Category: Japanese Cinema

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015)

LIFF online still

LIFF online still

Having received much praise at the Cannes Film Festival this title now graces the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is the most impressive film I have yet enjoyed at the Festival. Kore-eda Hirokazu has produced a series of fine dramas and this is as good as any of the earlier ones. Like his earlier films the concern here are family and family generations. The main focus are three sisters. The eldest, Sachi (Ayase Haruka) , is a sort of matriarch and works as a nurse in the town hospital. Second is Yoshino (Nakasawa Masami) who works in a bank and is easily impressed by unremarkable men. The youngest is Chika (Kaho) who works in a sport shop, has a relationship with the manager there and is the most fun-loving of the sisters. As the film opens the sister’s absent father dies, leaving a second wife and a 13 year-old stepsister, Suzu asano (Hirose Suzu). Sachi invites her, with willing support from her sisters, to come and live with them in the fold family home: a beautiful, traditional building with a garden. This involves Suzu changing schools and making new friends there.

They live in a small coastal town. Kore-eda is quoted in the Festival Catalogue commenting on the importance of the place in the film.

“What interests me greatly is not only the beauty of the scenery of Kamakura – or of the four sisters – but also the accepting attitude of the seaside town itself., absorbing and embracing everything. It is the beauty that arises from the realisation – not sorrowful but open-hearted – that we are just grains of sand forming a part of the whole, and that of the town, and the time there, continue even when we are gone.”

Places are important in Kore-eda’s films, as indeed are meals and rituals such as funerals. This film has a number of both: mealtimes tend to be informal and to allow the characters to interact and enjoy each other. Occasionally they are also the site of conflicts. Funerals provide the time and space for the Japanese formality which is still such offers impressive rituals on screen. Characters in Kore-eda’s films often climb upwards – steps, slopes and similar. They do so in this film, though with noticeably more effort that in the other films. The reward, for them and us, is the view from on high: not only impressive but redolent of memories and experiences.

An early beach scene in the film

An early beach scene in the film

This is a slow film and runs 128 minutes. The ending in particular take its time as Kore-eda works his way through different aspects of the relationships: between the sisters, between the sisters and their dead father, living mother and ‘auntie: and between their friends and the setting itself. But when the final sequence comes it is wonderful: along the beach as the waters  lap the sand.

Kore-eda has some of the style and qualities associated with Ozu Yasujiro. There is the same meticulous mise en scène and framing. He frequently uses the low camera angle, especially in interiors. The music, while of a different style, serves a similar function. But rather than static shots he frequently uses minute and slow dollies. There are even less frequent crane shots, though one – as Suzu and a friend watch the town firework display from a boat – is superb.

I found that his recent films seem to have a slightly higher quotient of sentiment and use more music than an earlier film like Still Walking (2008). But this film combines sentiment, and the pleasures of the characters with an ironic view of their lives and relationships. The film is developed from a manga comic by Yoshida Akimi. The production is excellent in every department. The version on release is on DCP sourced from Kodak Super 35mm. There are English subtitles. Artificial Eye have the UK rights so it should get a reasonable distribution.

A short history of Japanese film studios

(This is a revised version of a posting from 2009 that had become seriously outdated. If there are any other errors we haven’t spotted, please leave a comment.)

Japan offers the film student an alternative ‘studio history’ to that of Hollywood. There are striking parallels and some major differences in the development of ‘studio majors’ from the 1920s onwards. Three of the oldest Japanese studios Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho have been around since at least the 1930s and are still active today. Toei arrived a little later, as did Daiei, which was eventually incorporated in the assets of a relatively new player, Kadokawa, a publishing house founded in 1945. In 2015 the four members of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ) are Toho, Toei, Shochiku and Kadokawa. These are in effect the four ‘majors’ of the current Japanese film industry.

Like the Hollywood studios, some of the Japanese majors have at different times attempted to run fully integrated film operations with producing studios, distribution companies and exhibition chains. One slight difference has been that live action venues, especially kabuki theatres have remained in their portfolios – but another similarity is an interest in theme parks and studio tours etc.

The first Japanese studio system reached its peak in the 1930s having had to recover from the earthquake in 1923 which destroyed much of central Tokyo and in which film prints and facilities were lost. But from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, the Japanese film industry was effectively controlled/restricted first by the Japanese military authorities who forced through a ‘realignment’ of studios via mergers and then by the Allied Occupation Forces from 1945-52 who vetted script ideas and discouraged production of jedaigeki (‘period’ films which might promote traditional/non-democratic values). During the 1930s the Japanese film industry had become the world’s biggest and it regained this position in the 1960s, only to lose it again with the impact of video in the late 1970s.

The Japanese studio system saw stars and writer/director units contracted to the major studios much as in Hollywood. There seems to have been a more visible form of apprenticeship system with new directors having a mentor or ‘old master’ who helped them get established. Aspects of this can be found discussed in books about Kurosawa and the other major directors. Kurosawa is also interesting in terms of his move towards a form of independent production under the umbrella of Toho in the 1950s. The Japanese majors tended to own or lease studio facilities in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo was the base for gendaigeki (‘contemporary’ films) and the old capital of Kyoto became the centre for jedaigeki. Kyoto still has studio facilities used for film and television production of period dramas. During the studio period, double bills would often include one film from the company’s Tokyo studio and one from their Kyoto studio.

During the 1950s, the major studios came to be associated with specific genres and approaches to retaining audiences. Animation became important in Japan after 1945 and some studios developed specific animation divisions or acquired independent animation companies.

Brief background on the best-known studio brands

Some studio websites are only available in Japanese. If there are studio brands that I have missed out or if any of this material is incorrect, please leave a comment!

daieilogoDaiei was originally formed as a subsidiary of Shochiku in the mid-1930s but came into its own as part of the Japanese wartime ‘consolidation’ of the industry into three companies. After the war, in which Daiei had been a compliant provider of propaganda pictures, the studio faced several problems – no theatre chain or ‘acceptable’ back catalogue and a general restriction on jedaigeki imposed by the Occupation authorities which hit Daiei’s Kyoto studio hard. Two of Daiei’s innovations in the 1950s, however, proved successful. The gamble on sending a film to the Venice Film Festival paid off with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) and Mizoguchi’s The Life of O’Haru (1952). This was sustained by the export success of Gates of Hell in 1954 with its colour photography. Daiei then became the first Japanese studio to consistently use colour. The studio declined during the 1960s and shut its doors in 1971 before the assets were finally bought by Kadokawa in 2002. (See Greg Shoemaker’s ‘History of Daiei‘.)

logo_kadokawa-copyKadokawa Pictures has a more complex history than the other three current ‘majors’. Variety‘s Japan-based correspondent Mark Schilling recently reported recently on 70 years of Kadokawa which was founded as a publishing house in 1945. Kadokawa Shoten is now a major publishing house responsible for manga, magazines and popular literature. Schilling suggests that ‘Kadokawa Group’ expanded the firm’s interest into television, video games and both live action and anime filmed entertainment from 1976 onwards. Identifying Kadokawa films is not straightforward as the company owns Asmik Ace and other film-related businesses and in 2002 took over the assets of the Daiei studio which was a major producer from 1942 (see above). Kadokawa thus acquired a large library of titles, some of which have been re-branded as Kadokawa films. Kadokawa owns a small cinema chain and also acts as a distributor of foreign films in Japan as well as for its own products. Kadokawa made an impact in Europe and eventually North America in the late 1990s through films such as Ringu and Dark Water, both based on books published by Kadokawa Shoten and produced by Asmik Ace.

nikkatsuNikkatsu is Japan’s oldest major film studio. The name Nikkatsu is an abbreviation of Nippon Katsudō Shashin, literally “Japan Cinematograph Company” and it was founded in 1912 when several production companies and theatre chains consolidated under a trust. Nikkatsu lost out in the 1940s when wartime controls forced a damaging merger. The studio did not make films again until 1954 after which there was a concentration on modern action films such as the yakuza films of Suzuki Seijun as well as the more varied output of Ichikawa Kon and Imamura Shohei. The company has made, and continues to make films in numerous genres. However, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, they strictly produced what they termed roman porn films in order to make ends meet. Unlike “pinku eiga“, Nikkatsu’s films were produced with relatively high budgets and production values, as well as featuring mainstream actresses, many of whom also starred in network television and nationally released film dramas. Today Nikkatsu is a smaller and more focused organisation with an international perspective. It operates a small studio facility, a production services company and co-production operation with Nippon TV and a Thai production company Kantana, plus distribution operations (including satellite in Japan). 

