by Bryan Lynch
More embassies in this country should follow the lead of that of Japan. As part of Tokyo’s continuing drive to become a soft-power, cultural juggernaut, the Japanese Embassy has, for the last few years, come together with Access Cinema to bring a travelling film festival to Ireland’s screens. The festival has become one of the highlights of the cinematic calendar and in in recent years I have had the privilege to see or re-watch some of the finest recent works from Japan’s directors.
This year the festival will have a total of thirteen features, with Dublin unfairly getting the lion’s share and the rest of us being drip-fed whatever Access Cinema are willing to let out of the capital. Cynicism does not become me however, and I thought it more useful to take a look at some of this year’s highlights.
The first film which jumped out from the program at me was from our maverick and mind-blowingly prolific friend Takashi Miike. Even by his eclectic standards, Ace Attorney seems like an odd choice for a Miike film. Like a lot of the work he brings on himself, I’m forced to admit I had never heard of the source material before Miike’s name was attached. Apparently based on a multimillion selling video game of the same name, Ace Attorney looks to take the tried and tested courtroom drama into the near future and seems to buzz with the usual energy Miike always brings with him.
A more sedate offering comes in the form of Shuichi Okita’s latest feature The Woodsman and the rain. Okita’s wonderful, semi-biographical comedy The Chef of South Polar was one of the the festival’s highlights a few years back and hopefully Woodsman will live up to that very high standard. Staring acting legend Koji Yakusho as an ageing lumberjack who is unwillingly caught up in the production of a zombie film, this comedy seeks to explore both the post-bubble pressures of life in a remote Japanese community and also the artistic and practical frictions which the country’s resilient film industry has repeatedly encountered.
A completely different setting can be found in Noako Ogigami’s heart-warming Rentaneko. Like her contemporaries Masato Harada and Hirokazu Koreeda, Ogigami seems interested in exploring the social challenges that Japan’s post-industrial urban residents have been facing. Establishing a cat-rental service to combat the social isolation and loneliness of both herself and others, Mikako Ichikawa’s character Sayoko patrols her city’s riverbank with a megaphone and a basket of cats, leasing her friendly felines to whoever needs a bit of companionship. Fey though the plot may sound, the trailer gives a glimpse of a truly touching film with a solid cast including Ken Mitsuishi (Audition, Eureka) and Reiko Kusamura (The Twilight Samurai, Shall We Dance).
Touching as well was the great decision of the festival’s programmers to dust off Paul Joyce’s 1984 superb documentary Nagisa Oshima: The Man who Left His Soul on Film. Since we lost the great man himself back in January, there is no better time to look back at Oshima’s vibrant, frequently controversial career and the host of great politically charged films he bequeathed to us. A great introduction to one of Japan’s finest post-war directors, Joyce’s film features sublime insights from legendary critic Donald Ritchie, who also sadly passed away this year.
If documentaries aren’t your thing, this year’s festival has another stock of interesting looking anime. The pick of the bunch for me is Wolf Children. One of the latest offerings from animation specialists Madhouse and directed by Mamoro Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), Wolf Children tells the story of a young mother’s struggle to protect and raise her two mixed race children after their werewolf father disappears. Crafted in Madhouse’s beautiful style and with a healthy dose of social commentary, Hosoda’s film shattered his previous box-office records and drew critical acclaim from around the world, with one writer going so far as to equate the director with Studio Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki.
One gripe I do have about Access Cinema’s decision not to bring the full program to Cork is that I will miss Nobuhiro Yamashita’s latest film My Back Pages. Since directing the brilliant Linda Linda Linda back in 2005, Yamashita’s career is one I have tried my best to keep track of and the lack of western DVD releases for his films makes decision to have Dublin only screening all the more galling! Set in the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, this comedy drama charts the efforts of a young journalist to cover the activities of one of Japan’s many extreme Leftist organisations as they prepare for an attack on an army barracks. Starring heavy hitters Satoshi Tsumabuki (Villain, Dororo) and Ken’ichi Matsuyama (Death Note, Norwegian Wood), My Back Pages looks like it will continue Yamashita’s technique of effortlessly straddling the line between witty and serious.
Sitting firmly on the serious side of the fence however will be another one of the festival’s highlights, Just Pretended to Hear. Despite the rather clunky English translation of its title, the film has been hailed as an excellent debut from nurse turned director Kaori Imaizumi. Telling the story of a young girl mourning the loss of her mother and a new friend who believes she can perceive what others cannot, Imaizumi’s film draws on her own experiences both as a bereaved child and psychiatric nurse. After being very warmly received at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, Just Pretended to Hear is probably the film I am most looking forward to at this year’s festival. Stemming from Japanese Buddhism, an obsession of the world beyond our own has long been a favourite theme for the country’s artists to explore and has given us some of the Japan’s finest films, from Kobayashi’s Kwaidan to Nakata’s Ring.
My scribblings here don’t really do justice to the variety of this year’s Festival so make sure to check out the link below. One thing is sure, it will be a packed few days so clear some time off the schedule and give that coffee order an extra shot!
The Access Cinema Japanese Film Festival 2013 opens on April 11th at Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema.