- Original title
- SR Saitama no Rappa
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 80 minutes
- 13 July 2009
by Tom Mes
Without trying to sound sarcastic, the bankruptcy that hit the small Hokkaido city of Yubari two years ago may well have been one of the best things that ever happened to one of the town's top events, the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. Regenerated in early 2008, after a two-year absence, the festival returned in a slimmed-down version. Gone was the glamorous line-up of foreign guests that once included Angelina Jolie, Quentin Tarantino and Dennis Hopper. Gone also was the prestigious international competition, leaving what remained of a spotlight to the showcase for newcomer, amateur and indie filmmaking that is the Off-Theater section.
Subsequently, last year's Off-Theater competition winner, the 20-minute The Woman Who Is Beating the Earth (Daichi o Tataku Onna) and its director Tsuki Inoue, made the headlines. And deservedly so. Its short running time may have kept it from wider distribution, this made the film no less an achievement.
The 2009 edition confirmed that the festival's new format was a blessing in disguise. Firstly, there was Inoue's new film, funded with the prize money she received the previous year, Autumn Adagio (Fuwaku no Adagio) which not only confirmed the young director's talent but at the same time widened our views of her abilities.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in this context, this year's Grand Prize winner, Yu Irie's 8000 Miles is another major discovery. What's more, at 80 minutes, it is as a feature, which meant that it got to see wider exposure than The Woman Who Is Beating the Earth was able to get.
8000 Miles is a tragi-comical tale of suburban wannabes, one that follows in the 'slacker' tradition of Nobuhiro Yamashita and Richard Linklater, but which is equally indebted to Sogo Ishii's early manifestos of twenty-something rebellion. Ishii's medium-length Attack! Hakata Gangsters (itself a Grand Prize winner at the PIA Film Festival in 1978) springs most readily to mind, featuring as it does a small group of young punks playing at being the kind of gangsters they only known from their local Toei movie house. In Irie's film, the gangsters from Hakata are replaced by rappers from Saitama - the dull suburban sprawl that forms the transition between the Tokyo metropolis and the Kanto countryside - whose lingo, fashion sense and other affectations come directly from record sleeves and hiphop magazines. The big difference however, is that whereas Ishii made a conscious (and quite successful) attempt to emulate the jitsuroku yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku and Sadao Nakajima, Irie's style is all his own.
The Saitama rappers are Ikku, Mighty and Tom, who together with three other local layabouts try to form a rap act called Sho-Gung. "We need to decide our style: east coast or west coast," proposes Ikku, to which Mighty replies "What do you mean? We don't have any oceans in Saitama." They dally around in a deserted warehouse, where they record their freestyle raps, all the while hoping to curry favor with a sickly former record producer. When they finally land a gig - their first - the other three chicken out, leaving Ikku the NEET (see our review of Now I... for more on this term), Mighty the farmboy (to whom 'bro' stands for broccoli) and Tom the titty bar footstool to pick up the pieces. In the film's centerpiece and its funniest scene, it turns out that the 'show' is actually an afternoon PTA meeting about the problems with local youth, and the trio have to come up with some serious freestyling when they are put forward as spokesmen for the young.
Director Yu Irie returned to his hometown to make 8000 Miles, with the help of friends and local business owners. Knowing the amateur origins of all involved makes the convincing performances all the more impressive. Irie has a great eye for landscape, colour and composition, filming most of his scenes in single takes with barely any close-ups, cutaways or reaction shots. If this makes 8000 Miles sound like another attempt at arthouse pretension, think again. Irie's camera is handheld and fluid, and his style allows the individual personalities of the main characters to come to full fruition, allowing Ikku, Tom, and Mighty to become human beings beneath their Kangols and oversized duffel coats. Subplots about the terminally ill record producer and the return of an old classmate who went to Tokyo to become a porn starlet add further depth to the basic story of facing the responsibilities of impending adulthood.
With 8000 Miles, Yubari confirms its newly acquired role as a launchpad for unknown talent, giving the increasingly polarised Japanese cinema a much-needed shot in the arm. After Tsuki Inoue and Yu Irie it is clear that its prizewinners are instant additions to the 'one to watch' list.