Isn’t it always the way? You wait ages for a Japanese film and then ten come along at once. Following hard on the heels of Jiro Dreams of Sushi (see my last post) comes an entire season of Japanese films titled Once upon a Time in Japan. It’s at the ICA and then tours the country, courtesy of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme. With ten films in a week (the season runs from 1st to 7th February) some hard decisions have to be made. Not to worry; as usual I’ve got a few suggestions to help you out.
My pick of the bunch might surprise you – I’ve gone for Castle under Fiery Skies (Katen no shiro).
Though it’s set in the sengoku era, a time of warring factions and the backdrop for Kurosawa’s great war epics like Kegemusha and Ran, this is no samurai battle movie; it’s the story of a peasant carpenter who builds the fabled seven-storey Azuchi Castle. ‘An unmissable insight into the world of traditional Japanese architecture and carpentry’ according to one review.
In other words it’s a ‘small man struggles against the odds to achieve a difficult task’ film. There are loads of these in Japanese cinema, making it a popular genre, though from a western viewpoint they can sometimes seem a bit unexciting. But that’s missing the point – think about the person not the achievement and it will all seem much more worthwhile, in a human and heart-warming way.
Plus – a bonus point here – the peasant carpenter is played by Toshiyuki Nishida – Hamachan!
Hamachan is the lead character in a popular series of twenty-two Tsuribaka Nisshi (‘Fishing nut diaries’) films about a loveable salaryman who constantly finds ways to slope off work and go fishing in some scenic part of Japan with his equally obsessive boss. The series brought out a film every year from 1988 to 2009 and made Nishida a household name. And rightly – his personal warmth radiates off the screen. The fishing nut series don’t tend to make it to the UK (popular culture rarely does) so this is your chance to see Nishida in action with a bit of Japanese history thrown in.
Speaking of history – here’s a bit about the other star of the movie, Azuchi Castle. It was built in the late 16th century by Oda Nobunaga, one of the greatest generals in Japanese history, on a hill on the shores of Lake Biwa, near Kyoto.
Its seven storey octagonal tower housed apartments, audience halls and a treasury, so it was more like a palace than a fortress. The outside was colourfully decorated with tigers and dragons. Unfortunately it hasn’t survived but there’s a replica in Ise Sengoku Village, a samurai theme park near Ise.
There are two other films in the season that tempt me. The first is Mai Mai Miracle, a Studio Ghibli-style anime from the Madhouse studio about two nine-year-old girls living in the country in the fifties and imagining what it was like to live there a thousand years before. I don’t really need to say any more, do I?
And I also fancy Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, a time-travel comedy from 2007 with lots of jokes about how different things were in 1990, the year before Japan’s bubble economy hit the rocks. It features a time-travelling washing machine and a bar hostess on a mission to save Japan from financial ruin. Crazy satire is a Japanese movie speciality so I have high hopes of this one.
Bubble Fiction is showing on 6th February at 9 pm.
But really, you couldn’t go wrong with any of the films in this very welcome season. Here’s a quick roundup of the rest: