Founded in 1999 by students at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, the Nippon Connection film festival has become the biggest platform for current Japanese cinema outside of Japan. The festival prides itself on the proportion of premieres: in 2012, of 142 shorts and features screened, 42 were world premieres and 14 international premieres. Most of the remaining films were either European or German premieres. In short, if you want to see the latest Japanese films without actually going to Japan, Frankfurt is the place to be.
It’s worth having a look at Nippon Connection’s web site, not just for information about the festival (in both German and English), but also to appreciate its award-winning design, which could serve as an example to many larger film festivals. Last year’s site was framed by imbricated petals in varying shades of pink, evoking a digital carpet of cherry blossoms, a magical anime fish, or even a packed cinema of spectators glowing with pleasure. This year’s pattern is a more overtly playful collage of heads and bodies evoking animé characters.
Shortly after the end of last year’s festival (May 2nd-6th 2012), programmer Dennis Vetter sent me a selection of films that had competed for the ‘Nippon Cinema’ and ‘Nippon Visions’ awards. In the run-up to this year’s edition of the festival, pushed forward to June (4th-9th), it seems like a good time to look back at highlights from Nippon Connection 2012, some of which are now available to international audiences on DVD.
Festival audiences select the winner of the Nippon Cinema Award, while the Nippon Visions Award is bestowed by the festival’s international jury, last year composed of Japanese director Yonghi Yang, Toronto’s Shinsedai Cinema Festival programmer Chris MaGee, and Andreas Platthaus, journalist with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
In my view, the audience was spot-on with their choice of winner: Shuichi Okita’s The Woodsman and the Rain (Kitsutsuki to ame) was clearly the best film. The woodsman in question is Katsu, a gruff widower whose grown-up son still lives at home: the gap in Katsu’s life is conveyed succinctly by a shot of his feet in his wife’s slippers, a few centimetres too short for him, as he cooks a meal at the stove.
The Woodsman and the Rain opens with a shot of Katsu felling a tree. The director expertly captures the photogenic qualities of the woodsman and his landscape, framing man and nature to draw out their raw grandeur. The title of the film leads the audience to expect a quiet backwoods tale, so they will be as surprised as the woodsman himself by a sudden shift away from the natural world. A slight, nervous man wearing glasses stumbles into the forest, politely imploring Katsu to make less noise as there is a film crew working nearby. In the sparsely-populated countryside, this is the first of many encounters between the woodsman and a production team that will come to rely on his local knowledge. The same timid man soon persuades Katsu to help him with location scouting and, by the end of the day, the woodsman finds himself in zombie makeup, working as an extra. He remains dubious and grumpy until his forester colleagues hear about his role in an ‘action movie’, and react appreciatively to every detail he shares. It is the first time in the film that we see Katsu smile.
Much of the comedy in The Woodsman and the Rain relies on expert timing. Silences work perfectly to convey mutual misunderstanding between the woodsman and the film’s cast and crew: each side’s sense of the other as exotic, incomprehensible, and occasionally frightening. Katsu’s most important relationship is with the film’s director, Koichi: initially, the woodsman thinks the young man is just a slacker—much like his own son—and berates him for not doing more to help out. As Katsu spends more time talking to the diffident director, he realises that young men who seem sullen and shiftless may actually have a lot going on under the surface: it takes patience, understanding and encouragement to give them the confidence to realise their potential.
The Nippon Visions Award went to The Sound of Light (Hikari no oto) by Juichiro Yamasaki. Personally, I was less impressed by this film. It centres on Yusuke, a young man who has come home from Tokyo to look after the family farm while his father recovers from an injury. The film’s tension arises from Yusuke’s sense of obligation to take over the family business and give up his dream of a career in music. While Yusuke is troubled at the prospect of becoming a farmer, his uncle Yoshiyuki suffers because he has abandoned farming after the death of his assistant Natsuo. Yusuke would like to marry Natsuo’s widow, Yoko, but she has family obligations of her own that stand in the way.
On paper, Yamasaki’s film sets up a compelling character dynamic, but in practice the dramatic tension fails to materialise. The characters’ desires and the problems they struggle with are just not convincing. Yusuke longs to pursue a career as a musician, but in the one scene where we see him perform, he has no obvious talent. His father, far from pressuring him to take over the farm, explicitly tells Yusuke to choose the career that he is most passionate about, and to live wherever he is happiest. It is unclear why Yusuke wants to marry Yoko—it is even unclear that he loves her at all. Meanwhile, the supposed family pressures that prevent Yoko from re-marrying amount to no more than a passing remark from her mother-in-law. It feels like the characters in this film are trying to invent difficulties where none really exist.
The Sound of Light does contain three sublime moments, where the film transcends its poorly-developed characters, sluggish narrative and lack of motivation. The first is a scene in the half-light of Yusuke’s bedroom, where his father comes to tell him to follow his heart: Yusuke’s dismissive retort and grudging sense of filial duty contrast starkly with his father’s gentle, earnest speech. The second notable scene takes place in a deserted roadside café, against a backdrop of snowy mountains: here, speaking to his nephew, Yoshiyuki explains the misplaced but paralysing sense of guilt he feels for his assistant’s death. This monlogue poignantly sheds light on the uncle’s erratic behaviour, and restores humanity to a character who had been shunned as an embarrassment to the family. Finally, at the end of the film, there is a feeling of unity, peace and renewal when the family (and its prospective new members) stand together at the top of a mountain, following their tradition of watching the sun rise on New Year’s Day. Overall, The Sound of Light is a series of depressing shots of the winter landscape, the cow shed, or other dark interiors, but in the three scenes I’ve singled out, the film image takes on the iconic power of portraiture. Otherwise unremarkable characters take on a stature and dignity, as the light quality, camera angle and background create a feeling of quiet, almost otherworldly power, reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work.
It is clear why the festival’s programmers chose Casting Blossoms to the Sky (Kono sora no hana: Nagaoka hanabi monogatari) by Nobuhiko Obayashi. I have to admit that I have never seen anything quite like it. This is not to say that the film is original, just utterly bizarre. The intentions behind this film are commendable: it carries a message of pacifism, and it insists on the importance of remembering the past so that we never repeat its devastating mistakes. Drawing the link between fireworks and bombs, which are constructed in a similar manner, the film firmly allies itself with fireworks camp. According to Obayashi, Japanese who experienced the Second World War are only now beginning to talk about it, having previously preferred to forget.
Although it is not a documentary, the film’s narrative incorporates a factual overview of World War II from a Japanese perspective: one that focuses on Japan’s actions and the U.S. retaliation, with a particular emphasis on the American attack on Nagaoka, where residents woke up one night to a shower of cluster bombs filled with napalm. The lynchpin of the film is a high school student named Hana who makes it her mission to put on an educational and emotionally gripping play about the attack. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Hana is a ghost of a baby who died during the attack, but there were already strong clues about her supernatural qualities early on (starting with her eerie habit of gliding about on a unicycle).
Aside from its strange combination of documentary and fiction, it is the aesthetic of Casting Blossoms to the Sky that makes the film so unusual. The opening throws the audience in at the deep end, adopting a style disorientingly different from the standard approach to filmmaking: shots that last barely five seconds each, combined with machine-gun narration (making it difficult for non-Japanese speakers to keep up with both dialogue and image), characters who speak directly to the camera, novelty transitions and lens-masking, and deliberately rudimentary special effects. Every window opens onto an implausibly spectacular landscape, and the image is flooded with bright white light. It feels like the overly-earnest aesthetic of children’s programming or new-age evangelism, an impression reinforced by the film’s didactic nature: nearly every line of dialogue is there to teach us something about Japan’s history. While this might sound like an original and stimulating approach to filmmaking, the director’s style quickly becomes tiresome, particularly once the film is heading stubbornly for the 150-minute mark, letting loose the violins, and maddeningly drawing out its conclusion as long as possible.
After the wilfully heart-wrenching themes of war and peace in Casting Blossoms to the Sky, it would be difficult to find a greater contrast than Come as You Are (Soro nante kudaranai) by Kouta Yoshida. If you can think of a crude double-entendre in the title, you’ve hit on the film’s main theme. The way that this film shifts from the absurd to the tragic reminds me of a World War II film far more compelling than Casting Blossoms to the Sky: Jiři Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966), in which a young railway employee plays a heroic role in the Resistance…but only after he has resolved his own embarrassing sexual problem. In Come As You Are, the main character Haruo is also obsessed by ‘coming too quickly’, especially now that he has his sights set on Momose, a pretty new employee at the DVD rental shop where he works. He has already intrigued all his colleagues with made-up stories about the acting career he pursues on the side: now, he thinks, he needs genuine sexual stamina to win the girl. He consults the internet for advice, but can only get so far on his own. He needs a partner, but rather than embarrassing himself in front of Momose, he convinces his flatmate Noriko to help. In exchange for her squeamish assistance, Haruo promises to take over the rent and housework.
While the protagonist of Menzel’s film was able to overcome his problem in time to concentrate on more important things, the tragedy of Come As You Are is that Haruo misses out on key opportunities in his life. Exactly halfway through the film, it starts to become clear that Haruo’s obsession with impressing people just makes him appear selfish and pathetic to everyone he knows. If he had followed the title’s advice to ‘come as you are’, in the sense of being himself (sexually and otherwise), he could have earned the love and respect of his friends, rather than pushing them away.
My favourite Nippon Connection film after The Woodsman and the Rain was Tada’s Do-It-All House (Mahoro ekimae Tada benriken) by Tatsushi Omori. Like Come As You Are, it starts off light-heartedly, then makes a stark shift to serious themes only hinted at earlier on. Like Haruo in Come As You Are, Tada is something of an under-achiever: his old classmate Gyoten, whom he runs into by chance, is surprised that Tada has become an odd-jobs man, since he used to do so well in school.
Tada has been lumbered with a chihuahua by one of his clients, who never came to pick it up again. The eccentric, slightly ominous Gyoten tags along as Tada attempts to re-home the abandoned pet and takes on a new job: ferrying a poor little rich boy home from his after-school classes. These two unassuming tasks draw Tada and Gyoten into dangerous circles of prostitutes and drug dealers.
The biggest of Tada’s problems is an internal one: like Uncle Yoshiyuki in The Sound of Light, Tada feels an undue sense of guilt for something that happened in his past, a tragedy that helps to explain why he is such a worrier, and so protective towards small animals and children, and why he can’t bring himself to make something of his life. While Tada’s Do-It-All House mainly revolves around engaging quirkiness reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, it is also haunted by the more serious spectre of the bad parent. Like the work of fellow Japanese director Sion Sono, the film showcases the present-day impact of parental abuse or neglect rather than past trauma. But whereas in Sion Sono’s films, abuse is the motivation for gruesome violence in the present, Omori’s film showcases a more familiar, everyday consequences of bad parenting: adults who feel held back in some way, unable to embrace life fully and realise their potential.
There is something to be said for films like Tada’s Do-It-All House and Come As You Are: seemingly frivolous features which evolve into cautionary tales or psychological studies. This kind of film makes serious themes accessible to a wider audience by inscribing them within a playful premise. Also, it authentically mirrors the way in which problems often manifest themselves in real life: as an unanticipated consequence of selfish behaviour (in the case of Come As You Are), or (in Tada’s Do-It-All House) as a troubling undercurrent to the flow of banal and amusing everyday events. These films serve one of the major purposes of art, which is to condense and crystallise life, with the potential to help audiences step back and make sense of their own.
To check out the programme for Nippon Connection 2013, visit http://www.nipponconnection.com/