Archive for May 2011
マイ・バック・ページ (Mai bakku peji)
Ruinning time: 141 mins.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
“My Back Page,” Nobuhiro Yamashita’s part thriller and part paean to the radical student movement of the late 60s/early70s in Japan, is a smart and heartfelt study of the failures, broken dreams and the not-so-noble motivations of a generation prone to reification. A certain zeitgeist seems to be hitting the Japanese screens over the least few years where exploration of this turning point in 20th century history is open game for re-examination. Koji Wakamatsu, who lived through the time, broke through the wall with his incisive and unsentimental portrayal of radicals in “United Red Army.” Last year’s “Norwegian Wood” used images of billy club-bearing, helmeted student radicals as a backdrop for an otherwise sentimental love story that could have happened at any time in history.
“Norwegian Wood” featured rising star Kenichi Matsuyama as the hapless and non-committal main character, Toru. Though he gave the role all his might, the decidedly flat character had no room to move, dramatically or emotionally. In “My Back Page,” Matsuken (as he’s known to his fans) gets a chance to dig deep into the heart and mind of Umeyama, a radical wannabe. Playing off Satoshi Tsumabuki’s naïve young reporter, Sawada, the parrying and thrusting of their relationship drives the otherwise downbeat tale with a certain energy and complexity that makes “My Back Page” an enthralling film.
Base on a memoir of by critic Saburo Kawamoto, “My Back Page,” chronicles the heady events that began around the fall of Yasuda Auditorium in January 1969. Referenced, though never seen in the film, the police ouster of students occupying the Tokyo University building is generally recognized as the beginning of the end of the radical student movement in Japan. It’s from this turning point in the radical movement that the energy began to dissipate or become calcified, inspiring hard-line leftist groups to become direct action cults.
“My Back Page” opens with young Sawada and a couple of buddies as inept hippy entrepreneurs, trying to sell pet bunnies. Sawada makes a mistake of storing a box of rabbits behind a building where they accidently expire. The head of this trio, Tamotsu gets beaten up by his yakuza suppliers and bids goodbye to Sawada and the aptly named Kuristo (Christ). This simple and seemingly throwaway beginning sets the themes that will be explored throughout the move. Actions – or inactions – that cause harm and death are given a simple metaphor with the dead rabbits. Sawada is spared from the results of his actions and embarks on his career of being a reporter. Responsibility evades him throughout the film.
Cut to sometime in the future, Sawada lands a job at the Touto media empire, working for the weekly gossip rag, rather than the primo job with the news team. He has just written a sentimental and sloppy story about the homeless and is rightfully taken down several pegs by his bosses. Grabbing onto the coattails of a more savvy and seasoned reporter, Nakahira (Kanji Furutachi) he gets an object lesson in creating a news story – delivering a wanted radical organizer to a demonstration where an attempted arrest and escape make the headlines. Nakahira, though, gets the byline.
Meeting young radical, Umeyama, gives Sawada the idea that Umeyama may be the man that will give him the story that will make him noticed. Umeyama also see a similar end in the naïve reporter that he can use for his own ends.
Umeyama is introduced at a leftist student meeting where he shouts down his main rival and creates a new radical cell. Though only having a handful of people he sets an unformed radical agenda with an idea of armed insurrection. Through a mix of manipulation, charisma and pure bull-headedness he manages to get his immediate peers and most importantly, Sawada, to believe in him. He moves his agenda toward a senseless murder that ultimately leads to his arrest. Deluded to the end, Umeyama gets his moment in the spotlight, but to a misused and wasted end.
Both Sawada and Umeyama are portrayed as being idealists. Sawada identifies with the student movement and with his position in the media thinks he can help the cause. Umeyama believes in a new and better future, though the boy’s got some other problems. Sawada wants his scoop, his moment of fame being an important reporter. It’s noteworthy that Sawada is never shown writing, ever. Umeyama thinks he can have his moment in the spotlight, not only to salve his own ego, but to build his twisted idea of revolution. They work each other for their own ends. The idealism of whatever they may have believed in gets lost in their personal delusions.
Umeyama winds up in jail, an aberration in the history of radical struggle. Sawada, years later, has become a film critic. He never was a good reporter. Ducking into an izakaya, he accidently meets up with his old hippy pal, Tamotsu, now a bar owner and family man. His failures, lack of commitment and losses catch up with him in a flood of tears as he downs a beer. The screen cuts to white.
Even though flawed (Sawada) or manipulative and evil (Umeyama), under Yamashita’s assured direction makes them both ultimately empathetic. The cast of hardboiled newspapermen, career-smart cover girls and abused revolutionary enablers are also illuminated in a positive light. Details of 6 mat hideouts festooned with revolutionary banners and the pre-computer age newsroom (think “All the President’s Men”) are carefully detailed and evocative of times, not too long ago, past. And most importantly, the showing the desires and failures of the 60s and 70s, warts and all, may be a more fitting legacy to a mixed up and fascinating time.
Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, May 28, 2011.
Fumie Nishikawa’s “The Azemichi Road” has been making the rounds of North American children’s film festivals to generally good reviews. It opens in Japan this summer. The story is about a young hearing-impaired girl, Yuki (Haruka Ooba), living in a sort of interior isolation compounded by her largely absent working mother (Makiko Watanabe) in the village of Uonuma. She crosses paths with the Jumping Girls, a crew of young teens working on their pop/hip hop dance routine. Invited to join the group by Rena (Misaki Futenma), she faces a classic array of demons to slay – her own physical disabilities, peer pressures, jealousies, insecurity, mother-daughter issues. Of course, she manages to overcome them by the final scenes of the big dance competition.
The positivist message is a standard trope of kids’ films, but what makes “The Azemichi Road” stand out is not only the novel situation of a deaf dancer – she’s quite good in that youthful I-can-and-will-do-anything way – but Nishikawa’s feel for place and character. The townscape of Uonuma – from the emerald green rice fields to the crumbling concrete schools and non-descript public halls and domestic architecture – is deftly illustrated. The world of girls – their peeves and insults, their trust and friendships, their comradery – has a naturalism and connectedness that belie the occasional clichéd conventions that drive the plot. All in all, Yuki and the Jumping Girls rock – in a sort of juvenile and silly way.
I met with Fumie Nishikawa in an old fashioned kissaten in Shibuya. In the crowded room grabbed a corner of a large oak table with a gigantic flower arrangement in the middle. Sheltered behind a several large sprays of forsythia, in broken English and Japanese, we had an informal chat.
NV: You showed this film to the townspeople. What did they think?
FN: They didn’t say much. They felt that the place where they live isn’t beautiful. I told them that they should be proud. When I was making this film I was looking for someplace like this. They see this place every day, so they don’t find it beautiful. But I did. So after I showed the film to them I think they realized that this place is very beautiful.
NV: Is the town kind of dying?
FN: I don’t think the town is dying. Uonuma is close to Tokyo. Only 2 hours. Compared to other parts of the country, it’s good for families. But I saw many graves in the middle of rice fields. Older people are there and they like that place. For me it’s super-sabishii (lonely).
FN:I have many. But I think, Tarkovsky… because when I see his films I feel that… how to say it.. that nature… that he shot the atmosphere… that maybe he took the time to do it. I feel that I want to be a film director like him. I want to make my audience think about how beautiful it is where we live.
NV: Azemichi Road. How did this project begin?
FN: I am interested in working with sound. Maybe you saw this film on DVD, so you probably didn’t feel the vibration of the sound. But in a theatre you feel the vibration from the system. People who can’t and can hear – I want both of them in the same place to watch the same film. In the theatre the hearing impaired can feel the sound. That’s what I intended. I knew the girls before I started making the film. They were trying very hard, learning to dance, so I wanted to make the film about dance. Then I tried to find something far from dance and thought about the hearing impaired. Dance and hearing impairment is good. I wanted to have two very different things. I wanted to bring them together. Yeah, that’s the idea.
NV: Did you know about this landscape and area?
FN: No. But I wanted to have a rice field in the film. Because these are young girls… they are developing the same as rice… growing… living. A Japanese rice field in summer is a very particular landscape. And the azemichi (paths between rice fields) reminds me of my summer vacations in my childhood. It rings a bell to me.
