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Category: Japan (Page 2 of 7)

Now Tsukiji, Now You Don’t

Photographs by Bahag de Guzman
Words by Erin Emocling

“Now Tsukiji, Now You Don’t” is an accidental photo-series that explores a closed-for-the-day Tsukiji Fish Market: a visually saturnine preview of its scheduled relocation in preparation for the Olympics in Tokyo on 2020.

You’re standing in the middle of this alleyway, living in the present, and you enter the vast and moving world of Tsukiji—a world-famous fish market in the heart of Tokyo that pumps its own blood every waking dawn, an almost 80-year old marketplace that gave sashimi and sushi their tasteful, incomparable meaning to the rest of the world, and, sadly, an old place that is bound to be deconstructed within a number of months from now.

You’re in a time travel machine, you peek into the near future, and you enter the vast and deadened world of Tsukiji. You imagine an ocean without creatures, a land denuded of trees, and a planet devoid of oxygen. You imagine these tragic scenes and you feel your heart crumble with melancholy, fear, and abandonment.

This is Tsukiji like never before: dark, lifeless, and cold. You step onto its moist pavement and, immediately, you feel like you’re on a set of an apocalyptic film, except what you see—and what you don’t see—is real. You are aware that everything that used to run the place into a breathing mishmash of reality will soon completely vanish. You know that someday, everything in Tsukiji will turn into nothing.

You walk to and fro. You see no one, no movement, but the flicker of unwanted fish scales scattered on the cobblestones and the natural light that illuminates its emptiness all the more. You examine the place more closely.

Too closely. But the only sounds you hear are the mechanical howls of machinery noise and the occasional taunts of thieving crows. The fishmongers’ irrashaimase are nothing but imaginary echoes. Inside the deadened Tsukiji, everything, or nothing, is right in front of you.

The sought-after edible sea creatures will remain uncut and unserved. Wooden crates and plastic foam boxes will remain unstacked, untouched. Rust-laden machines, including filthy but useful wheel-barrows, will be forgotten, unused, decomposed. Its shallow streets will become sadder. All the Japanese characters on the signboards will be ignored and fade away. All the tables and weighing scales will be tossed aside. And all the blood-drenched floors and tools will dry to death. But to those who have Tsukiji as their world, committing these into memories is the only way to immortalize what’s going to be left behind.

Life would not be put to a halt. But some things can never be replaced. They just dwell as reminiscences. Tsukiji was once a place that breathed life. And so tomorrow, when you look back, you’ll always say that: Tsukiji will never be the same again.

Bahag de Guzman is both a filmmaker and a photographer based in Tokyo and Hokuriku. His most recent works include Alienistics Fashion, Mainichi Japan, and Animalistics, to name a few. He is currently working on various documentaries and event coverage around Japan. Check out his site.

Erin Emocling is a published writer, a film photographer, and the editor-in-chief of an international webzine, Parallel Planets. Her past projects include Whilst We Wait and Paranoirexia. Originally from Manila, she now lives in western Tokyo. Now Tsukiji, Now You Don’t originally appeared here.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito & His Legacy

“He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands.”

  –journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946.

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one’s manufactured political persuasions.

Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost Click To Tweet

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan - Herbert BixThe American historian, Herbert Bix’s biography of Japan’s most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito’s grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan’s total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito’s self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan’s cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor’s burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII’s total destruction, it’s easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument– they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia– beginning in China, and spreading to Britain’s and France’s holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States’ colony in the Philippines– was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals’ advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can’t be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame– better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor’s name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn’t he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo’s firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none. Click To Tweet
The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they’d had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan’s surrender. But the emperor needn’t have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito’s war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix’s immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a “bad” man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from.

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan’s far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist’s. Japan’s far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don’t think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan’s reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Horse shagging and Jodorowsky: a report from Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Sharing acronyms can be a real shitter, especially when you’re forever relegated to second place. A month after Toronto International Film Festival wraps up its annual media frenzy, Tokyo wheels out its own TIFF – an event that, but for its accreditation by the FIAPF, might as well not exist to the wider world. You’ll find no Oscar buzz here: even local directors tend to save their best efforts for Cannes, Venice, et al., and though the winner of the US$50,000 Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix occasionally goes on to greater things (as with the international success of French comedy Untouchable in 2011), the accolade doesn’t seem to have much bearing on a film’s fortunes.

This was the first TIFF since the departure of long-standing chairman Tom Yoda, though the most glaring absence was that of Toyota, whose prominent five-year sponsorship of the festival had included a special eco-themed section. Natural TIFF was out this year, though that wasn’t the only shake-up in the programming: the unwieldy Winds of Asia Middle-East has given way to a more streamlined section, Asian Future, limited to directors producing their debut or sophomore features. It’s encouraging to see TIFF make a concerted effort to support emerging talent; perhaps more importantly, this is a corner of the market where it might conceivably be able to wield some clout.

Sayonara Yoda, Hello Asian Future

Asian Future turned out to supply some of the highlights of this year’s festival, not least Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s The Tale of Iya. (Confession: despite watching a fair few flicks, I managed to miss the winners of both this section and the main competition – Yang Huilong’s Today and Tomorrow and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, respectively.) Set in the wilds of Tokushima, this ambitiously conceived eco-parable follows the exploits of a mute mountain man (butoh dancer Min Tanaka) and his adopted daughter (Rina Takeda), as the outside world threatens to encroach on their natural idyll. Big, bold and shaggy, it’s part Naked Island humanism, part magical-realist fable, and though it sprawls for nearly three hours, it held my attention throughout. The 29-year-old Tsuta also takes producer, screenplay and editor credits – on this evidence, he’s one to watch in the future.

