a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for June 2011

Tanaka-san Will Not Do Calisthenics

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In 1981, Tanaka Tetsuro, was sacked from his job for his refusal to accept being transferred to another town, far away from his wife and family. Before that he had become involved in a singular protest against the mandatory unpaid pre-work calisthenics program that many companies take for granted in Japan. Believing that his transfer was instituted in retaliation for his refusal to fit the unreasonable expectations of his company, he began what is now a 25-year long protest. Every day, he does a one-man picket at the company gate, playing guitar, handing out leaflets, making a small media show of it. Australian filmmaker Maree Delofski documented Tanaka-san’s Quixotic struggle. Tanaka-san Will Not Do Calisthenics follows our obsessed hero – along with a small cadre of supporters – through his daily protests, his self-employment as a guitar teacher, actions and protests at company meetings and his general coping through the strange turn and road that his life has taken. The film glides lightly over the deeper issues involved, but revels in Tanka’s quirkiness and compelling personality.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 30, 2011 at 12:57 am

Dendera / デンデラ

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Daisuke Tengan’s Dendera takes off where his very famous father, Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama left off. Taking the story of a village whose elderly women are taken into the mountains to die, Tenden’s version imagines they become a community of survivors, bent on revenge upon their uncaring families. He should have left well enough (or rather his father’s greatness) alone. And he should heed some basics of dramatic setup. When you introduce toothless grinning idiot twin hags in the first act, you should use them in the third. Instead all one gets is rather sloppy filmmaking a mess of veteran actresses wrapped in overdesigned primitivist costumes, several bear attacks, a sort of a Lord of Flies-ish setup (equally symbolically heavy, but with far less intelligence), rather broad and ridiculous characterizations and an avalanche thrown in for good measure. In a simplistic heroine’s journey where revenge is ultimately had by summoning up her inner Mama Grizzly, Dendera attempts a crypto-feminist statement, but ultimately slips, slides and falls in its own triteness.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 29, 2011 at 12:54 am

Ichimai no Hagaki / Post Card / 一枚のハガキ

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At the ripe old age of 98, Kaneto Shindo shows that he still has the chops, courage, intelligence and commitment to craft a stunning anti-war film devoid of sentimentality, that still reaches deep into the heart.  With Brechtian theatrical strategies, a visual formalism and storytelling reminiscent of the late Ousmane Sembene and a stylized acting style ripped from the golden age of Japanese cinema, Shindo tells a primal tale of a woman, doomed to lose family to the banality of war. Shinobu Otake brilliantly plays the simple peasant woman, who loses one, then a second husband and then her stepparents in the final days of World War II. Caught in the crossfire of cultural expectation and deep loss, she turns her back to the world. In the aftermath of the surrender, a comrade (Etsushi Toyokawa) of her first husband shows up to deliver the unsent postcards meant for her. A new relationship is built, but not without its battles. Ichimai no Hagaki resolves not so much with a happy ending, but with a truce.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 27, 2011 at 12:50 am

REVIEW: Coming Future

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進化 (Shinka)

Released: 2010

Director:
Kyuya Nakagawa

Starring:
Kenji Murakami
Nobuhiro Yamashita
Koji Shiraishi
Tetsuaki Matsue
Satoko Yokohama

Running time: 72 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Kyuya Nakagawa, who’s been putting in his time as a sound technician and nth assistant director on a handful of films (including Sono Sion’s “Strange Circus”), managed to gather a who’s who of edgy up-and-coming directors to ruminate on the state of indie Japanese film at the turn of the noughts. Despite his access to some mighty talents, he misses his chance to make the definitive, let alone a moderately engaging statement on what is an interesting, if not important nexus in Japanese filmmaking.

Using zero budget, handheld video tactics, he interviews his subjects with an otaku earnestness that denotes a culty fandom, but with little depth and a monumental ineptness at the art of the interview. The rambling interviews run relatively unedited. Even with judicious editing there isn’t much of substance that comes out. And the few moments of quotability or even the cogent one-liners pass by with no development.

Nakagawa shot “Coming Future” on the nights of December 24 and 25, 2010 in Shibuya, making it his location for an idealized Bohemia in the heart of Tokyo. Granted, Shibuya does have a lively youth-cult street scene, it’s a great place for hanging out and thousands of young Tokyoites gather there daily to see and be seen. But in most ways it’s a nexus for the hyper consumption that has replaced meaningful interaction for most in this great metropolis.

“Coming Future” starts off hilariously with long shots of “Jesus from South Asagaya”, a longhaired, bearded, diaper-wearing hippy running through the crowded Shibuya Crossing wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. We catch up with him a bit later, when he exhorts giggling schoolgirls and passersby to take home and fuck the bread dough he’s handing out. When a homeless man asks him if he can take some to eat, Jesus’ lets his performance mask fall off and tells the poor fellow to make sure he cooks it.

