Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category


Tokyo Drifter

July 4, 2012

Another superb Tokyo film by Matsue & Maeno

Tokyo Drifter (2011)

2010/05/27, Tokyo.

Night falls in the rainy metropolis. Fukushima has exploded, Tokyo’s trademark neon lights have been turned off, and the rain falling from the sky is potentially radioactive. But one man and a small crew following him refuse to give in to the darkness. Their aim: a love song for Tokyo and the feel good film no. 1 of the year!

Documentarian Tetsuaki Matsue and folk-wonder Kenta Maeno became an indie phenomenon in 2009, when their Live Tape debuted on film festivals around the world. The inspiring little film, shot entirely with a single take, followed Maeno walking the streets of Tokyo and performing his music. Two years later the duo has a new film in the theaters. Time will show whether this stylistic re-issue will live up to the success of its predecessor.

Tokyo Drifter, which was shot during a single rainy night, is a music film and a street document. No one is interviewed and there is not a word of dialogue to be heard. Maeno, armed with guitar and sunglasses, wanders around Tokyo performing an album worth of great music about life, love, and other things. Director Matsue faithfully follows in his footsteps – though this time editing his film into separate, long take sequences.

Tokyo Drifter is above all a film for the fans of Maeno. Yet, at the same time it’s something more. As the slightly un-stylish but cool in his own way hero wanders around we start to grasp something of the insecure atmosphere that was present in the post-Fukushima streets of Tokyo. The need to save energy had finally brought the night into the city that is normally light even at night by the gigantic neon lights. In Maeno’s film Tokyo finally appears like a normal city – the most unusual state for Japan’s capital.

Director Matsue was not depressed by the change – he saw something beautiful and appealing, but unusual in it. For documenting it his choice of medium was a cheap video camera off the store shelf. Its grainy and inconsistent output, plagued with errors caused by auto-focus, reminded the director of those YouTube videos that he and millions of others had relied on as an important news source during the early hours and days of the disaster. Sound quality was, however, not to be compromised – Tokyo Drifter is a music film after all.

The real star of the show, however, is Maeno. The irresistibly energetic musician is never brought down even by the nightmarish combination of dark, rainy night, and trademark sunglasses that remain on throughout the film. He is left without audience in every location he travels (in the film), but in the comfort of cinema his show is one not to be missed. As the night finally turns into a day, one cannot help but to wish morning had not come yet. At 70 minutes Matsue turns off the lights, leaving Maeno’s Tokyo Drifter theme song playing against black screen. Good morning, Tokyo.

Side note 1: In the Sapporo premiere Matsue, who was touring the country with guitar and film reels in his hand, held a 4 song mini-concert as appetizers for the following day’s main event. The theater staff had notable difficulties believing their ears as Matsue requested to play his final song in complete darkness.

Side note 2: Nicholas Vroman’s highly informative Matsue interview, excessively referred in this review, can be found at his site a page of madness


Coming Future

May 24, 2011

Shinka (Japan, 2010)

Japanese independent cinema has never been doing better! Japanese independent cinema has never been doing worse! Certainly, it has never been like this before.

For years now the most interesting Japanese cinema has come from either indie side or small genre film factories. Rarely discovered by masses, it has lead to a misbelief that Japanese cinema has lost all its bite. The real problem, however, is not in the lack of talent but in its inability to live up to its full potential. It’s a global phenomenon that multiplexes are killing off small arthouse theaters, leaving indie films homeless. The problem may be even worse in Japan where business is highly networked, and quality alone isn’t enough to buy your film public screening time. Getting a movie into distribution can prove a real challenge. And that’s only after one has miraculously come up with a budget to shoot a film in the first place. Director Kyuya Nakagawa’s Coming Future was born from the lack of budget.

Nakagawa is a young man who knows the industry. He has worked as an assistant director for Sion Sono, and as a sound technician for Yuya Ishii, Yoshihiro Nishimura, and Koji Shiraishi. Nakagawa’s aim for 2009 was to direct a movie of his own. When financing could not be found, he decided to get off to the street of Tokyo to make a zero-budget documentary on the state of Japanese independent cinema, jishu eiga. And capture a piece of living Tokyo on digital video while he’s at it.

