Last week I experienced Raindance Film Festival, now in its 25th year, for the first time. Raindance Film Festival is the largest independent film festival in the UK and it certainly feels like I spent most of last week watching some fantastic films. As this is a Japan blog, I had to focus predominantly on the impressive Japanese film line up. Three Japanese films were in competition but I also made time to watch The Constitution, the Croatian film that scooped several awards on the night.
So, here’s my round-up of the films I caught at Raindance this year. I certainly hope they all get wider UK screenings or a DVD release and am looking forward to the 2018 line-up!
The Constitution (dir. Rajko Grlic)
Croatian independent film The Consitution scooped Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Performance and it’s little surprise why. Vjekoslav (Nebojsa Glogovac) is a professor and son of a bed-bound prominent fascist officer whom he cares for. At night, he dresses in his deceased mother’s clothes and becomes Katarina. After he is viciously attacked by a group of neo-Nazis, his Serbian neighbour volunteers to nurse him and his father in return for help her police officer husband, Ante (Dejan Aćimović), to learn the Croatian constitution off by heart so he can pass an exam. Their political views and worlds collide as the two men struggle to get along. The Constitution deals with some very serious issues that are very relevant to the present day; xenophobia, homophobia and national identity. It is beautifully and sensitively told and very funny in places. Definitely a worthy Raindance winner.
Oh Lucy! (dir. Atsuko Hirayanagi)
One of my personal favourites from Raindance this year. Middle-aged singleton Setsuko is seemingly stuck in her boring Tokyo life until she reluctantly enrols for English lessons and falls in love with her teacher John (Josh Hartnett). What I expected to be a straight-forward romcom ends up being much more surprising, complex and serious. You can read my full review here.
Mukoku (dir. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)
Mukoku made its UK debut at Raindance and was in competition for both Best Film and Best Director. Kengo Yatabe (Go Ayano) is a talented kendo master but after leaving his severely strict father comatose following a combat session, has turned to drink and lost his will to live. When his former kendo master (Akira Emoto) comes across Toru (Nijiro Murakami), a troubled teenager rapper, he sees an opportunity to both rekindle Kengo’s spirit and help Toru. Mukoku wasn’t quite the straightforward story of redemption I was expecting it to be but also deals with themes such as role models, fatherhood and masculinity. The choreography of the kendo combat scenes are particularly impressive. You wouldn’t believe it from watching but Nijiro Murakami was the only cast member to have knowledge of kendo before filming started, although everyone appears to be an expert on screen. Go Ayano is a standout actor and plays the role of troubled young man perfectly, and is equally convincing and engrossing when drunk on screen (pitiful rather than comical). Martial arts fans will particularly enjoy Mukoku.
Perfect Revolution (dir. Jumpei Matsumoto)
I was intrigued by the plot of Perfect Revolution, which is based in the true-life story of wheelchair-bound Kumashiro (Lily Franky), a sex activist for the disabled. At a book-signing event, he is confronted by a woman half his age, Ryoko (Nana Seino), a prostitute with a personality disorder who insists on becoming his girlfriend. Despite their challenges, Ryoko is convinced the two of them can start a perfect revolution – challenging society’s expectations of people with disabilities by dating, having sex, having fun and having children together. Lily Franky’s acting is superb and his portrayal of someone with cerebral palsy is both incredibly convincing and handled sensitively, but more importantly demonstrates that Kumashiro is not defined by his condition. While Perfect Revolution is certainly funny in places and a joy to watch, it raises some important questions about how Japanese society as a whole views people with disabilities.
Love and Other Cults (dir. Eiji Uchida)
Love and Other Cults also had its UK premiere at Raindance and we know for a fact this one will be getting a UK DVD release, courtesy of Third Window Films. Based on the true story of Ai (Sairi Ito), a troubled young woman who struggles to find her place in life after being released for a religious cult, Love and Other Cults is a riotous watch that ticks all the boxes . She meets Ryota (Kenta Suga) at high school, who quickly falls for her and watches her flit from place to place and family to family as she searches for somewhere to call home. Whether she’s ‘the legendary slut’, ‘Ananda’ or just Ai, or however she dresses or dyes her hair, Ai outwardly remains cool and confident but is in fact lonely. Ryota, meanwhile, is drawn into a young motorbike gang with sinister links to the yakuza and an eclectic mix of bawdy teenagers. Love and Other Cults is in-your-face, hilarious but also tender in places. Thanks to Third Window Films, you won’t have to wait too long to watch it if you missed it at Raindance!
