The 2019 Indie Forum section at the Osaka Asian Film Festival presented 10 movies this year, four fewer than 2018 due to fewer short movies in the program. Though the official description touts 7 features and three shorts, one of the features is technically a “mid-length”–again depending on whose standards one subscribes. There were four world premieres and two Japan premieres including the first domestic screening of Demolition Girl which first bowed at the Slamdance Film Festival held simultaneously as Sundance. The enticing lineup certainly beckoned, but an unexpected personal commitment prevented a journey to the festival itself this year. While this negated a firsthand experience, the yearly Indie Forum coverage, a definite fixture on Indievisual, need not be interrupted. With the assistance of OAFF staff, online screeners were requested from the individual filmmakers or their sales agent.
At the time of this writing only Okinawan Blue had yet not responded. If and when the filmmakers return a reply, this article will be updated. UPDATED: The Okinawan Blue filmmakers have been in touch and provided a screener. Find the write-up below.
Showcasing a range of works of unique stories across a range of subject matter, the 2019 Indie Forum lineup continues to underscore the variety of ways to tell those stories which is the very heart of independent filmmaking.
Matsugami’s movie is a brilliant upending of the “teen angst” genre. Whereas the genre has come to be defined by movies depicting teen self-decadence born out of a malaise they perceive about an uncertain future, Demolition Girl portrays teen angst as actual anxiety brought on by familial problems and societal conventions. Cocoa is an average high school girl who is hopeful hard work and dedication will lead to a better future. As the heroine of Demolition Girl, she becomes a modern-day folk hero of sorts, less Jean d’Arc and more Rosa Parks in her struggle to live as she wishes. Surrounded by deadbeat men–a father who has been freeloading off government benefits and an aimless brother wallowing (while also freeloading) at home–Cocoa is the one taking her responsibilities seriously. However, the only work she is able to get which pays her enough to also keep up her studies is anonymously starring in fetish videos sold on DVDs. That is not to say she is doing so to take care of her family, rather she wants to be free of them. The other teens in this movie–all girls–are also determined to elevate themselves beyond their situation even if their goals aren’t quite clear. They are sure that not working toward one is a far worse situation. But this determination is challenged. From her immediate family, her teachers and school principal, to the guys dealing in those fetish videos (for men), men are by design depicted as good-for-nothings according to Matsugami during the post-screening Q&A. Through setback after setback Cocoa is rendered as strong-minded, self-reliant, and possessing a sense of principle. She chooses when to model for the videos and draws the line at what she does. She rejects a substantial handout which would fix her problems because of its nature and source. Then in the movie’s climax, she literally stares down male domination with courage, smarts, and a little luck. These actions may not have solved her problems by closing credits, but by attempting to be the master of her own fate amid such patriarchal underachievers, Cocoa consequently emerges as a young symbol of “grrrl power”.
Such a character and story might have easily become maudlin if not for Kitai Aya’s sympathetic and truthful portrayal of Cocoa which grounds the positive message of Demolition Girl . Her performance garnered her an Outstanding Acting Award honorable mention at Slamdance 2019. Of course, kudos most also be bestowed upon Matsugami for his rather original script and cinematic yet unembellished direction. The result of this collaboration between capable actress and director is a 21st century Japanese female role model which was awarded the Indie Forum’s Japan Cuts Award.
Nakanishi Mai’s Hana is a well constructed horror short making effective use of the moodiness and camera techniques which have come define Japanese and Asian horror. Eerie soundscapes and uneasy camera angles and framing ratchet up the tension as the story unfolds. In general terms, the movie technically delivers on what has come to be expected from the genre. Where Hana shines is its rather disturbing notion and what it has to say about modern society. The movie’s main through line speaks to the loss of connection, both physical and emotional, of modern workers especially the sacrifices made by women to succeed in today’s society. The career-oriented mother is too busy to personally devote time to her daughter who only longs for love and attention as any child would. Her actions which are depicted in sinister context with respect to Sujin, are only impish enticements to play. The final reveal would have been an effective climax, but the truly disturbing denouement comes afterward when the mother is as cold as the decor of her luxury apartment in the matter-of-fact way she continues to deal with her daughter. Ultimately, she seems to be the one who is “dead”. At 13 minutes, Hana leaves one wanting more. Thankfully, Nakanishi is developing the story to a feature-length with Eric Khoo which will hopefully focus and expand on the mother as much as Hana is featured for the scares.
Nunchaku and Soul
The “grand competition” is a plot structure seen often in movies whereby the protagonist or protagonists develop throughout the course of the story as the individual or group prepare for and ultimately compete in a sporting tourney or some type of competition proving mastery over a skill. For the most part, the outcome of these types of movies can be readily predicted (as their goal is to entertain). Whether or not they are victorious, the protagonist’s journey wins over the hearts of the audience. Koba Akiyoshi’s Nunchaku and Soul mostly stays within this convention. However, there is a simple joy found in his movie which seems to draw from multiple influences in telling its story of two middle-aged men attempting to define their lives when their youthful dreams begin to grow more distant. Numata earned the nickname “Nunchuck” as a child after he became enamored with Bruce Lee’s use of the weapon. Once dreaming being the hero, he is now a middle-aged restaurant manager whose only talent is the use of a useless weapon in the modern world. Meanwhile, Soma is a divorcee who fronts a funk band. Performing on stage is all he’s ever aspired to, but his band is breaking up as the members move on with their adult lives. These two very different men are brought together by a dance contest through which Numata initially hopes to win the affections of a woman and Soma hopes to upstage the young b-boy dating his estranged daughter.
Koba’s story and direction convey a love of the format. There is a real affection for his two lead characters. There are no “clever-than-thou” plot twists nor overwrought villainy at play here. And while a few of the supporting characters are somewhat cookie-cutter in function, their interaction with Numata and Soma help throw their respective situations into relief. Numata, in particular, is genuinely endearing. He has come to realize where he is in his life and wants to make an effort for real change. As mentioned earlier, the initial motivation to join the dance contest may have been to woo a woman, he ultimately sticks it out to overcome a childhood trauma. Meanwhile, Soma’s “Peter Pan” dreams caused the breakup of his marriage, but from the moment his teen daughter reappears in his life, Soma doesn’t miss a beat in being a father. What both men learn from one another is the importance of living life in your own way and not to be embarrassed or apologetic about it. Overall, Nunchaku and Soul is a carefree movie unpacking what the Japanese call the “otoko no roman”, or men’s romantic pipe dreams, for a heartwarming tale of mid-life crisis.
The Okinawan islands are certainly beguiling for their pastoral landscapes and rural idyll. While these may all be on display in Kishimoto Tsukasa’s Okinawan Blue through the cinematography, the true focus of the movie is the unique traits of the Okinawan people’s character from their warmheartedness and a strong sense of community, to an easygoing outlook on life. The movie opens with an elderly woman and a young man dancing in front of the Full Moon Hotel. The viewer will either smile or furrow their brow at this odd morning ritual, perhaps indicative of the viewer’s own disposition at that time.
The Full Moon Hotel serves as the hub for three loosely overlapping stories about family. A foreign couple arrives on the island only to be subjected immediately to “island time” as Yuhi, the young man from Full Moon Hotel, is late picking them up. Neither the couple nor Yuhi and the granny speak the other’s language. The language barrier between them does not prevent “communication” however as genuine kindheartedness and hospitality come through even though the actual meanings may be completely wrong. This mismatched dialogue is some of the movie’s most humorous moments. Next, a fugitive father and his girlfriend return to the island in order to take back the son he abandoned five years ago. Their interaction with family highlight an islander sense of “doing right by one’s family or neighbors”, though one not rigidly set in stone. A visit by the granny from the Full Moon Hotel to the police station further underlines this strong sense of community. But “doing right” also means owning up to your mistakes as Yuhi scolds the father before reassuring both everything will work out fine. Finally, the relationship between a boatwright and his stepdaughter are put to the test when the mother leaves both of them and the island, the scandalous circumstances of which everyone on the island are aware. Having moved to the island 16 years ago and becoming an apprentice to a traditional boat builder, the boatwright perhaps most embodies the soul of the island community; a keen understanding of the importance to not rock the boat further. And like his daughter–the spunky, tomboyish mechanic often seen scolding Yuhi–he wants very much to repair rather than dispose of something damaged.
By smartly weaving the characters amongst each story, particularly Yuhi and the granny, Kishimoto gives these stories narrative cohesion. This enables him to portray with sincerity and humor both the idyllic and imperfect qualities of island life. As a result, the viewer is able to sample the vibrancy of Okinawan culture and by the end may even feel like dancing themselves as well at life’s small triumphs.
The confusing emotions and social machinations of which high school life is fraught are the at the center of Sayounara, a rare gem taking a sophisticated look at teenage uncertainty amid the torrent of Japanese coming-of-age movies depicting fairy-tale romances or tearjerking tragedies. Though there is a romantic element in the story, it is not what one expects. Though there is a death in the movie, its purpose is not to elicit tears. Instead, director Ishibashi Yuho has chosen to depict teens as the fickle, cliquish, and often duplicitous creatures they are. To accomplish this, she anchors the story on the experiences of the protagonist Yuki, played quite sensitively by Imou Haruka (who also stars in Demolition Girl and one other movie at OAFF2019). Yuki’s life is thrown into disarray, not just by the loss of her childhood friend Seto, but by the ripples it sends throughout her classmates and what it stirs up among the people around her. Tears and sympathy at Seto’s funeral begin to dissolve into disparaging whispers. For her part, Yuki is unable to tell what is real or not. A private moment between Seto and herself one afternoon revealed she may have never known anything about her. Who was she really? The question itself becomes applicable to everyone around her. As the movie progresses Ishibashi realistically paints a portrait of the vapidness of teenage interaction. No one seems genuine. A smile and kind words here, turn into snarling insults there.
Imou is skillful at portraying the quiet turmoil within Yuki. She effectively conveys Yuki’s isolation as she drifts through the movie alone after Yuki becomes ostracized by most of her classmates, yet is immediately charming when Yuki is neighborly with another childhood friend; obliging toward a stranger dropping a load of groceries; and caring toward a classmate who falls victim to her own efforts to fit in. Nevertheless, she remains evasive when asked about Seto. Too many questions are left unanswered about that fateful afternoon. Ishibashi uses this as an opportunity for a touching vignette in which Yuki is able to ask those questions to Seto. What kind of closure this provides to Yuki is ultimately left to the audience, but it possibly reveals there was a side to herself Yuki was denying. The title of the movie “Sayounara”, which most westerners know as meaning “goodbye”, is actually a romanized spelling for the Japanese characters which mean “if that’s true” and is part of a passage recited by Yuki at the opening and at the close of the movie by a chorus of characters from the movie. It’s underlying message is for young people to get passed the noise of everything untrue and to be honest, to others and to oneself. In the age of social networks, Sayounara perhaps also has something larger to say to non-teens as well.
There is a figure found in almost every city in the world; a colorful character who comes to symbolize that place and is as much loved as looked upon with reservation by residents and visitors alike. In Tokyo’s Shinjuku, that character is the “Shinjuku Tiger”. Sato Yoshinori, whose Her Mother was screened at OAFF 2017, directs this documentary aiming to shed a little light on the masked figure who can often be seen nonchalantly cruising through Shinjuku’s thoroughfares bedecked in his signature ensemble of colorful clothing, stuffed toys, and of course a tiger mask. The camera follows Shinjuku Tiger through is day, from delivering newspapers early in the morning, to going to Shinjuku’s several cinemas. On his way, passersby are captured as they gawk, laugh, appear perplexed and take pictures of the oddity coming toward them. Though the public may give him a wide berth upon sight, Shinjuku Tiger is a local celebrity, a fixture to many of the people who live and work in the area.
Narrated by actress Terajima Shinobu, the documentary is divided into Shinjuku Tiger’s three essential passions: cinema, beautiful women, and dreams. He is an avid viewer of movies, any kind, and can often be seen in major cineplexes and arthouse theaters. The camera captures him drinking at bars with the many “loves” of his life, lesser known actresses and artists with whom he has become enamored for their beauty and authenticity. The quite talkative Tiger–often unintelligible the more drunk he becomes–is allowed to be himself and Sato rightfully remains unobtrusive. Surprising most of all is how quickly Shinjuku Tiger decides to unmask himself. Pragmatically declaring: “I can’t drink with my mask on,” he reveals his face because the woman with whom he is keeping company and the spirits he is drinking take precedence over maintaining his secret identity. In that sense, it becomes clear Shinjuku Tiger is not a “character”. It is a lifestyle for this man in his 60s. The second half of the documentary attempts to delve into the reason he became Shinjuku Tiger but ultimately fails, fortunately, to unearth anything concrete. Asked directly by one of his “loves” he is both evasive yet surreptitiously honest. His decision to become Shinjuku Tiger is strongly tied to the student protest era of which Shinjuku was an epicenter. As a result, he has not only come to symbolize the history of Shinjuku, but a way of living in one’s own way free of any ideology. Shinjuku Tiger is perhaps the hero Japan never knew it has.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have sparked introspection across society as well as within the film industry, both behind and in front of the cameras. Sisterhood literally takes both these roads in its presentation. Employing only monochromatic cinematography to reinforce its cinéma-vérité, the movie moves through the lives of a number of key characters. The observational quality and the narrative-like structure allows the movie to empathetically touch upon gender issues without being weighed down by reactions to a movie making “a statement”. From a model who questions the lack of secondary use rights within a contract she is reviewing to a young, female musician creating a new song in her home studio, and a university student reconsidering her relationship among others, the perspectives of women attempting to be self-determining are rendered honestly, though in a fictional context. These episodes give glimpses into each individual’s lives with director Nishihara Takashi taking care to keep his camerawork more “onlooker” than “orchestrated”. Genuinely honest exchanges are intermingled among obviously scripted or at least rehearsed scenes. As “fictional characters” they throw into relief issues of equality and life choices without being overtly remonstrative.
Slowly, however, these characters begin to converge and overlap. The model and the university student end up participating in recorded interviews for the fictional director’s new work which is the moment Sisterhood crosses over into a documentary style. As they talk about themselves on camera, the model (real-life nude model Usumaru Manami) and the student (Yamato (California) lead Endo Nina) seem to perhaps be speaking less as their characters and more as their real selves. The stylistic crossover is reinforced by an interview with the musician (musician BŌMI) in which she is heard for the first time putting forth her passionate thoughts regarding being an independent female artist struggling to retain her personal and creative identity. The movie truly blurs the line between narrative and documentary when the director is shown editing this very footage along with the interview of the model in what is perhaps a reveal the new movie he is working on is the very movie the audience is watching. The conceit is fascinating to watch unfold though may have come at a cost of narrative cohesiveness as some characters–as is the pitfall of any ensemble piece–ultimately fall to the wayside. Suffice it to say, the movie’s intent is clear and would benefit on a tighter focus of the central figures. These young women only wish to define and determine their life in their own way, which as women–and women living in Japan specifically–are still often hindered by societal expectations as well as long accepted gender roles. Sisterhood in the very least is an artful way to look at matters that remain under discussed.
There is an almost absurdist play unfolding before the camera in Slowly as a man and a woman, former classmates, go on a surreal journey to carry a tennis umpire’s chair to a tennis court. From the moment their post-reunion party plans are hijacked by assisting a young man deliver said umpire’s chair, the film becomes a meandering sequence of the three of them carrying the unwieldy object for what seems like hours. In fact, this is the danger with which director Fukuda Momoko flirts. The film is deliberately paced, inviting “boredom” to set in. The premise is intentionally ridiculous, making “suspension of disbelief” increasingly difficult as the story moves along. However, that is exactly the point of the Fukuda’s narrative. Careful attention to the man and woman’s dialogue over the course of their journey hints strongly at a past between them. The class reunion had given them an opportunity to reconnect. But at its conclusion, they must go their separate ways again. If the phrase “taking the long way home” describes a less direct way home, this detour offers them the opportunity, as its namesake, to do so slowly in which the “what”, “where” and “how” are not as important, and the why is “just because”.
