Review: i: Documentary of the Journalist

Writer and documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori obviously likes titles limited to one letter of the alphabet. The two movies that made him famous, the ones about the Aum Shinrikyo cult, were titled A and A2. The title of his latest, is a bit of a mystery until it’s explained at the end, so someone, perhaps producer Mitsunobu Kawamura, suggested the secondary title that pointed out it was a film about journalism, or, actually, one journalist in particular, Isoko Mochizuki, who writes for Tokyo Shimbun. Though Mori teaches about media in Japan and is a common pundit on TV for media-related issues, i, apparently, was not his idea, but rather Kawamura’s. The producer also made that fiction film, Shimbun Kisha, that was released several months ago and which was also based on Mochizuki. It was a hit. This is a kind of companion piece and Kawamura thought Mori was just the guy to do it, and he is, except as with all his documentaries, i is more about him than it is about its nominal subject.

Mochizuki has made a name for herself as one of the few reporters who asks tough questions of those in authority, and there is plenty of footage in the movie showing her confronting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during regular news conferences at the cabinet office. Mochizuki has been derided by the government for being too insistent, implying that she’s wasting everybody’s time, and for premising her questions on false information. What she’s doing, though, is trying to pin Suga down. Most of the questions depicted in the film have to do with Okinawa, specifically the new U.S. marine base being built at Henoko, and Mochizuki can’t rightly ask a question about things like feasability and whether the government’s construction plans are legal without explaining the background, but since Suga never gives more than a one word answer, which resolves nothing, the exercise really does seem like a waste of time. Mochizuki knows he will answer in such a way, so what she is mainly trying to do is show what a reporter is supposed to do in such circumstances.

Though these news conference snippets are a very small part of the movie in terms of running time, they are the most significant because the whole point is to reveal how toothless the media is due to their complicity in government stonewalling. Unfortunately, we don’t get much of a sense of Mochizuki as a reporter, meaning someone who writes stories. Her interview style is dogged and pointed, and it’s exhilirating to watch her tail her interlocutor down a hallway or ambush him outside his office. But perhaps because he doesn’t see any point in it, Mori never gives us any of the results of these interviews. Is Mochizuki’s reporting making a difference, or just her pugnacious style? In any case, she pursues three topics during the course of the movie: Henoko, the rape case of fellow journalist Shiori Ito, and the Moritomo Gakuen school scandal. Certainly the most telling sequence in the movie is when Mori essentially highjacks Mochizuki’s interview with Moritomo’s owners, Yasunori and Junko Kagoike. It’s as if he were investigating the scandal, not Mochizuki.

Similarly, there are a number of scenes showing Mori trying to gain press credential to cabinet office new conferences, so he can record Mochizuki doing her thing in the flesh, and, of course, he’s constantly turned down because he’s a freelancer. Another freelancer, Tetsuo Jimbo, explains to Mori that it took him 15 years to finally get a seat at the pressers, so it’s hardly necessary to show Mori getting turned down on the phone, but suffice to say that Mori isn’t going to lose to Mochizuki in the persistence department. In the end, i is less about Mochizuki than it is about Mori’s pronouncements about the sad state of news reporting in Japan, which is where the one-letter title comes in. It’s “I” as in first person singular pronoun in English, which Mori thinks is important since the news media addresses its responsibility more as a “we.” To drive home this point, he occasionally flashes an image of a dense school of fish, implying that all Japanese reporters work cohesively to follow and disseminate the government line. It’s a specious analysis, though, because in order for the media to fulfill their responsibility as watchdog they have to confront the powers that be as a group. They have to be as monolithic as the government even if each outlet and writer is pursuing their own agenda. Mochizuki is admirable in her iconoclasm, but that’s the problem, as she points out: She’s only doing what a normal reporter should do. It shouldn’t be extraordinary. Of course, i should be seen by as many people as possible so as to bring home how impotent the mass media is in Japan, but Mochizuki’s quixotic efforts should be seen for what they are: meaningless if they don’t produce news that people can use. Mori doesn’t show that she’s doing that; only that she’s trying.

In Japanese. (Prints with English subtitles may be screened at a future date) Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Eurospace (03-3461-0211).

i home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 i shimbunsha document seisaku iinkai

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Media Mix, Nov. 10, 2019

Issey Ogata in “The Sun”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the “emperor taboo.” In the piece I refer to an article from 2018 that surveyed movies depicting or otherwise including the emperor in some capacity. Most of the titles mentioned in the article dwelled on World War II, meaning that the emperor under discussion was Hirohito, or Emperor Showa, as he is now called. One of the core reasons for the taboo as it applied to Hirohito is that, despite his renunciation of his divinity, older Japanese still felt him to be something of a god, and, in any case, postwar political thought at least entertained the idea that he was responsible for the war. So while most postwar films that addressed wartime subjects tread lightly around the emperor’s involvement, a few presented that involvement in clever ways that may have flown over the heads of studios and other self-censoring entities. A 1963 comedy called Haike, Tenno Heika-sama, starring Kiyoshi Atsumi of the Tora-san series, included one scene where the bumbling protagonist, newly arrived at a drill area where Hirohito was to appear, comically tries to sneak a peak at the emperor’s face, thus making fun of the whole divine aspect of the monarchy. Of course, the film itself does not show the emperor’s face. In the 1972 movie, Gunki Hata Meku Shita ni, which takes place in the South Pacific near the end of the war, a non-commissioned officer is executed for insubordination, and right before he dies he screams, “Tenno Heika!”, or “His majesty the emperor.” However, the doomed soldier does not add the customary “Banzai!”, an exhortation that expresses the speaker’s hope that the emperor’s reign will last 10,000 years. By leaving out the “banzai” part, the filmmakers signal to the audience that the soldier is not praising the emperor, but rather protesting him or making an appeal, either of which were forbidden before the end of the war.

The most famous non-appearance of Hirohito in a dramatic movie was in Japan’s Longest Day, a 1967 feature about the decision to surrender. In this film, the emperor was only shown from the back, and the situation was so sensitive that the identity of the actor who supplied that back was kept secret by the studio so as not to endanger his life. Notably, in the 2015 remake of the movie, the emperor was played by former idol singer Masahiro Motoki, who, of course, looks nothing like Hirohito, which may have been the point. It’s certainly the most open depiction of Emperor Showa ever attempted in a Japanese movie, but because Motoki is so well-known, there was no risk of people somehow identifying the image on the screen with the actual person being represented. In any case, certain traditionalists were still taken aback and protested accordingly.

Foreign filmmakers have no such taboo, but interestingly enough, Japanese emperors in Hollywood movies tend to be played by kabuki actors, as in The Last Samurai and Emperor. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but the pedigree of both kabuki stars and the imperial family are based solely on male lineage. The great exception is the comic actor Issey Ogata who played Hirohito as a mumbling, distracted little man in Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, a decidedly non-Hollywood movie that found distribution in Japan despite itself. The casting, in fact, was more noteworthy than the film itself, which was so insular as to be almost meaningless in terms of shedding light on the emperor as an individual. He was definitely a man in the script, but his relationship to the war and, more significantly, his subjects was almost perversely vague.

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Review: The Trip to Spain

This third exploration of the semi-fictional competition-friendship between the two British comedic actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, tries to get by on the pure momentum generated by the last installment, The Trip to Italy, which was and will probably remain the high point in the series about two insufferable entertainers tooling around the countryside on some publication’s dime sampling amazing food, accommodations, and scenery while bemoaning their respective personal and professional setbacks. Though Coogan and Brydon got much more mileage out of their considerable celebrity impersonation skills in Italy than they did in the original The Trip, where they simply traveled the English countryside and which was edited down from a TV mini-series, here the surrounding plot is so weak and gratuitous that you almost get the feeling the whole movie was built around these seemingly spontaneous attempts at one-upmanship in the mimicry arts, which peaks during a sequence in which Coogan, attempting to explain to two female acquaintances the importance of moor culture in Spain, is confounded by Brydon’s incessant impersonation of Roger Moore. The scene outdoes Ricky Gervais (also referenced at least twice in the movie, which is nothing if not incestuous about British comedy) in terms of wince-inducing faux hilarity, and you really just want it to stop as soon as possible.

