Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The First Shinsedai Cinema Festival – Report

The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

All good things must come to an end, and August 23rd, 2009, marked the end of the Shinsedai Cinema Festival. It can certainly be said that the event, which was co-curated by Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow founder Chris MaGee and Midnight Eye co-founder and author of the new book Beyond the Pink Curtain Jasper Sharp and hosted at the impressive Japanese Canadian Cultural Center, was a notable success, especially for a film festival that was a) in its first year, and b) featuring independent films that had beforehand received little attention in North America. Indeed, Shinsedai offered a range of interesting films that one most likely wouldn’t find at such genre-focused festivals as Toronto After Dark, and in doing so provided a rich experience for adventurous viewers hoping to learn more about Japanese cinema and culture. Toronto now has a new resource that will enable many to expand their knowledge and appreciation of Japanese culture while showcasing the talents of independent filmmakers. I already can’t wait to see what next year will bring.

Chris MaGee, "Thunderfish" actress Junko Kimoto and Jasper
Sharp at the opening reception for the festival

While I didn’t catch all of the films that were shown at the festival, I certainly made an effort to see most of them – and am very glad I did. Here’s what I thought of the films I saw:

Weiner Waust (Maya Yonesho, 2006)

Shot throughout Vienna, Austria, this five-minute short was a colorful and imaginative delight. Using stop-motion animation, it mainly consists of abstract patterns and shapes dancing on index cards carried throughout different parts of the city, at time mimicking the sights seen in the streets. The enchanting concept and light tone of the film (partly contributed by an accordion score) make it a fun demonstration of cinematic experimentation.

Naked of Defenses (Masahide Ichii, 2008)

The first feature film shown at Shinsedai turned out to be a notable success, drawing a large audience and favorable reactions from virtually everyone who saw it (who I spoke to afterwards, at least). Focusing on the precarious relationship between two female factory workers (one being eight months pregnant, the other having suffered a miscarriage), it is a still, contemplative drama about past traumas and unspoken resentment. The story takes place in the eerily quiet countryside and urban spaces of Toyama Prefecture, providing a sharp contrast to the loud din of the plastics factory where the women work. Lead actresses Ayako Moriya and Sanae Konno both give superb performances, and writer/director Ichii delivers a very well-made film that adequately accommodates both of them.

Suzuki & Co. (Kazuo Kono, 2008)

This is a great comedic short about a desperate job seeker who joins the one-man team behind the titular internet auction company. Both funny and wise, it reveals hidden truths about the business of providing (seemingly) useless stuff and a philosophical perspective on consumer culture.

Inside Kobayashi Hall, where all of the films were screened

Freeter’s Distress (Hiroki Iwabuchi, 2007)

I was really looking forward to seeing this film, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Freeter’s Distress is an onscreen account of Iwabuchi’s experiences as a part-time worker at a Canon plant who is trapped in a state of near poverty. Filming with his handheld camcorder, he talks to friends and acquaintances about the challenges of finding full-time employment and making progress in the world and at certain points addresses the larger political and social dimensions of his situation. For the most part, though, his film remains fairly intimate as it gives the first-person documentation of a life constantly spent striving for survival. We see what Iwabuchi sees as he rides his bike, journeys to Tokyo, tries to find places to sleep in the city until morning (at one point, waiting until noon, when he gets paid) and, in the final portion of the film, walks and stays awake through a night of pouring rain until he reaches the ocean. The film ends abruptly, but there is good reason for this: Iwabuchi himself is left facing a void of uncertainty at that point in his life, so why shouldn’t the audience share that experience? Such an ending is a better and more logical choice than a summative epilogue (as so many documentaries bear), and makes it clear that Freeter’s Distress is a slice of (a) life in the purest sense. If nothing else, it’ll make you want to know how Iwabuchi has fared beyond the film’s events.

emerger (Aki Sato, 2008)

Telling the story of a woman adorned with casts on her neck and leg who is looking for casual sex and a recently spurned gay man, the 42 minute-long emerger displays a rough, raw quality that suits its two emotionally damaged main characters.

Bunny in Hovel (Mayumi Yabe)

This dark, moody film dwells on a destructive family living in the Japanese backwoods. Returning to the house after three years, the mother’s son at first offers the possibility of hope, but isn’t the crusading hero that some viewers may mistake him for – the film is, to its credit, too deeply set in grim reality for a contrivance like that.

