The 2020 Osaka Asian Film Festival took place under the shadow of COVID-19. Though at the time of this writing (April 7th, 2020) the Japanese central government is preparing a state of emergency in seven prefectures, Osaka itself had already been dealing with rising cluster infections and stricter protocols since early March. The organizers made the difficult choice of holding the festival due to immutable commitments, but cancelled scheduled symposiums, social events, and most importantly post-screening Q&A’s. Concerns about COVID-19 aside, scheduling once again prevented personal attendance this year, but thanks to the festival’s press relations representative and with the cooperation of the filmmakers, the 2020 Indie Forum lineup could be evaluated through remote viewing.
The 2020 Indie Forum offered a lineup with common themes of self-identity, broken families, and social anxiety. Whether or not the programming staff intentionally chose to select movies around these themes or this year’s entrants were primarily focused on such issues, it is clear filmmakers are reflecting a contemporary Japan being affected by divorce, social media, economic inequality, and uncertainty about the future. However, what is also on display is a diversity of stories through which each and every filmmaker expresses themselves in their own distinct voice.
Of the 10 movies in the lineup, only Reiko and the Dolphin remains unseen. If and when the filmmakers get in touch, this article will be updated with impressions of the movie. Following are impressions of the ten titles featured in the 2020 Indie Forum in the alphabetical order they are listed on the 2020 Osaka Asian Film Festival website.
Bleached Bones Avenue
Fujimoto Akio returns to OAFF after his Passage of Life was presented as a special screening in 2018. In Bleached Bones Avenue Fujimoto introduces a group of Zomi men in the Chin state of Myanmar as they ready for a day of labor. Practicing a hybrid of Christianity and local spiritualism, they pray to the mountain gods for protection as they begin the work of digging up the bones and paraphernalia of Japanese soldiers who lost their lives during a notorious battle which killed as many Myanmar people as Japanese.
Though 75 years have past since the end of the war, the scars still remain, both on the land and within its people. Older Zomi make sure to pass on their experiences when the Imperial Army encroached on their region. Stories both harrowing and horrific remind the young of the true cost of war, even for those not invested or involved. Rightly so, the young men on the work detail ask why they should dig up the remains of people who treated them so poorly. And the sad truth is there is work to be had as a result of a Japanese government program which allows the Zomi people to start these “recovery” ventures. In so doing, however, the work will perhaps allow these young men to physically touch the past and gain an understanding of the unimaginable stories told by their elders. Related with almost cinematic-like framing that appears more narrative than documentary, Fujimoto’s latest is an intimate meditation on the long lasting echoes of war from the viewpoint of people who did not directly participate in battles, but the horrors of which must always be passed down to future generations.
University student Rei is a Philosophy major, but she is different from her peers. Quiet and introspective, she doesn’t as much intellectualize her studies as she does internalize them prompting her classmates to accuse her viewpoints as being too “emotional” and less “academic”. Therefore she is deeply driven by her studies to examine her own life as she nears the presentation of her thesis. Hamlet may have pondered “to be or not to be” and Descartes argued “I think therefore I am.” Rei’s thesis on the other hand posits: “is there anything that is not compared to anything or anyone, and just is?” In other words, is who we are defined by association to or with other people? This could be the philosophical conundrum of the modern age in which the number of people on a “friend list” or “engagement” on a video or photo seem to be validating people’s existence.
Beyond the social implications, For Rei is a thoughtful character study which may paint its heroine in a less than favorable light, but nonetheless humanizes her plight. Rei is a confused young woman consumed by her own philosophical musings. She ultimately is someone who feels things very acutely to the point it hinders her desire to feel and creates mixed emotions when she must admit that there are personal relationships which do and must define who we are. Whether you are someone’s child, or as one grows older someone’s lover and ultimately someone’s spouse, from early on people are identified in tandem with someone else. Or in terms of parents, the very DNA that is shared. One way this is illustrated in Rei’s case is her sudden attempt to reconnect with her estranged biological father. The encounter is pleasant and civil, but it’s clear Rei is uncomfortable. It only takes an utterance from her father likening Rei to her mother–an innocent comment said without ill will–to disappoint Rei who quickly sours on the thought of spending time with him. The second example is her life with her boyfriend Nakamura. Unsurprisingly their relationship is passionless, so much so Rei calls him only by his family name. They may live together, but their lives are quite distant. In a pivotal moment, it becomes clear to both neither is sure why they’re even together.
