It’s November, which means the Leeds International Film Festival has returned to my city. Last year I wrote up a quick rundown on the Japanese films that would be showing. This time around, things are a little more subdued – there’s nothing as high profile as Hirokaze Kore-eda’s headline-grabbing (and later Oscar-nominated) festival favourite Shoplifters, for example, or the previous year that featured not only Takashi Miike’s 100th film Blade of the Immortal, but the prolific director’s 101st film, too.
Still, just because Japanese films aren’t being showcased in quite the same way doesn’t mean they aren’t featured across the two weeks of the festival. There are three anime features, with Studio Trigger’s visually acclaimed Promare and the latest film from Lu Over the Wall director Masaaki Yuasa perhaps representing some of the most anticipated of the festival’s Japanese catalogue. There’s also a Werner Herzog drama, a retrospective screening of Osaka Elegy (1936), and a couple of quirky looking features in the form of Five Million Dollar Life and We Are Little Zombies.
Jump below the cut for a breakdown of each film.
Children of the Sea (2019)
Dir.: Ayumu Watanabe
Adapted from the manga by Daisuke Igarashi, produced by Studio 4°C (Tekkonkinkreet, Memories), and scored by frequent Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, Children of the Sea is a gorgeous-looking anime that, sadly, I know very little about. I’ll be eager to hear how it’s received.
Family Romance, LLC (2019)
Dir.: Werner Herzog
Herzog’s latest, which premiered at this year’s Cannes, is a peculiar beast. It’s built around the oft-discussed Japanese industry of “friends for hire”, companies which allow people to hire actors who impersonate friends or family at social events. Like a lot of “weird Japan” stories getting into what’s involved in that and how it’s reported would be a whole different story, so let’s focus on Herzog’s work. He’s hired non-professional actors, including the real life proprietor of the titular, non-fictional Family Romance LLC, to act out dramatised versions of the company’s actual offerings. It sounds unusual to say the least.
Five Million Dollar Life (2019)
Dir.: Sungho Moon
In Sungho Moon’s directorial debut, Ayumu Mochizuki stars as teenager Mirai who received life-saving surgery as a child via public donations – five million dollars (or five hundred million yen) is the literal value placed on his life. With echoes of The Truman Show, Mirai now makes regular TV appearances to keep the public updated on his life – with all the obvious pressure of how he’s supposed to live a life that makes their “investment” worthwhile.
Osaka Elegy (1936)
Dir.: Kenji Mizoguchi
I’m going to be honest with my readers: I’m not as familiar with Mizoguchi as I should be. If you were to dig through the archives of my reviews, the earliest Japanese film I’ve reviewed is Kurosawa’s Stray Dog in 1949. Mizoguchi was more active in the ’30s and ’40s, and he along with Yasujiro Ozu represent a blind spot for me in classic Japanese cinema that I should really get around to filling in. As for Osaka Elegy, I’ll quote from Criterion’s release:
A critical and popular triumph, Osaka Elegy established Mizoguchi as one of Japan’s major filmmakers. The director’s often-used leading actress Isuzu Yamada stars as Ayako, a switchboard operator trapped in a compromising, ruinous relationship with her boss to help support her wastrel father. With its fluid cinematography and deft storytelling, Osaka Elegy ushered in a new era of sound melodrama for Mizoguchi.
Dir.: Hiroyuki Imaishi
While the giant mech anime genre may feel over-saturated, what sets Promare apart is its gorgeous looks (don’t take my word for it – check out the trailer above). The basic plot feels lifted from well-known tropes: people known as “the Burnish” have emerged from a world-changing event with pyrokinetic powers and they’re facing off against mech-using firefighters in a story that immediately has shades of Evangelion, Patlabor, and half a dozen others. I think my appetite for giant mechs mixed with supernatural sci-fi elements has waned – at least when it’s not being mixed with satire, like the fairly recent Darling in the Franxx – but the animation on show might be enough of a hook to waive the more familiar elements.
Ride Your Wave (2019)
Dir.: Masaaki Yuasa
Speaking of compelling animation, Masaaki Yuasa’s flowing visual style is immediately recognisable in the trailer for Ride Your Wave. A previous festival featured his similarly aquatic Lu Over the Wall – and western animation fans might be familiar with his psychedelic episode of Adventure Time. His latest work appears to be a tragic romance: when a young woman’s love disappears while surfing she is heartbroken, but discovers she can find and speak to him again in sources of water, whether it’s the sea or even a drinking glass.
We Are Little Zombies (2019)
Dir.: Makoto Nagahisa
Four young Japanese teens bond over their parents’ deaths and newly orphaned status and form a band to work through the grief in a film whose 8-bit stylings can’t help but remind me of Scott Pilgrim. It looks fascinating and is well-reviewed, but I can’t help but be amused by the confusion caused by this and the unrelated, actual zombie film Little Monsters screening in the same festival.
Showtimes and tickets for all the films above are available on the festival’s official website: