It’s big or bust in eyes of Japanese cinema

Tokyo film fest reflects middle-ground budget struggle

by Mark Schilling

Now in its sixth year, the Japanese Eyes section of the Tokyo International Film Festival, has evolved from its beginnings as a showcase for the middle range of Japanese films — that is, ones not readily classifiable as hardcore indie or commercial mainstream, though made, in some cases, by well-known directors.

This class of films, however, has been hit hard by the recession, which has dried up funding for all but big- or zero-budget projects — as reflected in this year’s Japanese Eyes program. The only one of its eight films falling into middle of the indie-mainstream spectrum was Tetsuo Shinohara’s “Tsumuji Kaze Shokudo no Yoru” (“The Night of the Whirlwind Restaurant”).

Based on a novel by Atsuhiro Yoshida, this dramady about the nerdy writer son of a popular magician who finds enlightenment and the stirrings of romance in a quaint Hokkaido restaurant, is a shade on the twee side, from the comfy retro art direction to the twinkly “life is mysterious” philosophizing. But the performances of the two leads — Norito Yashima as the prickly lonely-guy hero and Sarara Tsukifune as the cranky, desperate actress who begs him for a starring role in his next play — are both unsugary and individual. And the ending, though expected, hits a true, original note.

But the winner of the section’s best film award — and my own favorite — was Tetsuaki Matsue’s “Live Tape.” Shot on a single 74-minute take on New Year’s Day this year, the film begins like a half-baked publicity stunt. Kenta Maeno, a singer-songwriter with the hair, shades and attitude of a 1960s Bob Dylan, strolls through the streets of the Kichijoji district of Tokyo, playing and singing one folky tune after another, with lyrics taken from his own quotidian life. No one pays more than glancing attention to this guy, who comes across as odd and self-absorbed.

Matsue, however, is not trying and failing to convert the masses to the wonderfulness of Maeno and his music, but rather conducting a clever experiment in performance — and psychology. As they walk, Matsue prods Maeno with questions and requests designed to draw him out of his shell — and pretensions. Maeno responds with dry humor — asked to take off his sunglasses, he hands them to a passing child — showing he is wise to his own act, even as he refuses to abandon it. (A few minutes on, he pulls out a spare pair of shades and puts them on.)

It also becomes clear not only that Maeno’s music is stubbornly his own — a Bob Dylan imitator he is not — but that he is a cool, adaptable pro, who plays impromptu duets with other strolling musicians (all cued by Matsue and his staff) without missing a beat or step. My initial condescension and irritation, in other words, gave way to reluctant admiration.

By the end, after an exchange with Matsue about his father’s life and death and Maeno’s emotional final number at the Inokashira Park band shell, I felt as though I had taken a journey though, not just Maeno’s repertoire, but his lonely heart.

Another, more conventional, documentary was Toshiyuki Mizutani’s “Jungle House 3 Gas/ Hayashiya Sanpei” (“Jungle-House Three-Farts/Sanpei Hayashiya”) about the eponymous comic, who began his career as a traditional rakugo (comic monologue) storyteller, but in the 1960s rose to TV stardom as a motor-mouthed, rule-breaking wild child — think a Japanese Jerry Lewis. The film captures Hayashiya’s appeal with rare performance footage, as well as revealing interviews with colleagues and family, including his much-put-upon wife.

The rest of the section consisted largely of exercises in indie self indulgence, from Hiroyuki Matsumura’s two-character drama “Tochka,” memorable for its interminable pan shot of a concrete wall, to Yuya Ishii’s “Kimi to Aruko” (“To Walk Beside You”), a tiresome comedy about a thirtysomething high school teacher who runs away with her good-looking, if dim-bulb student. The central relationship is little more than a gag construct, with no emotional credibility whatsoever, while most of the jokes are both lame and frantic. Ishii is one of those creators who is deluged with ideas — some brilliant, many amateurishly bad — and puts all of them on the screen.

Unfortunately, he has been feted and indulged on the film-festival circuit, the Tokyo festival included, and probably thinks himself an auteur, if not a genius. He would be the ideal subject for Matsue’s next video walkabout.