Tokyo Filmex started 13 years ago under the aegis of Office Kitano, actor-director Beat Takeshi’s production company, to counter the excesses and lack of focus of the long-running Tokyo International Film Festival. Its emphasis is on representing new, largely Asian films, regardless of previous festival play. This has allowed Program Director Shozo Ichiyama, one of the more uncompromising programmers out there, to put a very personal stamp on the film selection. Filmex has become a haven for “serious” filmgoers, but one person’s masterpiece can be another’s disappointment. This year, among many festival-goers I queried, the consensus was that little of the competition stood out and that many of the special screenings were grueling at best.
But Ichiyama put together a slate that illustrated some pertinent themes. One was the disintegration of the social contract in a world of unfettered capitalism, particularly with regard to how societies take care of the elderly and less fortunate. Works from China illustrated the huge class divisions that continue to grow in the People’s Republic. And on the film historical front, the festival’s customary collaboration with the National Film Center yielded a retrospective of journeyman filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita.
From a largely lackluster program of new work at Filmex, it’s fitting that one of the festival’s best films was shot in 1995. Director Sion Sono sat on the footage and finally edited it this year. The result is Bad Film, at once a piece of fiction and a document of the short-lived Tokyo GAGAGA collective, an art-performance group that carried out Dada-esque actions in the mid-Nineties. True to its title, it’s far from perfect. But its crazy energy, healthy fuck-you attitude and prevailing air of anarchy exemplify the best in Sono’s work, which has in recent years calcified into an abject nihilism.
Bad Film was shot in black-and-white and on video, mainly on the streets of Koenji, a hipster neighborhood in west Tokyo. It’s a speculative yarn based on the then-looming unification of Hong Kong with China in 1999. In Sono’s world this event creates a hotbed for nationalist gang activity, and two of them—one Chinese, the other Japanese and ultra-right—commence to battle it out. They fight on actual commuter trains (in scenes that were clearly unannounced to passengers), in dark alleys and shōtengai (shopping streets), and on railroad sidings. A truce is called when a woman from each gang becomes enamored of the other. This ultimately ushers in a free and open sexual paradise in Koenji.
Throughout, Sono records Tokyo GAGAGA actions in Shibuya and Shinjuku during which the film’s cast and crew spew lunatic prattle, parodying right-wingers, to the confusion and consternation of passersby. The film was evidently shot without obtaining permissions: telephone booths were trashed, citizens accosted by snotty actors. Bad Film shows Sono in top form. He may have become a technically superior filmmaker in the years since, but he’s been working himself into a rut, regardless of the acclaim for Land of Hope. But with this new/old film he hits the hot-button issues of race, nationalism, sex, and gender with verve and relevance.
The few premieres that grace the big screen at Yurakucho Asahi Hall during Tokyo Filmex are reserved for new Japanese titles. The festival has long fostered relationships with established art house regulars, in addition to a handful of filmmakers that they’ve taken chances on over the years. Among the worst of their losing bets is Tatsushi Omori. Omori manages to cast some of the best young actors around—Kengo Kora, Shota Matsuda, and Sakura Ando in A Crowd of Three (10) and Ryuhei Matsuda and Eita in Tada’s Do-It-All House (11)—in rambling, ill-scripted slogs peppered with vaguely considered anti-establishment-isms and a barely concealed misogyny.
His latest outing, Bozo, imagines the back-story and psychology behind the notorious 2008 case of a man who drove his truck into shoppers in Tokyo’s Akihabara district and then went on a slashing spree. The protagonist, Kaji (Shingo Mizusawa), is an über-nerd who becomes the target of bullying co-workers, including a psychopathic rapist and murderer who inexplicably holds some power over him. Even within the confines of over-the-top antics, Omori throws motivational and emotional logic out the window, leaving the viewer with an ever-increasing pile of gratuitous and poorly choreographed scenes.
Things Left Behind
Of greater interest was Things Left Behind from documentarian and translator Linda Hoaglund. Smart but not especially gifted as a filmmaker, Hoaglund tends to cram more into her films than she can address in any depth. ANPO: Art X War (10) shed light on an utterly fascinating movement in Japanese art history but made specious connections to the country’s great anti-nuclear, anti-American protests of the Sixties and Seventies. Things Left Behind follows a similar trajectory in documenting photographer Miyako Ishiuchi’s exhibition “Hiroshima” at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology.
For the exhibition Ishiuchi photographed old garments from the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Archive. Oversized and technically beautiful, the photos are graphically gorgeous; without context, they avoid fixed meaning. Hoaglund spends a lot of time talking to museum-goers about their impressions of the photos. Not surprisingly, she gets the usual I-was-so-moved-by-these, anti-war, pro-peace responses. There are also some touching testimonials from Hiroshima survivors and internment camp victims, plus discussion of the genuinely awesome Haida totem poles at the museum. But Hoaglund throws too many things into the stew and refuses to delve too deeply into the meanings and resonances of the things she’s presenting. There are also far too many shots of people thoughtfully looking at the art on the walls.
The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku on March 11, 2011 marked a turning point for a generation of Japanese filmmakers. Nobuteru Uchida’s Odayaka is a tight drama that fleshes out the fear and insecurity that gripped the nation after the disaster. Here’s a case where Filmex’s bet on a young filmmaker paid off. Uchida’s uneven Love Addiction won the Grand Prize at Tokyo Filmex in 2010, but with Odayaka, he has truly matured and grown as a filmmaker.
Shot with restless handheld camerawork and naturally lit real-world settings, the film follows two women on the outskirts of Tokyo. Saeko (Kiki Sugiro) is suddenly abandoned by her husband and left with her five year-old daughter, and after the near-meltdown following the earthquake, she becomes increasingly paranoid about nuclear radiation in the food and water. Her neighbor Yukako (Yukiko Shinohara) is stifled by a husband who doesn’t want to rock the boat at work, where he’s on increasingly tenuous footing.
Uchida fleshes out the personal dramas with a wealth of vivid detail: rolling blackouts, stores depleted by panic buying, foreigners leaving Japan in panic—all a very real part of post–3/11 Tokyo life. As the film progresses, Uchida builds a powerful critique of the passive mentality that would opt for accepting dangerous bromides from the government over personal initiative. He raises tough questions that are a long way from resolution, but the very human tragedies he portrays get at the heart of a larger national tragedy.
Though the festival can be exasperating, the festival almost has a family feel. It’s not just a Mecca for serious film enthusiasts but also a place where folks can hobnob with the astounding number of international guests and local film luminaries. For all its rarefied selections, Tokyo Filmex is a very democratic event, and the better for it.
Originally published in Film Comment, 12.24.2012