Following the terrible events that rocked Japan on March 11th and onwards, the organisers of Nippon Connection were faced with a difficult decision: whether to hold the Frankfurt-based Japanese film festival this year or not. It would fall on the final week of April, only about a month and a half after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami slammed into the northeast region of the island nation. Along with the possibility of guests not being able to attend due to more pressing commitments at home, another factor to consider was simply the stream of troubling information surrounding the crisis – which was still growing in the form of persisting aftershocks and, most significantly, the ongoing difficulties at Fukushima’s nuclear power plant. Stable repair work on the facility still had to be carried out, while 70,000 tons of contaminated water used to cool the reactors had yet to be safely removed. Approximately 14,300 people were at that point confirmed dead, with a further 12,000 missing. Then there was the crippling damage to the affected areas and the monumental tasks of cleaning up and rebuilding that still had to be carried out. Regarding medical facilities alone, Japan Today reported a total of 118 within the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures to be completely damaged, the replacement costs for which estimated to be in the tens of millions of yen – to say nothing of the extreme need for doctors following at least eleven deaths and others’ reluctance to return to work.
Yet the grim details of the delicate, continually evolving situation in Japan ultimately turned out to be the festival team’s deciding factors behind their move to go ahead with 2011’s Nippon Connection. In a public statement, they announced the following aim: “Being aware of what has happened and keeping in mind the difficult situation, we call upon our guests and visitors to see our festival as an opportunity to get together and help actively.” This gesture, built upon the goals of solidarity and celebration, was very much in keeping with (and, given the festival’s scale, an apex of-sorts of) the specially organised relief screenings that sprouted up around the world in such cities as Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and London following the disaster. Visible signs of support were very much present throughout Nippon Connection’s duration – most notably a proliferation of paper cranes that could be seen everywhere throughout the pink-hued Festival Centre at Goethe University Frankfurt’s Studierendenhaus building and the HELP JAPAN! donation project, which included a fundraising party. The overall atmosphere was very much a warm and positive one generated by the many people drawn together by their love for Japanese culture and commitment to the festival itself. Beyond the usual curiosity about what this year’s selections had to offer, there was undeniably an added sense of hope and connectivity that only intensified throughout the week.
The two main sections of Nippon Connection’s film program consist of Nippon Cinema, which includes a wide range of large- and small-scale productions, and Nippon Visions, entitled Nippon Digital in previous years and focused on emerging filmmakers working in the digital format. This year, attendees were bound to find at least a few buried gems in their schedules given the rich variety of distinctive and intriguing films to choose from. Of them, perhaps none were more uniformly surprising, satisfying and well made than Naoki Kato’s remarkable Abraxas. Its central character is Jonen, a former punk rocker who decided to become a Buddhist monk. Married with a young son and working at a small community’s temple, he struggles with bouts of medication-treated depression that often plunge him into dark moods. He finds relief from his inner torment through an overwhelming desire to make music, but this is not merely another story of art serving as a liberating outlet for a person’s creativity. Rather, Jonen desperately seeks a sense of purpose; a spiritual anchor that will put his demons to rest and grant him a measure of contentment in his life. This ambiguous goal paves the way for several wonderfully noisy musical performances, the clear standout among them taking place by the sea. With an amplifier hooked to a portable generator and placed on a tiny island of rocks, Jonen faces the watery expanse with his guitar in hand and proceeds to “duel” with nature, letting loose a cacophony of chaotic notes into the crashing waves.
The conflicted Jonen is brilliantly portrayed by real-life musician Suneohair, who, with his striking features, has the perfect face for a monk. He remains totally convincing and likeable in the part even as he wildly wavers between childlike elation, mopey sullenness and stoic contemplation – difficult acting gymnastics that easily could have been botched. Surrounding Jonen and his goal to hold a rock concert in town is an excellent cast of supporting characters, notable among them Tae (Rie Tomosaka), his refreshingly spunky wife, and a doubt-filled youth wondering where his future lies. As Abraxas glides along, it steadily becomes apparent just how well balanced and honed it is in all the necessary areas: pacing, editing, acting, character development, attention to its numerous plot strands and so forth. One would hesitate to call it an art film, but at the same time, it certainly carries more edge, spark and stylistic confidence than the average feel-good drama.
One last aspect of Abraxas worth noting here is the fact that it was shot in Fukushima Prefecture before it was struck by the earthquake and nuclear crisis. The film puts certain locations in the community to good use, quietly stressing its function both in and outside the story as not only a narrative setting, but also a place where people live out their day-to-day lives. That it should be seen in such a strong, life-affirming film so soon after the catastrophe’s arrival inspires some concern for how the real-life inhabitants of the featured spots are currently coping as well as gratitude for this rare gift of thoughtful preservation of a more peaceful time. While it’s not at all surprising that the audience-voted Nippon Cinema Award went to the Studio Ghibli-produced Arrietty (d. Hiromasa Yonebayashi), Abraxas would have been a most fitting and relevant choice – especially for this year’s festival, given the unique circumstances.
