FILM REVIEW: Japan at the BFI London Film Festival 2012

L-R: The Samurai That Night, Key of Life, For Love’s Sake, Dreams For Sale

As mentioned in my previous post about the London Film Festival, film festivals are a great opportunity to see films unlikely to make it to these shores in either a theatrical or home distribution capacity. Aside from the likes of Third Window and Terracotta, few works from Japan get a release here, so it’s up to dedicated fests like Zipangu Fest or the likes of the LFF to showcase titles outside of the usual favourite samurai/horror/samurai-horror genres. Whether this is an issue over the quality of what is currently being produced or whether there just isn’t the market for it anymore is a hot topic, but based on the offerings at this year’s London Film Festival, I’m starting to wonder if it is more a case of the former than the latter. Of course, this is just a tiny portion of the country’s output, so let’s not make any wild generalisations here. But you expect a borderline level of quality to make it to LFF, and all four I saw had their problems, not one an out-and-out success. Usually this was a case of being overlong and not being able to fully exploit their set-up effectively. Maybe something to do that three out of the four were from writer-directors, perhaps unable to objectively pick apart their own narratives?

Two big-hitters I didn’t check out were Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪) – despite being a big fan of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, I expect it has a fair chance of getting a UK release – and Mika Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter (ヘルタースケルター) – as I wasn’t sure my brain could cope with the inevitable style over substance from the director of Sakuran straight after a Takashi Miike film. So here in greater detail are the ones I did see:

First, Masaaki Akahori’s The Samurai That Night (その夜の侍), and no, we’re not talking jidai-geki here. Kenichi’s wife is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Five years later, he plans to confront the man responsible, a loutish oaf who, despite having served time for the crime, shows no remorse and selfishly drifts through life. The film charts the three days leading up to the fifth year anniversary, establishing itself as a revenge thriller. However, come the second day, it starts to meander, and stretches its ideas too thin over its running time. When it should be building suspense up to an exciting climax, it prefers to just make both protagonist and antagonist even more two-dimensional, before falling apart into an unfocused melange of woolly motivation. It works as a study of pathetic men, incapable of breaking out of habits and dead-end lives, but not much else, particularly in its peculiar attempts at humour and hardly flattering portrayal of women.

Next up, Kenji Uchida’s Key of Life (鍵泥棒のメソッド), in which a professional ‘fixer’ for the criminal underworld slips on a bar of soap in a public bath and is knocked out cold, losing his memory. In the brouhaha, a suicidal actor in need of a change of fortune swaps locker keys with the unconscious tough, and finds himself with new clothes, a new car, and a wad of cash. Meanwhile, a lovelorn high-flying magazine editor has set herself a wedding date – trouble is there is currently no groom-to-be. On the look-out for a suitor, it’s not long before all their paths criss-cross and all manner of hijinks ensue. It’s a pretty standard set-up for a comedy of errors, involving switched identities, amnesia and self-imposed rom-com rules. Unoriginal it may be, but overall Key of Life is pretty funny. Much is down to Teruyuki Kagawa’s wonderful performance as the hardened gangster turned sensitive nobody, who is convincing and touching on both sides. It’s half an hour too long, plodding as plot machinations get in the way of character and jokes, but there are some good laughs to be had.

Day two, and For Love’s Sake (愛と誠). Takashi Miike’s high school musical of star-crossed lovers threatens at certain points to be an absolute hoot, but just doesn’t quite fulfil its potential. It’s 1972, and a well-to-do schoolgirl, Ai is in love with rough-and-tumble rogue Makoto, and so, using her father’s influence, requests his transfer to her elite school. However, he’s a tough nut to crack, and through songs and scrapes, she tries to win his heart while he goes about beating up anyone who comes in his way. The songs are nicely performed with endearingly naff choreography, but For Love’s Sake’s initial verve and vigour is unfortunately not sustained. It’s hard to really rag on about any deficiencies found in a Miike film considering how prolific he is, but apart from a few flashes of invention and trademark nuttiness, it feels like he is holding back a tad too much, resorting to fistfight after fistfight, and not enough, well, showtunes. Cheesy giggles when a character breaks into song aside, it’s not one of his memorable offerings.

And finally, Miwa Nishikawa’s Dreams For Sale (夢売るふたり). When their izakaya burns down in an accidental fire, a couple try to piece their lives back together.  After the husband’s one night stand leads to a sympathetic payout towards opening a new restaurant, they hit upon the idea where he will prey on desperate women in need of love and stability, swindle them for cash and then do a runner. But the success of the scheme has its own pitfalls. The ‘marriage fraud’ concept suggests a broad comedy (mildly reminiscent of The Producers if anything), but when played relatively straight amidst moments of genuine emotional drama, it’s unconvincing. There are interesting snapshots into the lives of the conned brides-to-be, but its attempts at depicting broader issues in society are hampered by not being able to buy into the story itself (despite this apparently being a real ‘thing’). There’s enough going on to keep it engaging, and Confessions’ Takako Matsu is a compelling and complex leading lady, but it sadly doesn’t quite add up.

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