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Archive for December 2011

REVIEW: No Man’s Zone

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無人地帯 (Mujinchitai)Released: 2011

Toshifumi Fujiwara

Arsinée Khanjian

Running time: 102 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Toshifumi Fujiwara’s “No Man’s Zone” begins with the image of a tree standing alone amidst the rubble and detritus left by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. It’s still graceful in its battered and wind-beaten shape. It could be an exemplary example of bonsai. The camera slowly pans a full 360 degrees across the wasted landscape. Trash, detritus, the remains of buildings and boats move by as a woman’s voice (Arsinée Khanjian) speaks of the disaster, how the images of disaster are difficult to digest, yet how we as viewers’ become addicted to images of destruction. As the camera comes full circle to settle back on the tree she asks if we noticed the smokestacks of the Fukushima Nuclear Plan, as they passed by in the background. Like most every one in the audience at its Tokyo Filmex premier, I didn’t.

Thus begins Fujiwara’s Marker-esque exploration of the fact and the legacy of 3.11. His journey takes him within the 50 kilometer no man’s zone surrounding the crippled and leaking Fukushima Nuclear plant. The journey is not merely the usual disaster sightseeing trip, but a serious questioning of how it was and is being mediated, along with a healthy dose of asides and commentary, interviews with a handful of holdouts living with the zone and scenes of destruction countered with things like blooming cherry trees and flowers. For a film about one of the major disasters that ever hit Japan, it’s surprisingly beautiful.

Fujiwara takes on the role of the Stalker, leading us into the Zone. Tarkovsky was prescient! Whether this place will become the place where our desires will be fulfilled – only time will tell. Our darkest most troubled ones maybe. This may be where his insistence on his idea of our addiction to images of destruction lies. He offers up plenty. But he counters them with even more of images of spring reviving and taking back the landscape. And perhaps most importantly Fujiwara attempts to film the unfilmable.

First off there’s the officially unfilmable – going into the off-limits area to capture the wreckage, the empty streets, the cows and dogs and cats left behind, the last human holdouts of the towns of Ukedo and Iitate. This may be the easiest part. Scores of people have made the trip into the zone to rescue abandoned animals, take photos and film or just to gawk at the place.

Then there’s filming the invisible radiation. Truly unfilmable, the invisible particles that have traveled through the air and contaminated the soil and water have already left their long lasting mark. Fujiwara shows fields and forest, on the surface quite lovely, but now holding an invisible malignancy that requires an urgent but basically impossible effort to remove. His interviewees acknowledge this truth as they prepare for their forced evacuations from family homes.
And the last unfilmable thing is what will become of the Zone itself. As it becomes more an more apparent that the damage from the nuclear plant is uncontainable, the zone will certainly become a No Man’s Zone, left to lie fallow for generations. Fujiwara has made the effort to document this place in all its beauty and ruination because it may be one of the last times we will ever be able to see it, before it’s completely off-limits. The images of the film become the zone’s final legacy.

Fujiwara spends most of the duration of the film traveling from the small town of Ukedo to Iitate. Ukedo seems harder hit by the tsunami. As we travel down haunted and abandoned streets, a few sightings of cars with relief workers and police, images and stories of tragedies – a grandmother being swept out to sea – develop into a critique of how the tragedy was handled – how long it took to respond – and ultimately, a critique of how the whole thing was mediated. Fujiwara hopes to correct those impressions, not only by proffering a new set of images, but by questioning the meaning or unmeaning of the saturation of images proffered by the media.

His specific critique of how NHK mediated the event rings a little false in that NHK, with its vast resources, has actually done a better job than most indie filmmakers on documenting the destruction and reconstruction of Tohoku. One can and must question the ideology of a government news organization where (in Japan in particular) the coziness of the players public and private is appalling. But, there are a number of independent producers working for NHK who have been active in trying to fairly view and assess the legacy of 3.11.

Secondly, he manages to not illustrate his own movie with examples of the images that have offended him so. The viewer is left questioning, “What are these images that are so bad?”

And thirdly there are some iconic and auteur-less images from keitais and surveillance cameras that have been seared onto the world’s retina. The wall of the tsunami crossing the highway. The shot from a hill where we see the sluggish and forceful water swirling and sweeping up house after house. These two come to mind.

The recurring voice over of our addiction to images of destruction may also be more of a personal reflection on the part of Fujiwara. Endless loops of falling towers or tracking shots through kilometer after kilometer of leveled towns may be less about the viewers’’ addiction and more about the media’s role as a pusher. Are we addicted? Or are we ultimately beaten by images into being overwhelmed and ultimately inured to the meaning of these images?

