While Japanese pics have tasted modest success recently, the directors who have an international following can be counted on one hand, led by Takeshi Kitano, Hideo Nakata (director of “The Ring”) and Takashi Miike.
Hoping to develop an appetite for authentic Japanese fare among foreign auds who’ve only sampled the Hollywood version of Japanese culture, repped most recently by “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Japanese producers are serving up a variety of product at international festivals and markets in 2006.
The Berlin Film Festival has given Japanese cinema a warm welcome in past editions, with Japanese pics well represented in all sections and also figuring among the prize winners. Among recent examples are Yoichi Higashi’s “Village of Dreams,” which won the Silver Bear in 1996, and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” the Golden Bear winner in 2003.
Berlin 2006 again includes a meaty lineup of Japanese movies. Takashi Nishimura, deputy director of influential Tokyo film org UniJapan, has high hopes for the latest crop. “Japanese films are in relatively good shape right now and some films have done well in the West,” he says.
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Miike’s “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A,” in which the popular helmer of super-violent pics focuses his intense gaze on troubled teens in juvenile detention, gets its international premiere in Panorama.
Shochiku is handling international sales. Masaki Koga, head of Shochiku’s international business division, comments, “It’s hot news for us that Berlin’s screening ‘Big Bang Love, Juvenile A.’ This is a great venue for him to screen the film.”
Kadokawa Herald is another Japanese major with a hot title on offer: “Dead Run” by helmer Sabu, who has gained a cult following with his quirky, unique films.
The pic, which also is in the Panorama section, follows a distraught 15-year-old on the run from bullying, sexual abuse and loneliness. This piece, with its sobering look at social ills, will surprise auds used to Sabu’s irreverent style. Sabu’s take on the intense anomie felt by Japanese youths is a sharp departure from his signature slapstick chase sequences.
Tak Ezaki, vice president for international sales and marketing at Kadokawa Herald, comments, “Sabu is quite popular in Europe and European festivals in particular, so we felt this would be a good place to show ‘Dead Run,’ which is quite a different type of Sabu film.”
Ezaki believes “Dead Run” will receive the helmer’s usual plaudits on the continent. “Sabu’s mentality and way of expression are quite close to the European ethos, I think.”
The helmer is a veteran at the fest, with three of his pics having previously screened in the Forum section. “Monday,” at Berlin in 2000, won the international critics prize; “The Blessing Bell” screened in 2003 and “Hard Luck Hero” in 2004.
Forum screens a number of Japanese films this year.
Leading the way is auteur-performance artist Shion Sono, whose idiosyncratic work has included 1993’s “The Room,” a deadpan view of modern alienation, and 2002 festival hit “Suicide Club.” Sono’s latest pic, “Strange Circus” makes its European premiere in Berlin. The perhaps too-clever pic tells interlacing stories of a sexually abused preteen and a wheelchair-bound female novelist, focusing on the twisted world in which the latter lives.
Other Japanese work screening in the Forum includes Atsushi Funahashi’s “Big River,” Toshi Fujiwara’s “We Can’t Go Home Again” and the documentary “Dear Pyongyang” by Korean-Japanese filmmaker Yang Yong-hi.
“Water Flower,” a film produced by the prestigious Pia Film Festival Scholarship Program, makes its international premiere in Berlin’s Kinderfilmfest. First-time director Yusuke Kinoshita depicts the relationship between Minako, a preteen girl deserted by her mother, and Yu, Minako’s younger half-sister who loves ballet. The helmer makes effective use of fixed long shots and pans while he subtly shows the changes in a young girl’s mentality.
Also screening in the Kinderfilmfest will be “Kamataki,” a Japan-Canada co-production directed by Claude Gagnon. This tale of a young North American man’s struggle to find meaning is set in Japan and focuses on the Japanese art of pottery.
Japanese titles also figure prominently among the retrospectives to be shown at Berlin this year. In the section titled “Dream Girls — Stars in the Films of the Fifties,” in addition to Hollywood legends like Sophia Loren and Grace Kelly, Japanese grand dames Setusko Hara and Hideko Takamine make appearances. Hara will be seen in Yasujiro Ozu’s classic “Early Summer,” and Takamine in Keisuke Kinoshita’s family drama “The Lighthouse.”
Also, inspired by the worldwide Japanese horror boom, the Forum will celebrate the work of supernatural/horror auteur Nobuo Nakagawa (1905-1984). Nine films drawing from Japanese myths and ghost stories from Nakagawa’s most productive phase in the 1950s and 1960s will be screened. Most notable is Nakagawa’s version of the famous “Ghost Story of Yotsuya” (1959), with the title ghost a visual stunner in her long black hair and stark white robes. This retrospective was first shown at the Tokyo Filmex Festival in 2005 to mark the 100th anniversary of Nakagawa’s birth. Based on these extensive screenings, it seems Berlin’s leading role in introducing Japanese films to the world is primed to continue in 2006.
In the European Film Market, standout titles from Shochiku include “Shinobi,” “Helen the Baby Fox” and “Synesthesia.”
“Shinobi,” a box office smash in Japan, offers a new take on the ninja action-adventure theme. A “Romeo and Juliet”-style love story unfolds against the backdrop of a war between two ninja clans in the early 17th century. Pic stars new sensation Joe Odagiri and Yuki Nakama.
“Helen the Baby Fox” is another is a long line of cutesy animal flicks from Japan (two years ago the canine pic “Quill” lit up the Japanese box office). In this fuzzy tale, a young boy finds a handicapped baby fox and is determined to keep him alive. The pic may prove too cuddly for most auds.
Perhaps the sleeper of the bunch is “Synesthesia,” a taut mystery and psychological thriller from Toru Matsuura. Structurally complex and provocative, Matsuura’s pic builds tension with competing plot lines, thoughtful camera angles and psychological insights.
Kadokawa Herald will be tempting buyers in Berlin with the prospect of two pics with top pedigrees.
The monster/action series “Gamera” has its fourth incarnation since the character was reborn in 1995 and will hit theaters in Japan April 29. The popular series has numerous fans at home and internationally.
Martial arts addicts will be pleased to know Kadokawa is also preparing a Sonny Chiba film. The legendary 67-year-old chopsocky figure (who garnered international attention with an appearance in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1”) has shot a pic tentatively titled “Master of Thunder Fist” that will likely be screened at the Hong Kong Film Festival in April.