JAPAN CUTS 2017: Tokyo Idols

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The idea of ‘Idol’ as it has come to be known in Japan is chameleon-like to those encountering it from outside Japan. Depending on who presented it, and when, it could mean anything from innocent agents of pop music and heavily choreographed dance routines to part of a more all-consuming movement that dictates the clothing its supporters wear as well as their behavior. Many outlets promoting Japanese culture abroad have presented features on Idols or advertised business that share the same cultural markers (Maid Cafes for instance, which also gained their foothold in Tokyo neighborhood Akihabara, have become a novelty in major US cities) in the same way that anime or J-pop is put forth as entertainment representing a Japanese identity. With TOKYO IDOLS, documentarian Kyoko Miyake takes a sober and evenhanded look at the recent phenomenon and how it is both affecting and fitting into Japan’s cultural landscape. Maintaining an objective stance behind the camera, her look at Idol culture is free of intimidating figures (save for one elucidating look at an Idol ‘election’ surrounding a collective at the culture’s forefront, AKB48) and charts or confrontational encounters with its subjects. It does not shy away from showing more insidious elements of its growth, however. The focus moves between aspiring Idols of different levels of notoriety (though, informative in its own right, none who have achieved mainstream success – were they reluctant to participate or perhaps even prohibited by talent agents?), their denizens, and analysts taken with the subject such as reporters and sociologists.

No bones are made about the awkwardness in seeing a dominantly adult male fan base rabidly following the activity of the young female personalities comprising this Idol scene. Scenes may inspire shock or a derisive sneer but Miyake gives voice to analysts who try to explain the phenomenon, critically, yet without ridicule. She also spends time with some of these followers, allowing them to speak for themselves. There are moments of sad self-awareness. Yet the humanity of the subjects is always there in the picture.

While there is much to be cynical about the industrious Idol machine given voice here, like the way it narrowly shapes the ideals of its young female hopefuls or the unrealistic notion of relationships it allows its consumers to remain bound to, it is not without hope. The star of the movie is certainly the plucky self-managing Idol hopeful Rio, whom we see working independent gigs with support from her daydreaming former rock musician father and more grounded mother. Her wit and determination is that of an individual who studies the game and is determined to win it on her own terms. We cannot help but cheer her on.

TOKYO IDOLS is being shown as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at The Japan Society on Friday, July 14 at 6:30 pm. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

JAPAN CUTS 2017: The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade of Blue

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Tokyo has been mythologized in varied ways from without – a city of electrified neon excess, of constant movement, of individuals toiling tirelessly, head down minding their own business as they move between work and home. THE TOKYO NIGHT SKY IS ALWAYS THE DENSEST SHADE OF BLUE captures some of these notions, but it is a refreshingly homegrown perspective from which the city ‘s character is eschewed.

It also weaves the tale of two individuals with strident characteristics whom circumstance would push toward one other in something like a romantic entanglement. Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi) works as a nurse, as well as part time at a hostess bar, and holds a dour outlook on life, which seems to be informed by her upbringing. She is a mainly solitary figure whose point of view we often learn via internal monologues. Otherwise, her conversations often veer toward the subject of death. Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) works in construction. He is jovial toward his peers and, with vision out of one eye impaired, seems afflicted with a form of autism. His conversation is stilted and then comes tumbling out, often harping on a point passionately though it may be of little concern to his peers. The pair’s quirks make the forging of a new relationship a challenge, not to mention daily life in Tokyo particularly burdensome. Yet unlike in other tales of individuals struggling against the grain, Ishii’s rendering suggests that Mika and Shinji do in fact do a good job of blending in. They do not make a scene, save for Shinji’s stream of conscious utterances that occasionally stir the ire of the more alpha male type among his construction site colleagues, and if not for our look at their inner thoughts, they seem adept at getting by and sustaining themselves in Tokyo’s disinterested landscape. Yet this does not mean happiness figures into the equation of adapting to the codes of being young and alone there. It lends to the suggestion of some woeful realities facing a young generation of workers in this major city. The pair’s push and pull toward each other navigates a path that speaks volumes on the preoccupations of a generation: grim worldwide statistics being the click of a smartphone button away, while death is an entity forever looming near that can strike at any moment.

Yuya Ishii, the director whose previous film was the meticulously told The Great Passage, unspools his latest feature with nearly as much patience, though in a far more cryptic nature, standing in firm defiance of the notion that for a story to be powerful, things must constantly be happening. No doubt owing to its source material, a collection of poems by young Kobe-based writer Tahi Saihate. Some characters we meet make the briefest of impressions, a young man for instance, quietly enduring the noise from a party held next door by one of Shiji’s colleagues from the Philippines. At times ponderings take the form of roughly drawn animated sequences.

It is not so much a drudgery as it is a piercing sense of isolation among throngs of people passing through. Yet a quiet beauty occasionally bleeds through, colored by washes of that titular shade of blue. Along with these swatches of color, music imbues plain scenes with a magical aura as Ishii switches between a handful of mood-setting scores. There is also a cleverly inserted catchy mantra played by a street performer, at times supporting a cynical outlook but also lending itself to moments that suggest hope for the protagonists. And Mirraz’s ‘New World’ is an unusually well-suited end credit song, with the 100 words per minute vocals matching Shinji‘s the protagonists’ verbal jousts.

Ishibashi and Ikematsu’s portrayal of Mika and Shinji, respectively, are nuanced and compelling. Relative newcomer Ishibashi thoroughly and completely channels Mika’s resolute independence. It is a particular pleasure to see the hardworking Ikematsu, who can be seen in numerous Japanese films playing cool customer and problem solver archetypes, here embodying Shinji’s fragile psyche.

For those who have fallen under the spell of a particular magic created by Asian films telling the story of loners drawn together – Last Life In The Universe, On The Castaways On The Moon come instantly to mind – not to mention the stylized portrayal of Tokyo found in Lost In Translation, THE TOKYO NIGHT SKY IS ALWAYS THE DENSEST SHADE OF BLUE is essential viewing.

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THE TOKYO NIGHT SKY IS ALWAYS THE DENSEST SHADE OF BLUE is being shown as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at The Japan Society on Friday, July 14 at 8:30 pm. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Intro: JAPAN CUTS 2017

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The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade of Blue/夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ

Once again it is that part of the summer when the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Films is ready to commence. Truly a survey of the past year’s Japanese cultural product, the 10 day affair essentially covers it all, from under-the-radar indie productions to mainstream studio crowd pleasers. The gamut is run from low key interpersonal dramas (OVER THE FENCE) to archetypal historical anime (IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD), and includes on its menu documentaries tackling social issues (TOKYO IDOLS, A WHALE OF A TALE), suspense thrillers (SHIPPU RONDO), experimental works both new and old (HARUNEKO, ONCE UPON A DREAM), narrative dramatizations of intriguing figures of artistic and historical relevance (THE EXTREMIST’S OPERA, FOUJITA). The festival opens a unique window to homegrown film ‘happenings’ like the Nikkatsu Studio’s Roman Porno Reboot project, from which they have shown an entry by revered cinematic instigator Sion Sono, who throws all of himself into the project whilst creating a feverish subversion of its tenets (ANTI-PORNO). The inherently Japanese samurai drama is given inclusion with a twist; placed in the unusual position of opening night film (MUMON: THE LAND OF STEALTH) – as the festival welcomes its prolific and esteemed director Yoshihiro Nakamura, known for festival favorites (Fish Story; A Boy and His Samurai) who will introduce the film and participate in a Q & A. With no intention of letting up on its recent run of hosting iconic guests, the festival will also celebrate its eleventh year with the appearance of venerated actor Odagiri Jo along with the screening of two recent films he has starred in (OVER THE FENCE; FOUJITA). Asian film fans of a certain age calling New York their home may have seen the actor get his start and continue along his path toward success, with his breakthrough performance in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2002 film Bright Future getting a theater run at the East Village art house stalwart Cinema Village in our current millennium’s infancy.

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Over The Fence/オーバー・フェンス

Notable of its current curatorial team, this edition of Japan Cuts continues to emphasize inclusivity and a tackling of social issues, perhaps with a greater sense of urgency than ever. This is evident in its screening of powerful drama by first time director Takuro Nakamura, NORTH NORTH WEST, whose two protagonists, an Iranian expatriate facing visa problems and a native Japanese lesbian, give voice to groups that are particularly marginalized in Japanese mainstream society. This year also shows a marked interest in redefining the boundaries of national cultural identity, showing it to be anything but simple; and celebrating its complexities. Along with NORTH NORTH WEST’s diverse starring cast, its lead actresses both scheduled to appear at the screening, screenings include Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s latest horror film DAGUERROTYPE, which finds the director working for the first time with an all French-speaking cast and filming in France and Belgium. Then, there is SUMMER LIGHTS, directed by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot, working for the first time in Japan with an all Japanese cast, which tells a tale of a documentary filmmaker visiting Hiroshima to delve into its traumatic history.

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Anti-Porno/アンチポルノ

There is a noticeable favoring of more grounded, realistic works in this year’s lineup than that of fantasy or genre works. And don’t look to blame sister fest and perennial summer pal New York Asian Film Festival; it mirrors this tendency in their latest salvo. Perhaps it reflects both an internal movement among creative thinkers in Japan’s landscape, as well as a sense of responsibility among the fest’s programmers to educate as well as entertain.

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At The Terrace/テラスにて

Of the films in this year’s assortment that I’ve seen, an admittedly narrow slice of the pie, small scale, largely interpersonal dramas have by far fared the best. The film that I find myself wanting to scream from the hilltops for everyone to see is Yuya Ishii’s THE TOKYO NIGHT SKY IS ALWAYS THE DENSEST SHADE OF BLUE, a wondrous mix of offbeat romance and atmospheric rendering of life in Japan’s great metropolis, Tokyo. Those who have fallen under the spell of Asian films weaving tales of unconventional relationships between hopeless nonconformists – Last Life In The Universe, Castaway On The Moon – need not hesitate to grab a ticket. Other highlights include Kenji Yamauchi’s witty and acerbic attack on social codes in his adaptation of his own stage production AT THE TERACE and the Jo Odagiri-featuring OVER THE FENCE, which tells a quiet yet intensely brooding tale of personal redemption. As visually stunning as it is unnerving, the aforementioned ANTI-PORNO is a singular cinematic experience, and surely this opportunity to see it is a rare one. From the documentary side, TOKYO IDOLS is a well-balanced, insightful glimpse into a phenomenon growing increasingly familiar to those outside of Japan at a surface level, which is being regarded with grave seriousness in its birthplace. Meanwhile, films of a more dynamic nature like Yu Irie’s adaptation of South Korean thriller MEMOIRS OF MURDER and the buddy action of ALLEY CAT, essentially a vehicle for members of the popular rock band Dragon Ash, have interesting moments but fail to satisfy on all fronts.

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Tokyo Idols

There is much more to the festival, which begins July 13 and runs through July 23, all taking place at The Japan Society. For tickets and more information, visit the festival page here.