I’ve recovered from a weekend marathon of fantastic films at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s iconic 1952 film Ikiru (“To Live”), this year’s films looked at how people across the ages persevere, negotiate and reconcile with the environment and situation they live in. This was my third Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme and I beat my personal record of watching 5 films in one weekend. The one thread that connected all the films was a sense that life isn’t perfect and things never quite turn out how you’d expect, but there’s plenty of experiences to be had along the way.
Here is a summary of the films I saw, in order of preference, and there’s still time to catch them screening around the UK.
A Farewell to Jinu (2015): After developing an unusual ‘money allergy’, burnt-out bank clerk Takeharu (Ryuhei Matsuda) leaves the city for the humble surroundings of Kamuroba, a remote village in Japan’s Tohoku region. Hell-bent on living a peaceful rural life without the need of ‘jinu’ (a Tohoku colloquialism meaning ‘cash’), will Takeharu really be able to live a completely zero-yen life?
Sophie’s verdict: I suspected this would be my favourite film when I first read the plot. A banker becoming allergic to money – that’s some subliminal anti-capitalism messaging right there. I laughed all the way through this film and it has a mad array of characters – from the leather-clad motorcycle-riding granny to an elderly man who carries a camera everywhere and claims to be a god. It’s hilarious but surprisingly dark and violent in some places, keeping in theme with the theme this year. I’d like to see this one licensed in the UK so I can watch it again with my boyfriend, who works in banking *cough*
Cheers from Heaven (2011): When bento shop owner Hikaru (Hiroshi Abe) learns that a group of local high school students have no place to practice music, he decides to build a studio beneath his store allowing them to play there for free. The students begin to grow fond of Hikaru but still know little of his terminal illness which Hikaru has been battling and keeping secret from his family and friends.
Sophie’s verdict: I was torn between picking this and A Farewell to Jinu as my favourite film this year. Initially, Cheers from Heaven looks like it might just be a tear-jerker given the subject matter and there were a lot of us in tears towards the end. It’s still a very funny and light-hearted watch about teenagers in a rock band, set in Okinawa, which I now want to visit. Hiroshi Abe also played the part fantastically, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for him in other films now.
Miss Hokusai (2015): Set in early 19th century Japan during the Edo period, this animation brings to life the story of O-Ei, the daughter of the ukiyo-e master, Katsushika Hokusai (globally famous for his piece The Great Wave). O-Ei is no doubt an inheritor of both her father’s stubbornness and his talent, and her art is so powerful that it leads her into trouble.
Sophie’s verdict: I love my anime films but the mistake I always make is thinking ‘ah, this looks like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away‘. I don’t think any other film can replace Spirited Away in my heart but Miss Hokusai was a beautiful watch – fantastically animated, the right blend of magic realism and slice-of-life-ness. The plot is fairly slow as the focus is on character development and the no-nonsense O-Ei, but it is a lovely watch if you’re an anime fan. The dog in this film is also adorable.
Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (2009): Komaki (Manami Konishi) is a 31-year-old woman who decides to leave her aspiring writer but jobless husband and move back to her hometown, a small working-class district in Tokyo with her young daughter Non-chan. After the ‘noriben’ lunch box that she packed for Non-chan becomes a huge hit at school, Komaki decides to try and make ends meet by opening her own “bento” shop and offering inexpensive but undoubtedly delicious food.
Sophie’s verdict: This was another film that took me by surprise and was not as feel-good as I expected it to be. It starts off light-hearted and leads you to believe certain things are inevitably going to happen and, in some ways, they do – just not as you thought they would. Noriben will still make you laugh a lot but both my friend and I felt a bit ‘weird’ at the end. Maybe we were just hungry.
I’ll Give it My All… Tomorrow (2013): Fed-up forty-something Shizuo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) quits his secure job to become a full-time slacker, embarking on a reluctant pursuit to follow his true dreams. Despite now spending most of his time hanging around the house in his underwear playing video games and working part-time at a fast-food restaurant, Shizuo eventually comes to realise his true passion in life: Manga! Without much preparation or any skill, Shizuo starts working on his masterpiece…
Sophie’s verdict: Again, a film that is not quite as predictable as you’d expect. I can’t unsee Shinichi Tsutsumi as the Japanese equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite. My favourite character was actually the grumpy old Dad, followed by ‘God’. Yes, he really does make an appearance. I’ll Give it My All… Tomorrow is a comedy at heart with lots of slapstick and jokes, but even it ends on a somewhat strange note. Like all the other films in the line-up this year: it’s sort of symbolic of life itself.
A huge thanks to the Japan Foundation for putting on a brilliant film festival this year! There’s still time to catch screenings around the UK, so check it out here.