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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Nippon Reviews: Hello, Supernova

Hello, Supernova: Written and directed by Yuichiro Konno.  Starring: Chisei Ushio, Mitsuhara Kobayashi, Azusa Kamimura, and Kaori Ozawa.  Running Time: 88 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Hello, Supernova is one of those singularly unique and personal films that defy any attempt to shoehorn it into a “normal” reviewing format.  It is one of those films that can only be experienced.  In only the second feature film by the director, Yuichiro Konno, Hello, Supernova eschews any form of narrative structure, instead immersing us in a series of seemingly random scenes and long takes, presenting an affectionate tribute to the director's hometown.  

            We follow a handful of normal, yet somewhat oddball, characters through what may or may not be a typical couple of days in a quiet Japanese city.  Their daily lives intersperse here and there, and while there is no indication of deep friendship or kinship between most of them, they nonetheless seem completely unsurprised when one of them re-encounters another, like the people you recognize in your morning bus to work.  It’s as if random meetings are the order of the day here.  Theirs is a universe of peaceful acceptance of the random nature of life.  A few of them are more prominently featured than others; one is a young painter seeking inspiration, convinced that he’s not good enough to draw moving figures until he happens across a chicken; another is a housewife, who decides to wander the city while her husband is away; a third is a woman seeking…people, it seems.  She’s not sure what it is she’s looking for, since she just recently arrived there, but she assures everyone she meets that she’ll know when she finds them.  There are few introductions, and we learn little about everyone's pasts- we are simply placed into this world, with these people, and watch them as they live. 

            In a Q&A following the film, Konno told us that he drew inspiration for the characters in the film from many people he himself has met in the city where they filmed.  He described it as a place filled with individuals that are strange or off-beat in unexpected ways, people who will start up conversations with random strangers about the benefits of ice cream in winter, or stop to re-name someone’s dog.  And none of this is taken as untoward- everyone seems to understand that things like this can happen at any time.  A particular scene comes to my mind as I write this- the housewife, who has spent the entire day and evening wandering, locates an unlocked van with a blanket inside, and curls up to sleep.  That alone would give most people I know pause, but the kicker comes the next morning, when the van’s unsuspecting owner gets in to go to work.  When he realizes what happened, he’s not shocked that he left the car unlocked and that someone let themselves in, he’s shocked it’s happened again

            Konno was also moved to make the film by seeing the effects of the earthquake- and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster- in 2011.  The tremors were felt throughout the city that day, and since then a lot of people have ended up moving to other areas of the country.  These events are referenced only obliquely- one women yells at the painter when she enters, asking him if he felt the ground shake.  And there is a certain general loneliness to be found in the film- it seems to be a decently-sized city, but it looks so empty.  Perhaps these characters are constantly running into each other simply because there just aren’t too many people left for them to run into.  

            It is, first and foremost, an atmospheric film, pulling us into the moments it depicts mostly through the use of moving long takes.  Long takes are often a mixed bag, sometimes working brilliantly, and sometimes serving only to bore; here, thankfully, they work incredibly well.  Why is that?  Why did I find this to be such a great film?  I can’t quite say.  All I can say is that, when the painter enters a bird shop, and the young shopkeeper starts singing a song about lonely stars, shining the sky, I felt myself affected in that quiet way only a great movie can accomplish, beyond words. 

            I could, perhaps, list more specifics of what happens over the course of the movie, but I feel that would merely serve to confuse anyone who hasn’t already seen it.  The scenes are strange, odd, and lovely, all at once.  Perhaps they work because, even though they have no clear connective tissue between them, they feel completely natural and unforced.  We are simply seeing lives, or parts of them, with none of the pretension that there is always some greater narrative driving our actions.  The characters live fully moment to moment, never demanding that there be a purpose or reason for each and every thing they see.  And when the time comes, they simply pass along to the next moment.  Perhaps this is a good template to follow for life in general.  I couldn’t name what it was that I experienced watching this, but an Experience it certainly was, and one I am not likely to forget anytime soon. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nippon Reviews: Further Reflections on The Legend of Princess Kaguya

            When I first saw Princess Kaguya in theaters last year, I was, for a good half-hour afterward, more or less a great, big puddle of tears.  Good art has that effect on me.  It leaves me at the behest of emotions far too great to be controlled, and far too complex and subtle to be labeled entirely “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” “happy” or “sad.”  When I finish a masterful film or piece of music, I know I have experienced Something, Something that I may never be able to vocalize.  This is probably fitting, since much of life is so completely personal as to be utterly beyond any form of expression or sharing. 