The rules for entry at TIFF aren’t as stringent as for more high-profile festivals, meaning that some of the films in this year’s competition had already been doing the rounds before arriving in Tokyo. Richard Ayoade’s The Double and Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years both screened at Toronto, while Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies originally premiered at South by Southwest back in March. All were genuinely enjoyable. The Double transports Dostoevsky’s novella into a retro-futurist nightmare redolent of Alphaville and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and though it gets a little overwhelmed by its own eccentricities, it suggests that Ayoade is blossoming into an assured filmmaker. Luchetti’s autobiographical comedy-drama casts a loving eye over his ‘70s upbringing and the troubled relationship between his parents; warm, funny and sexy, it also boasts a commanding turn by Micaela Ramazzotti, as a mother torn between devotion to her narcissistic artist husband and an increasing desire for independence.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in "Drinking Buddies"

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in “Drinking Buddies”

I spent much of Drinking Buddies admiring the way that writer-director Swanberg’s dialogue preserved the awkward, overlapping rhythms of authentic speech, only to discover that it wasn’t his dialogue at all: he gives his actors pointers and then gets them to improvise the rest. Even if you consider this a cheat, Drinking Buddies is as refreshing a romcom as you could ask for, bolstered by warm, believable performances from Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as the titular twosome. Filmed at Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, it also serves as a surprisingly effective advert for craft beer, though anyone attempting to turn the viewing experience into a Withnail & I drinking game would probably end up in hospital.

Of the local contenders, I was far more taken with Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’été than Hideo Sakaki’s Disregarded People. The former is a slow-moving but ultimately beguiling seishun eiga, where even the moments of high drama feel deliberately underplayed. Treading lightly around some weighty themes – one of the characters is a refugee from Fukushima; another runs an illicit love hotel – it’s a film that’s content to leave a lingering glow rather than a deeper impression (and yes, rising star Fumi Nikaido is a more than welcome presence). Sakaki’s film, by contrast, is an unremitting bummer: a two-hour manga adaptation that resembles the most nihilistic Roman porno in its grim view of humanity and its lovingly shot rape scenes.

Horse shagging and Jodorowsky: a report from Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Other competition films went to even greater extremes: set in rural Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men crams so much incident into its 81-minute running time, including sex (both equine and human), death and disembowelment, that it feels like The Archers with better scenery. I wasn’t hugely taken by it, though Erlingsson’s Best Director award felt well earned for the skillful way in which he manages a 300-strong cast of horses. The eponymous Red Family in Lee Ju-hyoung’s debut feature – this year’s Audience Award winner – is actually a quartet of North Korean agents living undercover in a suburb of Seoul, who grow attached to their feckless, capitalistic next-door neighbours. Notable mainly for being written and produced by notorious provocateur Kim Ki-duk, this deeply wonky pic never manages to find a good balance between its comedic and thriller elements, alternating between clumsy satire, sentimentality and some unnecessarily graphic violence on the way to a bizarre and genuinely unexpected climax that I found weirdly cathartic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Behnam Behzadi’s Breaking the Rules, an intelligently crafted drama that initially struck me as rather slight, but ended up lingering with me for days afterwards. This tale of a group of students attempting to take their theatre production overseas has plenty to say about the generational divides in modern Iranian society, and Behzadi’s preference for long takes and meticulously directed group scenes gives his cast ample opportunity to shine. In a competition section that was heavy on sex and sensationalism, it was nice to see this walk away with the second-place Special Jury Prize.

As is so often the case at TIFF, some of the best films were screening outside of competition. Already a big hit in Hong Kong, Dante Lam’s Unbeatable is an implausibly entertaining MMA drama, generous in its sentiment but genuinely thrilling in its action sequences. Emma Dante’s A Street in Palermo takes a simple conceit – two cars come head to head in a narrow street, and both drivers refuse to move – and turns it into a wicked satire of Italian society and gender politics, with sterling performances by Elena Cotta and the director herself. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever figure what the hell was happening in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman – a po-faced, Michael Haneke-esque home invasion drama with macabre fairytale elements – it’s a fascinating curio.

Alejandro Jodorowsky in "Jodorowsky's Dune" (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Ironically, the most convincing case for the importance of imagination and ambition in cinema came from a film about a film that never even got made. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a wickedly entertaining account of how the lysergic movie messiah responsible for The Holy Mountain almost got handed the reins of a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic. Director Frank Pavich makes the sensible choice of letting Jodorowsky do most of the talking himself, and the 84-year-old rises to the occasion, recalling with infectious glee how he courted Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles to play key roles, or subjected his son to two years’ worth of intensive martial arts training in order to portray the lead character, Paul Atreides. “I was raping Frank Herbert,” he says, grinning wildly, “but with love.”


Click here for brief reviews of all of these films, plus many others featured in this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.


James Hadfield writes about music, film and other stuff. You can find him at @JamesHadfield

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Ashkan Khatabi and Amir Jafari in “Bending the Rules”

And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Hirobumi Watanabe)

And the Mud Ship Sails Away has the nonchalant, half-assed feel of one of those Downtown sketches that start out funny and then refuse to end. The opening title – “Inertia” – pretty much sums up this meandering, no-budget hymn to the tedium of life in rural Tochigi, hinging around the exploits of an unrepentant bum called Takashi (played by the manically charismatic Kiyohiko Shibukawa). Living with his superannuated grandmother, Takashi spends his days idling in front of the TV or heading to the local bowling alley and pachinko parlor, occasionally stopping off to collect unemployment benefits that get swiftly snatched away as alimony by his ex wife. The arrival of a young girl claiming to be his half-sister doesn’t upset the balance of his life – if anything, he seems more bothered by the well-heeled former schoolmate who’s now running in a local election. But, pfft, this isn’t the kind of thing you’d watch for the story: until a bewildering final quarter that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away is content to be a mundane, nothing-happens comedy in the vein of early Jim Jarmusch.