The main problem with the plot-like scaffolding is that Coogan this time is the conceited jerk, having just come off an Oscar nomination for a screenplay that has filled his head with dreams of being a great writer. When he and Brydon are offered yet another chance to pig out on the road, this time in Spain, a destination Coogan once sampled when he was a young man, he gets the idea of writing a book comparing this outing to the one where he, naturally, lost his virginity to a woman almost twice his age. Unfortunately, the script, credited to the two actors and director Michael Winterbottom, saddles him now with an affair with a married woman about half his age. Brydon, who was the forlorn one in the last movie, is now back with his wife who in the meantime has produced two children just as he’s turning 50. Though Brydon certainly acts the harried middle aged new father, the viewer is constantly being clued in as to which of the two fussbudgets are on a more realistic and fulfilling life path. This aspect of the series has always been its focal point, since the two men’s insecurities as manifested in their rivalry over their peculiar talents have been the only source of conflict in movies that are otherwise nothing more than aspirational travelogues studded with standup, but the conflict was prickly enough to be engaging. Here, it’s just plain predictable, and while Coogan doesn’t really deserve the bitter fate that befalls him, in the end you probably won’t care any way. As always, the food looks great, but my covetousness did not run over this time. Their company didn’t quite sit well with me, and the fact that Brexit didn’t even enter into their conversations made me quite suspicious. It’s one thing to not be serious, quite another to deny reality altogether.

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Trip to Spain home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Sky UK Limited 2017

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Review: At Eternity’s Gate

It could be argued that we don’t need another biopic of Vincent Van Gogh, certainly the most cinematized painter of all time. And on the surface, Julian Schnabel’s treatment of the tormented Dutchman covers much of the same ground that previous movies have, at least temporally. He limits the film to the last year of Van Gogh’s life, but rather than dwell on his state of mind or what might or might not have happened during those last fateful, disputed months, he looks squarely at the work, which makes sense since Schnabel is a respected painter himself.

The thing that the director has to point out is that during his life Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) was unknown except for by a handful of other artists, and, of course, Schnabel references his brief but intense friendship with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). This may be the most gratuitous sequence in the movie, since it seems Schnabel can’t get through his thesis without showing Gauguin’s influence on Van Gogh’s style, which, in essence, doesn’t really exist in Schnabel’s mind. In any event, once Van Gogh was released from a French asylum his work pace increased exponentially. Allegedly, he painted 150 pictures during that last year, selling only one of them. It’s common wisdom that Van Gogh didn’t care about money, much to his art dealer brother Theo’s (Rupert Friend) disappointment, but the style was so out there that it took decades for the rest of the world to catch up.

“God gave you this gift to keep you in misery,” Van Gogh tells himself as he newly discovers the light in Arles, where he achieved this monumental task, and another good point that Schnabel makes is that it was Van Gogh’s rejection of the city, or society in general, that afforded him the vision to see nature as being the real subject of his aesthetic. Schnabel conveys this realization by making the film every bit as impressionistic as Van Gogh’s work, but it only works to a certain extent. At times the style overwhelms the narrative, which loses too much traction in the end, and though we may not need another psychological analysis of Vincent’s life, his final days are portrayed so murkily that we get no sense of what kind of state he was in.

