|Japanese Cinema at the BFI London Film Festival|
Japanese cinophiles are in for a treat this autumn when the annual BFI London Film Festival returns for its 56th year. The festival will run from the 10th -21st of October, and will be a 12-day celebration of international cinema, including seven films from Japan. You can check out the full program calendar here, or read on for HYPER JAPAN's top festival picks!
When their izakaya restaurant burns down in an accident and their savings are wiped out by a compensation claim, young marrieds Kanya and Satoko don't know where to turn. Kanya has a drunken one-night stand with a woman he meets on the subway, and emerges from it with a cash windfall. Once she gets past her anger, Satoko sees a way forward: she pushes Kanya into feigning marriage proposals to a series of vulnerable women, fuelling them with hard-luck stories which persuade them to part with their savings... As in her last film Dear Doctor, Nishikawa cunningly exploits the gap between pretence and sincerity. Her emotionally wrenching drama hinges on rich ambiguities and suggests how subconscious feelings may drive immoral behaviour. Four features into her career, she's clearly one of Japan's subtlest and most original directors.
Takashi Miike does Romeo and Juliet as a 60s pop musical, and it's as if West Side Story never happened. The storyline actually derives from a much-filmed manga, but Miike gives it the particle-accelerator treatment. The demure, well-born Ai ('Love') stumbles upon a street brawl and recognises the scar on one fighter's forehead: Makoto ('Sincerity') is the guy who once saved her from a skiing accident; now a terse, embittered punk. She determines to redeem him by resurrecting his inner goodness. Phase One of her plan is to get her rich parents to pay for him to transfer to the upscale Aobadai High. But Makoto don't wanna be redeemed... You can only gasp in disbelief at Miike's inventiveness: performances, design, choice of golden-oldie hits and fight choreography are all beyond ace. This is the kind of movie that hits you, and it feels like a kiss.
The second feature by Mika Ninagawa (daughter of the celebrated theatre director Yukio Ninagawa) lives up to its name. It's a big, splashy thrill-ride, kinda reminiscent of vintage Ken Russell, which tears into the supermodel/teen-idol industries that make the world of Japanese pop culture go round. Lilico (rather bravely played by Erika Sawajiri, Japan's Kate Moss) is The Face, but her outer beauty masks the tantrums of a self-hating queen bitch - and the work of a 'beautician' whose clinic is under police investigation for its criminal techniques. The plot (from a manga by Kyoko Okazaki) turns on hysterical jealousy and rivalries, but it comes second to the unflagging energy and visual flash. Absolutely fabulous support from Nao Omori as the prosecutor and the magnificent Kaori Momoi as Lilico's ruthless manager.
Anyone who recalls Kenji Uchida's last movie After School as the smartest and most entertaining Japanese film of 2008 will be palpitating at the news that he's finally made another film. Key of Life is essentially a riff on Trading Places, but it takes the notion that we all play roles every day much further than John Landis ever dreamed. A failed actor, unlucky in love, steals the identity of an accident victim - and finds himself prey to the attentions of The Mob; he discovers that he's now a famously ruthless fixer for the underworld. Meanwhile the actual fixer wakes in hospital with amnesia - and has to learn to live anew as a failed actor. Perhaps fortunately, a needy woman executive (she has set herself a two-month deadline to get married) is on hand to help him and/or get in his way. Much of this is deliciously funny, not to mention brilliantly timed and acted with relish by the all-star cast.
Right from the mischievous, provocative play with point-of-view and sound in the opening nightclub scene, the Iranian maestro's latest is both symptomatic of his fascination with cinematic syntax and one of his regular forays into uncharted territory. If it's his first film made in Tokyo (and Japanese), the subject matter's also new. A student and bar-hostess having trouble with money, exams, her grandmother and boyfriend is persuaded by her boss to visit an elderly man of some importance; she assumes he'll expect sex - but, this being a Kiarostami film, things aren't that simple. Consistently engrossing, this delicate account of a brief, maybe fateful encounter is ambiguous throughout, even as it touches on a range of themes to do with relationships and age, truth and falsehood, adversity and acceptance. Though the performances, mostly by first-timers, are terrific, it's the sly script and bold but elegant direction that remain most memorably impressive.
Stage actor-director Masaaki Akahori turns film director with this adaptation of one of his own best plays. The 'samurai' of the title is Kenichi Nakamura, manager of a small ironworks foundry, and he's obsessed with the idea of avenging his wife, killed in a hit-and-run incident five years earlier. The guilty driver, the loutish Kijima, has served a jail term and is now back on the streets... and receiving daily warnings in his mailbox that he and the anonymous writer will both die on the anniversary of the incident. Friends and relatives of Nakamura desperately urge him to abandon his suicidal revenge plan, but he's immovable. Suspense mounts as the fateful day approaches, but Akahori has psychological insights to match his aesthetic control. His debut film cuts to the quick of some very human, very dark impulses and emotions.
Hana, a student at Tokyo University, is intrigued by a mysterious man who sits in on lectures despite not being registered to attend. Before long, they fall in love and she discovers that he is a wolf-man; he has the blood of both man and wolf and, as wolves have been extinct in Japan for many years, he is the last of his kind. Before long, they bring two children into the world - Ame and Yuki - who begin to display wolf characteristics, and as such may need to be brought up away from the outside world. As they grow older they will have to deal with their differences and decide which path to take. This beguiling, lyrical anime is a departure of sorts for Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time; Summer Wars) who takes a fantastical idea and makes it irresistibly touching and relevant without ever becoming a mere genre piece.