Au revoir l’été (Koji Fukada)

After flunking her university entrance exams, Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) joins her translator aunt on a trip to the Shonan coast, and proceeds to do what any self-respecting teen would do in the circumstances: mooch around, hit the beach and study as little as possible for her impending re-sits. When her aunt is reunited with an old flame, Sakuko quickly takes an interest in the man’s nephew, Takashi, who’s later revealed to be a refugee from Fukushima. But wait: if this has the markings of a damp-eyed coming-of-age drama, it really isn’t. Koji Fukada’s contribution to the seishun eiga genre opts for naturalism over melodrama, and if you’re willing to give yourself over to its softly-softly approach and meandering, sometimes inconsequential dialogue (confession: I found the first half-hour tough going), it’s quite a charmer. Recently seen in Sion Sono’s riotous Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Nikaido is an equally radiant lead here, even if the material doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. There are some weighty themes lurking just beneath the surface: not only the ongoing Fukushima situation, but also prostitution, infertility and adultery, though none of them are overly dwelt on, and even the potential big scenes feel deliberately underplayed. It’s a slight pleasure, leaving a lingering glow rather than a deeper, more lasting impression.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

A Prayer For Rain

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (Ravi Kumar)

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, a gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed more than 10,000 people. In depicting the worst industrial disaster of all time, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain manages at least not to trivialize the tragedy. Heavy on the archetypes but relatively light on the melodrama, it’s elevated from TV movie-of-the-week level mainly by the quality of its production values. Ravi Kumar’s film is clearly designed for an international audience, which means shoehorning Indian history into pre-dinner banter, introducing a fictitious and wholly superfluous foreign journalist to the story (Mischa Barton), and getting Martin Sheen to channel a little of the old West Wing magic as CEO Warren Anderson. But in its determination to take an even-handed approach, the film ends up saying very little.

Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam)

Part Haneke-esque home invasion drama, part macabre modern-day fairy tale, Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is a splendidly nasty headfuck. Turfed out of his underground lair by a shotgun-toting priest, the scrawny, hirsute protagonist (Jan Bijvoet) goes in search of a new hideout. His attempts to ingratiate himself at the luxurious home of TV producer Richard (Jeroen Perceval) ends with him getting a sound hiding, though Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity on the stranger, allowing him inside for a bath and something to eat. But there’s something odd about this drifter, whether it’s the way he manages to slip through the house unnoticed, the pair of dogs that follow him around, or his increasing hold over Marina and her children, especially the youngest daughter, Isolde. The supernatural elements at play in Borgman are just one complicating factor in a film that keeps its secrets closely guarded. While the rakish interloper and his associates work with a meticulous, sick logic, their intentions remain opaque even once the credits roll. Borgman is content to bewilder, but it’s quite a ride.

With its working class setting, all-enveloping nihilism and lovingly filmed sex scenes, Disregarded People feels like a throwback to the golden age of Roman porno. The anti-hero of Woman with Red Hair was a charmer compared to Yusuke Mamiana, a middle-age lowlife who returns to the scene of a troubled childhood in the Goto Islands. “I’m a survivor, like a cockroach,” he tells the virtuous Kyoko – great body, shame about the enormous birthmark on her face – after her bicycle collides with him. She’s the only person who’s smiled at him since his arrival, so he rewards her by raping her, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Kyoko admits that she found inspiration in the endlessly forgiving heroine of Crime & Punishment, but try as I might, I couldn’t find any such depths in Disregarded People. It seems to wallow in, even celebrate, the inadequacies of its protagonist, whose only redemption comes through the revelation that the people around him are nearly as bad as he is. Nao Omori gives it his all as Yusuke, leering at butts and slouching as if he was bearing the world’s consternation on his sloped shoulders. But why should we care? Even Kyoko’s eventual moral corruption, depicted in an extended coda, doesn’t reveal much, in that her character was never believable in the first place. And Yusuke? His problem lies in the asset that he considers his most valuable: at the end of the day, he’s just a dick.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

The Double

The Double (Richard Ayoade)

There’s a lot going on in The Double, maybe too much. Richard Ayoade’s loose adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella locates the action in a drab, dark retro-future of indeterminate nationality (though it looks most like London). The director has mentioned AlphavilleEraserhead and Kafka’s The Trial as influences, a list to which I’d add BrazilBarton Fink and Jam (whose Chris Morris makes one of a number of distracting cameos). Our hero, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, playing to type), is a smart but socially inept office worker at a data processing firm presided over by a faintly ominous patriarch known as The Colonel. While his colleagues can’t remember his name and even the office lifts seem to be working against him, he attempts to derive small pleasures where he can, not least by creepily spying on neighbour Hana (Mia Wasikowska) with a telescope. But his life gets upended when his office employs a man who appears to be his mirror image, right down to his name, James Simon (Esienberg again, playing very much against type). Where the original is bumbling and awkward, this interloper is gregarious, confident and unashamedly lazy, getting his lookalike to do all the work while he fools around with the manager’s daughter (Yasmin Page). There’s enough here to sustain a stylish existential thriller, and The Double kept me guessing. But it feels overburdened by its eccentricities: the quirky setting starts off charming and later becomes merely distracting. I wonder if this might have been stronger – and more sinister – if Ayoade had ditched the quirk and located the action in a more grounded reality: one whose mundanity felt tangible, rather than like an affectation.

Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)

Vivacious, flirty and with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for craft beer, Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the kind of person your girlfriend probably hates. She’s maybe a little too close to Luke (Jake Johnson), the bearded charmer who works with her at a hip Chicago microbrewery, though when they go on a double date to a lakeside cabin, it’s their respective others who end up taking things too far. Drinking Buddies isn’t the first film to ask whether “just friends” can really stay that way, especially when you want to retain canoodling privileges, but it’s seldom been done this well. Writer-director Joe Swanberg has a good feel for relationships: his characters are fickle, uncertain of what they really want. But his canniest ploy is getting the cast to improvise the dialogue themselves: the conversations overlap and trail off in the way that real people talk, rather than the constantly wisecracking characters that populate most indie rom-coms. Wilde and Johnson deliver impressive performances as the will-they-won’t-they pair at the centre of the action, though I also enjoyed Anna Kendrick’s sweet, ever-so-slightly dorky turn as Luke’s other half.

