It could merely be reflecting the interests of its primary target group, but youth issues tend to be at the heart of a great deal of contemporary Japanese cinema. And it’s not just cinema. The Japanese entertainment industry, particularly in manga comic books, anime adaptations and merchandising spin-offs, undoubtedly thrives on a large and dedicated market of young fans and followers. Even if your knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited to awareness of the works of master animator Hayao Miyazaki or even Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA (the lack of a wider coverage of Japanese cinema being one of the factors that the Foundation’s Touring Programme, now in its 11th year, seeks to address), the importance and predominance of youth issues in Japanese cinema will already be apparent.
… the specifically Japanese response to the eternal problems associated with growing up …
Inevitably, then, films that have depicted the lives of youth have featured in various guises before in previous Japan Foundation Touring Film seasons, from a young student’s personal struggle in the self-explanatory title of Jun Ichikawa’s HOW TO BECOME MYSELF (2007) to the question of the challenges facing young people attempting to start-up a business in the closed-shop of the Japanese economy in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s NO-ONE’S ARK (2003). (Well known for his youth films such as ‘LINDA LINDA LINDA’, Yamashita is present in the current Touring Programme with hard-hitting THE DRUDGERY TRAIN). The films in the 2014 East Side Stories touring programme cover this wide range of approaches to the subject in a way that has universal application for youth anywhere in the world. There is also much of interest (and humour) to be found in the specifically Japanese response to the eternal problems associated with growing up that don’t seem to have been made any easier with advances in technology and social networking.
The nature of YOUR FRIENDS (2008) isn’t quite as straightforward as its title suggests. Yes, it’s a simple story of a special friendship in youth that lasts throughout the years, but coming from Ryuichi Hiroki (VIBRATOR), the film retains an indie edge that avoids the trap of slipping into formulaic plotting or indulging in sentimentality. There’s always the potential for that in a film that opens in a school for sick children, one moreover where one of the teachers, Emi Izumi, is herself disabled from childhood and has a penchant for taking pictures of “puffy clouds”. Relating her story to a visiting photojournalist, YOUR FRIENDS is surprisingly sanguine in the manner in which it relates the backstory of Emi’s difficulties as a disabled child at school, and quite matter-of-fact in how it shows the friendship that blossoms naturally between her and Yuka, another girl with health problems. Filming in long takes with wide angle shots might seem counter-intuitive in a film about friendship, but it seems to reflect the sense of loneliness and distance that still lies within each of the characters. It also serves to emphasise that it’s the desire and the ability to overcome those obstacles that is the measure of lasting friendship.
SHINDO works best when it operates on this instinctive and non-verbal musical level …
The youth focus of Koji Hagiuda’s SHINDO (WONDER CHILD) is on that certain age, around 13 years old, when young people first start to gain a sense of who they are, where they come from and who they eventually want to be. SHINDO finds good expression for the situation of 13 year-old Uta Naruse in her piano playing. Uta is a gifted and an award-winning young pianist, but she has no interest in developing her talent, even though there is pressure on Uta to succeed and help pay the bills. Her interest in the piano is revived when she meets Wao Kikuna, a young boy with the drive and determination to be a great pianist, but with none of the natural gifts of Uta. Hitting the right note. Finding a chord that resonates and harmonises with the world surrounding you. SHINDO works best when it operates on this instinctive and non-verbal musical level to express the situation of its young characters, but it feels a little more forced when it tries to relate them to romantic attraction, to personal disagreements and to specific incidents in Uta’s past. Essentially however, the attraction of the film’s theme of being at one with music, with life and oneself comes through.
Suzuki Matsuo’s OTAKUS IN LOVE specifically looks at the phenomenon of youth obsession with manga, anime and cosplay (dressing up as your favourite manga character) and even meets another requirement of any decent Japanese film season by including cameos from such fan favourites as Takashi Miike and Shinya Tsukamoto. An otaku, for anyone who doesn’t know, is basically a comic geek, and manga comics and anime are treated very seriously in Japan. Otakus are freaks and misfits of course, but they are young people too, despite this unfortunate affliction. Their problems with sociability, however, make it rather more difficult for them to fulfil basic adult functions such as finding a job, earning a living and interacting meaningfully with the opposite sex. This is a particular problem for Aoki Mon, a young ‘manga artisan’ whose medium is rather unconventional, working with rocks instead of pen and paper. There’s inevitably some comic exaggeration of the characteristics of otaku here, reflected in the cartoony stylisations, but not that much. (Sadly, this otaku has to admit to getting a kick out of seeing Koino’s mum dressed up as Maetel out of GALAXY EXPRESS 999). There’s perhaps not a great deal of realistic social observation in OTAKUS IN LOVE, but it is at least very funny.
… a dead soul in danger of obliteration is given another chance to escape …
The animated format tends to give creators a little more freedom to experiment with fantasy elements that can explore deeper underlying issues. Directed by veteran animator, Keiichi Hara, COLORFUL manages to touch on an important subject with a message that is perhaps rather more difficult to reach a younger audience through conventional live-action drama. That subject is teenage suicide. Passing through the transit between life and rebirth, a dead soul in danger of obliteration is given another chance to escape this fate by being reborn into the person of Makoto Kobayashi, an artistically-inclined 14 year-old boy who has just attempted suicide. Working out what has gone wrong with Makoto’s life, COLORFUL is literally a ‘finding yourself’ film that considers the challenges facing young people who are finding it difficult to cope socially, to fit into the world and deal with the problems of friends, family and relationships. Keiichi Hara uses an animation style that is reminiscent of GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES in how it touches obliquely but incisively on the challenges facing youth. One seemingly irrelevant sequence that brings the disused ‘Tamada’ trolley car back to life, for example, is just beautiful and transformative. Using such techniques COLORFUL manages to cover a wide range of difficult issues and personality types in a realistic fashion and offer some measure of sympathy and understanding for its young characters.
