Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wonders Of Anime Matsuri - Kieran

A special event took place at the Sydney leg of the 14th Japanese Film Festival. For the first time we held a special "Anime Matsuri". A hallmark of Japanese Cinema and Television, Anime has been around in some form since the early 1900's and we are delighted to have put on this mini 7 hour marathon of this artistic expression.

The event was co-hosted by SMASH! Sydney Anime and Manga Show and was such a mammoth event that it took place in 2 parts. Part 1 featured the short music video "Precious" and the feature length version of the futuristic sci-fi piece "Time of Eve". Part 2 consisted of a special Naoyoshi Shiotani double feature with the romance tale "Tokyo Marble Chocolate" and the new 3D CGI Production I.G piece "Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror".

We decided to ask SMASH! about the wonders of anime and their thoughts about this matsuri (Matsuri is Japanese for festival). Read on to hear the thoughts of the event runner Alexia Zahra-Newman!

"JFF: How did SMASH! come about?
SMASH!: SMASH! was founded in 2007 by a Sydney artist and anime fan Katie Huang. She wanted to make an event for fans, artists and creators that could be both affordable and entertaining. Our first meetings were in Hyde Park and I don’t think anyone ever imagined that the convention would come as far as it has since. 

JFF: Tell us a bit about SMASH!
SMASH!: We have about 40 staff, all working voluntarily in whatever spare time they have around full time employment or study. Our key objectives are to provide an event dedicated to Japanese animation, art and culture that is affordable, educational and entertaining.  In particular we want to ensure that local artists have an opportunity to not only learn from professionals and develop their skills, but also to sell their works to the public. We run a large number of events over the course of a day including cosplay, karaoke, video game tournaments, Gundam model making workshops, academic and craft panels, trivia as well as a range of activities and games.

JFF: What does the future hold for SMASH?
SMASH!: Since our first year we’ve continued to grow bigger and better and we hope to continue that. Already we’ve confirmed a brand new venue at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre and we hope that very shortly we can announce some very exciting events and talents that will feature at the show. We’re a volunteer organisation and as such we’re always looking for people with new ideas and a willingness to help out. We’ll have information on our website soon for those interested in volunteering, but until then anyone can contact our staff at

JFF: Why do people get so involved in Anime, cosplay etc?
SMASH!: People are drawn to anime for a variety of reasons. The breadth of anime is one of those reasons. Because it is animated, it is restricted only by the imagination of its creators. There is anime for fans of sports, cars, martial arts, magical girls, robots, spaceships, high school romance and politics with settings that range from the extraordinary to the mundane.

Narrative appeals to yet others. While it is more common in the West than it once was, it is still frequently the case that Western televised drama will continue for years, often rotating characters, with no larger fixed story other than the plot of the episode of that week. While such self-contained stories have their appeal, anime caters to the fan looking for a narrative with a longer, but nevertheless, defined arc. Finally, it has blue hair. And shirts made entirely out of buckles. And frogs that are vampires. Well, maybe not the last bit. But that's coming next year for sure.

JFF: How do you intend to get more people interested in manga/anime?
SMASH!: We believe that anime has something for everyone and the biggest barrier is merely people's preconceptions. In Australia, we grow up with a very rigid view of what the cartoon is useful for - humour. Although television shows such as South Park and The Simpsons have pushed the age groups which are permitted to enjoy animation it is still, at heart, about laughter.

This is why events such as the JFF are important. They provide an opportunity for people to realise that animation can be used to explore themes which are serious, sad, uplifting and challenging. People enjoy good storytelling and once the medium is no longer seen as restrictive to what storytelling can take place, we believe people will reach for an anime DVD as easily as they reach out for the next episode of Mad Men.

JFF: Are you excited to be involved with JFF?
SMASH!: Definitely! We think that anything that promotes anime and Japan to audiences in Sydney is a fantastic thing and we’re more than happy to work with the Japan Foundation in producing the Anime Matsuri. We hope that the Festival will reach a whole new bunch of people who haven’t yet discovered anime and Japanese culture.

JFF: What sort of special events were at the Anime Matsuri?
SMASH!: We want to show attendees that might not know much about SMASH! and other Anime conventions what the feeling is to be at one of these conventions. So we have put together a mini one for this event, including a Cosplay runway. This will be where members of the audience can come down from their seats to the front of the cinema and show everyone their great cosplay, to win great prizes.

JFF: Are you excited for the future?
SMASH!: Yes, the screenings were great. I know a few people had seen these films through their own means but this is the first time for many and personally we think they are a great introduction to anime for anyone new to the culture. We would love to work with the Japan foundation in the future and grow Sydney’s awareness and love for Japanese, Anime and popular culture."

The event was a great success, with cosplay, prizes and guests galore. We had over 1,000 people attend, from young children to anime veterans. Special thanks to Alexia for that interview and to the whole SMASH! team for the wonderful event.
We hope to work with you guys in the future too!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

(Sword Of Desperation) A Samurai Saga - Richard

When you think of Japanese film, one of the 2 immediate things that come to mind is the genre of the Samurai Film (the other being Anime). It is no surprise then that one of the most popular sesisons of JFF14 has been the Samurai piece "Sword of Desperation". Richard Gray from DVD Bits takes a look at why this genre fascinates us all.

"The history of Japanese cinema has long been defined into a number of key genres that reflect the history of Japan itself. Arguably the most famous of these is the jidai-geki, or period dramas, and consist of films largely set in the Edo Period of Japan (1603 – 1868), with samurai cinema such as Rashomon, Yojimbo and Ran being an obvious sub-genre of this. Along with gendai-geki (contemporary dramas) and shomin-geki (realist films such as the works of Yasujiro Ozu). This latest film from director Hideyuki Hirayama manages to draw on several layers of this amazing tradition.

As the film opens, swordsman Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa, 20th Century Boys) stabs and kills the Lady Renko (Megumi Seki), mistress to the Lord Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami, All to the Sea). This crime is normally punishable by beheading, yet Sanzaemon is spared. Instead, he is imprisoned in isolation for a year, during which time we learn of the corruption of Renko, and the growing rift that is forming between the Lord and his cousin Hayatonosho Obiya (Koji Kikkawa). When Sanzaemon is released and promoted to chief attendant, things really start to get complicated.

Many commentators have made a big deal of the similarities between this and the films of Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring). At first glance, I wondered where this comparison could have come from. This is, after all, a film about a brutal murder and an elaborate plot of political intrigue. On closer inspection, the film is only about those things on the surface, and is principally concerned with the spaces in between. There are long scenes where ostensibly nothing happens, but there is always a brooding tension just boiling underneath the surface.

Toyokawa epitomises this understated character type, having recently come off the slightly more over-the-top version of the honourable samurai in 20th Century Boys as the “Shogun”. When the tension finally breaks, it is explosive. The film concludes, as it began, with a violent act. However, the final moments of the film are so blood-soaked it is almost as if the very emotional core of the film itself has finally been let loose and embodied in a very skilled and slightly miffed samurai.

Possibly the pinnacle of all samurai storytelling, simply because it draws on all of the influences of Japanese cinema. Sword of Desperation is simultaneously an impeccable samurai/period film and a quiet shomin-geki film, with the castle serving as a de facto for the family home that characterised Ozu’s films. Even nature is used as an oppressive force, heightening the tension inherent to the situation.

Easily one of my Top 5 films from the 14th Japanese Film Festival, Sword of Desperation is a slow-burning drama-cum-samurai film that should be seen as a classic piece of cinema for generations to come." by Richard Gray, DVD Bits.

Richard lists the film as one of his top 5 films of JFF14. What were yours? Did you have a top 3? top 7? or did just 1 film stick out for you as being top of the bunch? Send us an email at or post a commment below as we are interested in finding out what films captivated our audiences. Look forward to hearing everyones responses!

(Box!) A Tale Of Two Friends - Richard

Hello JFFers! The festival has just a few days remaining in Melbourne before moving on down to Hobart, so don't miss out on the chance to see some great films! Today we take a look at the very popular "Box!", from the director of "Detroit Metal City". We are running a special Buy 1 Get 1 Free deal for "Box!", so we hope you take advantage of it! And don't forget to send in your festival reports for the chance to be featured on the blog!

