Movie theaters in Japan are reopening now that most of the country has begun lifting state of emergency measures. However, given that the Tokyo metropolitan area — the country’s single biggest movie-going market — is still under restrictions, distributors are postponing the release of new films.
Fortunately for cinephiles who are staying at home, distributors specializing in independent cinema have started to put their catalogs online. By “independent,” I mean the kind of fare shown primarily in mini-shiatā, the Japanese term for art houses, not multiplexes. With the closures of such small theaters threatening the survival of the indie scene, many in the industry have looked to crowdfunding and online streaming to stay afloat.
U.K.-based Third Window Films, which has been distributing as well as producing Japanese indie films since its launch in 2005, is one such company making sure movie buffs have access to new and classic movies. The company is now offering 28 titles on Vimeo’s on-demand subscription-based service.
Selections range from the erotic classics “Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands” (1967) and “Gushing Prayer” (1971) to the 2014 film “Fires on the Plain,” Shinya Tsukamoto’s devastating World War II drama about a Japanese soldier trying to survive in the Philippine jungle as defeat looms and his comrades resort to cannibalism.
All are subtitled in English, but due to rights restrictions, they are only viewable in the U.K. unless you have a VPN connection. But three films produced by Third Window founder Adam Torel can also be found on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and Japan (although viewers here will have to make do without subtitles).
“Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats” (2014), directed by Yosuke Fujita, is a charming and quirky comedy about a shaven-headed painter (Miyuki Oshima) who avoids women due to a past trauma. Therapy comes in the form of photographer (Asami Mizukawa), who harbors a dark secret in her own past, and their road to mutual redemption takes unexpected turns that venture down odd comic byways. The casting of a popular female comic as the male lead is one of the many creative ways this film differs from other run-of-the-mill comedies.
“Lowlife Love” (2015) is Eiji Uchida’s black comedy set in the lower reaches of the film business where gangsters and scammers dwell. Based on the director’s own experiences, the film follows the fortunes of a sketchy acting coach (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) as he scrapes together the money for a feature while callously exploiting his students, including a newbie (Maya Okano) with real talent. Funny and disturbing in equal measure, the film shines a knowing light on the entertainment industry’s underside while holding out hope for dreamers — incurable idiots excepted.
Finally, “Love and Other Cults,” Uchida’s 2017 comedy/romance/coming-of-age drama, centers on a young woman (Sairi Ito) who was raised in a religious cult but leaves to find her way in a dangerous world. Despite a baggy narrative and some ragged edits, the film is firmly anchored by Ito’s bravura performance as she transitions from a sweet cult “angel” to a wised-up porn star the audience will have no problem rooting for.
So why should film fans push the “play” button for these movies and other indies like them instead of blockbuster hits? Because, without cinema ticket sales, many independent distributors may not be around when the pandemic finally ends. Until more small theaters — particularly in Tokyo — are able to open their doors again, earnings from streaming services may be the best way for them to weather the storm.