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Tokyo International Film Festival

By Jasper Sharp

Running from 23rd-31st October this year, the 17th Tokyo International Film Festival provided the usual mixed bag it has always done. With its awkward switch in location from Shibuya's Bunkamura to the far less accessible Virgin Toho Cinema Roppongi Hills in the famed gaijin enclave of Roppongi, there came other problems. Too many times was I told an event was sold out or that there were no press tickets available, only to hear later from others that the screening was only around a half full.

But administrative hassles such as these I guess are part and parcel of a festival that aims so high. As a high-profile event, where Prime Minister Koizumi gets to have his photo taken sitting enthralled while watching the latest Yoji Yamada movie Hidden Blade, and Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg swagger into town in a swarm of publicity on the last leg of a promotion tour for a movie released all round the rest of the world months ago (The Terminal), TIFF certainly knows how to get the media working for them.

As a showcase for Japanese film, I'm not so sure. Granted, there were screenings of Ghibli's latest Howl's Moving Castle, Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy (without subtitles, would you believe it!), the new CGI masterpiece Final Fantasy: Advent Children and the latest big works by established box-office breadwinners Yoshimitsu Morita (Umineko) and Nobuhiko Obayashi (Riyuu- The Motive), but the rest of the Japanese offerings dotted around the screening schedule were of mixed interest, and one began to wonder if the Japanese film industry would ever be capable of turning out something as sumptuously beautiful as the Chinese film Jasmine Women, directed by Hou Yong and starring Zhou Ziyi, or as riveting as the quite astounding British mountaineering documentary Touching the Void, directed by Kevin MacDonald.

This month's Round-up feature is a selection of the Japanese movies that TIFF had on offer this year, films selected to represent a cross-section of the Japanese industry's output, and may or may not be making it to a screen near you at any time in the near future.

Thway - The Bonds of Blood
Going Home
The Man Behind the Scissors
Jyukai: The Sea of Trees Behind Mt. Fuji
The Chicken is Barefoot
Runin - Banished

Thway - The Bonds of Blood

Original Title: Thway - Chi no Kizuna
Director: Koji CHINO
Cast: Akari ASO, Toshiyuki NAGASHIMA, Min Maw Kun, Myo Thandar Htun
Running Time: 201 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Thway - The Bonds of Blood'1951, Rangoon, Burma. As an assembly of shaven-headed Buddhist acolytes chant beneath a majestic gold-domed temple, back in Japan a young girl walks through the snow to offer a prayer at her local shrine for her father as he lies on his deathbed. Twelve years later Yumi (Aso) has now grown up, and, primed by his dying words, arrives in Burma in search of a long lost brother, the fruits of an affair between a local nurse Ma Htwe Htwe (Myo Thandar Htun) while her father Takao (Nagashima) was posted out with the Imperial Army during World War 2.

The search is a difficult one, and when she finally discovers the whereabouts of Maung Maung (Min Maw Kun), is warned not to confront him immediately. Maung Maung bears deep psychological scars from his childhood, growing up without parents, taunted with the nickname "Japan" by the local village kids and labelled "an unwanted remnant of the Japanese Army". After being removed from this stigmatised existence to the anonymity of the city, he is in vehement denial of his roots, and indeed everything else Japanese. It is left to Yumi to break down the barriers by way of their common history and cultures.

Based at Nikkatsu studios in the 60s, director Chino left the company during their Roman Porno years to work in television, returning to the big screen for a handful of features in the late 80s to find a radically changed production climate. This noble and epic attempt at forming a cross-cultural bond between Japan and Myanmar (formerly Burma) took almost 15 years from its initial conception to finally reaching the screen after the original funding fell through with the burst of the Japanese economic bubble.

All of this is quite evident upon watching the film, which admittedly benefits from its exotic Burmese backdrop, but whose narrative owes more to the prosaic nature of small screen storytelling, and the overall impression is that of a now 74-year-old director fully aware that this is his last cinematic statement and making darn sure he is not going to let the opportunity slip by.