Coming Future is not your typical documentary. It lacks traditional narrative, and was shot essentially without screenplay. Rather than exploring dying cinemas or explaining sad facts about filmmaking realities Nakagawa goes for a walk with his filmmaker pals – Tetsuaki Matsue (Live Tape, 2009), Koji Shiraishi (Shirome, 2010), Satoko Yokohama (German + Ame, 2006), Nobuhiro Yamashita (Ramblers, 2003), etc. It’s Christmas Eve, with Japan’s most interesting young filmmakers discussing their profession on the streets of neon filled Shibuya. The outcome is interesting.

With only limited planning applied, Nakagawa’s aim was to allow his quests to add their own personal flavor to their sections. Rebel director Kenji Onishi does this best. Carrying 8 mm camera with him, he frequently stops to film footage he could use in his upcoming movies. Coherence may not be this man’s specialty, but does such thing matter? Art doesn’t doesn’t need to have rules, and Onishi hates patterns such as watching movies from the beginning. Starting from the middle in more interesting, he states.

Onishi is a filmmaking dinosaur in the sense that he’s still shooting on film. Most indie filmmakers in Japanese these days shoot on digital, Nakagawa included. It’s far more economic, and good enough to produce movie theater level material. No doubt this has saved Japanese indie cinema from practical extinction. Yet filmmakers struggle. Even past indie champ Nobuhiro Yamashita, who had his mainstream success with films like Linda Linda Linda (2005), got stuck with TV shows and idol videos. There was just no one to finance a single movie project for him after Tennen kokekko (2007). That being said, 16 months after Coming Future Yamashita finally has his new film in theaters, a mainstream production none the less (My Back Page, 2011).

Nakagawa’s film is not only about filmmakers, though. He manages to surprise the viewer on a few occasions (those wishing to avoid minor spoilers and save the surprise may wish to skip this paragraph). He runs into pole dancer Cay Izumi (Sushi Typhoon regular) running guerilla show on the streets. The best moment comes when he drops indie films entirely and goes interview American G.I’s and Japanese schoolgirls about random things. It has nothing to do with the main topic, but it’s refreshing filmmaking. Like Onishi said, the strength of jishu eiga is that it’s not bound by established cinematic rules, but, at its best, has the possibility to do something unexpected. These parts further tie Coming Future into its time and environment, making it more of a zeitgeist than it would be without them.

Coming Future is not a film for grand audiences, but for those interested in Japanese jishu eiga it’s is a cool 90 minutes with some of the most interesting filmmakers in Japan. These kinds of movies have very small audience, but there’s always someone who will go see them. For filmmakers, it’s a rough business, though. No one ever got laid by making jishu eiga, Nakagawa complained at the Nippon Connection screening! Good luck to Mr. Nakagawa for finding a girlfriend!


Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War

March 24, 2011

Sekigun-P.F.L.P: Sekai sensô sengen (Japan, 1971)

“This is a news film for the construction of the world Red Army.”

Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi were among the most important political filmmakers in Japan in the 1960’s. The duo regularly “disguised” their works as pink cinema, but that didn’t keep the audiences from finding them, not to mention a whole generation of future filmmakers who were inspired by their film radicalism.

Wakamatsu (Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, 1969) was on his way back from the Cannes Film Festival when his screenwriter partner and director Masao Adachi (Gushing Prayer, 1971) suggested they would do something different. Wakamatsu, somewhat tired of working in the pink genre by then, agreed.

The two men found themselves in Palestine, shooting a “news film” of PFLP (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) for the Japanese extreme leftist group The Red Army. Wakamatsu himself was closely connected to some members, and also directed a film (United Red Army, 2007) of the movement almost three decades later.

Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War is not a documentary in the purest sense, but more of a propaganda film. Its message, directly encouraging the Japanese“comrades” to violence and taking up arms, would be quite disturbing if not seen from today’s point of view – that is, 40 years after the film was made. But then again, the world hasn’t changed all that much since then.

The film got Wakamatsu on USA’s black list – up till today, he’s never been allowed to set his foot on American soil. While beyond ridiculous today, it was a very understandable decision at the time of the film’s release.

As a movie, Red Army/PFLP isn’t all that special. The majority of the film consists of propaganda speeches, typically accompanied by images of the Palestinian countryside. Wakamatsu and Adachi have, however, also captured interesting material of PFLP fighters. The value of this footage is not to be underestimated.

Red Army/PFLP was intended for native Japanese speakers, although subtitled versions were also created for foreign markets. In this case, however, dubbing would have been preferable. In subtitled form the heavy monologue floods easily distract from visual offering.