There are some other performance artists shticks intercut between the filmmaker interviews, including a masked pole dancer, Cay Izumi, that come off as rather lame filler than real signifiers for Nakagawa’s imagined avant utopia.

Nostalgia seems to be an overriding factor for Nakagawa. He follows Kenji Murakami (“How I Survive in Kawaguchi City”) up to Love Hotel Hill, where Kenji points out the run down Hotel Art, where in the 90s, a couple could rent a room where voyeurs – mainly old men and teenagers, he notes – would watch. There’s Nostalgia for a more open sexuality, nostalgia for super-8 – hey, even Spielberg is trying to cash in on that one – and nostalgia in Murakami’s case for the bubble years.

Nakagawa follows up with Nobuhiro Yamashita who had a genre defining hit (“Linda Linda Linda”) by the end of 2010 and would a few months later make one of the better mainstream films of 2011 (“My Back Page”). Under the monstrous Taro Okamoto mural in the Shibuya Station, Yamashita, looking a little caught in the headlights, is peppered with meaningless questions.

By far the most interesting sequence is with Kenji Onishi (“A Burning Star”). Wielding a super-8 camera, Oniji documents his own interview, taking random shots of street-life and buildings. He leavens his monologue with statements bordering between cliché and outré. “A movie that aims to a make a message is boring.” “Why make an indie movie. No one wants them. There’s no audience for them.” “I like surveillance cameras.” But in his case, his ideas take form in the edited super-8 footage of his walk in a solid Brakhage-like sequence that works much better than the interview itself.

The film follows with an embarrassing sequence with Actor Hiroshi Kawatsure (“Grotesque”) talking to a couple of 14 year olds, Bitch and Chame, about their favorite movies (“One Hundred and One Dalmatians” and “Home Alone”) and why they’re hanging out in Shibuya (looking for boys). Apart from a better-than-thou nudge and the wink it becomes painfully obvious, that Nakagawa has no idea where his opus is going. Which is unfortunate, as Coming Future continues on to some genuinely interesting filmmakers – Tetsuaki Matsue (“Live Tape”), Koji Shinaishi (“Grotesque”), Koteru Terauchi “(Demeking,” “The Scissors Massacre”), Satoko Yokohama (“German + Rain,” “Bare Essence of Life – Ultra Miracle Love Story”) – and makes them appear rather banal and boring.

By the end, where Nakagawa does his own perplexing performance piece, running through the streets with a huge banner with the word “power” written on it, one begins to think that there may not be much of any substance going on with this particular piece of the indie pie – which is definitely not the case. The filmmakers in question, though perhaps not fore fronting a genuine new wave are certainly taking things into their own hands and creating interesting, if not great, works. They deserve a whole lot better.

Of course, filmmakers will always complain. There’s never enough money. There’s not enough interest. Things aren’t the way they used to be. Nakagawa deserves a bit of credit for attempting to give some shape to and documenting a scene, if only skimming the surface of things and presenting a somewhat jaundiced view of the state of the filmic arts in Japan in 2010. It’s the same old story. It’s in the films themselves of this quite good group of filmmakers where there’s proof. And of course, beyond the nostalgia and complaints, there’s the act of making films. Tetsuaki Matsue sums it up pretty succinctly in one moment of his interview. “I want a girlfriend. I want a dog. But mainly I want to make movies.”

Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, Sunday, June 26, 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 26, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Azemichi Road / あぜみちジャンピンッ!

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Fumie Nishikawa’s The Azemichi Road is about a young hearing-impaired girl, Yuki (Haruka Ooba), living in a sort of interior isolation 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 but Nishikawa’s feel for place and character. From the emerald green rice fields to the crumbling concrete schools and non-descript public halls and domestic architecture to the world of girls – their peeves, insults, trusts and friendships – has a naturalism and connectedness that belie the occasional clichés that drive the plot. All in all, Yuki and the Jumping Girls rock.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 26, 2011 at 1:04 am

REVIEW: I Wish

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奇跡 (Kiseki)

Released: 2011

Director:
Hirokazu Koreeda

Starring:
Koki Maeda
Oshiro Maeda
Joe Odagiri
Kanna Hashimoto
Kirin Kiki

Running time: 128 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

The literal translation of “Kiseki” is “miracle.” Thinking that in English, the word “miracle” is a bit loaded with too much religious weight, Hirokazu Koreeda and long-time translator for his films, Linda Hoaglund decided to call the film “I Wish.” And though the film has its share of miraculous moments, the theme dwells more on the act – the wishing itself – rather than on the result. All in all, the new title captures the carful balance of rapturous spirit and thoughtful reflection that characterizes Koreeda at his best – which he is in “I Wish.”

