Tag Archives: film festivals


Nine films, three lectures, two workshops, one awards ceremony, and nineteen hours of train travel later, my time at Nippon Connection has come to an end, and I am back into the action-packed swing of the OCS program in Berlin.  I’ll keep posting my reactions to the films and other events over the course of the next week or so (since it is beyond even my blogging capabilities to post on five films in one day, and honestly, who among you, even my most devoted readers, would have the time to read five blog posts in one day, no matter how wonderfully-crafted they may be?), but in the mean time, I’d like to take a few moments, or paragraphs, to reflect on the festival in general.

Karaoke was a nightly event at the festival.

I haven’t been to Cannes or Sundance (facts I hope to change in the not-too-distant future), but I think there is something unique about Nippon Connection.  As a showcase of national cinema outside its nation, the festival’s focus is broader than a mere slate of high-profile films with high-profile directors and high-profile attendees at the events.  Nippon Connection extends itself into a sort of symposium of Japanese culture that centers on film but is not limited to it — so many free lectures and workshops on all things Japanese, udon and sushi and takoyaki available at every turn, a gaming room, tea and sake lounges, constant karaoke each night.  On the one hand, it’s really cool to see a film festival being morethan a film festival, becoming a cultural event — but at the same time, I wonder if by distilling Japanese ‘culture’ into a microcosmic world within the festival, we are limiting a view of Japaneseness to a set of metonymical objects or practices, a sum total of sake, tea, DDR, sushi, and karaoke.

Look! I brought my own chopsticks! How good for the environment.

Taking into consideration the level of collaboration between Japan and Germany in the organization of the festival, I think that both the intentions and the outcomes of this collaborative cultural exploration in the form of a film festival are good.  Whenever we try to define culture, or anything for that matter, we do run the risk of stereotyping, but we cannot abandon classification altogether in a vain attempt to offend no one or to make no distinctions in the fear that all distinctions will be inherently Otherizing.  There is a genuine curiosity and good-will brimming up out of every aspect of Nippon Connection, among the Western and Japanese people involved alike. And this year in particular, there is a solidarity and empathy among all of the attendees to help Japan in light of the Sendai earthquake and all of its many repercussions — Saturday night’s big event was the “Help Japan” party, the ticketing proceeds of which are all going to the relief effort.  There was a campaign to fold 1000 paper cranesfor the victims, and tons of Help Japan buttons were getting sold each day.

Throughout the entire festival, this wall of cranes grew and grew as attendees folded origami in spare time between screenings.

So, I think, this year more than ever, in spite of my intense Said-inspired misgivings about my own fixation on Japan and my projection of this uneasiness onto many Western examinations or treatments of the country and its culture, Nippon Connection succeeds in its attempt to be more than just a film festival.  It engages culture, without boxing it in, and for the year of 2011, it engages that culture in a way that is incredibly concrete — reaching out to a country and a people and a culture in need.  And that, for anything, let alone a film festival, is commendable.


Or, as the title says, I’m still glow-basking.  Last night, I attended a film talk with three of the main members of CALF Animation, a recently formed independent animation collective in Japan.  Beyond being a great discussion and a chance to hear from Mizue Mirai, Doi Nobuaki, and Nagata Takeshi in person, it meant that I was suddenly sitting in a room with two people I have ‘known’ through the internet for ages but have never met in real life.

This light-painting animation by Tochka reveals another facet of the festival - a major focus on raising awareness and relief funds for the victims of the recent crises in Japan.

Although I didn’t realize it before sitting down and pulling out my laptop to take notes, the film talk was being moderated by Cathy Munroe Hotes, whose blog Nishikata Film Review I have been following since I attended the Kyoto Media Arts Festival last fall.  And then, when they opened it up to questions from the floor, JASPER SHARP raised his hand.  I actually wrote in my notes:


He is a major contributor to KineJapan, but more importantly, the mastermind of Midnight Eye, which is basically THE online Japanese Cinema journal/website.  I’ve been reading it for ages, I’ve cited him in papers…so realizing I was within 15 feet of its illustrious author was a bit like seeing Justin Bieber last month, only way more academic and legit.  The excitement one can have over finally encountering the index of someone’s digital self, of seeing someone in real life who you had only ever conceived of through the means of the internet and virtual interactions, reflects in a very interesting way on the post-modern sort-of-dichotomy between digital and ‘real’ selves — or rather, the inescapable intertwining of the two.