Boys for Sale (dir. Itako)
Boys for Sale made its UK premiere and was the biggest surprise for me at Raindance. This documentary explores the world of Shinjuku’s urisen bars, which attract male patrons of all ages and backgrounds with the promise of straight young men (‘boys’) available for sex. Much like host or hostess bars, patrons pick their ‘type’ from the line-up of boys behind the bar and, if they hit it off, sleep together. Boys for Sale is an informative and honest look into this lesser-known part of Tokyo’s sex scene, accompanied with frank cartoons demonstrating what their work entails. The documentary is comprised of interviews with the boys, who range from 19 to 30 years old, talking about their experiences and why they work as boys. It’s a harrowing watch in some places, as it very much feels they have been groomed for the role and often roped into the job without their manager even explaining that sex is expected and how they should practice safe sex. The most shocking moment for me was when one of the youngest boys asks ‘guys can get STDs too?’ – a sure sign that sex education massively needs improving in Japan. Boys for Sale raises a lot of questions about what is clearly an unregulated industry that is largely brushed under the carpet by Japanese society and government. I’d like to talk more about Boys for Sale at a later date, so watch this space.
Noise (dir. Yusaku Matsumoto)
Noise had its European premiere and was also in the running for Best Film at Raindance this year. An unblinking and unapologetic portrayal of Tokyo in all its neon glory, Noise follows three separate stories of different teenagers trying to survive. Misa (Kokori Shinozaki) is still reeling from the death of her mother, a victim of the Akihabara massacre, and trying to find solace in her work as both an idol and an employee at a questionable masseuse parlour. Rie (Urara Anju) is troubled by her absent mother and detests her father, who begins to attend Misa’s idol gigs in the hopes of understanding his daughter better. Ken works part time at a delivery company and has hopes of studying at university, but his mother’s staggering debts to loan sharks threaten to bring out a much darker side to his personality and send him down the road to murder. Noise‘s digs beneath the surface of Tokyo’s flashy lights and takes a look at the real life struggles of the people living there; from drugs to violence to loneliness. Fans of Ryu Murakami’s In The Miso Soup will particularly enjoy this film.
Ghostroads – A Japanese Rock n Roll Ghost Story (dir. Ken Nishikawa and others)
Judging from how packed the screening for the world premiere of Ghostroads – A Japanese Rock n Roll Ghost Story was, its title alone clearly drew the crowds. Ghostroads was an entertaining mix of retro, rock n’ roll and dark comedy, and felt very much like a passion project by four directors who clearly loved their music. Tony (Manabe Takashi) is the lead guitarist of retro rock band ‘The Screaming’ Telstars’ who is struggling to make it big and beat his rival, a superior guitarist who stole his girlfriend. When Tony’s amplifier burns out the night before a big gig, he makes a last-minute purchase for a new one but finds it to be possessed by the ghost of an American Blues musician called Peanut Butter (Darrel Harris). Tony’s talent skyrockets overnight but fame will come at a cost! Ghostroads screams old-school-cheese and has a distinct Little Shop of Horrors vibe to it, which I fully appreciated. It’s an easy watch, very silly in places and has a great soundtrack to boot. I sincerely hope Ghostroads gets some more UK screenings for Halloween…
Swaying Mariko (dir. Koji Segawa)
Mariko (Chise Ushio), a seemingly normal housewife, suspects her husband Tomoharu (Keita Yamashina) is having an affair. Along with her creepy boss and boring colleagues, her life is becoming increasingly stifling and boring. What first begins as muttered curses develops into violent fantasies about murdering her husband, suddenly exploding into a fit of mania. Swaying Mariko takes a look at the often stifled life of the Japanese housewife and the loneliness and sexual frustration in modern society. While Mariko isn’t necessarily the most likeable character and you may not be rooting for her to succeed in her revenge, she is a darkly comic character who draws you in. I’m generally a fan of the “revenge on the adulterer” sub-genre, if it exists, and Swaying Mariko was an entertaining and unexpected watch. It ramps up in the last twenty minutes or so but the slow build up is worth the wait.