The Japanese films at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival were a varied lot, from the multiplex fare in the Special Screenings and Japan Now sections to the indies in the Japanese Cinema Splash, Competition and Asian Future sections.
But only one came away with a prize: Hirobumi Watanabe’s “Poolsideman” — a funny, chilling, minimal portrait of a terrorist in embryo — won Japanese Cinema Splash’s best picture award.
Though this was the only Japanese film to win, Watanabe and his brother Yuji, the film’s composer and producer, weren’t the only Japanese accepting awards at TIFF’s closing ceremony on Nov. 3: Kiyoshi Kurosawa received the Samurai Award for lifetime achievement, while actor Satoshi Tsumabuki, actress Mitsuki Takahata and animation director Makoto Shinkai, maker of the megahit “your name.” (“Kimi no Na wa.”), accepted Arigato awards for their contributions to the Japanese film industry. Another awardee, Godzilla, remained silent (if restless) on stage as Akihiro Yamauchi, executive producer of this year’s monster smash, “Shin Godzilla,” spoke on his behalf.
Compared to TIFF’s early days — the festival began as a biennial event in 1985 but has been held annually since 1991 — the lack of awards this year was something of a comedown. Whether by design or chance, Japanese films or talents used to take at least one prize in the main competition, the festival’s most important section, nearly every year.
The paucity of prizes in 2016 is hardly limited to TIFF: Awards have been scarce for Japanese films in the main competitions of the Big Three festivals — Cannes, Venice and Berlin — in recent years. This includes the films of so-called 4K directors who have long been regulars at those festivals — Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Koreeda, Naomi Kawase and Takeshi Kitano (maverick director Sion Sono has elbowed his way into this elect group, too, despite having a surname that begins with “S”).
A younger generation of Japanese filmmakers is also struggling for recognition abroad. This includes the directors with films in the TIFF Competition and Japanese Cinema Splash section, who skewed young and, to the world outside Japan, obscure. Their films may not be potential Cannes Palme d’Or winners, but they also wouldn’t commit a travesty as Keishi Otomo did with “Museum,” a Special Screenings selection. In this compendium of creaky Hollywood cliches, a shaven-headed serial killer turns his victims into hamburgers in his secret lair. A rule-breaking cop (Shun Oguri) with a permanently unloosened tie brings him to rough justice as everyone furiously overacts.
By fortunate contrast I discovered excellent performances, if patches of ungainly plotting, in Yujiro Harumoto’s “Going the Distance” (“Kazoku e”), a drama about a former boxer (Shinichiro Matsuura) forced to choose between his demanding fiancee and a pal from his orphanage days whose financial troubles were inadvertently caused by the ex-boxer. A real-life boxing trainer, Matsuura is convincing and compelling as the beleaguered hero. Unlike nearly every film set in or around the boxing world, his character is neither trying to make a comeback nor win the big bout. Instead, he is battling conflicting feelings about his friend and lover.
Also departing from the genre norm is Takeo Kikuchi’s “Hello, Goodbye,” a seishun eiga (youth film) about two high school girls — one the leaders of a “mean girl” clique (Minori Hagiwara); the other, their primary victim (Sayu Kubota) — who reluctantly bond as they assist an elderly woman (Masako Motai) who has a failing memory. In telling this story, Kikuchi subverts the standard good girl and bad girl dichotomy, while rejecting a weepy “change of heart” conclusion. Instead, he tells certain truths about adolescent hierarchies, including the forbiddingly high walls between insiders and outsiders.
My favorite in the Cinema Splash section — which also turned out to be the judges’ favorite — was “Poolsideman.” Made on a microbudget in the Watanabes’ native Tochigi Prefecture, this black-and-white film is about a tall, silent lifeguard (Gaku Imamura) at a local swimming pool. It begins as an essay on the monotony of the everyday, depicting the hero’s rigid routine — from his morning cereal to his evening session with his home computer (though we only see his eerie grin, never his screen). Then a talkative colleague (Hirobumi Watanabe) breaks through the hero’s shell with observations on everything from the “Dragon Ball” anime to the dire state of the world that are both apt and laugh-out-loud funny. Meanwhile, the hero’s constant monitoring of the news about the Middle East turns out to be more than just a lonely guy’s obsession. With this third feature, director Watanabe fuses the black humor of his 2013 debut, “And the Mud Ship Sails Away” (“Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku”), and the rigorously stylized worldview of his 2015 film “7 Days” (“Nanoka”) into a film that’s more entertaining than the sum of its parts.
“Poolsideman” was awarded a trophy, but the two Japanese films in the main Competition section — Daigo Matsui’s “Japanese Girls Never Die” (“Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei”) and Kiki Sugino’s “Snow Woman” (“Yuki Onna”) — left TIFF empty handed.
Actor, producer and director Sugino retells Lafcadio Hearn’s famous version of a traditional Japanese ghost story with a sympathetic, mysterious title character (played by Sugino herself), and sets it in an alternative postwar era. The result is beautifully evocative and strange, though deliberately not as spooky as the original. But spooky may have been what the judges were expecting.
Matsui’s film about three “generations” of women — the youngest, a rampaging teen girl gang; the eldest, a depressed 27-year-old “office lady” (Yu Aoi) — buzzes with anarchic energy and righteous feminist anger. When I met Matsui at the closing party, I asked him if he had enjoyed the festival.
“I’m not happy, I’m frustrated,” he said — an understandable sentiment for a competitive 31-year-old director with a lot of fight and films still in him.
Sooner rather than later, I hope, he and other young Japanese filmmakers will conquer TIFF — and take on the world.