Csikspost (Yumiko Beppu, 2009)

Csikspost is a fun, sometimes downright goofy short about the simple pleasures of summer and childhood alike. The main character is the eight year-old Mina (charmingly played by Marina Kawamura), who strives to convince a young fruit vendor to marry her single Dad. Maintaining a great sense of humor, the film contains a few touches that certainly suggest a Wes Anderson influence.

Arungaku (Tomohisa Takashi, 2009)

This concert film was shown with four short works by its subject, the video artist and composer Takagi Masakatsu. Seen together, they certainly convinced me that he is quite the talented individual. His films are unfathomably beautiful spectacles of shape, color and motion that often simulate the texture of paintings. Then there’s the documentary, which showcases his aurally mesmerizing musical work and, simply, the creative process of making music. In the brief segments outside of the concert, Masakatsu is shown as a cheerful, animated person who takes genuine pleasure in what he does and strives to share that joy in all of his art. Thanks to this film, I’ll definitely be hunting for some of his albums over the next few weeks.

Here is Girls, one of his videos (with his own music):

Maledict Car (Kosai Sekine, 2008)

This music video for the band Jemapur consists of a kaleidoscopic stream of imagery reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s work. Here's the entire video:

Thunderfish (Touru Hano, 2005)

With hints of horror and noir, Thunderfish was easily the most genre-influenced film to be shown at Shinsedai. While telling the story of a photojournalist who investigates the prostitution trade and rural legends of Cantella Island, the film also sets out to explore themes such as traditional beliefs and how they clash with contemporary culture (it is set in the 1950s, but the island’s inhabitants more closely adhere to a 1930s way of living). Thunderfish maintains a great atmospheric quality throughout its duration that is primarily owed to Tetsushiro Kato’s cinematography, which perfectly evokes the stifling humidity of the island and uses a vivid palette of saturated greens and blues.

Me with "Thunderfish" actress Junko Kimoto

Vortex & Others (Yoshihiro Ito, 2001-2008)

This is a marvelous collection of short films that truly revel in visual and narrative creativity. Right from the first moments of the first film, Wife’s Knife (in which a man is stricken with horror and fear towards his meek, seemingly harmless wife), it’s clear that Ito is unafraid to venture into the realm of the bizarre – in fact, it’s more than likely that he knows that’s where the best ideas often lie in hiding. All five of these films (being Wife’s Knife, Imaginary Lines, Non-Intervention Game, Plum Double Suicide and Vortex) have something different to offer, and can be described in three adjectives: fascinating, fun and funny.

Jasper Sharp (left) with Yoshihiro Ito (right) in the Q&A discussion for "Vortex & Others"

Now I… (Yasutomo Chikuma, 2007)

Now I… is the first feature film by Yasutomo Chikuma, who maxed out his credit card and served as producer, writer, director and lead actor. He stars as Satoru, an incredibly withdrawn young man who is pushed to interact with the outside world after he is given a job at a winery. The film uses a minimal approach to clearly reflect the claustrophobic viewpoint of the antisocial Satoru. Besides being a capable filmmaker, Chikuma also proves his talent as an actor, especially since he was present for discussions after the screening and, thankfully, turned out to be a much more communicative and cheerful guy than his on-screen protagonist.

The Rule of Dreams (Naoyuki Tsuji, 1995)

Evocative of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and made with low-tech means (charcoal sketches that leave shadow-like trails as they “move” across their paper backdrops), this animated short is mystifying in its surreal images and the imaginative way in which they are created onscreen.

The Trains (Takahiro Hirata, 2005)

A fun and inventive short that will certainly make me think differently about passing trains.

Girl Sparks (Yuya Ishii, 2007)

I couldn’t imagine a more well-chosen pick for the closing film for Shinsedai than this one, which drew plenty of laughs from beginning to end. It provides an account of the strange and frustrating life of teenager Saeko who must contend with her cross-dressing father (who, he explains, also wants to be a mother to her), the assortment of odd boarders he takes into their home, the isolated rural town in which she lives and the rockets that constantly soar through the sky above her.

For more reports on the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, please visit the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow here, here and here.

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