Japanese Film Festival 2013 – Live Action

Part 1 of the this article on anime and with details of the festival can be found here.

My Back Page (Mai bakku peji)

Our first live action movie of the festival that we attended was Nobuhiro Yamashita’s My Back Page. Yamashita has previously won the Best Director Prize at the Japanese Hochi Film Awards and some of his other works include The Matsugane Potshot Affair and A Gentle Breeze in the Village. 

My Back Page – Mai bakku peji

My Back Page is based on a novel by Saburo Kawamoto, which is reported to be autobiographical. It details his life as an inexperienced journalist between 1969 to 1972. In Japan during that time, there was strife between particular student groups and the government which lead sometimes to violence and destruction. In the movie, the main character Sawada was an alumnus of Tokyo University. He wanted to get more involved with these radical groups to report on them like he had done previous with poor men in Tokyo.

Sawada, despite the advice from his colleagues at the newspaper, falls in with one of these activists advocating armed struggle, a mysterious man named Umeyama. He seems to have invented his entire group and background but Sawada sticks with him none-the-less. We the audience know who he really is, and this shows just how manipulative and charismatic Umeyama is.

The opening of this movie is quite exciting. We see a riot taking place and the aftermath of an infamous battle. We get to listen into the ramblings of various “revolutionary” leaders and their plans for armed resistance to overthrow the government. This excitement peters out however, as it is soon apparent that the students are all talk and no action, apart from one tragic damp squib of an attack which spells the end of Umeyama’s career as a revolutionary.

It was quite hard to understand what was the central point of this movie. It seemed to have no real direction. For a time I thought that the development of Umeyama and Sawada’s relationship was the central theme. But they didn’t meet all that often and when they did it was a discussion of facts. There were other strands of relationships portrayed, between Umeyama’s group members, Umeyama and the other fringe groups and Sawada and the journalists but it was not clear which ones were the focus of the story.

This can be summed up by saying that the movie portrayed the “what happens” rather than the “whys” and “hows”. We were left none the wiser at how Sawada or the others were taken under Umeyama’s spell or why Umeyama did what he did. It was not clear why everyone went to the extremes that they did during a time that the taste for revolution was fading fast. It was quite a superficial exploration and there was little point to the women characters at all, except to appear, listen to some dialogue and fade into the background again.

A few things really saved this movie. Firstly was the period of history that it was set in. I know very little about Japanese history from these years and it was fascinating learning about the background social realities and politics of the time. Coupled with Poppy Hill it was an interesting commentary on 1960s/early 1970s, Japan.

The other thing was the acting skills of the main cast. They were quite a young cast and were bloody brilliant. The tears, anger, joy, sweat and sickness all came out and they were compelling to watch. The two main actors Satoshi Tsumabuki (Sawada) and Ken’ichi Matsyama (Umeyama) often come top of “hotest actor” lists but this movie showed that they were far more than pretty faces. They brought some emotional depth to a script that didn’t have much of it to begin with.

Lastly the style of the movie was wonderful to see. I do not know how to was filmed but it was dark and gritty which was perfectly matched to the era. White lines crackled across the screen and the sounds of a reel echoed through the silent cinema. It was atmospheric and dark ,which added to the story greatly.

Overall it was a fun watch but I wouldn’t rush out to see it again. Also, as a warning, do not watch this if you are trying to quit smoking or are on a diet. Every scene has a cigarette or food and I left it starving and craving a smoke.

Ace Attorney (Gyakuten Saiban)

This big budget film is based on the Capcom Franchise, Phoneix Wright Ace Attorney, which is on the Nintendo platforms. Taking on the challenge of bringing a game to life while staying true to its character and keeping its new and old fans happyis Takashi Miike. Yes, that is Takashi Mike of 13 Assassins and Death of a Samurai. 

Ace Attorney – Gyakuten Saiban

Ace Attorney is an interesting cultural portrayal of how the Japanese see Western legal systems. In Japan the culture is to try and solve disputes before they get to court. Arguing in public is seen as deeply embarrassing and shameful. As a result the western adversarial legal system is fascinating and has resulted in games like Ace Attorney, where the people are loud, brash and colourful.

Miike kept this element of the game and did not try to change it, unlike say the new Batman reboot. The man who introduced the movie referred to this quote from Paul Verhoeven of IGN:

 “The first thirty seconds of Ace Attorney are akin to having your cerebral cortex slapped brusquely with a salmon soaked in absinthe and badger blood.”

 He is not wrong and I am saying no more so not to spoil the madness!