"Sport films tend to follow a fairly standard pattern, and are always good for a bit heart-string pulling in the audience. We’ve already had one sports film this year at the Japanese Film Festival in Feel the Wind, two if you count the competition performance calligraphy of Shodo Girls, both of which featured the underdog battling against the bigger competitors for the ultimate prize. Boxing films have always been at the heart of this genre, possibly due to the protagonist having to literally fight his or her way to the top. Going back to at least 1976′s Rocky and the operatic heights of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull,  it seems that strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring is Oscar gold, with the more recent Million Dollar Baby earning four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Box! distinguishable from Richard E. Kelly’s similarly titled The Box by the handy ‘!’ at the end of the title, follows this grand tradition with the tale of two friends. When high-school student Yuki (Kengo Kora, Solanin) is rescued from some street toughs on a train by Kabu (Hayato Ichihara, Rookies), they realise that they were childhood friends prior to Yuki moving away. Reunited, Kabu convinces Yuki to join the high school boxing club, and eventually compete in regional tournaments. The most feared boxer in their weight division is Inamura (professional boxer Suwa Masashi), and it is only a matter of time before one (or both) of them must face him.

Box! follows a fairly predictable path, with a fairly set path towards the final confrontation between newcomer Yuki and his foe Inamura. By the time they meet, it isn’t so much about winning for Rocky…erm… Yuki, it is about going the distance. So the path they follow is a predictable one, but the real appeal of any sports film are the characters and their ability to illicit emotion from the audience.

Kengo Kora plays completely against his terrific drifter role in Solanin, where he spent most of his energy simply existing. Here he is single-mindedly driven, although is character is similarly singular in his motivations. This isn’t really surprising when your primary foe is non-actor Masashi, whose own performance is restricted to a series of snarls and menacing (and occasionally homoerotic) stares in the direction of our two leads. Only Ichihara, as the all-brawns-no-brains Kabu, is given a bit of depth to play with, especially during his own downslide and the unresolved relationship with the terminally ill Satoko (Mitsuki Tanimura, Summer Wars).

One can be fairly certain of what they are getting when they step into the ring with Box! While this will undoubtedly garner some interest from fans of Toshio Lee and his previous cult hit Detroit Metal City, it merely remains another crowd-pleasing trip of one man going the distance." - Richard Gray, DVD Bits.

Cheers to Richard for the review. You can see his recap on the entire Sydney JFF14 on The Reel Bits, including what his favourite films of the festival where! He managed to catch 18 of the 22 films at the festival, so their is a great range of reviews and thoughts on the festival line-up.

See you at the festival!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

(Hanamizuki) Timeless Love - Samson

It was the fastest selling session at JFF14. It sold out in a matter of days and was in high demand. Whether you managed to catch it or not, you surely heard the fuss about "Hanamizuki (Flowering Dogwood)". Did it live up to the hype? Samson Kwok takes a look at the teen romance, which was intruiingly based on a famous love song in Japan. Read on to see what you missed out on!

"Hanamizuki is a personal favourite of mine amongst all the films that I have seen at this year's Japanese Film Festival. It is perhaps not as accomplished in various aspects as a few of the others, but it has managed to touch me and tug at my heartstrings in a way that no other films have done.

Based on the lyrics of a moving love song by Yo Hitoto (played in full at the end of the film), this story about 2 young lovers is set in Hokkaido. Sae is a college girl who falls in a love with Kohei, a handsome young fisherman. The relationship is strong until Sae decides to move to Tokyo to fulfil her dreams. There, she meets Kitami, a talented photographer who happens to share her dreams...

Yui Aragaki gives a wonderful performance as the main character, though at times her stunning good looks actually serve as a distraction. The male lead, Toma Ikuta, is charming as the fisherman whom Sae loves. He starts off boyish but as the story goes on, he becomes a mature young man. There is much chemistry between Aragaki and Ikuta, which is key to the success of the film. The other main character is Junichi Kitami, the photographer Sae meets in Tokyo, played by Osamu Mukai who gives a likeable performance.

Hanamizuki begins with the line "May your love bloom for a hundred years." For the 2 hours that follow, viewers get to go on a journey with the film's 2 main characters, as their relationship develops and matures, turning from pure innocent love to deep undying love. It is quite an emotional journey, consisting of both happiness and bitterness, but bittersweet never feels as good as this.

Director Nobuhiro Doi certainly knows how to draw emotions from the audience. Many scenes are memorable and incredibly touching. My favourites are all ones that involve Sae yelling across a long distance to reach the boat Kohei is on. The dialogues are well-written. One line that impresses me the most is said by Sae's mother: 'Experience love and pursue it without regret'. And that, is exactly what Sae and Kohei did.

