Category: Japanese Cinema

Ramen Shop (Singapore-Japan-France 2018)

Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.

Masato (right) working in his family shop with his father in the centre and his uncle on the left of the image

Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.

Masato and Miki enjoying views of Singapore when he first arrives

When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.

Father as a young man with Lian Mei

The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.

Masato with Uncle Wee, taking notes about preparing pork rib soup

Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.

Tanaka Kinuyo will not appear at Locarno

One of the promising highlights for 2020 was the Locarno Film Festival’s intention to screen a retrospective of the work of Japanese actor and director Tanaka Kinuyo. I have long been a fan of this talented and pioneering film-maker so I was working on plans to be able to attend. The arrival of the pandemic torpedoed this prospect. However, the Locarno Festival postponed the retrospective to 2021. Now, whilst only a possibility, there was a prospect of being able to enjoy this programme of films in the summer; 35 titles including a large number in 35mm prints.

Locarno to fete Japan’s Kinuyo Tanaka in first retrospective devoted to female filmmaker.

The Locarno Film Festival will celebrate the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka at its upcoming 73rd edition (August 5-15), in its first ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Tanaka (1909 –1977) was a pioneering figure in Japanese cinema throughout her 50-year career, appearing in the films of legendary directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before striking off to direct her own films.

“This is the first time that the festival will be dedicating its retrospective to a female director, after 73 years,” said Locarno Film Festival artistic director Lili Hinstin, who is embarking on her second edition at the helm.

At the same time, she added, it also raised the question of how an artist like Tanaka – with such “an original and exciting filmography” had been overlooked for so long.

Tanaka first rose to fame in the 1920s, initially working under contract for the Shochiku Film Company, the film department of which is celebrating its centenary this year. There, she collaborated with Japan’s best-known “modernist” directors such as Heinosuke Gosho, Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu.

In the years immediately after World War Two and the 1950s, her striking screen presence became a hallmark of some of the best work by directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, including Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Kaneto Shindo.

She also renewed her collaboration with Ozu but her most important artistic partnership was with Mizoguchi, with whom she made 14 films, including the 1952 drama The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), which premièred at the Venice Film Festival, winning best international film.

Around this time, Tanaka also started going behind the camera to direct a number of films of her own with various studios. At the time, she was only the second women in the history of Japanese cinema to direct after Tazuko Sakane.

Locarno described her six features films as “innovative portraits of women’s roles and conditions in the changing social environment of modern Japan”. The retrospective will screen Tanaka’s complete filmography as a director as well as a selection of 250-odd films in which she appeared.. (Melanie Goodfellow, 23rd January 2020).

Then a friend informed me of the bad news; set out in a report in Screen Daily:

The Locarno Film Festival will turn the spotlight on the work of late Italian director Alberto Lattuada for the retrospective of its 74th edition, scheduled to run from August 4- 14 this year.

The programme is the first element of Locarno’s 74th edition to be unveiled by the festival’s newly appointed artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.

Plans have been dropped for a retrospective celebrating the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka, which was announced by Nazzaro’s predecessor Lili Hinstin for last year’s cancelled edition as the festival’s first-ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Regarding the decision to cancel the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective, a spokesperson for the festival said: “The programme was a personal choice of [former artistic director] Lili Hinstin. Therefore, in respect to her work and despite it is a great programme, we have decided to propose another author to our audience for the next edition of the festival.”

My thoughts are best summed up by a borrowing from Oscar Wilde:

“To lose one female artist, dear festival, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

I also realised how fortunate I was that in 2012 we had a small but very fine retrospective of the work of Tanaka Kinuyo both as an actor and as a film director at the Leeds International Film Festival.

” Retrospectives has an especially strong selection this year. The ‘special focus’ is a profile of the Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka. She worked through several different periods of Japanese film and with three of its greatest masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Her scene at the end of Sansho Dayu (1954) is one of the most sublime endings in World Cinema.  She was also a pioneer woman direction in the Industry. There are six of her films, all in either 35 or 16mm. And there is a workshop on November 3rd at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds.

While Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77) is widely recognised as one of the greatest actresses in the history of her nation’s cinema, a lesser known fact is that she was also the first Japanese woman to build a body of work as a filmmaker in her own right. This year’s LIFF Special Focus aims to remedy this by presenting two of Kinuyo Tanaka’s rarely-screened directorial works alongside a selection of her finest performances in films by three of the masters of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Presented in collaboration with the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds and curated by Michael Smith.”

