Udine 16. Far East Film Festival: Japan
The golden era of the samurai cinema and the monster movie is probably over, and the buzz around J-horrors is subsiding, but Japanese cinema can still give birth to unique forms, found nowhere else in the world.
The newest quasi-genres of the popular cinema include, among others, super-cute pieces on pets (with puppies and kittens changing their owners' lives for the better), and films about all sorts of weirdos - likeable, but unable to cope with the social reality, sometimes called kibatsu.
Both types of films are usually thickly sugar-coated, but there are some exceptions. Momoko Ando's Rent-a-neko, which connects the two ideas, is a story of a lonely girl who runs a cat rental cart and, after thorough interviews, passes the animals to other similarly alienated characters.
Last year Udine hosted A Story of Yonosuke (dir. Shuichi Okita) and See You Tomorrow, Everyone (dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura). The former talks about a naïve, incurably optimistic provincial teenager and his (un)successful struggles at the university in Tokio. The latter shows a withdrawn man from a Japanese block of flats, who decided never to leave his place of birth, therefore fulfilling the promise made by the developer, who promised that the estate is a self-sufficient, perfect world. Both films, despite the interesting initial ideas, in the end turned out to be exceedingly sentimental.
This year, the selection included three productions from the kibatsu cinema. The first, celebrated, among other reasons, because of its Italian co-producer, is Fuku-chan from the Fukufuku Flats (dir. Yosuke Fujita) – a perfect example of the characteristics of the new genre and, at the same time, its most problematic aspects. The protagonist, a plump construction worker (played by a popular Japanese comedian, Miyuki Oshima), is lonely and and extremely shy, but has a heart of gold and befriends all the freaks from the neighborhood, making them feel needed again. He also has an adorable passion – painting and putting together traditional Japanese kites. The word “adorable” is the key here: its Japanese counterpart, kawaii, describes something sweet and lovely, but its semantic field include also the quality of awkwardness, clumsiness, ability to evoke warm feelings and protectiveness in others.
Mr Fuku, like most characters in mainstream films about weirdos, fits this adjective perfectly. The diminutive suffix used in the title: -chan, as opposed to the serious -san, is used to refer to children and the elderly. The main narrative line is a meeting between Mr Fuku and his former classmate, who joined the other children in harassing him because of his looks. Now the pretty girl discovers what a good and kind person her former victim really is. She begins a photographic project based on his portraits, simultaneously helping Fuku overcome his fear of women. At one point, his friend accuses the woman of of treating the protagonist like a mascot – an adorable puppet, who is nice to look at but whom, despite the apparent romantic subtexts of the situation, she could not treat as a serious love interest or sexual partner.
Unfortunately, the same accusation can be made of the director, who shows Fuku in a sentimental and one-dimensional way. The protagonist is flawlessly good-natured and endearing, unceasingly optimistic, and his childhood trauma magically disappears. He draws beautifully, which is supposed to compensate for his unattractiveness (?), in the spirit of a patronizing pat on the back - “so grotesque, and yet so talented!” The question of the erotic dimension of the hypothetical relationship between the protagonists remains unanswered – they virtually do not touch each other throughout the entire film, and even though they can have a friendly relationship, sex with an obese character from a lower social class remains a taboo topic. This is why, in the end, this heart-warming story remains just an empty shell.
Two other films from the Udine festival program offer a different perspective. Be my Baby (dir. Hitoshi One) is a selection of scenes from the lives of young people described as dokyun (or DQN in the internet chat room version) – people of low social status, without education, stable jobs, with little taste and intelligence. One shows a group of nine friends who become involved with one another, cheat on each other, and make up; but emotional intelligence is not their forte. Their relationships seem superficial, they use simplistic language and phrases out of cheap TV series (always speaking too loudly), and wear the tackiest, trashiest clothes.
It is impossible to like those characters. Their blowsiness and stupidity cause irritation, but their story is absorbing – under the girls' heavy makeup and the cockiness of the boys, we see emotions, which they cannot put in words. The director doesn't look at them with superiority, doesn't ridicule them, but tries to enter their world and understand it. Solitude turns out to be the common denominator, with which every viewer can empathize.
The protagonists of Tomoko in Moratorium, directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, whose Linda, Linda, Lindais a cult film in certain circles,also raises some ambivalent feelings.After graduation, a girl comes back to her lonely father, waits patiently for his daughter to make an effort and find a job. Meanwhile, Tomoko reads comic books, lies in front of the TV, and leafs through magazines. We don't know where her passivity comes from, whether it is a mild form of depression, an anxiety about adulthood, childishness, or just taking the easy way, or maybe a reaction to the increasingly difficult job market in Japan and the high social expectations of the young generation. Perhaps it is all those things at once.
Although not much is going on in the movie, the audience can experience a wide spectrum of emotions towards the protagonist. The smart and adorable Tomoko (Atsuko Maeda) inspires in turn sympathy, care, irritation, and dislike. Yamashita, like Ono, does not draw explicit conclusions and leaves space for interpretation. His protagonist is not a stereotypical kibatsu, but in a way she refuses to participate in social life. Perhaps this silent rebellion is the voice of most of her generation?