Nippon Connection 2017 to Showcase Japanese Documentary

Mifune_Last_SamuraiNippon Connection is the largest festival dedicated to Japanese Cinema anywhere in the world and returns in 2017 for its 17th edition. Once again taking place in Frankfurt, the festival will screen over 100 films from May 23 – 28, many of which will also welcome members of the creative team eager to present to their work to an appreciative audience.

This year’s festival has a special focus on documentary film – an area often neglected by other mainstream film festivals. Leaving heavier topics to one side, documentaries already announced to headline the strand include Atsushi Funahashi’s idol documentary Raise Your Arms and Twist – Documentary of NMB48 (道頓堀よ、泣かせてくれ! DOCUMENTARY of NMB48, Doutonbori yo, Nakasetekure! Documentary of NMB48)

raise your arms and twistDirector Atsushi Funahashi has hitherto been known for hard hitting fare such as the Fukushima documentary Nuclear Nation as well as narrative films including the heartrending Cold Bloom and cross cultural odyssey Big River. Consequently he steps into the slowly growing genre of idol documentaries from the refreshing position of a total novice. Adopting an objective viewpoint, Funahashi rigourously dissects this complicated phenomenon whilst taking care never to misrepresent the girls, their dreams, or their devoted fanbase.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Returning to the internationalist leanings of Funahashi’s Big River, Kimi Takesue’s 95 and 6 to Go sees the director begin a collaborative project with her widowed grandfather – a Japanese immigrant to Hawaii.

95_And_6_To_Go_Still4Shot over six years, 95 and 6 to Go begins with a stalled fim project and some unexpected grandfatherly advice but eventually develops into a moving meditation on life, love, loss, and endurance.


In a neatly circular motion the last of the three highlights of the documentary section takes a look at one of the giants of Japanese cinema – Toshiro Mifune.

Kurosawa-Mifune-VenicePreviously screened at the BFI London Film Festival, Steven Okazaki’s documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai focuses firmly on Mifune’s place within the history of samurai cinema through exploring not only his life but also the early history of “chanbara” movies and the genre’s later echoes in American cinema as related by talking heads including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

Of course there will also be a host of narrative features on offer with frequent Nippon Connection favourite Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype (Le Secret de la chambre noire) a definite highlight.

Le-Secret-de-la-chambre-noire-affiche-filmosphere-790x1071Back in 2012, Kiyoshi Kurosawa planned his first international movie, 1905, which would have featured 90% Chinese dialogue and was set to shoot in Taiwan with stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Shota Matsuda and Atsuko Maeda. Sadly, political concerns of the day put paid to 1905, and so Daguerrotype marks Kurosawa’s first foray into non-Japanese language cinema. Starring one of France’s most interesting young actors in Tahar Rahim, this French language gothic ghost story takes the director back to his eerie days of psychological horror.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Returning to modern day Japan, Capturing Dad director Ryota Nakano’s second movie Her Love Boils Bathwater (湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, Yu o Wakasu Hodo no Atsui Ai) is another suitably offbeat family drama.

her love boils bathwaterPale Moon‘s Rie Miyazawa stars as a warmhearted woman who discovers she only has a short time left to live and is determined to get her estranged family back together whilst saving the family bathhouse. Rie Miyazawa won the Japan Academy Prize best actress award for her role in Her Love Boils Bathwater, with supporting actress Hana Sugisaki also taking home a prize at the 2017 awards.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Family drama is, after all, Japan’s representative genre and is featured once again with Miwa Nishikawa’s adaptation of her own novel, The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Nagai Iiwake).

long excuse posterMasahiro Motoki makes a welcome return to leading man status as a self-centered B-list celebrity and former author who finds himself largely unmoved after his wife is killed in an accident but later bonds with the bereaved children of her best friend who died alongside her.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

When talking of family drama, one most often thinks of Ozu and of the gentle passing of time as the old are left alone to contemplate the vagaries of life and young ones make a start on their own. Koji Fukada’s Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) is not Ozu, it’s not the wry eye of Yoshimitsu Morita in The Family Game, or of Sogo Ishii in the Crazy Family, it’s a harsh and unforgiving look the status of the modern family unit.

harmoniumYou can check out our review of this one from the London East Asia Film Festival and it’s also scheduled for a UK release courtesy of Eureka Entertainment in June 2017 following a cinema run from 5th May.

Eureka trailer (English subtitles)

It would be a stretch to describe Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) as a family drama but in a way it sort of is in its dissection of the relationship between two orphaned brothers.

destruction-babiesBeyond nihilism, Destruction Babies paints a bleak prognosis for the youth of Japan who live without hope, disconnected from reality, and know only the sensation of violence. You can check out our review of the film here from its screening in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, and it’s also currently available in the UK courtesy of distributor Third Window Films.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)

Concluding the list of newer mainstream releases is the first in the festival’s anime strand – Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi).

silent-voiceDistributed in the UK by Anime Limited, this alternately heartrending and heartwarming drama examines the effects of social stigma, disibility, and the legacy of cruelty as its perfectly matched central pair confront the ghosts of their respective pasts and futures. You can check out our review from the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme over here (mild spoilers for the concluding half of the film).