Hanamizuki is a beautiful and romantic film. It comes as no surprise that it became a box office hit upon its release in Japan earlier this year. If you have dreamed of love, found love, or been waiting for love, I would wholeheartedly recommend this film to you. I sadly suspect it will not receive a wide release in Australia, and so may I suggest for those of you who live in Sydney (Hanamizuki will only be screening in the Sydney leg of the Japanese Film Festival) to grab this opportunity to see it, hopefully with someone you love." by Samson Kwok

Thanks to Samson for that recap for all of us that missed it. This is a notice, remember to book early for JFF15 as films are going to be selling like Wasabi Hotcakes!!!

See you all in Melbourne!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

(A Lone Scalpel) The Choice - Samson

Today is the final day of the Sydney leg of the 14th Japanese Film Festival. 18 films have come and gone, but some of the best have been saved for last. We have very different films on the final day of the festival. The historic adventure film about scaling Japan's last uncharactered mountain in "The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones". A Teen romance for the ages in the long Sold Out screening of "Hanamizuki (Flowering Dogwood)". A period samurai epic in "Sword of Desperation". And the closing film, based on one of the most popular Japanese novels ever, "A Lone Scalpel". Spend your Sunday at the festival, before its too late!

"Imagine this: You are in a situation where you could save someone’s life, but in doing so you risk losing everything (and I mean everything) that you have. Would you do it? ‘Perhaps not’, I hear you say. How about if you are a doctor and that person you could save is your patient, would you be prepared to carry out your duty by performing that life-saving operation despite the possibility that you may lose your medical licence and be sent to jail? This is the dilemma the main character of "A Lone Scalpel" is faced with.

Dr Toma, a skilled surgeon, starts work at a regional hospital in Japan. After performing an operation to remove a patient’s liver cancer, something that normally would not be done at this hospital, he quickly gains a very good reputation amongst the town’s people. Some of his colleagues become so jealous they are resentful and waiting patiently for the perfect opportunity to crucify him. Soon they get their chance as Dr Toma considers performing a controversial operation...

This central character initially comes across as eccentric and humourless, but as he spends more time at the small hospital, his colleagues (as well as the audience) come to learn that he is noble, humble and capable. In other words, he is a damn fine doctor and as a human being would possibly qualify as a saint. So it does not take long for him to find his own supporters and admirers. The movie’s title may give the impression that he is all on his own, but while he is the one who makes the key decision, there is also a good team who is happy to stand by him whatever that decision happens to be.

The always brilliant Shinichi Tsutsumi (Always: Sunset on Third Street – opening film JFF 2006, Maiko Haaan!!!, Suspect X) plays Dr Toma. His performance is most credible, and what stands out is his portrayal of the doctor’s determination to give his best to his patients, as well as the intense concentration given to every step of each operation. The other performances are also excellent. Yui Natsukawa plays Dr Toma’s competent theatre nurse Nakamura, while Akira Emoto plays the funny and likeable Mayor Okawa. The younger cast members are also fantastic. Especially impressing me is the young actor who plays Toma when he was a child and has just one single scene in the entire movie. Managing to steal the show though is Kimiko Yo (Departures – closing film JFF 2008, Dear Doctor – JFF 2010), who gives an exceptional performance as a loving mother who has to endure a great deal of sadness.

The fine cast has certainly made the job of director Izuru Narushima easier, but he deserves much credit of his own for his handling of this emotion-filled drama. He has made a film that is touching without being over-sentimental. I was (only) just able to hold back my tears, but viewers who have active lacrimal glands are encouraged to take some tissues while watching "A Lone Scalpel". My only slight criticism is Narushima’s rather clichéd portrayal of the bad guys in the movie as completely heartless characters who do all kinds of terrible things and are always annoyingly smoking like a chimney.

Overall, "A Lone Scalpel" is one fine film. The heart-warming story and wonderful performances are what make this film so immensely likeable. It is one of the best medical dramas I have seen in recent times, and I give it my highest recommendations. I just hope more people will get the chance to watch this film. It is in a word: beautiful." by Samson Kwok

Thursday, November 25, 2010

(Villon's Wife) Visual Literature - Samson

If you say to people Takako Matsu, they will respond with "Confessions". While that session is sold out tonight, you can still catch her up on the big screen at the 14th Japanese Film Festival this Saturday, in an ellegant performance in "Villion's Wife". Samson Kwok from Heroic Cinema is back with a look into this adaption, which also stars international smash hit Tadanobu Asano.

”Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Otani (Asano Tadanobu) does not know what love is, but his wife Sachi (Matsu Takako) certainly does. He is a talented writer, but an uncaring husband. After he steals a large amount of money from the owners of a Japanese pub, Sachi decides to work there to repay his debts. While she gains popularity and rediscovers happiness, Otani continues further and further down his self-destructing path...

