I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

Hirobumi Watanabe has made a name for himself as a purveyor of deadpan wit, often shooting in a stark black and white and casting himself as a sometimes irate monologuer inhabiting a world of silence. With I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Watashi wa Genki), however, he for the most part stays behind the camera which he operates for himself for the first time in the absence of regular cinematographer Bang Woo-hyun, and subverts the conceits of Poolsideman to show us the innocent world of childhood, following an energetic little girl through one ordinary, though as it turns out, packed with small incident day. 

After opening with a colour sequence in which Riko (Riko Hisatsugu), a very energetic young girl, shoots an encouraging iPhone video, Watanabe returns to a more familiar black and white to find her playing with her best friend Nanaka (Nanaka Sudo), and then waking up to the sound of bird song ready for a brand new day. Like the hero of Poolsideman, she is constantly exposed to the radio news though, we can assume, she is not the one who put it on or actively listening to it. The central irony is that, where Poolsideman’s hero found himself driven in dangerous directions by reports of death, violence, and war, Riko is largely indifferent to the current pensions crisis which seems to be dominating the news. As a child, pensions are not something she is particularly worried about, though in a very real sense this will one day affect her especially in its implications for Japan’s rapidly ageing society as the discussion moves on to potential tax reform and ideas to combat a stagnating economy. In any case, Riko carries on playing happily with her friends, the news washing over her as perhaps it should. 

Meanwhile, her days are filled with ordinary things like walking to school with her brother and Nanaka, chatting about what’s for lunch and what they had for dinner, playing shiritori, and enjoying the pleasant rural landscape. In the evening they make the exact same journey in reverse, returning to their homes where they do their homework and wait patiently for their parents to return from their jobs to make dinner. On this particular day, two unusual events occur the first being she’s ended up with Nanaka’s homework book by mistake and needs to return it. The second is a visit from a strange man with the bizarre name of Kamekichi Jinguji (Hirobumi Watanabe) who claims to be from a company selling textbooks that will send even the dimmest of students to the top of the class. 

Luckily Riko is not duped by Kamekichi whose rather bizarre scam is undermined when she tells him her dad’s a policeman which sends him into a bit of a panic, but his presence does perhaps hark back to the pensions crisis as Riko finds herself targeted by a problem which is usually associated with the elderly in being doorstepped by a fraudulent salesman taking advantage of the fact she is currently without responsible adults with both parents out working. He tries the same thing with Nanaka who is almost taken in, but catches her just after Riko has arrived to give the book back, pausing only to remind the girls that they are the future and it’s their job to build a better Japan. Particularly ironic advice from a guy conning children out of their pocket money in exchange for phoney textbooks, not to mention somewhat unfair in projecting the responsibility for fixing a series of social problems like the pensions crisis into the future when it’s people like him who should be fixing them now to make the better world possible while little girls like Riko and Nanaka play happily enjoying a carefree childhood. 

To that matter, Riko’s childhood seems to be pretty carefree. She hangs out with Nanaka, plays football, enjoys the pleasant country environment and is surrounded by loving family even if sad that her policeman dad often works late and can’t join them for dinner while her older brother is forever playing video games at the table. The politicians on the news debate what standard of life is appropriate, trying to get out of their responsibilities by splitting hairs about the “model family”, but Riko carries on enjoying her ordinary days oblivious to the troubles of the world around her. “I’m really good!” she affirms in her introductory video after politely enquiring after the viewers’ health, and it’s as good a mission statement as you’re likely to find. 


I’m Really Good is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Cry (叫び声, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2019)

Hirobumi Watanabe has become closely associated with a particular brand of deadpan, black and white comedy, often casting himself in a prominent role as a motormouth monologuer. Cry (叫び声, Sakebigoe), however, returns him to the themes of 7 Days which proved divisive with critics following as it did the lowkey absurdist charms of And the Mud Ship Sails Away… Once again set in rural Tochigi, the (almost entirely) wordless Cry stars Watanabe this time as a pig farmer rather than cattleman and follows the crushing mundanity of his life over the course of an ordinary week. 

