The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017
Odd Obsessions - Desires, Hopes and Impulses in Japanese Cinema
Given its history, culture and social background, it's not surprising that odd obsessions frequently make their way into Japanese cinema. Odd obsessions, in fact, have been the basis for the life work of some of its most prominent directors and they have led to a distinctly Japanese spin on familiar movie genres; Japanese cinema takes obsession to a whole other level. With an emphasis on contemporary cinema, along with one or two rarely seen classics, the fourteen films in the Japan Foundation's 2017 Touring Film Programme present a wider view of individuals with 'odd obsessions' and relates them to very specific and familiar aspects of Japanese culture and society.
The 2017 programme of films takes its title from an early Kon Ichikawa film dealing with a unusual sexual impulse. Odd Obsession (1959) is a daring work for its time and one that would go on to influence the direction of a whole other genre of 'pink' and ‘Roman Porno’ cinema with its own strange perversions. The story is based on a controversial novel by Junichiro Tanizaki ('The Key'), a writer who would also notably provide the source material for Yasuzo Masamura's Manji and Irezumi (Masamura worked as assistant director for Kon Ichiwaka just prior to Odd Obsession), leading the way towards more lurid explorations of sexual obsession in films like Blind Beast.
The impulse behind Odd Obsession is however a thoroughly human one, that of an ailing gentleman, Mr Kenmochi, who wants to find a way to beat the aging process and remain virile with his younger, beautiful wife. Medical science can't do much to help him, but a young doctor at the practice provides assistance in another unorthodox way. Junior doctor Kimura is on the point of becoming engaged to Kenmochi's daughter Toshiko, but over dinner one evening Kenmochi notices that his jealousy over his wife's flirtations with the young doctor inflames his own desire for her. The older man's manipulations to push them together however create a strange family dynamic that is sure to end in tragedy.
Tragedy is one way to describe it, but the final twists in the film are curious to say the least. Rather than being merely a warning of the dangers of pursuing unnatural obsessions, the ending perhaps serves to remind us that nature and the ageing process (in the form of a confused old servant) will still win out in the end.
Even more daring than Odd Obsession, Ko Nakahira's extraordinary Flora on the Sand (1964) is in itself a veritable catalogue of sexual perversions. The impetus for the unbridled drives that lead cosmetic salesman Ichiro Ig down a dangerous path is again related to a recognition of the ageing process, but it's the particular circumstances of Ichiro's family background that sets the tone for a more complex study of sexual drives and impulses.
It's only when Ichiro realises that he is now older than his father was when he died that ideas which have long troubled him start to manifest themselves in strange behaviour. Ichiro can't shake the suspicion that his father slept with his wife when she was just a young girl. His wife has always denied the suggestion, but the obsession of this idea leads Ichiro to embark upon a relationship with a young schoolgirl. Akiko, however, has an ulterior motive and wants Ichiro to seduce her sister Kyoto, a professional hostess, but Ichiro's issues with his father keep resurfacing and his relationships with both women push him deeper into unexpected territory.
The daring subject matter of Flora on the Sand is matched by Nakahira's inventive narrative structure and filming techniques. Considering the amount of sexual content and the difficult nature of the particular perversions that are covered - peep shows, lactation, bondage, incest, the art of groping on a packed suburban train - it's surprising that there is no actual nudity in the film, just intense close-ups and a great deal of erotic suggestion. Shot in black and white but using colour inserts of abstract paintings of dull colours and shapes splashed with blotches of red, the film becomes more of a psychosexual exploration of Ichiro's issues with his dead father, and it does indeed stake out new territory to be explored and exploited by the Japanese film industry in the 1970s.
You would think the hopes and desires of the people who end up in love hotel would be fairly obvious, but Ryuichi Hiroki's Kabukicho Love Hotel (2014) gathers together a diverse collection of guests and the employees who work there, all with issues that dispel any idealised, glamorous or romantic notion you might have about those establishments. The love hotel is usually more of a point of intersection and transition, a temporary coming together or stopover, and here it tides people over the situation they are in until something better comes along. The wonderfully diverse cross-section of lives in transition in the film includes a call girl, a porn actress, an ambitious police inspector, a runaway who has fallen unawares into the hands of a pimp, and a singer prepared to sleep with a record company executive for a contract, but the manager and cleaner who work there are also hiding from problems in their past.
Hiroki's direction retains the indie feel of his more recent work outside the 'pink film' genre (although there are unsurprisingly a few explicit sex scenes here), but the film is somewhat over-reliant on a certain amount of coincidence and contrivance needed to bring the matters of so many characters to a head, over the 24 hour span of the film. The premise and treatment might be a little predictable, but the love hotel construct proves to be the ideal place for people to consider where life has taken them, providing an opportunity to achieve a sense of closure and to look for a light at the end of the tunnel. The variety of the life stories in Kabukicho Love Hotel might be a little melodramatic, but they are reflective of the hopes that people hold as they come to an accommodation with the less than perfect reality.