Sweet Little Lies (d. Hitoshi Yazaki), the festival’s opening film, started the screenings on a decidedly cool note. A methodically crafted study of marital discord, it follows Ruriko (Miki Nakatani) and Satoshi (Nao Omori) as they evaluate the distance that has grown between them in their relationship. The opening scenes present their house as a place of order and beauty filled with spotless white tiles, glass kitchenware and windows that she cleans with her own breath. After three years of marriage, they have settled into a sad arrangement in which no sex is had and the two of them regularly isolate themselves in different parts of the house. Unsurprisingly, they each seize the opportunity to have an affair, leading them to reconsider the roles they play in one another’s lives. From that promising setup arises the film’s key problem: while the characters pursue these new experiences and come to terms with their emotions and situations, it is difficult to determine what progress has actually been made by the time the final shot arrives, or whether the couple is better off than they were at the beginning. Even though the actors make commendable efforts with what they are given, the characterisations here continually remain far too distant to make the sort of impact that a story involving temptation and love depends upon. In its other components, Yazaki pulls off a masterclass of presentation with beautifully polished framing, camera movements and symbolic imagery. Most prominent among the latter are the reoccurring colours red and white, which we are told stand for passion and truth, respectively, and are manifested through roses and rose petals, glasses of wine and light patterns on a windshield that borrow the color wheel trick seen in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). But for all of its calculated decadence, it seems the reserved emotional climate of Sweet Little Lies was simply pushed too far for its own good, making it a fascinating but off-puttingly clinical exercise in style and theme.
Luckily, festival-goers had multiple opportunities to boost their spirits afterwards by way of several colourful, comedic confections scattered throughout the lineup, with Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s debut feature MILOCRORZE – A Love Story making a strong case for being both the most accomplished and the oddest one of them all. With astonishing technical bravura, it portrays various stories of romantic longing told through a dizzying array of sequences ranging from the bookending storybook fable to an outrageously lewd relationship advisor’s rants to a tense foray into a feudal-era gambling den that gives the film its tour-de-force sequence: a bloody fight between a lone ronin and a small army of thugs rendered in extreme slow motion. With so much unpredictable inventiveness and flat-out fun packed into it, it feels only too fitting when the aged Seijun Suzuki turns up in a small but welcome cameo role. A little more grounded in narrative focus, Dumbeast (d. Hideaki Hosono) stars Tadanobu Asano as a dim-witted writer who hilariously survives his old school friends’ repeated attempts to kill him off so as to halt the publication of his embarrassing memoirs. Framed as a slowly unfolding journalistic investigation, it incorporates a strange yet affecting mix of black humour, childhood nostalgia and homage to camaraderie that transcends its initial guise as a fun trip and nothing more. Go Shibata’s Doman Seman makes an even more drastic reach for profundity and scale in its Kyoto-set alternate reality tale of capitalism gone wild and black magic, only to falter in its madcap juggling act of themes and characters. Its actors – particularly Motako Ishii and Takeshi Yamamoto as a pair of sleuthing deadbeats and Yusuke Noguchi as a haunted mass murderer facing the repercussions of his crimes fifteen years later – rank among the film’s most redeeming qualities, but the final impression it delivers is one of weary confusion – which makes it all the more surprising that Doman Seman ended up walking away with Nippon Visions’ top prize, the Nippon Visions Award.
Thankfully, the section’s jury (consisting of Midnight Eye’s Tom Mes, The Hollywood Reporter’s Maggie Lee and FAZ’s Rüdiger Suchsland) also decided to give a special mention to the short film Door to the Sea (d. Reiko Ohashi), which was one of several featured works from filmmakers from the Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Film and New Media. Focusing on two uncertain youths and their struggle to determine the course of their lives, Ohashi’s film demonstrates an impressive degree of maturity and tact in the manner it approaches its subjects. Unlike Sweet Little Lies, Door to the Sea communicates a sense of aimlessness without itself becoming aimless. Rather, it very much has a specific trajectory in place and confidently sticks to it, presenting along the way honest depictions of complex human behaviour and carefully composed images. From the same group comes Paul Young’s intriguing Sheep in the Night, a Murakami-esque work about a man’s downward spiral into chaos after his long-absent sister re-emerges from her travels, coinciding with a strange meteorite’s arrival from the sky. But for pure otherworldliness and imagination, viewers would be hard-pressed to find a more singular film than Keita Kurosaka’s Midori-ko, a hand-drawn wonder of animation that took ten years to complete. In many respects, it is the very antithesis of conventional animé, eschewing clearly defined designs in favour of a rougher, darker style that evokes charcoal sketches and invests its subjects with an astonishingly sensual look. The story follows a young girl who comes into possession of a mutating, baby-like plant, which leads to confrontational encounters with several bizarre entities. Very much like Shaun Tan’s brilliant graphic novel The Arrival, to which it bears a striking resemblance in terms of both feel and scope, Kurosaka’s film conjures in beautiful detail its own world, complete with whimsical contraptions, fantastically grotesque creatures that casually talk and engage with the human characters and a bountiful succession of little details and surprises that make the viewing experience all the more delightful. In essence, Midori-ko is a film that you don’t merely watch, but instead discover, explore and eventually get lost in.
Several additional offerings were present at this year’s Nippon Connection, from an interactive exhibition on Japanese packaging design held in the AusstellungsHalle space to a tantalising retrospective of Sion Sono’s work, which included such rare films as I am Sion SONO!! (1985), Keiko desukedo (1997) and Utsu-shimi (1999). Between this impressive quantity of films and events spread over the festival’s five day run and the amount of people who turned out for them, it can safely be said that this year marked an enormous success despite initial concerns. Yet now speculation shifts to the years ahead – not so much in terms of the festival itself as the kinds of new films that it will attract and present. As Japan continues to adapt to and recover from its current situation, so too will its filmmakers, with some of them almost certainly bound to readjust their creative aims and work methods as a result of the blow dealt to their nation. Though it may be some time before their bittersweet fruits of labour eventually emerge, they will no doubt inspire much curiosity and speculation surrounding the years to come for Nippon Connection.
Nippon Connection Film Festival
27 April – 1 May 2011
Festival website: http://www.nipponconnection.com/nippon-2011/eng/index-eng.html