The posts on the retrospective, with plot information and the quotations from the English sub-titles, include:

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, Japan 1948)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/a-hen-in-the-wind-kaze-no-naka-no-mendori/

Mother (Okasan), Japan 1952

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/mother-okasan/

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2021/03/13/sansho-the-bailiff-sansho-dayu-japan-1954/

The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, Japan 1955)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/the-eternal-breasts-i-chibusa-yo-eien-nare/

Girls of dark (Onna bakari no yoru, Japan 1961)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/girls-of-dark-onna-bakari-no-yoru/

Festival Workshop on Tanaka Kinuyo

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/leeds-iff-2012-tanaka-kinuyo-workshop/

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

This was the third of the films featuring Tanaka Kinuyo screened in 2012. This was a film that I had seen before on 35mm, unlike the other titles. It is one of the great films by Mizoguchi Kenji with whom Tanaka worked on a number of occasions.

The post contains plot information and the quotations are from the English sub-titles.

The film opens with a set of titles on-screen, setting out the story:

“This story dates from medieval Japan when there was a form of feudal society. The majority of the people were considered less than human. This legend has been told since those days.”

In the manner of legends the exact times and places are not spelt out. It is apparently set in the 11th century. This was a period of imperial rule with the capital in Kyoto though the military class exercised effective power. In is mainly from the dialogue that ages and places can be discerned. The film falls into three segments separated by time and space; again only discernible in the dialogue. The titular character, the bailiff of a mansion of a high official, only appears in the second segment, forty minutes into the film.

After the initial titles the film presents a family on a journey. There is the mother Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo): her son Zushiô (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) now about 13 years: her daughter Anju, (Kagawa Kyôko) aged about seven: and a woman servant, Ubatake (Naniwa Chieko). As they walk through the Japanese countryside there are several flashbacks, not obviously motivated’ but apparently the memories of Tamaki; mainly opened and closed by lap dissolves. These are set six years earlier when her husband Mausaji Taira no (Shimizu Masao), the father of the children, was the Governor of a province, Mutsu. Provinces were the basic level of administration in Feudal Japan; and this large province was in the North East alongside the sea.

The Governor had fallen foul of military leaders by opposing increased conscription of the peasants. His humanity had made him popular with the ordinary people but not with officials. As a punishment he is sent into exile to the province of Tsukushi, far away in the south of Japan. We see his support amongst the poor. And we see the farewells to his family who are to stay with Tamaki’s brother. When he parts from Zushiô the father recites his philosophy to his son and gives him an amulet, the Goddess of Mercy.

“Without mercy, a man is like a beast. Be sympathetic to others. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.”

These mantras will be repeated at key stages of the subsequent narrative and the amulet becomes an important icon in the story.

On their journey the family are misled by a woman claiming to be a priestess. The result is the death of Ubatake, Tamaki being sold into prostitution and the children sold into slave labour.

We now encounter the mansion of which Sansho is the Bailiff (Shindo Eitaro). He is a brutal and exploitative master; illustrated by the branding of an inmate who attempts escape. However his son Taro (Kono Akitake) is critical of his father’s brutality and attempts to ease the plight of the labourers; then leaving the mansion for Kyoto. The children do not reveal their names for fear of the consequences, [the possibility of ransom demands?]. For their time at the mansion they are known as Mutsu and Shinobu.

There is an ellipsis of ten tears and now Zushiô/Mutsu is 23 and Anju/Shinobu is 17, Zushiô has been brutalised over time and has become an overseer. The illustration is when he brands another would-be escapee. Anju remains committed to the teachings of their father. In an important sequence she hears a new girl worker sing a song;

“How I long for you, Zushiô, Anju”

On Sado Island [in the sea of Japan] Tamaki {now called Nakayama] desperately tries to flee and find her lost children. As a punishment she is hamstrung and disabled. We see her singing her sad refrain. Anju realises this is their mother pining for her children. She tells Zushiô but he is immured in their situation.

An opportunity now arises for Zushiô and Anju to escape when they have to carry an aged woman, no longer able to work, to a place to die alone. . But to prevent her brother’s recapture Anju remains and commits suicide rather than betray Zushiô. He gains sanctuary in an Imperial Monastery where he meets Taro again; now a Buddhist monk.

In the final section Zushiô journeys to the capital Kyoto. His father has died recently and it is too late to reinstate him. However, the injustice suffered is recognised and Zushiô is appointed Governor of the province of Tango, which contains the Mansion overseen by Sansho.. Once there Zushiô goes even farther than his father and confronts Sansho and the system of forced labour. He then journeys to Sado Island and after some travails find his mother in a hovel on a beach, now blind as well as crippled. He has to tell her of the death of both her husband and her daughter. Whilst they comfort each other he shows his mother the amulet of the Goddess of Mercy that he still carries.

His mother responds,

“I do know that you followed your father’s words. That is … that is why we can meet here now.”

The scene and the film end with a crane shot which pans across the beach and rests two small islands: offering what critics have called a transcendental conclusion to the film: reinforcing the humanist values which are embodied in the film. The ending uses as music woodblocks, flutes and a harp, adds an appropriate emotional tone. The whole films show the command of Mizoguchi and his craft team, especially cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, of visual style: there are frequent graceful tracking shot and the mise en scene uses the landscape to great effect: physically beautiful on occasions, grimly realistic on others. The contrasting vistas add to the dramatisation of the story. When we first encounter the family the landscape is beautifully set; at one point they traverse a bed of flowered reeds. One spot is where Zushiô and Anju collect wood and reeds for a night time shelter. This scene has a parallel in the woody spot just before Zushiô’s escape, offering a motivation for his change of heart. Later the open and large seascape when the family are seized has an appropriately desolate feel. The mansion of Sansho is a grim setting as is the hovel on Sado island. These contrast with the opulent and highly formal setting of Kyoto, the Governor’s palace and the reception offered by Sansho to an emissary of the owner. And the monastery presents a solemn silent space rudely disrupted by Sansho armed retainers; and Taro’s care a contrast to the brutal treatment of the serfs in the mansion. The music, led by the woodblocks, flutes and harp has occasional orchestral backing but is minimal only accompanying key scenes. The harp dominates in the sequence as Anju slowly walks into the lake in a sacrificial suicide. Parallel music accompanies the scene as Zushiô stands by the lake mourning his sister. And the song we hear in the sequence showing Tamaki prostituted on Sado island re-appears in the final sequence but now the crippled Tamaki can hardly sing the words and mostly she is just humming theme.

The cast are excellent. Tanaka Kinuyo has an important presence in the opening section; following this she appears in shorter sequences in the middle and concluding sections. In the course of the film she is changed from a formally attired aristocratic lady to a crippled and poverty stricken old woman. This is a part of the powerful and tragic development in the film.

The critical sense in the narrative also develops. Mausaji Taira opposes the ruling of the military elite but accepts the punishment laid down. But when Zushiô becomes a governor he is warned not to overstep the bounds but deliberately does this and confronts the unjust laws. Immediately he resigns knowing that this will lead to his punishment. So his conduct is more radical than that of his father thought the oppressive system remains. An audience may wonder what happens to the protagonist after mother and son are reunited. But they should also wonder if the oppressive serf system will not be re-imposed when a new Governor takes office.

Mizoguchi was one of the directors in the 1950s who bought Japanese cinema to the attention of western critics and audiences. A number of the films were winners of prestigious awards at European film festivals; Sansho dayu won the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, alongside Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai.

Haruka’s Pottery (Haruka no sue, Japan 2019)

One of the aims of the Japan Foundation Film Tour is to introduce UK audiences to aspects of Japanese culture and this title fulfils that role more directly than most. The insistency of the importance of craft skills is a key feature of both Japanese arts and crafts and industry and commerce. In recent years I can remember watching films about the art of sushi preparation and achieving the perfect ramen dish. The titular character of this film is Haruka (Honda Nao), a young office worker in Tokyo who is unfulfilled by her job and her life in general. One day, accompanying her boss on a shopping trip, she is taken into an exhibition of Bizen ware pottery in a department store. Unaccountably, she falls in love with a large plate in the small exhibition and, noting the potter’s name, she determines to seek him out.

