July 29, 2011
Today’s post about the 2011 Shinsedai Cinema Festival – a showcase of independent Japanese films in Toronto – was written by one of the most important people in my life, who also happens to edit my English-language writing from time to time. My daughter, Dasha Kotova, is a writer for Toronto Film Scene, an online magazine that covers film-related events around Toronto, including all the most significant film festivals.
It’s been a while since I’ve acquired an interest in Japanese culture and film – and it only seems to grow stronger. Naturally, when I had the chance to review the 2011 Shinsedai Cinema Festival, I was very excited. What appealed to me about this festival – besides its general relevance to my areas of interest – was the chance to enjoy Japanese independent films, and films that are not as widely known outside of Japan. It’s a real privilege to have a chance to discover such works.
The entire program for this year captured my interest, but I had to pick five screenings. Kid Commotion was one thing I decided to see, because it’s a rare occasion indeed to be able to watch a Japanese silent film from the 1930s. Many of these films - even ones created by established filmmakers like Torajiro Saito - have been lost, and Kid Commotion is an example of an early Japanese film that managed to reach our time. It was screened with live sound foley – imagine watching a movie while somebody in the room uses pots, bottles, paper, and other handy objects to produce the sounds you might expect to hear in the story. One of such sound effects could involve holding a sheet up against a fan to imitate the rustling of the wind. The sounds end up kind of comedically exaggerated, which really goes with the whole silent slapstick film aesthetic.
When I found out that the director of The Catcher on the Shore, Ryugo Nakamura, was 13 years old when the film was made, I became very intrigued. Unique imaginations and insights are often gifts of an early age, but not as many young people get around to channeling those resources into something quite as productive as a feature film. Nakamura’s film shows a nuanced perspective of a 12-year-old character who has an expanded sense of empathy towards animals. If you take the time to remember it properly, life wasn’t at all simple when you’re very young – especially when you come across subjects like mortality or a lack of understanding from others - but a lot of people tend to forget the details when removed from the situation. Ryugo Nakamura appeared at the festival (with candy for all of us!) to explain how he wanted to show his impression of life in the rural Okinawa. Although it certainly appears to be a beautiful place, the film shows that there is more to it than what tourist advertising typically presents.
Another screening I’ve attended included two short films by the independent filmmaker Devi Kobayashi. His work reminded me a little of absurd comedy like The Mighty Boosh, only from a Japanese rather than a British perspective – and the central themes revolved around finding the lighter side of feelings like a total misfit. Devi Kobayashi also appeared at the festival – as one of his characters; in a costume consisting of a turn-of-the-20th-century dress and outlandish drag queen makeup – to sing a song, and talk about his influences (which, perhaps not surprisingly, did include British comedy).
The two other films I’ve seen at the festival were Wandering Home and Sawako Decides. Both explored serious subjects with a unique sense of humour. Wandering Home concerned recovering from life-threatening alcoholism – you might wonder how it is possible to inject humour into such a topic. In the case of this film, it was by introducing it gently from time to time, and by showing it entirely from the characters’ point of view. It makes sense that people tend to use humour to cope even with the situations that seem the most hopeless. I found it to be a very encouraging and life affirming film that treated the situation with respect and empathy.
And finally – Sawako Decides was just plain one of the most hilarious movies I have ever seen. When I saw the photo of the title character on the festival brochure, dressed in that hygienic white factory uniform, making a silly face, I thought “That looks so Devo! I have to see it.” The film turned out to be very relatable in the way it shows the absurdities of life, and all the challenges of a quarter-life crisis. And it’s always a real treat for my feminist self to find such a well-developed female character. If you’ve been looking for an antidote to Manic Pixie Dream Girls, you should definitely see this movie.
Well, it must be pretty clear that I have had a lot of fun with this year’s Shinsedai Cinema Festival. I’m already looking forward to enjoying more films next year.
Read Dasha's reviews here: