The 2018 Osaka Asian Film Festival once again beckoned with its Indie Forum section, though the decision to attend was not without hesitation. Held between March 9th and 18th, a week later than the previous year, the festival overall was smaller in scope, resulting in little to no support for visiting members of the press. Press relations did admit, however, last year’s OAFF happened to be the largest. Despite the out-of-pocket cost, covering the Indie Forum in successive years to establish the legitimacy of Indievisual was more than worth its weight in financial book balancing. Unlike 2017, attending the event during the first half of the festival made the experience somewhat different. Most guests deciding to attend screenings in the latter dates, when most social events were scheduled, resulted in post-screening Q&A’s being conducted with only one or two filmmakers while some were not represented at all. The only four other foreign press attendees had also not arrived negating opportunities to network with other writers. Meanwhile, the Indie Forum itself was also different. This year it featured six short movies divided into program blocks of three with the rest of the line up comprised of full and medium length movies–depending on whose standards one goes by, of course. Two movies from Korea were also represented though the section has historically been a showcase for domestic works. Also notable was the absence of CO2 (Cineaste Osaka Organization) grant movies which have been a staple of the section since its inception. The general consensus suggests CO2 has decided to abandon its production activities in favor of an “appreciation/education” focus though at time of publication there has yet to be any official announcement as to why. If this proves to be both true and a permanent stance, it would be a blow to Osaka’s independent film scene. Nevertheless, the overall Indie Forum line up still offered surprising, delightful, thoughtful, and once in a while challenging movies thus preserving its position as an important showcase of independent Japanese cinema.
The Path Leading to Love
Takayama Kohei’s movie opens with a physically violent argument between a couple over which the protagonist, Shosuke’s voice claims love does not exist; the times one is falling in love are the best, afterward there is nothing. What follows is a nuanced study of alcoholism, not as a destructive sickness–though that is the result–but as a stimulant in an otherwise numbed existence while simultaneously creating a state of being purposefully reprehensible. Shosuke knows alcohol is ruining his life, but he becomes dependent on it where both its presence is just as torturous as its absence. In much the same way, love can also spur codependency as characterized by Shosuke’s girlfriend, Yasuko. She is willing to be with him though there is great suffering involved, but the the void left by his absence is perhaps more agonizing. Through most of the movie, she embodies the kind of selfless hopefulness and enablement often displayed by those in abusive relationships.
To convey Shosuke and Yasuko’s emotional morose, Takayama masterfully utilizes composition, light, and shadows juxtaposed with the camera movement and lens effects depicting Shosuke’s alcohol-fueled nightmares and “moment of clarity”–a walk & talk on the beach with his ex-girlfriend (from the opening sequence) shot in one take with a very wide-angle lens. Key to all that transpires is Tanaka Ippei’s portrayal of Shosuke which skillfully straddles the fine line between unlikeable and sympathetic. Despite the emotionally draining experience of watching Shosuke, when the right decision dawns upon him, the viewer ultimately cannot help at least urge him on.
Why do we go to another country? To shop? To eat? Is tourism only what guidebooks tell us? Miyazaki Daisuke’s follow-up to Yamato (California) is once again a satisfyingly entertaining movie full of wit and humor just above a subtle underlying message. Through the journey of two young Japanese girls who win a trip to Singapore, the difference between traveling to a foreign country and experiencing that country is thrown into relief. They visit a famous tourist spot suggested on the web which proves dissatisfying. They wander shopping malls which remind them of home, and broadcast themselves having lunch on the internet. It’s clear documenting they’ve been to Singapore has superseded their appreciation of it. This is demonstrated in a scene at a beautiful monument they visit which turns out to be a civil war memorial. The context of why people should visit a place sometimes loses precedence over its picturesqueness–even for local people.
It is only when “Nina” played by Endo Nina [from Yamato (California) who also takes a producer credit this time] becomes lost that she begins to experience Singapore, its people, and the culture in a completely different light. Miyazaki himself was inspired to make the movie after his own experience of becoming bored while being led to tourist sites and deciding to explore on his own. Replete with Miyzaki’s signature use of music Tourism is a travelog for the Instagram generation, perhaps specifically the youth of Japan, serving as a reminder to go off the beaten path.