            On the third day of Nippon Connection this year I had the particular pleasure of seeing Kaguya on a big screen for the second time, an afternoon billing.  Seeing a great film multiple times over the course of one’s life is an immensely beneficial exercise, not least because, the more you see or experience a work of art, the more you notice more and more of the smaller details, the finer touches.  Such experiences become deeper and more fulfilling as a result, turning what could perhaps just be casual entertainment the first time around into a moment of intellectual and spiritual renewal by the 10thThe Legend of Princess Kaguya, I was pleased to confirm after a repeated viewing, will be no exception to this. 

            I already wrote a full review for the film last year during its normal theatrical release, so I will not revisit the entire film, but I would like to offer some more thoughts on one aspect I touched upon only briefly in my original review.  Specifically, how this movie, despite its origin story being over a thousand years old, carries within it some powerful messages for our own societies regarding tolerance and social norms.  Within the bounds of the story, this specifically relates to male/female gender roles, but they can just as easily be applied to the realms of race, ethnicity, religion, culture, sexuality, and others.   

            Let’s look at what really drives the plot- a father, raised in a specific culture, with specific norms and expectations for both men and women, is granted the gift of parenthood by the Heavens.  He glimpses the greater Divine in this, but is never able to ride this stream to an awareness beyond his day-to-day life.  As a result, he simply assumes that, because all he knows is a very specific ideal of what makes a “proper” father, and what the “true happiness” of a woman is, his desires for Kaguya must be what she desires, and he then simply does it, effectively forcing both Kaguya and his wife (who also, according to the customs she was raised with, relegates herself to a quiet, subservient role) to go along with it. 

            This deeply hurts Kaguya, but in ways that only slowly become clear.  Denied her true friends and loves by her father, who is in the end merely a conduit for the larger social and political expectations he represents, she has to repress her own outgoing nature time and again.  This makes her surly and unhappy, and ultimately leads to her withdrawing from others.  The culmination of her pent up anger and energy is her lashing out at the suitors, challenging them to such an extreme degree that two end up financially ruined, one nearly dies at sea, and another actually dies in their efforts to satisfy her. 

            This leads her into a spiraling whirlwind of guilt- she is obviously not responsible for the chain of events and the acts of hubris that led to the suitor’s death, but because her pushing them was the immediate cause, and because the world around her says it is her own fault she refused its image of what she should be in the first place, she takes all of the blame and guilt upon herself, and falls into a depression.  Even then, the pressures of society don’t let up.  When even the highest human power in the land, the Emperor himself, comes to her and also says that she must give in to what others demand of her, the final dice is cast.  She is forced into a place of such voiceless despair that she instinctively seeks the fastest way out, and leaves the world and her life behind forever.  While I have no evidence to offer that either Takahata or the original writer of the tale intended for it to be a story about suicide, the parallels are rather uncanny.  Kaguya is born into a world that holds a single image, a single, absolute ideal of what she should want, and what she should do, but that is so radically different from what she is that she literally can’t remain here. 

            The natural response to all this is to point out that the father does all this from a place of love- in a lesser film, he would be the irredeemable monster of an antagonist.  We would only see the moments of him being gruff, or overbearing, or demanding, or angry, or purely selfish (in numerous scenes, it’s clear when he says “your happiness” to Kaguya, he clearly means “MY happiness”).  But that’s not all there is to him, and we see that.  His love for her is, at its core, as pure as Kaguya’s love of laughter.  It shines through him when he looks at her. 

            But that is not enough.  The road to Hell is, after all, paved with good intentions.  And it’s when we look at Kaguya and her father side by side that we see the real depth of commentary in the film on the dangers of holding on too tightly to long-standing cultural or social norms.  It is not just Kaguya who is ruined by the unattainable demands of society, it is her father and mother as well.  Each of them have a purity in their souls that is caught in an inescapable spiral simply because they inhabit worlds where the society around them demands, incessantly and unceasingly, that they bend and wrap their love around artificial pillars of absolutes regarding how people, all kinds of people, “should” be.  However, it is not the traditions or customs themselves that are damaging- there is no effort in the film to suggest that the acts Kaguya is forced to go through are, in and of themselves, bad- it is the slavishness with which people cling to them and take them for Truth that causes harm.  It is not in having social norms that people get hurt, but rather in how we demand that others, ALL others, conform entirely to them, and then react with anger, offense, and even violence when they don’t. 

