JFF Encore

July 5, 2014
Takako Matsu in a scene from "Confessions"  (2010)
Takako Matsu in a scene from "Confessions" (2010)

With film festivals increasing in number every year, and existing festivals getting bigger, it’s easy to miss the stand-out items in any program. The Japan Foundation has found an innovative way of addressing this problem with the Japanese Film Festival Encore screenings. From 9-13 July, the Foundation will be running a “Japan Academy Awards Edition” at Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney. It’s a connoisseur’s selection of eight films that have won major awards in Japan and elsewhere. This mini-festival is intended as a reminder of the quality of Japanese cinema, and an advertisement for the full-scale Japanese Film Festival, which comes along in October. Each of the Encore films has been screened at an earlier JFF.

Heading the bill is Yojiro Takita’s Departures (2008), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. The other features are: Confessions (2010), When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003), Tokyo Tower – Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad (2007), Rebirth (2011), The Kirishima Thing (2012) and Key of Life (2012).

With the exception of Departures, none of these movies is especially wellknown outside of Japan, which may be a lure for Australian audiences.

If you’ve never seen Departures, it’s one of those films that tugs on the heartstrings in predictable fashion, but transcends its own sentimentality. It’s a movie that stays in the mind in a way that is very rare. This is largely because it is about one of the fundamental experiences of life – namely death.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a young cellist who loses his job when his orchestra is forced to fold. His only option is to return to his home town and live in the house left to him by his late mother.

Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), his smiling, chirpy wife, agrees to the move, only confessing her anxieties at a much later date. The problem of finding a job is solved when Daigo applies for a post helping with “Departures”. He imagines his potential employer to be some sort of travel agent, but soon finds himself an “encoffineer” – a professional who prepares corpses for the undertaker as part of a family farewell ceremony.

It may sound macabre but Takita succeeds in making a truly beautiful, touching film about how we deal with death. We are taken on the journey with Daigo, feeling our own inhibitions and anxieties smoothed away, lulled by the music of Brahms that wells up at the crucial moments.

Takita is also the director of When the Last Sword is Drawn, an acclaimed samurai drama. I was interested enough to look up his earlier films and was amazed to find that the maker of Departures spent much of the 1980s churning out the soft-core porn flicks known generically as “Pinku”. It’s as if Baz Luhrmann suddenly made Paris, Texas, or Tim Burton did Cries and Whispers.

There are some highly original directors whose films were marketed under the Pinku label, such as Seijun Suzuki and Koji Wakamatsu, but judging by the titles alone it seems hard to imagine that Takita’s youthful efforts were major works of art. Wakamatsu gave us mind-boggling creations such as The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966) and Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969), but it’s hardly possible to make great claims for a film called Molester Train: Rumiko’s Ass (1983).

Pardon the diversion, but no-one should be surprised if the cinema reflects the deep strangeness that permeates all Japanese culture. Formality and anarchy, beauty and violence, are very closely aligned in many Japanese films, with occasional bursts of sheer craziness by prolific directors such as Takashi Miike. Some of these movies are unwatchable, but others are mesmeric.

Take for example another Encore feature – Confessions, by Tetsuya Nakashima. This dark, tense film begins with the stiff theatricality of a Noh play, as a teacher, Ms. Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), talks to her class about the murder of her small daughter and identifies the killers among the pupils. Slowly, purposefully she proceeds to enact her revenge.

This would be gripping enough if we only saw the action from Ms. Moriguchi’s angle, but Nakashima takes us through the story from the viewpoint of the two murderers, and another girl, Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto). As the narrative creeps slowly forward, it feels as though every character has their own intense form of madness.

One of the scariest aspects of the story is the way the class turns on the murderers, inflicting acts of cruelty until the villiains have become victims. It may be a dark fantasy, but as a study of the pressures of teenage life it feels only too plausible.

JFF Encore
http://japanesefilmfestival.net

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5 July, 2014.