Still Life of Memories
An art film about an art form, Still Life of Memories in the producer’s mind attempts to extrapolate what transpires in a relationship similar to that of Henri Maccheroni and his lover/muse which resulted in an explicit collection of work which served as the movie’s inspiration. Veteran director Yazaki Hitoshi takes on the challenge of telling a story in which a rising photographer is commissioned by a woman to take photographs of her vagina. Artist and model are drawn closer by the compulsion to abstract the female genitalia beyond its sensual or sexual context. As the movie’s primary conceit, this proves rather fascinating. However, the relationship between them develops rather sedately, only touching briefly on their sexual tension. Meanwhile, jealousy in the love triangle between photographer, model, and the photographer’s pregnant girlfriend never “blows up” as described in the festival catalog. As a study of eroticism, the movie works occasionally. As a glimpse into the creative hurdles of nude photography, this too is only barely scratched. Opportunities for the photographer to realize other contexts of the female genitalia such as his girlfriend giving birth were present though passed without much deliberation.
Finding an ending for this type of movie is always difficult. Thankfully, actual photographs of the vagina taken by female professional photographer Nakamura Saki close out the movie proving the beauty of such images. It is a shame these could not have been featured as part of the narrative to give insight into the photographer’s process or the model’s motives.
An emotionally stirring feature-length debut by director Takeuchi Yosuke, The Sower unspools the story of a family tragedy exacerbated further by an unthinkable fabrication. The result is a potent meditation on recovery from sorrow. At the movie’s core is the assertion of life’s indomitable quality. Just as the word “sowing” or “planting” with such words as “doubt,” “dissension,” etc., express something that grows to do harm, the utterance of a young girl, Chie–a powerful performance by Takenaka Suzuno–blossoms to tear apart her family. This is further facilitated by her uncle’s previous admission to a mental hospital. Chie’s grandmother bluntly voices opinions about “abnormal people” which are likely more often thought than expressed in Japanese society but nonetheless influence their treatment, providing a palpable undercurrent to the movie taken from the director’s personal life–his niece plays Chie’s sister.
The original context of “sowing”, however, is associated with “seed” as an act that will engender life. The sunflower comes to symbolize this cycle of birth from death. As the bloom dies, seeds fall to beget new flowers. The titular “sower” spiritually latches on to this and commits to actions he believes will bring life from death perhaps as an act of contrition. Takeuchi’s visits to the Tohoku region [he continues to this day] where he saw sunflowers growing in 3/11 ravaged areas helped inspire The Sower which is not so much about hope, as it is about persevering through life, just as a seed can take root in places with the merest space to grow.
The Garden Apartment
In two key ways, The Garden Apartment seems to be the anti-thesis of The Path Leading to Love. At the opening, the heroine, Hikari, states: “Love must run it’s course.” It is a declaration suggesting an inevitable end as opposed to a path one need to choose to walk for which there is no literal end. Eventually, Hikari realizes she only attempted to disguise her loneliness with love. When it has withered away, nothing is left. Her final soliloquy is a resounding slamming of the door on love’s ability to fill a void or satisfy expectations. Meanwhile, the depiction of alcoholism fits with the standard portrayal of attempts to forget inescapable sadness through a hedonistic life. The character of Kyoko claims to use alcohol as a way “remember” her deceased husband yet contradicts herself later by proclaiming she has forgotten him, the love they had, and who she had been. She constantly shifts between inebriated highs and lows, perpetuating her bon vivant attitude through bacchanals she holds with the young, female residents of her apartment as an anesthetic agent in an attempt to feel neither lonely nor unloved.
Takeshita Kaori’s portrayal of Kyoko is particularly bold due to the overall design of her character while director Ishihara Umi displays a technical grasp of cinematic tools and language to convey her story, though may have fallen victim to her own trove of ideas at the expense of cohesive storytelling. The result is movie with an assertive message which still seems a work in progress.
Kushina, what will you be?
Hayami Moët’s debut feature is a work that sneaks up on you. As an experienced art director and through impeccable cinematography, she creates a of vision of pastoral beauty, taking great care to portray the ethereal quality of an isolated village populated only by women. Their clothing and their idyllic lifestyle are from another time and place. That is the vision held by the female anthropologist searching for this symbol of a sense of community, strength, and self-reliance dying from our world. As with all things, however, there is far more than meets the eye as the story begins to peel away layers to reveal an obvious truth. In the end, human needs are the same and even in an isolated life are immutable.