The question is whether Rei is unwilling or afraid to love either her father or Nakamura solely for the reason that she refuses to be defined in this manner. Is she liberated by this defiance or ironically paralyzed by her fear? Director Sakamoto Yukari leaves no clear answers as there is certainly none in Rei’s case. We last see her running in the dark, with every effort, but unsure of where she’s even going.
It is often said people ultimately resemble their parents. Beyond outward appearances, children will pick up behaviors or habits from either their mother or father, for either good or ill, and often unconsciously. “Things learned as a child stay with you forever.” Sakura, the protagonist of Miyazaki Aya’s Good-bye, is told these words by her superior at a day-care center where she begins to work after quitting her 9-to-5 company job because it bored her.
Despite being untrained in child care, Sakura performs her duties with a natural ability though obviously with feigned enthusiasm. In this way Sakura resembles her mother who raised Sakura by herself. She is kind and her relationship with Sakura is congenial, but it is also apparent parenting was more a duty she had to fulfill. As Miyazki’s script reveals further layers about their relationship and history through their oddly detached interactions, the audience learns at some point Sakura’s mother was absent for a time and Sakura was cared for by her father. There’s certainly more than enough clues in her life at home to suggest growing up in such an environment Sakura was certain to emulate her parents in one form or another. At the same time, Sakura comes to know Shindo, the father of a young girl at the day-care center, and is inexplicably drawn to him though the scent of the same brand of cigarettes her father smoked may be a subconscious factor. Her encounters with Shindo reawaken distant memories which overlap with Shindo and his daughter’s situation. Despite not knowing her father very well, Sakura becomes more attracted to Shindo while at the same time seeing herself in his daughter. Her deepening attraction to Shindo seems to mirror the psychological premise describing how people’s tastes in romantic partners are drawn from early impressions of those closest to them at an early age. Shindo’s daughter admires him very much. And equally so her mother who seems to have left them alone for a time. That is when Sakura has a moment of realization. Not only is she and her mother more alike than she may be aware, but she may also be an agent in perpetuating the cycles which also led to the fractured shape of her own family.
Miyazaki’s movie profiles a young woman at the crossroads of taking charge of her destiny. Yet it also highlights the extent people’s identities are tied to the influence of their parents whom some may admire, some may follow in the same footsteps, and some may rebel against. Becoming independent of them is perhaps a major step toward becoming adults, but being like them may be an irrevocable part of human nature.
Kishi Kentaro’s thoughtful short is the story of a fractured family. A mother, Momoko, and her new American husband with his own son arrive in Japan to take her daughter, Kanae, back from her mother-in-law who has been caring for Kanae ever since Momoko’s husband Kentaro died in the Middle East. This creates generational cultural, and familial rifts that at the start seem unsurmountable.
At it’s heart Hammock is about the bridging of different worlds and/or cultures. From the divisions Kentaro witnessed in the Middle East as a photo journalist to these two families who suddenly see one another as strangers, Kishi’s script is not about highlighting difference, rather the effort required to bridge those gaps. Specifically, the movie shows the importance of taking the initiative to communicate, understand and see the issue from the other’s standpoint. The American father does his best to break the ice with Kanae using warmth and humor, understanding how disorienting the sudden developments may seem to her. And Kanae herself eventually reaches out to her soon-to-be stepbrother by teaching him the traditional Japanese memorial rites. However, bridges are not built overnight. It takes time. Even then, there is still work to be done to find resolution. Reaching out is only the first step.
As this family begins to make those first steps together, the painful choices required to move forward must still be made. Yet unless someone makes the first movie there will never be any progress. Hammock thus becomes an intimate microsm for the issues of division in the world at large which earned it the festival’s Housen Short Film Award.
The Modern Lovers
Eternal youth has been a prevalent theme of human existence and thus pervades its fiction as well. Beyond the fantasy or sci-fi inclinations this often engenders, “eternal youth” could also be applied to who we are or we dream of being. Shimoyashiro Atsuro’s The Modern Lovers takes this route in dealing with the desire to be “forever young.”