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Revisiting the past in an altogether different sort of way, Nippon Connection will also play host to two films from Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno Reboot Project. Roman Porno was a fairly short lived offshoot of the “pink” genre, essentially softcore pornography intended to bring the dwindling cinema audiences back through the promise of sex and (sometimes) violence. In celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Roman Porno line, Nikkatsu have brought it back as a special tribute with five directors hired to film their take on the classic genre – Sion Sono, Hideo Nakata, Akihiko Shiota, Kazuya Shiraishi and Isao Yukisada.

The first of two featured in the festival is Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Mesuneko Tachi) . dawn of the felinesFrom the director of Twisted Justice and Devil’s Path, Dawn of the Felines follows the adventures of three prostitutes in Tokyo’s red light district.

Trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Akihiko Shiota directed one of the best (and criminally underseen) films of the 2000s in 2005’s Canary and his instalment in the Reboot series, Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Kaze ni Nureta Onna), proved an unexpected festival hit receiving high praise from critics at Locarno.

wet woman in the windShiota’s film follows a former playwright who tries to get out of town for some peace and quiet but runs into a nymphomaniac waitress instead. Oh well, a change is as good as a rest?

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW!)

The full programme is announced on 29th April when tickets are also expected to go on sale via the official Nippon Connection website. You can also keep up with the festival via their Facebook Page, Twitter account, and Instagram.

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.

Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2016)

destruction-babiesPost-golden age, Japanese cinema has arguably had a preoccupation with the angry young man. From the ever present tension of the seishun eiga to the frustrations of ‘70s art films and the punk nihilism of the 1980s which only seemed to deepen after the bubble burst, the young men of Japanese cinema have most often gone to war with themselves in violent intensity, prepared to burn the world which they feel holds no place for them. Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) is a fine addition to this tradition but also an urgent one. Stepping somehow beyond nihilism, Mariko’s vision of his country’s future is a bleak one in which young, fatherless men inherit the traditions of their ancestors all the while desperately trying to destroy them. Devoid of hope, of purpose, and of human connection the youth of the day get their kicks vicariously, so busy sharing their experiences online that reality has become an obsolete concept and the physical sensation of violence the only remaining truth.

The rundown port towns of Shikoku are an apt place to stage this battle. Panning over the depressingly quiet harbour, urgent, thrumming electric guitars bring tension to the air as the younger of two brothers, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), catches sight of his only remaining family member, older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira). Currently in the middle of getting a beating from local thugs, Taira signals his intention to leave town, which he does after his boss breaks up the fight and tells him to get lost.

By the time Shota has crossed the river, his brother is already lost to him. A vengeful, crazed demon with strange, burning eyes, Taira has taken the same path as many an angry young man and headed into town spoiling for a fight. Driven by rage, Taira fights back but only to be fought with – he craves pain, is energised by it, and rises again with every fall stronger but a little less human.

As he says, he has his rules (as mysterious as they may be), but Taira’s violent exploits eventually find a disciple in previously cowardly high school boy Yuya (Masaki Suda) who discovers the potential violence has to create power from fear in witnessing Taira’s one man war of stubbornness with the local yakuza. Yuya, a coward at heart, is without code, fears pain, and seeks only domination to ease his lack of self confidence. Taira, random as his violence is, attacks only other males capable of giving him what he needs but Yuya makes a point of attacking those least likely to offer resistance. Proclaiming that he always wanted to hit a woman, Yuya drop kicks schoolgirls and sends middle aged housewives and their shopping flying.

The sole female voice, Nana (Nana Komatsu) – a kleptomaniac yakuza moll who finds her validation though shoplifting unneeded items selected for the pleasure of stealing them, originally finds the ongoing violence exciting as she watches the viral videos but feels very differently when confronted with its real, physical presence and each of the implied threats to her person it presents. Tough and wily, Nana is a survivor. Where Taira staked his life on violence and Yuya on the threat of it, Nana survives through cunning. The victory is hers, as hollow as it may turn out to be.

Mariko’s chilling vision paints the ongoing crime spree as a natural result of a series of long standing cultural norms in which contradictory notions of masculinity compete with a conformist, constraining society. The entire founding principle of the small town in which the film takes place is that men come of age through violence, though the older man who has (or claims to have) provided the bulk of parental input for these parentless brothers describes Taira as if he were the very demon such festivals are often created to expel. Men of 18 years carry the portable shrines, he repeatedly says, but 18 year old Taira is a “troublemaker” and “troublemakers” must leave the town altogether.

If Taira sought connection through violence, Shota continues to seek it through human emotions – searching for his brother, hanging out with his friends, and drawing closer to his brother’s boss who offers him differing degrees of fatherly input. In contrast to his peers, Shota seems to disapprove of the way his cocksure (false) friend Kenji (Takumi Kitamura) treats women though it is also true that Kenji is actively frustrating his attempts to find his brother whilst dangling a clue right before his eyes. Nevertheless, the harshness of this unforgiving world seems determined to turn Shota into the same rage filled creature of despair as his older brother as injustice piles on injustice with no hope of respite.

Destruction Babies is apt name for the current society – born of chaos, trapped in perpetual childhood, and thriving on violence. Taira and Shota were always outsiders in a world which organises itself entirely around the family unit but the force which drives their world is not love but pain, this world is one underpinned by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Metaphorically or literally, the lives of the young men of today will entail repeated blows to the face while those of the young women will require ingenious sideward motions to avoid them. Oblique, ambiguous, and soaked in blood, Destruction Babies is a rebel yell for a forlorn hope, as raw as it is disturbing.

Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017 and set for UK release from Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera, Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as a particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.

Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)