Before one knows it Kushina, what will you be sheds its mythic trappings to reveal a story ultimately about maternal love. The intrinsic desire to nurture and protect is counterbalanced by the tendency to sometimes domineer and overprotect. The contradiction of motherhood comes from the knowledge that at some point they must let their children leave the nest. However, that fear and constant burden can be the source of sometimes paradoxical behavior. Conversely, the energy and curiosity of youth can not be bound. Children must always confront the crossroads of their own potential versus the expectations placed upon them. This is poignantly brought to the fore during an end credits scene that is the movie’s core reveal. The echoes of this scene combined with Hayami’s beautiful storybook craftsmanship earned this tribute to female strength the Indie Forum section’s Japan Cuts Award and an invitation to screen at the Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film held in New York.
Here and Here
In essence a profile of the modern working woman and first time mother, Here and Here allows us to accompany Mina, a seven-month pregnant writer who seems determined, strong, and capable of getting through her day gathering interviews for an article she needs to complete. The story begins to live and breath beyond its “everyday” concept as the first cracks in Mina’s otherwise impeccable professionalism begins to show and she expresses the first signs of emotional distress. Her apprehensions and the struggles for a life/work balance are those any woman could relate. More than anything, she is worried for the life she carries within her. Then she meets an older woman who initiates a conversation with her, and without any prompting shares a story which reminds Mina of how fortunate she is; how special is the miracle of childbirth from someone who envies the life Mina has ahead of her. It is a simple scene making up the final third of the movie, but Jimbo Yoshimasa, who has proven to be masterful in his portrayal of human relationships in his previous works, makes a bold and unexpected directorial decision which amplifies its emotional impact. Though cinema is principally a medium for “showing” rather than “telling,” in this case prioritizing the two women’s conversation, which was recorded on location, plays on the audience’s expectations and forces them to truly listen in a way traditional depictions of “conversation” would not. Jimbo noted the way the two women were conversing with one another was as powerful as any physical portrayal which led to his storytelling decision. The result is a refreshing character-driven moment in which the characters’ physical presence plays no part in its heartfelt conclusion.
There’s always a moment of truth in everyone’s lives when they understand, after the fact, they should have said or done something. The moment will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Such is the case for young Fuminao who suddenly finds himself being addressed by an attractive female classmate during swim class. It is obvious she is charming and he is struck silent by nerves. The scene is a snapshot of adolescent innocence: a slice of life with which perhaps every teen and those who were once teens could identify. But there is more to this movie than meets the eye. Indeed, what one hears is far more compelling. Director Kogahara Takeshi uses the sound design to begin depicting a lingering memory that is pervasive, unrelenting, and poignant. It is obvious the unexpected exchange with this girl is constantly playing out it Fuminao’s mind; and heart. Kogahara could have let his movie end as a bittersweet adolescent vignette on those lifelong regrets, but instead decides to repeat the scene under a new context, making the movie about transforming that regret into an opportunity to mature. To write too much would be a disservice to Kogahara’s tour de force as the story must be experienced. Every detail utilized to engulf the viewer in this moment is a highly precise directorial decision, from the only full reveal of the young girl’s face to the only time the title is uttered. Nagisa is the very epitome of what can be accomplished through the short movie format.
Girl Returned opens with a scene which at first tantalizes before shocking with the story’s basic premise. From then, director Hirohara Satoru successfully, and intentionally by all accounts, avoids common pitfalls associated with this type of story. The young girl’s return to her family is not followed by excessive melodramatics; stereotypical clashes with her family as she struggles to reintegrate to a normal life are non-existent. What we are shown are concerned parents who give their daughter the latitude and time to deal with her return in her own way. The young girl, herself, is atypical of the common portrayal of a formerly imprisoned victim. She displays caring for her grandmother, deference to her parents, and an overall determination to go on with her life though those around her exercise a degree of socially requisite tact. A visit from two classmates after their graduation effectively illustrates their delicacy is unneeded. This is not to say Hirohara neglected to write a character who hasn’t been affected by her experience. But since he wrote such an emotionally strong character, the moment she is confronted with her “post-traumatic stress” is also the moment she overcomes it. The title, besides describing her physical return to her family, most importantly signifies her recovery, providing a clever double-meaning to the Japanese word “kaeru” meaning “to come back”. As a result, Girl Returned offers an unembellished look at the resilience of youth through Hiromasa’s buoyant and uncynical outlook on life as displayed in his films such as Good Morning to the World!! and Homesick.