Replete with agricultural detail, Cry is at pains to dramatise the cyclical, rhythmic qualities of a life lived in tune with nature even as that of a pig farmer is in some ways perhaps in conflict with it in the cultivation and constraint of other living creatures. There is perhaps something rather ironic in recalling that Watanabe’s production company is called Foolish Piggies Films, and it’s all but impossible to ignore the odd kind of symmetry in the life of the farmer and his animals who are each in their own way imprisoned on either side of the bars. The major difference between them lies in crowding and solitude, cacophony and silence. Aside from the equally silent grandmother (sadly the final onscreen appearance of Watanabe’s own grandmother Misao Hirayama who sadly passed away last year and had been a constant fixture in each of the director’s films to date) with whom he lives, the farmer has no other human contact, indeed his only “social” outlet is a solo trip to the cinema where he is the sole spectator and the only other person with whom he interacts is the usher who says nothing more than “enjoy the movie”. 

We can infer that the farmer goes to the pictures every Sunday at around the same time after seeing to the pigs, that he likely does so alone, and that this is a fixed part of his weekly routine. On a weekday, we see him rise, eat breakfast with his grandmother, muck out the pigs and break for lunch, usually taking a moment of rest on windswept rooftop under an incongruous electricity pylon as if to signal the encroachment of modernity on his simple life, or in event of rain returning home to read the paper. In the evenings he reads by the light of a small lamp and writes in a diary. Sunday aside, his days are almost identical yet, unlike the heroes of other Watanabe films who often comically walk the exact same routes they came by only in reverse, he seems to vary his path, making the surprisingly long journey between his home and the pens a little less predictable than the other areas of his life. 

The “cry” of the title might express this desire for an interruption to the maddening mundanity of his existence, but otherwise the farmer does not appear to be particularly unhappy with the simplicity of his life save for the intense drumming of the taiko score which accompanies him as he walks along the quiet country paths towards the pens as if he were heading to a battlefield which, in a way, he perhaps is as he engages in the paradoxical task of caring for animals he will one day surrender for slaughter and in fact consume.

He does not seem to be withholding a wail of existential despair, merely living an ordinary life in ordinary ways. Even on his trip to the cinema, he appears to be watching, until he falls asleep, footage from Watanabe’s own I’m Really Good (a poster for And the Mud Ship Sails Away… also sits in the foyer) in which farmland kids walk the same paths he walks but entertain themselves with games of shiritori which is generally much less fun to play on your own even if not exactly impossible. At home he cares patiently for his grandmother, diligently cleaning her dentures, again another part of his routine, while bathing in the calming silence free of the noisy cacophony of the pig pens and of the roar of the wind which sweeps the rooftop. His life may be simple, but perhaps no less repetitive than that of many others and with its own small joys even in its mundanity. 


Cry is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2018)

Hirobumi Watanabe goes full 8 1/2 with the decidedly meta comedy, Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Futsu wa Hashiridasu). After the joyful celebration of Party ‘Round the Globe, he returns in a noticeably self-reflective mood once again playing a version of himself as a self-involved, childish blocked filmmaker who fears he is falling out of love with film. Unable to come up with ideas, he fobs off producers and ignores phone calls while hanging out with grandma (Misao Hirayama) and making a nuisance of himself at the library but a mini-nervous breakdown and a reconnection with the film-loving little boy he once was perhaps offer him new direction though the jury’s out on whether “Hirobumi” is ever going to grow up. 

Once again locating itself in peaceful Tochigi and shot in crisp black and white with Watanabe’s trademark deadpan static camera, Life Finds a Way opens with Hirobumi fielding a phone call from a producer in which he confesses that he’s supposed to be working on a script created in collaboration with rock band Triple Fire but he’s getting nowhere so he’s hanging out in a cafe to “relax” while playing Dragon Quest. Later he rings his cinematographer, Bang Woohyun, and makes a similar apology, admitting that he’s going to take some time off to watch the World Cup because, after all, it’s a once in every four years opportunity. Meanwhile, he’s mostly snoozing at home with grandma, or driving around with his almost entirely silent and extremely patient strawberry farmer friend Kurosaki (Kurosaki Takanori). 

