Now it’s dark
Wolf’s Calling-2019: Toshiaki Toyoda
A Girl Missing-2019: Koji Fukada
The Promised Land-2020: Takahisa Zeze
Voice in the Wind-2020: Nobuhiro Suwa
Red Post on Escher Street-2020: Sono Sion
Kudakechiru tokoro o misete ageru-2020: Sabu
Toshiaki Toyoda’s masterful short, Wolf’s Calling, has a number of warriors assembling at a temple in a lush forest. Each must climb its hills, then the steps leading to the gate. They include (regular Toyoda collaborator) Kiyoshiro Shibukawa, Kengo Kora, and Tadanobu Asano whose mature possession of the shot recalls what he did with Nagisa Oshima in Gohatto, and in Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi. Toyoda’s screen alter ego, Ryuhei Matsuda, closes the film with a wide shot of him dominating Tokyo from a rooftop. This gathering might have served to save the city from the Olympics, though one would wish its purpose had been to rescue Japanese cinema.
The other five directors listed above continue to rank among Japan’s most recognized directors, including France favorites Koji Fukada and Nobuhiro Suwa. Ryusuke Hamaguchi was caught in the whirlwind of Venice, Berlin, and Cannes and as might be expected, neither of his two festival titles were in this year’s Nippon Connection’s lists of films. This year’s award winners included highly charged and politicized works that addressed the failings of the Japanese government’s Kafkaesque handling of refugees, in Thomas Ash’s Ushiku, and the abuse of foreign workers Akio Fujimoto’s Along the Sea. Meanwhile, several of the selected fiction features served to point to all the other ills and woes tormenting Japan.
A Girl Missing sees Koji Fukada’s wonderfully perverse go-to actress Mariko Tsutsui get into trouble when her nephew kidnaps a high school girl she is tutoring; she is also a caregiver to the girl’s grandmother, a noted painter entering senility. The girl is found unharmed and is returned home. And there is an older sister —played by Mikako Ichikawa, who has been the face of many supporting unhinged or fragile characters since the nineties— who pines for the tutor. Nearly every sequence of the film allows Ms. Tsutsui to rely on a particular skill that has served her well in Fukada’s work: the ability to smile while the eyes suffer, the face trying to tell two different stories simultaneously.
Takahisa Zeze’s The Promised Land also has a girl missing, but this time she doesn’t come back. Her disappearance haunts a small town and embitters the relationships between several of its leading members. It’s all there, yakuza and villagers harassing a Korean mother and son, the latter ultimately blamed by those who never found closure. This dark cloud also follows those who try to leave, and Zeze is adept at the slipping in and sprinkling of hints that are also what defines Japan. Its narrative construction is exemplary as is its mise-en-scène, yet not free from bringers of disappointment, including the performances of actors Koichi Sato and Go Ayano.
Voice in the Wind is a project that came to Nobuhiro Suwa, who wasn’t the original director attached to the project. A high school girl, whose parents and younger brother disappeared when the tsunami struck the Tohoku region in 2011, now lives with an aunt in Hiroshima. Minutes into the film, the aunt has a stroke and the girl decides to set out north; she hasn’t been back since. There is a phone booth that withstood the earthquake; thousands people have made the trek with the belief that they can leave a message to those they lost. Suwa takes this opportunity to turn this road movie into a series of vignettes that mimic Agnes Varda’s Sans Toit ni Loi/Vagabond. Most of the people she encounters along the way are helpful; during the one menacing episode -three young men planning to abuse her in a parking lot- Hidetoshi Nishijima arrives to rescue her, and decides to take her to Tohoku, where he’s also from. Nishijima gets to be the passenger in Hamaguchi’s Cannes entry, Drive my Car.
Sabu’s Kudakechiru tokoro o misete ageru looks at a high school senior who wishes to believe his destiny is to do good, that he has special powers waiting to be used. A junior in the same school is the victim of ijime…and her father beats and abuses her at home. An extended lesson in transfer and denial —her tale of being pursued and taken repeatedly by aliens in a ufo hovering over the town— Suwa’s film not only pushes back the limits of what teachers and a community won’t do to assist a victim, but posits that such a narrative provides a case study for the teenager’s powers. Rather than having everyone call child services and the police. Contemporary Japanese cinema has been representing all forms of school bullying for nearly four decades; Sabu’s film brings little to the genre.
Lastly, some observations on the remarkably edited Red Post on Escher Street, a film Sono Sion decided to make while doing a workshop with acting students and which was shot in eight days. It’s about a trendy young auteur, courted by all the festivals, who is doing casting and auditions for his next project. It is charmingly ironic for Sono Sion to have a crime boss pressure the producer to cast his idol mistress so that they could either go to France or Italy; there might even be parties… Sion also cruelly takes the time to consider the ontological condition of extras in a movie, which he alternates with students performing wannabes and others just playing at auditioning. The film has a rapidly numbing quality, yet it is to his credit to believe in and care for Japanese youth the way that he does, from Suicide Club, Love Exposure to Tokyo Tribe and Tokyo Vampire Hotel. But his display of nihilism in Escher Street digs deep in a manner that is nearly as ruthless as that of Shohei Imamura.
In search of light
Shiver (2021, Toshiaki Toyoda)
On-Gaku: Our Sound (2019, Kenji Iwaisawa)
While many of the feature films display a dark manner in this edition of Nippon Connection, this musically themed pair of titles have produced some measure of comfort. Both undeniably distance themselves from directly engaging with any social issue and focus instead more purely on the form. In the case of Shiver, it centers on the taiko performance and the coordination of the performance, the visual effect, and the environment; On-Gaku’s animation drawing style radiates a wonderful quirkiness.
Toyoda’s 89-minute Shiver was commissioned to depict the collaboration between taiko drumming troupe Kodo and composer Koshiro Hino for the troupe’s fortieth anniversary. Through a considerable number of fixed shots and steady camera work, it renders a grand and solemn style similar to Wolf’s Calling, showing Kodo’s extraordinary performance through paintings of minimalist composition. Shot between the mountains and shores of Sado Island in the eastern part of the Sea of Japan, the rhythm of various percussion instruments is in perfect harmony with the music and score of nature. The performance embodies intensely those qualities of traditional Japanese culture, focused and powerful, moving from tradition to contemporaneity without a glitch, as Butoh is able to achieve. Produced during the COVID-19 pandemic and released online, it brings relief and pleasure to people suffering from isolation, making it feasible to forget this plight for a short while, along with all that may ail them.
The other impressive title using the power of music is Kenji Iwaisawa’s animation debut feature On-Gaku. The film is short and endearing, adapted from the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. The story is about a delinquent high school student with no musical background who starts a rock band that includes two bass players and a drummer, an idea that comes to him in a flash. Familiar topics like youthful fervor, struggle, and young love are not missing, but are quickly skimmed over. Most of the story is devoted to the overwhelming sensations brought by music which can be felt even without professional training and practice, as well as slow-paced, offbeat scenes of unconnected daily life. The hand-drawn animation displays a rather sloppy style, in contrast to the sophistication that the professional animation industry is usually recognized for . However, this eccentric scribble becomes the strength of the film, together with the excellent music and subtle editing, presenting a heterogeneous work with a unique personality — combining familiar motifs and a rebellious interpretation of them. It is simple yet sincere, firmly saying no to repetition and clichés.