“No Man’s Zone,” at least, represents a beginning. There are a number of lesser documentaries coming out now on 3.11 that even in their well-meaning shovel up endless clichés and hours of numbing footage of the disaster. Fujiwara questions it all. His answers, at times, may seem a bit too pat, but he’s going in the right direction. What are most powerful of No Man’s Land remain the images of nature’s healing and rebirth, even tainted by the invisible poison left by man. The final, somewhat mundane image of a tree takes on a new meaning in Fujiwara’s hands – something akin to hope, leavened with frightful knowledge and the weight of recent history.

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, December 19, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 19, 2011 at 2:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Mitsuko Delivers / Hare ga kore nande / ハラがコレなんで

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Director Yuya Ishii (Sawako Decides, Azemichi no dandy) continues with his gentle comedic skewerings of Japanese society with Mitsuko Delivers. The story follows Mitsuko (Riisa Naka), 9 months pregnant and yenless, but nonetheless strong and forward looking – especially compared to the gamut of types and characters she interacts with. She mysteriously appears in Tokyo, crossing paths with her clueless and distant parents, hinting that the child may be the progeny of G.I met in California. Finding a place to stay in a rundown shitamachi street where she grew up, she finds a colorful cast of simple town folk in the big city – the old landlady, the young man who still holds a boyhood crush on her. With little ado, she takes command of their lives, all the while near delivery of her own child. Naka gives completely appealing and sensitive shape to the no-nonsense Mitsuko. As appealing as Mitsuko Delivers is, by the denouement a series of over determined and in-your-face set pieces nearly derail an otherwise delightful comedy by and otherwise very smart director.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 6, 2011 at 1:19 am

Tokyo Filmex 2012 Report

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Tokyo Filmex seems like a family affair. That is your family includes a who’s who of contemporary filmmakers and film artists, a legion of Tokyo film buffs and an international cast of film writers, bookers, translators, movers and shakers. It just feels cozy and inclusive. There’s a particular indulgence of viewing a smartly curated selection of films by Shozo Ichiyama. Even if you don’t like them all, they tend to all fit into a clever puzzle of themes, associations and leitmotifs, making the festival itself seem a seamless whole.Another of the pleasures of the festival is that it brings comrades and collaborators from far and wide. I had the distinct pleasure of having Chris MaGee spend a few nights on my apartment floor and days tag-teaming it to catch films.

I saw a mess of international films – a few terrible ones, a few ma ma, several good ones and at least one brilliant one (Nick Ray’s 1972 “We Can’t Go Home Again”). But as this is the J-Film Pow-Wow, here’s a quick report on films Japanese.

The Catch

I know that Chris has already weighed in most eloquently on Shinji Shomai’s “The Catch,” but a few comments seem to be in order. From the opening scene that introduces Shomai’s wild camera pan/zoom/truck/crane technics, like most in the darkened house, my mouth was agape with an oh-my-god sort of awe. Several other set pieces throughout the film with the god-like camera floating over water, twisting and turning over the prows of boats, across quays and back again made me wonder if the film was more about impossible camera setups or the somewhat old-fashioned proletarian “Islands In the Stream” story of taciturn and shochu- fueled men men men against the sea. Perhaps I prefer my crazy camera work a little less tainted by plot. Give me Michael Snow most days (even though Snow does play with tainted plots). But there were times in “The Catch” where the figuring out of how the hell he did that shot overwhelmed the drunken drama that was being played out. The film’s ostensible documentary veracity, played against the increasingly melodramatic plotline, made for one of the more novel cinematic experiences of my life. I’m still in awe of and questioning the arcane and retrograde method of catching tuna – long lines drawn in by hand and when the behemoth is finally pulled to the edge of the boat, it being bludgeoned to death. Haven’t they every heard of winches? Or fishing poles? No wonder these guys are so messed up. The images and actions in “The Catch” seem to come from some sort of strange otherworld. Even John Huston’s stylized translation of “Moby Dick,” with Gregory Peck’s overwrought Ahab seems to have more connection with the things of this world than the seemingly more realistic world of “The Catch” which comes off like science fiction.


