I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.
The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.
Like Your Name, Weathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.
In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!
Advance warning of next year’s Japan Film Foundation UK Touring programme was released on Monday 23 December. The tour reaches venues in London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, Bristol and Nottingham between January 31st and March 27th 2014.
Full details including which titles (selections from 11 in all) are playing at which venues can be found on the Foundation’s website. This year’s theme is ‘youth’, under the title ‘East Side Stories’, with films from the last ten years, most not previously seen in the UK. There is also one archive print, 18 Who Cause a Storm (Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin) from 1963: “A worker in a shipbuilding yard is offered the chance to boost his wages by managing a dormitory inhabited by a pack of eighteen adolescent ruffians. This early film by Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros Plus Massacre) is a neo-realist account of the conditions for Japanese temporary workers in the 1960s, and rare to see outside Japan”.
We hope to get to at least a couple of these screenings. It looks an interesting programme.
Before the tsunami hit the north-east coast of Honshu in March 2011, writer-director Sono Sion was working on an adaptation of a manga story about a 14 year-old boy. He was able to quickly change the setting of the film’s story to accommodate the aftermath of the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It’s been suggested that it was the topicality of Himizu that prompted the Venice Film Festival to include the film in competition in September 2011 and to give a higher profile to the work of Sono. However, this seems a trifle condescending. Sono is a director who has a controversial image in Japan but also a string of film productions, a genuine fanbase and previous success at film festivals in Asia and worldwide. He began as a poetry performer and avant-garde artist and his films have included Suicide Club (2001) and his most successful title, Love Exposure (2010).
‘Himizu‘ is the name of a Japanese shrew mole, a creature which lives quietly beneath the ground. It’s endemic throughout most of Japan. Sumida Yuichi is a 14 year-old boy whose parents have virtually abandoned him. His father is a drunk who is usually absent but returns occasionally looking for money and often beating up his son. Yuichi’s mother has a lover and has no interest in her son. The family own a house by a boating lake and earn a few yen from hiring out boats to anglers and courting couples. Yuichi responds to a lesson at school and decides that he wants to grow up to be a ‘respectable adult’ who lives a quiet life but does good things for people. However, Keiko, one of the girls in his class (with similarly bad parents), develops a crush on him and constantly irritates him with her enthusiasm for some form of relationship. This is the situation, I assume, in the original manga by Minoru Furuya –a series which ran in Young magazine in 2001-2. The story was unusual in focusing on Yuichi’s psychological state.
Sono’s film utilises the tsunami disaster in several ways. There is a central dream/nightmare sequence which seems to be experienced by at least one other character as well as Yuichi and involves a journey through a devastated landscape of smashed houses, cars etc. Meanwhile, in the real world a group of homeless people from the coast are camping in makeshift homes around the lake – forming a kind of Greek chorus in the narrative, but also a genuine alternative to Yuichi’s absent parents. Finally, of course, the aftermath of the disasters provides a constant topic of conversation and news broadcasts and a psychological environment of resignation, futility, breakdown and other usually negative moods punctuated by desperate attempts to look to the future. You’ll gather from this that Himizu is not a ‘fun’ film. There is a lot of violence in the film, both actual in the form of repeated beatings (including between Yuichi and Keiko) and verbal (parents who say that their children should be dead). The film is perhaps too long. But . . . although I felt I was struggling to watch the film, I still enjoyed it and felt that I got a lot from it. I enjoyed the cinematography and the almost Kurosawa-like obsession with extreme weather.
I’m not surprised that the Venice jury gave the acting prize for new talent to the two leads (Sometani Shota and Nikaido Fumi) who are always worth watching. I don’t want to give too much away about what happens, but I will say that one of the narrative strands includes a yakuza connection which could be just an indication of the way Sono draws on other genre repertoires but more importantly it allows a kind of commentary on parenting (and raises the interesting question of how criminals respond to the chaos created by the aftermath of the tsunami). However, the main genre focus of the film seems to be ‘troubled youth’ and I’d recommend Himizu as a good example of contemporary Japanese cinema in that respect.
Himizu is a Third Window release in the UK which opens in London at the ICA, Prince Charles and Renoir this Friday, June 1st. It will also have screenings in Brighton, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. See all potential screenings on the Third Window website. The DVD/Blu-Ray release date is August 6th.
Here’s the official trailer (WARNING: it gives away a couple of major plot points)
Villain is a Japanese crime film based on the novel by Yoshida Suichi (released in English translation in the UK in 2010). It was placed No 1 in the Japanese magazine Kinema Junpo‘s Top 10 of 2010 and released in the UK by Third Window – which earlier this year released Kokahaku (Confessions), No. 2 in the same chart. Villain gained several Japanese Academy Awards. We should thank Third Window for bringing these important Japanese films to the UK. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have attracted the audiences they deserve. This film had a single screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of the Asia Triennial Festival (which includes a film programme running through October and November) and I thought the audience was disappointing, despite a significant East Asian presence.
One of the problems associated with the film for UK audiences is its genre classification. Contemporary Japanese Cinema in the UK is too often assumed to be ‘extreme’ – horror, gangster/ultra violence etc. Villain is a crime film but as one IMDB poster puts it, it fits the Japanese notion of a ‘Howdunnit’ or ‘Whydunnit’ rather than a suspense thriller. In fact, this film is more a social drama centred around a killing. We discover who the murderer is halfway through what is quite a long film (139 mins). What interests us why the murder was committed, whether it was really murder in a ‘premeditated with intent’ sense and how the other people involved react to what happened. This makes it a little more like some of the South Korean dramas dealing with crimes such as Memories of Murder (Bong Jun-hoo, 2003) or possibly like some of Hitchcock’s work.
The victim is a young woman, Yoshino, who has left home and her parents’ barbershop to become an insurance clerk in the city and live in the company ‘dormitory’. As part of her attempt to have an exciting social life she attempts to flirt with a rich young playboy and also has casual sex with Yuichi someone she meets through an internet dating site. On the night in question she meets both men (by accident) and ends up dead on a mountain road. The playboy has a circle of friends but we don’t meet his family. The internet dating guy lives many miles away in Nagasaki (the story is set on the most southerly of the Japanese main islands, Kyushu). We meet his grandmother who has brought him up and later his mother who abandoned him. He also hitches up with another person he meets online, Mitsuyo, a lonely woman who works in a clothing store. The other major character is the dead girl’s father who seeks some form of revenge. I won’t spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess who did it. I did suggest that the whodunnit angle is not important. Whydunnit is the key to the film and we are offered a range of characters and situations which suggest that there are many ‘villains’ in society and that crimes and criminals are not always obvious.
The film is in some ways quite conventional – and perhaps ‘old-fashioned’. I think that this too might put off younger viewers in particular. The colour palette is quite subdued and the pacing is slow. Some of the acting styles are also perhaps not what we expect in a mainstream film – in a way, the film moves into quite a stylised mode in the last third, particularly in the playing of some of the older characters and of Yuichi and Mitsuyo. Allied to this is the score by the celebrated composer Joe Hisaishi. I barely noticed the music except on a couple of occasions when I thought “Oh, this is good”. This suggests to me that Hisaishi was doing exactly what the great Bernard Hermann said all film composers should do, which is to support the narrative.
The real question is what does the film ‘mean’? Why has it won so many prizes in Japan? The film’s director is Lee Sang-il, who is a ‘Zainichi Korean’ – someone from the established Korean community in Japan, i.e. living in Japan through several generations since the era of Japanese colonialism and the occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. There is a category of ‘Zainichi Cinema’ that has been identified in Japan – see the discussion in this review of an academic conference last year. However, although Lee’s first film Chong (2000) focused on Korean characters, his subsequent films have all featured Japanese characters and in interviews (see Midnight Eye) he has distanced himself from being categorised as a Zainichi director. Instead, his films tend to feature characters who might best be described as either ‘rebels’ or more generally ‘marginal’ in difficult social circumstances. Thus in Villain, the two most sympathetic characters are perhaps Yoshino’s father and Yuichi’s grandmother – both of whom fight for their dignity and for their children (the grandmother has brought up Yuichi). Other adults fall more easily into social types who are uncaring and exploitative – and therefore potentially ‘villains’ in the scenario mapped out here. Of the four younger people, Yushino and the playboy are broadly drawn types, very easy to dislike and without too many redeeming features. Yuichi and Mitsuyo, by contrast, are quite complex characters and their relationship in the second half of the film is perhaps the best element in the film. (My feeling is that Mitsuyo might be a few years older than Yuichi and if so this is quite important.)
In the bar after the screening I casually mentioned that in many of the Japanese novels (mainly crime novels) I’d read and in several recent Japanese films, ‘youth’ is nearly always a ‘problem’ and inter-generational conflict is there in the narrative. This position was strongly attacked and it was suggested that perhaps this was just a function of the novels that came into English translation and the films that got UK screenings – in other words, was I guilty of a Westerner’s partial view of Japanese culture? Of course, that must be a possibility. I can’t claim to have read or seen even a fraction of what is produced in Japan, but what I have engaged with is often the most important in terms of box office and critical commentary. See, for instance, the No 2 film of 2010, Confessions. The reason I latch onto this potential reading (i.e. about ‘troubled youth’) is not to denigrate Japanese culture but because something similar has been a feature of both British and American literature/films at various times and because Japan offers an example of a rapidly ageing population profile. In fact, the ‘ageing of Japan’ is much faster than in any other advanced economy. I don’t necessarily agree with all the analyses of what this means for Japanese society, but it is a significant factor, especially in relation to the stresses of education and pressure to conform that seem to provide the narrative conflict for so many Japanese horror/high school/youth pictures etc. These themes are not directly applicable to Villain, but it is a film that makes you think.
UK trailer (which includes part of the scene where the victim’s father meets his daughter’s ghost at the site of the accident):