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Archive for September 2011

Bananas are a Funny Fruit: An Interview with Yuichiro Tamura

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In February of 2011 at the Japan Media Arts Festival, I saw Yuichro Tamura’s brilliant video installation, NIGHTLESS. Made entirely from still images captured from Google street scenes, a mysterious and absurd, yet haunting image of a disjointed world, always under the harsh light of the sun mesmerized me. I had to find out more about this artist. The usual research and cyber-stalking led me to him. We met in late spring at the Tokyo Wonder Site in Shibuya where he was involved in an art installation – Is this world continuous or not. The installation involved turning a small gallery into a workshop, a cinema and a sort den for activities that involved working out, building tools and structures, documenting and showing the processes of the making of the stuff of the installation – which involved the hand-made manufacture of a beautiful mirror, building of exercise equipment out of pipes and clamps, letter press printing and a visit to Tohoku. In broken English, he generously shared his thoughts and ideas about making connections of the things of this world. I left our meeting even more impressed in Tamuru’s high tech art povera, looking forward to seeing new photos, installations and films by this smart – and funny – artist.

Ever a prankster, Tamura had managed to get published on a few websites that he was born in Germany. He wasn’t.

NV: So, you weren’t born in Germany?

YT: In 1998 I started studying photography. And that year, a German photographer, very famous in Japan, came.

NV: Who was that?

YT: Tomas Ruff. And Gursky, Bishofff, more.

Andreas Gursky

NV: You were studying photography? Were they here? Was there a big show?

YT: All together at the National Museum in Tokyo. So I saw his work. I also looked at photo books.

NV: You’re own photography – I’ve only seen the banana piece (on your website).

YT: I studied photography in college and afterward I started working for a publishing company as a cameraman. I did lifestyle photography. I shot cooking, sewing, interviews and lifestyle. I had been shooting for so many years while I was working, so I stopped. I went to university to study art, film and new media so I feel it’s difficult to shot photographs. I moved to another category, new media and film. Last year I wanted to make some photographic works and I had the chance to go to France – Nantes – for a 10-day residency. It was a short time. And on the very last day we installed some works and came back to Japan. When I arrived in Nantes – on the first day – I visited the market in the town center and went to a banana “cave” on the Ile de Nantes. It’s a warehouse now renovated into a big gallery. In Nantes’ history, slaves and bananas were imported from Africa. They were bought and sold. I thought 10 days was a very short time to make an installation. But the next day I bought some bananas. Every morning I took a shot and by the last day I was there they still hadn’t turned yellow. I wanted my gallery installation to have pictures of the bananas changing from the first day, to the next and so on. They never changed color (laughs).

NV: I know. I was looking at it online and I thought the banana’s looking a little older, but in the end the banana looks about the same.

YT: Yeah yeah. I wanted to talk about changing. Bananas are a metaphor of Nantes history, The Asian mentality meets a banana. Funny. Bananas are a funny fruit.

NV: Was the banana “cave” ever used for slaves?

YT: No, maybe it was in some other place. European cities have slave histories and maybe Nantes and other cities.  Liverpool had slave history, but Nantes is… well… there are textbooks. They are open about their slave history. Nantes. Yeah.

NV: About your photography. When I saw the piece online. It looked like commercial photography. Do you have some commercial photography influences? I know about the Germans. Are there any Japanese photographers who have influenced you?

YT: My favorite Japanese photographer is Naoya Hatakeyama. He was born in Tohoku in Iwate prefecture. Everything there is made of concrete. His works, dynamiting concrete mountains. His work is a little more like European photography. I don’t like Japanese photography. It’s not, I don’t like it… I like Sugimoto Hiroshi. I like conceptual works, but almost all college my friends don’t work in that style.

Naoya Hatakeyama

Sugimoto Hiroshi

NV: Are you from Tokyo?

YT: No, Toyama.

NV: Or Frankfurt?

YT:  Kanazawa.

NV: When you were younger, were you interested in art and photography?

YT: No, Kanazawa is a very boring town. Nothing. Like the United States. Like South Dakota. Wyoming. A very nothing and boring town.

NV: Have you been to Wyoming?

YT:  No.

NV: I lived there for a year. It’s boring.

YT: Very it’s beautiful country and has good food.