Looking at the synopsis, readers are probably getting the impression that Villon’s Wife will be a most depressing and difficult film to watch. Fortunately, thanks to director Kichitaro Negishi’s skilful storytelling and sensitive approach to the material, the film is more gentle than confrontational. Viewers are taken on a journey with the film’s two leads, and may well reflect upon their own relationships during it.

Sachi is a good woman. She is kind, intelligent and forgiving. When things do not go right, she does not complain but instead works calmly towards a solution. She may have sinned, but everything she has done appears to be for her husband and son. Otani, on the other hand, is an amoral self-centred womaniser who is heavily hooked on alcohol, and it is fair to say his life is an absolute mess. (I realise I am not very fond of this character, and therefore will refrain from using any stronger words to describe him so that this review can retain its G rating.)

The character of Sachi is played by Matsu Takako (K-20: Legend of the Mask – 13th JFF, Confessions – 14th JFF), who delivers a career-defining performance as the long-suffering wife of a husband absolutely undeserving of her love. Takako perfectly portrays the pain and internal conflicts experienced by Sachi, and is totally believable as a young woman caught in a very difficult marital relationship. She has deservedly won a number of Best Actress Awards including at this year’s Japanese Academy Award. Female viewers in particular will be touched by her self-sacrifice but may at the same time be frustrated by the fact that she chooses to stand by a man like Otani.

Asano Tadanobu (The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones – 14th JFF, Last Life in the Universe) plays Otani with quite a subtle performance to portray the tortured soul. While the role is unlikeable, Tadanobu has given a solid performance, which I am sure is good enough for some audience to feel sympathetic towards his character.

Villon’s Wife is literature in a visual form. It is a film about life as much as it is about love. Its success comes from the assured direction, beautiful performances and well-written characters. Especially, I think Takako’s performance is extraordinary, and Sachi is a very special character indeed." by Samson Kwok

Thanks to Samson Kwok for that interesting piece. The film is based on a semi-autobiogerpahical novel by Osamu Dazai, and raises memories of Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend". The film marks the 100th anniversary of Dazai's birth and is not to be missed by film lovers.

(Shodo Girls) Martial Crafts - Richard

Today saw 800 plus students and teachers fill Cinema 4 at Event Cinemas all in the name of "Shodo Girls". In what has become a major annual event, our special school screening at the Japanese Film Festival was a massive hit. The session sold out in a matter of days, with tens of schools having to be turned away due to high demand. See what all the fuss is about with the repeat session of "Shodo Girls", this Saturday at 1:00pm. Tickets are still available but will surely be in demand. Richard Gray continues his look at the festival with a review into the martial arts calligraphy piece that is "Shodo Girls".

"The thing that has always excites me about cinema is that I am constantly learning new things. Prior to Shodo Girls, I had no idea that there was such a thing as competition performance calligraphy. Yes, the gentle art of fancy lettering is a no-holds-barred bloodletting that gets pretty fierce. Plus, it’s all based on a true story! Well, except for the bloodletting part. I just got kind of carried away. One has to admit, that theatrical poster (to the left) does make this look like an action epic. That aside, Shodo Girls is one of the most unlikely delights I have seen in quite some time.

Satoko (Riko Narumi) leads her high-school calligraphy club, but struggles to keep the numbers of people up. Their little world is rocked when a new substitute teacher, Ikezawa (Nobuaki Kaneko, Crows Zero II) arrives and brings a fresh new approach to calligraphy. Resigned to the fact that their calligraphy is boring, the girls decide to revitalise their economically ailing town by staging a bit of performance calligraphy. After some false starts, and a Rocky-style training montage with music (the second of the festival, following Feel the Wind), the girls enter themselves in the “Shodo Girls Koshien”, in which they must make calligraphy on giant sheets of paper to music.

The tension between traditional and radical modernisation is a theme that runs strong throughout Japanese cinema, and indeed throughout Japan, and Shodo Girls conveys this tension effectively. Yet in some ways the films can’t escape another cinematic tradition: that of a small team of misfits overcoming great odds at competition level. Indeed, some of the similar themes can be seen in this year’s festival hits Feel the Wind and Solanin to a lesser extent. However, Shodo Girls manages to transcend this cliché to some degree via a cast of terrific characters that the script spends some time getting to know.