So, having seen Jasper Sharp and Cathy Munroe Hotes, now to find Tom Mes, who also runs Midnight Eye and is as iconic in my mind as Jasper Sharp, is one of the jury members for the competing films here.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I’ve got a day and a half left…for SO MUCH GEEKING OUT.

permanent nobara

There was some debate a while back on KineJapan, the worldwide listserv for discussion of Japanese moving image media to which I subscribe, about the accuracy of the translation of the title of Yoshida Daihachi’s Permanent Nobara.  The consensus, as far as I can remember, was that ‘Permanent Nobara’ was indeed the best translation, given that the original title in Japanese was パーマネントのばら, which indicates an intentional Japanization of the English word ‘permanent’, and of course is the actual name of the salon around which the lives of the film’s characters is centered.  As someone on KineJapan pointed out, this translation (and its original) allow for ambiguity in the meaning of the title, and having now seen the film this afternoon for myself, I would throw in my vote for the intentional-ambiguity camp.  (As a side note, speaking of translation, I’m very much stoked to be attending a subtitling lecture and workshop called “Translating Culture and Context” tomorrow evening with Taro Goto, one of the leading Japanese-English interpreters and subtitlers in the world!)

Naoko and her daughter Momo move back in with Naoko's mother, living in the same building as the Permanent Nobara hair salon.

So, to what does the ‘permanent’ in the title of Yoshida’s film refer?  Literally, to the tightly coiled hairdos with which protagonist Naoko’s mother coifs the fishing village’s ladies, and to the name of her hair salon.  Figuratively, to the tensely balanced ideas of forgetting and remaining, of change and stasis that underlie the themes of the film.  And ‘nobara’?  The name of hairstyling mother, and her salon, but if the title is read as ‘Paamanento no bara’, it can translate to something more ambiguous like “the rose of permanence”.  To my Western mind (and potentially to the globalizing Japanese filmmaking community and audiences) this invokes Shakespeare; this invokes Gertrude Stein.  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  The title, then, is the key with which to unlock the meaning of this painfully hilarious yet hauntingly beautiful film, the aporia from which to unravel, deconstructively, the complexity of meaning that fills its frames.

Before I get carried away on a train driven by Jacques Derrida and conducted by J. Hillis Miller, for those of you who dislike post-modernism (although if you’ve made it this far as a reader of my blog, you probably aren’t allergic to it) and are simply interested in how the film was, let me highlight some of the most salient brilliances of Permament Nobara.  It tells the story of Naoko’s return, in the wake of divorce, to her mother’s home with her young daughter, interweaving her own story with the lives of her childhood friends and the women who frequent her mother’s salon.  Think Steel Magnoliasuprooted and replanted in a rural contemporary Japanese fishing village, with a touch of the prodigal son (turned daughter), then given free reign of the diegetic world outside of the hair salon, and free reign of the complex emotions of being human — you get a masterpiece running the entire emotional gamut, from shocked horror to gut-splitting laughter to the tears that were, to completely fail in avoiding the use of clichés, welling in my eyes by the end of the movie.  The film is incredibly well-scripted, and shot with the steady, long takes that both mark it as classically Japanese and recall the idea of permanence that is immediately introduced in the title.  It is also incredibly well-acted, and the ensemble cast of actresses builds a bastion of strong women who persist beyond the varying impermanences of the men in their lives, who find powerful strength in their bonds with one another but also in their individuality.   Coming from a national cinema that has traditionally reflected a less-than-feminist-friendly attitude and arguably oppressive status of gender roles in Japan, this is a refreshing and hope-inspiring piece to see on that front as well.

