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.


Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald – Japanese screwball comedy at its best

Japanese films are not well known around the world for screwball comedy. Global audiences have typically been exposed to their award winning samurai films, anime, yakuza films and contemporary dramas. There are of course, dramas with elements of comedy, such as Juzo Itami’s The Funeral (1984), Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dansu? (1996), Takashi Yamazaki’s Always Sunset on 3rd Street (2005) and Sang-il Lee’s Hula Girls (2006) – all these having won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy. I myself had come across just a couple of examples of outright Japanese comedies – Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) and Masayuki Suo’s brilliant Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992) – the latter winning Best Film. Both of these are hilarious and are the sort of movies I watch again and again, along with other guilty pleasures like Four Weddings and a Funeral or My Cousin Vinny.

So, I was thrilled to stumble across the 1997 comedy Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (Rajio No Jikan), which won awards for Best Screenplay for writer-director Koki Mitani, besides being nominated for all the other big categories, such as Best Film, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Actor, Actress, etc.

Koki Mitani was the resident playwright for the Japanese theatrical group Tokyo Sunshine Boys (named after the Neil Simon play). This group specialized in sitcom-style plays; they adapted the play Twelve Angry Men into a comedy 12 Gentle Japanese, to achieve one of their early successes. This play demonstrated Mitani’s skill in finding the funny side of a group of people working to a deadline while stuck together in an enclosed space. The same formula creates the farcical and highly entertaining situations seen in Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald.

The film begins with a superb 5 minute long continuous shot, which simultaneously introduces most of the characters as well as the setting for the majority of the film – the sound studio of a radio station. As a publicity stunt, the station is going to broadcast a late night radio play live from the studio (as opposed to the usual practice of recording and editing them in advance). The play is an old-fashioned romance written by a first-time writer, a housewife whose script was selected from a competition (it soon transpires that hers was the only entry!).

The characters in the movie represent the full deck of personality types one would expect to see in such a setting – the oily producer Ushijimi who needs to get the play out at all costs, the diva actress Nokko whose star is on the wane and wants to stamp her authority over her fellow actors, her overbearing manager, the hapless housewife who gets her first exposure to the cut-throat world of entertainment, her overly protective and insecure husband, the handsome and principled program director Kudo, the staff writer Bucky who is brought in to polish the script, the upright and idealistic announcer, the actors playing the heroine’s husband and lover respectively and a couple of other studio sound technicians.

The situation starts to spiral out of control when the actress insists that her character is changed from a simple Japanese housewife to a New York-based high-powered lawyer. The lead male actor, not to be outdone, decides that his character should be a pilot rather than a fisherman! The poor housewife accepts the initial changes gracefully (though reluctantly), but is soon appalled as the initial modifications set off a chain reaction of other changes to the setting, plot points and potentially, even the ending.

Further complications arise when the producer discovers that the sound effects library has been locked up for the night and they have no sound effects to support a story which by now features machine guns, a bursting dam and even a rocketship. He enlists the help of an aged security guard who once used to provide man-made sound effects before the days of pre-recorded digitally produced sounds.

I was reminded of Robert Altman’s last film The Prairie Home Companion which takes place almost in real time during the live broadcast of a variety show. In both cases producers, directors, actors and sound effects men have to improvise while on-air; whereas the characters in Prairie do so with a high degree of sangfroid, the situations in Mr. McDonald are set up on purpose to create over-the-top chaos.

The film is also a mild satire of Japanese post-war society’s obsession with the trappings of the West and its rigid social and corporate hierarchy. There is a scene in which the writer locks herself in the sound studio (during an extended commercial break) to protest against the wholesale slaughter of her screenplay, with the rest of the cast standing clustered together outside the plate glass window while the producer tries to reason with her; I am sure this scene must have struck a chord with scriptwriters around the world who have seen their beloved creations reconstructed beyond recognition by studio executives and powerful movie stars.