The film’s lead, Riko Narumi, has been in a number of similar films over the last few years. Indeed, her most recent film before this one, Bushido Sixteen, is about a rivalry that grows during kendo training, leading up to one final tournament. Her character is at first somewhat overbearing, but thanks to the other members of the team – including singer/actress Mitsuki Takahata, who is absolutely wonderful in the role of the overly earnest Kiyomi, whose beaming enthusiasm inspires the rest of the group – manages to become a rousing leader capable of drawing words on big pieces of paper with the best of them.

Perhaps what is most surprising about Shodo Girls is that it is all based on a true story. Like Happy Family Plan in 2009, Shodo Girls is designed to act as something of a cultural ambassador to the Japanese Film Festival, complete with language learning activities for the school groups who have no doubt bought out the first session of this film. After all, where else but Japan would performance calligraphy be met with such unbridled enthusiasm? It is the perfect antidote to the overbearing high-school glee clubs from High School Musical, Spectacular! or TV’s Glee, and instead takes us on a gentle journey through personal development, complete with male cheerleaders. Along with giving us an insight into the importance of this gentle art of the Japanese psyche, it is designed as a wholesale “feel good” picture that is guaranteed to having people roused and ready to enrol in calligraphy lessons by the end of its swift running time.

Like the art it portrays, Shodo Girls is a film with charms that become more apparent the longer one reflects on them. Director Ryuichi Inomata has a strong history of television film production, and his previous feature film – 2007′s weepy dog-drama A Tale of Mari and Three Puppies, a film I randomly managed to catch on television in Hiroshima late last year – had a distinctly “movie of the week” feel to it. Although Shodo Girls pays a strong debt to these traditions, it is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable character-driven piece that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser at this year’s festival circuit." by Richard Gray, DVD Bits.

"Shodo Girls" is a part of our stellar Saturday lineup, which features 8 films across 6 sessions. Come along and experience the 14th Japanese Film Festival, before it moves on to Melbourne. See you at the festival!

(Solanin) A Must See Love Story - Richard

4 Days down, 3 Days to go.
7 Sessions down, 13 Sessions to go.
8 Films down, 14 Films to go.

JFF14 is marching on, with a stellar Friday line-up that could well be the most popular night of the festival. "Confessions" is sold out following on from its submission for contention at the Oscars, and "Solanin" is a fine piece of filmmaking for those who love a good romance tale. Don't miss them tonight. Richard Gray, who is attending nearly every session at the festival, takes a look at the early screening, "Solanin".

"There’s a line in a song from the late Jeff Buckley that goes “Too young to hold on, and too old to just break free and run”. For anybody who feels trapped or obligated by the circumstances of their life, their job or their family, these words resonate deep inside us. They could also be readily applied to Takahiro Miki’s debut film Solanin, where music is represented as a powerful inspirational force for change. Based on the popular manga series by Inio Asano, first published in Shogakukan’s Weekly Young Sunday in 2005 and 2006, the film adaptation was released earlier this year in Japanese cinemas. Thanks to the 14th Japanese Film Festival in Australia (JFF14), Australian audiences now get a chance to enjoy this theatrically as well.

Meiko (Aoi Miyazaki, The Summit: A Chronicle of the Stones - JFF14) and Taneda (Kengo Kora, Box! - JFF14) have been together since university. It has been several years since they graduated, and they both find themselves at a loose end. Meiko is stuck in a dead-end office job, and Taneda knows that his true passion is playing music with his friends (although they are reluctant to actually plan in front of an audience). When Meiko quits her job in the hopes of “finding herself”, Taneda worries about what will happen to them financially and his dreams of making a living from his music. The pair fall headlong into the future, not knowing what it will bring.

Not since Toy Story 3 earlier this year have I found myself openly weeping so frequently during a film. Perhaps this is because that all people of a certain post-university age will have an instant connection with Solanin. Completely capturing the vibe of a generation lost in a sea of choice, but simultaneously having no particular goal to strive for, Solanin taps into the angst and uncertain future that all young adults around the world share.

The theme resonates in particular with this particular generation of Japanese youth, who are largely free of the same expectations that their parent’s generation endured (and is explored from two different perspectives in JFF14 stable-mate Hanamizuki). Following the Japanese economic downturn of the 1990s, it wouldn’t make sense for many to so carelessly give up ‘sensible’ working careers in favour of pursuing ‘frivolous’ dreams.  Yet this is something that is common to many around the world now, who find themselves in a post-global financial crisis state wondering if the pursuit of money is worth the hassle.

