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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004

The Japanese Eyes have it

This year the Tokyo International Film Festival launched several new sections and events, as part of General Producer Tsuguhiko Kadokawa's restructuring drive to make TIFF the most important festival in Asia. One was "Japanese Eyes (Nihon Eiga -- Aru Shiten)," an eight-film section programmed with the aim of presenting Japanese films that are worth a closer look from both the local audience and the world at large -- thus the "Aru Shiten (A Certain Look)" tag borrowed from a similar section at the Cannes Film Festival.

News photo
Masato Hagiwara in "Jyukai"

I was asked to serve on the jury for the section, together with film journalists Chiseko Tanaka and Hiro Otaka. Two prizes were at stake: a Best Picture Award and a Special Award for the best talent, including but not limited to actors and directors. Each was worth 1 million yen.

Festival jurors are usually shuttled from screening to screening as a group -- and start forming alliances (or making enemies) before they sit down to hash out their selections. Unfortunately, the first day get-together for the Japanese Eyes jurors never materialized -- and I ended up seeing the films on my lonesome. So I didn't know what to expect when I finally met Tanaka and Otaka on Friday night, on the last day of the Japanese Eyes screenings.

Both were, like me, freelancers who wrote about films for a variety of publications, including Kinema Junpo -- Japan's oldest film magazine. Both, as it turned out, quite liked "Ki no Umi (Jyukai -- The Sea of Trees Behind Mount Fuji)," the debut film by Tomoyuki Takimoto about four people who decide, at different times and in different ways, to end their lives in the forest called "Ki no Umi (The Sea of Trees)" at the foot of Mount Fuji.

To me "Ki no Umi" was like an omnibus film on a theme, with some segments clearly better than others. (One that made me squirm featured Masato Hagiwara having a long, overwrought one-way conversation with a decaying corpse.)

There was also a "problem film" aspect to "Ki no Umi" that was, um, problematic. In telling his four stories about suicides, attempted and committed, Takimoto wanted to say something about contemporary Japan and the human condition, but at times his desire to wring tears seemed stronger.

That said, I had to agree that "Jiyu no Umi" was not just weightier than other entries we discussed, including Takayuki Suzui's quirky family comedy "Angel in the Box" and Makoto Tezka's moody, stylish thriller "Synchronicity," but better acted as well. So "Jiyu no Umi" it was.

The film's best segment -- in which a shy-but-persistent private detective (Sansei Shiomi) questions a reluctant salaryman (Kanji Tsuda) about a now-dead former classmate -- is a small gem, in which Shiomi and Tsuda not only bare their characters' souls, but connect with an immediacy of feeling that seems less rehearsed than found.

I proposed splitting the Special Award between the two actors (and Tanaka and Otaka did not object), but our moderator told us we had to come down for one or the other. We finally gave our nod to Tsuda -- a young actor who might get a bigger career boost from the prize. He hurried from the set for his latest film to accept it -- and his look of joy was a big enough reward for two hours of arguing over movies in a noisy restaurant.

For that one scene alone I have to call Japanese Eyes a success. I just hope that more eyes than ours get to see Shiomi and Tsuda create an instant classic.

For related stories: Raise a glass to Uruguay Reaching for the stars

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