki Sugino, who also co-produced the film with Fukada and was present at the festival, it drops in on a working class family living in a Tokyo neighborhood. Consisting of four people, including Yamauchi’s sister (Kumi Hyodo) and young daughter from a previous marriage (Eriko Ono), they all live in a small house that doubles as the printing press company that provides their income. Things begin to get interesting when a flyer for their lost parakeet, Pea, brings not the missing bird, but an aimless stranger named Kagawa (Kanji Furudachi) who, before long, makes himself right at home in the spare room, is joined by his foreign wife Annabelle (Bryerly Long) and soon starts causing all manner of mischief by worming his way into his hosts’ private matters and taking it upon himself to recruit new hands for the printing press. As the title cleverly illustrates, part of what makes Hospitalité such an interesting film is the curiosity it invokes regarding how far the unassuming family’s façade of politeness and patience will be stretched by their guest’s surprising actions. Indeed, Kagawa seems less like a character and more like a writer’s tool dropped into the storyline (albeit a very amusing and well-acted one, thanks to Furudachi’s talent); a catalyst for disruption and change before anything else. Through him and his effects on the family, the film ably explores relevant subjects like the working class, multi-culturalism and loyalty with the same sort of patience and insight wielded by Ozu in his own humanist studies decades earlier. With a handsome visual style and tricky balance of absurdity and melancholy that never tips too far one way or the other, Hospitalité certainly got Shinsedai 2011 off to a solid start.
This year was the first in which the festival offered a major prize – the Kobayashi Audience Choice Award, which would, according to viewers’ votes, name a film as the festival favorite and earn its director $1000 Canadian. The film that was eventually honored maybe shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, given a foreshadowing occurrence earlier in the year when the latest Studio Ghibli offering Arrietty walked away with the audience-voted Nippon Cinema Award at the 11th Nippon Connection film festival in Frankfurt. At Shinsedai, another crowd-pleasing family favorite emerged triumphant: Fumie Nishikawa’s The Azemichi Road, which chronicles the experiences of Yuki (Haruka Oba), a deaf girl who discovers a new passion in hip-hop dancing and joins a group of amateur dancers who practice near her house on a regular basis. Beyond the engaging pace at which the story rolls along and visual delights - most notably smooth, highly mobile camera movements and sequences that make the most of the rural setting and its peaceful green fields, looming mountains and orange-tinted evenings - the most rewarding attribute of the film is its sincere, uplifting portrayal of Yuki and the other girls’ fierce dedication to perfecting their dance routines. Even though some of the plot twists can at times come across as a tad predictable or forced - namely a sharp upswing of bratty ostracization that temporarily casts Yuki as the group’s black sheep - The Azemichi Road nonetheless succeeds based on its heartfelt messages and the impressive level of filmmaking applied to the familiar yet winning underdog formula.
The Azemichi Road wasn’t the only film that got recognized at the festival’s closing ceremony. Due to an extraordinarily close vote, comedian and director Devi Kobayashi received a special mention for his pair of nutty, thoroughly enjoyable films: Mariko Rose the Spook, which he stars in as the titular ghost of Japan’s first drag queen who lends his assistance to a lovesick lesbian, and Hikari, a tale about an eccentric woman’s confrontation with a UFO. Kobayashi himself was present throughout the festival weekend and appeared in costume as his black-frilled, larger-than-life poltergeist Mariko Rose for his films’ post-screening Q and A period and the closing ceremony, giving attendees a full dose of his vivacious performance.
Another horror-themed work presented in the lineup was Shirome, Koji Shiraishi’s "documentary" on the J-Pop group Momoiro Clover and their trip to a supposedly haunted house to have their wish to appear on a New Year’s TV show be granted by a spirit. There might be something a little sadistic about watching the six bubbly teenage girls get repeatedly scared out of their wits, but it takes so ridiculously little for them to give way to full-on hysteria that it is infinitely easier to just sit back and chuckle rather than trying to feel sorry for them. Besides their priceless shifts between perky, go-get-‘em enthusiasm; pure naiveté – perhaps best exemplified when they all agree that the prospect of selling their souls to the devil isn’t so bad as long as it doesn’t cost them their lives – and absolute terror, Shirome’s other main assets are the various theatrical touches deployed by the filmmakers to get their gullible targets to buy their ghost story. Some of the spooky strategies used are a grisly tale of double suicide and two psychics who accompany the girls and filmmaking crew to the derelict building, but best of all is a sublimely creepy ghost story expert who is accompanied by recorded chanting and a table full of props carried behind him by a silent assistant clad head to toe in black. Along with its humor, Shirome offers an interesting consideration of horror fiction in general and the all-too-familiar tricks so often used to get us on board with its fantastic departures from reason and reality – if only for a short time.
