The Japan Strand
The Japan Strand

GFF 2010: Samurai, Sake and Cyber Dogs

Discover a variety of stories and ideas in this year's Japanese film focus.
Feature by Michael Gillespie.
Published 22 February 2010

Do you find girls with hair so long you can’t see their faces somewhat unsettling? Does a water leak irrationally gives you nightmares? Do you ever cut your finger and wonder why a huge geyser of blood doesn’t spray forth? Do you think that roller blades, day glo shades, pop socks, backpacks and little plastic animals with enormous eyes are cool?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then it’s likely you’re a fan of the cinema of Japan. Then again, with the influence of Japanese movies and pop culture spreading further this decade than ever before, perhaps you simply haven't yet recognised the origins of your appreciation.  It seems fitting then, as Glasgow Film Festival continues its growth, that it should dedicate its Departures strand to the Land of the Rising Sun's rising stars.

The influence of Japan was never more prominent than in the noughties. The decade began with the releases of Battle Royale, Ringu and Audition. Battle Royale is Quentin Tarantino’s favourite film of the last 20 years, while the other two were, alongside The Blair Witch Project, the most important and influential horror films of the period. Japan developed a reputation for pushing boundaries when it came to screen depictions of fear and violence, inspiring the “torture porn” craze (Audition director Takashi Miike even makes a cameo in Hostel) and, in response to the American contributions to the genre, produced Koji Shiraishi's Grotesque - a film considered so extreme it was banned by the BBFC in 2009.

Tarantino, of course, created some of the most iconic images of the decade with Kill Bill, a film (or films) steeped in the cinematic lore of Japan. While it may have been mostly superficial, its appropriation of the style, form and themes of Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku and the samurai adventures of Sonny Chiba (to name a few) brought a rich cinematic heritage to a mainstream audience.

Much of this heritage was continued by Japanese directors throughout the noughties. The J-Video trained Miike (straight-to-video movies don’t have the stigma in Japan they do here) would continue his wild experiments in horror and the Yakuza genre, while dishing out the odd subversive masterpiece (Visitor Q brutally satirises the Japanese ideal of family); Takeshi Kitano would cement his reputation as one of the world’s forefront auteurs (the National Theatre of Scotland even adapted one of his works); Hayao Miyazaki dared to make cell animation for kids and ended up winning an Oscar and joining forces with Disney;
Jun Ichikawa took the notion of adaptation to new levels with the sublime Tony Takitani; while Yoji Yamada grounded the samurai film in reality with a beautiful series of period dramas.

Moving abroad, Tarantino wasn’t the only westerner turning Japanese. Tom Cruise went east for The Last Samurai, a Kurosawa inspired actioner which made supporting player Ken Watanabe the most prominent Asian star in western movies. Watanabe went on to appear in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, a Hollywood studio film with an almost exclusively Japanese cast speaking in their native tongue. Moving away from swords and blood, we had Sofia Coppola’s hip Lost In Translation, a love story which took in hyperactive Tokyo city life and the country’s unique relationship with the natural world.

With this east-meets-west cinematic integration already happening, it shouldn’t be too hard for Glaswegian audience to appreciate the films on show at this year’s GFF. Island of Dreams, for example, is a retro-styled thriller borrowing from the kind of post-war genre cinema that inspired Kill Bill; the Hitchcockian Zero Focus is the second screen adaptation of a revered novel; Miike provides anime-inspired pop art spectacle with Yatterman; Kakera mixes western rock with eastern cool; Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a poetic documentary that sounds like a monster movie; while local history, social dilemmas and modern relationships are explored in All Around Us, Vacation, and Bare Essence of Life. There’s also the chance to catch two classics on the big screen: Kurosawa’s Ran and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.

Introducing his legendary study Japanese Cinema, Donald Richie pointed out “the peculiar Japanese genius is that of assimilation and incorporation.  Any influence in Japan, be it gagaku or rock, is assimilated, digested, and turned into something sometimes rich, often strange, and always Japanese”. You can be guaranteed of seeing something rich, strange and even genius at this year’s Departures.