The no-hoper making good and turning their lives around is a popular theme in Japanese cinema and Nobuhiro Doi's Flying Colours (2015) is a good example of where these hopes and desires can become an unhealthy obsession. Behind the popular crowd-pleasing sentiments of a film where the outcome is never really in doubt, Flying Colours hints at deeper themes and offers a commentary on other troubling aspects of Japanese society.
Sayaka Kudo is not doing well at school. She's succeeded in being popular with the glamorous cool girls, but her academic studies are suffering. With her opportunity for getting into university looking slim to non-existent, her mother enrols her into a Cram School where the inspirational teacher Mr Tsubota has complete faith in his students. He convinces Sayaka that, if she wants to, she can set her sights on getting into one of the country's elite private universities. For someone who is unable to even get her head around the concept of north and
south, that seems a rather ambitious and unrealistic outlook.
You can achieve anything through hard work would seem to be the simple message of Flying Colours, but the film takes in a lot more than that. There's an indication of the enormous pressure that is placed on the younger generation to succeed in a modern world where an antiquated system is stacked against them. Much of the pressure comes from fathers and teachers in the film, representing an inflexible patriarchal structure with no faith in youth that has created barriers that are almost impossible for them to break through. Flying Colours doesn't condone submission to such social pressures, however, as much as suggest that if the will is there they can be overcome.
Family and generational differences come together as they frequently do in Japanese cinema in The Mohican Comes Home (2016), the latest film from Shuichi Okita (The Woodsman and the Rain, The Story of Yonosuke). Increasingly disillusioned with a deadbeat lifestyle and discovering that his girlfriend is pregnant, Eikuchi - the mohican haircut wearing lead singer of a Toyko-based punk rock band - returns to his family home on a remote island in the country and tries to re-establish ties with his ailing father. Although Eikichi doesn't share his father's love of 70s Japanese pop idol Eikichi Yazawa, he helps instruct the school band's jazz arrangements of Yazawa's songs and he even tries to satisfy some of his father's more outlandish obsessions. He's not cutting his hair for anyone though.
Along the way, Shuichi Okita's film touches on familiar Japanese cinematic journeys about getting back to one's roots and there's the usual fun to be had at the expense of the crazy islanders out in the provinces, but it's the respective hopes and desires of each of the men that provide The Mohican Comes Home with its distinct character, charm and sense of humour.
Daihachi Yoshida's Pale Moon (2014) presents an insightful contrast between the desires of the individual and the wider consequences of their actions. Even though her rich clients will hardly miss the relatively small amounts she appropriates, it's obvious that bank clerk Rika Umezawa is guilty of quite deliberate and premeditated fraud. The bank could surely write-off the negligible discrepancies in accounts as well, but that's not the point - or is it? Not surprisingly, the relatively minor actions of the individual are judged far more harshly than the corruption and incompetence of the banking institutions that have ruined the economy for people like Rika. Is this a small act of rebellion on her part or are there deeper personal issues behind Rika's actions? Daihachi Yoshida's lucid direction gives equal attention to the mounting tension of the crisis to come without neglecting the social commentary or the personal dilemma of the individual at the heart of the story.
Determining and following your hopes and desires is harder to manage when you are 28 years-old and are told that you only have three months left to live. That's the situation faced by Hiroshi Sonoda in Daishi Matsunaga's Pieta in the Toilet (2015). A talented artist, Hiroshi has dropped out of art school and is working as a window cleaner on some of Tokyo's tallest buildings when he learns about the nature of his illness and starts to undergo the treatment and operations to save his life. But why live? What purpose do we serve? Big questions like that inevitably come to mind, but Hiroshi - like everyone else in this position - finds answers hard to come by. He tries hard to resist the platitudes, the advice and the camaraderie that others rely on to get through their problems, but receives inspiration in the unlikely form of an aggressive and playfully teasing young schoolgirl, Mai, who seems to embody all the anger and the will to live that he can't summon up himself.
Pieta in the Toilet has the potential to be very gloomy and reflective, but the contrast and interaction between Yojiro Noda's sullen Hiroshi and Hana Sugisaki's irrepressible Mai never allows the film to be indulgent in sentimentality. There are enough little unconventional moments of irreverence, humour, beauty and inspiration threaded through Daishi Matsunaga's film to suggest that life is there to be grasped if Hiroshi can only see it. Maybe just living is enough, or just finding that one thing that makes you feel you have lived.
With over a quarter of its population over the age of 65, one of the highest percentages in the world, the subject of old age is a common theme in Japanese cinema, but in Bunji Sotoyama's A Sparkle of Life what desires, hopes and impulses could a 77 year-old widow possibly have? Well, they're quite simple really. Tae Tsurumoto just wants someone to spend the rest of her life with, and as long as he looks like Johnny Depp, she's not too fussy about the details.