One of his early rants offered as a monologue to Kurosaki who seems to be used to them, revolves around his sense of inferiority as a creative unfairly maligned as a lazy good-for-nothing by workaholic Japanese society. In Japan, he says, we worship the worker ant who survives because he works away earnestly, while in France they honour the grasshopper because his beautiful music can cheer you up even in the depths of winter. Hirobumi thinks the French have it right, that Japanese people are too obsessed with doing everything “properly”, always worrying about trivial things. According to him, there are far too many worker ant types in the Japanese film industry. He thinks films should be free and unconstrained, not bound by some kind of ideal. 

In any case, while being quite rude to “worker ant” Kurosaki who labours all day long on his strawberry farm, Hirobumi blames all his problems on having been unlucky enough to have been born in Japan rather than somewhere like France where they appreciate people like him. Later, he interviews a few locals and asks them what they think is the problem with the Japanese film industry, only for Kurosaki to repeatedly answer “it’s Hirobumi”, perhaps getting his own back. In fact, Kurosaki, apparently meaning well, shows Hirobumi a piece about of one of his films in a glossy magazine only it’s uncomplimentary in the extreme which sends him into a rage, ranting furiously about ungrateful audiences and how much he hates film critics. Hirobumi seemingly blames everyone but himself for his faults and failures, climbing all the way up to a hilltop shrine to pray that he wins the Palme d’Or while also asking that the gods not give good jobs to successful directors but give them all to him instead, and for bad things to happen to someone who sent him a strongly worded letter. 

Hirobumi’s “fan mail” appears to be from a stuffy old woman who states that she has “kindly” written to him several times already to explain that his work is an insult to cinema yet he keeps “selfishly” making films. She’d liked to have told him this in person, but was apparently “too busy” so has written another letter urging him to reflect on his life choices and either make “good” films like Koreeda and Miyazaki, or find himself another career. Hirobumi wonders what the point of films is if they don’t make people happy or have the capacity to change the world. Asked what films meant to them most of his interview subjects either had no answer or regarded them only as entertainment. An encounter with himself perhaps reminds him what it was he saw in cinema and allows hims him to begin moving forward creatively. 

But even having finished his script, has Hirobumi really changed? He seems permanently to be surrounded by children, hanging out reading the manga in the kids’ section of the library, lining up behind a string of obedient primary school students to check out his DVDs where he sets a bad example by having a series of Tora-san movies already overdue but using grandma’s card to take out more, and hanging out with his niece catching crayfish in the local stream with a bucket and net just like he must have done since he was little. He lies about missing the World Cup, ignores phone calls from the library to snooze while spending time with grandma, and is not really any nicer to the patient Kurosaki than he was before. But life finds its way, Hirobumi escapes his creative malaise by rediscovering the joy of cinema, healing himself body and soul, and feeling more positive about the future even if nothing has really changed. 


Life Finds a Way is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also scheduled to screen as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Festival Trailer (English captions)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Party ‘Round the Globe (地球はお祭り騒ぎ, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2017)

Party 'Round the GlobeEver since their startlingly surreal debut And the Mud Ship Sails Away, the Watanabe brothers have been quietly making waves, determined to put their native Tochigi on the big screen. Last year’s award winning Poolsideman took them to a darker place than they’d hitherto ventured as its silent protagonist lived out his days with rage fuelled anxiety, ready to explode at any given second. Party ‘Round the Globe (地球はお祭り騒ぎ, Chikyu wa Omatsurisawagi) neatly mirrors Poolsideman’s despair and counters it with everyday joys. Once again starring Gaku Imamura as a silent loner, and the director himself, Hirobumi Watanabe, as the non-stop chatterbox intent on making friends with him, the latest effort from the Watanabe brothers finds that despite the myriad awful things reported in the news, life is still basically good, at least in Tochigi when the sun is shining.