            In an era like ours, where movements for gender, racial, and sexual equality gain strength the world over, where true religious tolerance is being demanded in more and more nations, and where more people are daring to speak out against our old, arbitrary, one-or-the-other gender and sexual divides, this makes Princess Kaguya more than a mere fairy tale.  It allows it to offer powerful insight into how a society can intentionally stifle some of the best and brightest in its midst, how clinging to some traditions without challenging or assessing them at arm’s length can hurt others far more than any deliberate act of malcontent could.  It is this depth of possible interpretation that, more than anything else, elevate The Legend of Princess Kaguya to the level of truly great art, a creation both timeless and remarkably timely, a work that, I hope, will be remembered and talked about for generations to come. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Nippon Reviews: Appleseed Alpha

Appleseed Alpha: Written by Marianne Krawczk, directed by Shinji Aramaki.  Starring: Yuka Komatsu, Junichi Suwabe, and Aoi Yuki.  Running Time: 93 minutes.  Based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. 

Rating: 1.5/4

            Appleseed Alpha, both in terms of its animation style and its story (yet another World War happened that resulted in a bombed-out, apocalyptic future), comes across as less of a film and more like an unskippable cutscene in a video game that lasts an hour and a half.  Sadly, since it ultimately fails to do anything new with the materials it takes from other sources, or cover it up with enough comedic brevity, your time would probably be better spent playing an actual video game. 
            It is…sometime in the future, and human society has been driven to the fringes in their efforts to survive the fallout of a devastating conflict some years prior.  We never learn any details about the who, the what, the where, or the why that led to the war that caused this, but it was apparently bad enough that the bombs turned the currently hilly and forest-filled East Coast of the US into the Badlands.  I know it’s the East Coast we’re seeing, because we learn almost immediately that the shell of a city the film starts in is New York, and the maps we are shown later on when the characters go elsewhere indicate we are just a little southwest of Manhattan Island in the final act, which means that the big, explosive finale must take place somewhere in New Jersey.  If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Camden. 

            The city, and probably the rest of the world, is divided up between various local gang lords, although rumors persist of a peaceful and prosperous haven city called Olympus, located somewhere…..else, from what I gathered.  Some of these leaders are cyborgs, including a rejected Reboot villain named Two-Horns (guess what his defining physical feature is?) who bosses around our two mains, a young woman named Deunan and her cyborg friend (who may have once been her human boyfriend?) called Briareos, who, with his armor-covered, muscular form and kangaroo-like antennas for ears, looks suspiciously like Chappie’s linebacker older brother

            They agree to a single, last job for Two-Horns to repay their debt, stopping off first at the residence of the gang doctor, Matthews, to get Briareos fixed up.  Said doctor bears a striking, and some might say plagiaristic, resemblance to Wash from Firefly, both in terms of his design and in how nearly all of his dialogue consists of smartass wisecracking.  The difference being, of course, that Wash’s smartass wisecracking is both genuinely funny and emotionally endearing, while Matthews’ is neither.  Somehow, it never occurs to Deunan and Briareos that he might be under orders from Two-Horns to deliberately keep Briareos underpowered, but since the film opens with them making the grave error of using the New York subway system, I can’t say this shocked me.   

            Their mission, of course, goes incredibly awry, and they end up harboring a young girl and her bodyguard/escort from a powerful team of cyborgs chasing them to stop their “mission,” which, naturally, eventually pulls Two-Horns into the action as well, which just might result in him, Deunan, and Briareos trading in their usual mutual antagonism for a quick alliance of convenience.  You only get three guesses as to what the little girl’s mission consists of, but if you already suspect that it has to do with a leftover superweapon from the aforementioned global shitstorm, congratulations!  You have seen at least one other dystopian, sci-fi action film in your life!  You get nothing. 

            I must admit, when all the pieces are finally in place for the big action set piece at the end, involving a cyborg martial artist and the aforementioned doomsday weapon fully loaded and moving, the result is very nearly enough to justify the first two acts.  It’s some well-animated action that doesn’t bore, but even there it utterly fails to give us anything new- even the moving, city-sized weapon looks like an exact hybrid of Howl’s castle and the mechanical spider from Wild, Wild West.  It’s even taken down video-game style- there is a single opening, which can only be hit by a certain kind of sniper rifle, and that is somehow enough to bring the entire behemoth down.  Oh, what will kids these days think up next?    

            Ultimately, there is nothing so offensively bad about Appleseed Alpha that causes me to actively dislike the film, but its complete lack of originality in every department, even the good parts at the end, prevent me from recommending it to anyone, even those who play the kind of games the movie so eagerly mines from.  Perhaps the next animated, post-apocalyptic adventure tale we get based in New Jersey will be a little better.  Why not have one set in Trenton? 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Nippon Reviews: -1287

-1287: Directed and filmed by Ian Thomas Ash.  Running Time: 70 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Each of us needs to face our death.  Not that we ever want to.  No one likes to think about death, especially their own.  It is, in every sense, the ultimate reminder of the impermanence of life and the world around us.  And yet, since we all must die eventually, we have no choice but to face it, sooner or later.                   
            For Katsuko, this time came when her doctor informed her that her cancer had returned.  She was first diagnosed years earlier, but an operation seemed to have removed it well enough that she hadn’t expected it to come back.  Sadly, this turned out to not be the case.  The title of this documentary about her final years, -1287, refers to the 1,287 days that passed between the re-diagnosis of her doctor and the day of her final departure. 

            This was not a planned film on the part of the director, Ian Thomas Ash (who won the Nippon Visions award two years ago with his previous film, A2-B-C).  As he explained to us in a Q&A session after the screening, he had known and been good friends with Katsuko for some years prior to this, ever since she had become one of his English students.  After she informed him that she was once again sick and would definitely die within a few years, he began to film her intermittently and do some small “interviews” with her, but at first he only intended for these recordings to be for his own personal recollections.  It was only later on that the possibility of a film about her began to take shape in his mind. 

            It is at least partially because of this that -1287 does not at all resemble or match most people’s expectations of what a typical biographical documentary should look like.  There is no structured or detailed run-through of Katsuko’s childhood, of the highs and lows of her marriage, of what sort of work or adventures she had (or wanted to have), or of what her children did and are doing now- in fact, with the brief exception of her doctor, no one else in her life, family, friend, or otherwise, is seen or heard from.  She talks occasionally about things she regretted, or that made her happy, but it’s just pieces.  What we get instead are a series of moments, most of them clustered within the last 6 months of her life.  Nothing more, nothing less, just moments of a person at the end of her road in this particular life. 

            This is, of course, a direct result of how the footage in the film came into being- not through the intent of creating a narrative or capturing a particular message, but simply through the desire of the director to claim a few, small moments of a dear friend’s life for memory’s sake.  He certainly could have tried to retroactively interview friends and family, or do his own narrations about what he knew of Katsuko’s earlier life.  Doing so could certainly have told the audience more facts about the women they see on-screen, but it would have drawn away from the real focus of the film, which is simply to present Katsuko as she was, and not some all-encompassing picture of her.  It would have standardized what is, in the end, a very powerful example of intensely personal filmmaking. 

            The straightforward presentation of these moments leading to Katsuko’s death is broken only at the very end, right before we see her body after her passing.  We jump back to one of the first conversations Ian had with her, one where she admitted her unhappiness in her marriage, and her occasional regrets at not having had the chance to leave her husband after her children’s births to find someone she could have truly been in love with.  She is not bitter, or angry, or resentful, or sad, merely thoughtful and direct.  When Ian is finished with his questions, she comments on how good it felt to be openly honest about such personal matters for once.  And then says, and here I am translating very roughly from memory, “That’s all over now.”  She’s clearly referring to that day’s filming session, but by taking this single scene out of the timeline and placing it at the end, Ian has given it a quiet symbolism of its own- it’s as if Katsuko is looking back and commenting on the entirety of her life, at peace with the fact that it is soon going to end.  In the next scene, she is dead, and lying in state. 

            As powerful and moving as it is, this is not necessarily a film for everyone.  Its atypical structure and the occasionally wandering nature of the conversations shown may bore or frustrate some accustomed to only seeing films or documentaries with “points” to be made.  And the topic of death, especially the slow, wasting kind of a sick family member, is a subject too sensitive for some to see so directly and without embellishment.  But those who can open themselves to the film, and to the small, tucked-away nuggets of wisdom to be found in what Katsuko has to say, will walk away with a lot to think about and wonder at.  I know that was certainly the case at my screening.  This movie went on to win the Nippon Visions Audience Award, one of two awards decided by audience ratings, and when it was announced I was not in the least bit surprised.  -1287 is a wonderful piece of documentary filmmaking, beautiful in the singularity of its subject and its purpose, and was one of the best films I had the pleasure of seeing at Nippon 2015. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Nippon Reviews: Hakoiri Musuko no Koi (Blindly in Love)

Blindly in Love (Hakoiri Musuko no Koi): Written by Takahiro Tamura and Masahide Ichii, directed by Masahide Ichii.  Starring: Gen Hoshino, Kaho, Ren Osugi, Ryoko Moriyama, and Sei Hiraizumi.  Running Time: 117 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            When attempting to make a romantic comedy, possibly one of the most conventionally popular forms of film in existence, there is only one, single criterion that must be fulfilled; the writing, characters, and performances of the main couple have to be earnest, committed, likeable, and relatable enough for us, the audience, to root wholeheartedly for them to succeed and come together by the end.  Away with demands for a creative story, original setup, or side characters that break the expected mold!  None of that matters, because in a romcom, no one expects originality, just simple heart throbbing.  If the main couple works, and in some measure set themselves apart from the legions of wannabes clawing at their heels like the undead, the movie will work.  If they don’t, no insurance company will cover the cleanup of the ensuing dreary disaster. 

            Thankfully, not only do the two lovebirds in Blindly in Love work as a couple, they work blindingly well.  I immediately apologize for that terrible joke.  Anyway- Kentaro is a recluse, working the exact number of needed hours at his job every day, and then going immediately home.  He makes no push for promotion or advancement at his place of work, he never eats out, never goes drinking with colleagues, and generally has no contact with anyone at all outside of his parents and their very intrusive neighbor.  His only interests are saving money, playing video games, and tending to his pet frog.  Worried that he will never learn to interact with people, make friends, or fall in love, his parents play the part of the matchmaker and try to set him up with the daughter of a well-off couple they meet.  What they don’t know, at least until they take their son to meet her face-to-face, is that the girl, named Naoko, has been blind for many years.   

            Naoko’s father, playing the part of the asshole wet blanket we’ve seen an endless number of times before, is, of course, completely against this, arguing again and again that Kentaro is not man enough to take care of his daughter (and, of course, his own idea of masculinity is called into question later on).  Naoko’s mother, of course, sees more to the young, shy man they meet, and she secretly begins arranging lunchtime meetings between the two, and over time their affection for each other develops into real love, which delights Kentaro’s parents to no end.  Until, of course, the other father finds out, and sets off determined to keep them apart forever. 

            And that’s really all the time worth devoting to the story, because let’s be honest, none of it changes the formula, and none of you expect it to.  What does matter is that Naoko and Kentaro commit wholly to their respective roles, and their efforts, plus some smartly-timed comedy, create a genuine cuteness to the film that most viewers will find hard to resist. 

            Kentaro’s transformation is particularly fun to watch, especially in the beginning where he’s flabbergasted at his parents’ ceaseless efforts to get him to date someone; they even resort to challenging him in video games when their desperation reaches a fever pitch.  He starts off with a face of emotionless stone, with a countenance not dissimilar to that of the frogs he loves so much, but once he starts to let his feelings grow, he begins to break out seamlessly into laughing and smiling faces that radiate true joy.  It’s a very contained performance, with a few key exceptions, but that’s ultimately what makes it feel real. 

            That pet frog of his, by the way, is also the source of several bits of clever cinematic foreshadowing- in one example, the scene where Kentaro finally agrees to go out on a date with Noaoko, the camera suddenly focuses on his frog sitting in its cage behind him.  We had already seen it several times over the course of the film, including in the opening shot, but for the very first time up to that point, its eyes are open. 

            If I had a grievance, other than the very standard structure to the story- the only trope they studiously avoid is having a coworker of Kentaro’s come on to him and create a brief, heartbroken misunderstanding between the two, and even there they veer perilously close- it would be a relative lack of actual comedy.  This is a disappointment only because the bits they do have are timed perfectly, and laugh-out-loud hilarious.  A particular moment involving a mistaken identity at a restaurant nearly had me fall out of my chair.  More such moments could have raised the film to a whole other level.  But for what it is, I wholly enjoyed it, and wouldn’t hold back a recommendation to anyone. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nippon Reviews: Watashi no Otoko (My Man)

My Man (Watashi no Otoko): Written by Takashi Ujita and directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri.  Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Fumi Nikaido, Tatsuya Fuji, Kengo Kora, Moro Morooka, Aoba Kawai.  Running time: 129 minutes.  Based on a novel of the same name by Kazuki Sakuraba. 

