Festivals: Yamagata & Tokyo Filmex
Every other year since 1989, the sleepy northern Japanese town of Yamagata has hosted the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF). For a week, a who’s who of international documentary producers and directors, as well as enthusiastic locals and film students and film lovers from all over Japan, gather to immerse themselves in retrospectives, the best of the past year, and new productions from Japan and the rest of Asia. It’s like a meeting of a special tribe—there isn’t another film festival in the country that feels so intimate, with the possible exception of Tokyo Filmex.
At the 2013 edition (which ran October 10 to 17), Asako Fujioka and her programming staff put on an expansive Chris Marker retrospective, a sidebar looking at the Arab Spring, and a program curated by University of Michigan professor Markus Nornes on documentary ethics. At one revealing panel discussion, The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer danced around questions about the ethical challenges of filmmaking posed by Kazuo Hara, director of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. The films in competition were particularly engaging this year, attesting to the strong documentary work being produced throughout the world. Part of the excitement also lay in finding surprises among the festival’s other sections, as in the Japan portion of “New Asian Currents.”
The Targeted Village
One of the more popular films, and winner of the audience award and prize from the Directors Guild of Japan, was The Targeted Village. Director Chie Mikami falls firmly into the school of filmmaking pioneered by Shinsuke Ogawa, who documented the Narita protests of the Sixties and Seventies and was one of YIDFF’s founders. The influence of Ogawa’s activist direct cinema—the documentarian remains embedded for years if need be—is evident in many films screened at YIDFF over its history. But The Targeted Village is a document of a failure, following a few residents of an Okinawan village as they protest the construction of a new landing pad for American Osprey helicopters. Officials deny that the helicopters will be landing there, but sure enough, by the end of the film, the protests waning, Ospreys are glimpsed flying into the Okinawan sunset. As a piece of agitprop, Mikami’s film is capable of inspiring righteous ire, but cinematically treads old ground with its mix of protest footage, talking heads, and well-intended outrage. There will always be a place for documentaries that bear moral witness, but as an effective tool for agitation and organization, The Targeted Village misses.
More imaginatively conceived was Sakai Ko and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Storytellers, in which a handful of elderly folks tell mukashibanashi, literally “old stories.” These fables, filled with talking animals and farmers, aren’t necessarily moral tales, but rather fantasies that speak to specific historical conditions and contexts. The opening story features a farmer’s daughter who has become a monkey’s bride. She manages to kill the (actually rather nice) monkey and return home—a happy ending for a time when arranged marriages, of any kind, often worked out for the worst. Folktale collector Kazuko Ono conducts the interviews, coaxing old tales out of her octo- and nonagenarian storytellers. Most of the film is shot in close-up, head-on, lovingly highlighting wizened faces; the austere formalism keeps the attention on the stories themselves, often delivered in rambling monologues, the voices frail. The sometimes sweet, sometimes cruel yarns attest to cultural memory passed down by these old men and women, whose own memories are fading. Film as memory, Storytellers becomes one more step in the cycle of the stories we tell and how we perceive them.
The real gem of the festival, though, was Kenji Murakami’s 38-minute 8mm film Sound Hunting. Murakami’s been at the forefront of experimental Super 8 filmmaking in Tokyo with his very personal explorations of both the seamy and mundane sides of Japanese life. In his latest he shoots test rolls, using outdated film stock from 30 years ago that is possibly the last of its kind. Dirt, dust particles, flashes, evidence of sloppy developing by hand, and very occasionally, the dim images of what Murakami was filming—all appear on screen. In each sequence, Murakami announces repetitively, and somewhat obnoxiously, what he’s doing: “I’m shooting at night!” “I’m filming a woman!” “I’m filming the wind!” It all ends with a scene by the sea, and it’s like Brakhage meeting Truffaut as Murakami’s rich humor turns to pathos. His celebration of moviemaking becomes a wake for the death of physical film. At the Yamagata screening, some of the final frames of the film melted in the projector, adding to the sense of finality (Murakami said it was his only print).
