Photo: Japan Cuts
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Japan Cuts 2020 – Dispatch 1

July 21, 2020

Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films

I think it’s safe to say that Nobuhiko Obayashi no longer requires an introduction. For that we owe the Japan Cuts team a debt of gratitude. The Obayashi retrospective they programmed back in 2015, the first of its kind in the United States, planted a seed that has, over the intervening years, blossomed into an increasingly widespread appreciation of the director and his deep body of work. It is, thankfully, not the surprise that it once was to discover that the “House guy” is in fact an undisguised sentimentalist, that he’s a dedicated anti-war partisan, or that he belongs, fundamentally, to the future.

And so it feels perfectly natural, in 2020, the year of Obayashi’s death, for Japan Cuts to name an award in his honor, convene a global panel to celebrate his legacy, and dedicate a slot in their lineup to a documentary that chronicles his last days. Though that’s a somewhat misleading description of Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films (co-directed by Isshin Inudo and Eiki Takahashi), which takes as its primary subject the introduction of a different Obayashi: Kyoko, producer, collaborator, and lifelong partner of Nobuhiko. The couple met as college students in the neighborhood that gives the film its name, a Tokyo enclave known for its sylvan parks and its film industry inhabitants. Despite the cinematic surroundings, Kyoko believed she was marrying a man whose destiny belonged not to the movies, but to literature: young Nobuhiko had all the trappings of a budding, chronically unsuccessful novelist. Kyoko misjudged his prospects, clearly, but perhaps never gave up on his literary promise: Kyoko’s artistic contributions are myriad, from costume design to set decoration, but if Seijo Story locates Kyoko’s influence in any one place, it’s in the steady literary drift of Nobuhiko’s mid-period work. Exchange Students, the first film to bear a Kyoko producer credit, is also the film that inaugurates a key shift in Obayashi’s cinema, if not exactly away from the phantasmagoria of his experimental shorts and the delirium of House, then at least towards an integration of those tendencies with more classical narrative unities. As Nobuhiko himself relates, it was around this time that Kyoko told him—in good humor but with utmost seriousness—that he was no longer allowed to make cameos in his movies. Like a good novelist, he would have to express himself in character, time, and place; his work changed accordingly.

But, like any spouse of six decades, Kyoko permits the occasional indulgence, and Labyrinth of Cinema—the making of which Seijo Story documents as an exhausting, heroic battle against the twin forces of age and death — grants the director one last fantasia, and a valedictory walk-on role. In his final work, Obayashi bids farewell hunched over a piano, an image rich with auteurist valences — suggesting, for example, House’s infamous man-eating Steinway or the many soft-keyed scores that Obayashi composed for his own films — but which Seijo Story recasts as fundamentally personal. The couple revisits an old lecture hall where Nobuhiko once played Chopin preludes to woo the woman who was to become his wife; 60 years later, Obayashi’s frail, arthritic fingers are too crooked to hammer out more than a few desultory notes. No matter: with the help of a little movie polish, Obayashi can once again tickle the ivories with prodigious, boyish skill, and can bequeath to his partner a public monument — cast in their chosen medium — that testifies to their life’s work, and to their fleeting youth. Evan Morgan


Roar begins with a vertiginously disorienting prologue, as a manic handheld camera frantically searches a room before pushing into an extreme close-up of a frightened, tearful young face. The camera then quickly pivots to a first-person POV, and characters begin addressing it directly. Hurried whip pans become flashforwards, painting a dysfunctional family portrait and ending in what appears to be either an assault or murder. The camera mostly settles down after this auspicious beginning, as we follow Makoto (Ryo Anraku) and his parents, the characters glimpsed in the prologue. The violent perpetrator in the film’s opening scene is Makoto’s older brother, who is never seen, and his crime has shattered the familial unit. Soon, Makoto’s father has hung himself, and Makoto flees his mother, wandering the streets in a fugue state. Eventually he meets a silent vagrant, played by writer/director Ryo Katayama, and the two form a kind of odd, almost brotherly bond, as Makoto discovers that his new companion beats up strangers for money. The film also follows a radio talk show host, Hiromi (Mie Ota), who, despite having an affair with her boss, is also searching for a more profound relationship. 

Despite some initial interest, mostly thanks to the sheer oddity of its opening, Roar quickly becomes tedious. It’s all intentionally, annoyingly vague, and Katayama parcels out narrative information in either elliptical suggestions or not at all. Katayama cuts artlessly between the film’s parallel plots, alternating moments of generic ennui and brutal beatings with scenes of Hiromi going on dates with a new beau. Katayama also introduces a third storyline, a brief interlude involving a friend of Hiromi and her invalid father. Ultimately, these various threads intersect with artless obviousness. Katayama seems to be trying to make a point about societal violence and how it relates to both romantic and familial relationships, but it’s all so opaque as to be useless. By the time the film limps to its inconclusive ending, offensively equating a woman defending herself from sexual assault with Makoro’s simmering, impotent rage finally manifesting in a violent outburst, it’s become clear that Katayama has a lot of ideas but no sense of how to organize or explicate them in any meaningful way. Daniel Gorman

Special Actors

Shinichiro Ueda’s debut feature One Cut of the Dead was a sensation both in Japan and abroad when it came out a few years ago. A clever riff on the indie film production comedy that unfolded over three different layers of reality (a single-take zombie film, a film about the pre-production of that zombie film, and then a what happened during the production of that film), with each layer becoming progressively less convincing as a movie and more like real life, or rather, more like a movie version of real life. A similar ambivalence about the distinction between performance and reality animates Ueda’s follow-up Special Actors, which serves as the opening film of this year’s Japan Cuts. A young man named Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) wants to be an actor but inevitably faints whenever he finds himself under any kind of stress. His brother hooks him up with a group of actors that help solve real-world problems: they fill out audiences at movie theatres or funerals, laughing and crying as the situation demands; or they pretend to instigate fights to help guys look tough for their girlfriends. They get hired by a young woman to infiltrate a cult that are surely scammers, seemingly intent on taking over her sister’s inn. 

Various capers ensue, mildly amusing but never really all that interesting. The shy person + acting troupe conceit is reminiscent of an idea in Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, while the cult recalls Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, but the film lacks either of those movies’ boldness or willingness to really engage with its broken characters. Kazuto remains a blank slate: he doesn’t seem any more interested in the cause of his condition that we are. In a stab at whimsy, he’s obsessed with an old VHS tape of a tacky superhero movie (it looks just like an old Bill Nye “Speed Walker” skit from Almost Live, for those of you familiar with early 90s Seattle sketch comedy), which the film’s conclusion will inevitably see him reenacting in an instance of self-actualization through imitation. As in all good con artist movies, there’s one twist more than you expect, and as a result the movie is a little more interesting to think about afterwards than it is to watch. But even that twist mainly serves to remind one of other, better movies. Sean Gilman

Life: Untitled

The depiction of sex work in cinema usually does one of a couple things: bears down on the eroticizing, titillating aspects, indulges in moralistic hand-wringing, or employs some combination of the two. To its credit, Life: Untitled, Kana Yamada‘s debut feature, adapted from her own stage play, manages to avoid both of those stylistic paths by focusing much more on character examinations and their psychological states as they navigate their feelings about the sort of work they’ve chosen. Yamada also balances out this specificity by encompassing more universal themes: she vividly, and often painfully, makes study of a toxic work environment and the resultant toll, an affliction by no means limited solely to that of the world’s proverbial oldest profession. The setting is mostly a small apartment that serves as the operating base of an escort service, where customers call in for their sex deliveries and most of what the audience sees is filtered through the perspective of Kano (Sairi Ito), an employee of the agency who doesn’t perform sex work, but is instead a staff worker, taking customer calls and doing other administrative tasks. 

Life: Untitled’s arresting opening shows Kano’s unsuccessful attempt at escort work, grossed out by her very first customer, fleeing into the street wearing only a bra on top, and addressing to the camera her feelings of self-loathing: “If you ask me, my life ain’t worth shit.” The film’s remaining characters comprise five other women working as escorts, as well as the male employees, including a cruel boss and one of the service’s drivers, both of whom are sleeping with the escort workers. Most of the scenes take place in the apartment, filmed statically in a manner that makes this piece’s theatrical origins all too apparent. Worse, Yamada’s go-to strategy for increasing dramatic tension is to turn up the volume on the actors’ line deliveries, making much of the film a grating, caucaphonous experience, an aesthetic miscalculation and bid toward histrionics that unfortunately drowns out whatever points Yamada is attempting to make about the experience of sex work and how its place within broader society. Christopher Bourne

The Murders of Oiso

Set in the small coastal town of Oiso, Takuya Misawa’s sophomore feature is a crisp, withholding tale of pent-up aggression and toxic masculine friendship. A small crew of young men in matching bomber jackets gamble, smoke, and drink together in a garage, nominally employed by a corrupt construction company. We’re introduced to shaggy-haired Eita (Shugo Nagashima), who is indebted in some way to the ringleader, Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), and whose girlfriend, Saki (Ena Koshino), is a source of tension for the group. Throughout the film, bodies are found and family secrets are revealed – though in Misawa’s controlled hand, what would otherwise be considered major plot points are greeted with impassive shrugs. Meanwhile, frequent shots of verdant gingko leaves, radiating sunshine, and breaking waves bear witness to everything that’s concealed from the audience. Characters frequently chat, but little in the way of actual communication seems to happen. The camera turns away the moment before a confession or immediately after a vital discovery, leaving the audience perpetually on edge. All films are interpretive exercises, but this one reads more like a trick question, with scenes assigned meaning that’s tantalizingly out of reach. 

There’s a sense that Misawa is enjoying the freedom of throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. In the course of 79 minutes, The Murders of Oiso employs several abrupt tonal shifts against a vaguely western musical score; a nonlinear narrative that occasionally dabbles in metafiction; and gentle shots of nature and innocuous small-town dross that heighten the encroaching dread. Happily, this experimentation also leads to a couple of standout shots, particularly the journey of an empty liquor bottle that rolls to a stop down a tunnel, eventually becoming the weapon in a seemingly random attack. Despite this cinematic flair, narrative questions linger, even as the film skips forward in time a few years. Kazuya, wearing a sharp pinstriped suit, again gives money to Eita and Saki, who are shown with an infant child. What has happened in the intervening years that these men are still in the same town, with old power dynamics still intact? If Misawa knows, he’s just as content to let us guess. Selina Lee