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Monday, June 10, 2013

My Weekend at Nippon

          It was an immense pleasure to spend most of this past weekend at Nippon Connection, a Japanese film festival held annually in Frankfurt am Main.  Since its inception in 2000, Nippon Connection has grown into a major cross-cultural event in the heart of Germany, now drawing as many as 16,000 people a year.  Each festival is a six-day smorgasbord of cultural events and activities, centered around the German (and sometimes world) premieres of a wide swath of Japanese films, ranging from the light-hearted and whimsical to the dark and depressing. 

            In previous years, the festival was held primarily at Bockenheimer Campus, but this year the festival moved for the first time to a series of buildings in the northeastern sector of Frankfurt, with its base of operations in the Mousonturm, near Merianplatz.  This year featured 21 live-action features and 8 animated works, along with assorted other short films, documentaries, tributes, and mini-series.  Cultural events included a karaoke night, questionnaires with featured filmmakers, a manga-drawing class, a cooking class, a kimono class, a swordsmanship class, and a Zen meditation workshop.  Sadly, that last one was the only event my work schedule (and wallet) allowed me to take part in. These cinematic and cultural experiences are loosely divided into four categories; Nippon Cinema (for traditional movies filmed on celluloid), Nippon Visions (for films produced digitally), Nippon Culture (for the cultural activities), and Nippon Kids (various activities and movies specifically for the children in attendance).  

            Nippon provides the sort of multilingual, international experience that I absolutely love seeing- German natives, local Japanese expats, and visitors/guests from all over the world conversed interchangeably in German, Japanese, and English.  The various programs, ads, and flyers were also trilingual.  Movies were screened primarily in the original Japanese with English subtitles, and were also introduced by the organizers in English.  The biggest hubbub, as stated above, was in the Mousonturm- stands sold assorted Japanese drinks and foods (my favorite dish was Onigiri, rice-balls stuffed with various meats), along with merchandise from major manga and film franchises.  Little Japanese hand-fans were freely available.  Tables sold the shirts, DVDs, soundtracks, and other souvenirs that help make Nippon a possibility.  The second floor of the building featured a massive WiiU gamer’s corner (which I did not have the chance to try out, sad to say). 

            Special mention must be made of staff at Nippon Connection, who all volunteer their time freely to help organize and run the week-long event.  Their friendliness and their dedication to making the festival function added immeasurably to the memorable atmosphere.   

            In addition to providing a wonderful experience overall, Nippon also lets those who attend the screenings rate the films eligible for one of the top prizes of the festival- the Nippon Connection Award for the most popular film within the Nippon Cinema category.  The NCA this year was awarded to Key of Life, which, for reasons I will delve into in my full review of the movie, is currently my new favorite film of 2013.  Another prize, the Nippon Visions Award (presented by a jury), was awarded to Ian Thomas Ash, an American resident of Japan, for his documentary feature A2, about the aftereffects of the Fukushima meltdown.  Winners of this award receive receive free English subtitles for their next film.  The third award, the VGF Nippon in Motion Award (financed by VGF, Frankfurt's main transportation company), was presented to Michael Herber and Liwen Shen for their 12-second short.    

            I was personally able to view four of the films presented at the festival- The Life of Budori Gusuko, Key of Life, Asura (pronounced “Ashura”), and Thermae Romae, movies about as far apart on the spectrum of theme, mood, and content as it gets.  Since all of the films were quite interesting, and some of them absolutely fantastic, I have dispensed with my initial plan to just write mini-reviews for them and will instead give them each the full-length reviews they deserve.  Stay tuned. 

-Noah Franc 

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