A potentially simple story expanded to Dr Zhivago-esque proportions as the back stories of all of the major characters are recounted across the years, Thway - Bonds of Blood is nevertheless, curiously watchable, the stunning local scenery proving almost enough justification for the running time of well over 3 hours. Even if the acting is a little stilted at times, full credit must go to Aso for carrying off almost the entire film speaking Burmese, and it is clear that Chino's attempts at wartime atonement and rousing a sense of pan-Asian unity are sincere.

By setting the story 40 years ago, Chino's film implies that the bridge between Japan and her Asian neighbours has already been set in stone (it should be pointed out that Chino's script is based on a novel by Myanmar nationals Gya Ne Hyaw and Ma Ma Le). But there are certain rose-tinted romanticist aspects of the narrative that seem unlikely to gel with modern audiences, either foreign or local, such as the hackneyed symbolism of Yumi's estranged father returning home from the war in a shower of cherry blossoms, and the scenes of occupying Japanese soldiers and Burmese locals huddled together in solidarity as they are bombed by the British don't really sit right in this day and age.

Going Home

Original Title: Kikyo
Director: Koji HAGIUDA
Running Time: 82 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Going Home'When he gets a surprise message from his mother (Yoshiyuki) telling him that she is on the verge of remarrying, Haruo (Nishijima), a sales representative for a ham company, makes it back from Tokyo to his provincial home town just in time to arrive halfway through the wedding festivities. That night, while grudgingly drinking in the local bar owned by his friend Yamaoka (Mitsuishi) with his new step-sister, the girl-next-door of his childhood, he is re-introduced to his first love Miyuki (Kataoka), who has recently returned home with a failed marriage behind her and six-year-old daughter Chiharu (Moriyama) in tow.

Miyuki now works nights at Yamaoka's bar, and when Haruo finds himself returning to confront her after closing time, the two end up making love. Miyuki invites Haruo around for lunch the next day to introduce him to her daughter, who as well as sharing the "Haru" character in her name, apparently has very similar eyes to him. But when he turns up at her house the following morning, Miyuki is nowhere to be seen. As he waits for her return, awkwardly trying to make small talk with his former lover's young daughter, he receives a phone call from Yamaoka telling him that there is 40000 Yen missing from the bar till. As he and Chiharu embark on a long wild goose chase in search of the missing Miyuki, Haruo begins to wonder if there is something he has been missing in his single, salaried life in the city.

A slight tale from Hagiuda (whose best known work to date is his second feature Rakuen in 2000), a former assistant director on The Most Terrible Time in My Life, and an occasional collaborator with Kaizo Hayashi and Go Riju (the two wrote the script for Riju's Chloe together, whilst Riju both produced and co-wrote this film), Going Home is ultimately too short and insubstantial to leave much in the way of an aftertaste, even though it tries hard to push the right buttons.

Part of the problem lies with the sullen and cheerless character of Haruo, who fails to draw much sympathy from the audience, though things pick up considerably during the all-too-limited moments when Kataoka, the feisty actress from Onibi - The Fire Within and Hush!, is onscreen (returning from a long absence from film due to a stroke). But the main problem here is that for all its nostalgic furusato (hometown) whimsy, there is not enough material to fuel a feature here, with neither the flare nor humour of similar efforts such as Kitano's Kikujiro. Watchable, maybe, but basically negligible.

