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The Light Shines Only There

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    Ugetsu

    I don’t get to see a lot of contemporary Japanese cinema as so little gets released these days in Europe. There is an annual Japanese film festival here in Ireland which shows a fairly random selection of some commercial and independent films. In previous years I’ve not been particularly impressed by the films I’ve seen, especially the mainstream studio productions. After searching through a few reviews there was only one that seemed interesting to me – The Light Shines Only There, which is quite a low budget independent film, but was picked as Japan’s entry for the Academy Awards last year.

    By a coincidence, the film is very similar to the last Korean film I’ve seen at a festival here (I like to catch any Korean cinema I can), A Girl at My Door – both are by young female directors, both are dramas set in remote, decaying coastal towns, both feature an element of sexual perversity (incest, child abuse) underlying what seem fairly normal lives. I did think the Korean film was slightly superior – which seems consistent in that I think Korean cinema seems to be far better than Japanese cinema the past couple of decades.

    The Japanese film is both interesting and enjoyable, but like quite a few critics, I find it both surprising and depressing that it was considered a candidate for the Academy Awards – implicitly suggesting it was one of the best Japanese films of that year. Its quite good, I enjoyed watching it, but beyond saying that the director is talented and worth following, there is nothing particularly special about it – well made and interesting, but with nothing particularly award-worthy about it.

    The film follows the lives of a few lost and drifting young people in a coastal town in Hokkaido with few jobs available unless you are favoured by one of the corrupt local businessmen. It starts with Tatsuo, a young man doing little more than drinking in his dank apartment, apparently suffering post traumatic stress disorder after accidentally killing a friend in a quarry where he was foreman. An annoyingly cheerful young man, Tajuki, attaches himself to him – Tatsuo tolerates this when he realises Tajuki has an attractive sister, Chinatsu, who works in a local bar/brothel, and is carrying on an affair with a local businessman, seemingly to help her brother find a job. Inevitably, they start to fall in love, but neither seem able to shake themselves out of the torpor that surrounds them and the town. There is what seems a pretty gratuitous sub-plot involving incestuous links between Chinatsu and her bedridden father, and it all develops into a low key but quite touching ending.

    Its very hard not to watch a film like this (and other recent Japanese live action films) and contrast them to the brilliance of the most recent Studio Ghibli outputs, and wonder how it is that the country that gave us so many incredible films now only seems able to create great animation. With the exception I think of Hirokazu Koreeda there don’t appear to be any directors at the moment in live action film in Japan of any real international stature, and certainly not who can live up to the qualities of previous generations. I know this isn’t a recent phenomena – Richie was writing about this decline certainly as far back as the 1980’s. But since then we’ve seen (to take one example), Korea making outstanding films, both critical and commercial hits, while Japan only seems capable of making great animated films.

    I’m not really sure there is much more that I can add to this rambling post – I’m aware of course that there are lots of films made annually in Japan and I only get to see a small sample of them. But reading the English language Japanese media, there does seem to be a constant sense of despair among the reviewers at how few quality films there are these days. This years submission seems to have been chosen simply because there was nothing from the studios considered worthy of international release. And with a small number of exceptions, independent producers aren’t much better. And now with Studio Ghibli on hold, it may be that we won’t even have the best of animation to look forward to either. I can only assume the reason is related to a mix of commercial realities, the failure of the government to support non-commercial cinema, and a system which is failing to encourage talent. I just wish someone would work out what is wrong and do something about it.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: With the exception I think of Hirokazu Koreeda there don’t appear to be any directors at the moment in live action film in Japan of any real international stature

    I absolutely share your pain about the status of contemporary Japanese cinema, but when it comes to directors with international stature, I would think that at least Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa would qualify. Although unlike Koreeda, they are all known for more commercial films.

    Which makes me wonder though, where are the new Coppolas, Scorseses and Spielbergs of contemporary Hollywood? Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t think that I can really name all that many (any?) young filmmakers whose works excite me to the point where I would actually be following their careers. I feel like the last real surge of new talent was back in the early 90s, and somehow after people like Soderbergh, Egoyan, Hartley, Tarantino and their generation, a new generation with a new voice hasn’t really risen.