Rating: 2.5/4

***a minor spoiler warning for the following review is in place.  I will try to avoid specific plot details, but an accurate account of my thoughts requires delving into some major story turns***

            My Man is the most deliberately unsettling moviegoing experience I’ve had since Finsterworld enlightened me on the many baking applications of human skin.  It starts off darkly enough, with our two main characters finding each other in the devastating wake of a tsunami.  Soon, however, it slowly sinks itself into a quicksand of moral depravity and mental collapse that only thickens around the viewer as the running time stretches on. 

            Said main characters are a young man, Jungo (played by Tadanobu Asano) and a small girl, Hana (Fumi Nikaiko), each seeking to rebuild their personal lives in the wake of losing their families in the aforementioned tsunami (at least I assumed it was a tsunami- the film keeps this plot point rather vague).  He picks her up, claims her as his daughter despite the warnings of his close friend and associate Oshio, and they drive off into an endlessly dark night, a clever bit of cinematic foreshadowing.  As the shock of the day’s horrible events wear off and reality sets in, the girl starts to cry and shake, and Jungo takes her hand and promises that, no matter what, he is hers, forever. 

            Following this prophetic declaration, we jump ahead roughly 10 years.  Jungo and Hana live in a small coastal town known for the seasonal ice drifts that pass by every year.  Jungo is dating  a relative of Oshio’s, and it seems like they are looking to get married, until her worried suspicions about exactly what sort of relationship Jungo and Hana have are all but directly confirmed, in a vaguely threatening manner, by Hana herself, and her resulting confusion and heartbreak leads her to skip town for Tokyo. 

            At first, this seems to indicate that our story is about Hana’s attempts to assert complete dominance over Jungo’s life (because he is, after all “hers forever”), but soon after this we see that the twisted psychological and (see spoiler warning above) sexual attractions at play here go both ways.  Since their growing emotional and physical obsession with each other is something that, obviously, most people would find morally repugnant, this leads to each of them taking increasingly violent measures to ensure no one knows or finds out about them, eventually causing them to leave town for Tokyo as well, and then even there having to move around constantly to avoid detection. 

            This is one of those movies that brushes right up against my own personal moral code, so it’s more difficult than usual to separate my reactions to the film as a film from those to the idea of the relationship the characters have to each other.  Both the movie and the characters themselves acknowledge that most people see them as being deeply sexually perverted, but they don’t care about that, only about each other.  Is there perhaps a goodness in that regardless?  Can that excuse the brutal ways in which they defend each other from society’s accusations?  When they finally begin consummating their relationship, the world around then literally oozes blood, as if they are embracing all the destruction that is about to come. 

            The movie doesn’t answer any of the questions it raises for us, and it is at its most affecting when it simply sits itself down and lets the uncanniness of what we are seeing surround us.  It affected me in a negative manner, but then again I think that partially the point.  I almost wish I could judge the movie solely on the merits of how well it utilizes music, setting, and the camera to create its own unique Uncanny Valley effect, but there is a plot here as well, and it starts to break up in focus towards the third act.  While I get keeping the focus on their relationship, there are some jumps that only distract from that- somehow, Hana has a normal job at a prestigious firm some years later, and apparently also starts dating other boys, although a brilliant final scene suggests that, for her, there will always only be one person she can truly claim.  But how things came to this final moment is left unexplained, which requires a particularly frustrating suspension of disbelief.  We have seen both of these people commit terrible crimes- was absolutely NO ONE in the police following up on any of this?  A key piece of evidence comes into play as a plot point long after it was relevant, and based on what we know, it is something that should have been discovered immediately, yet somehow wasn’t. 

            While I can understand that minutiae is not what the film wants to focus on, ignoring such gaping holes only detracts from what is otherwise a powerfully-made film, one that will leave an impression regardless of whether or not you love or hate it.  I can’t recommend it to everyone, knowing that many will be turned off automatically once things turn, shall we say, kinky.  But there is more than enough strength in its acting and some small, yet inspired, bits of directing and camerawork that made me glad I stayed to the end. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Nippon 2015: The Daily Dispatches

Day 1-

            The underground stations are the usual mix of crunched bunches of people, clanging electrical sounds, and smells of questionable origin.  Stress from that day’s work at the office still claws at my limbs, dragging me down like so much detestable ballast. 

            How lovely to be free for the evening. 

            The bright, blue sky is striking as I climb the stairs out of the exit at Merianplatz.  I follow the hanging, pink posters and turn right, heading past a full block before the recognizable signposts appear- on the left side of the street, a large tree whose genus and species I can’t identify (my mother would be ashamed), already carrying the deep-green dress of summertime, and on the right, an Indian restaurant, around which the heavy scent of mixed curries sits like a force field. 