NV: The food’s OK.

YT: But boring. Like the art culture. Nothing

NV: How long have you been in Tokyo?

YT: Maybe 15 years.

NV: And now you’ve gone on to graduate school in film?

YT: My graduate school has film, animation and new media – three categories. My master’s degree is in new media. Just now I joined a PhD course in film and new media. I do some work with film people. Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano are some professors. Maybe Takeshi comes down 3 times a year.

NV: The film department there is more for the commercial film industry. Do you study art film or avant-garde film?

YT:  No no no. I don’t study film. Just new media.

NV: New media is experimental.

YT: Yes, the film course is very traditional. I want to work with students in the film department, but they’re very busy. They’re a very busy working in the traditional system. I can’t make this commitment. My department has only 5 people in it. There’s one student from the film department. He’s an editor. I offered just now to help him. So he’s helping me with my installation.

NV: Let’s talk about your movies. It’s been showing at small festivals in Europe, yes?

YT: That film? Last year I showed it in Australia. At an experimental art festival. Maybe Oberhausen next month will be the first time in Europe.

NV: Will you go?

YT: I will go.

NV: So you will go back to your home country. Have you ever been to America?

YT: Yeah yeah yeah, but that was 14 years ago.

NV: Did you go to Nebraska?

YT: No no no.

NV: Let’s go to NIGHTLESS. I like it very much. What I liked about it was its experimental avant-garde nature, but also it was a very touching film to me. I felt moved by it. So, let’s talk about… what inspired you to make this movie from Google images.

YT: Maybe this film is not strongly inspired by other works. I made it just 2 years ago after summer vacation. After summer vacation we had to show some works. What did you do for your summer vacation? I didn’t do anything. But I had to make something. I had 2 or 3 days.  I saw Google images and I was interested in them, because my work was a bit based on photography…  but I didn’t want to use photographic technique and I was tired of taking photographs.  But I liked anonymous images I didn’t shoot myself. I like… canned images. Things like that. It has very low-tension feel because it’s really just driving a car. With a hamburger and a coke. Looking at the map. From low-tension works to a very high potential – only from Google street view images. For example a very nice still image can be found. I think it’s a difficult image, not moving. I must do something additional to make it connected. I feel a movie is connected photography. Stopped images. Actually a film is 30 frames per second, 24 frames per second. I just connected images with high potential. Google street view. After that, I thought of a screenplay and I added it. The first part was easy. My professors thought this was a fantastic work, but if I had to add more footage. So after I added more.

NV: What’s the name of your professor?

YT: Masaki Fujihata. He’s a media artist.

Masaki Fujihata

NV: And so, you started off just short. I’ve seen different version of it. How long is it now?

YT: Just now it’s… I have many versions. The Ebisu Film Festival is version 6. I’m changing it for the Japan Film Connection.

NV: So it’s always changing.

YT: Yes, for every theater, for every festival.

NV: Are you changing the narrative and the sound?

YT: Yes, I change the sound and the narrative. I’m adding some new footage in some parts.

NV: There’s a cut of it on Media Arts Festival site. There’s a guy speaking about growing up in Nebraska. He talks about Nick Nolte with his father and his father tells him that Nick Nolte is a famous Nebraskan. Then he talks about moving to Chiba. Is this a story you made up for this?

YT: Yes yes yes.  It’s my original screenplay.

NV: And so was this inspired by the images, or did you have this idea in mind before?

YT: The script was made afterward. The first was the images… shooting the images… screen shots. It was very hard work. One night of grabbing screen shots made one or two minutes of footage.

NV: And so, for example, why did you choose these different areas. Was there a thought or was it just random? Is there a reason why you chose Nebraska?

NV: Why did I choose Nebraska?

YT: I clicked and I clicked. Click click and it was Nebraska. Only that. No reason.

NV: And Chiba?

YT:  I had to connect Nebraska to some city. I feel that Nebraska is very dry. I searched in Asia. Tokyo is not dry. Other cities aren’t dry. I feel that Chiba is dry. I’ve never been to Chiba yet I thank that maybe it’s dry. And the people from Chiba say their town is very dry

NV: So the United states footage. Is it all from Nebraska and the Midwest or did it come from different places?