There are a number of ways the issue of biracial people living in Japan have been dealt, from documentaries with a socio-political perspective, to narrative movies relating their plight as residents on the periphery of a society which paradoxically accepts and rejects them. Kawazoe Bilal’s short does not fit into either category readily. In fact, it could be a rare instance in which the biracial person’s own perspective about their identity are honestly and poignantly captured. The story introduces us to Haruki and Makoto, two individuals who are very dissimilar from one another in personality, appearance, and the way they deal with their biracial heritage. Haruki is filled with simmering resent and displeasure toward Japanese culture’s attitudes regarding “halfs” as biracial people are referred. He feels the stares of people on a train, and is constantly annoyed by the jokes and stereotypes about him based on his appearance. Makoto, on the other hand, takes everything in stride as he deflects the same jokes and assumptions with the wit of a Japanese comedian. Apart from his appearance, he is as Japanese as his co-workers. The movie could take a well-established route of dealing only with these two men’s reactions against the attitudes toward them, but where the movie truly shines is Kawazoe’s atypical approach. The stereotyped comments experienced by each men will find nods of agreement among biracial and foreigners in the audience. However, he also makes a point of taking a deeper look beyond the simple exasperation with Japanese culture in order to reveal both men’s shortcomings. The relationship between the two men and the people in their lives clearly peel back an internal indignity toward their heritage. Haruki prickles at Japanese attitudes toward him as if he sees Japan from the eyes of a foreigner. Makoto is so deft at dealing with the same Japanese attitudes because he defines himself as Japanese. Both attempt to disregard their second heritage. However, it is their other half with which both men need to come to terms. In fact, it causes a rift between them (as a westerner and a Japanese), but also leads to self-introspection. The main still for the movie is a shot of a partial moon. The reason for this becomes apparent as the story develops, but in essence, Haruki and Makoto had once lived with only one part of their heritage in sight. There is another side of them they have either denied or have been unwilling to acknowledge. This other “half” of a greater “whole” is the heart of a very sensitive and thoughtful tale which garnered Kawazoe an Honorable Mention award, the first ever given in the Indie Forum’s history.
The movie opens with footage recording the orientation at a workshop to create a field guide of the flora around Yamaguchi Prefecture. For all intents and purpose, the sequence very much is an authentic course and is as dry as any class orientation. At this point, the movie appears to be a promotional work documenting a YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media) workshop similar to any other local production touting the region’s positive qualities. After three key participants are introduced–Ume, a young university student who seems quite enthusiastic about the program; Take (pronounced: “ta-keh”) a middle-school student who loves science and music; and Shun, Take’s friend who seems to join in just to hangout, the movie proceeds to follow them as they explore different places as part of the curriculum. As the title suggests, the movie is a tour of the wilds of Yamaguchi. Other groups of youths are shown and similarly there are those taking their studies seriously while it is a chore for others. Then, just as one becomes accustomed to the educational video feel of the movie –albeit stylized, it takes an unexpected turn. A love story is introduced and the movie transforms into a full-fledged narrative. Take and Shun seem to have developed a crush on the older Ume. Meanwhile, a young girl in another group seems to be fond of their male mentor who happens to be the ex-boyfriend of Ume. In another aside, Shun turns down a classmate who professes her feeling for him. These seeds of romance showcase the burgeoning maturity of the middle-schoolers and the movie on the whole becomes a deceptively effective coming-of-age work. This should perhaps come as no surprise with Miyake Sho at the helm. The director of Playback and the recently released And Your Bird Can Sing has displayed an inclination for unconventional narratives of human themes. With Wild Tour he creates a snapshot of youth while also making a case for how emotionally developmental experiences can influence young people in ways they themselves could not have expected, which is the very essence of adolescence.
Though screeners were made available for viewing for the purpose of evaluation, watching these on a computer screen certainly drove home the importance of the festival experience. That is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with viewing movies on a computer or mobile device, the function of a movie is to be seen. However, the secondary component complementing the movie viewing experience is the interaction it yields with others, whether it takes the form of a post-screening Q&A, a meet-n-greet between audience members and the filmmakers, or a discussion about the work with fellow movie enthusiasts. Just as filmmaking is a collaborative effort, the appreciation of cinema is also a social endeavor. The Osaka Asian Film Festival and its Indie Forum section allows for this interaction to occur between the audience and works they might not otherwise have an opportunity to see. Programming Director Teruoka Sozo has always stressed the festival’s role in this regard. With Japan Cuts winner Demolition Girl–and hopefully Special Mention award winner Whole–earning a showcase at the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Cinema in New York, Indie Forum is giving these two movie in particular, but the entirety of the lineup as well, the opportunity to meet and expand their audience both at home and abroad, fulfilling both the movie’s function and the filmmaker’s ambitions.