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!

(About Her Brother) Family Matters - Karen

To celebrate opening night of the festival we are covering the wonderful performances of Japanese starlet, Yu Aoi. She can be seen up on the big screen for the first 2 nights of the festival, in "About Her Brother" and "Flowers" respectively. You can catch Joseph's review of "Flowers" here, or read on below to see first time contributor Karen Michelmore's piece on "About Her Brother".

I don’t know anyone who has a normal family. 

Usually there is one crazy cousin somewhere, or sibling who is eccentrically and outlandishly always themselves. 

There’s also usually a wide array of personality types, and issues bubbling away, which can combine on occasion into a powder keg of emotion. 

'About Her Brother' is no different. It’s pretty real in this way. 

It’s the story of a small family in a quiet part of Tokyo.

Three generations of women in one house, and the result of this situation.

"Gingko is a pharmacist and a widow. Her daughter Koharu (Yu Aoi) – and the film’s sometimes narrator - marries and divorces a pretty ordinary doctor. And her mother complains constantly about her own loneliness and lack of companionship. But no one’s listening. But the film isn’t a story about the relationships between these women. They are not really explored in any meaningful way. As the title suggests, it’s all about Gingko (Sayuri Yoshinaga - Kabei Our Mother - 12th JFF) and her alcoholic brother, Tetsuro.

Tetsuro is the kind of person who bumbles through life, blissfully unaware of the mayhem he’s created. Or seemingly so. The 126-minute film – directed by veteran Yoji Yamada – is dotted with comedy from Tetsuro, played by Tsurube Shofukutei (also seen in Dear Doctor - 14th JFF). During one particularly memorable wedding scene, you’ll probably laugh out loud (well I did), as he gets drunk and wreaks a trail of destruction at a rather staid event, much to the horror of guests. He challenges the fuddy-duddy nature of some Tokyo traditions, reminding us in his own unconventional way that it is supposed to be a celebration after all.

His initial scenes reminded me of the old black and white Jerry Lewis movies and are a pleasant injection of humor and sparkle into a film that has a poignant underlying message, and takes quite a depressing turn when Tetsuro becomes ill. Behind Tetsuro’s mirth is a subtle but sad story of addiction and isolation. This film will make you think about the family dynamics of guilt, obligation and frustration. The message is pretty simple. Sometimes family members infuriate us. Most of the time we love them unconditionally anyway." by Karen Michelmore

Thanks to Karen for that piece. While the main story arc of the film is the relationship between Gingko and 'Her Brother', the plot of the film revolves around Aoi's Koharu, and her perofrmance can not be discounted. She has a strong bond with Tetsuro (he named her afterall) and this is tried and tested throughout. Aoi is able to play the innocent girl being married off to a new family quite profoundly, something she does in both "About Her Brother" and "Flowers". The 2 roles differ slightly in their outcome, but both portray the trials and tribulations of a young woman in Japanese society, and the life choices that are presented to them.

Having won best supporting actress for three films in a row (Honey and Clover, Hula Girls and Rainbow Song) and with these two emerging roles, Yu Aoi is one to watch for the future. Don't miss her at the 14th Japanese Film Festival in Sydney tonight!

See you at the festival!

(Flowers) The Modern Japanese Woman - Joseph

The 14th Japanese Film Festival opens tonight in Sydney!! The highly anticipated event will be the biggest ever JFF and is further proof that Japanese cinema is loved worldwide. We invite you to be a part of the fun and festivities, and hope you come along this week for some cultural cocktails. Today we cover Yu Aoi's performances in "About Her Brother" (read here) and "Flowers" (submitted by festival volunteer Joseph below), which feature on Monday and Tuesday of the festival. A wonderful young actress that is sure to have a bright future, and is not to be missed on the big screen!

"The 14th Japanese Film Festival is fortunate to have a number of movies which were released in Japan only in 2010. One of these is Norihiro Koizumi’s magnificent film, "Flowers", a moving saga exploring the lives of six women living in very different times.

Koizumi-san, who previously directed the lovely and gently meditative "Midnight Sun" (2006) (starring talented singer-songwriter, Yui), well establishes his directorial chops with this latest offering. Starring an ensemble cast of Japan’s most sought-after leading ladies, "Flowers" manages to be both a broad-brush commentary on the advancements in Japanese society and a touching slice of life drama peering into the personal traumas and triumphs of 3 generations of women in a single family.

But the single biggest thing that makes "Flowers" so remarkable is the authenticity of its feel from a cinematic viewpoint. It is an experience tailored to the psychology of moviegoers as a class. As such, it functions as a tribute not only to the growth of Japan as a society, but to the development of movie-making in general. Ingrained somewhere in our collective psyche is the patently absurd but difficult to shake mental habit of seeing the early twentieth century in black and white or sepia tones. We know that it all played out in colour, but our minds switch back to monochrome when we try to picture it; a holdover, it would seem, of all the footage we have seen from an era without colour film. Maybe it’s just me that does this, but I don’t think I am alone.

