Attendees at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival have an opportunity to view a full retrospective of Shinji Somai, whose films have been almost unseen on these shores. EIFF director Chris Fujiwara speaks to us about this overlooked filmmaker
Even before the dust had settled on last year’s disappointing Edinburgh International Film Festival, critics of all stripes were weighing in to examine the wreckage. The lack of red carpet glamour, the temporary retirement of the Michael Powell award and a whole host of programming and management disasters too numerous to go into here were all offered as reasons for the festival’s dysfunction. In my eyes, however, the biggest hole in last year’s event was the absence of its beating heart: a meaty retrospective. This was one of the first things to be put right by EIFF’s new artistic director Chris Fujiwara, who will celebrate the career of Japanese filmmaker Shinji Somai in his inaugural programme with a full retrospective.
A prolific and popular director in his home country, making 13 films between 1980 and 2000 before his death in 2001, aged 53, Somai is almost unknown in the west, and many of the films being shown at EIFF will be UK and European premieres. “Somai is a director who made some very great films, who had a very definite style, and who was a truly individual talent,” Fujiwara tells me by phone from his office in the Scottish capital. “In Japan he’s very well known, and he’s regarded as an influence on some of the most important contemporary Japanese directors. He’s never been recognised as an auteur and yet he clearly is one – he’s somebody whose work needs to be discussed.”
When this retrospective was announced back in April my first thought was to seek out some of Somai’s work. This proved difficult, however. Log on to amazon.co.uk and search his name. Results are slim: three books on Japanese cinema and (curiously) a compendium of academic writing on Japanese pornography; turns out not everything is available online. To illustrate the insanity and inequality of the DVD market, try searching 'citizen kane' on the same tax-dodging online store. On the first page of results you’ll find at least a dozen versions of Orson Welles’ debut feature in a myriad of forms – vanilla DVDs, special editions, Blu-rays and as part of Welles box-sets. As far as the home entertainment providers are concerned, the public get what the public want, and that appears to be multiple formats of films we’ve already seen and most likely own.
The world of repertory cinema isn’t any more imaginative. For every ignored masterpiece that claws its way back onto the big screen, such as Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (re-released 1 Jun), there are a dozen re-releases like The Apartment (back in cinemas 15 Jun), movies so familiar from bank holiday re-watches you could perform them as a one man/woman show. (Okay, I take it back, I’m excited to see Wilder’s masterpiece on the big screen again too, but I wish it wasn’t at the expense of films more deserving of revival.) The retrospective slots at festivals like Edinburgh, therefore, provide platforms for lesser-spotted filmmakers whose works need a leg up if the general public are to have any chance of embracing them.
Fujiwara is very clear when it comes to what he believes a film retrospective should aspire to do, saying "[It] needs to situate a cinema of the past within a context where it becomes possible to talk about it and explore it in new ways in the present.” To put it another way, you don’t just show some older films for the sake of appealing to some kind of nostalgia. “You programme films that haven’t been understood yet. They have to still be waiting to be discovered by people and they have to speak to the cinema of today in some way.”
Somai certainly fits this bill. Of the three films of his that I’ve been able to track down (Typhoon Club (1985), Moving (1993) and his swansong Kaza-hana (2000)) there’s a sense of a filmmaker with a compassionate understanding of loneliness and alienation, a universal theme that certainly has the potential to connect with an audience beyond his homeland. Typhoon Club and Moving are particularly good at articulating the rage and frustration of adolescence and can easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with cinema’s most acute depictions of youth in revolt. Fujiwara suggests this quality comes from Somai's refreshing attitude towards his young characters. “He puts himself at the level of these kids and tries to get inside their heads and tries not to approach them with any preconceptions from an adult point-of-view,” explains Fujiwara. “That’s why these films are so honest to me, and also sometimes very brutal and surprising, because the kids don’t correspond to the constraints of what kids are supposed to be like in movies, where they are generally seen from the point-of-view of the adults or some stereotype of how teenagers are supposed to be.”
Bringing all this teen turmoil and pent-up frustration together is Somai’s distinctive narrative style and dexterous cutting. “The editing is very striking. He doesn't lead the audience by the hand to a linear narrative the way a conventional narrative film does. I mean, he has flashbacks where you can’t even tell that they’re flashbacks till they’re almost over.” Past, present and future align in a manner reminiscent of the films of Alain Resnais or Atom Egoyan, to the point where the narrative becomes littered with ellipses which conceal elements of the story from the audience, leaving us to ask, what happened between there and there? It’s like a form of cinematic consciousness. “I think that that’s very striking about him and it shows that he had, from the beginning of his career, a real aspiration to break out of the conventions of how to tell a story on film.”
When I ask Fujiwara if there are any filmmakers in the west who share Somai’s sensibilities, two spring to mind: Nicholas Ray and Jean Vigo because, like Somai, “They both have a very special feeling for adolescence and look at that time in life in a very poetic way.” As for artists who have been influenced by Somai, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure) is the clearest example. “It’s not a direct stylistic influence but I think that Kurosawa found an example of a freedom within narrative filmmaking in Somai; there’s a certain shared sense of risk in their work.”
It’s tempting to read Fujiwara's choice of Somai, a Japanese filmmaker with a very American sensibility, as a deeply personal one. The New Yorker has lived and worked in Japan for many years and a glance at his eclectic film writing on his personal website (insanemute.com, a reference to Shock Corridor, the great B movie from Sam Fuller, who, coincidentally, received his first serious retrospective at EIFF in the late 60s) reveals a passion for the cinema of both nations. Will we see a similar authorial stamp throughout the rest of his curation? “That would be inevitable to some extent, since the selection is mine, so it does represent something about me, but I don’t think that’s what it should be about," he tells me. "I’m trying to do something that’s larger than my own tastes and inclinations: something that does legitimately represent the state of world cinema now – not all world cinema but the most interesting parts. Included in the programme are films that I love very much, films that I like and films that I’m simply interested in and respect.”
This might sound like a concession to commercial demands, but Fujiwara assures me that’s not the case: “It is a balancing act in a way, but I think at least for this year I’m quite happy with what we’ve done. There’s not a single film in there that I feel is a compromise, that doesn’t belong or I can’t justify in some way.”