People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Wu Hao, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

People's Republic of Desire PosterCan you outsource a dream? According to Wu Hao’s People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Yùwàng gòngguó), many in modern China have resigned themselves to doing just that. Feeling lonely, disconnected, hopeless, they turn to people just like them who’ve been luckier and have not yet decided to give up the fight. Video streaming service YY acts like the future’s version of pirate radio, lining up a selection “personalities” male and female offering pretty much anything from stand up comedy and political diatribes to off key singing and a window into someone else’s every day life from breakfast to dinner. Of course, it all comes at a price – one which YY gleefully takes a 60% cut of, but there are hidden costs too – to a society, to the deluded fans, and even to the aspiring stars themselves forced into various debasing acts in the knowledge that their time in the spotlight will soon come to an end.

Wu follows two very different YY stars – 21-year-old former nurse Shen Man, and Big Li – a former migrant worker whose rough voice and man’s man attitudes have endeared him to a host of other “diaosi” fans. “Diaosi”, once an unpleasant slur meaning “loser” and most often applied to those stuck in the lower orders of China’s rapidly increasing social equality gap, has been reclaimed by those who self identify with its sense of ironic hopelessness. As Shen Man explains, YY works as a kind of pyramid system in which millions of dreaming diaosi throw money they don’t really have at online stars in the hope of connection while Tuhao – the nouveau riche looking for new ways to splash the cash, act as patrons deciding the direction of the service.

What many diaosi forget to factor in is that in reality the entire service is run by agents and promoters who push their various stars to steal “votes” from their online fans. YY is not a public service platform, but a vast money making machine which sucks in cash from every conceivable angle. As cynical patron Songge points out, those seeking fame on YY cannot expect to make any money. In order to win the site’s popularity contest, they need to get an agent and their agent will need to spend a vast amount of money to promote them which the star will then need to make back.

Shen Man, on one level naive, is perfectly aware of the way the system works. She knows she needs to keep her fans happy or they’ll leave. Like Big Li she’s a poor girl made good, a figure her female fans can look up to as someone just like them that’s been able to escape the world of diaosi drudgery. Her male fans, by contrast, are probably looking for something different. Some of them like the idea of her ordinariness, that she comes from the same place they do and is therefore attainable while also being unattainable thanks to her quickly acquired wealth which allows her to live the life of a modern princess. There is however a cost. In order to hook more fans the youthful 21-year-old has already spent a lot of money on extensive plastic surgery (perhaps veering dangerously close to destroying her “natural charm” selling point), and is expected to play nice with her sometimes insulting clientele. One patron, chatting idly on the phone, tries to throw money at her in return for sex whilst simultaneously insisting that she’s not like the other YY girls who will do anything for money. Shen Man points out that she has money already and is not that sort of girl while her patron continues along the same line of argument insisting that all you need to do get a girl is flash the cash.

Big Li, by contrast, is much less cynical. He recognises that he’s become a kind of leader for his diaosi brothers and is eager not to let his fans down. Married to YY talent manager Dabao and with a young son to take care of, Big Li is originally grateful for his rock star life, but the pressure begins to get to him and he longs for the simple days of the village filled with the warmth of family and friends rather than the lonely false connection of YY’s race to fame mentality. Big Li genuinely cares, but this is his downfall. He wants the freedom that YY promises and refuses to play the game, but the game continues to play him.

Adoration quickly to hate. Shen Man finds herself out in the cold when she is publicly slut shamed, accused of taking money from fans in return for sexual favours, earning the nickname of “300 Man” as a woman who can be brought so cheaply she has no value at all. The constant double standard – that she must be beautiful and desirable, yet pure and chaste, has something to say about the nature of China’s conservative social values even in a modernising age. Once your reputation has gone it cannot be rebuilt and even the loyalist fans will find themselves moving on. Big Li might not have to put up with the same kind of pressures as Shen Man, but is personally hurt when fans call him “scammer” because of his constant failures to take home the big prize.

So what of the fans themselves? There are those who’ve made vast amounts money thanks to China’s rapidly modernising economy and don’t know what to do with it other than show off by giving it away. They too are trying to buy connection through becoming patrons, “owning” someone less fortunate and taking pleasure in dictating their lives. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the scale, the diaosi have all but given up on their own dreams and so “enjoy” investing money to “support” the dreams of those just like them out of a sense of frustrated solidarity.

The picture Wu paints of modern China is one of a world spiralling out of control in which intense loneliness and alienation have corrupted the nature of social connection. Money rules all. Wealth is all that matters and in the crowded online world, if you want to be noticed you’ll have to pay. Interactions are bought and paid for with petty, entirely virtual trinkets, while in the offline world all there is is work and sleep and cheap fast food. Only the platform is the winner, as one unlucky hopeful puts it. The sad truth is that everyone knows it’s a losing game and has resigned themselves to conceding defeat in a society already leaving them behind.


People’s Republic of Desire was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love and Wolbachia (恋とボルバキア, Sayaka Ono, 2017)

love-and-walbachia-poster-2-e1527641922439.jpgDocumentarian Sayaka Ono turned the camera on herself and her family seven years ago with her graduation project/debut feature The Duckling. Returning with her second feature after spending the intervening years in TV documentary, Ono tackles a subject perhaps more distant from her personal experience in exploring the lives of sexual minorities and particularly of transgender women in generally conformist Japan. Love and Wolbachia (恋とボルバキア, Koi to Wolbachia) takes its name from that of a parasitic bacteria which can cause its host to change sex. Love may very well be a kind of virus, but Ono seems more interested in answering the question of why someone might decide to live as a woman in a society so often hostile to them.

The first two protagonists Ono introduces us two were born intersex. Despite their personal feelings, each was encouraged to take hormones to conform more closely to their external appearance. Forced to make a perhaps false binary choice, or in essence being deprived of the right to make it for themselves, each has attempted to live in the way which bests suits their authentic selves though they often encounter discrimination and/or hostility from those around them.

The question of gender in and of itself appears more important to some than others. Another of our protagonists, Miya, refers to herself as a “makeup man” and runs a bar which acts as a kind of community space and refuge for other transgender and non-binary people who often have nowhere else to turn. Nevertheless, Miya struggles with her partner’s decision to undergo gender confirmation surgery and finds it difficult to understand why someone would be willing to put themselves through so much pain and suffering for something she sees as an external concern. For Miya the question of “gender” seems moot, not quite something requires only an individual identification but which scarcely requires one at all. It is she feels, in essence, something culturally defined which an individual is free to accept or reject in claiming their own personal identity as distinct from from social codes dictated by society.

Yet Miya also finds herself a victim of these social codes in a desire to provide protection to those who need it only to find herself ill equipped to cope with the intense responsibility of accidentally becoming a community leader if one without a particular political agenda save wanting to make other people’s lives easier. The question of gender roles becomes a more obvious problem in the relationship between lesbian Julian and her transgender partner Hazumi. Criticised by some of her friends for dating a transwoman, Julian also struggles with a perceived expectation to adopt a “masculine” role within the relationship, that Hazumi expects her to provide protection while also becoming the dominant partner which she seems to feel does not fit her personality. Conversely, Julian also longs for a conventional home and family as a married couple with children yet Hazumi wants to transition fully and, having left a marriage and a child to live a more authentic life, worries that starting another family with Julian may prevent her from achieving her dream.

A conventional family life also seems to have prevented 50-year-old Ichiko from pursuing her desire to live as a woman, having lived in a time when few knew such things were possible. A father with three children, most of her resources are given over to their care but she still finds time to enjoy a more authentic life and participate in the community. Like Ichiko, Mihiro began wearing women’s clothing after admiring her wife’s outfits only she later decided to leave her marriage and retains a male personality only for work. Having fallen in love with a man who himself feels uncomfortable with the culturally defined notions of “masculinity”, Mihiro is heartbroken to realise he already has a live-in girlfriend and worries his impression of their relationship may not match her own. This rings eerily true given a solo interview in which he jokingly laments Mihiro’s purehearted approach to romance which he believes leaves her open to male manipulation.

Ono does not particularly explore the lives of transmen, perhaps an anomaly seeing as Japan is one of few nations to have elected a transman to office (Japan also elected its first transgender female politician back in 2003), preferring to explore the place of trans and gay women in a society which can be deeply misogynistic and relentlessly conformist. Mihiro’s supportive mother, watching her carefully applying her makeup, remarks on how much time men must save in not needing to bother. Mihiro partially corrects her – wearing makeup is a choice which is open to women but not perhaps to men and choice, it seems, is the main thing or not so much “choice” but freedom to live in the way you choose rather than the way which is chosen for you by your society. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Arata Oshima, 2016)

169827_01Sion Sono has acquired something of a reputation for controversy. His frequent denouncements of his nation’s cinema in which he sets himself up as a kind of “anti-Ozu” perhaps place him in line with the great 1960s iconoclast Nagisa Oshima who also proclaimed that his distaste for Japanese cinema extended to “absolutely all of it”. Funnily enough, The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Sono Sion to Iu Ikimono) – a documentary exploring the director’s work, is helmed by Oshima’s son, Arata, though he is at pains to show a different side to the artist known as Sion Sono, keying in to the various aways his art reflects his life and vice versa.

Shot during 2015, the documentary follows the twin processes of the production of The Whispering Star (one of five films Sono would release that year), and a landmark art exhibition which led straight back to the director’s origins as an avant-garde street protestor with the performance art collective “Tokyo Gagaga”. These joint concerns perhaps highlight a minor conflict in Sono’s working life as he reveals during a casual conversation in referencing the “indecent” work that had been mostly occupying his time over the previous year. Expressing both fear and gratitude for finally gaining the opportunity to work a more personal project (the script for The Whispering Star had been written almost 20 years previously), Sono jokes that he’ll finally be getting “clean” only to immediately relapse by making The Virgin Psychics – the big screen adaptation of a sci-fi TV series he had also directed which largely consisted of lewd juvenile humour.

To rewind slightly, Sion Sono had been making films for almost 20 years before getting mainstream festival attention in the early 2000s with Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table. His profile was further enhanced by the international success of serial killer thriller Cold Fish and the Venice recognition of Himizu even if it’s the 4-hour epic and sleeper cult hit Love Exposure which has become synonymous with his name for many Western viewers. In the opening to camera interview, Sono is asked about his “controversial” image and overseas success to which he laments that Japanese audiences are wary of anything unconventional and particularly allergic to the “wacky Japan” tag that often dogs attempts to sell Japanese media overseas. Unorthodox views or ways of working are unwelcome, as are those who live in unorthodox ways.

Perhaps for these reasons, 2015 saw Sono diving headfirst into the populist with mixed results. Avowing at a press conference that he believes in “quantity over quality”, Sono commits himself to simply making films hoping some of them might turn out OK. Thus his more straightforwardly commercial projects, Shinjuku Swan for example, are often filled with unconventional ideas but perhaps lack the sense of attack found in his more potent work, covering a lack of substance with intentional boldness. The Whispering Star, as we see, brings him full circle. Picking up the Tarkovskian influences seen in one of his most impressive early features – the sadly neglected The Room, the minimalist sci-fi drama also encompasses his compassion for the people of Fukushima whose ongoing strife has become a recurrent concern from the ruined landscapes of Himizu to the more directly political Land of Hope.

It’s this essential sense of compassion which Oshima’s documentary seems keenest to capture. Through in person interviews with some of Sono’s frequent collaborators including Himizu’s Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido who characterise the director as an eccentric uncle, and his actress wife Megumi Kagurazaka (the lead in Whispering Star) who breaks down in tears remembering the sometimes difficult days of their earlier collaborations, Sono’s art emerges less as an attack on a conservative society than an exercise in melancholy sarcasm that, at heart, believes the world can be better than it is. A friend of his puts this quality best when she (part correcting herself for triteness) states that despite his sometimes controversial approach, she believes he just wants everyone to be happy and is attempting to transcend his own ideas in order to cut through to something new.

