LIFF2019: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

My second film of the festival is being screened as part of the “Mother Cutter” exhibit showcasing female film editors (named after Verna Fields, editor of American Graffiti and Jaws, amongst others). Dziga Vertov’s landmark Soviet documentary – if it can be even called a documentary; it’s more of a pioneering visual experiment in presenting moving images without any framework like intertitles or narration – was edited by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova. Simply put, the film wouldn’t exist without her; it’s through her work that the myriad scenes shot across the Soviet Union are intertwined. She even features in the film, shown, naturally enough, cutting and splicing the frames of footage that make up the film itself.

I love the film, principally for the way it brings to life a lost era. It’s propaganda, of course, but it’s incredible to glimpse the Soviet Union as it wanted to be seen in 1929 – Vertov seems to delight in showing off public transport, industry, work, play. It’s fascinatingly egalitarian, intercutting between men and women at work, marriages and divorces, funerals and births.

It was also a pleasure to watch on the big screen, in the same way Juzo Itami’s Tampopo was at a retrospective screening last year. Man with a Movie Camera opens in a movie theatre, watching as the projectionist readies his reels, as the chairs are set and the crowds come in, as the orchestra prepares to accompany the film. It feels very similar to Tampopo‘s film theatre opening, where one of the characters speaks to the audience, who view the theatre as if looking in from the screen. Watching a film like that, one that plays with its theatre environment, feels very different when actually watched in a slightly rickety old theatre seen than on the sofa at home.

Leeds International Film Festival 2019

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.

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Two Decades of Ring

One of my favourite things to do recently is find cinemas screening older films I either missed the first time around or that I never had a chance to see on the big screen. Often this coincides with a big anniversary for a film, which means I had a chance to catch Alien for its 40th anniversary and Die Hard for its 30th. We’re just past the 20th anniversary of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 adaptation of Ring and Arrow Films have put out a stunning new restoration in collaboration with the original filmmakers. I picked up the box set they released that includes Ring 2, Ring Zero and the lesser seen Rasen/Spiral and while I haven’t checked them all out yet, I did manage to catch Ring at my usual cinema.

I ought to write up my experience revisiting the film after nearly twenty years – I’m fairly sure I haven’t seen it since the early 2000s, when I would have watched it on an old CRT. It’s perhaps the rare film that loses something in being on a giant screen, kind of the opposite of Tampopo and its wonderful opening sequence looking out from the ‘screen’ into an ’80s Japanese movie theatre. Even watching it at home on a Blu-Ray and a flatscreen television wouldn’t have the same impact. Whether or not I get around to writing a review, Dan Martin and Sam Ashurst of the Arrow Video Podcast have a great discussion of the film that I would highly recommend.

Leeds International Film Festival 2018

It’s that time of year again: November approaches, and with it, the 32nd Leeds International Film Festival. Last year was in part a celebration of Japanese director Takashi Miike hitting his 100th feature film with Blade of the Immortal, and I wrote about the many other Japanese films featured that year. Then, flu struck me down, and I still haven’t caught up on Miike! This year I’m armed with a flu jab and a fresh copy of the festival’s programme. Let’s take a look at the Japanese cinema exhibiting this year:

 

Being Natural (2018)

Dir. Tadashi Nagayama

Caring for his uncle with dementia, Taka lodges in an idyllic thatched cottage in the countryside. When the uncle’s son Mitsuaki returns, his quiet life of caring and bongo-playing seems in doubt, until he and childhood friend Sho are reunited in friendship. But unwelcome visits by a nature-obsessed family from Tokyo threaten to overturn this bucolic existence. At heart a gentle pastoral comedy and satire of romanticised country life, in the hands of Tadashi Nagayama (director of 2016’s Journey of the Tortoise), events start to take a very unexpected direction.