NV: In the film, the character Yuki, she sees the Rip Girls. She gets excited. Can you tell me about the competition? Does this sort of thing happen in Japan in smaller towns?
FN: I think at that point it’s a fantasy. In Japan we have dance groups… too many dance groups. Before I made this film, I didn’t know hip-hop culture and dance, but I found that in many Japanese country towns there are dance teams, so many. And sometimes they do competitions in the countryside, but there no big stars come. The Rip Girls are famous for Double Dutch. They’ve won many competitions around the world.
FN: She’s not deaf.
N – But she has big ears.
FN: Yes (laughing). And that’s how we can easily see… how do you say… something in her eyes. When I first saw Haruka Ooba, I thought girls at this age generally look happy but Haruka always looked sad. I don’t know why, but she looks like she’s thinking of something all the time so that’s why I liked her for the part.
NV: And so, how was it working with the girls?
FN: I wanted to have a lot of kids with the film. I did it wrong. I couldn’t control so many kids. And these girls were… because girls in shishunki (puberty), sometimes they don’t like teachers, they don’t like parents…
NV: Or directors?
FN: Directors, yeah. So, it was difficult, but Yuki and Misaki, they felt nervous, so I think they worked well. It made work them very very hard.
NV: Azemichi Road has been compared to “Linda Linda Linda”?
FN: Many people have connected it with “Linda Linda Linda” and “Swing Girls”. At first I thought my film was like those films, but I made a different kind of film. The theme of the film was not about winning or getting something. The theme is about different cultures coming together. I think American people like this kind of story. It’s like a Hollywood-style theme… because in Japan we have more complicated stories. And this one is easy for children to understand.
NV: Were you thinking Hollywood-style when you were writing?
FN: I thought that I had to make a positive story.
NV: What’s next?
FN: I’m writing all the time. I want to see the film “Le Quattro Volte”. I have a story that has a similar title. It’s called Kuadropeto. I don’t know if it’s a good title in English. What do you call people who walk with both their hands and feet. Human hand-walkers?
N – Quadruped.
FN: Ah yes, that’s it. In Japan we call them yotsuashi. Maybe my next film will be about people who walk on hands and feet.
Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, Saturday May 21, 2011
Saya Zamurai, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s 3rd feature should put him well ahead in the field as the best contemporary filmmaker in Japan. In Saya Zamurai, Matsumoto has not only crafted a completely zany deconstruction of comedy (his usual theme), but imbued it with a clear critical stance and most importantly, an emotional wallop that lasts long after the house lights go up. The story is simple. We’re introduced to Nomi (Takaaki Nomi ), poor, masterless samurai – he’s thrown away his sword in protest of killing, carrying only the sheath, the “saya” of the film’s title. He’s on the run with his young daughter, Tae (Sea Kumada), hounded by a trio of comic furies (Ryou, ROLLY and Fukkin Zennosuke), out for the money on his head. The nine-year old Sea Kumada shines as the “adult” in this relationship, constantly hectoring her father and becoming a mastermind for his salvation. Soon captured and brought to the local lord (Jun Kunimura) he’s given a deal to save his life. Make the young phlegmatic prince (mourning the death of his mother and sporting the same haircut as Macchan did in Symbol) laugh. Nomi has thirty days to complete his task. If he fails, it’s seppuku time. It’s here where Matsumoto gets to build a heartbreaking tale by piling up the gags, most of which on the surface are not particularly funny, but in aggregate become hilarious, desperate, touching and ultimately, moving. Takaaki Nomi, in his first screen role presents himself as a toothless broken-down sad-sack wearing Harold Lloyd-style Edo period Corbus. He’s the least funny guy on Earth. Starting with simple “impersonations” and dumb slapstick routines in a formal courtyard right out of Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri, he flops monumentally. As they say in the biz, it’s a tough room. The gags, as they may be, get more elaborate – being shot out of a cannon, riding a mechanical bucking bronco (made with perfect period detail, it’s an enchanting anachronism), inventing Yves Klein’s body painting and much more. As the routines get bigger, Nomi becomes a comic sensation, with bigger and bigger crowds crowding to see the man in action – and if he can make the prince laugh. The whole affair gets bigger, sadder and more desperate, even as the prince begins to warm up a little. The denouement brings it all together with intensity – and a huge generosity – testifying to the human spirit and how this sad journey through a life justifies itself. Laying bare an essence of the comedic impulse – it’s what you do to survive and it often isn’t all that funny – Matsumoto makes a compelling case to be conscious of why we laugh, even while we’re chuckling to ourselves and weeping at the same time.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2011.
