Review: Ten Years Japan

The “Ten Years” series started in Hong Kong in 2015 with an omnibus of shorts depicting the former British territory ten years into the future, and was notably dystopian in tone, which is to be expected, and not just because of the city’s special circumstances of being stuck halfway between a Western-influenced conclave in Asia and the point-of-the-spear for China in the international economic order. Any movie that attempts to specifically predict what’s going to happen in the future is probably going to have cautionary aspects. In any case, Beijing was quite alarmed at the film, and it may have been that aspect which sparked similar productions using the concept in Taiwan, Thailand, and Japan.

All three of those films were screened at the Busan International Film Festival in October. Japan’s has just opened domestically, and while it follows the dystopian model, it does so in a way that’s only somewhat alarming. The five shorts mostly address techno-commercial extrapolations on current trends, and only one, Akiyo Fujimura’s “The Air We Can’t See,” falls flat. A nuclear catastrophe had driven all of Japan, it seems, underground, and the story focuses on a little girl who, influenced by an iconoclastic friend, longs to see the blue skies and green vegetation of the surface world. Her mother, acting as if she were brainwashed, absolutely forbids her from going anywhere near fresh air, and even scolds her for playing with insects that might be contaminated. Though it’s obvious where Fujimura is going with this tale, the alarmist quality of the writing demonizes the mother and inadvertently politicizes the theme of simply wanting to be in the natural world. It doesn’t really consider the idea of nuclear contamination as anything other than a convenient plot device. Besides that, the girl’s innocence is trite.

The other four films are much better, mainly because they don’t take themselves that seriously. The most subtle is “Data” by Megumi Tsuno, which traces an adolescent girl’s investigation into her late mother’s life with the help of a “digital inheritance” program that puts her in possession of all of her mother’s cell phone and computer data. What she finds is surprising and a little disconcerting, but the most interesting aspect of the film is the girl’s interaction with her widowed father, whom she effectively takes care of in her mother’s absence. The father, who should be bothered by the discoveries, seems fine with it. Though Tsuno could be accused of downplaying the loss of privacy enabled by such a program, what’s more striking is how the story celebrates the richness of the average person’s life.

“Mischievous Alliance” by Yusuke Kinoshita also focuses on children and a truly dystopian technology: an AI system plugged directly into students’ brains that endeavors to shape their behavior. Naturally, there is one boy who bucks the system and embarks on an adventure with two converts. The mood is a bit too cheery in the end, but the sci-fi elements and the overall rebellious mood are handled with a deft touch.

The bookend films are the ones that will likely bother the Japanese authorities the most. “Plan 75” by Chie Hayakawa describes a public program that encourages euthanasia to rid the country of elderly, poor, unproductive citizens. What makes the film compelling is how it incorporates what some will call very Japanese ideas of compassion and conformity into what is at base a monstrous policy. It’s wholly disturbing for how innocuous it seems.

“For Our Beautiful Country,” Kei Ishikawa’s short about one way the current administration’s desires to “normalize” Japan’s Self-Defense Forces could work out, is the only contribution that attempts levity. A young employee of an ad agency is charged with telling a respected artist that her designs for a government campaign to promote the new military draft are a little too…artistic, and that the campaign is being scrapped for something more conventional. The artist, played by Hana Kino, is iconoclastic for various unexpected reasons, not the least of which is that her father died in World War II. Ishikawa isn’t trying to scare the viewer into thinking about what the ruling party is really trying to do. Instead, he genuinely wonders about the possibilities that such attitudes could give rise to. It’s not so much dystopian as it is truly speculative.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Theatre Shinjuku (03-3352-1846).

Ten Years Japan home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

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