Bizen is an area in the prefecture of Okayama in the South of Honshu, the main island of Japan and some 4 or 5 hours from Tokyo by train. The main pottery centre is Imbe and Haruka decides to visit the town to see if she can find the potter Wakatake. Bizen ware dates back to the 16th century but could be linked to earlier pottery styles. In danger of dying out in the 20th century, it was maintained by a small number of potters until in 1982 it was designated a ‘traditional Japanese craft’ by the Japanese government with around 300 potters at the start of the 21st century (see Wikipedia entry). This film is a fiction but it seems to be accurate in terms of the processes and the potteries shown.

Wakatake is not very communicative . . .

When Haruka arrives she struggles in the heat of summer to find Wakatake’s pottery but by chance meets an older man who directs her to the building. She doesn’t realise it yet but the older man is a ‘National Treasure’, an official designation for a skilled craftsman now mainly retired. When Haruka meets Wakatake he is incommunicative and unwelcoming. Haruka is persistent and eventually when the ‘National Treasure’ re-appears he tells Wakatake that he will never become a great potter if he doesn’t communicate with people and express this in his work. He suggests that Wakatake should accept Haruka as an apprentice and she readily agrees although she has been treated quite rudely. Unperturbed, Haruka returns to Tokyo to settle her affairs and starts as an apprentice in Imbe.

The ‘National Treasure’ in the karaoke bar

Wakatake Osamu is a highly-skilled potter but he has not got over the deaths of his parents. His father was a master craftsman who taught his son well but the stressful life of the potter is an issue for someone with poor mental health. The second section of the film sees Haruka trying to find a way around her master’s ‘prickliness’ and refusal to teach her directly. She must watch and listen (and do the chores). It occurred to me that this is the Japanese way of learning ‘on the job’ that was used in the Japanese film industry of the 1930s and is discussed in Kurosawa Akira’s writings. In the UK this used to be called ‘sitting next to Nelly’. It’s a time-consuming process but a long apprenticeship conducted in this way can work very well. It then requires proper support when the apprentice has to ‘fly solo’ for the first time. It wouldn’t really make sense to pad the film narrative out to cover several years so I think the process we see is time-compressed and geared to the annual calendar in Imbe.

Haruka helps out in the fields – a relief from her struggle with Wakatake’s behaviour

Each year Imbe holds a Bizen festival with demonstrations and exhibitions which has become a tourist attraction. After this in the Autumn the potters begin firing the kilns. This is particularly stressful because of the qualities of the local clay which require the kilns to reach a very high temperature but to do so gradually. They must be watched and fed with wood 24 hours a day over several days – this is when the strain becomes very great. If the process fails, the potter could lose all the pieces produced in the previous season. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess what happens with carefully orchestrated setbacks and later triumphs.

Haruka’s Pottery is an independent film whereas all the other titles I’ve seen on the tour have been from major studio brands or affiliated, established distributors. It was still shot in ‘Scope but with a debut writer-director and a largely inexperienced cast and crew, apart from the two actors playing Wakatake (Hirayama Hiroyuki) and the ‘National Treasure’ (Sasano Takashi). It’s also slightly problematic that there are relatively few promotional websites with details of the production or useful materials. The film actually looks pretty good with only two main locations, a brief section in Tokyo and then most of the set-ups in Imbe. The music score comprises slow and gentle piano with what sounded like folk music sequences. The narrative is fairly predictable and the leisurely running time of just under two hours could perhaps be reduced, but the main attraction of the film is the detailed illustration of the potter’s technique and the process of firing the pieces in the kiln. The human story is about how the apprentice helps to ‘humanise’ her ‘master’ allowing him to express himself through his work and to deal with the loss of his parents. There are flashbacks in which we see him as a boy with his parents. For Haruka it is a case of finding something she loves to do and finding herself through the challenges that working with Wakatake and struggling with the techniques of the wheel and the kiln that are thrown up for her. As a takeaway message about Japanese culture, the film stresses that great art needs ‘soul’ – something of the potter must be in the pot and the more the potter gives, the more pleasing the piece will be.

I did worry that this would be too ‘nice’ a film but I enjoyed it for what it is – an entertaining and informative film and a nice contrast to some of the more dramatic films that appeared in my selection from the Japan Foundation Tour.

The trailer below lacks English subs. Below it is a link to the Japan Foundation Q&A and discussion about the film.

