Thursday, 29 January 2015

New Directors From Japan (Third Window Films) DVD & Blu-ray Review


Do I really need to go on about how important and influential Japanese cinema has been over the years? I would like to think (apologies in advance if you're lazy and completely disregard subtitled films) that any true film fan reading this would know that. I could list and name drop many films, directors, actors, producers writers and various film technicians (you know, the folks who often get ignored), but this isn't a Film Theory exam that I didn't really revise for (been there, done that, got the degree) so I won't do that. I know this isn't much of an introduction, so I will just end by saying that the fine folks over at Third Window Films are without a doubt the best label in the UK when it comes to distributing cinema from East Asia. Wether it's a classic or contemporary effort, Third Window Films have got you covered. One of those releases from the latter half of last year was their New Directors from Japan Blu-ray and DVD limited to 1000 box set, which was a successful Kickstarter project. It does exactly what it says on the lovely cardboard sleeve slipcover and provides us with films from three of Japan's youngest and brightest stars. Those being Nagisa Isogai, Hirobumi Watanabe and Kosuke Takaya. Do these young directors live up to the hype? Do they shine like bright stars or are they merely dying embers? Let's find out! Ladies first!

Nagisa Isogai
磯谷 渚)

Nagisa Isogai was born in 1985 and graduated from the Film School of Tokyo. Whilst studying, she directed her first film, My Baby whilst studying. The film was presented as part of Nippon Visions in 2012. This was followed up with The Lust of Angels which made its UK premier at the Raindance Festival last year. Little is known (from my research) about the young filmmaker, but one thing is for certain, she's certainly having an effect on cinephiles here in the West.

My Baby
We kick things off with Isogai's first project, a 16 minute film shot on 16mm film. My Baby follows two sisters Hatsumi (Momoyo Fujji) and Chika (Aki Morita) who are both pregnant. Whilst climbing the steps of a temple,Hatsumi has a tragic accident. Cut to Chika's big day and it's clear that Hatsumi is still (understandably) affected mentally by her loss. She lashes out sees something amiss with the whole situation. Is it all in her head? Maybe she is correct in her suspicions? One thing is for certain, she will go to great lengths to and will do some questionable things to work it out.
What can I say about a 16 minute film without completely ruining the experience? I feel I may have said too much, but be under no illusions, this is not a straight forward tale. Now, first thing you will notice is that this being a student film, it's not a polished production. There are some wonderful technical aspects, but it is clear that this an amateur film. Now, I don't mean that in a malicious way at all. Being someone who has studied film and been involved practical aspects during studies, when put it in to context, this is a sensational effort. Taking a theme that has been done before and going in a unique direction. With some great twists and twins, this is a powerful drama that fits the 16 minutes perfectly without rushing or losing too much coherence. Overall, it's an effective short that will linger.
  The Lust of Angels

Isogai's latest effort deals with a social problem that the whole world knows exists. We here in the West know how weird and wonderful Japanese culture and traditions can be. We also know that there is a dark side. Wether it be extreme pornography or what happens within the film itself, groping and sexual assault on public transport. A group of schoolgirls set out to lure out the local perverts who use the train they use to get to and from school. Wether it's physically assaulting their molesters or requesting money to keep quiet, the girls are (quite rightfully) ruthless. Not only do they have to deal with gropers, there's also an all boy rape gang from the nearby boys school to deal with. That's not all the girls have to put up with however. Things get realised within the group and past traumas are relived. Things for the vigilante schoolgirls will never be the same again.

I was not expecting this film to play out like it did. The public transport gropers, although dealing with a serious issue and being an important aspect of the film act more along the lines of setting the scene and tone. The film focuses on the girls, their group and the gradual breakdown that occurs within the group. There were times when I was taken back to 1970's Pinky Violence type films. There is actually amount of violence, bloodshed and uncomfortable scenes of a sexual nature. I had visions of the likes of Meiko Kaji and Reiko Ike in my head as I was watching. Even the title has an exploitation flavour to it. That being said, this isn't a sleazy or exploitative piece of film. It's never over the top or too absurd. All in all, it's a very satisfying piece of filmmaking. It's not an enjoyable film by any means, due to the dark content of the film and the underlining themes throughout. At around 40 minutes, just like My Baby, the runtime is perfect for the content. I suppose you could argue that this would also work as a feature length film, with more of a focus on looking at the characters and their stories. An uneasy film that has the tone just right. Once again, some aspects aren't polished, but it's clear to see that Nagisa Isogai has a very promising future ahead of her.