Nevertheless, Dafoe’s performance often breaks through the murk to give us something profound in both Van Gogh’s sensibility and his failure to connect to people. It helps alleviate some of Schnabel’s overbearing need to wallow in Vincent’s suffering for its own sake. Dafoe’s character is not so much a man who is crazy but rather one who is so overwhelmed by what his senses tell him that he is contantly distracted, and in that way he isn’t so much “miserable” as ill-equipped to deal with life as most people live it. He may have not been born for this world, but he was not a victim of it, either.

In English and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

At Eternity’s Gate home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Walk Home Productions LLC 2018

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Review: An Elephant Sitting Still

Ironically or not, the national film culture that has best represented post-millennial capitalist malaise has been China’s. Many, including me, will credit or blame Jia Zhangke with this development, but it’s really a function of the Peoples’ Republic’s almost schizophrenic approach to economic relativism, the idea that a fully communist regime can adapt market solutions to social policy. The latest piece of evidence proving how pointless this approach has been is Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, a nearly four-hour exercise in raging against walls. The movie is set in a town in northeast China that was once an important mining center and which now seems desperate to find any use for itself. This desperation is mirrored in the lives of four characters looking for a way out their difficulties—and out of the town—and not having any success.

Most of these difficulties involve violence. A high school student, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), is badgered by his underemployed, self-pitying father to move out of the house to live with his grandmother because he doesn’t want the expense any more, though he might as well be saying he just hates the sight of him. On the other side of this generational divide, elderly Wang Jin (Liu Congxi) resides on the balcony of his daughter, who is pressuring him to enter a nursing home so she can afford to move with her family to a better apartment. Another student, Huang Ling (Yuwen Wang), is always at odds with her mother. Interestingly, the most sympathetic character is the gang boss who dreams of visiting the titular pachyderm residing in a zoo in Manchuria, impressed by the rumor that the animal has refused to eat or even move. By remaining motionless, the elephant is seen as the ultimate rebel.

Since three of the characters live in the same deteriorating building, there’s a claustrophobic element to their suffering, but even when the action moves outdoors the grey nothingness works to make it all feel like a giant prison of the mind. The movie takes place over the course of a single day, as each character makes his or her move to escape fates that are partially their own fault but mainly the work of forces beyond their control. As days go, this one is uncommonly full of incident, including evictions, murder, suicide, and blackmail. With the exception of one shocking scene involving a baseball bat, the violence is kept off screen, but that doesn’t diminish the effects that it has on the progress of the stories.

In the end, what makes Elephant so extraordinary is how unpredictable it is while at the same time compelling. Despite the odds against them, these forlorn souls try to achieve some measure of peace in an environment where nothing seems to work as it should. It’s perhaps adding too much to this depressing tone to mention that the director killed himself after completing the film, which only found a distributor and worldwide recognition thanks to admiring foreign filmmakers. The movie wouldn’t be any less powerful if that intelligence weren’t at large, but given what Hu Bo was trying to achieve, it’s worth knowing.

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

An Elephant Sitting Still home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Ms. Chu Yanhua and Mr. Hu Yangzhen

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Media Mix, Nov. 3, 2019

Shiroyama Dam

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s lack of preparation for the recent run of flood-related disasters. Though the conclusion I drew from all the information I gleaned in the media is that there’s really no ideal way to prepare for such disasters in the long run, it doesn’t mean the government is off the hook. The only genuinely effective solution would be to relocate people living in dangerous areas, but that’s hardly going to be a popular move in a free democracy. More palatable would be some policy that discouraged any new housing or development in at-risk locations, but nobody wants to tell someone else where they can and can’t live. Still, this kind of squeamishness seems to extend to existing water management policy. According to the land ministry only 51 dams in western Japan have formulated systems for pre-release of water when there is a threat of over-capacity from projected heavy rainfall, and only about half have ever carried out these plans. In eastern Japan, which, prior to the three storms that recently struck in rapid succession, had not suffered from major flooding in many years, there are almost no systems in place for pre-release. And one of the main reasons is that much of the water is conserved for waterworks. If a local water authority releases too much water in fear of flooding and the result is insufficient water capacity for households and agrucultural users, they might be subject to lawsuits. The land ministry also requires that local governments obtain permission from users to pre-release water in the case of possible heavy rainfall, but that’s easier said than done. In the end, many don’t even bother to make such plans.

That is one of the reasons why there was such confusion at Shiroyama Dam in Kanagawa Prefecture when Typhoon Hagibis was doing its worst. Water levels were approaching capacity, and the water authority kept announcing it would release water, possibly endangering households farther down the river, but they kept postponing the release. That’s because they were working without a plan. The dam was built 54 years ago and they’ve never been in this situation before. Eventually, they did release water, but almost five hours after they first announced they would. In those five hours certain residents didn’t know whether they should evacuate. Of course, they should anyway, considering the amount of rainfall, but it doesn’t instill confidence in the authorities if they don’t seem to know their own system and how to approach a critical situation that could have disastrous results. Managing water can be a perilous business, and if the public isn’t made aware of the real situation, then they have every right to be angry.

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Review: Climax

As the poster boy for post-millennial transgressive French cinema, Gaspar Noe has a reputation that precedes him by miles, and while his newest outrage does nothing to confound that estimation, its musical pedigree makes it somewhat less distasteful, at least on the surface. Ugly things happen as they do in all Noe films, but the glaze of manic terpsichorean energy lightens it up substantially, making Climax not only Noe’s most watchable film but perhaps his wittiest as well.

The premise is simple and straighforward: a dance troupe of some two dozen young people from various multi-cultural and pan-sexual backgrounds are assembled through audition in a cavernous abandoned school in the middle of nowhere on a cold winter night sometime in 1996. They rehearse an extraordinarily visceral dance routine to Cerrone’s “Supernature” that lasts 20 minutes, and when they are through the viewer is just as exhausted as they are and ready to party. The manager of the troupe has set out a bowl of sangria, and as the dancers partake Noe shifts fitfully from one conversation to another in order to give us an idea of the various personalities at large in the big, dimly lit room. The stories are cleverly spun to peg certain behaviors and sensibilities to individuals: some are aggressively sexual, some menacingly cerebral, one thinks she is pregnant, while another can hardly keep her libidinal urges in check. What binds them all is the physicality of their beings as crystallized in their one common desire, which is to dance.

As these conversations increase in intensity and self-absorption, it becomes clear that something is off, and eventually someone realizes that the sangria has been spiked, perhaps with LSD. Once this intelligence spreads, the behavior becomes both more aggressive and less controlled. The preternatural physicality of the dancer becomes a danger to both the possessed and those around them, and soon bodies are doing odd things in unpleasant ways, including causing violence to others and themselves. A child is locked in a storage room for his own protection only to freak out as well (never trust Noe with a kid); the pregnant woman miscarries; a knife is applied to skin; a miscreant is shoved out into the snow with no protection.

The joke, as Noe has himself admitted, is that none of these people are being punished for their egotism and arrogance, though they might very well deserve it. He is simply showing how a good time can descend into horror show in such a short span and for such a pedestrian reason. In the end, what he’s really after is an excuse to put his filmmaking imagination to full use, and his depiction of the drug-fueled hysteria that develops is both terrifying and hypnotic. The longest seemingly unbroken cut is almost 40 minutes and involves turning the camera in every direction until the viewer is walking on the ceiling observing the carnage below. All the while Noe miraculously follows the various interpersonal storylines without dropping a beat or losing a motivation. These possessed souls have bodies that can perform the hallucinatory contortions that Noe demands, so why not make a movie about a bad collective trip? For once, the director’s high concept approach to horror results in something unique and fascinating, but no less repugnant.

In French and English. Opens Nov. 1 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-55519.

Climax home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Rectangle Productions-Wild Bunch-Les Cinemas de la Zone-Eskwad-KNM-Arte France Cinema-Artemis Productions

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