            Just after this, the red arch appears on the right, fronting a tall and oddly-shaped brick building- the Mousonturm.  It is evening on 2 June, 2015, and I have finally arrived at the first day of Nippon Connection, the Japanese films festival now celebrating 15 years since its inception. 


            I file in with the others for the festival’s premiere film, My Man, by director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, and starring the recipient of the first-ever Nippon Honor Award, Tadanobu Asano (who unfortunately could not accept the award in person, having come down with a “fever”).  But before we could get down to the main business, of course, everyone had to be thanked, and who better conditioned to hand out countless thanks than a bevy of local politicians?  On it went, speech after speech, volleys back and forth between the art directors opining on the beauties of one day being paid to pursue an artistic endeavor like Nippon, and the politicians reminding them that money is good, “but enthusiasm is better.”  The eternal dance of the artistic and the economic. 

Day 2-

            The epicenter of all guest-relations activities during the course of the festival- which is a quite a task considering the number of actors, directors, students, and experts in various fields brought in each year- is located in the 5th floor of the Mousonturm, in a spacious white room whose size in no way counteracts the brutality of the heat and humidity that usually kicks in just before the week of the festival.  Long wooden tables held together by green metal poles are set up in two rows, where guests can relax away from the crowds and the teams overseeing their schedules freak out about what to do with them before, during, and after whichever premieres or workshops they are there to attend.  The window in the hallway leading from the stairs to the room itself provides a great view on a clear day of the distinct tops of the Frankfurt skyline a little ways away, as well as the looming bulk on the other end of the city of the new European Central Bank headquarters. 

            I stopped by there briefly to greet my girlfriend and friends that will be holed up there all day, every day, before heading to Mal Seh’n Kino to catch a late showing of one of the highlight films of this year.  Sadly, luck was not on my side, as everyone else had the same idea I did, and there no more spaces left for my sorry ass by the time the reserved tickets had all been ripped.  The evening, much to my sadness, ended in failure. 

Day 3-

            Mal Seh’n Kino sits tucked away behind a row of bushes like a secret, local Italian eatery, a good 15+ minute walk north from the center of Frankfurt.  The first entrance leads to what looks and feels like an enclosed garden patio.  Walk through the second entrance to the left, and you find yourself in a small-yet-cozy café setting.  Drinks and accompanying prices are etched in chalk onto the stairs leading to the toilets, like snippets of graffiti extolling us for our petty change (unless you want a beer, in which case the change is not so petty).  The ceiling is high and made of wooden beams, with a few hanging fans that are less than useless in humidity like today. 


            Given its size, the room easily fills when a movie is being shown in the small blackbox of a theater, and today was no exception.  For each of the 3 screenings I attended, the line stretched well out over the front steps and ramp.  The workers on duty were, thankfully, more than up to the task of managing us, and each filing in and out was handled without a hitch. 

Day 4-

            Nippon employs one other facility for film screenings in addition to the Mousonturm and Mal Seh’n Kino; the Naxoshalle, essentially an abandoned warehouse just across the street from Mousonturm.  When Nippon is in town, the resulting mixture of old industrial and garishly colorful (bright pink has always been the calling color of the festival) could easily make one think the place had been overrun by a squatting community theater troupe. 


            After skirting the construction site to find the entrance, passing by several barred doors on the way, you look left and see some situated tables, a tee lounge, and an information desk, covered by light from glittering chandeliers hanging from the brick ceiling.  To the right is the main ticket booth for anyone who didn’t reserve beforehand, which sits under a wall of antler racks, because of course it does.  In front of the entrance lies a row of food and drink stands, as well as the stairs up to the curtained screening room set up for the festival. 


            After the day’s screenings, each of which were in the Naxoshalle, we closed out the evening with a karaoke competition for staff members in the first-floor bar in Mousonturm, just to the left of the entrance and screening room.  While there were a couple of strong singers who entered (and won), the night was easily carried by a horridly-sung-yet-gloriously-choreographed version of Waterloo by two men who redefined what it means to throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care.  It was a delicious spectacle, the sort of occurrence for which karaoke was invented. 

Day 5-

            When you go through the central doors leading to the Mousonturm, below the red arch, one of the first things you notice is a long origami table present for the entirety of the festival.  It is covered in square sheets of paper for practice, and a handful of instruction guides on how to make a basic paper crane.  While there are usually at least a few workshops where guides show visitors how to make other, more intricate designs, the table lies open from morning until night- anyone can come and go and try their hand at as they please.  A camera above the table constantly projects an overhead view onto the white wall to the left, right near one of the entrances to the theater.  When looking at this, you see quite clearly that the tape markings covering the surface of the table form the words “Nippon Connection.” 


