Held annually from 1990, save for 2007 when its host town was facing financial difficulties, the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival has become a little corner of Hokkaido where for four days in March the cinematically weird and wonderful can flourish.
I had long wanted to go to the Yubari festival, which nearly everyone who had been there raved about (some more for the parties than the films), but work commitments kept me from trekking to this former coal-mining town, now nationally famous for its melons.
I finally made it to Yubari for the festival’s 29th edition, held March 7 to 10, to serve on the jury of the Fantastic Off Theater Competition for feature films. My fellow jurors were Masanori Tominaga and Kazuya Shiraishi — both directors whose work I admire — and Naomi Hase, a singer-turned-actor who had recently resumed her acting career after a long sojourn in France.
There was also a jury for short films that included directors Naoki Kubo, Shuichi Okita and Momoko Ando. I knew Okita and Ando from interviews and, in Okita’s case, encounters at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, where I am a program advisor.
The six films programming director Tokitoshi Shiota had selected for the competition did not all fit the “wild and crazy” image I’d had of the Yubari line-up. In fact, after seeing two serious films with Christian themes on the first day — Koichiro Oyama’s “Itsukushimi — What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and Korean director Shin-Goo Moon’s “Original Sin” — I was starting to wonder if Shiota had converted, or was turning Yubari into a more normal — that is, arty — festival.
By the end of the second day and three more competition films, however, I realized that Yubari was still Yubari, open to experimentation and extremes with the aim of keeping things interesting and unpredictable. No wonder it had built a loyal, receptive audience over the years. All the competition screenings were well attended and nearly everyone stayed for the post-screening Q-and-A’s emceed by Shiota, a distinctive presence for his wry humor, colorful outfits and sky-high gray quiff.
Our Grand Prix winner and my personal favorite was “Scrap Youth,” Kazuki Morita’s bleak yet hilarious coming-of-age comedy. Set in a windy, featureless nowhere in rural Japan, the film depicts the lives of three teenaged boys who are inseparable companions. At the mercy of local bullies and the tyrannical captain of their school table tennis club, who lines them up against the wall as targets for slam practice, this trio nonetheless has typical adolescent male interests, sex being number one and goofing off being a close second.
The most sex-obsessed of the group is a kid with close-cropped hair who masturbates frantically in his room to a porn DVD catering to those with an “ugly woman” kink — an item he found discarded in the weeds. He also has a crush on a cute classmate but discovers she is engaging in enjo kosai (compensated dating or prostitution) with older men. He decides to save her from this side job, though his motive is less than noble: He sees her as a way (maybe the only way) to lose his virginity.
Morita, who also wrote the script, mines this and other storylines for laughs, underlain with a raw realism based, he told the Yubari audience, on his own experiences (though not including, I hope, the film’s merciless bullying sessions).
I also quite liked our Governor of Hokkaido award winner, Kei Ota’s “Shangri-La Girl.” Made in the style of now-extinct pinku eiga (erotic film) sex comedies, among whose masters were Mitsuru Meike (“The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai”) and Shinji Imaoka (“Uncle’s Paradise”), the film has an out-of-time wackiness that softens — if not completely excuses — its retrograde attitudes.
Inspired by the famous Yasunari Kawabata story, “The House of the Sleeping Beauties,” the story focuses on a voluptuous book shop employee (Yui Kawagoe) whose favorite occupation is sleeping. Fired by the book shop owner for letting shoplifters run rampant, she finds the perfect job at a Japanese-style inn that allows male patrons to be with her while she is unconscious — but not to have sex.
Meanwhile, an eccentric millionaire (Takayasu Komiya) who poses as a homeless guy befriends an equally odd young man (Kentaro Nagasato) who admires the millionaire’s unorthodox lifestyle, and has certain physical gifts the millionaire has lost — if he ever had them. Using this disciple as a proxy, the millionaire plots to act out his fantasy of sex with the heroine. But the heroine has other ideas.
As is standard for pinku eiga, which first became popular in the 1960s as softcore theatrical erotica, “Shangri-La Girl” is more suggestive than explicit. Star Yui Kawagoe, an AV (“adult video” or porn) actress and strip theater dancer, may embody male fantasies as the heroine, but she ends up dominating the developmentally challenged male protagonists.
Our second-place Jury’s Special Award winner, “Original Sin,” is a stark drama about a well-meaning young nun who tries to help an angry, self-destructive man with congenital polio and his proud, devoted teenaged daughter, who has epilepsy. Filmed in black-and-white and set in the Korean countryside of four decades ago, the film pits the idealism of the nun against the bitter nihilism of the disabled hero , but instead of a simplistic morality play, with the inevitable triumph of Christian good, the film becomes a complex, riveting drama of illicit passion and ineradicable pain with no clear path to salvation for anyone.
I also managed to see films outside the main competition, including Kim Ki-duk’s “Human, Space, Time and Human,” a fantasy about passengers on a battleship sailing to nowhere who find themselves battling for food — and survival. Sinking under the weight of its over-obvious metaphors and clunky exposition, the film made me wonder whether Kim, once a critical darling whose films screened at Cannes and Venice, had suffered a creative collapse.
But Yubari wouldn’t be Yubari if the good and great didn’t mix with the awful. And the parties, as well as the late-night izakaya (Japanese tavern) drinking sessions, were as fun as advertised, with inhibitions dissolving in the chill Hokkaido night. Come for the movies, come back for the only-in-Yubari experience.