Forma (Ayumi Sakamoto)

There’s an easy crack waiting to be made about Ayumi Sakamoto’s Forma, a film where form is exactly what’s lacking. There’s probably a taut 90-minute psychological drama hiding within the blubber of this needlessly drawn-out flick, in which even the big reveal takes nearly half an hour. Sakamoto worked on a number of Shinya Tsukamoto films, though the director’s preference for brevity clearly hasn’t rubbed off. Ayako (Nagisa Umeno), a single office worker living with her father, has a chance encounter with former schoolmate Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka), who’s managed to snag an eligible fiancé despite working as security at a construction site. When Ayako offers her a job at the same company, Yukari takes it, though it soon becomes clear that her old friend’s intentions may not be altogether charitable. Forma derives much of its power from implication: key moments are played out off-camera, motivations left unclear, while the non-chronological structure allows it to withhold key information in a way that makes its effects on the characters feel all the more disquieting. But the pacing is too languid for it to sustain tension across its 145-minute running time; all those long-distance shots sap the momentum even before we get to the film’s big, exhausting set-piece. There’s plenty here to suggest that Sakamoto might be a name to watch, but for her next film I’d suggest drafting in a stringent editor.

Jîn (Reha Erdem)

It opens with rugged mountain vistas, intercut with close-ups of insects and animals at play, and then… BOOM. Gunfire and explosions strafe the forest, aimed at 17-year-old Jîn (Deniz Hasgüler) and her Kurdish separatist comrades. Reha Erdem’s film, one of two screening at TIFF this year, offers two hours of sweeping landscapes and Thomas Hardy-grade strife, as our eponymous heroine attempts to survive in a world populated by men who seem only interested in either raping her or blowing her up. Very little is explained here: when she descends from the craggy peaks and attempts to leave the area, it’s never entirely clear if Jîn’s cover story about visiting a sick grandmother is really true. In Erdem’s conception, the Turkish troops who threaten the heroine’s existence take on the same elemental quality as any other force of nature; partly because of budget constraints, the army helicopters and planes are heard rather than seen, with the gunshots and explosions seeming to come out of nowhere.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)

The most inspiring argument for the importance of ambition and inspiration in moviemaking at this year’s TIFF came from a film about a film that you’ll never actually be able to watch. In retrospect, it seems bizarre to consider that Alejandro Jodorowsky might ever have been handed the reins of a big-budget sci-fi picutre; back in the mid-’70s, pre-Star Wars and with memories of his lysergic masterpiece The Holy Mountain still fresh, it probably seemed even stranger. But the Chilean celluloid messiah wasn’t just approaching studios with a hazy concept: he had the whole thing mapped out in detail, with storyboards by Moebius, artwork by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, music by Magma and Pink Floyd, and a cast including Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. Frank Pavich’s sublimely enjoyable documentary makes the sensible decision to let Jodorowsky himself do most of the talking, and the 84-year-old is on hilarious form. His description of the games he played with Dalí in order to get the artist on board – the surrealist agreed to take part if it made him the most lavishly paid film star of all time (oh, and he wanted a burning giraffe) – is just one brilliant anecdote in a film that’s full of them. Storyboard animations recreate some of the intended sequences from the film, while its would-be director and many of the other key players recount the years that they spent producing a staggeringly detailed treatment. (One can only hope that this document, packaged in a hefty coffee table book of which only a few copies now remain, is eventually made available to a wider readership.) Jodorowsky’s tale is one of almost messianic vision and extraordinary good luck – at least, that is, until he headed to Hollywood in an attempt to get a studio on board to finance the project. It’s a crying, if not entirely surprising, shame that this film never got made, yet Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is utterly infectious.

Love is the Perfect Crime (Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu)

Mathieu Amalric – short, nervy, bulgy-eyed Mathieu Amalric – is irresistible to women. Teaching creative writing at an Alpine university, Marc has pert young students lining up for a taste of the action, though unfortunately one of them has the temerity to die post-coitus. When the girl’s distraught stepmother (Maïwenn) turns up at campus, he attempts to seduce her – while at the same time trying to resist the advances of a persistent student, fob off the detective investigating the case, and stop his department head copping off with his sister, Marianne (this being a sibling relationship that, let’s say, goes places it probably shouldn’t). Love is the Perfect Crime draws inevitable, and not especially flattering, comparisons to Hitchcock and the more noirish Coen brothers films. Amalric is an immensely watchable actor, though I just couldn’t believe that he’d be an industrial-grade chick magnet, and his character here is resolutely unsympathetic to boot. The plot’s twists are mostly pedestrian (particularly a final reveal that you’ll probably see coming way in advance), and it’s only intermittently tense. On the plus side, Amalric’s isn’t the only engaging performance here: Karin Viard is on particularly fine form as his incestuous sibling.

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson)

This blackly comic ensemble piece crams more incident into its 81 minutes than I would ever have expected from an arthouse film set in rural Iceland. The barren countryside provides the setting for a series of interwoven tales of accidental death, horse shooting, local rivalries and simmering middle-aged passions. It’s like The Archers with better scenery. The film is amusing in places and frequently attractive to look at, and the 300-strong cast of horses is impressively marshaled. Would that we were given time to care about any of the humans involved. Director Benedikt Erlingsson is working in the Short Cuts mould, but at less than half that film’s running time, it’s hard for any of the stories in Of Horses and Men to gain much traction. Scenes that might have marked the emotional high point of another film are tossed off every 10 minutes or so, and by the time one of the characters disembowels his steed to take shelter inside it during a snowstorm, I was pretty much past caring. The closest the film comes to finding a running thread is in the relationship between the prim, kind-of-handsome Kolbeinn (Ingvar E Sigurdsson) and his neighbour Sólveig (Charlotte Bøving), which is complicated somewhat when her stallion forces its affections on his prized mare. There’s pleasure to be had in watching how this one-sided romance gets resolved, with its implication that human relationships aren’t really any more complicated – or tidier – than between horses.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

“Patema Inverted” (© Yasuhiro YOSHIURA/Sakasama Film Committee 2013)

Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)

Up is down and down is up for the protagonists of Patema Inverted, a plucky fantasy that should provide a brief pick-me-up for anyone mourning Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. After an experiment to extract energy from gravity goes horribly wrong, much of the planet is sucked into the sky, while the earthbound survivors huddle together in a comforting authoritarian state where people go to school and work on oh-so-allegorical conveyor belts. But there’s a whole different world lurking just beneath the surface – one where physics has been flipped on its head. When Patema ventures to the surface, everything is upended: ceilings become floors, and the sky is a terrifying, gaping void, waiting to carry her off. Fortunately, she immediately runs into Age, a sympathetic youngster who discovers that this inverted, gravity-defying girl comes in handy as a human air balloon. But can our topsy-turvy twosome conquer the forces aligned against them, chiefly the refusal of their respective worlds to acknowledge each others’ existence? Patema Inverted skips along at a brisk pace, and though there are plenty of rote anime elements (off-the-rack characters, generic production design, self-aware in-jokes at the expense of atmosphere), the ingenious concept and occasionally inspired visuals were enough to compensate. And while some modern anime feels incredibly jaded, this one keeps its sense of wonder throughout.

Red Family (Lee Ju-hyoung)

The eponymous Red Family – a quartet of North Korean agents living undercover in a suburb of Seoul – have been embedded for so long that their squabbling, feckless next-door neighbours have begun to resemble a paragon of domestic contentment. Other comedies have thrived in less likely scenarios, but this Kim Ki-duk-penned production never really gets off the ground. The opening minutes make it abundantly clear that Red Family won’t be a work of realism, but it’s too clumsy in its sloganeering to pass for satire, and too nasty to work as a knockabout farce. (Does a film this broad in its stereotypes really need to be so realistic in its violence?) It’s worth sticking around mainly for the finale, where – having resigned themselves to execution by their shadowy overseers – the agents role-play one of the domestic tiffs that they overheard between their neighbors earlier in the film. It’s a scene of such weirdness, and conducted at such a hysterical emotional pitch, that I found it genuinely cathartic. If only the rest of the movie had yielded even a glimmer of that originality.

Rigor Mortis (Juno Mak)

First-time director Juno Mak’s tribute to the Hong Kong vampire movies of old, Rigor Mortis is so desaturated that even the mortal characters have a deathly pallor. Haphazardly paced and sometimes downright confusing (a working knowledge of the genre might help, but then again maybe not), it works mainly on the strength of its visuals and some strong performances from a cast of predominantly veteran actors. Chin Siu-ho (playing himself, kinda), is a washed-up screen star who moves into what must be the least densely populated apartment block in the city – too bad that he’s picked the scene of a gory murder-suicide as his new abode. Before long, he’s had a pair of ghost vampires attempt to occupy his body, mid-suicide attempt – though it turns out that there’s a far wider range of spooky happenings taking place in the building. Mak (who also wrote the screenplay) prefers to explain via flashback, and sometimes not to explain at all, meaning that there are significant stretches of the film where – if you’re anything like me – you might find yourself wondering what on earth’s going on. The climactic showdown is undoubtedly impressive to watch, but I’d struggle to tell you what actually happened; ditto the twist ending. Veterans of the original Mr Vampire series appear – not just Chin, but also Antony Chan as a past-his-prime vampire hunter who struts around all day in a gown and underwear. But it’s Nina Paw who leaves the most lasting impression, bringing real depth and vulnerability to the role of a bereaved widow who goes to desperate lengths to bring her spouse back.

A Street in Palermo (Emma Dante)

Rosa (writer-director Emma Dante) and her girlfriend, Clara (Alba Rohrwacher), have been having a heated argument when they come nose to nose in a narrow street with a car driven by Samira (Elena Cotta), the mute, long-suffering mother-in-law of Saro and his extended family. When both women refuse to back down, the situation escalates to farcical extremes, as the street’s residents first implore the outsiders to move along, then start placing bets on which of the drivers will budge first. It’s too bad that the titular street in Palermo is clearly wide enough for two vehicles to pass, because otherwise this is a wickedly satirical window into Sicilian culture and the extents of human stubbornness. While the brutish Saro (Renato Malfatti) and his male cohorts assume they’re in control of the situation, it’s the women who end up taking the upper hand; there’s a brilliant little standoff at one point, where Rosa and Samira leave their vehicles to toss away the food that’s been brought out to them, then watch each other pee in the street. Dante films most of the proceedings in restless close-up shots that seem to cling to the action, supplying momentum even when the narrative sags halfway through. Stick with it, though: the closing shot is absolutely glorious.

The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta)

The publicity material for The Tale of Iya makes much of the fact that it was shot on 35mm, as if the medium was what made golden-age Japanese cinema so good. It’s a distraction (though I’ll say it: the visuals have a texture and richness that’s been far too absent in Japanese cinema since the indie crowd went digital). Director Tetsuichiro Tsuta may be a disciple of the masters, but he’s done more than just mimic their techniques here. This is a big, bold, shaggy picture, part Naked Island realism, part fantastical eco-parable. In the opening sequence, a lone mountain man stumbles upon a crashed car and its sole survivor, a baby girl. Flash forward and that girl is now an impossibly plucky high schooler who the locals compare to Princess Mononoke. Living together in an isolated mountain house, they go about their lives with steadfast devotion, doggedly hauling supplies and water up the slopes every day. Meanwhile, a group of predominantly foreign tree-huggers are waging a campaign against the construction of a mountain tunnel that they claim will disrupt the valley’s ecosystem (or something like that – this is by far the weakest segment of the film). And then there’s the idealistic Tokyoite with zero back story (Shima Onishi) who gets it into his head that mountain farming is cool. The Tale of Iya seems to change its mind a few times about what it wants to be, which only really becomes a problem during an extended, Tokyo-based coda that verges into science fiction territory.

There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of (Hisashi Saito)

To say that not much happens in There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of would be an understatement. Hisashi Saito’s film is a tender, well acted and beautifully lensed portrait of a married couple with lives even more mundane than mine is. Eri and Fumiya are a young, happily married couple whose lives together seem like a model of domestic harmony (he even gets up early to make breakfast) – and, though they don’t make a big deal about it, they aren’t about to let kids screw things up. While he gets up late and comes home even later from his unspecified salaryman job, she works at an arthouse cinema (which should give you an idea of where the flick expects to find its audience). I found it hard to dislike There’s Nothing…, because what it does, it does well. It’s just that there’s so little dramatic grit here; what could have been a pivotal scene comes too late, and then seems not to have left as deep an effect on our protagonists as you might think it would. In a recurring motif, Eri reads aloud from a storybook she’s borrowed from a colleague – something that initially seems like a symbol for the couple’s unborn child, though I later began to suspect it was just because it was more interesting than what’s happening onscreen.