            Much of the afternoon was devoted to a workshop for animation, led by Yuichi Ito, a professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts.  We were divided into two groups and sat at tables littered with crayons, paper, and play dough.  After showing us some clips of a stop-motion film he himself recently made, he gave us all a total of an hour and a half to think up a concept for a very brief stop-motion film of our own.  The concept we had to focus on was a Japanese word, “tsukumogami.”  Translated for context, it refers to a longstanding Japanese legend that physical, man-made items come to life after they are 100 years old.  We needed to think of an object, any object, and devise a short tale of it coming to life in some way.  The topics selected ranged from hammers, leaves, and electrical sockets all the way up to the Earth and Sun themselves, and the resulting smorgasbord we threw up on the screen at the end made for some fun viewing. 


            It is late Saturday evening, and I am sitting at the origami table drinking Apfelschorle.  Above, I can hear (or rather, feel) the pounding of a Japanese band playing in an upstairs room.  The sound rises and falls accordingly when someone opens the door to leave or enter.  I am experiencing the goose-bump sensation I have been waiting out the whole festival for.  I’ve finally seen the sort of fantastic viewing experience I had been seeking, and it was worth the wait. 


            Eventually, I tried to brave the concert upstairs, but only made it halfway through.  Upon entering, a wave of body heat and the strong smell of sweat, made exponentially stronger by the fact that the windows legally had to stay closed, struck me like an onrushing train.  I give myself credit for trying though.  And it ended up being more than worth it when I left, saw the director of another favorite film of mine at the festival hanging around, and had the chance to chat with him for a bit before heading to a friend’s house to pass out for the night.  All good things come only when you open yourself to the possibilities of life. 

Day 6-

            Last days are always a bitch.  Merchandising and food stands that had always been full to overflowing throughout the earlier days of the film are now slowly emptying as the attendants sell out the last of their wares.  This is, of course, most tragic to see in the case of the food- I am still miffed that I missed out on one, final chance to enjoy a certain bear-head-shaped pastry filled with vanilla crème.  But the festival is not over until it’s over, and I still had a workshop and two more film screenings to enjoy! 


            First up, an Aikido workshop.  For two hours, rather than focus on more advanced, formal techniques, we worked with two masters on basic posture and balance techniques to allow one to always remain in control of a fight.  From here, I skipped over to a final film screening of a documentary by Ian Thomas Ash, who won the Jury Awards a mere two years ago with his last film (like with the others, review to follow).  After this, I had a few final, quiet hours with friends in the guest room, eating a last few morsels of delicious Japanese food. 


            I am sitting in the main screening room, awaiting the start of the awards ceremony and the final film of the festival, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter.  I am in the middle of the first row of normal seating, right behind the four front rows reserved for guests, sponsors, and directors up for the different awards.  The directors of Hello, Supernova and My Man, both of whom I was able to meet during the festival, are a few rows in front of me to my left, and in the row before my own to the right, I spot Ian Thomas Ash, the director of -1287.  The lights are starting to dim.  The ceremony begins. 


            Interesting results this year!  Ian won once again, this time taking home the Visions Audience Award for -1287.  I was pleased by the news, but not unsurprised, since I was at the only screening of the film and it was clear most were very moved by its quiet portrayal of a woman fighting a long a losing battle with cancer.  I can’t offer full opinions on the other two winners, as I did not have the opportunity to see them; The Cockpit, a documentary about the making of a hip-hop song, took the Visions Jury Award, and the audience-awarded Cinema Award went to Uzumasa Limelight.  Full congratulations are, of course, deserved by all. 


            I am standing up and stretching after the final credits of the last film screening of Nippon 2015 have rolled.  I feel a sense of appreciation and gratitude that I could close out the festival with a trio of great movie experiences in Pale Moon, -1287, and finally, Kumiko.  I am sad as well- another year must pass before I can experience all of this again.  This tiny world created within a mere 6 days has finally slipped out of existence.  Tomorrow it will be back to the usual day-to-day.  But at least I’ve made a few new friends, and have new memories and new great films to share with others.  Which is why I go to Nippon.  And it’s why there can be no proper thanks that fully repays the many volunteers who make the festival for the time, sweat, tears, and on occasion blood they devote to it.  I am profoundly grateful for the past 6 days. 

            And, ultimately, that’s all I can really say now. 

-Noah Franc