The Man Behind the Scissors

Original Title: Hasami Otoko
Director: Toshiharu IKEDA
Cast: Kumiko ASO, Etsushi TOYOKAWA, Hiroshi ABE, Koji HIGUCHI
Running Time: 124 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'The Man Behind the Scissors'After a long sojourn for most of the 90s in V-cinema territory, directing titles such as the entries in the XX series (XX Beautiful Beast / XX Utsukushiki Kedamono in 1995 and XX Beautiful Prey / XX Utsukushiki Emono in 1996) for companies like Toei, The Man Behind the Scissors is a welcome return to genre moviemaking for Ikeda. A quirky and perplexing police procedural centred around a string of seemingly motiveless scissor murders, it is a surprisingly bloodless and sexless work for the former Nikkatsu Roman Porno director who gave us such exuberant sleazefests as Evil Dead Trap and Angel Guts: Red Porno, but it makes up for its lacklustre veneer with a cunningly tricksy narrative that, for much of the running time remains a step or two ahead of the viewer.

Masahito Kagawa's script, adapted with Ikeda from the novel of the same name written by Masayuki Shuno, keeps us firmly with the two murderers, the cool but methodical serial psycho Yasunaga (Toyokawa) and Chinatsu (Aso), his sweet but sullen younger sidekick who is plagued with her own self-destructive desires and over whom Yasunaga has an inexplicably strong hold. After shearing and stabbing their way through a couple of primly-uniformed high school girls with the sharpened implements of the title, the pair soon find that someone has already got to their next potential victim, 16-year-old Yukiko, and done the job for them.

Finding themselves called as witnesses to the crime, they embark on a series of double bluffs and deceits with police investigator Isone (Higuchi) and his deskbound superior Horinouchi (Abe) involving feeding information to a gutter press journalist out to do some muck-raking and toying with an innocent bystander seemingly unconnected with the victim, all the while trying to pinpoint the identity of the older man Yukiko was spotted with just before the murder.

The Man Behind the Scissors is more concerned with plot and character than gory murders or action-packed set-pieces, which in some ways is rather a shame given how enjoyably over-the-top Ikeda's former work has been. Still, there lingers a vague suspicion that Ikeda isn't really being serious with the material. The arch performances along with the blaring tenor sax score set an aura of perhaps unintentional camp against the otherwise unelaborate visual style, making it far more fun than other attempts at sombre psychological dramas such as Yoichi Sai's MARKS. This makes it all the more disappointing that the film should spend quite so much time in tying up the loose threads at the end in order to provide a serious psychological justification for what has gone before. Shorn of half an hour, The Man Behind the Scissors would prove an even more enjoyable diversion.

Jyukai: The Sea of Trees Behind Mt. Fuji

Original Title: Ki No Umi
Running Time: 119 mins.
Director: Tomoyuki TAKIMOTO
Cast: Masato HAGIWARA, Hiroyuki IKEUCHI, Kanji TSUDA, Sansei SHIOMI, Haruka IGAWA, Yasujiro TAMURA, Mami NAKAMURA, Miko YOKI

picture: scene from 'Jyukai: The Sea of Trees Behind Mt. Fuji'A four-story omnibus movie using the notorious suicide spot of Aokigahara, the broad expanse of virgin forest situated on the far side of Mount Fuji, as its linking device. As with all such ensemble works, Jyukai is only as good as its stronger sections, so it is a shame that things get off to such a faltering start with the rather perfunctory opening episode about a yakuza loan shark, Tatsuya (Ikeuchi), revealing his softer side when he receives a desperate cry of help by cell-phone from a young 23-year-old girl he has been putting the squeeze on, who has headed deep into the forest and swallowed a bottle of pills.

Fortunately things pick up from here with an oddly affecting sequence set after work hours in Tokyo's Shimbashi district, in which a grizzled, world-weary police detective Saegusa (Shiomi) strikes up an unexpected friendship with a beleaguered salaryman Yamada (Tsuda) when he meets to question the younger man about a photo of him with a young girl who has recently disappeared, taken during the World Cup in 2002 ( "Stranger's hugged each other with the first goal. We'll never see anything like it again in Japan!") Initially defensive, Yamada soon begins to relax when he realises he is not a suspect, and as the two bond over drinks, the conversation turns to the spiritual malaise lying at the heart of post-recessional Japan.