 

Inuyashiki (2018)

Dir. Shinsuke Sato

From the original manga and anime series comes a brand new live action sci-fi superhero showdown from Shinsuke Sato. The ineffectual father of an uncaring family and with even more bad news on the way, Inuyashiki is suddenly struck by a mysterious explosion, awaking to discover his body has acquired fantastically powerful robotic innards. Unsure of the extent of his abilities, but resolving to do good, he is unaware that a teenager, Shishigami, was also caught in the same explosion. Shishigami may have similar powers, but he harbours more psychopathic tendencies.

 

Mirai (2018)

Dir. Mamoru Hosoda

From acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children), Mirai is a daringly original story of love passed down through generations. When four-year-old Kun meets his new baby sister, his world is turned upside down. Named Mirai (meaning ‘future’), the baby quickly wins the hearts of Kun’s entire family. As his mother returns to work, and his father struggles to run the household, Kun becomes increasingly jealous of the baby. Mirai is a sumptuous, magical and emotionally soaring adventure about the ties that bring families together and make us who we are.

 

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

Dir. Shin’ichirô Ueda

Hack film director Higurashi (whose motto is ‘fast, cheap, but average’) is hired to make a zombie film in an abandoned WWII Japanese facility, allegedly used for human experiments by the military. In the middle of the shoot they are attacked by real zombies, much to the delight of the director who is determined to include the carnage in his film. Opening with an epic 37 minute single take, this low budget film challenges the tired genre and delivers a truly unique fast-paced, laugh-out-loud, meta-as-possible zombie comedy.

One Cut of the Dead was one of my ‘dream picks’ for the festival since hearing about it a few months back. It played at Frightfest in London, then in the fantastically named Abertoir horror festival in Aberystwyth, then Nottingham – I had my fingers crossed it would finally work its way up to my home town. When it didn’t make the highlight reel at the programme launch event I was disappointed, but here it is! Squirrelled away in the annual ‘Night of the Dead’ marathon.

 

Penguin Highway (2018)

Dir. Hiroyasu Ishida

In this debut anime feature from Hiroyasu Ishida, Aoyama is a serious 10 year-old boy who records all of his day-to-day experiences in his notebook. One day in May, penguins inexplicably appear in his home town, despite it being located a long way from the sea. When Aoyama sees ‘Big Sis’ drop a soft drink can which inexplicably turns into a penguin, he decides to investigate and resolve the mystery behind these strange events.

 

Shoplifters (2018)

Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, this deeply rich story of a deeply poor family will steal your heart. On wintry Tokyo backstreets, a man and his young boy are doing the shopping for the household – their practiced shoplifting routine yields food for everyone. Going home they spot a hungry little girl and before long the family has extended to six – poor but loving, and often joyful. From the director of Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister comes his most beautifully satisfying film yet.

I wrote about Shoplifters winning the prestigious Palme d’Or, so soon after I was introduced to Kore-eda for the first time with the fantastic After the Storm

 

Tampopo (1985)

Dir. Juzo Itami

Trucking stranger Goro rides into town and takes shelter in a failing out-of-the-way ramen restaurant. He takes pity on the downtrodden proprietress Tampopo, and with a diverse team of local noodle, broth and topping experts sets out to turn Tampopo’s tired old joint into the finest in Tokyo. Into this light soupy story many satirical ingredients are mixed: Tampopo’s buffet of deliciousness riffs on Japanese corporate culture, internationalism, domestic relations, cinema and always sex. One of the best Japanese films of the 1980s, Tampopo is impossible to watch without dreaming of hearty post-movie eats.

I was such a huge fan of A Taxing Woman that I really wanted to track down some more of Itami’s films, and as Tampopo is one of the few with a readily available Western release, it’s high on my list. I’ve put it off and put it off, though, and here comes two opportunities to see it in Leeds. The first at the film festival, and then in a “Ramen & a Movie” screening at The Reliance!

 

The Travelling Cat Chronicles (2018)

Dir. Kôichirô Miki

‘I am a cat. As yet, I have no name’. So begins the chronicles of Nana, a stray cat who has adopted its own master, Satoru, as he sets out to revisit friends from his past, with a request that Nana doesn’t yet understand. Partly narrated by Nana herself and based on the enormously successful Japanese novel by Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a humorous and tender exploration of how small acts of kindness and sacrifice can make a difference in the unexpected events of people’s lives.

 

Violence Voyager (2018)

Dir. Ujicha

Despite warnings from hermit Old Man Lucky –Monkey, Bobby, his friend Akkun and Derrick the cat explore the local mountains, where they discover a mysterious alien invasion-themed amusement park. Little do they or we know the truly deranged horror and grotesquery awaiting these innocents. Filmed live in ‘Geki-mation’ – painstakingly hand-painted cardboard cutouts with in-camera effects – this colourful fairytale aesthetic erupts in a torrent of grotesque mutilation, child-robot hybrids, bodily fluids and forest animals. A uniquely entertaining, disturbing and unforgettable film.

 

That covers all the Japanese feature films at this year’s festival, but I wanted to mention one South Korean entry in particular. It’s based on a short story by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

 

Burning (2018)

Dir. Chang-dong Lee

The new film from leading Korean director Lee Changdong (Oasis, Poetry) took eight years to arrive but it was more than worth the wait, stunning critics at Cannes Film Festival this year. A beautifully-crafted mystery thriller based on a short story about obsessive love by Haruki Murakami, Burning starts out as a story about a deliveryman who cares for his girlfriend’s cat while she goes away to Africa. Then she returns with a stranger.

 

Of course, there’s more to the festival than Japanese film. There are some big, mainstream films getting early showings, like Widows and The Old Man & The Gun, stunning documentaries like Genesis 2.0 and Welcome to Sodom, and plenty more that I’ve only skimmed over. As well as catching several of the above Japanese films, I’ve already grabbed tickets for Sorry to Bother You on the opening night, and a screening of Dredd as part of the festival’s “Timeframes” collection of films taking place over a single day. What will you be seeing?

The Grand Sumo Summer Tournament: Day 8

Somehow despite being a long-term Japanophile, I’d managed to avoid sumo wrestling until long after I left the country. Last September I accidentally caught part of the Autumn Tournament (Aki Basho) on NHK and the rest, as they say, is history. There are six major tournaments every year, each lasting fifteen days, and I’ve been obsessively following the last four. We’re now halfway through my fifth, the Summer Tournament (Natsu Basho), on the important Day 8. Wrestlers compete once per day for a total of 15 bouts and a potential perfect record of 15 wins, 0 losses. Day 8 is the first day wrestlers can achieve a ‘winning record’, i.e. more wins than losses, so there’s extra pressure. A winning record (8 wins, 7 losses or better) might see a wrestler promoted before the next tournament, while a losing record (7-8 or worse) could see them demoted, losing ranks or even dropping out of the top division altogether.

Outside of Japan, it’s tough to follow sumo broadcasts. There are multiple divisions of wrestlers, but out of the country it’s only really feasible to follow the top makuuchi division. NHK World Japan – the online, English language component of Japan’s state broadcaster – shows daily highlights of the top division in 20 minute segments usually featuring the most popular wrestlers or most interesting bouts. In the latest tournament, they’ve also started showing some live footage – today featured around 50 minutes including most of the top-ranked wrestlers, while still omitting the bottom half of the division. If you live in Japan, or with some sleight of hand live in Japan, there’s also online television service Abema.tv which covers the whole top division tournament live and then broadcasts re-runs throughout the rest of the day. Their coverage is all in Japanese, but once you’ve got the basic rules down it’s fairly easy to follow each bout (and if you speak Japanese, you get to enjoy the commentary that typically includes a retired wrestler, a sports commentator, and a ‘sumo beginner’ who usually just happens to be an attractive young woman to whom the other two can mansplain).

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January in Review

A month into 2018 and we’ve revisited an Akira Kurosawa classic in Rashomon, met another Nikkatsu Diamond Guy in Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier, experienced more of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror expertise in Creepy and Pulse, and returned a kaiju-dominated Earth in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters.

Unexpectedly, Creepy is my pick of the bunch. It’s imperfect, but it’s weird thrill ride that Kurosawa’s own Pulse can’t match. On the other hand, while a lot of pop culture is deeply indebted to Rashomon, I’ve now seen better takes on the same multiple narrative-style storytelling, and Akira Kurosawa’s own filmography includes far better works.

Of course, I didn’t just watch Japanese films…

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31st Leeds International Film Festival

Every year in my adopted Yorkshire hometown, Leeds holds the Leeds International Film Festival. This year marks the 31st, and for the first time for only the second time since catching Howl’s Moving Castle back in 2005, I’m actually paying attention to what’s on offer. While there are plenty of noteworthy films in competition for the first time or being replayed on the festival’s cult or retrospective circuits, this site of course focuses on Japanese cinema, so here’s my breakdown of the Japanese films on offer at #LIFF31.

The only Japanese film in the festival’s official selection – described as “some of the most anticipated films of 2017, alongside outstanding debuts” – is Atsuko Hirayanagi’s first film, Oh Lucy! (2017). Adapted from a 2014 short of the same name, it stars Shinobu Terajima and Josh Hartnett.

With few exceptions, the remaining Japanese films can be found in two marathon sessions – Animation Sunday (Sunday 5th November) and the Manga Movie Marathon (Sunday 12th November).

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Hard to Find: Shakotan Boogie (1987)

While companies like Arrow, Criterion, and Eureka’s Master of Cinema are doing a lot to bring lesser known or previously unavailable Japanese films to the west – sometimes being seen for the first time with English language translations – there are still hundreds upon hundreds of films languishing in obscurity. Anime and even Japanese dramas can sometimes count on dedicated fansubbbers to provide unofficial translations (and host illegitimate, downloadable copies) but films rarely get the same treatment. Hard to Find will be an irregular feature on Kino 893 looking at films I’d love to watch, but haven’t yet found a way to.

For the first entry in Hard to Find, let’s talk Shakotan Boogie (1987). I stumbled across this title through my interest in cars – particularly (you guessed it) classic cars from Japan. Automotive enthusiast site Speedhunters is my regular fix for old Skylines and Fairlady Zs. I’d come across the word shakotan before, used to describe a particular style of quite extreme car modification, typically with the car riding low, tall bosozoku-style exhaust pipes, and outlandishly cambered wheels. I have no idea whether the term shakotan came first or if it was popularised by the manga, anime, and film – all titled Shakotan Boogie – but I first heard of the connection in this article by Mike Garrett. I think Garrett actually has some of the timeline wrong here, at least going by Wikipedia; it looks as if the film was in fact an adaptation of an on-going manga – but that’s neither here nor there. We’re here to talk about the Toei movie from 1987.

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Gambling in Japanese Cinema

Watch enough Japanese cinema and you’ll no doubt see some gambling, particularly if you’re watching yakuza movies, but the games involved might seem alien to an outsider’s eye. Japan itself has a strange relationship with gambling: aside from a few specific, seemingly arbitrary exceptions like betting on powerboat racing, gambling is illegal. Historically, gambling is closely associated with Japanese organised criminals, with ‘traditional’ yakuza falling into one of two classes: tekiya, or peddlers, and bakuto, gamblers, though nowadays their criminal enterprises are of course far more broad in scope.

While there are many card, dice, and tile games suitable for gambling on that are popular in Japan, here are three that come up regularly on film: the dice game chou han, Mahjong, and pachinko. If you care to try any of these, digital versions that make following unfamiliar rulesets far easier can be found; in SEGA’s Yakuza series, including the recent Yakuza Zero, playable versions of Mahjong, chou han, oicho kabu, hanafuda games, and many others appear (other games in the series have also featured pachinko or pachislot machines).

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