Then again perhaps Sono puts this best himself in accidentally citing a life philosophy. Art is not about good and bad; life is not about good and bad. “Paint! Express! Live!” – what better encapsulation of an artist’s credo could there be?


Released by Third Window Films as part of a double feature pack with The Whispering Star.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Of Love & Law (愛と法, Hikaru Toda, 2017)

of love and law posterIn Japan the nail which sticks out is hammered down. Conformist societies promise mutual support, but all too often only when it suits the collective – those not deemed part of the club are wilfully left to fend for themselves with the dangled promise of readmission if one promises to reform and abide by the rules. We first met the couple at the centre of Hikaru Toda’s Of Love & Law in her previous documentary, Love Hotel, which documented their struggles with discrimination in frequently being turned away by establishments who did not wish to rent a room to two men. A same sex married couple in Japan’s second city of Osaka, Kazu and Fumi run their own law firm and operate under the mission statement of representing those who often find themselves without a voice in a culture which favours silence.

Opening at a local Pride event, the camera attempts to capture some talking heads but no one will bite. Asked for comments, the visitors each refuse to show their faces, revealing that they aren’t fully out, fearing that it might cause problems for them at work, or just embarrassed to go on the record about something so taboo. Though the law practice is not limited to representing LGBT issues, they are clearly a key concern to Fumi and Kazu who spend their “free” time engaging in outreach projects trying to foster a little more education and understanding of sexual minorities. Kazu brings this home when he tells his own coming out story in which his stunned mother exclaimed that she’d never heard of anything like this and therefore could not understand it. The problem wasn’t prejudice, it was ignorance mixed with fear.

Ignorance mixed with fear could equally well describe most of the cases brought against Kazu and Fumi’s clients. The protagonist of the second strand – artist and mangaka Rokudenashiko whose legal troubles even made the foreign press, attributes many of these issues to an inability to “read the air” or aquedately understand the unspoken rules of society and then silently abide by them. The law firm makes a point of defending those who have chosen to fly in the face of social convention, flying a flag for the freedom of choice in a society which often deliberately suppresses it.

The freedom of choice is certainly a key issue for the teacher suing the Osakan school that fired her for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Arguing that standing when one is forced to stand is hardly a declaration of patriotism and fearing the lurch to the right which has made even implicit indifference to the Imperial family a hot button issue, the teacher puts her foot down but finds that few will listen. Similarly, Rokudenashiko finds herself arrested for obscenity regarding her vagina themed artwork while the court undermines its own argument by accidentally proving that her work has socio-political merit.

Yet Rokudenashiko and the teacher have each, in a sense, made a firm decision to challenge the intransigence of their society, hoping to prevent a further decline even if not overly hopeful of improvement. Other clients on the roster include a fair few who are accidentally undocumented through no fault of their own thanks to Japan’s arcane and idiosyncratic legal system which makes it difficult to register births of children born out of wedlock or in difficult family circumstances meaning that youngsters sometimes grow up without the proper papers leading to problems with accessing education, employment, healthcare and welfare provisions. Getting someone a birth certificate who doesn’t currently “exist” can prove a taxing ordeal, especially as government officials often regard children born to “immoral” women as “unworthy” of care or attention.

Getting a call from the mother of a victim, Fumi is shocked when she makes a point of enquiring about the nationality of the perpetrator. He is unsurprised but disappointed in witnessing the various ways one oppressed person (both the victim and plaintiff are from impoverished, single parent backgrounds) can turn their oppression back on others as an odd kind of social revenge. Luckily, however, there are good people everywhere such as the fine young man Fumi and Kazu end up temporarily fostering after his care home is unexpectedly closed down. Kazuma accepts their relationship without a second thought, enjoys learning to cook from Fumi and blends right into Kazu’s extended family who each seem as warm and accepting as the couple themselves. Family is not about a register, it’s having a place to go where they’ll always take you in. Fumi doesn’t trust society because society shirks its responsibilities, but thankfully there are those who know better and continue on in hope tempered with patience.