Those Happy Years (Daniele Luchetti)

“Can we at least smash the car outside?” Guido’s sons ask as he turfs them out of his art studio so he can cavort with an attractive model. “Sure,” he replies, “here are some tools.” Daniele Luchetti’s autobiographical Those Happy Years draws on his experiences growing up in the 1970s, and the not-so-watchful eyes of a self-obsessed artist father and a mother increasingly exploring her own independence and sexuality. These two wouldn’t win any parenting awards, but they’re depicted with genuine affection, even when Guido is punching an art critic who savaged his lousy performance piece, or Serena is getting rather too intimate with a female friend at a feminist camp in France. The period detail is subtly done (the soundtrack only features a few songs from the period). It’s a warmly nostalgic work, funny and sexy, with a commanding performance by Micaela Ramazzotti.

Tinker Ticker (Kim Jung-hoon)

Tinker Ticker is a stylish executed low-budget thriller based around a conceit so implausible that I was longing for the whole thing to self-destruct. Life hasn’t been kind to Jung-gu since he blew up an abusive teacher while at high school, but he’s trying to get things back on track with a respectable university job, even if it means he has to sleep in his car every night. Oh, and he also makes bombs that he offers to people for free on the Internet. Eh? After running into a headstrong student with a surly pout worthy of a K-pop group, Jung-gu anonymously gifts the kid with one of his creations, so helping his latent sociopathy bloom. This begins a cat-and-mouse game between bomb maker and bomber – only with the former giving the latter his tools. It might somehow make sense if the script explained why Jung-gu behaved the way he does, but it’s awfully fuzzy on the psychology. Is this a budding bromance? Is he using a surrogate to enact his own violent urges? Without that key piece, Tinker Ticker is hobbled; worse, it just ends up seeming rather silly.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

“To Live and Die in Ordos” (© Inner Mongolia Blue Hometown Production Co., Ltd)

To Live and Die in Ordos (Ning Ying)

Genuinely virtuous characters present a challenge to filmmakers; if it’s a real-life character, you’re practically opening yourself up to charges of hagiography. To Live and Die in Ordos doesn’t quite manage to avoid that fate itself. Hao Wanzhong (Wang Jingchun), police chief in the resource-rich city of Ordos in Inner Monoglia, drops dead at the tender age of 41, leaving behind him an apparently unimpeachable legacy. When a po-faced, sceptical political journalist (Sun Liang) is assigned to write an article about him, he initially declines the job on the grounds that anything he produced would be ripped apart by China’s millions of netizens. But could it be that Hao was actually as unblemished as his reputation suggests? The journalist’s investigations are mixed with flashbacks to Hao’s life, sometimes jumping from one to the other in ways that are formally ingenious, though which never seem to imply that there’s a gap between the reality and people’s accounts of it. At the end of the day, Ordos doesn’t reveal much about its subject other than that he cared more about his work than his family and could be a bit bossy, and its wider critiques of society are muted at best. Fine performances and respectable production values make it an agreeable watch, but as the realisation dawned that it wasn’t inching towards any deeper insights, my attention waned.

Unbeatable (Dante Lam)

Friday night entertainment doesn’t come much finer than Unbeatable, Dante Lam’s pummeling, unapologetically ripe tale of buff men finding redemption through MMA. MM what? Don’t worry: it’s nothing that a couple of montage sequences can’t prepare you for, and they’ve got ringside TV commentators to explain tactics to the audience without being too blatant about it. Nick Cheung is Ching “Scumbag” Fai, the former boxing champ turned indebted ne’er-do-well, who ends up sharing an apartment in Macau with an emotionally troubled mother and her cute, precocious daughter. (To its credit, the film doesn’t sidestep the issue of mental illness, and this potentially tricky plot point is handled reasonably well.) Fai finds work at his friend’s gym, where – between conducting boxercise classes with dumpy middle-aged women – he ends up training Qi (Eddie Peng), the son of a disgraced businessman, who’s searching for meaning of his own in the ring. If this sounds over-familiar, there’s still pleasure in seeing tropes done well – and the story takes enough unexpected turns to hold the attention. Cheung’s considerable charm helps carry things, of course, though the depiction of him and his cohabitants fumbling their way towards something like contentment aren’t as cloying as they could be. Then again, it’s in the ring that the film really comes into its own: shot cleanly, without the shaky camerawork and flurry of edits that seem to pass for fight sequences in most Hollywood films, the MMA scenes are electrifying to watch. It helps that Lam’s cast clearly know their way around a fistfight and are in peak physical condition; as a friend commented, the 45-year-old Cheung’s rippling muscles are the most impressive visual effect he’s seen in a fair while.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (Mouly Surya)

This dreamy Indonesian drama isn’t as Carver-esque as the title might suggest. Set in the hermetic (though alarmingly loosely supervised) world of a special needs school, it follows the contrasting efforts of two female students to find love. While Diana (Karina Salim) pines for a fellow student, Fitri (Ayushita Nugraha) is courted by a deaf-mute punk who seduces her by pretending to be a ghost doctor. The musical number that opens the film suggests that it’s going to be a real original, and the remainder doesn’t quite live up to that promise, even if it’s peppered with arresting moments. Some of the best bits just hinge on a smart mise-en-scène, as when Diana listens to a radio drama while her roommates preen and pray around her. The loose, impressionistic structure means that it drags more than it should at this kind of running time, and the side plots can feel more like distractions, but there’s still plenty to like here.


Click here for our a rather more concise Tokyo International Film Festival 2013 report

James Hadfield writes about music, film and other stuff. You can find him at @JamesHadfield

Washoku Fusion

Washoku Fusion

Washoku Fusion

Tofu in Tokyo

Washoku Fusion

Traditional Japanese cuisine is based on rice, various manifestations of soybeans (miso, tofu, natto), vegetables and fish. This is one of the oldest and healthiest diets in the world, but no diet is an island. Every manner of cuisine has come in contact with local variations and ebbs and flows toward the popular tastes of the time. While a more traditional diet served the population of Japan for centuries, that diet is changing, for good or ill. The people of Okinawa have long supplemented pork in their daily diet, alongside a healthy dose of Aomori, that strong island distillation, which has given them some of the longest lived people in the world. But wait, pork and liquor? Sounds like a recipe for cardiac arrest. True enough, if not taken in moderation and coupled with a sedentary lifestyle that the modern world has produced.