Ultimately, after several twists and turns, the play (and its distraught writer) gets its happy ending. This is yet another film that is likely to end up in my rapidly expanding list of my favorite all-time films (which I first published as a Top 35 listing and then expanded to 40; currently, my offline update has 50 and counting!)

A bit of trivia: Japanese box office superstar Ken Watanabe appears in a small role as a truck driver who happens to tune into the station and is completely swept up by the story, presumably mirroring the reactions of other listeners nationwide. This is an in-film joke as Watanabe had played an almost identical character (down to the cigarette pack rolled into his T-shirt sleeve) in Tampopo 12 years earlier.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: The Twilight Samurai

The 2003 Tom Cruise period action-drama The Last Samurai is the film that introduced me to contemporary Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada; I believe this was the first English language film that either had acted in. Since then, both have appeared in a number of Hollywood productions, but the real treat is to watch them in Japanese movies, where they have the opportunity to play a wider range of characters.

Hiroyuki Sanada won his only Japanese Best Actor awards so far (he has been nominated 4 other times) for The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) released in 2002. This is the first of veteran director Yoji Yamada’s ‘Samurai Trilogy’ (released in 2-year gaps by The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor). Many of the famous samurai films of the 1950s and 60s showcase the brave and heroic side of a samurai’s life; but even in those films, one could read the subtext of their hand-to-mouth existence and the susceptibility of their lives to the whims and fancies of feudal lords. Yamada’s trilogy focuses on this latter, less glamorous aspect of samurai life and amplifies it to tell 3 different stories where honor and self-respect stand firm in the face of overwhelming social and financial odds.

In The Twilight Samurai, Sanada plays Seibei, an impoverished widower who is a Samurai in name only, but actually spends his days doing accounts as a junior member of his warlord’s bureaucracy. He acquires the nickname ‘twilight’ because he rushes off at sunset every day to get home and take care of his 2 kids and elderly mother (while his colleagues go off to eat, drink and make merry). He even supplements his meagre income building cricket cages to sell. He is so poor that he is unable to wash or clothe himself properly and for this too, he is berated by his superiors.

At some point, his childhood friend’s sister Tomoe returns to town following her divorce from an abusive husband. Leading on from an incident involving her ex-husband, Seibei and Tomoe slowly develop feelings for each other, but Seibei declines an opportunity to marry her, given his own poverty and inferior social status. Eventually, Seibei is commanded by his feudal lord to kill a renegade samurai. Seibei departs on his mission, not expecting to return alive. His situation is so pathetic that he does not even have a retainer to prepare him for the duel; Tomoe comes home to assist him and he confesses to her that he should have married her when he had the chance, but now it is too late as she has accepted another’s proposal. The renegade samurai is a wretched creature with no hope of escape or redemption and herein lies the true tragedy of this story. The tense duel in close quarters is a fight to the death and ends in favor of our hero. He returns home to his family, exhausted and wounded, and is amazed to find Tomoe still there. Our joy in their reunion is immediately doused by the bittersweet coda (with voice-over narration by Seibei’s grown up daughter) which tells us that they married but he died 3 years later in a civil war; an appropriate end for such a down-on-his-luck character, I suppose.

I liked Yoji Yamada’s straightforward, linear storytelling approach. There are no tricks of time or perception to distract you from the story. Similarly, the camera work is very functional, with no crazy angles, rapid zooms or fast tracking shots; this is exemplified during a duel between Seibei and Tomoe’s ex-husband, which is shot in mid-range at tatami-level, with minimal camera movement, allowing us to focus all our attention on Seibei’s extraordinary skill, ending with a superb leaping, spinning blow; I must have played back this scene half a dozen times.

I also realized how much effort must have gone into a simple scene which shows Seibei speaking to someone while busily splitting wooden strips with his knife (to build the cricket cages with); this is a task that requires some skill, yet the actor Sanada carries it off with ease, just as we would expect of someone who does this task every day. This must have required great degree of practice from Sanada and perhaps multiple takes to make it appear so natural.