Screened at BFI Flare 2018.

Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman (エンディングノート, Mami Sunada, 2011)

emi_3For various reasons, external commentators on Japanese culture have long held the view that the idea of “death” takes on a much more central position in the lives of ordinary people than it might elsewhere. Death is, however, as much of a taboo in Japan as it is elsewhere – few want to talk about the process of death and dying, of illness and of caring for the sick. Perhaps as a way to evade this particular paradox, there is another tradition in which those aware of their own impending death write a kind of letter for those they will leave behind. Like a testament which accompanies a will, the “isho” can include biographical details, confessions, advice and apologies by way of a final word of parting and a demonstration of having accepted one’s death.

This concept is what inspires the subject of Mami Sunada’s documentary, Death of a Japanese Salesman (エンディングノート, Ending Note), in his desire to create an “Ending Note” when diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer shortly after retiring from a lifetime spent as a regular salaryman. Tomoaki Sunada’s “Ending Note” is intended to be something warmer than an isho and completely divorced from any legal concept but nevertheless a kind of letter saying the things it was too hard to say out loud.

Sunada captures her father’s last days with equal parts affection and detachment. Tomoaki is a humorous man whose wide grin and dry wit help to alleviate what is an unavoidably heavy subject as he comes to terms with the aggressive nature of his illness. The thing is, Tomoaki never gets round to writing that “Ending Note” because he’s just too busy living to think about dying. What he writes is a kind of bucket list which runs from typically practical concerns such as looking at venues in which his funeral might be held and talking over converting to Christianity, to definitively patching things up with his wife and getting to see his three grandchildren again who live abroad in America because of his son’s job.

Living in America Tomoaki’s son perhaps has things a little easier than his father did (even if he’s inherited Tomoaki’s notorious attention to detail and meticulous planning). As Tomoaki puts it in one of Sunada’s flashback moments, middle-aged men like him built the modern Japan. Exclaiming “The company is life!”, albeit with an ironic smile on his face he leaves for work just as he did every morning for over forty years at the same company and for most of it in marketing and sales. The traditional Japanese family demanded a strict division of labour with men pouring their efforts and emotions into their careers and women, supposedly, subsuming their hopes and desires into creating a happy family home. During their working lives, therefore, men like Tomoaki rarely got to see the families they were working to support, placing undue burdens on their wives and appearing as little more than absent disciplinarians to their children. Retirement offers an opportunity to finally become a part of family life, enjoying the days out and long lunches often so impossible for a company man, but Tomoaki has been robbed of the right to enjoy his old age by a cancer diagnosis received almost immediately after the end of his career.

Sunada in effect writes her father’s Ending Note for him, both through the film and the voice over narration she herself delivers written in her father’s playfully ironic authorial voice. Taking cheeky potshots at herself as the “accidental” youngest child whose still unmarried state apparently weighs on her dying father’s mind, Sunada adds both bite and warmth to her “father’s” final words as he waxes philosophical on death and the afterlife while trying to plan pragmatically for his own eventual end. The whimsical indie score also lends to the lightness of the exercise but Sunada does not shy away from the rapidity of her father’s decline or cruelty of his illness, taking her camera away only at the moment of death. Raw and painful, Sunada’s fearsome exploration of the process of dying is one of ordinary tragedy but also becomes a glorious celebration of life from all of its sadness and difficulties to shared laughter and the joy of new arrivals.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, Jung Yoon-suk, 2017)

Bamseom Pirates posterGiven its long and turbulent political history, Korea has become good at the art of the peaceful protest. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, beomseom Haejeok-dan seoul bulbada) arrives just after another political storm has passed, but trouble once again hovers on the horizon courtesy of noisy neighbours. Yet it’s not so much the literal threat of the Kims in the North that’s the problem, but the way that fear is used and abused to serve certain needs – this is where avant-garde punk duo Bamseom Pirates aim their carefully crafted arrows. Unfortunately for them, they are too clever for their own good and their reliance on sarcasm leaves them frequently misunderstood.