What about the proliferation of all things fried? The Japanese are no newcomers to the love of the deep-fry. Tempura has existed in Japan for hundreds of years and while they’re likely not frying hell out of twinkies and ice cream, they’ve taken a traditional icon of a foodstuff and given it a classy new look. But how new exactly are we talking?

Washoku Fusion

Agedashi Dofu (Fried Tofu)

Agedashi Dofu – Fried Tofu

Think tofu is boring? Agedashi Dofu – Fried Tofu – is a traditional Japanese way to serve hot tofu. Silken (kinugoshi) firm tofu, cut into cubes, is lightly dusted with cornstarch and then deep fried until golden brown. It is then served in a hot tentsuyu broth made of dashi, mirin, and shō-yu, and topped with finely chopped scallion, grated ginger and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). Included in the 1782 Japanese tofu cookbook, "Tofu Hyakuchin" it’s a well-known izakaya dish.

Washoku Fusion

Chāshū Pork Bowl

Chāshū Pork Bowl

Chāshū is a traditional barbeque pork dish from China known as Char siu, but like most great things Chinese, the Japanese culture has adapted char siu and in many ways, improved on it, by including it as an ingredient in rāmen. The variety seen here (slow-cooked pork belly) comes atop its own rice bowl with a special sweet-shoyu reduction and scallions. Add it to any noodle bowls makes soup more of a meal. But don’t forget the sake. A favorite is the high quality Hakutsuru Haiku Sake Infused with handpicked wild Salmonberries. Best served chilled.

Sakurajima Erupts - Kyushu Citizens Recite Poetry - Get Drunk - Life Goes On

Sakurajima Erupts – Kyushu Citizens Recite Poetry – Get Drunk – Life Goes On

Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sakurajima Erupts – Kyushu Citizens Recite Poetry – Get Drunk – Life Goes On

Sakurajima (aka Cherry Tree Island) is a very active stratovolcano located in Kinko Bay in Kagoshima, Kyushu, the farthest away from everywhere else in the southwestern most tip of Japan. Part of the Aira Caldera and once an actual island, Sakurajima is made up of three distinct volcanic peaks, only one of which is a surly bastard — Minami-dake — Southern Peak, how’s that for a menacing name. This Southern Peak is fuming semi-poisonous smoke and ash nearly non-stop, so it’s hard to take seriously unless something big happens. Like the peak’s lava flows from the very large 1914 eruption which connected Osumi Peninsula, thus erasing its chances for the big Most Dangerous Island contest put on by Unesco World Heritage Site Planning Committee 1915. After erupting for the 500th time in August 2013 the 1117-meter peak left the city of Kagoshima covered with volcanic ash, causing train delays, poor visibility, some awkward skyward glances, and not much else. So inured to the dreary quotidian reality of life in the shadow of a fire-breathing, lightning-spewing dragon mountain, the residents of Kagoshima, who were advised to use masks and umbrellas to protect themselves from the ash, didn’t feel at all put out or inconvenienced. Only slightly more dull than the area fireworks that happen sporadically throughout the year, the eruption sent a volcanic plume 5000 meters in the air, and many yawned behind their masks, shuffling along beneath cheap translucent 100 yen umbrellas, and searched out the local sake bar to see what the Mama had made for dinner.

A Self defense Force Submarine Surfaces in  Kinko Wan as the sun rises over Sakurajima, Kagoshima

A Self defense Force Submarine Surfaces in Kinko Wan as the sun rises over Sakurajima, Kagoshima

The Lost Interview - Junku Nishimura

Lost Interview Series – Photographer Junku Nishimura

The first time I saw the photography of Junku Nishimura I became transported to a different place, like a poor man’s Arthur Dent, though not so much gone on an actual trip as merely dumbstruck, mouth agape, thoughtless and wearing a frayed robe and suddenly wondering where my towel was. It is not as if I was perusing these 35mm film images on stark white walls at a local gallery printed large on 16 x 20′ Ilford Multigrade FB Warmtone Fiber Base Paper, no, I was looking at his flickr stream a few thousand miles away on a crappy laptop and sipping on a lukewarm mug of coffee, thinking how I wished things were different, that I wished I could wander around Junku’s old school Japan with him, hitting the pachinko parlor and the bathhouse, the strip joint and pull up a chair next to him at whatever local divebar he frequents and pound on the counter pouring out stories and fish tales over medium quality whisky and cannisters of film. Sufficiently drunk, we would then venture off to find some spicy kimchi ramen or hit the Karato Ichiba fish market in Shimonoseki for some baby blowfish tempura, anago nigiri, and ice cold Asahi. Not being there I have to imagine it through Junku’s masterful eye, so I project his vision onto what my brain thinks it knows about the reality of people and places that exists independently of myself, to which I have been only a handful of times. My hitchhiker’s guide spits out a series of gritty, vaseline-coated images from the early 70s, a fractured compendium of gangsters and bathhouses, bars and kimono-clad wenches, stray cats and random urban landscapes. The truth is not far off. He would be having hundreds of conversations with all of these people, the photographs coming naturally, not interfering with the human connection. Because to look at Junku’s photography, that is what one finds, humanity, in all its mundane frailty and strength, the perpetually imperfect moment perfectly captured.

Lost Interview Series – Photographer Junku Nishimura

HESO: Who are you and where are you from? Give us some background please.

Junku Nishimura: I was born in a small coal-mining town called Mine-City (Me-nay), Yamaguchi in 1967. I lived there until I graduated from a high school and then studied at a university in Kyoto. After working as a club DJ as well as a construction worker and dish washer for a couple of years, I was hired by a concrete material company and worked for 18 years (6 years in Sapporo, 12 years in Nagoya). During this period, I happened to get a Leica and started to devote myself in photography. Since retired, I am fully engaged in it.

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Junku: I was seven or eight when I first took a picture of a plastic model tank that I made with my parents’ camera. My mother helped me to get a sharp focus. I happened to find the camera in storage at home a few years ago. It was a Minolta HI-MATIC E. My first camera was like a cheap copy of Canon 110ED. I used it when I was a high school kid, but not really crazy about photography at that time.