Naoko's childhood friend Mi-chan (center) shares shochu and small-talk with the older generation at the salon.

I couldn’t find a trailer with subtitles, but you can get a sense of the emotional quality of the film even without words, because the acting speaks volumes:

The analysis that this film deserves is beyond the scope of this post, mostly because I have been up for about 17 hours of train travel and film festing, but I promise to deconstruct it at my soonest available convenience. 🙂

My Personal Ratings for the film…

Acting/Direction: 9/10
Script: 9/10
Lighting/Cinematography: 8/10
Editing: 9/10
Overall: 9/10

donju / dumbeast

If The Rise and Fall… was promising but poorly-produced, Mr. Hide’s Donju (Dumbeast) was a promise made good, and then made great.  A true visual tour-de-force with eye-popping cinematography and a playful engagement of the macabre that is reminiscent of Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, it begins its story of the search for a prize-winning author gone missing with a literal bang: an epically animated train-crash.  A crazed monster charges us down, charges down the train on which an editor is rushing towards the Sumo town where Deko (the lost author) originated.  As the train comes to a halt, the beautiful editor is thrown forward, in high definition and slow motion, only to be cushioned by the shockingly ample stomach of the ice-cream-eating passenger across from her, her glasses flying apart as she is knocked back into her seat and two tasteful and highly-saturated rivulets of blood exit her nostrils to give her something that strongly resembles a mustache.  Once this standard is set, we are never disappointed — Mr. Hide continues to deliver visually-stunning irreverence for the remaining 106 minutes of the cinematic experience.

From right to left, Junko, Eda, Okamoto, and Nora face down the elevator in Mr. Hide's most recent filmic offering.

The basic plot of Donju consists of the repeated attempts of Deko’s childhood friends Okamoto, a policeman, and Eda, the owner of a hostclub gone somewhat to seed, to kill the author in order to prevent him producing more chapters of his serialized novel, the titular Donju, which is a recounting of his two friends’ younger exploits and misdoings.  Despite the many ingenious ways they attempt to ポロス(porosu, a play on the verb for to kill, 殺す, korosu) Deko, he is himself so strangely stupid that he seems to never realize what’s going on.  Chronologically, the film interlaces the inquiries of the editor with live-action and animated flashbacks, until the two trajectories of the present and past finally coincide (I won’t reveal how — this film comes highly recommended, so I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum).

Visually, the use of lighting is exquisite — beyond the pleasingly-crammed frames that fill the film, there are also clear shifts in light quality and style of shooting that guide the viewer to the mood or time period that Mr. Hide is trying to evoke as the film jumps about temporally.  And attention to detail in props and characterization gives the humor and pathos of the piece a puzzle-like interplay of layers of things to be discovered — Deko’s fanny packs and bowties, Eda’s quirkily consistent consumption of milk instead of beer, Okamoto’s cellphone with its Imperial flag design and foxtail charm twice as long as the phone itself, Junko’s exquisitely patterned wafukukimono.  In the post-screening talkback, Mr. Hide described his intention that the different characters represent different facets of Japanese society today — together, this crazy bunch of Sumo town residents makes up a sort of microcosm of Tokyo, and it is precisely through his attention to detail that this is carried out.  The Americanization of Eda comes out in his milk-drinking, the traditionally Japanese characteristics of Okamoto are apparent when we see his cellphone, if only for a moment.  Through these subtle (although I hesitate to call much about this film ‘subtle’…) cues, Mr. Hide deftly creates that visually-alluring heterogeneous microcosm of Japan, opening up that heterogeneity to social commentary and larger thematic considerations.

Mr. Hide, in his signature shades, at right, and his German-Japanese translator, left, field questions after the screening.