The Bamseom Pirates are drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon – two young men living the life of starving artists in Korea’s underground music scene. As Jang points out, other bands smash expensive guitars but Bamseom Pirates smash rubbish picked up from around the derelict buildings where they play their shows to small crowds of likeminded youngsters. Though violence is often an integral part of many “punk” scenes, the clashes here are not born of over exuberance or warring factions of bands and their followers but of hired thugs deliberately sent in to make trouble, limiting freedoms of assembly and expression.

Kwon’s lyrics are deliberately incendiary but violence is not in the band’s agenda. Filmed over several years, Jung Yoon-suk’s documentary finds the pair performing at several protests and rallies usually in support of progressive causes including opposing privatisation, and labour reform. Though he is repeatedly pressed to explain himself, Kwon refuses to pin his convictions to the mast of any recognisable political faction, nervously aligning himself with the defunct Progressive Party and then only vaguely in citing an agreement with their progressive causes. This refusal is key to Kwon’s artistic statement as he finds himself attacked from all sides – the left, who might be assumed to be his allies, tear him down for his bourgeois upbringing and education at an elite university, but on the other hand one can’t say anything that sounds too lefty lest one be accused of being a “communist” and therefore North Korean sympathiser.

Bamseom Pirates rely heavily on irony and so they can’t resist pushing this central dichotomy to its natural limit. Thus Kwon’s signature song is called “All Hail Kim Jong-il!”, but as it turns out the song isn’t about that Kim Jong-il at all, but all the other unfortunate people throughout history who share his not particularly uncommon name and are now tainted by association. North Korea being the most taboo issue of the day, it comes up frequently in the band’s songs in which they often point out the uncomfortable truths about their neighbour – in particular, the theoretical benefits of socialism such as workers rights and a welfare state that should be (but aren’t) in place in North Korea but can’t be adopted into the South because of persistent fear of “Communism”. The fear of “Communism” has become a stick with which to beat the progressive cause or really any cause the conservative society does not want to engage with, shutting down all debate and undermining the “democracy” the previous generation fought so hard to win.

This all comes to a head when the band’s manager finds himself falling foul of Korea’s longstanding censorship laws regarding North Korea designed to prevent “acts which benefit the enemy”. Park, a high school friend of Kwon, and a jack of all trades who runs a small indie record label printing CDs for underground bands, is just as acerbic as the boys and frequently makes ironic comments about North Korea on his Twitter account, even once asking the Dear Leader to buy him some chocolate. Nevertheless, when he retweets a North Korean account he’s immediately arrested and brought in for questioning as a possible North Korean sympathiser. His brand of sarcasm is just too subtle for the censor, and he finds himself on the receiving end of an extremely harsh punishment which is in no way helped by Kwon’s honest testimony clarifying their stance on the North.

Park faces prison for making a stupid joke on Twitter while his lawyer sensibly points out that if he had said the same thing in North Korea, he’d already be dead. He would not last five seconds on North Korean soil and clearly has no desire to go there. Rather than simply capture events, Jung leans in on the central irony of the situation in its suggestion that perhaps there’s not as much difference between the democratic South and the despotic North as might be hoped when it comes to encouraging a full and frank freedom of expression.

