The 56th BFI London Film Festival opens on 10 October and amongst all its goodies are seven new Japanese films. Frustrating isn’t it? You wait months for a Japanese film to come along and suddenly you get seven all at once. We’re all busy people so the question I’ve challenged myself to answer on your behalf is this – if you’ve only got time to see one of them, which one should it be? Here’s my unscientific guide, put together with the help of some Japanese friends in Tokyo.
Helter Skelter (Herutâ sukerutâ ヘルタースケルター) Dir. Mika Ninagawa
Helter Skelter is based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga about a model who maintains her perfect body through constant plastic surgery – until it all starts to go terribly wrong. If you saw this director’s previous film, Sakuran, you’ll know she’s capable of offering a wild and whacky visual feast interlaced with plenty of humour. But with a less attractive story line, (described by one friend as ‘like Black Swan recycled’), Helter Skelter may not pack the same punch as its predecessor. Interesting titbit; Ninagawa is the daughter of the famous theatre director Yukio Ninagawa whose Shakespeare series regularly sells out London theaters.
Key of Life (Kagi-Dorobou no Method 鍵泥棒のメソッド) Dir. Kenji Uchida
When a struggling actor and a yakuza hitman accidentally swop identities mayhem predictably ensues. Droll, comic and witty according to Variety. A screwball comedy that’s doing the rounds of this year’s film festivals – Toronto, Vancouver and Hawaii as well as London. Highly rated by my Tokyo friends.
Wolf Children (Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki おおかみこどもの雨と雪) Dir. Mamoru Hosoda, Studio Chizu
A gentle anime about a single mother struggling to bringing up her children with the added complication that their father was a wolf. Visually beautiful, it will keep children enthralled and their parents in tears. Is Hosoda the new Hayao Miyazaki? The jury’s still out but Wolf Children did very good business when it opened in Japan so perhaps he’s in with a chance. Gets a strong thumbs up from my Tokyo friends.
For Love’s Sake (Ai to Makoto 愛と誠 ) Dir Takashi Miike
Based on a mid-1970s manga by Ikki Kajiwara, this good girl/bad boy love story, done as a pop musical, is clever and cheeky, but also in-jokey and repetitive according to the Japan Times. Miike has previously turned out a successful line of horror films enlivened with black humour but my Tokyo friends are lukewarm about this mix of sixties era hits and campy musical numbers.
Dreams for Sale (Yume Uru Futari 夢売るふたり) Dir. Miwa Nishikawa
This drama of a ruthless young wife who gets her husband to propose marriage to vulnerable women and then make off with their savings is rated as the most typically Japanese of the films on offer by my Tokyo friends and also the one that best makes use of the medium of film. Nishikawa has picked up a string of best director awards in Japan and got the Japan Academy Award for best screenplay for her previous film, Dear Doctor.
The Samurai That Night (Sono Yoru no Samurai その夜の侍) Dir. Masaaki Akahori
A man needs to find his inner samurai to give him the courage to avenge his wife, who was mown down by a hit-and-run driver. Akahori’s experience so far has mainly been in theatre with the theatre company The Shampoo Hat. The Samurai That Night was originally a stage play. Not a lot of information from Tokyo as it’s only just opened there.
Like Someone in Love Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
A French/Japanese co-production from a veteran Iranian director with a string of awards to his credit. It’s about a student working as an escort girl in Tokyo and her relationship with an elderly professor. In Japanese, with an-all Japanese cast. The Guardian says that there are some interesting ideas and sympathetic performances and it’s superbly shot but it’s bafflingly and even exasperatingly truncated. On the other hand, Huffpost said ‘It floats like a cherry blossom in a forest, light and pretty.’ No one I know in Tokyo has seen it.
And here’s my verdict
Three films from directors with strong track records – Ninagawa, Miike, Kiarostami but are these particular films among their best work?
Two dark horses – Dreams for Sale and The Samurai that Night – which are probably the most authentically Japanese of the films on offer.
An anime – and we all love those don’t we?
But in the end top of my list is Uchida’s comedy, Key of Life, because good comedy is hard to find – cherish it while you can.