In a mild departure from the now familiar pattern, Watanabe opens with a beautifully animated picture book sequence in which a little robot child dreams of travelling to the moon but is unable to catch it even when speeding full steam ahead with his friend, Mr. Car. The robot children love the moon so much that they build a factory to produce fake moons which soon fill the sky, leaving the adults confused and worried, unable to tell the real moon from the fake. All too soon the boy is alone again as his friends float away looking for the “real” moon.

Seemingly divorced from the main narrative, the images from the picture book recur throughout as part of the decor in the strangely warm family home inhabited by the silent and melancholy Mr. Honda (Gaku Imamura) and his lovely little dog, Ringo. Mr. Honda’s routine is set – he listens to the radio as he prepares breakfast, takes Ringo for a walk, and works at a small family run electronics factory where he keeps his head down and concentrates on the repetitive exactitude of soldering circuitboards all day long. The day is interrupted by the cheerful sound of the musical bells which signal a pause in his work, but unlike his colleagues who cluster around the table in the staff room, Mr. Honda stands alone outside, smoking sadly in silence.

Mr. Honda’s life changes when the radio announces some good news for a change – Paul McCartney is coming back to Japan. Unexpectedly invited to accompany a colleague, Hirayama (Hirobumi Watanabe), Mr. Honda finds himself driving all the way to Tokyo with a man who won’t stop talking. Hirayama monologues on and on, never waiting for the answer to his questions and often filling them in himself so he can carry on ranting about standing room only concert venues, entitled Bob Dylan fans, and once again the mystifying fascination young people seem to hold for One Piece. Yet where Poolsideman’s anti-social loner merely tolerated his colleague’s loquacity, Mr. Honda seems almost relieved his new friend is doing most of the talking and is grateful to have been included on this trip, not least because he is also a big McCartney fan who failed to get tickets for his landmark concert.

Mr. Honda’s radio announces terrible things happening everywhere – mistrust in government as the scandal surrounding polluted land at the site of the controversial relocation of the Tsukiji fish market intensifies while the rightwing ruling party is intent on passing an equally controversial anti-conspiracy law which many fear will infringe on civil liberties. Abroad there are religious hate crimes, buildings burning down with people trapped inside, and North Korea sabre rattling in the background. Mr. Honda reacts to them all with stoical indifference, watering his plants, watching baseball games and enjoying the peace and quiet of a pleasant spring day. Yet there’s a sadness in his serenity, as if he’s trying to block out a personal tragedy through silence and repetition as he takes care of his dog alone in a house filled with picture books and children’s drawings but seemingly no children.

Nevertheless, life goes on and the globe keeps turning. Mr. Hirayama’s grandmother celebrates her 100th birthday surrounded by her large extended family who glady make room for friends old and new. Mr. Honda and Ringo are no longer quite so silent and alone, coaxed out of their self-imposed isolation by the extroverted Hirayama who is also glad to have unexpectedly made a new friend in bonding over a shared love of retro pop. No matter how bad things seem to be, there is still warmth and friendship to be found everywhere but most especially in Tochigi.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Poolsideman (プールサイドマン, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2016)

poolsidemanAround halfway through Poolsideman (プールサイドマン), the director himself playing an overly chatty colleague of the film’s protagonist, embarks on a lengthy rant about encroaching middle-age which is instantly relatable to those who find themselves at a similar juncture. He’s sure the world seemed better when he was a child, there wasn’t all of this distress and anxiety – everything just seemed like it would go on forever but time has inexplicably sped up with a series of rapid changes packed into recent years. The life of a poolsideman is improbably intense, or at least it is for Mizuhara (Gaku Imamura) whose days are all the same but filled with tension and the low simmer of something waiting to explode. Loosely inspired by the real life case of a man who left Japan for the Middle East with the idea of joining Isis, Poolsideman wants to explore why such a surreal thing might happen but finds it all too plausible.

Mizuhara lives his life to strict routine. He gets up, turns on his radio to listen to the latest current events which mostly have to do with atrocities in the Middle East, eats breakfast and goes to work where he checks the lockers, patrols the pool, writes down various readings from the boiler system, and avoids his colleagues at break times by sitting outside or eating shortbread in his car before leaving for the day. He then goes to a local cinema where he is generally the only audience member and watches a violent film full of shooting, explosions and screaming, before grabbing a McDonald’s dinner and going home to bed.