Not Quite Dead Yet (Ichido shinde mita, Japan 2020)

The extensive cast of characters in Not Quite Dead Yet

After watching this film for only a few minutes I wondered to myself if it was going to stand as a rare stinker from the Japan Foundation Film Tour. Soon after I wondered how on earth was I going to classify it and explain why it didn’t work. Fortunately it got better and eventually began to work for me. By the end I was enjoying it, even if I failed to spot actors I should have recognised. This is actually a mainstream family comedy which is structurally quite familiar in the UK, though its comic targets are mainly recognisable as Japanese, including the whole institution of ‘death’.

The central characters are the Nobata family. Father is a research chemist who has established a successful company but in the process has alienated his daughter Nanase and lost his wife to a mysterious disease. A series of flashbacks establish an unconventional family life with pressure put on Namase to become a research scientist like her father. She, of course, will rebel – in this case by refusing to join the family firm when she leaves university and attempting instead to become a music star, fronting a ‘death metal’ band. Meanwhile, the Nobata family pharma company is being eyed up by a large corporate rival, Watson Pharma, who have placed a mole in Nobata’s senior management. A plot is hatched involving a new drug that will render Nobata Kei (the father) temporarily dead for just two days during which time Watson’s CEO has a plan to take control of Nobata.

Nanase performing

Nobata Kei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi), worried about his daughter, has assigned a young man to follow her and report back. This character, known mainly by his nickname ‘Ghost’ because he is able to fade into any background and render himself virtually invisible will be key to development of the plot. He will be able to foil the plot with help from Nanase and finally another overlooked employee also known mainly by his nickname ‘Gramps’. Nobata Pharma’s money-making drug is an anti-ageing concoction known as ‘Romeo’ and the new drug which induces temporary death is given the name ‘Juliet’. The ‘temporary death’ plotline offers a range of gags some of which involve Kore-reda Hirokazu favourite Lily Franky who plays the ‘Sanzu River boatman’ – the Buddhist Japanese figure who ferries the dead to the equivalent of Hades. Nanase is played by Hirose Suzu who I should have recognised from the Kore-eda films Our Little Sister and The Third Murder.

Nanase and Ghost discover her ‘not quite dead’ father

Not Quite Dead Yet is written by Sawamoto Yoshimitsu and directed by Hamasaki Shinji, as his debut feature after a successful career in advertising films in which he won several awards. Shot in ‘Scope, like all the other features in my Japan Foundation selection, by Kondoh Tetsuya the film looks good. I think my early concerns were that the scenes may not fit together. Early flashback scenes attempt to show the pressure on Nanase coming from her father’s determination to get her interested in science. These vignettes are clever, perhaps too clever next to the ‘death metal’ music scenes featuring Nanase in the present – in performance and with her fans. The music is credited to Hyadain. I don’t know anything about the composer or about ‘death metal’ but I had some expectations and the relatively tuneful mainstream rock music that was presented didn’t seem to fit at all. I think the film began to make sense as a recognisable comic form with the introduction of the ‘Ghost’ (Yoshizawa Ryô). This actor seems very experienced with 65 credits aged just 26. His appearance and the growing realisation that he and Nanase will together fight for her father and the company presents a familiar universal comedy form – the beautiful and privileged young woman and the physically slight and bumbling young man, who is actually very bright – as is she – facing a more powerful enemy. I can think of countless examples of similar plotlines from around the world.

Some clever play with texting to the dead . . .

I’ve seen some sneery reviews about poor SFX  in the film but I liked these, with the ‘temporarily dead’ father as ghost figure materialising and trying to communicate and mother seemingly trapped in a glass case in the family shrine. The film is much shorter than the others in the Foundation Tour at around 90 minutes and rattles along nicely as the best comedies do. It’s good to have a change of mood and in the end I enjoyed the chases and the finale in what turned out to be a well-written comedy with good performances. Perhaps a little more romcom might have topped it off?

Shape of Red (Red, Japan 2020)

Adapted from the 2014 novel Red by Shimamoto Rio (one of the most celebrated and prolific younger writers in Japan), this is a traditional Japanese female-centred melodrama (directed by Mishima Yukiko, the only female director out of my first five films on the tour). I rather liked it. As with all the other offerings I’ve watched on the Japan Foundation Film Tour, it is presented in ‘Scope (1:2.35). The structure is non-linear, beginning with a phone call from a public phone by the central character Toko in the midst of swirling snow. But soon we flash back to see her in her domestic setting. The flashbacks are not signalled so it takes some time to fully understand the narrative chronology.