The definition of “youth” is stretched somewhat to include the 31 year-old protagonist of Hitoshi Ohne’s ‘LOVE STRIKES!’ (MOTEKI), but then in this day and age youth seems to be more a condition or state of mind. Or, in the case of Yukio Fujimoto, something of an affliction. Fujimoto is a geek with a job at a trendy youth magazine that allows him to indulge his interests in manga, music and comedy and get paid for it as well. It’s every young man’s dream. On the other hand, being socially awkward is always going to be a hindrance to a guy who also desperately wants to lose his virginity. Hitting it off with a guy on a social networking site who shares similar interests, Fujimoto at least tries to be more sociable, but when the “guy” turns out to be a girl, and a cute one too, Fujimoto begins to think that his Moteki (his “irresistible period”) has finally arrived. There’s a serious point to be made about it being in the interests of a consumer-driven society to extend childhood interests as long as possible into a generation that has considerably more purchasing power than teenagers, but you probably shouldn’t expect too much from a film that is derived from a television series. Filled with catchy J-pop songs, shallow characterisation and a vaguely condescending tone towards its characters, LOVE STRIKES! could itself be accused of cynically pandering to its young audience, or worse, making fun of them. If there weren’t some degree of truth and a measure of recognition in the situations and if it weren’t as funny as it is, you’d have some serious reservations about LOVE STRIKES! As it is, it’s hard not to like.
Is it a kicking Kenta needs or a kick up the pants?
In the context of a series of films about youth, CAPTURING DAD deals with another side of the growing up experience – gaining an awareness of your parents’ lives, their position in the world and the difficulties they face, their mortality and following on from that, the legacy they leave behind. CAPTURING DAD covers those issues with a great deal more subtlety and playfulness than that makes it sound, and does it concisely within the space of a mere 74 minutes. What’s significant about the situation here is that sisters Koharu (17) and Hazuki (20) haven’t seen their father for 14 years, since the time that he abandoned them and their mother for another woman. Learning that he is dying, however, they make the journey to visit him in hospital, bringing a camera with them to take a photo for their mother so that she can laugh in his face. Of course, events don’t play out exactly the way they planned. Yojiro Takita’s 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar award winning DEPARTURES comes to mind when watching Ryota Nakano’s debut feature, but not so much for how it covers the rituals around death and funerals as much as for how it touches on the underlying family issues with a hint of bittersweet black humour. It’s not as ambitious as Takita’s film, nor as wide-ranging in its scope, but CAPTURING DAD is all the better for its small-scale intimacy and the matter-of-fact handling of the situation that takes its focus and tone from the young people involved.
At the very start of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s THE DRUDGERY TRAIN, the narrator tells us a couple of pertinent facts about Kanta Kitamachi at that prove to be significant to the direction his life is going. Kanta is 19 years old. His father committed a sex crime that broke up his family while he was in 5th Grade, and since dropping out of school after graduating junior high, Kanta has only had work as a day labourer. The freeze-frame image of him leaving a seedy peep-show joint during this opening narration speaks for itself. Based on a novel by Kenta Nishimura, one suspects that there’s some autobiographical content in Kenta’s story, so it might be a stretch to extrapolate an individual anecdotal story to see it as a reflection of a generational problem. Undoubtedly however it would seem like Kanta’s education, his development as a young man, his relationships and his prospects for the future in post-bubble economy Japan have indeed been influenced or affected to some extent by the actions of his elders, as is suggested by the unspecified sex crime of his father. “Nothing good will happen to you for the rest of your life” a work colleague tells him, but although there are positive aspects about Kenta’s love of reading, it’s hard to see how he can turn his life around. Is it a kicking Kenta needs or a kick up the pants?
PARADE challenges director Isao Yukisada with a difficult twist to pull off.
Amidst the relatively familiar treatments of the joys and the pains of adolescence elsewhere in the Japan Foundation’s 2014 Touring Programme, Isao Yukisada’s 2010 film stands out as having a rather more negative view of the nature of Japanese youth and seems to hold a deeply pessimistic outlook on a whole generation. Divided into four connected sections, the film follows the day-to-day lives of four young people in their twenties sharing an apartment together in Tokyo, looking specifically at each character one at a time. Based on a best-selling novel by Shuichi Yoshida, PARADE challenges director Isao Yukisada with a difficult twist to pull off. The twist is not a narrative one – the outcome to the two developing mystery threads won’t come as a real surprise to anyone – but a twist in character. All of the young people sharing the apartment clearly have personal and emotional problems to the extent that as we learn more about each person, it becomes hard to tell just who is the most messed up. What is shocking in PARADE is not so much the violence that raises its head towards the end of the film as much the passive reaction of the residents to it, all of them in it together, none of them willing to break out beyond their mutual dependencies. It gives the subject a broader dimension beyond the individuals in question, and a darker note that perhaps even has wider implications beyond Japan.
Also showing in the 2014 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme:
Sorry (ごめん / Gomen), Shin Togashi, 2002
The Story of Yonosuke (横道世之介 / Yokomichi Yonosuke), Shuichi Okita, 2012
18 Who Cause a Storm (嵐を呼ぶ十八人 / Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin), Yoshishige Yoshida, 1963
The tour continues until 27 March. Click here for further details: http://www.jpf-film.org.uk/