YT: The United States in Nebraska and Alaska.

NV: Where in Alaska?

YT: I don’t remember.

NV: There’s a scene that looks like it’s going through suburbs. That’s probably Nebraska. And there’s a scene going through a narrow road with trees.

YT: That’s Alaska.

NV: And it’s raining.

YT: Yes.

NV: A wet place.

YT: Yeah yeah yeah. This is Google street view. All images are from the street. Only images from the street. It’s very limited. It was all done inside my room. I had to create some atmosphere. I thought of suspense. Like Hitchcock. So, do you remember going through that narrow space and after seeing that one house. It’s a very normal house but the shot is so magic. And I focused for house and… there’s a feeling of suspense. It’s scary and you ask, “What’s happening?” Maybe I’m inspired by Psycho. It’s a same thing with photography. Photography for some works as suspense. If you go to Tohouku. Let’s say you visit a house and find a photograph of the people who lived there. This family photography gives you a very alt-scary feeling. You don’t know if the family is alive or dead, but the photo give you a feeling of scariness. Photography works toward alt-scary. I get a similar feeling from Psycho. One house, one home.

NV: Then  this story develops. In the beginning that guy talks about Nebraska. Is that you? Your voice?

YT: Yeah my voice.

NV: It’s great because it doesn’t sound like somebody from Nebraska.

YT: Yeah.

NV: Part of what I like about this film is you see these impersonal images from the web – they aren’t your images. You found them. And then there’s this story and everything seems wrong. The guy says he’s from Nebraska but he has a different accent. Then he talks about going to Chiba and the story gets sort of crazy. Everything is disjointed. Nothing is connecting correctly.

YT: I feel the fantastic is the focus of my art works. The fantastic… connected. That’s what I want to do.

NV: Then it changes to what sounds like a police radio. Is that correct?

YT: Correct. From youtube.

NV: So it’s just a policeman getting information. You just found that and put it in there?

YT: Why did I put it there? Before I was talking about suspense. I had an idea for another way to tell a story. I chose suspense so I used police radio and I… It’s connected the narrow space, the narrow road and woods and after that the house and after that digging – a woman digging a hole and back shot of a guy and then the house. I had to join the images together.

NV: And so, have you made other films?

YT: I made a festival version that was 12 minutes. Then I made a 22-minute version. After that I joined it to a story about a sister city. Recently I’ve been researching sister cities. I think Sister cities are very funny and are pretty meaningless. For example Yokohama and Lyon. Lyon is its sister city. I feel there’s potential. There’s no meaning but I want meaning. Maybe the new footage is focused on sister cities. You know Eisenhower? He started the sister city movement. Now I’m interested in Eisenhower, too.

NV: Are you making a movie about Eisenhower?

YT: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Eisenhower footage is the focus I’m also using Nebraska, Alaska and Chiba. There’s no meaning but it’s similar to sister city. This footage was put together using, for instance, radio, scary, horror, atmosphere. It has to focus on Eisenhower.

NV: Do you have some favorite films or influences?

YT: I like B films. I like Torimasu (Tremors), a Kevin Bacon film. It’s a 1989 film by Ron Underwood. Torimasu is about warriors in New York. I like that style. I’m inspired by mainly Torimasu. I like some other, for example, Paris Texas. I like some famous films. But I like to make a film inspired by B movies. When I was a child, in primary school we came home from school at 2 or 3 pm. We’d go back home and watch B movies on TV. In the evenings, for example on Friday and Saturday nights at 9 pm we’d watch something famous. But the afternoons were the time for low budget films.  Night film was for watching with the family. That was a very special time I think. I like to focus on that time.

NV: The avant-garde tradition of found footage. For example Connor and Baldwin. Are there Japanese filmmakers who work like that?

YT: I don’t know.

NV: You made this film without being the “director.” Are you interested in continuing with doing more things with found footage?

YT: My attitude’s like this. I think that maybe photography is the best for appropriation. Painting and sculpture is not appropriation. Photography is appropriation and representation. I think it works very similarly in film.  My works focus on appropriation. Very simple representation isn’t good. So I take some footage and then add a screenplay and see how it all connects. Then representation becomes the main focus of the work. Shooting isn’t important for me. And basically I like these anonymous images.

