by Jason Suzuki
In regards to his next film entitled The Woman in the Silver Plate Kiyoshi Kurosawa stated, “That film is based on an original idea, and in Japan, it’s become nearly impossible to raise the financing for a movie which is not adapted from a franchise or a manga and doesn’t have a micro budget.” Filmed in Paris, Kurosawa’s next film seems to be starting a trend for the director working outside of Japan. One of his recent films Seventh Code was an idol-starring vehicle for Atsuko Maeda, an irreverent cold-war spy thriller taking place in Vladivostok, Russia’s eastern port city situated on the Sea of Japan near the borders of China and North Korea. He goes on to say, “While we have more freedom as directors today, we’re also more limited in the kind of films we can do with smaller budgets. I can’t make a samurai film like Akira Kurosawa would do, so my movies are often about daily life in Tokyo.”
There are two commercial filmmakers working in Japan that I’d like to highlight. Both have oeuvres that continue developing/expanding on constant themes. And both have resisted the above mentioned pressure to adapt a pre-existing work (with one exception). Despite the cohesiveness of their work I hope to properly explore, it is their refusal to repeat themselves which has made them a hard sell outside of Japan. They are creating original works in both senses of the word: not an adaptation and feels like we have not seen it before. The two filmmakers are comedian superstar turned filmmaker Hitoshi Matsumoto and one of the few internationally recognized female directors from Japan, Naoko Ogigami.
Born in 1972, Naoko Ogigami studied film in the states in 1994; her feature length directorial debut would come out a decade later with Yoshino’s Barber Shop. The film is sort of a tranquil take on coming-of-age rebellion with shades of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but in Ogigami’s film the small town community’s unquestioned rituals include forcing all the young boys to sport the same bowl haircut. When a city boy moves into the town he begins to resist and question why his cool locks, complete with stylish blonde highlights, need to be made to look the same as every other boy’s. A group of boys eventually befriend the new kid thanks to his porn mag collection; they start to question their haircuts soon afterwards. In this group of boy’s is the film’s main character, the son of the woman who runs the barber shop. The film takes an interesting and non-judgmental stance in regards to conformity and rebellion as well as the fickle nature of what’s considered fashionable. With each film Ogigami continues to simultaneously be about individuals and the groups they belong to, exploring loneliness and the connections we naturally make, all while trying to never align with audience expectation.
A quick disclaimer: while researching Ogigami I was not able to find a copy of one of her six films: the high school set Love is 5, 7, 5! (Koi wa go-shichi-go!, 2005) about a girl who joins a haiku club. From the outset we have an Ogigami trope: a focus on characters with a very specific preoccupation or occupation as a starting point. While Yoshiko and her barber shop are not the character or setting given the most screen time, it is this woman and her place of business that is the center of the conflict of the narrative. From then on Ogigami’s films became more focused on these people and their day-to-day business with less worry about having a conflict to propel a plot.
From the Japanese diner located in Finland in Kamome Diner (Kamome shokudo, 2006) to the cat-loaning startup in Rent-A-Cat (Rentaneko, 2012), these businesses give her an ideal setting to explore the loneliness as well as the simple joys of day-to-day life without resorting to melodramatic developments. Her films, at least narratively, are tranquil. I make the distinction because Ogigami is not afraid of inserting one-off dream sequences or in what is one her greatest moments, an air-guitar performance complete with a stage, fog machine, and concert lights.
Her only adaptation is Kamome Diner, based on a novel by Yoko Mure but you wouldn’t think so given how perfectly it aligns with Ogigami’s feel for characters and situations. Satomi Kobayashi (who is also the lead in Ogigami’s picture a year later, Megane) plays Sachie, a woman from Japan who has decided to open up a diner in Helsinki, Finland. Her only business is from Tommi, a Japanese culture enthusiast. Along the way she meets two more Japanese tourists who eventually get brought on to help out at the diner which begins to attract more customers. The film feels perfectly measured and can be divided up by when the other two Japanese ladies Midori and later Masako enter the picture. The structure and balance of the film feels as if it was made by Sachie herself, who we are allowed to see the fine details of her preparing treats, meals, and coffee. Though she has stated that she will have a shot of a cat in every film of hers, there is another type of shot that reappears throughout her work: a character stopping for a moment and finding satisfaction in their situation. Even if it’s not where they planned to be or would make for a satisfying state of things to conclude with in most other films big or small. This ennui of daily life and small joys of getting by can be taken as the character problem that needs to be solved, the entrepreneur protagonist of Rent-a-Cat even fields questions about her lack of a love life. “Feeling lonely? Rent a cat,” she yells out the megaphone with her cart of kittens. Her own loneliness/grief of her grandmother’s passing is present, yet it’s the act of helping others through her business where she can take her mind off herself. Ogigami portrays realistic and understated fantasy worlds in which her characters can easily become part of a slowly changing present.
