Until next Thursday, Japan Society is virtually screening a series of essential Japanese films across North America. From Suzaku to Wild Berries, these are our picks.
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Throughout December, the Japan Society has been running an exciting “Flash Forward” series, with virtual screenings across North America. It’s an opportunity to watch a sampling of some of Japan’s most exciting emerging and established auteurs — not just by watching their most recent work, but also by seeing how they’ve grown as filmmakers over decades. While the series does showcase a few recent debut films, and some older works by an early Japanese cinema legend, Sadao Yamanaka, the centrepiece is the “Debut works and recent films” section. This section screens the first film and a more recent film from six significant contemporary directors.
The series first caught my eye because it includes Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku (1997), her Cannes Camera d’Or winning debut feature that has long been inaccessible to stream. As a huge Kawase fan, I was eager to catch Suzaku, and to watch another rare Kawase film from recent years, Vision (2018). But beyond the essential Kawase entries, the entire programme is carefully and thoughtfully chosen, and two films in particular — Wild Berries (2003) and My Atomic Aunt (2013) — pair well with Suzaku as portraits of class, family, and village life in Japan. These films will get you excited about the past, present, and future of Japanese cinema. Here are some recommendations to stream before the event comes to a close this coming Thursday (December 23rd).
Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku and Vision
I did a deep dive on Naomi Kawase’s films earlier this year for our Kawase podcast, and absolutely fell in love with her work. Not every Kawase film is great, but they’re all interesting, and some are magnificent (Still the Water and True Mothers, particularly). Yet, she’s still sorely underrated, despite releasing her debut, Suzaku, over two decades ago and to much acclaim, and doing plenty of great work since. To date, about half her body of work is near-impossible to find anywhere online.
Vision is more of an interesting oddity than an essential film, but given its limited availability outside of the Flash Forward series, I’d still recommend checking it out, especially if you want to be a Kawase completionist. Despite being one of her weaker works, it still displays her stunning ability for capturing the majesty of nature on camera (and in her sound design). The film itself is pretty strange and rambling: Juliette Binoche plays a French travel writer who goes to Japan in order to seek out a magical herb that only appears once every 997 years. Kawase favourite Masatoshi Nagase is her begrudging and mysterious host at his home deep in the woods near Nara.
However, Suzaku absolutely is essential viewing. It feels a bit like an early draft of Kawase’s Still the Water (my favourite film of hers). Both are melancholy family portraits set in a remote Japanese village, and both depict characters processing grief and navigating love. Like all Kawase films (Vision included), Suzaku is an aurally soothing film that spends time on the images and sounds of nature, from rolling mountains to trees whistling in the wind.
Suzaku is also very sad, as relaxing as it can be to watch. The film begins with the central family — a mother, father, grandmother, very young daughter, and the father’s preteen nephew — living a seemingly idyllic life together, and awaiting the construction of a new railway that will connect their village to the city. Then, Kawase abruptly cuts forward fifteen years, when it’s announced that, after over a decade of planning and financial investment, plans for the railway have been scrapped at the last minute. With it goes the father’s hope that he would get work on the railway.
Suzaku is a bleak portrait of dashed hopes. It’s attentive to the beauty of village life (the serenity of nature, the generosity of the people) and its downfalls (disconnection from an increasingly city-centric country, limited economic prospects). It seems as though, every day, more people are leaving the village for a different life; it’s not so idyllic anymore. While dramatic things do happen in Suzaku, Kawase underplays it all. It’s quiet, beautiful, and melancholy.
Family drama in Wild Berries
Miwa Nishikawa’s Wild Berries is another standout of the program, and as a sharp, class-conscious family drama, it’s an apt double bill with Suzaku (the two films are my highest recommendations of the festival, if you only have time to squeeze in a few). I’d never fully gotten on board with Nishikawa’s work until watching this, her directorial debut. Her latest film ,Under the Open Sky (2020), was a disappointment, and her other film in the Flash Forward program, The Long Excuse (2016), underwhelmed me when I first saw it, although I’m now eager to give it another go.
Wild Berries is the melancholy, darkly comic story of the working class Akechi family. One of the first shots is an extended take of the family at the breakfast table, in which Nishikawa allows us time to observe each one of them and make our assumptions about who they are. There’s the ailing grandpa — he enthusiastically consumes his toast while wearing a bib, and we later learn that he has dementia. There’s the patriarch, who patiently reads a newspaper over his food while wearing a suit, ready to go to work. Then, the matriarch is summoned into frame by a few unsympathetic grunts from her husband, and she shuffles hurriedly into the room with a napkin to wipe up some food the grandpa has dropped. She’s the only family member who doesn’t have time to sit down and eat. Lastly, the family’s adult daughter sits down at the table, stuff down a few mouthfuls, and downs her cup of tea before rushing off to work, food unfinished. She’s more concerned with jumpstarting her day than listening to her mother’s worried questions.
From the start, in a single frame, Nishikawa has given us quite a comprehensive introduction to the Akechi’s: who looks after who, and the pace at which each of them lives their lives. She exhibits how they live in a small space together but don’t really talk, or even look up at each other while they eat.
From that point on, Nishikawa chronicles how the Akechi’s family unit begins to crumble, revealing the true dysfunction that was already bubbling just under the surface at the film’s start. Their lives are set off kilter by three simultaneous events: the death of grandpa; the return of the family’s estranged son, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who was disinherited years earlier for his con artist ways; and the revelation that the patriarch was been hiding mountains of debt that he cannot pay back. Shuji doesn’t have the honourable values that his family does, but he does have money and the swagger to get his way. His presence is a catalyst for anxiety and possible change for a family who have been hiding their unhappiness for the sake of keeping up appearances.
Japan’s city / country divide in My Atomic Aunt
Another compelling double bill with Suzaku is My Atomic Aunt, a documentary in the “Filmmakers on the rise” section of the program. The film also reckons with the lives of Japanese villagers who live far from metropolitan cities like Tokyo. In Suzaku, the family struggles with being so cut off from the rest of the country when plans to build a railway are shut down. In My Atomic Aunt, London-based and Tokyo-born filmmaker Kyoko Miyake returns to the village Namie, where her aunt lives and where she spent many summers as a child. Miyake remembers it as a beautiful place, but in 2011, after the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant was wrecked by a tsunami, Namie became uninhabitable.
Miyake doesn’t just give context about the tragedy, but also discusses her personal connection to Namie. Early in the film, she shows archival footage of Namie as she speaks in voiceover about her nostalgia for the place. Later, she plays the same archival footage with new voiceover that recontextualises it: she details how, unbeknownst to her childhood self, at the time, the villagers were engaged in a bitter fight with each other about whether to sanction building a new nuclear plant in Namie, to rival the one in Fukushima. It complicates her nostalgic notion that village life was pure and idyllic compared to city life in Tokyo. Still, over footage of a recent trip home to Tokyo, Miyake laments how people in the city so easily forgot about the plight of the faraway villagers affected by the Fukushima disaster, once the news cycle had left it behind.
In her documentary, Miyake highlights the struggle of the 20,000 residents of Namie who were scattered across Japan, including her aunt, who waits to hear if and when Namie will become safe to return to. In a few scenes, Miyake’s aunt returns in protective clothing to visit her three abandoned businesses: a funeral parlour, a wedding venue, and a bakery, which is now filled with mouldy profiteroles and croissants. Miyake reckons in voiceover with her own anger at the havoc TEPCO (the power company who owned the nuclear plant) has wreaked over her aunt’s community. She also voices her confusion at how the villagers don’t seem to be angry, and still express affection for TEPCO, which leads the film to explore how TEPCO has spent decades positioning themselves as a friend and ally to the villagers.
You could be missing out on opportunities to watch films like these Japan Society picks at virtual cinemas, VOD, and festivals.
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