NV: You were involved in the Otto Manheim Gallery.

YT: Oh yes. It’s already closed.

NV: Who is Otto Manheim?

YT: It’s a fictional name.

NV: Does he have a personality?

YT: At first my conception of Otto Manheim was as a person, a rich man. He opened a commercial photography gallery, but had some difficulty. It wasn’t commercial. We didn’t have that talent. I don’t have management talent.

NV: How long did the gallery last?

YT: Maybe 2 years.

NV: Were you the director?

YT: Yeah, I was the main person.

NV: What sort of work did you show there?

YT: My friend had a lot of talent using that gallery so he mainly used it. He used mainly for talk events. Artists and curators and researchers. There were so many people who joined in the events. So many talk event groups.

NV: I saw online an installation with a car and screen.

YT: This is the second variation. The installation had a car like a drive in theater. Last year I researched how you see… the systems for watching films – kanshou houhou in Japanese. A dark room with a white screen is the main system for viewing films. It’s very strong.  But before there were other systems, experimental systems.  Film was born in the 19th century and in the 20th century… and now the system that remains is collective movie theater experience. But before there were some funny system. One system is the drive-in theater.

NV: Have you ever been to one?

YT: No no no. I want to go.

NV: There aren’t that many left.

YT: In Japan, there aren’t any now. Last year they stopped. The last was in Kanagawa near the seaside. You have been to drive in theater?

NV: Yes many times when I was growing up. All the time. One time I went with a bunch of boys for all night scary movies.

YT: So I made an installation where you could see the film from a car. It was very interesting. I don’t have experience of a drive-in theater. But I created a similar experience to a drive-in theater. This film is all images from the street. It made a funny and very interesting connection with the film and from inside a car it’s very funny experience. Very different.

NV: Do you drive a car?

YT: I can drive, yeah.

NV: America is famous for people driving long distances. Hours of driving. Very much an American image and idea. It’s interesting, but it’s boring. Maybe through Google you’ve found some very American style images.

YT: You actually drive in the United States. We don’t have the experience of driving, but we have, here, in the cinemas, in films – and as I said, going back home after school… alone… so it’s like in low budget movies… almost all United states films… low budget films are filmed in Nebraska or… it’s a role model, the United States film. We got our experience through movies.

NV: The new installation?

YT: So, this is another interest. I’m interested in animism. Before Christ. Before the Christian religion. Before Buddhism. The primitive ages. So, I think of film, and the movie image and connecting animism and primitive images. Do you know Shinichi Nakazawa? He’s a writer. He writes on cinema, on cinema systems. It’s like a cave in some ancient age. A group… a group of men… go to a cave and have initiation rites and afterward they build a fire an then make pictures, like cows and hunters, Lascaux… cave walls… it all connects. So now people go to a theater and see a film. The film images and stories are modern… and not often that normal. We don’t have experience in actually modern. Human beings want to see not a normal life in a cave in a cinema. Mr. Nakazawa say is very connecting. I think inspiring. I’m thinking of connecting the primitive and the ancient with movies. I also have this inspiration of muscle building. It’s scary. It’s only men. No women. (laughing). We’re here Thursday and Saturday mornings. We’re getting people together to exercise and work out. Just now, it’s only me. I want to make it like Fight Club. I get some people to come an be filmed working out. Then I’ll edit it and show it on the screen in the same space. It’s an experiment, but I like making this connection to body building. It’s very funny thing. There’s no meaning. Body building itself is a meaningless activity, but I think  now, after the earthquake it’s more meaningful. You know after the earthquake, Tokyoites walked home. They walked for 6, 8 hours. We had to go home on two legs. Maybe next day, most people and felt… “ow.” I think things have change a little.

NV: So you want to be strong.

YT: It’s meaningful now, I think.

NV: I see you had pictures of Mishima working out.

YT: Yes, I don’t want to be Mishima. He was crazy. But maybe by changing his body, he changed too. Recently, I saw Uncle Boonmee. Apichatpong Weerasathakul’s film style is very interesting. His style is working forward without a completed screenplay. He traveled with his young cast and crew in Northern Thailand filming, eating, playing. He focused on animism and ghosts, sleeping people, unconscious people. Very interesting. Unconscious and anonymous… close to what I’m doing. I film the same way. Working from the unconscious. Concentrating on making muscles and making machines from iron bars. Simply. There’s a funny connection between making films and making machines and making bodies. I want to try to find it.