Ogigami’s other venture outside of Japan was Canada with the film Toilet (2010) which she filmed in English and, with the exception of Ogigami mainstay Masako Motai, a Canadian cast. The focus in this film is a family who are so estranged from one another that they still resemble the collection of strangers who would go on to form groups in films Megane and Kamome Diner. Three siblings in their twenties, in the wake of their mother’s death, are forced to live in the same household through circumstance. They share the house not only with each other, but all of their mother’s belongings and their grandmother, a Japanese woman who speaks no English (Motai). Ogigami’s deadpan humor translates very well into English; the three siblings call their grandmother “botchin” which is hilarious every time for those who know what “grandmother” is in Japanese. What is most surprising about this work is that despite being entirely in English, sporting a cast that has been on shows like Degrassi and Orphan Black, and being made in North America, there is no official release of the film on this side of the shore. This being a perfect entry point into her work is now moot. Thankfully exposure or lack thereof won’t stop her from continuing to make films. Having children is another story though.
Not only is Ogigami a filmmaker with a strong vision, she is dedicated to the world of independent film and remaining independent herself. In an interview with Time Out Tokyo she compares filming in North America to filming in Japan: Perhaps because of the economic problems, and the fact that the unions have become too strong, there are a lot of films that are called ‘low-budget’ that aren’t really low budget at all. In Japan you can easily make a low-budget film in the tens of millions of yen bracket [less than a million dollars], but in America it’s not like that, it could be 500 million yen [around six million dollars] or even a billion yen [around 12 million dollars]. But I think that kind of film can’t be called ‘low-budget’ anymore.
To Ogigami she does not see the same limits Kurosawa does with smaller budgets as far as the types of films one can do. Like him she realizes the greater freedom as opposed to studio work but seeks no more. Instead of trying to make films that seem like they have bigger budgets than they do, she realizes she doesn’t have to follow rules and actively attempts to subvert expectations. Her objective has been to avoid pigeonholing (which is what I have been attempting to do). In this way Hitoshi Matsumoto is a kindred spirit, using his immense fame and power to create works of subversion with bigger budgets and in a studio system.
With Matsumoto the problem is not about finding an audience outside of Japan as two of his four films have received distribution in the states (theatrical even!), the problem is with his films not being able to move away from the “Good ‘Ole Weird Japan” stereotype in order to be taken seriously rather than just exercises in strangeness without meaning. The other problem is the presentation of his films, providing little of the necessary context to Matsumoto aside from that he is the “Jerry Lewis of Japan.”
It can be argued that the two films of his that have not been picked for foreign distribution are the ones that test the audience a bit more than his other works, or at least the audience hoping for a consistent zaniness that can be chalked up to cultural divisions. In each of his films the themes take a greater importance than being weird just to be weird. These themes are still being filtered through Matsumoto’s sense of humor and his previous TV work but are not made apparent enough; a cult following won’t consider deeper meanings but still regard the films as of the ilk of other wacky-Japanese imports to be laughed at instead of with. Basic plot outlines to his films sound like they could be comedy sketches just as well as they are feature films. The medium of film gives the ideas at play more time to be developed, thus separating itself from the topical, the superficially bizarre, or the lowest common-denominator ad nauseam. And with each passing film Matsumoto shows more confidence with the medium and since Big Man Japan the argument that it’s just a stretched out sketch gets harder to use. These three film post-Big Man Japan are the ones I wish to look at as two of them have not received distribution in the states and the other one has been met with undeserved underwhelming reaction.
The majority of his films deal with entertainment and performance. Known as the bokke half of comedy duo Downtown, the dim-witted masochist who takes most of the abuse, Matsumoto’s characters are ones that endure continuous anguish usually of the physical kind. An obvious comparison to be made is to another comedian-turned filmmaker, Takeshi Kitano. But even Kitano had been appearing in the films of other filmmakers before he landed his first gig as director. Besides Kitano, other comparisons would be to Akira Kurosawa and David Lynch, who started as painters and then went into filmmaking. Their expertise with another craft not only lends itself to a great visual eye but also more refreshing films overall. What’s missing is the proper consideration for Matsumoto which Kitano has received. His films are much more personal than they might seem on initial viewings: Symbol looks at the role of the individual in the grand scheme of the world, Scabbard Samurai reflects on the role of the performer, and R100 reflects on the role of the filmmaker. All three Matsumoto has experienced.
Here’s the premise of Matsumoto’s sophomore feature Symbol: a man (Matsumoto in his last starring role in one of his films to date) sporting kiddie pajamas and a bowl haircut wakes up in a white room with no doors but with walls that go on seemingly forever to some sort of an infinity ceiling. Suddenly he is swarmed by cherubs that emerge from the walls. They melt back into the walls except for their penises, which stick out forming tiny buttons covering the walls and part of the floor. We cut back and forth between that room and Mexico, where a luchador prepares for a fight, his family concerned at how strange he gets before a match. Back with Matsumoto we watch elaborate gags get executed as he tries to figure the room out, experimenting with the different penises, ranging anywhere from materializing toothbrushes, banzai plants, and sushi but no soy sauce. With each cherub penis press it’s what we exert to the world, resulting in what crazy shit the world throws back at us, mostly tortuous. We try to escape to a stage in life when what we do in our bubble of existence has effects around the world, unknown to us as to what we are causing. We’ll do this until that big, and final, penis press. It’s a grand and abstract conveyance of what it’s like to exist and one of those rare films which doesn’t seem to have any obvious points of reference in the art world. The post-modern use of pastiche is certainly in with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and the current film discussion culture can be boiled down to “this film is this other previous film meets this other previous film” so it’s refreshing that Symbol brings to mind nothing else in film but rather those escape the room video games where you solve obtuse puzzles combing objects found in the room you have awoken in without reason. This film will most likely be the one considered his masterpiece once more time has passed. That or the “Pie Hell” challenge after he lost a bet to his other half Hamada-san.
Matsumoto’s third film, also probably the most unique in his filmography so far, is Scabbard Samurai (2011) about samurai Kanjuro who has a bounty placed upon him after he abandoned his post. He is on the run with his nine-year-old daughter encountering a trio of absurd bounty hunters but once he is captured he is given thirty days to make the son of the local feudal lord laugh or else he must commit seppuku. The young lord is in a deep and long lasting period of grief since the death of his mother by the way. Again, a high concept that sounds like it could just as easily been a sketch but Matsumoto is looking to do something different than even his previous two films. The absence of a sword bears evolving meanings as the film goes on but what is most apparent in this reading of the film is the parallel between a samurai without a sword and a comedian without an audience willing to meet halfway. Even though everyone else begins to like and root for Kanjuro, the focus still remains on the one not laughing.
This is Matsumoto’s most personal film yet as it equates the plight of a comedian to get laughs to a matter of life and death and depicts the tunnel vision to a non-laughing audience member as the cause. Without hopefully reaching too far, it is the character of Tae, the daughter of Kanjuro who tries to help her dad come up with new bits to make the young lord laugh and save his life, who has a real life inspiration in Matsumoto’s own daughter who was born during the time Symbol was released. The empathy shown for the children of entertainers who must watch their parents do weird things in order to make people laugh. This empathy is something even seen in Matsumoto’s TV work, except in that case it ends with a Thai-kick to the ass. In the case of the film, a Thai-kick to the heart. The last few minutes of the film take a sudden dramatic turn and continue on to a conclusion that will leave you tearing up. What Matsumoto has done here is make a film that is deeply touching and emotionally satisfying. Something that no one would have guessed after Big Man Japan and Symbol.
R100 is his most ambitious work yet and one that directly deals with filmmaking. Compared to his previous two films it’s proven an easier sell thanks to the inclusion of S&M themes (don’t get me wrong, Drafthouse Films, I love you for bringing this over). Yet again not many want to look beneath the leather straps. In her review for the New York Times Manhola Dargis seems in dire need of context to the film as the majority of her review is spent on an ill-fitting comparison to Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and an odd fixation on Ai Tominaga’s good looks. But it’s her final statement that’s the most telling of her superficial assessment of the film, “Mr. Matsumoto, as if realizing that viewers might need to wake up, stuffs a ball gag in a child’s mouth and throws in some reflexive nonsense involving an old director and some critics who seem to be watching the same movie you are. They think it’s terrible and finally it’s hard to disagree.” She accuses Matsumoto of too much indulgence with the gross-out sadist humor but doesn’t realize that all that “reflexive nonsense” is really the heart of the film, a film which is about indulgence and not merely a salaryman’s fantasy. Once it’s revealed that the story of a man taking care of his son while his wife is in a coma and has signed a year-long binding contract with an S&M club is really the film-within-the-film, the actual story is about self-indulgence of another variety, that of the filmmaker. R100 goes from the quiet, simply shot family melodramas popular in Japan’s golden age of film to documentary to an energetic spy thriller in the course of the plot created by the 100 year old director. That might be just your average Japanese zaniness were it not decisions supported by the film’s story. If the director is 100 years old he probably lived through all those fads in filmmaking and thus would incorporate as many as he could in his grand statement that only those the same age of him would be able to understand, hence the title of the film. This is indicative of many elements of Matsumoto: on the surface grand gestures of weirdness to be taken for broad novelty but actually a subtle touch.
Going back to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s statements, maybe it’s a good thing that those historical epics won’t be able to be done on the same level as Akira Kurosawa’s. The majority of those are of the highest quality since they not only told exhaustively researched stories set in the past, but in equal measure were commenting on the times in which Kurosawa was making them. It’s not like the jidai-geki is off limits and can’t be done well as seen by Scabbard Samurai. And just as Ogigami has journeyed abroad on multiple occasions it is exciting to think about what Kiyoshi Kurosawa will be doing in France. In order to reach that unknown godhead of pure cinema, we should recognize the filmmakers that resist the adaptation and continually chip away until they produce works uniquely cinematic.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.