Of course, Emir Naderi’s “CUT” was the big ticket of the festival. Naderi, with his outsized and generous personality was the head of the festival jury and seemed to be everywhere at the festival, glad-handing and joking – a kind of crazy fun Iranian bachelor uncle you wish you had type. His film was getting the big hype for low-budget art house fodder (Note: I have been a small part of the hype machine with an article I wrote more than a year ago about a visit to the set of “CUT”). The brutal intensity of the film more than lived up to expectations. The lack of dramatic curvature, though, made the parable about the suffering of the artist-cinephile a bit of a slog. And in the penultimate scene where a countdown of 100 great films punctuate the seemingly endless beating one is left with more of an intellectual release rather than an emotional one. What twisted my mind and left me squirming more after the houselights went up was Naderi’s simultaneous critique and exploitation of the idea of violence as entertainment. The direct pleasure of men beating up another man versus the higher aesthetics of cinema art was laid on display for the audience to “enjoy” voyeuristically in a high art film that was laden with violence. It makes the mind boggle.

Monsters Club

A couple of buddies were put off by Monster’s Club opening scenes where our hero, a younger, richer and more fashionable Ted Kaczynski (as played by Eita) goes through his hermetic routines – which mainly include sending mail bombs to owners of media conglomerates – in his Hallmark perfect winter cabin. His voice over mouths anarcho-primitivist screeds. They felt that filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda was in agreement with the sentiments voiced. He may well be, but between Eita’s incongruous (and great) haircut and his character’s acknowledged privileged I felt that he was more of a 3rd Generation type and his motives completely up to question. As his madness ensues he does become a monster, delivering his last payload to the crowded streets of Tokyo – bringing a metaphorical and literal winter with him. Monster’s Club was disturbing, visionary and uneven. The literalizing of his demons was a bit overdone, but the nod toward JLG had a particular resonance. The bigger reference to Kenji Miyazawa, children’s book author and poet may have been a bit too Japanese culture specific to translate beyond borders, but even without the cultural reference the final voice over poem throws the whole thing into a more enigmatic and resonant place. Toyoda’s mixing it up with performance artist Pyuupiru, musician KenKen and a host of others show a generosity of spirit that’s visible in the final result. It’s good to see Toyoda, after his abysmal stoner slog, “The Blood of Rebirth,” finding a bit of footing on a new rocky trail – exploring, taking chances and creating interesting new work.


Most problematic was “KOTOKO.” (above) Like “CUT,” not only was the title all in caps, but gushers of blood stained the screen through most of the running time. In KOTOKO’s case the boundary between fiction and fact were completely upended. “KOTOKO” follows the story of a woman, played by Okinawan singer Cocco, going mad. The manifestations of her madness include hallucinating doppelgangers and non-existent personages along with self-mutilation (cutting in this case) and anorexia – something that the real life actress is known for. She appeared on stage before the screening with director Shinya Tsukamoto, a scary image of walking death, spaced out (on meds?) and nearly incoherent. It was a sad sight. Tsukamoto appears to be genuinely in love with her – not only visible from his appearance in the movie as her potential savior, but even in the Q and A afterwards, it was pretty obvious. KOTOKO’s story was developed from Cocco’s ideas and whether the film exists as some sort of insane therapy session masquerading as a movie or an uber-Polanski exploration into troubled behavior is up to question. It seems that both director and subject are in an extreme enabling stage. Despite the visceral and unrelenting affect of the film (Tsukemoto certainly knows how to put together a film) one wonders if it may be better for Cocco to get some professional help soon.

No Man’s Zone

“No Man’s Zone” is Toshi Fujiwara’s documentary meditation on the disaster in Tohoku. If Cocco wears the marks of her self-mutilation on her forearms, Fujiwara wears his Markerisms on his sleeve. Even the voice over by Arsinée Khanjian sounded uncannily like Sandra Stewart, the voice on the English language version of “Sans Soleil.” There was coy set of questions and statements about what you were looking at. A Where’s Waldo “whoops you missed what you should have been looking at” turned with increasing gravity to “the thing you should be looking at – radiation – you can’t see.” For a film that’s about trifecta of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, it’s surprisingly beautiful. The landscapes and still lives of the massive destruction of 3.11 give way to the revival of spring and nature reclaiming the devastated land. But the radiation has made the place a “No Man’s Zone.” Tarkovsky was prescient on this one! Fujiwara’s haunting images of empty and emptying towns serve as a document, a remembrance to our own follies. Where Marker builds his critique of images and documentary truth with trove of historical, and cinematic references and a lifetime of knowledge, Fujiwara tends to shorthand his seemingly pithy third person commentary, leaving the experience of No Man’s Land a bit of a didactic exercise. But as one of the first films that attempts to make some sense of the endless images of destruction and rapidly developing mediated myth of stoic and hardworking Japanese coming to terms with yet another disaster, at least “No Man’s Zone” is trying to look at things with fresh eyes with a certain anger and sadness that says, “Look at this and remember.”

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, December 5, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 5, 2011 at 3:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Autumn Adagio / 不惑のアダージョ

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Tsuki Inoue hit the film scene in 2007 with The Woman Who Is Beating the Earth – one of the most singularly original debuts of any filmmaker in Japan. The 22-minute opus was a rich riot grrl punk pop cinemagical slice of life that marked Inoue as a talent to watch. Although still dealing with women’s issues, Autumn Adagio is more of a reflective and considered essay on a 40-something Catholic nun, Sister Maria (Rei Shibakusa) who goes through an emotional and sexual awakening through her meetings with three different men. The striking change of tone from her first short to the current feature shows Inoue as an inquisitive filmmaker willing to take risks. It also shows that by taking risks one courts failure. Autumn Adagio begs a comparison to the cinema of Bresson – channeling his flat acting style, but without his deep Catholic quandaries and questions, nor his stunning use of cinematic space. A certain didacticism scuttlebutts what should be a more emotionally connected and connecting story.  Let’s give her an A for effort.

Originally Published in EL Magazine, December, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 5, 2011 at 1:18 am

Mitsuko Kankaku / ミツコ感覚

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Mitsuko Kankaku is an uneven, but interesting dramedy from first time director Kenji Yamauchi. Yamauchi cut his teeth in acting and writing plays for Tokyo’s Seinendan theatre company. This is the same place where Koji Futada, whose intriguing hospitalite was a critical hit last year, came from. Not only drawing from the same pool of great acting talent, Yamauchi seems to draw from a similar styles and themes as Futada. Case in point is Mitsuko Kankaku. The story follows two sisters, sharing a flat in the suburbs of Tokyo. One, Emi, is an office worker, involved with her boss. The other, Mitsuko, is a young photographer who takes up a part-time job working in a sunaku. Their uneventful and unfulfilled lives are shook up by a strange fellow and his sister (?). Their mere presence sets the ball rolling for a series of tragedies and resolutions that make the plot fly. hospitalite also relied on a trickster character. The cast is impeccable, if a bit theatrical at times – the Beethoven sonata in one scene, atrocious.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 4, 2011 at 1:16 am

Tenshi tsukinuke rokuchome / 天使突抜六丁目

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From deep in the heart of Kyoto comes Tenshi tsukinukeru rokuchome. It’s a mythical address near the central train station that gives the feel of timeless low-rent hipster state-of-being. Director Masafumi Yamada brings it to the screen very well. Yamada is part of an indie underground blossoming in Kyoto. Like the more famous fellow-Kyotoite Go Shibata, he makes films that channel the fantastical and symbolic. Think of 60s and 70s meanderings of Alejandro Jodorowsky  or Walerian Borowczyk transplanted to the humid and architecturally wasted landscape of Japan. The story follows the travails of Noburu (Taku Manabe) on the lam and his relationship with the mysterious and nearly catatonic Miyuki (Natsumi Seto), herself involved in the murder of her husband.  Chased by gangsters and cops alike, they follow their heroes’ journey into the fantastic. A Lynchian creepiness and surreal logic throughout the scenes in an abandoned building give the film a certain chilling gravity. But the drive toward the ending flounders as grotesquely symbolic and increasingly unnecessary events clutter the frame.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 3, 2011 at 1:14 am


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Cut, a powerful and brutal meditation on violence, the role of artists in society and the state of cinema is an amazing ride, not so much from the trials of the main character, Shuji, but the fervid mind of the film’s director. Amir Naderi. Iranian born, now living in the USA has been making uncompromised art films over the last 40 years. In his first Japanese film he tells the story of a Shuji – played with unrelenting intensity by Hidetoshi Nishijima (Dolls, Zero no shoten) – a young cineaste (he shows classic films on the rooftop of his downtown Tokyo apartment building) and filmmaker. In order to pay off his murdered brother’s bad debt to a local gang, he becomes a human punching bag to the thugs – for money. Naderi not only brings up the ideas of how artists must suffer for their art and the transcendence of great cinema, but intriguingly questions the nature of violence as entertainment even as he showers the viewer with an unremitting rain of blows and rivers of blood.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 2, 2011 at 1:12 am