Mr. Hide himself is intriguing, a wildcard of sorts.  A mysterious comedian who never removed his sunglasses during the screening, and who every time he was asked to speak, read “Guten abend, ich comme auf Japan” haltingly from where he had written it on his hand.  He himself characterizes a globalization of Japan that we can see reflected in the heterogeneous microcosm of the film — born in Dusseldorf, educated in Japan and America, simultaneously a Japanese and a global citizen.

Like The Rise and Fall…, the gender roles in Donju are quite fascinating, particularly in how they are revealed in more subtle ways: how the sumo scenes are shot, or the institution of the host club itself and the attitudes of characters towards, or even the 3 second nod to the notoriously promiscuous photographer, Araki.  In anticipation of many more films to come this weekend that treat on this subject, I can feel a nice (BIG) analytic post brewing…

Tadanobu Asano, who has gained fame in Ichi the Killer and as Mamoru Arita in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s haunting Bright Future, also does a fantastic turn as Deko.  But beyond its great cinematography and engaging script and performances, Donju raises some deeper questions about human relationships and the afterlife through the ever-useful mode of humor — what kind of world do we live in when two men will go to any means to kill their friend, but when the killers are lovable and laughable?  Perhaps Donju is a ghost story, and Deko’s hilarious persistence to live speaks more deeply to a persistence of man — to stay alive in the truest sense of the word, through his connections with his fellow men.

My Personal Ratings for the film…

Acting/Direction: 9/10
Script: 8/10
Lighting/Cinematography: 10/10
Editing: 10/10
Overall: 9/10

If you were in attendance, weigh in below!

the rise and fall of the unparalleled band

The first film I decided to see on Wednesday evening was a new offering from young director Hiranami Wataru, whose previous work Scherzo (2008) was screened at Pia and whose upcoming filming Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (2011) will be released this year.  This was the international premiere of the film, so Hiranami-san and lead actor Tsuchiya Takeshi were in attendance to introduce the film and field questions after the screening, through a Japanese-German translator.  (Thank god I speak Japanese; as they say, mein Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut.)

From right to left: actor Tsuchiya Takeshi, German-Japanese translator, and director NHiranami Wataru.

I was of course immediately struck by the utter Japaneseness of Hiranami-san and Tsuchiya-san, who seemed mildly embarrassed before the room full of anticipation and sounds of Japanese beer bottles clinking, and who bowed incessantly throughout their introductions and answering sessions.  This kind of “Oh look, Japanese people being Japanese” observation will undoubtedly lose its novelty as I grow re-accustomed to the demeanor and body language that tends to accompany the Japanese culture, and it’s probably just a factor of my recent deprival of most things 日本的 (nihonteki, or ‘Japan-like’), and the odd but fascinating experience of re-encountering that foreign yet familiar culture in a country that is halfway around the world from East Asia, yet is equally foreign to me.  In fact, I feel more comfortable being at Nippon Connection than being in Germany at large.  This is an interesting example of how concepts of uchi/soto become subjective in the face of shifting contexts — just as how during the Q&As I laugh during the original Japanese answers, and am lost and quiet during the German translations, when the locals around me and chuckling appreciatively.  In reality though, since my understanding is nowhere near the level of native, I exit more in a liminal space of being Western but not German, Japanese-speaking but not Japanese — in this encounter between Germany and Japan, I am in some ways uchi to both groups, and in some ways soto to both groups, which affords me an interesting position as critic, observer, academic, and lover of Japanese film.  I’ll be working through feelings of both alienation and inclusion over the next several days, but it’ll be interesting and mildly post-modern, so bear with me.

Nippon Connection seems to be characterized by an intensely pink attention to detail this year.

But now to the intended topic of this blog post: The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band, or 青すぎたギルティ (Aosugita giruti), which tells the story of a mediocre (fictional) rock band in Tokyo, from their first successful concert to their slow break-up, structured along the 12 tracks of their only record and narrated in oddly broken English by a Nepalese gaikokujin (‘foreigner’).  Think mockumentary meets J-Rock meets student film.  Think This Is Spinal Tap meets Japan.

The members of The Guiltys charge at the camera.

The original title directly translates to “The Guiltys that were too blue/young/fresh”.  My first reaction was to wonder whether perhaps it was not the only the film’s fictional band, but it’s executors who were ‘too young’.  From the opening shots, I felt a mild resistance to the aesthetic of the film — it felt very much like a student production, giving the sense that it had funding to match (a fact that Hiranami-san did acknowledge in his introductory comments).  But about a third of the way into the film, there is a fantastically shot sequence which revealed, I think, some of the deliberateness with which the amateur aesthetic of the film was crafted.  At this point in the film, the bassist Sato has been cast in an independent film, and the entire band is on set.  Turning his camera on his own genre of jishu eiga, Hiranami-san creates a hilariously self-reflexive vignette within the larger narrative that shows a brutally violent, disaffected, self-absorbed director and quirky actors, a rather bumbling crew of over-earnest PAs and technicians, creating a brilliant satire-within-satire that made me see the whole film in a new light.  This light, however brilliant, though, did not make up for the inconsistency of the actual lighting in the film (and the foley, for that matter…) — I’ll forgive them their low budget, but a couple of C-stands and china balls wouldn’t have broken the bank for some of those woefully underexposed shots.  The reality of filmmaking is a balance of the economic, the expressive, and the technical, and in this case the neglect of the technical does, I think, detract from the emotional impact of what the program notes describe as a film that “confronts us with a truly energetic and impressively dynamic, yet thoughtful impression of today’s youth and pop-culture in Japan”.

That being said, the film succeeds on several thematic levels – it treats on issues of stalking, suicide, and the sad slipping away of success with a mix of slapstick humor and surprising poignancy.  The primary actress in the film, whose name I think is Kotori, also deserves a nod for her portrayal of heavy-drinking, hardcore replacement bassist Midori, of all the exaggerated performances in the film, hers had the most realism and emotional depth.  (I will hopefully return to her character for more extensive analysis as soon as I can – I think she presents, along with lead-singer Yamada’s girlfriend and an occasional trio of fangirls, interesting visions of the modern Japanese woman.)  So, while not without its faults, The Rise and Fall… stands, I think, at the vanguard of the new generation of jishu eiga filmmaking.  Here’s hoping Hiranami-san can parlay this international exposure into a little extra cash for C-stands and full-time foley artists in his next feature.

My Ratings for the film

Acting/Direction: 5/10
Script: 6/10
Lighting/Cinematography: 3/10
Editing: 8/10
Overall: 4/10

For those of you who were in attendance, weigh in below — how did the film measure up to your expectations?

about to connect

This post is not my usual quasi-academic musings — I’m simply beyond stoked about what is about to be my life for the next several days: NIPPON CONNECTION, arguably the premiere Japanese film festival outside of Japan, kicks off tonight in Frankfurt, Germany, and yours truly will be there, taking in all the Japanese sights and sounds and tastes (there’s a soba-ya on site!!!).  Since technically I’m supposed to be arriving in Berlin on Thursday to move into our new CAMS Roadtrip housing there, I’m proving my devotion to Japanese film by hitting the festival today, jetting to Berlin tomorrow, and then jetting back at the earliest possible convenience on Friday, so I can enjoy as many new films and (free!) artist talks and lectures as possible.  I’ll do my best to blog as much of it as possible; a whole world of ideas and experiences is awaiting me, and I want to share that and find a way to synthesize it into some semblance of crazily fragmented but totally rich meaningfulness.  Festival structure and attendance is also one of my current fascinations, so look forward to some observations on that — and watch out for lots of random Japanese in my posts.  I’ve been lucky enough to have a Japanese, and then a Korean (whose Japanese was better than her English) roommate at my hostel here in Strasbourg, so linguistically, I’m on a (dragon) roll, as they might say.

I’m especially looking forward to THIS:

There is a free 'Gaming Den' open throughout the festival...any bets as to what I'll be doing when I'm not at talks or screenings?