The Shape of Night
Tokyo Filmex also has a bit of a family feel—that is, if your uncles are the likes of Tsai Ming-liang and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the head of this year’s jury). Filmex is a tightly curated and intimate late-autumn festival where filmmakers and filmgoers mingle while waiting for the lights to dim in large Yurakucho Asahi Hall, its main venue. Must-see films that have been on the circuit for a while tend to take their final bows here; the competition runs Asian. Every year Filmex also partners with government organizations to highlight a neglected or obscure figure from Japan’s deep film history. This year’s focus was on the director Noboru Nakamura, a solid industry craftsman whose 1964 response to the Japanese New Wave, The Shape of Night, was a revelation. Gorgeous cinematography by Touichirou Narushima (Double Suicide, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) illuminates the story of a prostitute in a film that’s a lyrical, nearly Wong Kar Wai–like counterpart to ardent work by Oshima or Imamura from the same period.
A highlight of the competition was Visra Vichit-Vadakan’s Karaoke Girl. Like Nakamura’s masterpiece The Shape of Night, the film chronicles the travails of a prostitute, this time in contemporary Bangkok. Vichit-Vadakan began the project as a documentary but changed gears, deciding instead to dramatize the life of her subject, Sa Sittijun. The twenty-something Sa plays herself with a deadpan world-weariness in a sadly familiar story of a small-town girl who goes to the city and finds employment only as a “karaoke girl.” Hints of the original documentary remain, and the film concludes with a brilliant scene that could have come out of Joshua Oppenheimer’s playbook. Vichit-Vadakan interrupts the drama to ask Sa what scene they could film that would represent her biggest dream. Cut to Sa as a karaoke queen, with her fellow workers doing their best June Taylor dancing. After we’ve witnessed the harsh reality of her life, the mundane nature of her dream, though it’s exuberantly realized, leaves us stunned and saddened.
Tokyo Bitch I Love You
Filmex saves a couple slots every year to showcase new Japanese releases, and it’s served as a launching pad for a host of indie directors. This year, they gave one of these slots to Kohki Yoshida. His 2010 drama, Family X, showed the mark of a promising talent. Tokyo Bitch I Love You, his latest, is a noble failure. Adapting Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s classic bunraku (puppet) tale The Love Suicides at Sonezaki to modern Tokyo, Yoshida follows the original plot closely—perhaps a little too closely. In the 18th-century story, a married man falls in love with a prostitute, and tragedy befalls him. But brought into the present, the character’s motivations and interactions feel archaic and unnatural, and the realism of the urban settings underlines the artificiality of the plot. A strain of subversive humor rears its head now and then. The man’s love object, played by Yuko Kageyama, is particularly jejune and unappealing. Koichi Itou, as the man in question, seems bound by the inevitability of the plot and withholds emotion. But it seems that’s exactly what Yoshida was after—a coolness and distance from all the ups and downs of a plot that Japanese audiences would find familiar. Yoshida has crafted a conceptually intriguing if not particularly likeable film.
The Horses of Fukushima
Finally, Yoju Matsubayashi’s post-disaster documentary The Horses of Fukushima features stunning footage but has a somewhat muddled trajectory. Matsubayashi went to Fukushima right after the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown to document a stable of horses that survived the flood but were doused with fallout. These emaciated former racehorses were slated to be sold to butchers, and because of radiation have been saved from the fate of being served in sushi bars. Their current limbo, however, may be worse. Matsubayashi spends a lot of time with them in their cramped corrals as they are prepped for the Soma-Nomaoi, an equestrian festival—touted as a symbol of the recovery of Tohoku, but for these traumatized horses, just one more trial to endure. The imagery is compelling—the claustrophobic stables, the horses’ ravaged bodies and seemingly knowing gazes, their evident delight in the few times where they’re allowed to run free—but Matsubayashi’s thesis is hard to fathom. Is he celebrating the horses’ survival? Is he being critical of the institutions that allowed the meltdown and the further quarantining of the horses? Is he questioning the function of Soma Nomaoi? Both yes and no, to all questions. What comes across most, however, is the filmmaker’s love of these ragged survivors.