I was delighted to see that the characters kept their hair and styling, Larry Butz was particular wonderful with his large blonde spikes. Phoneix has his back spikes and navy suit, Miles looked like the fabulous “flutterer” that he is, and Maya was perfect in her blonde traditionally inspired rig-out. It was like seeing the precise characters being brought to life.

There were other nods to the stories gaming origin. The streamers when people were found “not guilty”, the DS style screens for the showing of evidence, and the character shot screens when the case starts were all happy reminders of the time spent clicking away on the DS.

The script was absolutely hilarious. The cleaners throwing streamers, the “badger” running around intervening in cases, Phoneix’s panicked rooting for evidence, Polly’s interview and Larry Butz in general are some examples of the things that caused everyone in the screen to laugh out loud at various points in the movie.

Despite all the colours, comedy and gaming nods the story was not treated flippantly. The telling of Yanni and Polly Yogi’s fate was heartbreaking and very sensitively done. The sense of tragedy and injustice was not drowned out and really made its mark on the story.

The actors were brilliant too, taking on the mannerisms of the game characters and making them seem totally plausible. Hiroki Narimiya as Phoneix and Takumi Saito as Miles Edgeworth were just two actors of note. Akiyoshi Nakao also had the tough challenge as Larry Butz but he did very well!

This was a really great watch which I will be revisiting. There is just so much in it that it would not be possible to discuss it all. So go, watch it and make sure to do a shot each time there is “objection”.

This was also the Jury’s choice for best live action of the festival. It was a joint first for me and I would highly recommend it.

Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko)

Rent-a-Cat- Rentaneko

If you are reading this post you are more than likely connected to the internet. If this is the case then you will have at some point come across the phenomenon of cats on the internet, in particular Japanese cats. The fascination with our feline friends does not end online as this movie shows.

This movie was directed by Naoko Ogigami. She has studied film in both Japan and the US before making her own short films. Her feature film debut called Barber Yoshino, was premièred at the Berlin Film Festival. Her other films include Toilet and Koi Wa Go-Shici-Go!

Our main character is Sayoko who like the title suggests, rents out cats. She walks everyday pulling a trolley full of cats and she calls out to lonely people letting them know that if they want some companionship, she will lend them a cat. Unsurprisingly people take her up on the offer and much delight ensues.

Sayoko herself is a great character. She is lonely herself and spends much of her time speaking to her cats or to her grandmother who passed away. She tells everyone that she has other jobs apart from rent-a-cat which are as fun and colourful as she is herself. She cares for the people she meets as well as her cats and she takes responsibility for their well-being.

What the story shows is that there are many people out there in the world of all ages and genders, some with family and friends, some without who are all very lonely. They are lonely for different reasons and it manifests in different ways. Sayoko’s theroy is that this loneliness is a hole in people’s hearts. Holes that can be filled through the love and companionship of a pet cat. Or at least they can patch it up until the underlying issue is resolved.

Unsurprisingly quite a few tears escaped at the start of this movie. Once storyline in particular involved a lonely old lady whose husband and cat had died. I can’t bear to see the elderly sad and when she signed the rental contract, “until she dies” I couldn’t help it. But the wonderful thing about Rent-a-cat are the messages that, at the end, the holes in their hearts were filled.

Overall the movie is a really endearing movie with many, many funny incidents. From the weird, angry neighbour, to Sayoko’s inner monologue to the quirks of her clients we were in stitches laughing for almost the entire thing. Interestingly a lot of dialogue is repeated as scenes end up going the same way, regardless of who Sayoko is speaking to. Rather than being boring it added to the comedy and the overall charm.

Mikako Ichikawa is wonderful as Sayoko. She plays the part really well and it seems like she has a real connection with her feline co-starts, and stars they were. At times when Sayoko was staring off into the distance, or busying herself with one task or another, they cats would be there, entertaining us in the background. They would play fight, run around, fall asleep, wash themselves and do all the things that cats do. Squee 101.

So if you are feeling a bit down and want a feel good movie or if you just want an entertaining one full of cats, then I can’t recommend Rent-a-Cat, more. I couldn’t decide between it and Ace Attorney as my favourite live action of the festival so I decided on a draw!

Other live action movie available that weekend were, For Love’s Sake, Just Pretend to Hear, Rebirth, Nagisa Oshima, Thermae Romae and The Woodsman and The Rain.

After all that I am looking forward to exploring Japanese cinema a bit more over the coming year. Well done to all involved it was a great weekend of entertainment!



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