Best film winners at the Japanese Academy: Our Little Sister


In October 2014, I had written a bunch of posts about contemporary Japanese films which I’ve loved watching (and feel like re-watching). All have won or been nominated for best picture at the Japanese Academy awards – Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (1997), Spirited Away (2001), The Twilight Samurai (2002), Hula Girls (2006), Departures (2008), Confessions (2010) and Tokyo Family (2013).

I’ve just watched another film to add to that list, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (2015). The 54-year-old Kore-eda is emerging as one of my favourite Japanese directors, with memorable family dramas like Still Walking, I Wish and his Palm d’Or nominated 2013 film Like Father, Like Son. Each of these films explore relationships involving parents, children/ siblings which are affected by death or separation.

Our Little Sister is the story of the 3 young Koda sisters, who live together in a quaint old house they have inherited from their grandmother, in the seaside city of Kamakura just south of Tokyo.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the middle sister, Yoshino who’s just spent the night at her boyfriend’s place. She wakes up early and gets back home in time to wake up the tomboyish younger sister, Chika. We then meet the strict older sister Sachi, who is the proxy ‘mom’ in the house. As the three sisters settle down for breakfast and banter, we realize they have just received news that their father has passed away. Through the conversation we understand the background, how he divorced their mother to marry another woman and then when the 2nd wife passed away, he moved to remote Yamagata prefecture in the North and married a 3rd time. Now with his death, he leaves behind the 3rd wife and a daughter from the 2nd marriage. This daughter is the subject of the movie title.

At the funeral, the three sisters meet their 13-year-old half-sister Suzu. Her calm demeanour and impeccable manners during some awkward funeral scenes immediately make an impression on the Kodas. As Yoshino says, “she’s got it together!” On the other hand, they are not particularly reassured by the overwrought widow who is so reluctant to greet the mourners at the funeral that she attempts to pass this responsibility onto Suzu. As the sisters board the train to return home, Sachi makes an impromptu offer to the young girl to come stay with them at Kamakura. The sisters are delighted when Suzu agrees.

And so begins the story of Suzu’s new life with the three sisters, settling into her new school and meeting others in their small circle of friends and relatives. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but is really an examination of these young individuals, how their interconnected lives now expand to accommodate this shy but likeable newcomer.

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I liked how the 3 sisters’ personalities/ preferences are brought to life in small ways, like the different styles of their funeral dresses, or their food preferences – Sachi likes healthy food, Yoshino likes drinking and Chika eats everything! The youngest, Chika is the most uncomplicated of the lot, too young to have been scarred by their parents’ breakup or to have experienced heartache in a personal relationship. She enjoys the simple things in life – mostly involving eating and hanging out with her equally uncomplicated ex-mountaineer boyfriend (who innocently offers to show his toe amputations while they’re all eating breakfast!). Sachi, being the oldest, has the strongest memories of their father and greatest anger for being abandoned by him; his departure not only robbed them of a father but also caused their mother to have a breakdown and abandon the daughters, forcing Sachi to grow up overnight. She therefore resents Suzu’s mother for being the woman who caused this disruption. But the irony is that Sachi herself is in a relationship with a married man, the doctor who works at the same hospital where she is a dedicated and highly respected nurse.

Young Suzu who has settled well into the new town, picks up on Sachi’s pent-up feelings and worries that she will be blamed for being the daughter of the woman who disrupted their childhood. But Sachi’s natural maternal instincts take over and she assures Suzu that her place is here with her three sisters. The two go up to a solitary hilltop spot overlooking the town and yell out their anger and frustration at their respective parents. As Suzu cries on Sachi’s shoulder, united in love and pain, Sachi becomes both elder sister and proxy mother to Suzu.

The film ends as it begins, with a funeral…of a kind and motherly restaurant owner Ninomiya, whose place the girls frequented. As they reflect on life and death, the 4 sisters walk along the beach and enjoy their time together.

The film was a big success at last year’s Japanese Academy awards, snagging Best film and Best director awards. Teenager Suzu Hirose won Newcomer of the Year for her portrayal of ‘little sister’ Suzu. Haruka Ayase was nominated for Best Actress for playing the oldest sister Sachi.  Masami Nagasawa and Kaho both received nominations for Best Supporting Actress for playing the middle and younger sisters Yoshino and Chika respectively. I feel that this is the most accessible and light-hearted of the 4 Kore-eda films I have watched so far and definitely recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary Japanese drama.

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Logan: Jackman signs off Wolverine on a high note


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Hugh Jackman debuted the Wolverine character in 2000’s X-Men, which also kicked off the sustained and successful run of Marvel characters on film. Seventeen years later, he is retiring the character in Logan, the third standalone Wolverine film and the 7th time he has played the clawed mutant (besides 2 cameos).

What’s different this time and why is everyone praising the film? Director and screenwriter James Mangold was given a lot more freedom by the studio, which included allowing it go violent/ R-rated, in keeping with the nature of the character (we can thank 2016’s Deadpool as well, which gave Fox the confidence to approve an R-rated comic book film, realizing it wouldn’t affect box office income).

The result is a very satisfying film, filled with plenty of blood-soaked violence and more importantly, with vulnerable characters who we care about. The first hour and a half is so engaging that one doesn’t realize the time going by. We are introduced to aged and decrepit versions of the invincible characters we have known since 2000. Professor X (played by 76-year-old thesp Patrick Stewart) now in his 90’s and is losing his mental faculties, spends most of the day in a drug-induced stupor. Wolverine’s healing ability is fading (he’s over 140 years old, in case anyone’s still counting) and he has been reduced to earning his living as a limo driver  (driving an uber cool Chrysler stretch)! With no new mutants born in the past quarter century, the X-Men have died out and have become a sort of urban myth, good enough only to feature in comic books. We also meet an intense, mute child Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen, daughter of British actor Will Kean and Spanish actress Maria Fernandez Ache), who is on the run from a bunch of heavily armed bad guys, led by the cybernetically enhanced Pierce (played with great flair by a charismatic Boyd Holbrook). What we get when they all come together is a road trip/ chase movie, featuring a good mix of action, poignancy and some dry humor.

Wearing its R-rating on its sleeve, Logan allows Wolverine fans to see him in his famous ‘berserker rage’ mode more than once. But he’s not the only one. The scene in the first act in which Laura explodes into action and reveals her capabilities is shocking in its violence and intensity. Even Wolverine is stunned. There is another great ‘armrest gripping moment’ at a casino when we get a glimpse of why Charles Xavier’s mind is classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

At the other end of the spectrum, I really liked how the second act brings our heroes in touch with regular people, in this case a family who invites them to dinner. This reminded me of a similar scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which we find that Hawkeye has an entire family hidden away on a ranch. I feel that this sort of interlude helps to humanize the superheroes and brings the audience closer to them.

The third act was the weakest part of the movie for me, simply because it featured the obligatory action showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, with not much else. Perhaps the only unpredictable part of this formulaic sequence was what would happen to Wolverine at the end.

Before watching the movie, I had read all about how it plays out like a Western. Mangold has previously directed an excellent Western called 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 classic. Even his 1997 breakout film Cop Land can be seen as a sort of modern-day Western with Stallone’s quiet, unassuming sheriff unexpectedly coming up trumps in a final showdown against the corrupt cops living in his town. True enough, all the visual cues in Logan are straight from a Western – the characters look weather-beaten and a lot of the action takes place in sunburnt, dusty locations. And of course, there is the overt reference to the famous 1953 Western Shane, the purpose being to establish the parallels in the relationship between the gunfighter and the boy in Shane and Wolverine and Laura in Logan. Frankly, I thought that this part of the script was a bit heavy-handed, especially when the girl spouts the entire dialogue from the closing moments of Shane, having watched it just once in a hotel room previously.

I also had my usual issues with that ‘home video’ look of night time scenes because of the use of digital cameras, which tend to capture a lot of information (very useful in low light conditions), but can create a ‘flat’ look devoid of texture. DP John Mathieson has used the Arri Alexa camera which is very popular and usually produce a very film-like effect, especially when combined with Panavision lenses (like you see in Mad Max: Fury Road or Rogue One), but am not sure what low-light combo was used here and why some of the night scenes look so terrible. Given that the film takes so much inspiration from Westerns and from Shane in particular, how cool would it have been to have shot it in real film to mimic the glorious Technicolor of Shane.

Considering that the movie is set in 2029, there isn’t much that appears futuristic about it. The only indications are the driverless trailer trucks on the highway and the reference to tigers being extinct.

Overall, it’s a very powerful movie and a wonderful way to end a trilogy, especially one that started so unpromisingly with the universally panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The X-Men films spin off into new directions now, with new teams coming up in Josh Boone’s X-Men: The New Mutants and Joe Carnahan’s X-Force. There will also be another entry called X-Men: Supernova in Bryan Singer’s continuing series featuring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as the younger versions of Prof X, Magneto and Mystique. But it looks like this is the end of the road for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s characters…and they should both feel proud of signing off with a bang.