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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.