Toko makes a call during the snowstorm

We soon realise that Toko is married to a wealthy young man and that they have a young daughter. Toko’s mother-in-law always seems to be around and her husband Shin is very conservative, seemingly doing only what his parents decree is appropriate and this includes Toko as a domesticated housewife/mother. By modern standards Toko has accepted a role that should have disappeared years ago.

. . . with Kurata

I don’t want to reveal too much plot but, by chance, Toko meets an old flame from ten years earlier. This is Kurata, an architect who reminds her of what might have been. Despite opposition at home, Toko decides to return to work and joins the architecture and design company where Kurata has a senior position. The head of the firm, Kodaka is an interesting character who acts as a kind of agent provocateur, taking an interest in Toko and proving perceptive about her relationship with Kurata. Toko and Kurata work together on a project in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo and on the other side of Honshu, towards the Western coast. This means trips over the mountains and frequent heavy snow in winter, preventing Toko from getting home on time.

Kodaka provokes action by Toko

The ‘red’ of the title is a melodrama symbol for passion, danger and even directly for blood. The film’s dialogue and mise en scène also have a number of important symbolic references. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Toko and Kurata become lovers. He reveals how important the book ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Tanazaki Junichiro is to him. This particular book is about Japanese and Western aesthetics and their possible influences on architecture. But Tanazaki, one of the biggest names in ‘modern’ 20th century Japanese literature, is also associated with novels about adultery, desire and eroticism. The couple also had a favourite album when they were together earlier, an LP by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is their favourite track. It’s a much misunderstood song about desire. The film’s title is underlined by a red cloth tied to a protruding cargo of wooden poles carried on a truck the couple are following in a snow storm – which eventually blows off and lands in the snow. Toko’s story – that of the repressed woman restricted to housework and childcare – is directly referenced when she is told, accusingly, “you are not in the Doll’s House”, citing the Ibsen play from 1879. This kind of European play was influential in ‘modernising’ Japanese ideas during the Meiji period. There is definitely an ‘excess’ of symbolism. I particularly like the architectural model house which Toko and Kurata create. Toko then feels that the main window should be larger so she can see out more.

. . . a bigger window for their ideal house

I’ve read all the reviews I could find on this film. Many fall into the opposing camps of an old-fashioned story that is now out of date vs. this cruel woman who would leave her beautiful little daughter and comfortable life for a selfish romance. There is an interesting feature in the Japan Times in which the director and co-scriptwriter (with Ikeda Chihiro) Mishima Yukiko explains that she thinks that many women in Japan are trapped like Toko in marriages in which they feel pressurised to conform and not think about what they really want. Mishima is an experienced filmmaker who clearly knows the power of traditional melodrama and feels that she knows ‘what women really want’. The Japan Times review by veteran critic Mark Schilling, however, suggests that there is already a “thriving subgenre of Japanese films about women who leave their ruts and find their grooves” – and Red looks by comparison like a “frustratingly retro drama”. Schilling suggests that Toko is too weak a character – a charge also made by Toko’s mother. I can’t claim any real knowledge of contemporary Japanese society but I would expect that Toko’s ‘entrapment’ is an issue in upper-class conservative households but not so prevalent for young educated women outside that group. Overall though I’m with the director. I did notice that the taboo of divorce and single parenthood features in several ways in this film, including the scene in which Toko is late picking up her daughter Midori from school with shaming consequences. I liked that Toko later reminds her husband that Midori has a father as well as a mother.

Shin, the conservative husband

Two other notable points about the film are the references to food, including Toko’s love of ‘simmered taro’, a form of yam-like root vegetable in broth and a typical food of Niigata, ‘noppe stew’. Early in the film there is a clash of dishes from Toko and her mother-in-law to be served to Shin. Like Miyamoto earlier in the tour, there are a couple of contrasting scenes of sexual activity in the film, carefully shot and edited but still deemed worth mentioning in the Japan Times review as relatively new in Japanese mainstream cinema. The performances from Kaho as Toko, Tsumabuki Satoshi as Kiruta and Emoto Tasuku as Kokada are excellent. Mamiya Shotaro as Shin is very well cast – I could see this actor playing a week young Emperor or Shogun, he exudes a certain kind of privilege. I’d like to see this film on a cinema screen but I fear that it would be difficult to put into UK distribution. Contemporary Japanese melodramas seem to appeal only to a minority of cinephiles here and that’s a shame.