His precious routine is broken when one of his colleagues informs him that they’re both being sent to a different pool to help out with staff shortages and asks if it would be possible to give him a lift because the pool is kind of far and he is only a “paper driver” – he has a license, but in reality doesn’t drive. It’s not as if Mizuhara can refuse, and so the pair drive together to another pool where they do the same job only in different surroundings.

The first hour or so of this two hour film is entirely taken up with Mizuhara repeating his near identical days while different news reports play recounting various international atrocities. Mizuhara never says anything and runs through each of his tasks with robotic precision but there’s something burning somewhere just behind his eyes. He looks at his colleagues with disdain as they gossip raucously in the rec room before taking himself outside to smoke or enjoy his daily shortbread alone in his car listening to more reports of terrible things happening abroad. Despite his apparent calmness, Mizuhara does indeed seem like the type who may just snap but deciding to join Isis is not necessarily the result most would have predicted.

Poolsideman’s main position is that blanket news coverage of horrific events may have strained Mizuhara’s already tense mind, leading him to believe the world is a worse place than it really is. Later, he switches his radio preferences but sticks with international politics as the world swings right – Trump, at that point still a candidate, suggests using nuclear weapons against “enemy” forces in the Middle East (something particularly worrying to the only nation so far with direct experience of nuclear attack) while Obama and Clinton attempt to talk sense. Britain votes for Brexit, against expectation and its own interest which, the commentator explains, is expected to lead to the destabilisation of Cameron’s government, extreme economic chaos, and political turmoil (on point, as it seems). Mizuhara carries on as before, cereal, toothbrushing, the pool, the cinema, and McDonald’s but there’s always the feeling that he’s standing on the edge about to jump and there’s no way to know how he might do it.

Less ostensibly humorous than And The Mudship Sails Away, Poolsideman still finds room for comedy though mostly through the amusing monologues delivered by Watanabe to the ever silent Mizuhara. Ranting about modern life from an inability to connect with the young to the noise pollution of hipster karaoke bars and ramen restaurants that make you book a ticket in advance, Watanabe’s observations are all too true but at least he works out his frustration with friendliness and good humour rather than internalising some kind of barely suppressed rage which threatens to boil over at any second. A kind of state of the nation address, Poolsideman gestures at the enemy within – the ignored, frustrated, and angry young man whose mind is ripe for hijacking when assaulted by a constant barrage of violence and political disturbance. Ending on a note of ambiguous tension Poolsideman wonders where all of this leads, or if it leads anywhere at all, but offers no easy answers for the problem of Japan’s disillusioned youth.


Poolsideman was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Raindance 2014 Interviews – Hirobumi Watanabe / Kosuke Takaya (Via UK Anime Network)

Forgot to link to the other two interviews I conducted at Raindance last year for UK Anime Network.

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And the Mud Ship Sails Away

Hirobumi Watanabe – Director of And the Mudship Sails Away

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Buy Bling Get One Free

Kosuke Takaya – Director of Buy Bling Get One Free.

Both of these films are available in Third Window Films’ New Directors From Japan box set alongside Nagisa Isogai’s The Lust of Angels whom I also interviewed at the festival.

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The Lust of Angels

Um, maybe don’t read them all though or you’ll figure out that I mostly just asked everyone the same questions without quite realising at the time….

I’d like to think I’m getting better at this but perhaps not, judge for yourselves!

 

New Directors From Japan Box Set (UK Anime Network Review)

A1rM9z8kBbL._SL1500_Great new box set from Third Window Films reviewed on Uk-anime.net.


We’re used to Third Window Films bringing us some of the best in contemporary Japanese cinema (as well as a few classics too), but this time they’ve gone even further and let us in on the ground floor as we meet these three new directors on the rise. This project was also a first as it took the unusual route of going to Kickstarter to fund its production, albeit following a pleasingly straightforward pre-order system. The three directors featured in this set all come from different backgrounds and are working in very different genres. As such they represent the level of diversity in modern Japanese indie filmmaking and each prove they have something very different and particularly idiosyncratic to offer in their later careers.

The first of these up and coming directors is Nagasa Isogai who has two films featured in the set – her student film My Baby and her longer short film, The Lust of Angels. My Baby tells the slightly crazy story of two sisters whose sibling rivalry intensifies as they both plan to have children of their own. Made to very strict guidelines, it’s shot in a now old fashioned looking 4:3 screen ratio with non-sync sound and has a strangely ‘70s-esque feeling with its odd, melodramatic concept and mostly straight forward shooting style.

Similarly, Lust of Angels takes on a lot of baggage from ‘70s exploitation cinema and though shot in a more modern feeling 2.35:1 widescreen it still has a distinctly old school feeling. Taking its queue from the delinquent girl movies of the past, The Lust of Angels is a dramatic story about train groping and female revenge. Transfer student Yuriko accidentally catches the train to school, something which most girls don’t do owing to its reputation as a “groper train”, where she discovers fellow student Saori about to fall victim to just this unpleasant crime. However, unbeknownst to the others Saori catches the train because she enjoys the attentions of the various perverts who ride it and even goes so far as to carry a special book which marks her out as desiring their attentions. Exploring such complicated themes as the differing reactions to burgeoning teenage sexuality, sexual abuse and sexual violence as well as female violence and revenge, The Lust of Angels is one of the more complex efforts in the set. However, first and foremost it works best as an exercise in genre and proves enjoyable both in that regard and in offering a good deal of promise for the future.

Next up is Kosuke Takaya whose 27 minute short is the most straightforwardly comic selection on the bill. Made under the NDJC program which aims to give a helping hand to promising new Japanese directors, Buy Bling Get One Free is a humorous satire on the fashion industry. Its hapless protagonist Kamono is literally a fashion victim – much less interested in expressing himself than in fitting into a scene, Kamono is easy prey for a bunch of weird fashion cultists. While it is undoubtedly very funny (and totally packed with awesome puns!), Buy Bling Get One Free is slightly hemmed in by the constraints of the NDJC programme. As such it may feel like a slighter effort than the other offerings in the set but it does still allow director Kosuke Takaya to show off a fair amount of skill which bodes well for the future.

The final and longest film included comes from Hirofumi Watanabe whose 88 minute feature tells the surreal story of layabout Takashi who unexpectedly discovers he has a teenage half sister he was previously completely unaware of. Takashi is a divorced father with no job and no hopes or plans for the future but his sudden discovery of a little sister and the new found responsibility being a big brother prompts him into thinking about his life. Finally, he makes a decision but unfortunately it ends up involving drug smuggling, shady business and finally….aliens! And The Mud Ship Sails Away is definitely the most surreal film in the set. It starts off with a sort of Jarmuschian aloofness which is brought out by the relatively static camera and black and white photography but towards the end this has been completely turned on its head. The last and strangest act takes on a Gilliam-esque level of absurdity with completely crazy, jagged camera action and bizarrely framed super close-ups. Some may feel the third act is simply too much or at least too far removed from the relative naturalism of the rest of the film but for those who like their movies surreal with a capital “S” And the Mud Ship Sails Away is another excellent addition to weird cinema.

Alongside the films themselves the package also offers interviews with each of the directors discussing how they got into filmmaking and more specifically how they came to make these particular films, as well as their general hopes for the future. Additionally, there’s also an interview with producer Shogo Tomiyama who’s the supervisor of the NJDC programme at the moment but is also famous for his involvement in the Godzilla franchise. This entire package was something of a labour of love for its producers and a fairly risky business venture – hence the initial need for Kickstarter. However, what The New Directors From Japan box set proves is that there is a wide and varied crop of new talent hovering just below the surface of contemporary Japanese cinema. Hopefully not the last boxset of this kind, each of the films presented has its own degree of promise and it will certainly be interesting to see how these burgeoning careers develop in years to come.