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Nippon Connection 2005

By Jasper Sharp

For anyone within a Ryanair's flight from Frankfurt, put a note in your diaries for next April. It's the month of Nippon Connection, probably the most important annual celebration of Japanese cinema and culture in Europe.

5 days, 3 screens, and well over 50 movies (with English subs), playing between the low-key and incredibly friendly atmosphere of Frankfurt's JW Goethe University and the more sober environs of the Deutsche Filmmuseum. It will take just one extended weekend to catch your fill of all of the best Japanese movie offerings from the past year.

Between movies there is also a whole host of other activities to keep you occupied, be it listening to the lectures or podium discussions from the festival's many guests, indulging yourself with a shiatsu massages or quick sushi fix, a lively concert from Osaka's Afri Rampo and workshops in everything from reiki to tying a kimono.

Many of the movies that played Nippon Connection 2005 have already been covered in some detail on this website - Izo, Steamboy, A Taste of Tea, Blood and Bones, Vital - while the ambitious program of self-produced jishu eiga video shorts that made up the Nippon Digital section, notably those brought over by producer Kunihiko Tomioka from Planet Studyo +1 Osaka, will be the focus of a future Midnight Eye update. Meanwhile, the brilliant Seijun Suzuki retrospective program provided a unique opportunity to see some of the distinctive director's lesser known works such as Carmen From Kawachi, Harbour Toast: Victory Is in Our Grasp and Zigeunerweisen, on the big screen.

Here's a round up of some of the goodies you might have missed.

Tokyo Noir
Tony Takitani
World's End/Girlfriend
Heat Haze Theatre


Original Title: Insutoru
Director: Kataoka K
Cast: Aya UETO, Ryunosuke KAMIKI, Shichinosuke NAKAMURA, Rei KIKUKAWA, Hijiri KOJIMA
Running time: 94 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Install'This slight but polished coming-of-age drama has one of those "only in Japan" scenarios, focusing on the first teetering steps into the outer limits of cyber-sex by two youthful protagonists separated by the gulf of adolescence. Scripted by prodigious TV screenwriter Mika Omori, Install is an adaptation from the novel of the same name by Risa Wataya, which earned its author the distinction of being the youngest ever recipient of the Bungei Prize for literature at the age of 17. Featuring frank sexual discussions between its youthful protagonists, though never prurient or explicit, its unaffectedly innocent approach to the subject, as with Shin Togashi's Gomen, will probably raise more than a few eyebrows from overseas viewers.

17-year-old high school girl Asako (Ueto from Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi), feeling her individuality being crushed by the dull daily grind of her studies, takes to skipping class, sealing herself in her bedroom after her mother goes to work and lying spread-eagled on the floor staring at the ceiling. An attempt to rid herself of all material possessions brings her into contact with Kazuyoshi (Kamiki), a sexually precocious 10-year-old living in the same building as her. Kazuyoshi takes charge of Asako's computer, and starts lurking around sex chatrooms where he meets a young bored housewife Miyabi who works in fuzoku hostess clubs while her husband is at work. With Asako at a loose end, Kazuyoshi drafts her in to help him set up paid dates for Miyabi, leaving her hidden in his closet sitting in front of the screen and talking dirty to anonymous strangers while he attends elementary school. Internet sex-talk indeed proves a lucrative business for all parties concerned, but in the world of the internet no one is really who they seem, and with neither of them having ever "done it", Asako soon finds herself needing more than just a vivid imagination to maintain the pretence.

With its gracefully gliding cameras and bright vibrant colours, the story cracks off at a bouncy energetic pace within a squeaky clean format honed to perfection by TV director Kataoka, here making his feature debut. Though pitched at the teen market, Install rises above the level of a diverting curiosity and turns out to be a pretty good fun ride.

Tokyo Noir

Original Title: Tokyo Noir
Director: Masato ISHIOKA / Naoto KUMAZAWA
Running time: 127 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Tokyo Noir'An omnibus of three stories about women who find emotional liberation working within various capacities in the sex industry, as a serious drama Tokyo Noir has to struggle hard to overcome the clichés inherent in its choice of topic.

Kumazawa's first entry, Birthday, doesn't quite pull it off. The story of Mari, a dowdy and single Office Lady who, in her mid-30s, finds herself increasingly marginalised within the workplace, comes across as mere Flashdance-esque fantasy. Gloomily fatalistic about her birthdays, which have settled into a characteristically disastrous pattern ever since her father left home never to return on her seventh, as she approaches the age of 35 she is beckoned one evening through a mysterious doorway with a gold mask hung above it marked "Carnival". Here she is pampered, massaged and made-over before being dispatched to a plush hotel to service a variety of male clients. When she notices that her first customer has three moles on his chest, similar to her estranged father, she realises that she may have found her ideal metier after all, and her evenings need never be lonely and empty again.