Yet despite the satirical content of their music, Bamseom Pirates remain refreshingly unpretentious and keen to make fun of themselves as well the current political crisis of the day. There’s no posturing or claim of a great masterplan to change society through the power of punk. The boys just want to play their music to likeminded people and have fun while doing it. This self effacing charm makes their extremely loud and energetic performances a joy to watch, though Jung also captures their anarchic spirit in several music videos accompanied by garish onscreen captions featuring the lyrics plus the explanation that the sound balance has been “deliberately” miscaptured to represent the “imbalances” in modern Korean society and that the band’s various musical mistakes have also been left in in testament to their artistic integrity. Bamseom Pirates do not claim to speak for their generation, but they do all the same as the young fight back against the “mainstream” of a conservative society, refusing to accept the gradual erosions of the freedoms the preceding generation fought so hard for but have failed to protect.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Also screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 on 5th November at Close-up Film Centre.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Making of “Dreams” ( 夢 黒澤明・大林宣彦映画的対話, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1990)

making-of-dreamsYou might think there could be no more diametrically opposed directors than Akira Kurosawa – best known for his naturalistic (by jidaigeki standards anyway) three hour epic Seven Samurai, and Nobuhiko Obayashi whose madcap, psychedelic, horror musical Hausu continues to over shadow a far less strange career than might be expected. However, Dreams is a major aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, eschewing his more straightforwardly conventional approach for an exercise in surrealist social commentary inspired by classic noh theatre traditions. Obayashi was also on hand in an ancillary capacity, capturing the making of a late Kurosawa classic. This is no mere “making of”, as the opening crawl makes clear, but an in depth examination of Kurosawa’s career to date conducted director to director with reverence and sensitivity for a veteran talent.

Broadly moving through the film chronologically, Obayashi includes a decent amount of typical “behind the scenes” footage from the first episode in which the young I unwisely peeps on a solemn fox wedding, right through the to classic turn from Chishu Ryu as a wise old man living a natural life in harmony with the rhythms of the Earth. The footage is captured on a selection of video cameras typical of the time with all of their low grade resolution though they often capture unexpected sides of the production process. On set, Kurosawa is a genial if sometimes exacting presence, taking the time to apologise after speaking a little too harshly to a child actor, thanking his crew for waiting around so long in the cold, and reminding them to take care travelling home on the icy roads.

Where the film differs from the general “making of” DVD extras is in the typical Obayashi touches in the presentation of his material which is assembled from over 190 hours of footage and runs half an hour longer than the film itself. Obayashi is very keen to showcase Kurosawa’s artistic storyboards, often contrasting the illustrations either with the raw live footage or completed film by means of super imposition or split screen. Later he also adds in animatic storyboard manipulation, overlapping with the completed footage similarly bleached into a manga-esque black and white outline. Obayashi then spins the other way with an even more meta approach by incorporating classic cinematic references as in the opening and closing of the iris, classic Kurosawa side and horizontal wipes, and setting Kurosawa’s meeting with a foreign director inside the frame of a film negative itself. Neatly moving from a concept drawing to placing the finished image within that same panel, Obayashi takes us from thought to realisation by means of a simple yet effective visual technique.

The second biggest draw is in the intercut footage from a long discussion between the two directors in which Obayashi interviews Kurosawa about his long career and working methods. Illuminating his ideas of Dreams in particular Kurosawa states his intentions to chart the course of a life very similar to his own, but also emphasises what he feels has become the central theme of his work – humanity and its refusal to choose the path of happiness. Obayashi also raises the sometimes controversial topic of the position of women in Kurosawa’s cinema which is often said to be overly masculine. Kurosawa semi-rejects this view of his work, but admits that early criticism left him less willing to engage with women’s stories. After casting Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth, her character was frequently criticised as being “unwomanly”, or appearing too masculine in her behaviour. A claim Kurosawa rejects, but this unwillingness to accept the existence of “strong” women from critics looking for reflections of their own world view seemingly put him off the idea of attempting to capture women’s stories, lacking the confidence to do so properly.

Moving from black and white to colour and using montages and super impositions, Obayashi re-orders and re-imagines his recollections just as van Gogh does his world through his paintings in one of the film’s most elaborate sequences. “Making of Dreams” therefore becomes a much more interesting title than it first appears, not only detailing a “making of” this particular film but all films in so far as a film is a dream. A meeting of minds in more ways than one, Obayashi’s film demonstrates his reverence and affection for the veteran director but his contribution amounts to more than a simple exchange of views and experiences in a mutually illuminating commentary on the careers of these essentially very different artists.