Needless to say, the Happy End dating agency aren't sure they can accommodate that specific requirement, but they are surprised by the number of elderly people that they have on their books looking for companionship. Despite her confidence, Tae finds that the dating game isn't easy at her age and, not unexpectedly, she runs into a few problems trying to find the ideal candidate. Her son and her bachelor friend Shinji don't approve of her search either, believing that Tae should be accepting old age more gracefully and with dignity.
The ambitions of A Sparkle of Life are also simple and the outcome probably won't surprise anyone, but the charm of the film is indeed its gentle innocence. As we get older, we would like to think that wisdom and experience will allow us to strip away the complications and understand that it is the simple things in life that are indeed more important, and the film's quiet manner reflects this. There's a pleasant feel-good factor to A Spark of Life then, but when it has to confront the real issues affecting an ageing population, it does so honestly and sincerely.
The nature and source of the impulse that leads to obsession is rather more difficult to define in the case of Yoichi Higashi's Somebody's Xylophone (2016). Even the image evoked in the film's title of an unseen person in an empty house attempting to find the music within her remains an enigmatic and elusive attempt by ordinary housewife Sayoko to describe an urge deep inside her. Even the outlet for her longing takes a low-key and every day activity with polite formality... in the beginning at least.
New the neighbourhood, Sayoko visits the Mint hairdressers, where she is pleased with the skill of Kaito, the young man who cuts her hair, but she is also charmed by his manners, his conversation and his personal touch. She starts to make appointments with her regular hairdresser, and although her visits become unusually frequent and start to raise eyebrows, her visits are conducted with polite formality and restraint. There comes a point however where a line is crossed, and once Sayoko calls at his house with a little gift from the grocery store, things start to become a little uncomfortable for all involved.
'Uncomfortable' is perhaps the best way to describe how director Yoichi Hiroshi slowly and delicately shows how Sayoko's life starts to unravel. The pace is very measured, and it's not until late in the film that the real tensions start to spill over in a more dramatic fashion. What is clever about this slow burn technique is that allows the director to explore similar obsessions and odd desires expressed in Sayoko's wife and daughter, as well as in Kaito's eccentrically dressed jealous girlfriend. Combined, it makes Somebody's Xylophone more than just a regular stalker film and presents a more nuanced and ambiguous outlook on the nature of obsession and unfulfilled desires that will be uncomfortably recognisable to a wider audience.
Musicals don't really play a significant part in the tradition of Japanese cinema, although they have been used for comic, ironic and post-modern effect more recently in films by maverick directors Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. If there's one figure responsible for the upsurge of interest in the musical drama however it's Masayuki Suo, the director who revitalised the genre not only in Japan with Shall We Dance (1996) but also in the USA when it was remade there in 2004. His latest film creates another colourful musical world that is not so much La-La-Land as Kyo-to-Land.
In Lady Maiko (2014), Suo transplants My Fair Lady into an entirely different cultural identity in order to examine some very particular Japanese obsessions with custom and tradition. A young woman, Haruko, has travelled from the provinces to Kyoto hoping to become a maiko, an apprentice geisha. The strict manners relating to serving tea and entertaining customers with traditional dances are challenging enough, involving years of training, but just as important is how the maiko speaks, and the Kyoto formal language and speech rhythms are a vital part of that. With a broad and near impenetrable dialect from a very mixed heritage, it seems like Haruko has no chance of achieving this burning ambition to be a maiko, but a linguistics professor is convinced that he can smooth out Haruko's rough edges.
Masayuki Suo certainly finds a suitably colourful location for his musical, the spring blossoms and burnt autumn leaves of the cherry trees forming a gorgeous backdrop for the costumes and make-up of the Kyoto geisha. The characters are just as colourful and just a little overly mannered as the director tries to find inventive and ways of fitting the story naturalistically within the mould of My Fair Lady and to a diverse selection of musical numbers. The predictability of the outcome is never in doubt, but along the way the film does highlight the importance of the geisha tradition as well as the cultural and linguistic differences and prejudices that exist in Japan. More importantly, it ends with a suitably over-the-top musical set-piece that sends you home with a smile on your face.
Selected films in the Japan Foundation Film season are showing at the following venues from 3 February to 29 March 2017
•Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast
•Showroom Cinema, Sheffield
•Exeter Phoenix, Exeter
•mac birmingham, Birmingham
•Eden Court, Inverness
•Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling
•Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee
•Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
Details on the films showing can be found at the Japan Foundation's Film Programme website - http://www.jpf-film.org.uk/
Also showing in the programme at selected venues; Destruction Babies (Tetsuya Mariko, 2016), A Stitch of Life (Yukiko Mishima, 2015), the documentary feature Tsukiji Wonderland (Naotaro Endo, 2016) and a new anime A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016).
The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017