Koizumi-san, at least, shares his vision of the 1930s in gorgeous antiquated tones as he beautifully captures Yu Aoi (About Her Brother - 14th JFF, Hula Girls - 12th JFF), one of Japan’s most talented and bankable actresses, in crisp black and white. Aoi-san comes across delightfully in vintage; the part well suits her subtle and subdued acting style. She flawlessly looks the part of the Yamato Nadeshiko, resplendent in various kimonos and decked out in traditional bridal regalia. One of the most memorable scenes in the film sees Aoi-san running through a sakura (cherry tree) grove in full bloom with mountains visible in the distance, a wide shot reminiscent of some old time silver screen epic. The scenes set in the 1930s are backed by a lush orchestral score swirling in a manner not heard since Hollywood’s days of yore. The director has brilliantly recaptured the visual style and musical motifs of classic vintage film.

"Flowers" is consistent in its elaborate recreations of the look and feel of film in the various periods in which its story is set. The scenes played out in the 1960s were shot in a soft, flushed palette similar to the style of the early days of colour cinematography and television. The scenes have an aged, early Brady Bunch appearance to them, complete with an optimistic, clarinet-heavy soundtrack and quaint sit-com establishing shots. The focus of the story in the 1960s setting is a young woman named Midori (Rena Tanaka), who is striving to make headway as a professional in what was still a man’s world. She equivocates when it comes to entering a relationship because of the automatic repercussions this would have on her career.

Rena Tanaka (The Cherry Tree in the Hills - 13th JFF, Waiting in the Dark), one of the most beautiful actresses in Japan today, so utterly fits in to the era in her scenes that it is not hard to imagine that, in a different time, she could have been a screen icon alongside the likes of Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn – so perfectly does her coiffed hair, doe-eyes and air of classic beauty fit with the cinematic style employed for her scenes.

The movie also contains excellent performances by Yukie Nakama, Kyoka Suzuki, Yuko Takeuchi and Ryoko Hirosue (featured in the JFF Newsletter Issue #3), the latter of whom also stars in another film featured in this year’s JFF, Zero Focus. "Flowers" is very impressive. It will probably touch some raw nerves as it confronts sensitive issues such as the death of a spouse or the delicate choice between risking a mother’s life and losing that of an unborn child. All of these topics are handled in a realistic and sobering manner, while still retaining the film’s uplifting tone. There were many amazing elements brought together into this film. "Flowers" is so sweeping in its scope that something, either in its narrative or the novelty of its vision, will speak to almost anyone who watches it.

Norihiro Koizumi has given us a film that is ambitious and majestic. It is a movie that is as much about how film has evolved over time as it is about the strong and resilient female characters at its core. As an exploration of the themes of accepting growth, assuming responsibility and dealing with the sometimes fearful rites of passage that maturation thrusts upon us, "Flowers" is an often taxing, but truly incredible, story of emotional renewal." by Joseph Sampson

Thanks to Joseph for that entry. "Flowers" is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that is just as gorgeous as the actresses featured in it. Remember to live tweet or facebook your experience at the festival. You can tweet @japanfilmfest or #JFF14, or post your views on our facebook fan page.

See you at the festival....tonight!!!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

(Zero Focus) Drama Of My Life - Samson

Wicked Wednesday continues with Samson's look at "Zero Focus", which stars a wealth of talented Japanese actresses. Check out his thoughts on "Dear Doctor" also on the JFF blog. Remember to stay tuned to the blog over the next week as we will have live reports from the festival and even a few giveaways.

"If I were to make a film about my life right now, Zero Focus would be a most appropriate title. But no, the Japanese film Zero Focus is not about some dude who is overworked, underpaid, struggling to juggle multiple commitments, while trying to watch as many good films as possible, all resulting in chronic sleep deprivation and therefore a pathologically shortened attention span. Instead, it is a suspense mystery drama.

The main character is Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue, recently featured in the JFF Newsletter), a newly married beautiful young woman who has found happiness in her life. This turns out to be short-lived, however, as her husband fails to return after leaving home for work in another city. So Teiko goes on a journey to find her husband, and in doing so learns a lot that she did not know about him...

"Zero Focus" wasn’t really what I expected. Having read the synopsis and seen the keywords ‘suspense’ and ‘mystery’, I was expecting a movie that has an intricate web of plot twists culminating in a climax with a final revelation that would just blow me away. "Zero Focus" is not like that. Very early on in the film, viewers get to find out what happens to Teiko’s disappeared husband and not before long, it becomes obvious who is responsible for his disappearance. So if you watch this film expecting an exciting whodunit thriller, you may be disappointed.

As a drama, however, this film is certainly a success, thanks to the great performances by all three of the lead actresses - Ryoko Hirosue, Miki Nakatani (Memories of Matsuko – 12th JFF) and Tae Kimura (All Around Us – 13th JFF). Lead actress Ryoko Hirosue is certainly on a hot streak at the moment. Following the success of the Oscar-winning Departures, she has starred in a number of major productions. Just look at how many films showing at this year’s Japanese Film Festival have her starring in them, and you will get an idea how hot she is right now. In "Zero Focus", she plays Teiko with an innocence and naivety that are truly believable. The other two main actresses also give solid performances. Miki Nakatani is most credible in her performance as the wife of a tycoon, while Tae Kimura has a smaller role as a receptionist but her acting here is no less impressive.

"Zero Focus" is a movie worth seeing even just for the acting alone. Viewers who like fine dramas will enjoy it, while fans of Ryoko Hirosue should put this on their must-see list, as the actress plays a much bigger role here than say in Goemon (13th JFF) or even Departures (12th JFF). And if unlike me, you have previously read the original novel by Seicho Matsumoto, on which this picture is based, I will be most interested in hearing what you think about the film!" - by Samson Kwok

Thanks to Samson for his great entries on the blog. If you are attending the festival next week, feel free to write up about it, from what you expect from the films to what you thought of the experience. Send it to us here at the blog and you may just get featured! All entries should be sent to

See you at the festival.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

(Dear Doctor) I Had An Appointment - Samson

Today we ramp up our look at the films in the festival, with Samson taking a fine tooth comb to our Wednesday night lineup. You can see his thoughts on the Hitchcock-esque suspense thriller Zero Focus here, or read on to take a trip to the Doctors office with Dear Doctor. Its just 4 days till the festival kicks off in Sydney, so start planning your film lineup!

Dear Doctor,
It’s been 6 months since you left without saying goodbye. There have been a lot of rumours about you, but even if they are all true, we still want to tell you how grateful we are for all the things that you have done for our village over the past few years.
Yours sincerely,
Residents of your village

"A country doctor has gone missing. The police is involved and soon discovers that while most of the village people think remarkably highly of him, there is actually little known about him. As they go on to interview many of those who were closely associated with him, it becomes apparent that he is a man with many secrets...

The title of the film is one of the best I have seen in recent years. Simple, yes, but also deeply meaningful. The film could easily have been called Disappearance of Osamu Ino, but that would not highlight what a special character this doctor is. The word ‘dear’ in the title does not refer to the cost of this doctor’s service (though the movie does hint that he earns a fortune), but how close he is to the villagers and the place he has in the hearts of many of them.

It is ironic then, that his real identity is at conflict with his perceived role of a doctor. I don’t want to discuss this here for it may spoil your viewing pleasure. All I want to say is that the character is flawed but at the same time compelling. Actor Tsurube Shôfukutei (About Her Brother - JFF14) brings the doctor character to life, and impressively achieves so not so much by spoken words, but his facial expressions and body language that perfectly portray the conflicting emotions of pride and guilt experienced by Dr Ino.

The cast is stellar and performances are solid all round. Stand outs include those by Kimiko Yo (A Lone Scalpel - 14th JFF, Departures - 12th JFF) playing the experienced nurse who frequently keeps the doctor out of trouble at times of crisis (and deservingly winning the Japanese Academy Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role), Kaoru Yachigusa playing the very ill elderly widow in what I consider an equally impressive performance as Yo’s, and Teruyuki Kagawa (The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones - 14th JFF, Memories of Matsuko  -12th JFF) playing the drug company sales representative who perhaps knows the most about the doctor’s secrets.

The story is told brilliantly by director Miwa Nishikawa, who also wrote the script, for which she won Screenplay of the Year at the Japanese Academy Award. She progressively and cleverly reveals the doctor’s role in this small village, and the reason so many people, including young medical intern Dr Suma, come to respect him so much despite his often ineffective treatment.

Dear Doctor is a fine example of an interesting story told well, and ultimately it is a rich character-driven drama featuring great performances. Just as a bonus, the Japanese countryside is wonderfully captured on film by the camera of Katsumi Yanagijima (Battle Royale, Zatoichi) and this is a gorgeous picture to look at. I would sincerely recommend this film to anyone who enjoys fine dramas." - Samson Kwok, Heroic Cinema

Don't forget to look out for the stars of "Dear Doctor" in our Opening and Closing night films, Tsurube Shofukutei ("About Her Brother"), and Kimiko Yo ("A Lone Scalpel"). Wednesday promises to be a great day out at Event Cinemas, and we hope to see you there!