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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005

Making a difference in Japanese cinema

Special to The Japan Times

Film critics, like any one else, have their pet causes -- films and careers they want to boost or bury. But unless they wield the clout of a Roger Ebert, they are just one voice in a choir that, with the Internet, is growing by the dozens every day. Singing as sweetly as they want about their favorite indie gem, they often have little way of knowing whether it matters to anyone but the director and his mother.

News photo
A scene from Mistuo Yanagimachi's "Kamyu Nante Shiranai (Who's Camus Anyway?)," winner of the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section of this year's Tokyo International Film Festival.

Serving on a film jury, as I did this year and last for the Japanese Eyes section of the Tokyo International Film Festival, is more like being a choirmaster. Together with fellow critics Hiroo Odaka and Tsuzuyo Inagaki, I could present not only a Best Picture Award and Special Award to two films (no splitting allowed), but 1 million yen cash prizes to the winners. In other words, instead of sending out our respective scribblings into the void, we could, as they say, make a difference.

This year we had 11 films to choose from -- and no hesitation in selecting the winner, Mitsuo Yanagimachi's "Kamyu Nante Shiranai (Who's Camus Anyway?)." Screened in the Directors Fortnight section of this year's Cannes festival, Yanagimachi's first feature film in a decade begins as a light-hearted semi-autobiographical examination of modern college life, with a plot revolving around a chaotic student film production. (Yanagimachi himself teaches film at Rikkyo University.)

But even in his brilliantly shot opening sequence, in which the students and their teacher intersect and interact as they walk across campus, Yanagimachi is planting seeds of deeper concerns and themes. The characters not only spout film references (including a winking one, in the opening, to Robert Altman's similarly long and intricately choreographed sequence in "The Player"), but several begin to live them.

The labor of production -- they are making a film based on Camus' "L'Etranger" -- becomes all absorbing, until they and those around them are confronted by the real-life implications of their various obsessions. Finally, fiction and reality begin to merge, in ways that resonate and disturb. It's a film that repays repeated viewings -- and the strongest I've seen all year.

We gave the Special Award to something completely different, Masaki Kobayashi's "Ski Jump Pairs -- Road to Torino 2006." Advertised as a "human documentary," the film is in fact a brilliant send-up of all those po-faced NHK docs on triumphs-against-adversity. It then segues, midway, into -- well, I really shouldn't say, only that I have never -- and I mean never -- seen a Japanese film so all-fours-in-the-air funny. Think "Airplane" on the ski slopes. It's that good.

I also quite liked Yoshihiro Fukagawa's "Okami Shojo (When the Show Tent Came to My Town)," a film about kids in a provincial town in the early 1970s that is both entertaining, in a classic, slapsticky "Little Rascals" way, and insightful into childhood fears, curiosities, friendships and isolation. First-time director Fukagawa manages this difficult balancing act smoothly, while drawing performances from his young cast that are clearly shaped, without being fake or coy.

Masahiko Makino (formerly Tsugawa) may have been another new director with a film, "Nezu no Ban," in the section, but he's also a veteran actor with more than 150 credits, who belongs to a distinguished film business family with a lineage going back to grandfather Shozo Makino -- Japan's first true director. His film, about a series of deaths that comically inflict a Kansai rakugo (comic storytelling) clan, headed by a randy old coot played by Makino's brother, Hiroyuki Nagato, is steeped in traditional show business lore. The puns in Kansai dialect may not be knee-slappers to outlanders (including foreigners parsing the only-adequate subtitles), but the film offers a fascinating inside look at rakugo and geisha life -- including a contest between two shamisen players trying to top each other's smutty lyrics -- that you will probably not find in "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Several other films in the section also had their pleasures and points of interest. Akira Osaki's "Catchball-ya (The Catch Man)," a whimsical drama about a loser getting back his groove by playing catch for pay with strangers in a public park, was a solid single that could have used more magical thinking. Miako Tadano's "Sannen Migomoru (Three Year Delivery)," about a woman who carries her first child for three strange years, had plenty of magic, but little dramatic tension, beyond the obvious when and how. Nobuhiko Hosaka's "So Kamoshirenai," yet another in a long line of Japanese films about the trials of senility, had strong performances by former pop idol Izumi Yukimura, playing an Alzheimer's-afflicted woman, and Harudanji Katsura as her vexed novelist husband, but it was otherwise a straightforward melodrama with the obligatory tear-and-sigh ending.

One film I truly couldn't stick was Yosuke Nakagawa's "Mahiru no Hoshizora (Starlit High Noon)," an empty exercise in piss-elegant noir starring Wang Leehom as a young Taiwanese hit man inexplicably hiding out in Okinawa, where he encounters and falls for an older woman, played by Kyoka Suzuki, who uses the same Laundromat. Though male-model handsome, Wang is no actor, and Suzuki, the best Japanese actress of her generation, blows him off the screen. Other than its co-production deal, this film has little reason to exist -- save for Suzuki's wasted, one-woman performance.

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