    Maybe it’s partly the endless sequels that we are getting these days, partly the challenges that the film industry is facing, and partly the rise of television as a visual storytelling medium. In my view it’s not really a problem confined to Japanese cinema.

    Thanks, by the way, for the review!

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I absolutely share your pain about the status of contemporary Japanese cinema, but when it comes to directors with international stature, I would think that at least Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa would qualify. Although unlike Koreeda, they are all known for more commercial films.

    Hm, yes, I don’t know how I forgot those three! I guess i tend to think of Kitano as being of an older generation (although of course he is still making good films). Miike is such a one-off, its hard to know what to make of him. I loved Audition and 13 Assassins, but find the other films of his I’ve seen to vary from baffling to awful – but to be fair, he churns out so many its hard to keep up. I suppose at worst you can say he’s never boring. I’ve only seen one Kiyoshi Kurosawa film (Tokyo Sonata) and that was another film which got very good reviews, but I thought was mediocre at best.

    Which makes me wonder though, where are the new Coppolas, Scorseses and Spielbergs of contemporary Hollywood?

    Thats a very good point. David Fincher is usually worth following, although I’m inclined to think sometimes that he is all technique (but brilliant technique) and not much else – I found the praise given to Gone Girl to be baffling (I enjoyed it, but to me its just a stylish B-movie). The Coens of course have been going for a long time now, but as far as i’m concerned they are bona fide geniuses, if anything they are underrated. Alexander Payne is good of course, but seems to be making the same film over and over again. Richard Lindlaker is great too. None of the ones I’ve mentioned of course are all that young. J.C Chandor is one young director though – I really liked ‘All is Lost‘.

    I think the very best film makers in Hollywood now are not actually American. When I think of films from the US that I really want to see on the basis of a directors name, I think of Steve McQueen, Alfonso Cuaron, Andrew Dominik and Guillermo del Toro.

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    Shintsurezuregusa

    I have to agree with you Ugetsu about the quality of Japanese films of late. The films that do best in Japan domestically are usually adaptations of manga starring non-actor talents and idols, or family films about animals. My wife regards the Japanese films that often get international release and win awards at Cannes etc. as “B-grade” movies compared to the “A-grade” movies starring one of the members of a pop group. If that’s B-grade, give me B-grade.

    I also agree with you regarding Kore’eda, Miike, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kore’eda is brilliant. Miike is hit and miss, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa does not appeal to me – Tokyo Sonata really annoyed me.

    Some of the Japanese “new” directors that I like include directors like Shunji Iwai (although he is hit and miss, also) Shinji Aoyama, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, and Junji Sakamoto.

    Do you visit http://www.midnighteye.com? They have very good reviews/analysis of new and classic Japanese cinema.

    I think that South Korea is definitely producing a lot of better films (by which I mean, films that will have wider international appeal) than Japan is now. Hong Kong films aren’t so good, possibly because they need to meet CCP standards.

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    Ugetsu

    Shintsurezuregusa

    Do you visit http://www.midnighteye.com? They have very good reviews/analysis of new and classic Japanese cinema.

    Thanks for reminding me – I used to look at it, but I haven’t looked in a while, I’d forgotten how interesting and informative it is.

    I think that South Korea is definitely producing a lot of better films (by which I mean, films that will have wider international appeal) than Japan is now. Hong Kong films aren’t so good, possibly because they need to meet CCP standards.

    It seems to me that South Korean cinema had a flood of money in the 1990’s which led to a lot of film makers getting a chance to make films they wanted. I think a few years back there was a bit of a crash as they were simply flooding the market with too many films, but it seems to have stabilised a bit now. They certainly seem more canny when it comes to making films with international appeal. I suppose South Korea has the advantage of being a generally more outgoing and cosmopolitan culture in that sense. My understanding about HK cinema is that it was simply killed off by piracy – it became impossible to make a profit on the domestic market, and Mainland China was less than keen on helping out.

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