The story revolves around Tatsuo and Marina, formerly a couple in their university years who continue to see one another thanks to a sentence handed down by Marina when Tatsuo broke up with her then. Not that Tatsuo minds at all as meeting Marina allows them to continue their trysts indulging in kinki sex and frivolous distractions as if there is no tomorrow. Keeping up their past connections has allowed them not to move on; until life ultimately forces the decision upon them. Tatsuo, once an aspiring filmmaker who won an award for his script, is expecting his first child and works a regular sales job at his in-law’s company; sometimes paired up with his brother-in-law who covers for Tatsuo when he meets Marina. Meanwhile Marina, Tatsuo’s once muse, is also with someone having resolved love and marriage are two separate things especially with her chance to have a child running out. But having given up on his dream still gnaws at Tatsuo which is why seeing Marina brings him some form of joy–a chance to act like the possibilities are still endless; that he can still dream of going to Cannes with his movie. “Modern love” is perhaps a counter reaction to a society which places importance on pragmatism over daydreaming and prioritizes stability over risk.
Therefore the modern lovers seek to hold on to their “true love” which may not be just a person, but also an ambition or passion. Their struggle to resist the pressures of settling for dissatisfying life choices when settling down is perhaps indicative of “modern times.” The Modern Lovers is thus a wistful cautionary tale inviting the audience to question whether they are doing what they truly love. Or as the movie closes, literally asking if they are on the right road.
The Murders of Oiso
Misawa Takuya’s slickly directed movie is a working-class noir that plays like an allegory for the top-down society of Japan. In the small seaside town of Oiso, you’re either Ito Construction or you’re “little people.”
The Ito Construction Company is the town’s biggest company and as such the town’s largest provider of public service and revenue, so much so politicians arrive at the funeral of its patriarch who dies in an “accident.” Their position in the community bestows upon the family a level of prominence, which equates to power, which equates to leverage, which allows the company to get away with minor criminal schemes on the side. Kazuya, the patriarch’s nephew, understands this all too well as he rules over his small crew made up of guys from his high school class, never letting them forget the status working for Ito Construction gives them. A bully his whole life, Kazuya is the product of his family’s prominence; a person who believes–actually knows–he can get away with most anything. This make it difficult for the others to leave the crew, and even when a member does, that person is still subjected to the occasional shakedown. Like samurai retainers of old, or even politicians of today, sticking with someone destined to rise to the top guarantees one’s future. One member understands this and asks the others to be loyal to Kazuya which is all he ever truly demands. Nevertheless two make moves to go on with their lives if only they could get away from Kazuya’s influence. The only thing that could upend Kazuya’s grasp on power is a scandal, be it the aforementioned “accidental” death, domestic problems within Kazuya’s own home including his father’s debts, or Kazuya’s own illicit behavior. A community no longer holding the Ito family in high regard would spell a downfall from their life at the top. Therefore influence is essential–the influence money does buy perhaps to the moral quandary for those involved. There is no scandal if no one speaks of it. This is the reason why the Japanese text spelling out “murder” are scratched off the title both in the movie’s title sequence and the poster. Nothing really happened.
Unspooling like a gangland thriller with a palpable taut mood, The Murders of Oiso shows what happens when an affluent, influential family is allowed to get away with anything, but thankfully the members of which are still vulnerable to their own vices. The narrative earned Misawa the Indie Forum’s Japan Cuts Award and will be screened in New York when life returns to normal.
On the Edge of Their Seats
The summer national high school baseball championship is a cultural event in Japan, a festive celebration of youth, school spirit, school pride, and the bonds of friendship & family. The purity of the sport is on full display as young boys play for nothing more than the prestige a championship or even a berth at the tournament brings their school while at the same it is an exhibition of the sacrifices they and their families have made over the years.
Jojo Hideo’s On the Edge of Their Seats is an uplifting coming-of-age movie set during one of the regional qualifying games. Based on an award-winning play by a high school theatre group, all the action occurs in the stands without ever showing a single scene of baseball play just as the stage production was performed. Jojo does, however, expand the setting further to take advantage of the cinematic format without losing the core elements of the play. Almost all of the main cast from the original stage production resume their roles of the four teens in their final year of high school as they converge in the stands for a game they have been told to attend for the team’s sake. “Your cheers and encouragement will warm their [the players] hearts. That’s how friendships form. That’s the essence of baseball!” a zealous teacher implores them. Over the game’s nine innings the four classmates’ personal disappointments are revealed as they learn there is value in effort even if the outcome is not what was expected or desired. Giving up on one’s dreams only after initial setbacks is the real defeat. But equally perilous are the justifications to convince oneself quitting was the right choice, or that nothing more can be done about one’s situation. However, people are brought together by this common experience. Therefore voices of support can bolster people’s fighting spirit when the odds seem insurmountable. And by the same token, a defeatist attitude can be just as infectious.