The film derives much of its dread atmosphere from its main locale, with its tangled mass of knotted roots and mysterious dark holes appearing through the carpet of dead, fallen leaves, and the ominous sound of wind rustling through the branches. However, it is these subtler sequences situated within the anonymity of Tokyo's everyday urban spaces that prove the most resonant. One example is the story of Eiko (Igawa), a young girl forced into working at a train station kiosk after a promising career working in a bank is ruined when a married colleague, with whom she was having an affair, puts a restraining order on her.

34,000 people committed suicide in Japan in 2003, so Jyukai certainly makes for topical viewing, capturing all the loneliness and anonymity of modern-day metropolitan living. Whilst certainly an uneven work, Takimoto's debut is ultimately one of the few movies in recent years with its finger so firmly on the weakening pulse of contemporary Japanese society, and as such leaves an impression that lingers after viewing. It won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section at the 17th Tokyo International Film Festival, with a Special Award going to Kanji Tsuda for his performance as Yamada.


Director: Kazuya KONAKA
Cast: Tetsuya BESSHO, Kyoko TOYAMA, Kenya OSUMI, Yuki NAE, Ryohei HIROTA, Tatsuya NAGASAWA, Daisuke RYU, Masao KUSAKARI
Running Time: 97 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Ultraman'Superhero movies were incredibly big business at the box office in 2004, a year that brought us Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 - and its cut-price riposte Gagamboy from Philippine director Erik Matti - not to mention a whole host of Japanese home-grown heroes ranging from Cutie Honey and Devilman to Takashi Miike's Zebraman. It's perhaps not so surprising then that the stated mission for the ninth feature instalment of one of the nation's most firmly-established screen heroes, and the fourth to be directed by journeyman director Konaka, was to broaden its appeal to adults, not just children. But is Ultraman, a film whose opening shots of Special Defence fighter planes taking off from Hyakuri Airbase to a 6-year-old boy's voiceover informing us that "My dad is a F15 Eagle pilot", really going to prove anything more substantial than a nostalgia trip for childish grownups, or is it merely a guilty delight for lovers of the most basic form of kitsch?

A regular fixture on TV and cinema screens since 1966, the Ultraman films, like so many long-running Japanese serials, act individually as self-contained episodes with no continuity running between them, only shared elements. In this one, jet pilot Shunichi Maki (Bessho) is all set to leave his hazardous occupation to spend more time with his wife Yoko (Nae) and their terminally ill son Tsugumu, when he accidentally flies into a glowing fireball on his very last callout. Disappearing from radar view, he comes face to face with a huge Buddha-like figure at the centre of this neon orb, before being dispatched back to earth, miraculously escaping unscathed.

But Shunichi's attempts at rejoining normal civilian life after this near-death experience look set to be short-lived. During a routine flight for the new commercial aviation company where he works, he finds himself kidnapped by Sara Mizuhara (Toyama) of the top secret government Anti Terror Biological Research group. The agency has noted certain similarities in Shunichi's case with that of Udo (Osumi), a former colleague whose genetic make-up was shaken up after he was enveloped by a blue luminous body while investigating a UFO that landed in the Pacific. Udo now has the unpredictable tendency of mutating into a strange slathering beastie, like a mini-Godzilla, whilst after his own celestial encounter, Shunichi finds himself transformed into Ultraman, a giant, silver-suited fighter of evil. And Mizuhara has an even more emotional attachment to the case than first meets the eye.

With its polished use of computer graphics integrating nicely with the rubber-suited monster man sequences that are now firmly established as part of the kaiju eiga (or monster movie) tradition, Ultraman sports some great action sequences. The dizzying aerial battle at the climax, set to a soundtrack of meaty guitar riffs and soaring solos as the two slug it out in the skies above Shinjuku among swarms of black crows and shattering skyscrapers provides a suitably exhilarating endpoint.