NV: There’s the mirror you’re having manufactured by traditional mirror makers. The mirror will be delivered so you can see yourself. The window and the mirror. We see the he process of it being made.

YT: It’s a very important metaphor. We’re using camera and film. It’s a very strong connection. It’s not only screening the film. It’s an installation that makes new connections… the installation place and the screen. Images and actual materials. I want to connect in some way editing image and making film, making a narrative, seeing actual material and the screen makes funny connections. I believe this world is continuous or not. It’s a bit funny, but I want to say, continuous or not?  Just now I’m focused on the continuous.

A clip from NIGHTLESS is online at http://plaza.bunka.go.jp/english/festival/2010/art/NIGHTLESS/


Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 12, 2011 at 6:44 am

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REVIEW: Hiroshima

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ひろしま (Hiroshima)

Released: 1953


Hideo Sekigawa


Yumeiji Tsukioka

Eiji Okada

Isuzu Yamada

Yasumi Hara

Running time: 104 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

A few weeks ago J-Film Pow-Wow, commemorating the August 6 atom bombing of Hiroshima, published a “10 Best films about Hiroshima” list. I managed to see Hideo Sekigawa’s 1953 “Hiroshima” a little past the deadline to make the list. By any measure, this powerful recreation of the events of that tragic time and the window it opens into the issues and questions that the Japanese were discussing in the aftermath of such horror, certainly makes this a must-see, if not an eleventh film to merit addition to the list.

Producer Takeo Ito found himself effectively blacklisting himself from Toho studios because of his creating and organizing for the Japanese Movie Theater Union. Despite (or perhaps because of) his strong antiwar film, “War and Peace” (Senso to Heiwa -1947), without studio help, he managed to corral an incredible array of cinema talents – along with about eight thousand extras – and get the “Hiroshima: made. Director Hideo Sekigawa had built a solid rep for his leftist cinema – even collaborating with Kurosawa on Those Who Made Tomorrow* – by the time he made Hiroshima. His commitment to pacifism, leavened with a healthy dose of anti-Americanism would see him making films into the 1970s, but Hiroshima remains his masterpiece. Young actors, some of whom would become a who’s who of Japanese postwar cinema donated their talents. Eiji Okada, ten years away from “Hiroshima Mon Amor,” Isuzu Yamada, who would become a Kurosawa stalwart, making cinematic history as the Lady Macbeth character in “Throne of Blood,” Yumeji Tsukioka and a host of lesser known types and faces who would populate postwar Japanese screens get a chance to shine here. Composer Akira Ifukube’s brooding score reveals more depth and passion than by his more famous theme for a mess of Godzilla movies, including the original. Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima already shows his already amazing eye in Hiroshima, long before his more famous contributions to Kobayashi’s masterpieces “Harakiri” and “Kwaidan.” By teaming up with the Japan Teacher’s Union, Ito bypassed the usual theatrical distribution routes, screening the film in schools and community centers – a fairly audacious move.

In 1953, when the film was released, Japan was beginning to heal and rebuild, but the legacy of the tragedy and mindset of the postwar generation of young folk then coming of age kept the issues alive with a new urgency that demanded concerned filmmakers to explore what the end of World War II had wrought.

“Hiroshima” opens with amorphous shots of clouds slowly forming themselves into something that looks like a mushroom cloud. A slow commanding requiem unfolds, the legato notes never quite seeming to resolve. A voice over recites the history of the atom bomb attack. Fade to a classroom, a few years after that fateful day. Kitagawa sensei [Eiji Okada] hovers at the front of a classroom filled with very serious students listening to the radio Cut to young Michiko (Reiko Matsuyama) breaking down and imploring Kitagawa to turn it off. She covers her ears. By the time he comes to comfort her. There are drops of blood on her textbook. She’s suffering from radiation sickness.

