Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 ran from July 14th through July 24th. These were the last three movies I saw as part of this year’s screenings. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.
“Once you achieve the impossible, you can do anything.”
Sayaka is a social butterfly content to scrape by in dead last place among the students at a high school that guarantees admittance into its partner college to all who attend. But when an unusual cram school teacher sets her sights on one of the most prestigious colleges in Japan, years of being called worthless combine with the surprise of having someone believe in her to make Sayaka determined to prove everyone who thinks she has no chance wrong.
Flying Colors is a wonderful story about pursuing dreams and attempting to defy expectations. Structured brilliantly, the movie starts by providing some strong background scenes of Sayaka’s scholastic past to set up how she ended up in her starting status quo, content to know nothing. Her complete lack of shame about being stupid while not resenting those smarter than her is one of the big comedic hooks early on, and cements her as a lovable doofus that the audience is happy to cheer for. Kasumi Arimura plays the part perfectly, and the pairing with Sayaka’s unconventional teacher who knows how to encourage poor students to start to enjoy learning is not only hilarious but also gives the film its core. Their shared enthusiasm about Sayaka getting the slightest things right early on provide outrageously funny scenes. The various ways in which the teacher played by Atsushi Ito brings out the best in his band of misfits and genuinely sees their potential and cares about their success and improvement is phenomenal.
Expertly interwoven with the humor and Sayaka’s educational journey is a touching family drama centered around her father’s projection of his own dream of big time baseball success onto Sayaka’s brother and the complete lack of support any of the women in the family get from him. Sayaka’s mother and her complete devotion to her children anchor the film, with Yo Yoshia giving an extraordinary supporting performance as someone who truly wants nothing more than her children’s happiness. The drama is genuinely emotional without ever getting overly sappy or melodramatic, and adds a perhaps unexpected amount of heart beneath all the humor.
As I’m sure is clear at this point I loved just about everything about this film. Easily one of my favorites of the festival.
Kako: My Sullen Past
“Isn’t everybody lonely? Alone or even if you’re with family.”
High schooler Kako spends her summer days bored out of her mind, listlessly going through the motions of helping in her family’s restaurant and staring at a local river looking for a crocodile she knows isn’t there. Then her activist, long thought dead aunt shows back up on the family doorstep.
Japan Cuts has been my first introduction to the incredible talent of Fumi Nikaido, and it was fascinating to see her here playing such a different character from Akako in Bitter Honey. Akako popped off the screen with an infectious playfulness and a larger than life feel. Kako is compelling in a different way, with apparent apathy arising from her boredom completely infusing her body language and making her susceptible to insatiable curiosity about her mysterious aunt. The flatness Nikaido achieves in Kako’s everyday actions and personality makes it all the more intriguing when she takes interest in anything. The contrast in the two characters and the skill with which she plays both highlights her versatility and why she’s such a highly regarded and awarded actress even at such a young age.
The feelings and sounds of summer come across well, and appropriately compliment the film’s odd tone, which examines the slow yet relentless passage of time in the lives of Kako and her family. Boredom is portrayed as so pervasive its relief is more important to the characters than even the well being of others. The disaffected nature of both Kako and her aunt’s personalities adds humor to some very dark moments in a way that generally works, yet still feels strange when the viewer realizes what they just laughed at.
There’s a lot simmering just underneath the surface of the depicted events, both in theme and in production. Such as the significance of Kako’s interactions with her aunt’s mysterious companion, or the facts that Kako’s baby sister remains unnamed, is constantly commented upon for how little she moves, and is clearly played by a doll if the viewer looks closely at the bundle of blankets.
There are aspects of Kako: My Sullen Past that I really liked and aspects that I didn’t. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it as a whole, but it was well made and acted, and quite interesting. I’m glad I saw it.
“… if you can make me laugh.”
During the Q&A following the world premiere of Emi-Abi at Japan Cuts, director Kensaku Watanabe explained his desire when making the film to show genuine comedy yet constantly undercut it with dramatic and somber elements. He really succeeds in this goal, giving his story of a comedian trying to move on after the loss of his partner a tone that constantly switches and balances between light hearted comedy and deeper, sadder themes.
The plot progression was solid, but not at all as I expected. The film is extremely flashback heavy, focusing a lot on deceased partner Unno, what happened the night of his passing, and a surprisingly well developed romantic story involving him and a young fan. Unno steals the movie from his surviving partner Jitsudo, who is well portrayed but while we understand and sympathize with his grief we never really feel it, making nearly every character in the film more sympathetic than the supposed main character trying to find his new path in life.
The entire supporting cast was quite good, but I was especially impressed with what Haru Kuroki did as Jitsudo’s manager, making the most of a small role as someone totally devoted to seeing Jitsudo at his best once again despite the tragedy.
I found parts of Emi-Abi disjointed and the balance of characters a bit off, but it’s a decent film overall made with a specific vision in mind and supported with strong acting.
Fantastic festival overall as usual from Japan Society Film. Definitely check out some of these great movies as you are able.