Japan Cuts 2020: Social Shifts Through Time
For the 2020 edition, Japan Cuts, like so many festivals, has become an online affair. But instead of scaling down for this pandemic edition, the programmers and organizers of Japan Cuts have boldly expanded their grasp while maintaining its usual selections: flashy opening and centerpiece films, a Documentary Focus, an Experimental Spotlight, a small bath of restored Classics, a Shorts Showcase, and a slate of solid feature films. The expansion from the typical festival comes in the form of a competition for new filmmakers named “Next Generation,” which will award the Obayashi Prize, named after the late director Nobuhiko Obayashi, who passed away in April.
The tribute to the recently deceased filmmaker doesn’t stop there. Sometimes festivals create secret paths to be discovered within their programs, and now, with the leisurely way in which one can peruse an online festival, there are even more diagonal and horizontal connections, going beyond the usual combinatory logic of its sections. Such is the case for the films related to Obayashi. For example, in the main features slate, Naoki Murahashi’s Extro (2020), a mockumentary concerning the Japanese film industry, has Nobuhiko Obayashi appear as a talking head waxing gratitude and praise towards film extras. There’s also Isshin Inudo and Eiki Takahashi’s Seijo Story—60 Years of Making Films (2019), part of the festival’s “Documentary Focus” section, which delves into the relationship between the director and his wife, Kyoko Obayashi, who produced all of his films.
But the main dish in this year’s tribute to Obayashi is Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), a dream project for the director, which opened at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year. Inspired by the poems of Chuya Nakahara, a traditionalist who was paradoxically influenced by the avant-garde movements of the day before his death in 1937, it’s a work that establishes itself as a missive against war and violence in the contemporary world. The film is narrated by a man aboard a spaceship who speaks about how “movies are time machines” and says that “it’s time to review history so we can build a better future.” He lands his ship near a seaside cinema that’s mounting its final show, gathering a diverse group that will eventually be swallowed by the cinematic experience. Three young men (Mario, Hosuke, and Shigeru) fall into a collage of war films made throughout the history of Japanese cinema, from samurai films to World War II-era propaganda. The disparate styles of these films both coalesce and clash with the constant interruptions by the narrator, onscreen poems, and a constant deluge of strident color palette changes, green screen tricks and vertiginous editing, characteristic of Obayashi’s cinema.
Labyrinth of Cinema could be an uncompromising experience for those who aren’t familiar with either the director’s style or Japanese history, but it eventually arrives at something of a universally affecting climax. The relation between cinema itself and the consequences of history is a theme worth exploring, and Obayashi pointedly, deliriously interrogates the impulse to change history in order to suit one’s own political agenda or whim.
Another connection between a film from the main slate and the rest of the festival’s sections can be found in the tribute to last year’s 50th anniversary of the first installment of the long-running series of Tora-san movies. Tora-san: Our Lovable Tramp was released in 1969, directed by Yoji Yamada, and gave birth to 49 sequels. The last one, Tora-san: Wish You Were Here (2019), also directed by Yoji Yamada, was commercially released in Japan, but has otherwise found its way into major festival-circuit events, like this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam. Both films will be part of this year’s Japan Cuts. The series is mostly unknown outside of Japan, save for a few fanatics. But in Japan, they’re extremely popular family dramas that center around Torajirō (played by Kiyoshi Atsumi), a swindling travelling salesman who spends most of his time on the road, eventually returning to his family home seemingly in order to wreak havoc. The series has effectively chronicled changes in Japanese society, the Japanese family unit, and even the nation’s shifting mores. In a way, they’re like lighter, blockbuster-ified versions of the more familiar family dramas directed by Yasujirō Ozu, which Tora-san’s studio, Shochiku, also produced.
This year’s Japan Cuts offers a good primer on the subject (and serves as a conclusion to Japan Society’s having shown a number of the franchise’s installments in 2019). Indeed, the entire “Classics” section is devoted to Tora-san, showing the first, the 15th and the 42nd installments of the series, all of which are strongly connected to the latest. Tora-san: Wish You Were Here focuses on Tora-san’s nephew, Mitsuo, a recently published author living with his daughter and still grieving the recent death of his wife. The sudden return of Izumi, his teenage love, warps his world around, and unleashes a flood of memories. These memories are, essentially, excerpts from the rest of the franchise, eventually coming to resemble a sort of clip show yet with enough sensitivity and precisely selected moments, lending a more pronounced emotional weight to each scene, event and gesture we’re shown.
Even people new to this cinematic phenomenon won’t be able to suppress the emotion of seeing actors who were 20, 30, sometimes even 40 years younger than they are today, side by side, sharing words, a kiss or a caress. Even if Kiyoshi Atsumi passed away in 1996 (the same year as the release of the series’ 49th movie), his presence is felt even when he’s not on-screen, as his words and advice echo in the actions of the characters today. His advice and way of living, putting his own happiness behind the others’ (especially if they’re family members or loved ones), echo through the ages and find a receptacle in his nephew as he moves forward in his life.
But the most important film of Japan Cuts can be found in the “Documentary Focus,” with Kazuo Hara’s latest film, Reiwa Uprising (2019). A 4 hour film about last year’s upper house election in Tokyo, focusing on a new party, Reiwa Shinsengumi, and one particular candidate, Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender professor from the University of Tokyo. It opens with Hara's invitation by Yasutomi herself to film her campaign as she prepares to accept the invitation from Reiwa to be one of their candidates, and how potentially revolutionary her candidacy could be in the sociopolitical landscape of a modern Japan that still doesn’t seem especially open to diversity of sexual and gender identities.
Yasutomi is a fascinating presence in front of the camera, speaking like no other politician would, speaking of love, understanding, children, and the importance of caring about each other. Her platform is shared with other candidates from various extracts of society: a disabled man, a homeless woman, and a famous actor, among many others, presenting themselves as a legitimate alternative to the majority parties that govern Japan. Most of us, ignorant of the final outcome, might see this documentary as an exhilarating roller coaster, shifting from the highs of the impassioned speeches that these candidates make, to the lows of the grim outlook regarding their prospects of actually winning any spots in the upper house. The distended length of the film allows for these silenced voices to finally be heard and understood, as the long shots focus on their faces, as they emote their feelings into words, telling us about their unique lives in long-winded speeches which go into redundancy. But it doesn’t matter if they repeat ideas, as they’re trying to change minds around them.
Kazuo Hara and his crew endeavor to capture all, the public and the intimate alike, in hopes of forwarding a sense of truth and hope, as well as, of course, to capture the historic campaign for posterity. What remains to be seen is whether Yasutomi and Reiwa’s campaign marked a first step toward genuine social and political change in Japan. As with every year, Japan Cuts manages to be a snapshot of the present moment in Japan’s cinematography, but this time we also get a glimpse into the nooks and crannies of their most local struggles.