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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
‘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.
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.
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 Dreddas part of the festival’s “Timeframes” collection of films taking place over a single day. What will you be seeing?
This site focuses on Japanese cinema, but Japanese cinema is far from the only world cinema I watch. Sometimes I like to highlight other films when they have some crossover with Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese actors and directors. The South Korean WW2 drama The Battleship Island (2017), from director Ryoo Seung-wan, is just such a film. Set in 1945 on the island of Hashima (nicknamed ‘Gunkanjima‘ or ‘Battleship Island’ for its distinctive profile on the horizon), it follows a number of Korean conscripts pressed into forced labour in the island’s coal mines and ‘comfort stations’ by the Imperial Japanese authorities. As WW2 draws to a close and the authorities become increasingly desperate and brutal, the Korean workers hatch a plan to escape. Though the escape attempt is a work of fiction, the island itself, its coal mines, and the brutal conditions the workers lived under are all historical.
I find Japanese films to review all over the place. Some are old favourites I already had in my collection, others are from the growing catalogue of cult and classic films from niche Blu-Ray publishers, and some just happen to pop up on streaming services like Netflix or Sky Cinema. It’s the latter where I’m most likely to see something unusual that I might otherwise have missed – I’m probably going to pick up every Kinji Fukasaku gangster movie I can find, but won’t necessarily see the latest contemporary drama from a director I’ve never encountered. That’s how I ended up watching Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada. A bleak study of human misery, it follows the family of metalworker Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) as an old acquaintance re-enters his life after coming out of prison. Inevitably, this disrupts the family’s already fragile existence and a series of terrible events ensue.
Continuing the theme of gentle slice of life dramas, this week I watched After the Storm (2016) from director Hirokazu Kore-eda. It follows Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe), an award-winning novelist who has fallen from grace; divorced, estranged from his son, distrusted by by his sister, and struggling to make ends meet as a private detective while squandering half his earnings on gambling. In the midst of typhoon season, Shinoda is trying to piece the fragments of his life together and collect enough cash to pay his overdue alimony before his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) withdraws access to their son. What follows is a surprisingly charming cross-section of Shinoda’s life, a film less about him trying to fix what went wrong than simply get out of freefall.
From director Naomi Kawase, Sweet Bean(2015, also widely released under its Japanese title An) is the story of a baker, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who runs a tiny dorayaki shop. His business gets an unexpected boost when Tokue (Kirin Kiki) comes into his life. She’s an elderly woman keen to work part-time in his shop, and manages to sway Sentaro into agreeing when he discovers she’s a master at preparing the titular sweet bean paste that goes into the middle of every dorayaki. Sweet Bean becomes a fairly straightforward drama in which its central characters search for meaning in their lives, all tangled up around the dorayaki shop, but it’s somewhat harder going and less heartwarming than the premise would suggest, dealing with some heavy themes of prejudice and obligation.