HESO: Your photos have a very distinct look. Often very crisp and sharp yet there is a grainy feel as well. Are you a mathematical photographer or do you just shoot?

Junku: Thanks. Although my photographs might look completely intuitive and spontaneous, I consider myself quite conscious about exposure. As a user of a Leica M5, I have explored the best combinations of aperture and shutter speeds to create the contrast that I intend. Leica is not easy to handle in terms of exposure, but worth struggling for.

HESO: Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa. Or is it not important? Explain.

Junku: Regarding processing, I prefer analog. There is a very personal reason why I use films. I like the whole process of printing. When listening to my favorite music, soaking a paper in liquid in a little darkroom of my apartment, I feel the same tranquility as when I concentrate on fishing in the ocean. Both require sincere focus to get the “it“ moment. It is not easy, but truly rewarding.

Sound and smell bring back memories and inspire images. For me, music is my inspiration. Click To Tweet

HESO: You get up in the morning, pick up your camera, where are you going?

Junku: I usually go to the market. Fish market is always first.

HESO: Who are your favorite photographers?

Junku: Isao Yamaguchi and Katsumi Watanabe. Yamaguchi took pictures of coal mines in Kyushu. He was a coal miner himself. Watanabe captured vivid images of Shinjuku, selling food on the street. I am overwhelmed enormously by works of people who are deeply rooted in where they belong to. There are such photographers in Okinawa including Mao Ishikawa.

HESO: You mention that you are the “most funkiest funk-old school unknown-dj in the world.” Does music influence your photography? What are some of your favorite styles of music and musicians?

Junku: I might have been the “most funkiest DJ” (lol) when I used to steal the DJ booth at night clubs, but now I should be modest to say “once-the-funkiest.” Sound and smell bring back memories and inspire images. For me, music is my inspiration. Like many other Japanese, I think of an old downtown like Golden-gai of Shinjuku when I listen to 70’s to 80’s Japanese folk songs. When traveling overseas, I shot scenes inspired by folk music of the county, for example, Trot in Korea, Isaan in Thailand and Spanglish Hip-Hop in Spanish Harlem. Personally I love R&B and Hip-Hop from late 70’s to mid-80’s. I was working in my darkroom listening to DeBarge last night. On a side note, I read the Okino interview on HESO a while ago. Once when I was a DJ at a club and he was the manager, I let him stay with me in my cheap apartment. Kyoto, 23 years ago :).

HESO: Very cool. What do you do when you are not working?

Junku: I used to go fishing and camping when I owned a car. Recently, I am making mixtapes, reading, and studying Korean while I am not working. Other than that, just drinking.

HESO: What is your favorite food? If you could eat with anyone, alive or dead, in any time period in history, in any place, who, when and where?

Junku: I am not picky and enjoy anything, but rice is something special to maintain my strength. For the other question, I am thinking of a black woman’s small diner in the last scene of a Norman Jewison film In the Heat of the Night. In the middle of nowhere Deep South, around the season for cotton crops, with young Quincy Jones and Sidney Poitier, it would be nice to have hogshead cheese and Hoppin’ John that Mama Kariba cooked, with a cheap bottle of bourbon.

HESO: Junku, if you want to mention anything else about yourself, your work or a charitable cause you work with—anything—please do so here. Thank you for your time.

Junku: I will be based back in my home town from next year on and engaged in growing rice. If you feel tired from city life, come visit me at www.junkunishimura.com Yoroshiku desu


A small stone Buddha at Enmeiji Temple

Kubikiri Jizo – Decapitation Buddha – Enmeiji Shrine

Located in a nook just below Minami-Senju Station in little-traveled Arakawa, Tokyo is Enmeiji Temple. The temple, just down a sidestreet beneath the station, is located in the southeastern part of Tokyo’s northern ward of Arakawa, one of the poorest sections of the city. A few blocks to the east of the Sumida River in between which lay the disavowed neighborhood of Sanya, the home of Sanyukai–the largest free medical clinic in Tokyo. Being located in the northeast of Tokyo’s predecessor, Edo, a main cause of the modern-day poverty dates back to the fourteenth century when the Edo rulers believed that evil spirits came from the northeast, and as a result only those known as the Burakumin–executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers and tanners–those with kegare (穢れ or “defilement”) attached to them, were able to live there.

Kubikiri Jizo – Decapitation Buddha – Enmeiji Shrine

A small stone Buddha at Enmeiji Temple

A small stone Buddha at Enmeiji Temple

Recently popular as an underground tourist destination, due to its cheap hostels, Minami Senju was once more infamous for Kozukappara Execution Grounds, one of the three sites in Edo, where the Tokugawa Shogunate (1650-1873) executed criminals. Anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people were executed at Kozukappara for crimes ranging in seriousness dependent on the whims of the laws of the current shogun. Apocryphally, medical students and doctors studied anatomy here by dissecting the remains of fresh corpses. And although executions were stopped during the Meiji period to coincide with the westernization of Japan and the death knell of Bushido, traces of the past continue to slip through the veil of denial where today, the vast majority of the grounds, once the size of a football field, are covered by railway tracks: the new death sentence for the modern defiled.

That veil is Enmeiji Temple, which goes as far back as that of the the creation of Kozukappara itself. Created in order to bury the bodies of those executed, the temple is a small nook compared to what it once must have been. Watching over and offering solace to the departed souls of the executed, erected in 1741, a 3.5 meter tall Buddha statue called “Kubikiri Jizo” stands in the temple compound, smiling its Mona Lisa smile, surrounded by lesser Jizo and other Buddhist carvings and inscriptions.

Knowing that you stand on soil that has had the blood of 200,000 “criminals” soaked into it, standing in the entrance of Enmeiji a strange sentiment comes over you, if anything comes at all. Distracted by the wind whipping by and the interminable click-clacking of the trains, not much else ever happens here anymore. Just the silent stare of the stone Buddha and the sun and rain. But maybe that’s why it has a kind of beauty, admittedly desolate, but true nonetheless.

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