PCL Photo Chemical Laboratory was an early film production company that was bought in 1936 by Kobayashi Ichizo to form the production base for what would become the Toho group.

Toho (from Wikipedia) Toho was founded by the Hankyu Railway in 1932 as the Tokyo-Takarazuka Theater Company. It managed much of the kabuki in Tokyo and, among other properties, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater and the Imperial Garden Theater in Tokyo; Toho and Shochiku enjoyed a duopoly over theatres in Tokyo for many years. Toho had a long (and often difficult) relationship with Kurosawa Akira over many years from the 1940s-60s. As well as the popular Kurosawa films, Toho is also a known brand in Europe and the US because of its science fiction and ‘monster’ pictures from the mid 1950s onwards and its distribution of Miyazaki Hayao’s work for Studio Ghibli.

tohoscopeThe ‘TohoScope’ logo (for the anamorphic system used by the company from the early 1960s) is a fondly remembered image for many film fans.

Toho-Towa is a distribution company, founded in 1928 with a focus on importing the best of international cinema. It is now a subsidiary company of Toho.

Tōei (from Wikipedia) is a Japanese film and television production and distribution corporation. Based in Tokyo, Tōei owns and operates thirty-four (34) cinema houses across Japan, a modest vertically-integrated studio system by the standards of the 1930s Hollywood. The name Tōei is derived from “Tōkyō Eiga Haikyū” (Tōkyō Film Distribution Company, the company’s former name). Tōkyō-Yokohama Films, incorporated 1938, had previously erected its facilities immediately east of the Tōkyū Tōkyō-Yokohama Line; they managed the Tōkyū Shibuya Yokohama studio system prior to V-J Day. From 1945 through the Tōei merger, Tōkyō-Yokohama Films leased from the Daiei Motion Picture Company a second studio in Kyoto. Through the merger, they gained the combined talents and experience of actors Chiezō KataokaUtaemon IchikawaRionosuke TsukigataRyutaro OtomoKinnosuke NakamuraChiyonosuke AzumaShirunosuke ToshinHashizo Okawa and Satomi Oka. On October 1, 1950, the Tōkyō Film Distribution Company was incorporated; in 1951 the company purchased Ōizumi Films.

Toei Animation is a leading animation company and part of the Toei Company.

Shintoho began as a Toho subsidiary in the late 1940s and then sought to develop an independence that in the 1950s saw it successful with war pictures and action adventures for ‘ultra-conservative’ audiences. Its independence ended in 1961 when the studio went bankrupt and the assets reverted to Toho. 

180px-shochiku_logoShochiku Formed in 1895 by Takejirō Otani and his brother as a Kabuki production company, Shochiku grew fast, expanding its business to many other Japanese theatrical entertainments, like Noh and Bunraku. The company began making films in 1921 and was the first film studio to abandon the use of female impersonators and sought to model itself and its films after Hollywood standards, bringing such things as the star system and the sound stage to Japan. Today, Shochiku is considered to be the oldest continuously-operating film studio in Japan. Shochiku is associated with the ‘lower middle-class’ dramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other films for a family audience in the 1950s.

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture – cinema entry by Aaron Gerow

Do you know this Japanese film?


One of our visitors contacted us with this image of a Japanese film poster asking if we knew the studio from the logo in the bottom right-hand corner. We don’t but some of you might. Jeff tells us that he thinks the poster is from around 1960. Perhaps a Japanese linguist can tell us the title?

Please leave a comment if you have any useful information.

Glasgow FF15 #9: Still the Water (Futatsume no mado, Japan-France 2014)

Kyoto swimming in her school uniform

Kyoko swimming in her school uniform

This was the film I most wanted to see in Glasgow, simply because writer-director Naomi Kawase is one of the most frequent Cannes prize contenders never to have had a film released in the UK. No doubt some of her earlier films have been at festivals here, but if so I’ve missed them. Female Japanese auteurs are not easy to find so I’ve been on the lookout for a Kawase film for some time. Inevitably, the fact that this film is a French co-production will help its sales. France and other Francophone territories in Europe have been her only outlets so far but the catalogue suggests that Still the Water will be released by Soda Pictures in the UK.

Without any previous experience of the director’s films I’m struggling to find a way in to discuss the film and to respond to some of the reviews from Cannes where the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or (Kawase has previously won the Camera d’Or and the Jury Prize and in 2013 she was on the main jury panel). What, for instance, to make of Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia Review which is headed “More empty, pretentious ramblings from self-styled auteur Kawase Naomi” and scored as 2/10? By contrast, Indiewire thought the film had a chance of winning the Palme d’Or. I’ll try to work somewhere between these two.

Still the Water is an intriguing title (and as Elley points out, the Japanese title means something quite different which doesn’t match the plot either). The story is set on the island of Amami Ōshima, part of the archipelago that stretches between Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, and Okinawa. Apparently Kawase, who grew up in the Nara region of Honshu, has discovered that her ancestors came from the Amami Islands. Apart from the beauty of the islands, two other elements of local Amami culture are significant. One is the presence of female Shinto priests or noro and the other is the importance of local folk/community song traditions. The waters are often not still because the region is subject to typhoons.

Naomi Kawase directs  (from left) Yoshinaga Jun (Kyoto), Murakami Nijirô (Kaito) and Tokita Fujio (Kyoto's grandfather?)

Naomi Kawase directs (from left) Yoshinaga Jun (Kyoto), Murakami Nijirô (Kaito) and Tokita Fujio (old fisherman)

The narrative begins with the body of a tattooed man being found in the sea and a subsequent ban on sea bathing – ignored by Kyoko, the strong and very beautiful 16 year-old daughter of a family that owns a beach restaurant. The body had been found by Kyoko’s classmate Kaito and the young couple are in a relationship that hasn’t yet fully formed. While her father cooks the food and runs the restaurant, her mother Isa is seriously ill in hospital and will eventually come home to die. Isa is presumably a noro – though the subtitles call her a shaman. Kaito lives with his mother, a waitress in a local restaurant. She is separated from the boy’s father, a tattooist in Tokyo who Kaito visits one weekend. His mother is often out with new partners and this has an impact on Kaito. The narrative includes the mystery of the body in the sea as well as the romance between Kyoko and Kaito, but there isn’t really much plot. The main question seems to be how the different issues facing the couple’s parents will have an impact on their children. More important, perhaps, is the discourse about nature and spirituality, ecology and human psychology. One obvious point is about the juxtaposition of death – scenes of a goat being slaughtered by the old fisherman are presented in close-up detail and witnessed by Kyoto – and the blossoming of romance and sexual joy.

Kyoko and Kaito beneath the ancient banyan tree in the mangrove forest.

Kyoko and Kaito beneath the ancient banyan tree in the mangrove forest.

Those who don’t like the film seem to be most offended by the lack of narrative drive and what they see as Kawase’s pretentiousness. This view ignores the sheer beauty of the film and the sensitivity of the performances. The other stumbling block may be the ‘otherness’ of Japanese culture. It often seems to me that the importance of the sea in Japan’s ‘island culture’ isn’t properly recognised in the West – nor is the Shintoist belief in the spirits which inhabit specific locations. Perhaps the title refers to the oncoming typhoon and the possibility that the love between Kyoko (who is expected to inherit her mother’s powers?) and Kaito will ensure that ‘still water’ will be restored. Personally, I picked up echoes of Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea (2008) – simply in terms of the spirits of the sea, the ecological questions and the triumphant young female figure. The look of the film, however, comes from a different kind of ‘magic image’ in the work of veteran cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, best known in recent years for his work with Kore-eda Hirokazu on his films about families and children. Still the Water benefits from his photography of the sea and landscapes as well as the characters. Equally important is the music, including the traditional songs sung in Isa’s last few hours on the beach. I like films in which the characters sing.

Now I’ve thought it through, I’m not sure that the film is a masterpiece but I certainly enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it again. I’m also going to have to add this film to my list of movies with great cycling scenes. Here is the French trailer with English subs giving a good idea of the emotional intensity of the film.