Don’t mistake this for a cookie-cutter coming-of-age drama, however, as there is genuine weight and emotion to be found here. While not driven by a overly dramatic narrative or indie rock attitude as some of the marketing might suggest, much of the exertion of the film (and of the characters) is used in managing their day-to-day existence. Solanin is content to observe these characters as they are. Wonderful characters they are too, with the lead performance by Aoi Miyazaki (recently featured in the JFF Newsletter, Issue 6) one of the standouts of the year. At veteran in the industry at the tender age of 24, she earned a Best Actress Award at the Cinemanila International Film Festival for her lead performance in Harmful Insect.

Her performance here is filled with a quiet strength: we first meet her at the depth of depression and (without spoilers) we leave her at a much more accepting place, with the young actress showing incredible range and nuance. Kengo Kora (also featured in the JFF Newsletter, Issue 7) , who we are soon to see in the Haruki Murakami adaptation Norwegian Wood, also convinces and endears as the often slack but always lovable Taneda. During the moments he is not on screen, his absence is keenly felt, particularly through the powerful supporting roles of band-mates Kenta Kiritani (Beck) and real-life bassist Yoichi Kondo.

Solanin is easily one of the must-see entries at this year’s Japanese Film Festival. Emotionally buoyed by a strong soundtrack and a cast of real characters who just get by on getting by, it will be a cynical person indeed who leaves the cinema without at least taking a second look at their life and wondering where it is all going next." by Richard Gray, DVD Bits.

Thanks again to Richard Gray. You can stay up-to-date with all of his coverage of JFF14 on the blog TheReelBits, which is a great chance to catch up on the films you may have missed. If you do manage to catch "Solanin" and are wowed by the great Kengo Kora, remember he stars in Saturday's "Box!" of which we are running a special BUY 1 GET 1 FREE deal. See details here of this great offer, and bring your friend along this weekend! 

See you at the festival!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Classic Japanese Cinema - Jung

Another couple of busy sessions took place last night as the 14th Japanese Film Festival continued its march forward. We hope you are all enjoying the experience, and most of all the films. Today we have a first time entry from KOFFIA (Korean Film Festival in Australia) Director of Programming, Jungyeob Ji. Jung shares his wealth of knowledge of classic Japanese cinema with a bit of a history piece behind the original 'Zero Focus' and other thrillers of the time.  Read on to solve the mystery!

"I don’t really know much about Isshin Inudo. Unfortunately I haven’t seen any of his films, but "Zero Focus" is based on the novel by the one of the greatest Japanese crime mystery writers, Matsumoto Seicho. You might not have heard the name, Matsumoto Seicho, but if you happen to follow a Japanese TV drama series, you have probably seen some of his work. I am not sure exactly how many times "Zero Focus" has been adapted either for TV or screen. As far as I know "Zero Focus" directed in 1961 by Nomura Yoshitaro is the only one; incidentally Yoji Yamada apparently started his career as an assistant director to Nomura Yoshitaro, and also co-wrote the script of the film.

Nomura Yoshitaro’s "Zero Focus" is a great film and a psychological thriller at that. He was a prolific Matsumoto Seicho adapter. In fact, he closely collaborated with Seicho himself. Their best collaborative work is arguably "Castle of Sand" (1974) which is also considered as Nomura Yoshitaro’s best film. The film, obviously, was based on Seicho’s novel of the same title; there is also a 2005 TV drama adaptation of "Castle of Sand" if you want the modernized one.

In "Zero Focus", a newly wed man disappears. His wife goes on searching for him, but the search becomes more than just a man-hunt. Her own investigation reveals to her that he is not exactly what she thought he was. Matsumoto Seicho, however, never lets his novels become a simple whodunit story. He is profoundly interested in human behavior and motives behind crime. Also he never forgets to make his novels relevant in contemporary society. Especially, this is prominent in ‘the inspector Imanishi’ series.

In "Castle of Sand" (read a great review of it here), devils breed a devil, and a man tries to escape from that vicious circle, but in his desperation, he murders the only human being who ever showed him kindness and generosity in the world. For detectives, the investigation is an dead-end. The clues seem all simply isolated without any connection to the other. But as they persistently reach to where each clue independently leads them to, the brutal social layers of post-war Japan is unraveled.