But don't expect either the richness of characterisation nor the moral complexities of the more interesting contemporary Hollywood superhero movies, nor anything more profound than the standard "Good versus Evil" message. The relatively brief running time alone is enough to signal that Ultraman has not much more to offer than a tidy, life-affirming world viewpoint and clean, uncomplicated entertainment for the all the family.

The Chicken is Barefoot

Original Title: Niwatori Wa Hadashi Da
Director: Azuma MORISAKI
Running Time: 114 mins.

picture: scene from 'The Chicken is Barefoot'The Chicken is Barefoot was apparently selected for the Competition section at TIFF when one of the programmers saw it at Berlin earlier in the year, though it had already screened as the closing film at last year's Tokyo FilmEx almost a year before. So much for discovering the latest masterpieces … At any rate, it's certainly not a film one would want to sit through twice.

In the tranquil seaside town of Maizuru, gruff single father Mamoru (Harada, best known for his appearances in the wonderful films of Seijun Suzuki in the 80s such as Zigeuneurweisen) works as a commercial diver, earning just enough to support himself and raise a mentally challenged son Sam (Hamagami). We can see from the offset that Sam is a bit of a handful in a needlessly graphic long shot of him taking a shit over the side of the boat as his father takes him towards his first dive as part of an initiation into adulthood on his 15th birthday.

Sam is the subject of a bitter tug of love between Mamoru and his estranged zainichi (Korean-Japanese) wife Chinja (Baisho). The only people who really understand him are his six-year-old sister Chal (Moriyama, from Going Home), a cute kid wise beyond her years, and Naoko (Hijii), a sickly sweet teacher at the local Special Needs school who maybe cares that little bit too much.

When Sam's photographic memory gets him mixed up in a scam involving the yakuza and a stolen car, the local community all rally round and Naoko is forced into rekindling a lapsed relationship with her cold and distant father, a high-ranking public official (Ishibashi) based in nearby Kyoto, though she soon begins to suspect that he too may be implicated within this chain of corruption that runs all the way up to the upper rungs of the government.

Veteran director Morisaki began his career at Shochiku, and occasionally collaborated with Tora-san director Yoji Yamada (the two wrote the script together for the first in the series, Otoko wa Tsuraiyo, released in 1969). This may explain why The Chicken is Barefoot (the title comes from a nonsense expression used to calm Sam down when he gets overexcited) feels so much like a product from a bygone age.

Morisaki utilises the nostalgic setting of a closely-bonded traditional village community (with endless Shinto festivals and scenes of communal dance), where the worlds of the shomin (common people) clash with corrupt officialdom, to let forth a righteous cry for the integration of all aspects of the Japanese community, from the mentally disabled, Japan's vibrant but ostracised zainichi community, and even the exotic Russian shippers that skulk around the port.

But the film never seems sure of what it wants to be or what it wants to say, and really starts faltering around the midpoint, when it becomes clear it is never going to satisfy any of the issues it initially looked set to raise, and all the more interesting aspects soon become swamped by a steady accumulation of maudlin melodrama, bad comedy and tedious wild goose chases.

Runin - Banished

Original Title: Runin
Running Time: 149 mins.
Director: Eiji OKUDA
Cast: Keiko MATSUZAKA, Kazuhiro NISHIJIMA, Mayu OZAWA, Mariya ITO, Eiji OKUDA

picture: scene from 'Runin - Banished'The remote island of Hachijojima lies 276 kms from the mainland at the end of the Izu archipelago, swathed by clouds, the far side of an 80-km wide stretch of raging waters known as the Black Tide. In 1838, the island is serving as a penal colony, where criminal exiles are forced to eke out an ignoble existence living in self-sustaining villages and assailed by harsh winds, storms, and periodic famine, and overseen by ruthless warders who punish any attempted escape by rolling the prisoners down steep rocky cliffs in large wicker balls.