More promising is Girl's Life, focusing on Miyuki (Nakamura), a college girl who works evenings dealing out blowjobs and kindly words to lonely businessmen in a fuzoku club. Similar to his first work, Scoutman, director Ishioka dwells on the tedium and banality of everyday life in the sex industry, showing the grimy reality behind its alluring façade. Each of the tiny cubicles where the girls ply their trade comes equipped with an emergency button in case their clients insist too forcefully on the honban, the "real thing".

The two directors come together for the faintly ridiculous final episode, entitled Night Lovers, in which Nao (Yoshino), a young office worker in her 20s whose boyfriend disappears without a trace early on, ends up trading places with a high-class hooker of the same name (Seki) who drives around Tokyo by night picking up clients who approach her via the internet. The requisite air of cold urban alienation and anxiety is conjured up via periodic newsflashes on the TV and radio, as US and British forces storm Iraq, a fairly common ploy in recent pink films since Zeze's No Man's Land in 1991, but it can't make the story any more convincing.

Aside from the Girl's Life segment, it is difficult to take any of this as seriously as the film takes itself. Each of the episodes could do with losing a few minutes, and pitched at the tabloid level of sensationalist tabloid exposé with some minor nudity from its actresses, the film merely documents the milieu without really having much to say about it. At best, Tokyo Noir is a vicarious drawl through the dark gutters of the sex business through the eyes of those that work within it, much in the vein of Ryu Murakami's Tokyo Decadence.

Tony Takitani

Original Title: Tony Takitani
Director: Jun ICHIKAWA
Cast: Issei OGATA, Rie MIYAZAWA, Hidetoshi NISHIJIMA
Running time: 75 mins
Year: 2005

picture: scene from 'Tony Takitani'An adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, even at only 75 minutes Tony Takitani feels laboriously over-protracted. Despite his impressive track record with films such as Tokyo Lullaby (Tokyo Yakyoku, 1997) and Osaka Story (Osaka Monagatari, 1999), Ichikawa's primary career as an advertising commercials director is most in evidence here, in this tale featuring Ogata as the eponymous middle-aged technical illustrator whose solitary childhood (his mother died when he was young, and his father was busy touring with his jazz band) resulted in his emotionally introverted personality. When he meets Eiko (Miyazawa), a beautiful and refined female client, he becomes besotted and ends up marrying her, but it is not long before her obsession with expensive haute couture designer clothing ends in disaster. Soon Tony finds himself left with nothing but an en suite wardrobe full of expensive fineries and no one to wear them. Out of desperation and loneliness, he places an advert in the paper for a perfect size 7 woman.

Tony Takitani plays out with the ersatz sophistication of a glossy commercial for cars or perfume, composed of delicate images, slow-motion sequences, and a muted greyish colour palette. Soft breeze rustles through every scene, with the camera panning seductively from left to right to the evocative tinkle of Ryuichi Sakamoto's continuous piano score through a variety of chic interiors ranging from Tony's minimalist design studio to smoky lounge bars and fashionable boutiques. A comment on the shallowness of Japan's consumer culture and obsession with the exotic allure of the West, perhaps, but the approach taken here is too subdued to stress the point, as shot after shot, the camera seems content merely to linger on the emaciated beauty of Miyazawa, whose role amounts to little more than that of a clothes horse, while an aloof third person narration from Nishijima further serves to keep us distant from the characters. Beauty is, after all, only skin deep, and boredom sets in even before Tony's back-story, relayed through an atmospheric montage of old photos and film stocks, is over.

World's End / Girlfriend

Original Title: Sekai no Owari
Director: Shiori KAZAMA
Cast: Mami NAKAMURA, Kiyohiko SHIBUKAWA (KEE), Keishi NAKATSUKA, Seiichi TANABE, Nozomi ANDO
Running time: 111 mins
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'World's End / Girlfriend'This engaging and highly watchable look at the romantic yearnings of a group of emotionally fickle twenty-somethings sees Nakamura as Haruko reprising the same lively onscreen persona that she brought to Ryuichi Hiroki's Tokyo Trash Baby. A carefree yet unfulfilled part-time worker at a hair salon whose natural pluckiness often gives way to dark gloomy spells in her more private moments, Haruko almost seems like a direct continuation of her character from Hiroki's film, here pitched into a similar milieu to that of Kazama's previous work, The Mars Canon (2001) in which she also starred, a look at restless couples entangled in impossible love triangles. The connection doesn't end there, as Shibukawa (previously known as Kee), here playing the main male lead of Shinnosuke, also appeared in Hiroki's DV-shot Girlfriend (a.k.a. Someone Please Stop the World) in a similar, though less central role. In other words, we're in comfortably familiar territory here.