Who Knows About My Life
The modern Japanese woman has many obstacles to navigate in life, not the least of which are the expectations placed on them by a still largely patriarchal society and women who, consciously or not, reinforce those expectations. Junko is a 40-year-old, single woman facing the frightening prospect of missing her chance to meet those expectations and achieve the “goal” of marriage. Using situational comedy to best effect, Isobe Teppei’s short movie is firmly anchored on the wonderful performance by Yashiki Hiroko who displays a natural, likable presence and deft comic timing particularly in her physical performance which doesn’t miss a comic beat. But perhaps this is due to the fact she is an experienced action actress who you may have seen in “blink-and-you’ll-miss-her” supporting roles or disguised under prosthetic make-up. Did you catch her in the GANTZ series? The Machine Girl? Attack on Titan? Rurouni Kenshin? John Woo’s Manhunt? However, her performance in Who Knows About My Life certainly is testament of her ability to carry a movie, and not just an action or horror film, but any genre. In fact, Isobe first conceived of this movie as a violent action spectacle, leading to the casting of Yashiki. However, regular discussions with her resulted in a complete transformation of the original concept. Isobe must be commended for allowing Yashiki to assume a strong role in his movie’s development. Their collaboration has produced a charming comical work which should surely trigger a revisal of how Yashiki is cast moving forward.
The suburban veneer is a theme dealt with in cinema from time to time. What goes on in manicured, quiet homes or neighborhoods in countries throughout the world is ripe for inventive conjecture which, sadly, sometimes are not as strange as truth. This veneer of normalcy is at the heart of Yuasa Noriko’s short which aims to take a close look at an unassuming family as the elder daughter’s teacher and club monitor checks in on her following an injury. The story wastes no time ratcheting up an unsettling atmosphere before it begins careening toward its denouement. Yuasa, an experienced director both for television and cinema, effectively exploits expectations in her set up before unraveling them by first revealing the family is anything but normal, then by showing what is going on is not what we think, and finally who is responsible is not the person we thought. One would not think this was her first time directing a horror-thriller, but her admiration for filmmakers such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and a childhood raised on peculiar television programs such as ‘Ultra Q’ are evident. She is not afraid to be graphic for impact nor stylized for effect. Combined with the potent soundscapes, especially the bone-chilling audio in the finale, Ordinary Everyday is a confident descent into the darkest areas of humanity by the director of the affecting–though still somewhat black–teen drama Girl, Wavering.
A lighthearted comedy, CYCLE-CYCLE first began as a concept for television until workshops with the cast and director, Kanai Junichi, were encouraging enough to expand its breath to a short movie. Though obviously a project intended as a vehicle for members of male idol group, M!LK, the short is nevertheless a solid road movie full of humor in which the cast achieve the chemistry and comic timing required for the genre. As a showcase for these idols, the story remains straightforward and simple, but does occasionally dabble in social commentary before rightly and smartly returning to the levity which is its strength. The cast truly appear to be enjoying themselves in their various roles and Kanai effectively uses their strengths along with a visual wit which, thematically, are a far cry from his first feature Again but still displays his penchant for natural, character interaction, only this time through the joyous half of the classic Greek theater masks
As mentioned previously, there were two movies in the Indie Forum from Korea. These were intentionally not viewed in order to maintain a focus on Japanese independent movies and/or filmmakers. Similarly, Fujimoto Akio’s Passage of Life was viewed, but is not included in this article as it was not programmed in the Indie Forum section [impressions of the movie may be published as a blog post]. Special mention must also be given to Japan-based filmmaker, Ansul Chauhan, whose Bad Poetry Tokyo netted star Iijima Shuna the Competition Section’s Best Actress award.
Overall, this year’s Indie Forum was a solid line up from experienced directors such as Yuasa Noriko, Hirohara Satoru, Yazaki Hitoshi, and Kanai Junichi while Jimbo Yoshimasa is an Indie Forum alma mater. However, the movies which left the most indelible impressions were from directors making their feature-length or narrative debuts: Takayama Kohei, Takeuchi Yosuke, Kogahara Takeshi, and Hayami Moët, attesting to the fact there is always a diamond in the rough to be found and lending credence to the importance of film festivals and film festival sections dedicated to independent movies; not just as venues for talent discovery but continued encouragement to these filmmakers to keep creating interesting, original stories through their unique voice.
For those would like to know more about the Osaka Asian Film Festival, the Indie Forum section and more, be sure to read the 2017 festival report which provides an in-depth background of the event’s roots as it relates to local independent cinema.