Easily one of the main highlights at Shinsedai this year was the rich selection of animated works that were shown. The second evening offered an especially potent double dose of imaginative films fittingly co-presented by the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and comics store The Beguiling, the first of them being Man-Eater Mountain (Hitokuiyama). Illustrated and narrated by Naoyuki Niiya, the near half-hour short adapts the picture scroll-based kamishibai form to the cinematic medium by using still monochrome drawings to tell the curious story of a policeman’s journey into the woods to track down a serial murderer. Events take a truly bizarre turn in the film’s later half, in which the characters are pulled into the depths of hell itself. Niiya’s disturbing, graphic drawings of leering demons, impaled beasts and abstract, Lovecraftian masses of arms, eyes, tongues and phalluses easily make his vision one of the most unforgettable depictions of the underworld to recently emerge in Japanese cinema, strongly evoking Nobuo Nakagawa’s own tour of horrors in 1960’s Jigoku. Less menacing but just as stunning in its realization of otherworldly sights was the film that followed: Keita Kurosaka’s Midori-ko, which took ten years to complete, making the incredibly detailed hand-drawn animation even more deserving of appreciation. Telling the story of a vegetable-obsessed girl’s encounter with a human-like plant in a worn-out world of talking creatures and complex inventions, it is pitch-perfect in maintaining a mix of dark, absurdist humor and pure wonderment. Without a doubt, it is one of the most consistently impressive and original new Japanese films, animated or otherwise, to emerge onto the international festival circuit this year, and it is heartily recommended that those who have the chance to discover it for themselves should do so without delay. Other animated delights included the surreal, red and yellow-toned headtrip Memakura by Yoshihiro Haku and Sachiko Hiraoka and the assortment of films compiled in the CALF Animation Special. Those who attended the latter got to sample a fascinating grab bag of styles, including Atsushi Wada’s starkly outlined drawings of gentle humanoids with large heads and tiny eyes and mouths, Mirai Mizue’s McLarenesque shapes and patterns, art collective TOCHKA’s playful dollops of light and color and Kei Oyama’s beautifully textured mini-narratives, the most sumptuous of which being the special’s closer, Hand Soap (2008).
This year marked the return of what will hopefully become a Shinsedai tradition: a silent film screening with live aural accompaniment. One of last year’s highlights was the presentation of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1933 film The Water Magician with a score performed by Toronto experimental band Vowls. This time, viewers had the chance to see Torajiro Saito’s Kid Commotion (1935), starring Chaplin-like silent star Shigeru Ogura as a father who resorts to some truly shameless methods to find money to support his overpopulated household. Live sound effects were provided by a Foley team led by Goro Koyama, accompanying the physical antics shown onscreen with a procession of honks, squeaks, splashes, clanks, crashes and more from various props, making for a particularly fun and instructive experience.
Among the many great discoveries Shinsedai 2011 brought were two very different exercises in serenity and stylistic confidence. KanZeOn, a documentary made by Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham that got its world premiere at the festival, certainly stands out as one of the most surprising works shown, if only for the innovative ways in which it embraces its subject matter. While it mainly focuses on the DJ’ing, beat-boxing Buddhist priest Akinobu Tatsumi, Eri Fujii, a musician who specializes in playing the bamboo flute known as the sho, and kotsudumi drummer Akihiro Iitomi, the film also expands and drifts beyond these three fascinating individuals into a free-form consideration of the connection between spirituality and sound – a goal indicated by the film’s fitting subtitle: The Magical Potential of Sound. While it provides some interviews and facts regarding certain philosophical and religious principles, KanZeOn is not a vessel of information so much as a sensual tapestry of cinematic poetry laced with nature-based images of falling rain, calm forests and flowing streams; a Noh performance; Fujii’s moving sho renditions, including one that unfolds in a cave; and many more passages that smoothly evoke a state of deep contemplation.
Acting as a sort of brother film to The Azemichi Road was The Catcher on the Shore, which drew much attention due to the uniqueness of its maker. Ryugo Nakagawa, who presented the film alongside his producer, Yuichi Ide, is a fifteen year-old director who began making shorts when he was only eight and has at least thirty to his name. Shot on location in Okinawa when Nakagawa was fourteen, Catcher is his feature debut and follows a young sixth-grader named Hiroto (Munekazu Uehara) who departs from his mother’s apartment to spend the winter season with his father and grandparents in the distant, warm, island-based prefecture. He forms a bond not only with the local boys his age, but also with two white goats kept by his grandparents. After one of them is sold, slaughtered and served to the town’s inhabitants, he takes it upon himself to rescue the remaining animal. Thus, the film glides along from a blissful slice-of-life drama to a comical chase sequence after a runaway goat through the country roads to a fable-like passage portraying Hiroto’s journey to maturity in the hot Okinawan forest.
There is much to admire about The Catcher on the Shore, from its sensible grasp on weighty themes to the remarkable technical skill shown in the cinematography and editing, all reinforcing its status as an exemplary film not only in its own right, but also in relation to the Shinsedai Cinema Festival’s main objective. Beyond viewers being able to catch this rarity in Toronto, Nakamura in turn seemed to receive a worthwhile experience in accompanying his film to its international premiere. Throughout the festival, the young director could be seen answering questions from festivalgoers, graciously signing programs and conversing with veteran filmmaker Gen Takahashi, whose Confessions of a Dog (Pochi no Kokuhaku) was one of Shinsedai 2010’s standout attractions. Such images as well as the positive impressions gathered above highlight the success of Shinsedai’s goal of promoting independent filmmakers’ fruits of labor outside of Japan. If this year’s strong lineup is any indication, eager viewers in North America waiting to catch a first glance at worthwhile efforts from other festivals abroad will certainly want to keep this still-young one on their radars in coming years – in all likelihood, he’s just getting warmed up.