Kitagawa brings the discussion of Hiroshima and it’s survivors to the class, a good third of whom were witness to the tragedy and continue to suffer from it. We’re introduced to Hideo Endo (Tsukida Masaya), a dropout making dough waiting in a high-tone western style club, playing pachinko all day. The poles of the effects of Hiroshima upon a generation are quickly sketched. The continuing sickness of radiation poisoning, the alienation of innocents growing up in a post-nuclear holocaust world, the shame of a nation – shown through student’s discussion of pacifist philosopher, Masaaki Shinohara’s 1952 book, “Letters from East and West German Youth”- are presented, somewhat didactically, but are tempered with young Michiko succumbing to her illness and Hideo taking up the reigns as the future of the nation.

From this introduction to the issues, a half-hour in, the film takes off into a hallucinogenic, heroic realist, symbolist evocation of the nightmare of the bombing of Hiroshima. In a tour-de-force of production design, editing, storytelling and grandiose filmmaking, Sekigawa covers the moment of the bombing into the following days with, a heartfelt humanizing of the tragedy.

The setup is classic – Hiroshima as a bit of a backwater, citizen militias doing their bits for the war effort, kids being propagandized, the air raid scares, the older men in uniform, hanging out. When the bomb hits, it’s unexpected. Just the sound of airplanes. People look from their work and then… a couple of flashes on the dark screen, a few frames of white, a couple more flashes and fade to black, all in silence. As Ikufube’s requiem starts the image fades back in with a slow pan over wreckage and moaning bodies. A horrific tapestry of compelling images and performances detail individual stories follows – Hideo’s father Yukio (Yoshi Kato in an agonizing performance full of fear, madness and desperation) witnessing his wife’s death and searching for his lost children; Komehara sensei (Yumeiji Tsukioka) leading a group of girls to the river, where they drift away in a scene of magical realist beauty; Oba Minu (Isuzu Yamada), a mother who gathers her kids, one who dies in her arms, keeps her face in a mask of dazed horror until the moment she dies. These stories build depth as devastating images and details pile up. Evocations of Eisenstein, symbolist paintings and the apocalypse give a completely compelling representation of the tragedy. What’s more, between the low-budget costuming (lots of shredded clothes), faces simply covered with soot or paint, fright wigs of hair, faces stuck in shocked grimaces and the slow zombie-like plodding of the tortured masses, there’s a sort of prot-butoh at work. Its affect is devastating.

The story works its way back to the present (1953). We follow Hideo’s story, losing his sister and becoming homeless. A brilliant scene shows a kid teaching the other how to say “hungry” which one can only say as “angry” He finally comes around, getting a proper job in a factory and looking toward a brighter future.

The final scenes show documentary footage of a massive peace demonstration. The characters of the film are slowly superimposed. They rise from the dead and march toward the camera with sad heroism and conviction. More and more, their numbers build as the music swells – a fitting image of remembrance and redemption for one of the greatest tragedies of history.

* Kurosawa’s name was taken off the film. He repudiated it saying, “It was really made by the labor union and is an excellent example of why a committee-made film is no good.”

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Gallery of Images from Sekigawa’s Hiroshima

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Production Stills

On the Set

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 6, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Gokudo meshi

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Based on the manga by Shigeru Tsuchiyama, Gokudo meshi adds yet another variation on the food-centricity genre that seems to be the current staple for filmmakers without original ideas. Gokudo meshi takes 5 prisoners and stuck in a 6-mat cell, each sharing his most memorable food experience as part of boredom relieving, soul-revealing game. The cellmates – the old guy, the hardened middle-age yakuza family man, the young wannabe on the road to ruin, the young guy who’s a lot mixed-up and fatty- fantasize about an array of comfort foods  – pancakes, omu-raisu, tamago gohan, steak, overcooked seafood and ramen – associated with nostalgia around sex, moms, families, moms, girlfriends and moms. Director Tetsu Maeda (School Days with a Pig) plays it broadly with a genial cast. Though keeping the screen interesting with theatrical fantasy sequences and smart use of space, Maeda’s timing is way off. He also relies far too much on unfunny clichés, fart humor and annoying cutaways to faces entranced in food orgasm. All in all, Gokudo meshi’s a rather unsatisfying trifle.

Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2011 at 2:25 am

Palermo Shooting

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Any film that has Dennis Hopper playing Death (AKA Frank – in reference to Blue Velvet) can’t be all bad. He’s certainly a much more chummy and interesting guy than Bengt Ekerot, who played the most iconic version in The Seventh Seal.  Wenders’ nods to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, to whom Palermo Shooting is dedicated to, lie at the heart of his 2008 opus, just now opening in Japan. Palermo Shooting has been derided for its earnestness and pretentiousness, but even looking at Wenders acknowledged masterpieces (i.e. The American Friend or Wings of Desire), he’s always had the earnest bone, right near the pretentious one. Palermo Shooting, though not a masterpiece, shows Wenders at what he does best – exploring ideas through images, delighting in and questioning the modern world and taking chances and risking failure – which is much more than most lesser directors would even attempt. Never really being much of an actor’s director, Wenders has always managed to populate his films with archetypes, who more often than not, are good actors too. The central character in Palermo shooting is a disaffected art damaged photographer, Finn. He has one foot at the top of the food chain in the high art world and another in the realm of fashion. A literal brush with death sends him on a journey of escape from Germany to Palermo, where he finds himself face to face with Death.  Finn, played by ruggedly handsome German rocker, Campino, transforms from something like David Hemmings’ hollow player in Blowup to a sensitive searcher who finds a bit of redemption in eyes of a beautiful art restorer, Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The first half of the film moves quickly through a post-modern Germany of concrete and flash along the Rhine. Finn even lives and works in a contemporary architectural monument designed by SANAA. After nearly being run off the road by Death, meeting the specter of Lou Reed in a bar and chatting about life with a kindly banker slumming as a shepherd, he impulsively takes off to Palermo where he indulges in just getting much needed sleep and dream-time, though death keeps shooting arrows his way. He end up meeting Flavia who helps him navigate the mystery. Palermo Shooting goes into a bit of Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole where some of the dream images seem to go overboard in symbolic intent. By the time Finn meets up with Frank – his reckoning with Death – the conversation turns to not only trying to him trying to make a deal for his life, but a meditation on photography, cinema, life and death. It’s here where Wenders’ walks the tightrope between something nearly ridiculous and something sublime and pulls it off. Palermo Shooting ultimately rewards with stunning images and cogent questions about cinema, art and rock and roll from Wenders’ ever-inquisitive soul.

Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2011 at 2:20 am

Hanetsu no tsuki

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Hanetsu no tsuki opens with a voice over telling an ancient tale of three small mountains that people believed were inhabited by gods over the images of an excavation in process, a conveyor belt making new hills from the tailings. It’s a strong image in a meandering drama that ultimately gets buried under its heavy symbolism. The simple story revolves around Kayoko (Yoko Oshima) living with Takumi (Touta Komizu), obviously at the end of their relationship. She has an affair with woodcarver Tetsuya (Tetsuya Akikawa). One day she reveals that she’s pregnant and proceeds to break off with both men. Director Naomi Kawase’s (The Mourning Forest) take on a basic feminist trope has some moments of stunning beauty and gentle rhythm that almost makes it work. Even the introduction of an enigmatic and silent World War II soldier and his family nearly makes the bridge from the mythic to the historic to the contemporary work, but the characters exist merely as stand-ins for some not very clear ideas, rather than individuals the viewer can identify with.

Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2011 at 2:18 am

Kantouku Shikkaku

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Referencing Osamu Dazai’s famous novel Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human), Katsuyuki Hirano’s Kantouku Shikkaku (No Longer a Director) is an appropriate title for this odious piece of exploitation. Film direction is certainly not an appropriate term for what he does. Kantouku Shikkaku documents his relationship with AV diva, Yumika Hayashi. With her untimely death at 35 after a night of binge drinking, her copious output (over 500 films) and her forever 16 year-old look, she’s become a Marilyn Monroe for the AV set. Hirano, who was Yumika’s lover, made his name in the late 90’s documenting their intimacies (on extended bike trips no less). His style of documentary porn has its aficionados and apologists who take the work seriously, but Kantouku Shikkaku shows an unrepentant self-obsessed creep and enabler exploiting a dead woman – yet again. The tragedy of Yumika’s life was much better served in Tesuake Mastue’s Anneyong Yumika. Despite Hirano’s closeness to Yumika he seems to have learned nothing about Yumika, himself or even the basics of making a good film.

Originally published in EL Magazine, September, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2011 at 2:15 am