On the Edge of their Seats is that rare movie which captures the essence of youth at its most vulnerable, but also at its most exuberant. By the ninth inning, the young characters are on the edge of their seats caught up in the spirit of fraternity across genders, cliques, and rivalries while the audience is buoyed by a captivating narrative about its young characters’ growth.
Reiko and the Dolphin
The Great Hanshin Earthquake struck in the early hours of January 17, 1995 irrevocably changing the lives of many residents of Kobe, Japan. Set against this backdrop, Imaoka Shinji’s Reiko and the Dolphin is a gentle look at what happens to ordinary but flawed people when they are visited upon by misfortune. Specifically, the movie contrasts the responses of its two main characters, Ichiko and Tasuke, as they attempt to respectively move on from losing their daughter Reiko.
When the quake strikes, Ichiko is at a love hotel with her lover after having left Tasuke with Reiko earlier that day. She will immediately seem like a bad mother and a poor wife, and certainly as the story progresses it seems the loss of her daughter has barely affected her as she carries on without pause. However, underneath the facade Ichiko feels she is somehow due to pay for that day; believing her steadily worsening eyesight to be divine punishment. Her cheery and amicable disposition belie her avoidance of her loss. Instead she seeks to somehow replace those experiences with new ones. She charges forward as if trying to outrun her regrets. On the other hand, Tasuke was with Reiko when their home collapsed though he had stepped outside his home for a stiff drink as Reiko slept within. A genuinely good natured person at heart, he struggles with letting go of his loss. The survivor guilt he feels weighs on him heavily. He decides to abandon his dreams of becoming an author and instead travels across the country from one temporary job to another. Yet he is able to hold on to his his good-natured though still mild-mannered personality throughout the years, never once showing signs of resentment or anger toward Ichiko. In fact, he seems intent on regaining what he once lost. His periodic run-ins with Ichiko show him making overtures to her toward reconciliation. She, as well as a stuffed dolphin, are his only remaining connections to Reiko.
Their individual dilemmas can be summed up in the movie’s Japanese title, “Reiko Iruka.” Essentially a pun, “iruka” is the Japanese for “dolphin” but “iru ka” is a phrase meaning “is it there” or “is it needed.” Therefore the title can either be asking “Reiko are you there?” or “Do you want Reiko?” The former could be ascribed to Tasuke’s desire to regain what he lost while the latter confronts Ichiko with her transgression as a wife and mother. Imaoka portrays these two as taking different paths which meet at a point the road to reconciliation actually begins. Spanning many years and buoyed by a warm, colorful cast of neighborhood characters, Ichiko and Tasuke do make it through life and rebuild just as Kobe has done since that fateful morning.
Miyazake Daisuke’s black and silver Videophobia is an atmospheric examination of voyeurism in the digital age as it sinks heroine Ai, played by Hirota Tomona, down a rabbit hole of personal anxiety over just who she really is.
An aspiring actress, Ai is a picture of contrast. Though striving to work in a profession which places her before the gaze of people, she chooses to work beneath the anonymity of the local shop district’s rabbit mascot costume. And yet the opening scene shows there is an uninhibited side to her belying her shy, introverted image. This is pointed out by the caseworker who deals with Ai’s report about an apparent hidden-cam footage of her having sex uploaded to an internet porn site. Subsequent uploads seem to indicate on the other hand a more participatory role by Ai with camerawork suggesting a third party was present. There is obviously a stark disparity between her memory of the events and what looks to have actually happened. It’s as if another “her” exists. As Ai’s grip on certainty slowly slips from her grasp she steadily becomes unable to shake the feeling eyes are always on her, and not just by security cameras or the like, but viewers also watching her “self” on the videos now forever viewable on the internet (despite police claims to have them taken down). Her paranoia, for lack of a better word, underscores the pitfalls of leading a life one show’s to the world and one keeps in private. Which begs the question: can they ever be kept completely apart? In this manner Miyazaki highlights how social media has made voyeurism a transactional affair. People are becoming personas revealing and opening up more of their personal lives to complete strangers on a daily basis more than ever before. Terabytes of photos and videos–including media uploaded for nefarious reasons or purposes–allow engagement in wishful thinking, fantasy, envy, and even a form of violence through which followers/audience and persona perpetually feed off one another. Not even Orwell could have predicted the kind of interactive surveillance society that is so commonplace today and how this engenders a fracturing of identities on either side of the screen.