  Hirobumi Watanabe
渡辺紘文)Hirobumi Watanabe initially studied Japanese Literature at university. His obsession for cinema started at an early age. After graduating university he decided to study at the Japan Institute of Moving Images. His tutor was was Daisuke Tengam, son of director Shobei Imamura. His graduation piece was A Light Pig of August, a short film about a man who works in a pig farm. The film won the grand prize at the Fuji Film Lovers Festival. After this he directed two drama shorts and his first feature film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away. He also founded the wonderfully named Foolish Piggies Films production company.
  And the Mud Ship Sails Away

In a nutshell, the film centres around a man who lives on the edge of society. He just 'exists/ and lives with his grandmother (the director's actual grandma). He spends the day lazing around the house and drinking. We see him spending time with his friends, complaining about how there's nothing where he lives. Out of work, he has a lot of free time. When he's not lazing around, he often likes to gamble. Not only that but he has an ex wife and small child he has no intentions of ever forging a relationship. He's a bum, plain and simple. He is unskilled and even less motivated to do anything or change the situation. His life changes when a young girls appears at his door. She is the love child of his late father. He didn't even know she existed. After becoming a part of his life and constantly berating him for not having a job, he seeks work... as a drug mule. This leads to a bizarre turn of events that he won't forget too soon.
Watanabe openly admits this is a film about 'nothingness'. It's a true slacker story. Some may be put off by the offbeat humour, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I like films that are simple in terms of plot. It's a very personal film. Watanabe based the script on his own ife and even has familt involved throughout production (his garandother is hilarious in this film). The only budget at his disposal came from his year long stint as a swimming pool repairman. Low budget and small crew aside, this is an extremely noble effort. Shot in black and white with a lo-fi feel to it thanks to the use of digital camera cinematography. The rough around the edges approach combined with the black and white really compliment the story, characters and themes throughout. There's nothing spectacular visually, just like our main character. Of course, it has to be mentioned that there are some extremely surrealist moments in this films (including aliens). The change in tone and pace may be a bit too much for some, but it works due to the fact that our protagonist is a drug mule and it could be argued that he's accidently getting high from being a drug mule. All in all, I found this to be a genuinely laugh out loud piece of film. It's simple with no pretentions. That being said, you are either going to love it or hate it. I hear there are a few scripts in the works and I am very excited to see what Watanabe has in store for us next. If you like films like Office Space or early works of Jim Jarmusch, this should be a treat.

髙谷監督)Our final director began venturing in to the world of film production whilst at university. He has a few small production, directing and writing credits to his name. Thanks to this, he has worked with many filmmakers in Tokyo. His entry in this set was part initially part of the New Directions fund set up by The Japanese Ministry of Culture. An initiative for filmmakers to produce films that would appeal to an international audience. Being a big follower and lover of fashion, Buy Bling, Get One Free focuses just on that!

Buy Bling, Get One Free

The final on the set follows a young man who takes his over the top fashion extremely seriously. So much so that his work is suffering and his girlfriend has left him to marry someone else. One day whilst he's enjoying a coffee with a couple of his friends, they get approached by a journalist and photographer who want to shoot them and ask questions for an article. Unfortunately, they're not interested in shooting our protagonist so he makes his way to another table. As he's dwelling on his life, an old man begins to take photos. At first, he finds the situation too weird, but quickly laps up the opportunity to pose. The next day whilst shopping, he is approached by man holding a magazine with his photo on the cover. Things take an even more surprising turn when he is asked to become the magazines house model. Seems things are looking up for the young fashionista... Until he is bundled in to the back of a van and taken to the magazine's headquarters. What starts out as a bizarre turn of events turns in to something a whole lot worse. He well and truly becomes a slave to fashion.
Out of the films, this to me was the least enjoyable. A much more accomplished piece (thanks partly to the fact that Takaya had an experienced crew surrounding him) with slicker cinematography and a much grander scope. I won't say it's a terrible short because that is far from the truth. I just didn't get blown away as much as the other films on show. Visually, this an impressive piece of film. It has a great premise to it which reminded me of films such as the adaptations of Brazil and 1984 and a good use of some tongue in cheek humour. There's a good message within regarding how we can sometimes get so wrapped up in fashion and the culture of celebrity. Overall, a film that shows much promise, would probably work better as a feature film and makes me look forward once to seeing what else we have in store from this clearly talented filmmaker. Be warned, there are some 'interesting' looks throughout which may make you gag!

Overall, this is a fine selection of work from three very talented directors who I hope I see more of. Every film is worth watching. In terms of special features, there are a wealth of interviews that give us insight in to the directors and the films. The set comes on a Blu-ray with two DVDs and is presented nicely with a slipcover. However, the release is limited to 1000 so get it while you can. Luckily there are copies still available. I think Third Window Films have done a stellar job with this release and I hope we get to see future releases in the series because like I said, I really enjoyed the films and I look forward to seeing what we get next from the directors who are showcased. If you are a cinephile, this is a wonderful release. From Kickstarter to reality, I am extremely happy for Third Window with what they have achieved and I must applaud them for getting work out there that not only benefits the directors involved, but also us the viewer. Buy it now and support real cinema! Arguably one 2014's best home releases.

The limited Blu-Ray and DVD set is still available from here.