Tokyo Koen finds the otherwise dependable and usually engaging filmmaker Shinji Aoyama (Eureka, Sad Vacation) floundering with an aimless script and an unconvincing protagonist. In addition, the annoying cinematography – where a majority of scenes feature fairly mundane medium shots, all with a short range of focus that blurs the foreground and background of locations– does little to set any sense of place or mood. The story, such as it is, is a sub-Antonioni exploration of voyeurism and desire that hardly touches on either. Haruma Miura plays Koji, a rather unexceptional photographer enamored with taking candid pics of women (mainly) in parks. Accosted by a man (Hiroshi Takahashi), Koji finds himself hired to photo-stalk a woman and her young child throughout parks in Tokyo. Throughout all this he touches base with girlfriend (Nana Eikura) and his stepsister (Manami Konishi), reflecting on this mysterious photo assignment and his relationships with women. When the thin mystery resolves, the viewer is left without much feeling or thought about a man with a camera and his relationship to the world.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2011
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s joyful Kiseki is the perfect antidote to the downbeat mood that has gripped the nation after the great Touhoku earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis. The story revolves around the delightful talents of young brothers, Koki (12) and Oshiro (10), who work as a manzai duo under the name of Maeda Maeda. Koki plays Koichi, living with his mother in Kagoshima. Oshiro plays Ryunosuke, living with their father in Fukuoka. Miles apart they come upon an idea to reunite their estranged parents when they hear that a miracle will occur when the new Kyushu Shinkansen will be completed – the device that would physically and metaphorically reunite their divided family. Kore-eda brings his best instincts to a family film, addressing deeper issues of split families using humor and intelligence, leavened with a bittersweet lack of sentimentality. When the train makes its maiden run an unexpected miracle does happen. It’s the sort of miracle that Kore-eda at his best – and he is in Kiseki – brings to his films with profundity, simplicity and complete cinematic honesty.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2011
Matsuken (AKA Kenichi Matsuyama) makes a second high profile appearance in as many years as a 60s/70s generation 20-something in My Back Page. Unlike Toru, the uncommitted protagonist of Norwegian Wood, here he gets to stretch his actor’s chops in a complex manifestation of a driven student radical, Umeyama. Based on the real life remembrances of critic Saburo Kawamoto, director Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda, Linda, Linda) cast another rising star/heartthrob, Satoshi Tsumabuki (Villain), to play the role of Saburo as a young journalist – called Sawada for fictional purposes. The smartly directed duo get the rare opportunity to dig into the crazy times of social and political change with a cinematic chemistry that makes a beautiful emotional sense of the relationship between two complex men. My Back Page is a welcome addition to a recent spate of films dealing with the radical turmoil of 30 or so years ago. Coupling a bittersweet nostalgia with an unromantic looks at motivation, actions and consequences, it reveals and revels in an emotional honesty that says more than most history books.
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2011
Part homage to Godard – Keibetsu means Contempt in Japanese – and part pinku melodrama, Ryuichi Hiroki’s heroic mashup is an interesting attempt, but ultimately founders as a satisfying whole. Kengo Kora, sporting one of the strangest hairstyles of his career, plays Kazu, son of a prominent provincial family who gets in over his head with gambling and with Machiko (Anne Suzuki), a pole-dancing hottie. He splits Tokyo and returns to his home town with Machiko in tow, jumping into a “normal” life, but things catch up with him, ultimately leading to his very long death scene, stumbling down a deserted shotengai parodying of the original parody of a death scene that Belmondo did at the end of Breathless. Horoki captures a sort of stylish new-wavy energy in all the proceedings, but tends to overcrowd the movie with a mawkish plot that takes all the cool meta-cinematic signifiers and turns them into gravy. One expects better from the maker of such classics as Vibrator, but one can’t fault him for taking chances. Maybe next time…
Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2011