In the wake of a bitter break-up from her last boyfriend, Haruko arrives, suitcase trundling behind her, at the apartment of an old friend Shinnosuke, which he shares with his co-worker at a shop selling bonsai. Setting up camp on their sofa, Haruko finds Shinnosuke's charismatic, easygoing charm a welcome distraction from her own sense of disenchantment with matters of the heart. Haruko's greatest fear is loneliness, but Shinnosuke is the kind of guy who is never alone, nor shows any sign of wanting to settle down with anyone. Then, a chance encounter with pernickety salaryman Nakamoto ends up with Haruko fired from her workplace and taking up new employment dressed up in a pink bunny suit advertising a karaoke parlour. Next time Haruko bumps into Nakamoto, she ends up falling for his gentle, reliable nature. But could Nakamoto be the man she is looking for, or is there someone else closer at hand?

A gentle, often humorous, character-driven piece shot in Okinawa, though the locale never really makes its presence visibly felt, it's difficult not to be won over by the charms of World's End. Even if, throughout all the twists and turns in the relationships of all the main characters, it is often unclear what conclusions the film might be heading towards, what immediately shines through is the infectious personalities of everyone onscreen. Unfortunately this type of low-key drama seldom gets much in the way of interest from overseas distributors, more is the pity, because unmarred by the sentimentality, trite conclusions and shifts in tone that often mar Japanese Rom Coms, Kazama's tender portrait of disillusioned youths is a film that is hard to find fault with.

Born in 1966, director Kazama started off in film with a number of self-financed 8mm works made during the 80s, winning the first Pia Film Festival Scholarship Prize in 1984 with 0×0 (Zero Kakeru koto no Zero) while she was still in high school, leading to Pia helping find financing for her first feature How Old is the River? (Fuyu no Kappa) in 1994.

Heat Haze Theatre

Original Title: Kagero-za
Director: Seijun SUZUKI
Cast: Yusaku MATSUDA, Michiyo OKUSU, Eriko KUSUDA, Mariko KAGA, Katsuo NAKAMURA, Ryutaro OTOMO, Yoshio HARADA, Emiko AZUMA
Running time: 139 mins.
Year: 1981

picture: scene from 'Heat Haze Theatre'No longer compromised by the demands of working at a major studio, Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Era trilogy of Zigeunerweisen, Heat Haze Theatre and Yumeji are seen as his mightiest works in Japan, yet they remain virtually unacknowledged in the West, overshadowed by the equally capricious yet more commercially-minded movies he made for Nikkatsu in the 60s such as Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill. Produced during the 80s by Genjiro Arato's company Cinema Placet, these hypnotic, super-stylised meditations on the blurred boundaries behind the ostensible and the unreal are the kind of the films that will take many viewings for the viewer to grasp their meaning on every level.

Set in Tokyo in 1926, three years after Suzuki's birth, Heat Haze Theatre depicts a Japan caught in flux between tradition and modernity, with 70s action star Matsuda playing Shunko Matsuzaki, a playwright of modern Shinpa theatre who is being supported by a wealthy patron, Tamawaki (Nakamura). One day he crosses the path of a beautiful woman on her way to the hospital where she tells him a friend is dying. She asks Matsuzaki to accompany her because she is scared of a mysterious older woman (Azuma) there who is selling the fruit of the Chinese Lantern Plant, or physalis, rumoured to be the souls of women. He refuses, but finds himself unable to shake off this beautiful apparition, whom it is later revealed may be the deceased wife of Tamawaki.

But the mystery deepens when it is revealed that Tamawaki actually had two wives, one a blonde and blue-eyed European whom he married during a stay in Germany and attempted to change into a traditional Japanese bride by forcing her to wear dark lenses and dye her hair black. Matsuzaki follows the trail of messages left by his phantasmal enchantress across the country to Kanazawa, but when he bumps into his benefactor on the train, who tells him that his is going to witness a love suicide, he realises that he is being lured to his death.

Heat Haze Theatre is based on a story by Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939), whose lyrical but ambiguous writing formed the basis of a number of adaptations ranging from Mizoguchi's early silent The Water Magician (Taki no Shiraito, 1933), to Kinugasa's Midare-gami (1961) and Shinoda's Demon Pond (Yashagaike, 1979). His work, connected with the worlds of Kabuki and Noh theatre and often containing fantastical and supernatural elements, seems naturally suited to Suzuki, for whom the screen offers only a tenuous link with reality. Suzuki sumptuously recreates the period through costume and set design, with the film culminating in an electrifying Kabuki-styled coda. With its dreamlike continuity, disorienting edits (characters pop in and out of shots at whim) and a haunting soundtrack from Kaname Kawachi (who scored all Suzuki's Taisho trilogy films), this is cinema at its most inventive and bizarre, and one of the best of its decade.