Matsumoto Seicho                           Nomura Yoshitaro

Through his novels, Seicho shows primordial human goodness, and evilness at the same time, but when the relentless fear of this very evil overcomes human goodness, his characters resort to violence. In this sense, Seicho isn’t just a mystery novel writer with social consciousness. He is also a writer who deeply engages with the theme of human bondage by using a crime mystery genre. In his novels, a murder is not just there simply to be solved, but to be contemplated." by Jungyeob Ji, Hardboiled Land

Thanks to that terrific piece from Jung, another welcome contributor to the JFF Blog. Remember to head out tonight to catch the remake of "Zero Focus", starring a wealth of Japanese acting talent, with the likes of Ryoko Hirosue ("Departures" - 12th JFF, "Flowers" - 14th JFF), Miki Nakatani ("Flavor of Happiness" - 14th JFF) and Tae Kimura ("All Around Us" 13th JFF). It will be a great night and we hope to see you there!

See you at the festival!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

(Feel The Wind) Catch A Fan Favourite - Richard

The entries just keep getting better here on the JFF blog, with a great piece from Richard Gray today on "Feel the Wind". The film has been winning awards for both the first time director and the great story, and is being touted as the Japanese "Chariots of Fire". It is a fun piece, and for that reason it will screen in 5 regions around Australia, second only to "About Her Brother" which featured across all 6 territories. Read why below!

"The Hakone Ekiden is one of the biggest university athletic events in Japan. Run every year on January 2 and 3, the two-day relay marathon follows a course of almost 220 kilometres between Tokyo and Hakone and is a matter of massive prestige for the universities involved. Seasoned writer Sumio Omori, who became the youngest winner of the Kuniko Mukoda Award for screenwriting, uses this difficult course to make his directorial debut with Feel the Wind, a fictionalised account of a struggling team to overcome great odds. Winner of Best New Director at the 19th Japan Movie Critic Awards and the 31st Yokohama Film Festival, Feel the Wind is the kind of film engineered to make audiences feel good.

University student Haiji (Keisuke Koide, from the blockbuster "Rookies" and "Cyborg She") is a former runner whose career has slid due to injury. He had all but given up on the dream of running the Hakone Ekiden until he meets elite runner Kakeru (Kento Hayashi), who has left running due to a fight with his coach. Gathering eight other housemates, who have never run before, they form the necessary team of 10 athletes to fulfil Haiji’s dream of qualifying for the ekiden (marathon relay). Most of them are not up to the challenge, but the rag-tag team of roommates are determined to help Haiji fulfil his seemingly impossible dream.

Sports movies are always popular with crowds, and there is something about marathon running that seems to particularly appeal to the masochist is all of us. From at least "Chariots of Fire" onwards, which was admittedly about sprinting taken to balletic heights, track athletics have been taken as a convenient outlet for personal pain and anguish. Everybody on the team has something to work through, from Haiji’s injury to the manga-obsessed Prince (Yuichi Nakamura) and his lack of self-worth, and by the end of Feel the Wind, we get the impression that their accomplishments in the race have also worked through some of those “issues” as well. As the distributor Shochiku succinctly puts its “Through the training and the experience, each member finds their inner strength and the joy of feeling the wind”. Wind joy, that’s what it’s all about.

Feel the Wind misses a few steps during the middle act, which drags on a little too long, and by the end of the marathon itself audiences may feel like they have run the entire distance. Perhaps this is a side-effect of the bookish origins, as the film is an adaptation of Shion Miura’s novel that centres on the race. One would imagine we get much more personal insight into the personal pain of the competitors in the novel, although this highly emotional film borders on the melodramatic at times. However, Feel the Wind has that "Rockyspirit, without Sylvester Stallone’s endless monologues to nobody in particular.

It’s appeal is indicated by Feel the Wind‘s Top 10 rankings in Japanese Film of 2009 lists in both the Kinema Junpo  and Yokohama Film Festival. Indeed, the latter puts it in such fine company as the brilliant "Love Exposure", Japanese Film Festival stable-mates "Dear Doctor" and "Villon's Wife", and one of my personal favourite films of the year, "Summer Wars". On the Brisbane leg of the 14th Japanese Film Festival, this was voted an audience favourite. This will no doubt connect with audiences, but just be prepared to watch a lot of running." by Richard Gray, DVD Bits.

Feel the Wind screens on Thursday, and is one of the few films in the festival that the whole family can come along to. It is rated PG so feel free to bring the little ones along for a trip to Japan, well at least for a couple of hours!

See you at the festival!