New Directors From Japan is as succinct and explanatory title as you could wish for as Third Window Films release a compendium of films directed by three imaginative young directors working with highly restrained budgets. The directors presented here are Hirobumi Watanabe (And the Mud Ship Sails Away – 2013), Nagisa Isogai (My Baby – 2010, The Lust of Angels – 2013) and Kosuke Takaya (Buy Bling, Get One Free – 2013), all of whom are also given the chance to introduce their films on this three-disc, Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray collection.
Kosuke Takaya: Buy Bling, Get One Free (Oshare Bangaichi – 2013)
Bubbly Kamono Naoto (Wataru Kora) is not having a good time, his girlfriend has dumped him and his two friends seem to be more photogenic than he is, despite his clear penchant for original and innovative fashion. Until, that is, he is approached by a photographer who is keen to showcase Kamono’s unusual taste in clothes. When he next visits Harajuku he is approached by the photographer again who tells him that he is to be the cover star of a new and influential fashion magazine. Before he knows it Kamono is the new house model for a quintessential fashion designer and is introduced to a wholly new, wholly bizarre world where new clothes are launched upon him like fabric weaponry.
Surreal social stupidity (this is a compliment) abounds in Buy Bling, Get One Free which shows the fashion world in a distinctly bizarre and occasionally vicious. Kamono parades about in his mildly ridiculous outfits prior to becoming a prime model for a fashionista, depicted on the cover of one of the many popular magazines (such as the distinctly Harajuku monthly Fruits) whose buyers are often amongst the young fashion conscious who epitomise the Harajuku (an area of Tokyo known for its fashion) ethos. This combined with Kamono’s fate as a model in clothing that is also bizarre but not so extravagant as his own, foreshadowing ‘the next big thing’, which adds to the humour of this short even as it does question – and gently mock – the fashion industry. In his introduction to the film, director Kosuke Takaya declares that he hopes that ‘people from the land of punk and Python like my film’. Indeed we did.
Interestingly in the extras that accompany the film Takaya mentions the past and present of his cinematic life…. watching Godzilla vs Biollante (1989) and The Matrix (1999) prompted his enthusiasm for film but the brilliant Versus (Ryûhei Kitamura ) gave him the impetus to actually start makings films.
Nagisa Isogai: My Baby (Watashi no Aka-chan – 2010), The Lust of Angels(Tenshu no Yokubo – 2013)
Two wonderful and disturbing films from Nagisa Isogai are text book demonstrations on how to develop a full and complex narrative within a short running time. Nagisa Isogai has created her stories in environments that are at once naturalistic and dramatic, but also where the stories’ possibilities – past, present and future – offer differing outcomes. In My Baby (Watashi no Aka-chan ) sibling rivalry is taken to extremes. Hatsumi and sister Chika are both expecting children, Hatsumi intending to name hers Aoi, regardless of gender. However, she collapses and falls down the flight of stairs near a temple when she learns that her sister is also pregnant – Hatsumi miscarries her child. Chika’s child is born and named Aoi, much to consternation of her bereaved sister, who becomes convinced that Aoi’s father was actually the father of her deceased baby. A combination of drama and modern gothic horror (particularly in its recollections of a shocking past that is accentuated in a different way in The Lust of Angels), My Baby is a perfect short story narrative bled into cinema.
The Lust of Angels (Tenshu no Yokubo – 2013), at forty minutes is one of the ‘novellas’ of the film world, too long for a short, too short for a feature, although thematically and narratively it shares links with shorts, pinku and indie films in its depiction of society, youth, culture and the interpretation of that culture in a wider context. This is helped immensely, not only by the screenplay, direction and ideas from Nagisa Isogai, but also a cracking score by Shinya Sumida which drives the narrative. The journey to and from school is problematic when particular passengers on the trains seek to grope any young schoolgirl in their midst. The Hanagawa line is renowned for molestation, but is also a convenient home line to many pupils who can’t balance the length of journey with pervert potential. Saori apparently becomes a victim to a particular pervert on her journey to school, but is saved by a new pupil, who has a handy razor in her palm to see off the adversary. Before long the girls in the class hatch a new plan to out the degenerate gropers and bring them to justice. The Lust of Angels is an odd combination of films – shocking, revealing, unacceptable and independently brilliant, with wonderful performances which constantly alter our expectations of the lead protagonists’ feelings and motivation. The girls’ backgrounds of abuse, accusations of murder and friendship dynamics ensures that the whole piece constantly questions both cultural and social expectations. Not an easy watch – there are scenes of rape, abuse and problematic encounters with a number of men – with additional elements of J-Cinema violence but is well written and cleverly constructed. A woman’s film for women.
Hirobumi Watanabe: And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Soshite dorobune wa yuku – 2013)
The old person in the box set (he’s a mere 31-year-old whilst the other two are still in their twenties), this is nevertheless a feature to laugh at. In a good way of course. Indeed Hirobumi Watanabe hopes that you will laugh, as he indicates in his introduction.
We have looked at low budget debut features emerging from Japan before at Kamera, such as Shady http://www.kamera.co.uk/article.php/1513 , but And the Mud Ship Sails Away makes even that masterpiece of imagination over financing look positively blockbuster in scope, because this feature length film cost less than £3000! Filmed mainly in black and white, but with a sequence on anti-nuclear politics presented in colour to place some form of delusional context this is social and familial comedy, primarily character driven but with elements of the surreal and unexpected encounters, even though the narrative indicates from the opening that it may well descend into an absurd social comedy, even if it eventually resorts to extremities of extreme stupidity. In a very good way.
Takashi is a miscreant misfit who doesn’t work and doesn’t care. He lives with his grandmother in ‘not so mainstream big city’ in Tochigi Prefecture without any particular purpose, passing part of his benefits to his estranged wife as alimony to aid his five year old daughter Yoko whom he hasn’t seen for years. His daily life involves awaking from his many slumbers or drinking beer, gambling and…. well who knows what? But this life changes when Yoka turns up at his abode, suitcase in hand, from Tokyo. Yoka, it turns out, is his half sister; they share the same womanising deceased father and hence the same grandmother. She hangs out with Takashi and his friend Shohei who has a job in a dairy farm. Takashi’s job prospects look limited to some deeply dubious dealings offered to him by an unsavoury yakuza as he plays arcades or pachinko. What options does he have or his half-sister have? Yoka might think he’s just an old fossil of a guy, misogynist irritant with a taste for out of date cheap food but he’s just a forty year old guy. 40? Sorry, maybe he’s only 36…
And the Mud Ship Sails Away is a laid back film in which we follow its laid back protagonist in a series of encounters that are amusing in a laid back kind of way. Takashi isn’t a likeable character, he doesn’t have a purpose and is deliberately rude to most people he interacts with – he beats up a former school friend who is currently standing for election and mocks a student who tries to sell handkerchiefs on the doorstep to help those affected by the Fukushima disaster. This is the most notable political subtext of the film, although issues of unemployment are also addressed, but these are secondary to the character driven elements as we drift along with Takashi.
And the Mud Ship Sails Away is a great example of a film where ideas and dialogue are fundamental to enjoying it rather than wallowing in impressive shooting locations and massive budgets. Sometimes it is silly and sometimes reflective – Takashi is often seen commiserating his world to himself, whilst sitting underneath a kotatsu (heated blanket) underneath a table in front of his grandmother. He has no perception of a future, he just hangs around with his sister and his friend, but this enhances the humour that pre-empts the film’s final act.
And what a final act – following Takashi finding ’employment’ with a yakuza, the film then launches into a sequence of on-screen surrealism, nonsense and shocking revelation. The conclusion of And the Mud Ship Sails Away is perhaps more strange, odd, barking mad and brilliant than you could possibly have expected from the previous social shenanigans. It defies all expectations. A thoroughly enjoyable film that can best be described as a cross between the hip indie cool of Jim Jarmusch with the manic addled surrealism of Terry Gilliam’s work, all set in small town Japan.
In a summary…new directors, new films, essential viewing: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be confused by drug imagined crazies and fashion freaks.