Every year people from the film industry — buyers, programmers and critics — descend on the Tokyo International Film Festival to see what this country has to offer, and every year they usually find at least one gem among the selections in the Japanese Cinema Splash section for indie films.
This year, the standout was director Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature “Melancholic.” It’s about a nerdy University of Tokyo grad who is hired as an attendant at a public bath and learns that it’s used for yakuza-ordered executions — and that one of his co-workers is the hitman. Scripted by Tanaka and made on a ¥3 million budget, “Melancholic” begins as yet another noirish domestic film about strange guys on the margins of society, but develops into a mashup of action, comedy, romance and heart-warming family drama. Given the grim subject matter, this tonal shift isn’t easy, but Tanaka and his accomplished cast pull it off. “Melancholic” has originality in spades.
Tanaka shared the section’s best director prize with veteran Masaharu Take for “The Gun.” Based on Fuminori Nakamura’s award-winning novel, Take’s film is a psychological thriller about an arrogant college student (Nijiro Murakami) who finds a loaded pistol near a dead body and decides to keep it. Stylishly shot and tightly focused on its unbalanced hero, the film builds to a predictable climax, then boldly undercuts it with an ending that may leave some scratching their heads and others nodding with approval at Take’s daring.
The winner of Cinema Splash’s best picture prize, however, was “Lying to Mom,” Katsumi Nojiri’s drama about an extended family rocked by a suicide and their elaborate efforts to hide the truth from the dead man’s mother. I gave the film a mixed review for this publication, praising the performance of Mai Kiryu as the conflicted sister who starts the ruse but is slow to sort out her feelings about her brother’s death.
As it turned out, both Kiryu and Murakami rightly won the Tokyo Gemstone Award for up-and-coming talents, together with two non-Japanese actors.
The only local winner in the Competition section, picking up the Audience Award, was Junji Sakamoto’s “Another World.” This turbulent drama about three junior high school friends who reunite after one returns home from a long stint in the Self-Defense Forces didn’t strike me as a crowd-pleaser; perhaps the fans of pop-star-turned-actor Goro Inagaki, who plays an unhappy charcoal maker in the film, tipped the balance.
The overall verdict? The industry professionals I spoke with felt the Japanese films to be subpar compared to those at earlier TIFF editions. I couldn’t disagree, but a happy find like “Melancholic” makes up for mediocrity elsewhere.