Sunday, February 03, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Japan

The Japan Foundation's annual film season brings recent Japanese cinema to the UK, and gives many films screenings in this country that they otherwise would never have. The 2013 season has been entitled Once Upon a Time in Japan, and it consists of a number of films set in the country's past, from 20th century stories to tales from centuries ago. The programme is eclectic enough to provide films for every taste, and here's my brief take on a few highlights.

Rebirth (Yôkame no semi)

Izuru Narushima's Rebirth opens in a courtroom, with two women making statements directly to the camera. One is Etsuko (Yôko Moriguchi), a woman whose newborn baby Erina was abducted for the first four years of her life, and who now demands that the culprit receive the death sentence. The second woman to speak is Kiwako (Hiromi Nagasaku), the kidnapper awaiting her fate, but she expresses no remorse for her crime. Instead, she tells the court of her sadness at the loss of a child she has come to think of as her own. This is the starting point for a complicated and absorbing examination of the maternal instinct, with Narushima and his screenwriter Satoko Okudera muddying the moral waters by shifting our sympathies in unexpected ways. Kiwako's relationship with the child – whom she renames Kaoru – is depicted as a loving one, with Kiwako being the kind of caring and attentive parent to Erina that her natural mother seems incapable of being. As well as exploring the question of nature vs. nurture through this storyline, Narushima depicts the psychological impact of this experience with a parallel narrative, in which the adult Erina (Mao Inoue) slowly comes to terms with her past. Rebirth consistently develops in surprising ways and the compelling performances from the female cast keeps the audience riveted when the pace occasionally lags, which happens rarely, as Narushima skilfully juggles between his two tales. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Narushima's direction is the way he tells this potentially melodramatic story while keeping sentimentality mostly at bay, and the film's key moments are all the more affecting for being handled in an understated manner.

Zero Focus (Zero no shôten)

Seicho Matsumoto's mystery novel Zero Focus has already been filmed once, by Yoshitaro Nomura in 1961, and the first difference that stands out with this 2009 version is the addition of 35 minutes to the running time. Those extra minutes really start to make their presence felt as Isshin Inudô's film gets bogged down in plot details and forgets to provide the thrills that this story should really possess. The film has an intriguing premise to work with: new bride Teiko (Ryôko Hirosue) is prompted to investigate her husband's clandestine past when he disappears a week into their marriage. As she digs deeper, Teiko comes into contact with two other women who each have their own connection with her missing spouse, Sachiko (Miki Nakatani) and Hisako (Tae Kimura), and learns of a serial killer on the loose. Regrettably, none of this is as exciting as it sounds. The film plods along at a lugubrious pace, and the impact of its most important revelations are lost underneath thick layers of talky exposition and red herrings. Even as the bodies start to pile up, Zero Focus never grips as it should, and one starts to suspect that more attention has been paid to the admittedly handsome recreation of post-war Japan than to the mechanics of the storytelling. Zero Focus does have one big asset however – Miki Nakatani. She has a commanding screen presence that none of the actors around her can live with, and when she isn't on screen, she is sorely missed.

Castle Under Fiery Skies (Katen no shiro)

A terrific performance from Toshiyuki Nishida is at the centre of Mitsutoshi Tanaka's Castle Under Fiery Skies. He plays the humble architect and carpenter Motaemon, who is summoned by Lord Nobunaga when the ambitious lord wishes to build an enormous mountaintop castle that will stand as the focal point of the whole country. The logistics of building this gigantic structure within Nobunaga's specified deadline of three years forms the dramatic thrust of the film, which is at its best when it focuses on the process involved in overcoming the various challenges that Motaemon faces. These include finding the perfect cypress tree with which to create the castle's central column and – in the movie's best scene – successfully lifting the whole structure in order to make some minor adjustments. At other times, Castle Under Fiery Skies struggles to imbue its supporting characters with any depth, which makes the time spent with them feel like time wasted, and some of the film's more spectacular set-pieces feel as if they have been arbitrarily inserted because the filmmakers fear their story isn't exciting enough. They needn't worry; even if it may lack much in the way of conventional excitement, Castle Under Fiery Skies is an interesting and unusual tale, impressively mounted and engrossingly told.

Ninja Kids!!! (Nintama Rantarô)

Ninja Kids!!! was released in Japan in 2011, which makes it old news as far as Takashi Miike is concerned. The ultra-prolific director has made four films since this one, but Ninja Kids!!! is worth a look as it's something of a rarity among Miike's work, being very much a film aimed at children. An adaptation of a popular Japanese cartoon, the film doesn't really have much of a story, instead settling for an endless barrage of broad gags. Most of the jokes surround explosions of snot, people stepping in dog shit, and adults getting hit on the head with a variety of objects (sometimes resulting in a cartoonish purple bruise right in the middle of their forehead). I guess I shouldn't gripe about such an approach when the three exclamation points in the title don't exactly suggest a restrained piece of filmmaking, but it all does grow rather relentless and repetitive, with Miike even reusing the same shots a number of times in certain comic moments. It's hard to deny that it is pretty funny at times, though. Miike's creative energy occasionally throws up some brilliantly imaginative and hilarious shots, and while throwing everything at a movie to see what sticks usually suggests a work of desperation, this director's imagination is so fertile it simply comes off as an excess of wild ideas dumped onscreen for our enjoyment. Ninja Kids!!! is a chaotic mess, but its target audience will probably love it.

The Once Upon a Time in Japan season is currently running at the ICA. It will be visiting cinemas around the UK throughout February and March.