Miyazaki’s skillful sourcing of classic filmmaking of this genre brings to the fore a modern psychosis revolving around the identities people must maintain to interact within real and virtual societies. More importantly, Videophobia questions whether it is even possible without taking extraordinary measures to retain some semblance of privacy in a world where there are always eyes watching someone, somewhere.
The Woman of the Photographs
Kyoko, a former ballerina and now Instagrammer under contract with a cosmetics company, struggles to stay relevant to her audience. The extraordinary extremes she puts herself through to do so literally causes her to fall into a loner’s life in Kushida Takeshi’s artful and imaginative assessment of beauty in the digital age.
That loner, a taciturn photographer named Kai runs a small photo studio but spends a large portion of his time retouching profile photos to people’s liking. Modern technology does allow pictures to tell a very different truth as in the case of one woman who becomes obsessed with the process. Kyoko attempts to reason with her woman-to-woman but to no avail. The woman places more importance on how people outwardly perceive her; that image becomes a truth with which she will merge. In other words, if “beauty is in the beholder” used to mean each and every person has a different sense of beauty, perhaps it may now mean a person is beautiful so long as that is the image held by others. “Old photography didn’t hide secrets or defects,” says the widowed proprietor of a neighboring funeral parlor (whose side story is quite touching), but admits old photography is not necessarily better. He thinks modern tools are convenient and that “a good lie can make people happy.” This prompts Kyoto to question her ongoing uploads as assisted by Kai who retouches out the wounds of her fall. When she presents her “true” self, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. But the reaction only fuels Kyoko’s desire for more likes and comments to the point she fears what will happen once the wounds heal. Thus, Kyoko becomes as obsessed with her public perception as the woman who repeatedly returns to have her photo retouched. In Kyoko’s case, beauty is now in the eyes of the follower. Her saving grace unexpectedly becomes the solitary Kai who over the course of the movie comes to love Kyoko as is and reawakens in himself a renewed passion for photography, for the creation of something true rather than the fabricating of a lie.
Kushida’s story may unfold in a fanciful manner and its characters may seem like caricature, but these contribute to its success as a modern parable. The Woman of the Photographs holds a funhouse mirror up to a society now too accustomed to the beauty filters and retouching apps as a reminder of how such tools have warped people’s assessment of beauty. And as a result warped people’s sense of happiness.
The impact of COVID-19 on the interactive element of the moviegoing experience was unfortunate, particularly with regards to the Indie Forum lineup. The above impressions intentionally skirt around filmmaking or storytelling techniques in order to remain focused on conveying the themes of the movie. However each of their filmmakers utilize symbolism, allusions, composition, visualized internal monologues, and editing to forward their movie’s themes which certainly would have been the topic of Q&A sessions. The movies of this year’s lineup in particular were very aware of the nature of their narrative and how their techniques can tell their stroy. Sometimes these decisions can leave audiences with questions which they are able clarify with the filmmakers. Obviously much can and should be left to the audience’s own interpretation, but just as looking at the title of a painting may offer a clue toward understanding the creator’s intentions, asking why Videophobia was shot in monochrome, why Rei is seen running in the dark at the end of For Rei, whether the sound design The Woman of the Photographs is exaggerated to drive home a point, or if there is any meaning to the young boy releasing the pet bird in Hammock among others allows the audience to gain insights which can aid them in enjoying movies in the future. Independent films are by their nature told with a specific voice not meant for general consumption. This does not mean there should never be opportunities for the audience to understand the point-of-view of the filmmakers. That being said, leaving some to scratch their heads or to exit the theater pondering a movie’s developments is precisely what separates independent filmmaking from commercial filmmaking. Therefore filmmakers should never compromise their unique perspectives in order for their work to be more “appealing.” Fortunately, the 2020 Indie Forum section did offer a selection of original stories each with something to say, and also the courage to entertain, inform, and move the audience in their own unique way.