“I Wish” takes “Nobody Knows,” his dark masterpiece of abandoned children going feral and alone in a cruel urban environment, and flips it on its head. In “I Wish” the kids are left largely to their own devices, but along the way there are adults who aid them, a community of care. The issues of abandonment, absent parents and survival remain. They seem lighter in “I Wish,” perhaps because of the generally upbeat tone of the film, but in some ways they dig deeper – exploring multiple variations of the theme instead of pounding away (brilliantly, I may add) at the simple and profound tragedy of “Nobody Knows.”

Koreeda made the film with his 3 year-old daughter in mind. Whether his new fatherhood has lightened his perspective and/or given him new inspiration, he has crafted a seamless masterpiece that’s pure family fare – but not on the lines of the usual sentimental slop or boomer pandering that passes for kids films these days. More akin to the children’s parables that seem like a right of passage for Iranian directors (i.e. Kiarostami’s “Where Is the Friend’s House” and Panahi’s “White Balloon”), “I Wish” doesn’t talk down to the innate smartness of young folk. In fact, the kids in “I Wish” take on more responsibility with more thoughtfulness than many of the adults portrayed in the film.

At the center of “I Wish” are Koki and Oshiro Maeda, who at the ripe old ages of 10 (Oshiro) and 12 (Koki) are already a successful manzai (team comedy) act. Koki plays Koichi, living in Kagoshima with his mother (Nene Otsuka) in his grandparent’s house. He hates living in this backwater town where he has to wipe away the dust that drops nearly daily from the nearby active volcano. He goes so far as to hope that the volcano will erupt and destroy Kagoshima. His mother, 6 months single is trying to get back on her feet in the small town she tried to escape. Meanwhile his brother, Ryunosuke, played by Oshiro, is an impetuous soul having a pretty wonderful time of it with their father (Joe Odagiri) up the road in Hakata. Dad’s still living the bohemian dream, playing in a band, working a day job, leaving young Ryu to his own devices.

Cutting between different lives and different cities we follow the implacable Koichi who gets the idea in his head that when the new Kyushu bullet train makes its inaugural run, where the two trains cross a confluence of power and magic will make one’s wish come true. He and a couple of miston buddies conspire to figure out how to get there.

In the meantime, he communicates with his brother daily. Ryu, remembering only the times his parents quarreled, is a little less enamored of the idea, but game for adventure. His posse, as befits a budding ladies’ man sans mom, includes a couple of girls.

Throughout all this, the details of lives build up. Their grandmother (Kirin Kiki), savvy, but a little ditzy has the hula girls over regularly. Granddad (Isao Hashizume) gets the idea from some his drinking buddies to cash in on a tourist opportunity from the new train line by baking up a traditional karukan cakes. His test batch becomes a running joke as samples are thoughtfully masticated and dismissed as being “a bit mild.” One of Koichi’s buddies has a big crush on the school librarian. The other’s pet dog Marble dies, but gets packed along anyway for their big trip. Ryu’s best girlfriend/mother figure Emi (Kyara Uchida) has dreams of being an actress, like here snaku-owning single mother once had.

With their own dreams and wishes, the troupe of kids find themselves a little stuck in finding the best place to witness the miracle train crossing. Through a bit of grit and luck the kids find an old couple who takes them in for the night and offers to drive them to a place where they can see the tracks. By this time the viewer’s in Ozu-like territory, where an old couple’s nostalgia – their own daughter had left some years before for her big city dreams – meets the budding dreams of the kids, particularly Emi’s, who could literally be their granddaughter.

By the fateful next morning the kids have made their pilgrimage to watch the trains pass. Having written their wishes on a banner they plant it on a cyclone fence. The trains arrive and they shout out their wishes. “I want to be an actress!” Bring Marble back to life!” At that moment Koreeda cuts to a sequence of sublime images. A painting Koichi has made of the volcano animates itself, blowing up in ab ex cartoon splendor, a finger taps the librarian’s bicycle bell (stolen and returned by Makoto, the friend with the crush), a shot of the sky, grandmother’s hands doing a hula figure, a series of talismans, places and landscapes that bring together concrete images of wishes.

Beyond the myriad reflections on father figures, mother figures, absent parents, wishes and dreams – broken, lost, impossible and fulfilled – another breathtaking accomplishment of “I Wish” is depicting the boundless energy of youth. The kids can hardly be contained by the frame. Koki plays it sensitively, but with drive. As Koichi, he can begin to see the edge adulthood. The younger Oshiro hams it up a bit as Ryu, but his endless charm and enthusiasm can be forgiven. He’s just a kid, after all.

Originally publish in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, Saturday, June 18 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 19, 2011 at 4:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Hirokazu Kore-eda and Donald Richie

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To purchase a print (A4 size / Signed Artist’s Proof / Shipping included), click here.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 8, 2011 at 10:56 pm