Clothed in brightly coloured kimonos, the two rhinestones amongst the rabble are Toyogiku, or Otoyo (Matsuzaka) and Hikaru, who have both managed thus far to make their sentence on the island a little more bearable by offering sexual services to the rest of the grimy convicts, despite Hikaru clearly being a man. A former courtesan from the Yoshiwara district in Edo sent to the island for the crime of arson, Otoyo is not getting any younger, and when the next shipload of inmates to the island arrives containing the younger Kisaburo (Nishijima), the two pair up and plot escape together. But before long, Kacho (Ito), a younger and prettier new internee also from Yoshiwara arrives on the island, and is soon turning the heads of the other inmates and putting herself forward as replacement for the affections of the battered older woman.

The second film to be directed by actor Eiji Okuda (who also appears in this) after the 2001 wish-fulfilment piece Shojo - An Adolescent, Runin is another work that appears to be swimming futilely against the prevailing tide of both local and international markets, one of those monumental heritage pieces familiar from the 80s that should prove popular enough with casual viewers at foreign festivals, but unlikely to find much favour elsewhere.

The cinematography and art design (recognisable as the work of Takeo Kimura, especially his previous collaborations with Kaizo Hayashi such as Zipang) are undeniably top notch, but aside from the regressive portrayals of all the female characters as either whores or as a potential source of comfort and salvation, the main thing that counts against Runin is its sheer length. This alone should be enough from shielding it from most potential audiences, but one can't help get the feeling that, served in a smaller dose, the film's general lack of humour or self-reflexivity might have not proven such a problem. As it stands, though sections of the numerous sub-stories occasionally attain some degree of emotional tug, Runin barely rises above the level of a passable, though nicely-photographed, Sunday afternoon drama.


Director: Macoto TEZKA (Makoto TEZUKA)
Cast: Masanobu ANDO, Reiko HASHIMOTO, Kaori KAWAMURA, Shunsuke MATSUOKA, Joe ODAGIRI
Running Time: 133 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Synchronicity'Freshly arrived in Tokyo, pretty young half-Japanese model Asuka finds herself crashing at the Kabukicho apartment of Kasumi, a burnt-out and bitter cast-off from the same modelling agency with a severe drug habit and a mysterious missing sister. One stormy evening, between photo-shoots and flamenco sessions, she witnesses a bloody murder in the seedy Hotel Bats that faces her skylight window

Masanobu Ando (Battle Royale, Adrenalin Drive) takes top billing as the paparazzi with the penchant for pretty girls, but is as poorly integrated as everything else in this messy urban thriller whose only notable reason for being is the handful of brutal killings that periodically punctuate the tedium. The rest is little more than a torturous parade of diversions as the camera glides around locations bathed in Argento-esque hues of primary blues, reds and greens to a pulsing electronic score and the numerous red herrings are established. There's an overzealous police inspector who knows more about his subjects than perhaps he should; a police consultant whose connoisseurship of oolong tea is matched only by a suspiciously in-depth knowledge of Haitian voodoo rituals; an eviscerated corpse with roses stuck in its eye sockets; and the staff of the love hotel who cook up pornographic videos filming their clients' nocturnal antics.

All of this sounds like it could have been fun, and indeed, it just might have been. But amazingly no one involved in the production seemed to call into question exactly why a generic thriller like this needed to be over two hours long, nor, despite a heavy emphasis on the themes of "synchronicity" and "coincidence" (in other words, "contrivance"), what exactly the film was trying to say. Even if you manage to say alert enough to follow the loops and dodge the plot-holes while watching, chances are you'll be struggling to remember who the culprit was the next day.

Despite the occasionally genuine flash of visual style, the results are for the most part amateurish, sloppy and ceaselessly passé. Amazing to find out that the man behind the camera, Tezka, is not a first time director, but the son of manga legend Osamu Tezuka, and has a 20-year background in 8mm experimental work and indie features such as NUMANiTE (1995), and The Innocent (Bakuchi, 1999), starring Tadanobu Asano.