The music is minimalist, in keeping with the entire philosophy of keeping this movie spare and simple. Many scenes have no music at all, or often times just a simple note on a flute or the beat of a drum.

This film won an incredible 12 Japanese Academy Awards, sweeping all the major categories – Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Lighting, Editing, Art Direction, Music Score and Sound; in other words, every award except Best Supporting Actress. An extraordinary achievement, made all the more commendable by the fact that Yamada followed this up with the equally superb The Hidden Blade (nominated for all categories, but won only Art Direction) and Love and Honor (nominated for all categories, and won Supporting Actor, Cinematography and Lighting) over the next 4 years.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Confessions

When I started watching Confessions (Kokuhaku), I had no idea what to expect, not having bothered to read any reviews or blurbs. I had picked the movie just because it had won the 2011 Best Film award of the Japanese Academy. By the end of the film, I was trying to understand what it was about this film that appealed to the viewing public (it was a modest box office success) and the Academy voters. Did they see this as a biting social satire with an underlying message about the need to raise kids better? Or perhaps Japanese adults also shared the director’s view that their youth are disaffected, disconnected, angst-ridden and selfish and therefore this revenge tale gave them some sort of vicarious satisfaction? Surely, if seen as a straight-up psychological thriller then it should not qualify for so high an honor as the best Japanese film of 2010; not when it was up against movies like About Her Brother (directed by the legendary Yoji Yamada), Takashi Miike’s samurai spectacular 13 Assassins and Villain (by Hula Girls director Sang-il Lee). Some bloggers even felt that the box office success was due merely to the loyal fan base of singer-actress Takako Matsu turning up at the theatres.

The opening segment features a long monologue by Middle School class teacher Ms. Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) intercut with some flashback scenes. The teacher informs her unruly students that she is handing in her resignation and they will have a new teacher when they return from spring break. She then shocks them by saying that the recent accidental death of her young daughter (she was found in the school swimming pool) was actually cold-blooded murder by 2 of her students. She then names the students (one has openly confessed to her already while the other has been protected by his mother) and expresses her frustration that as minors, these 2 boys will be protected from severe punishment by Juvenile Law. She therefore details out her own elaborate revenge plan to the horror/ fascination of the assembled students.

The story then continues past the spring break through the new term as we see the lives of the 2 boys start to unravel. Other significant players in the drama are the class teacher, the parent of one of the boys and a girl in the class who is attracted to the other boy. As a viewer, it’s easy to hate the kids as none of them show any redeeming qualities whatsoever. None of the adults are likeable either, all being portrayed as either stupid, self-centered or in constant denial. Takako Matsu plays the class teacher as someone leeched of all feeling/ emotion due to the death of her daughter, living now for the sole purpose of exacting revenge through a cunning cat-and-mouse play. The violence and the irredeemable nature of the students recalls the cult classic Japanese drama-thriller Battle Royale. On the other hand, the glazed/ disconnected looks of the school kids and their lack of any emotional depth recalls the appearance and demeanor of the children in both 1960’s Village of the Damned and Michael Haneke’s award-winning The White Ribbon from 2009.

The story is told in a semi-impressionist style, so don’t look for too much logic or detail (for example, why haven’t the other students told their parents about all this, why is there no intervention from school authorities, etc.).

The movie’s 55-year-old director Tetsuya Nakashima is considered to be one of the important contemporary directors in Japan today, making a series of films depicting troubled relationships in the modern world. His latest effort, The World of Kanako has also created a lot of controversy for its relentless physical and psychological violence.

Confessions is one of those films where I really don’t know what to think at the end of it, except to be afraid that the urban First World school kids depicted in the movie are closer to reality than fiction.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Hula Girls

In the 1960s, as Japan’s economy shifted from being coal-powered to oil-powered, coal mines came under increasing financial pressure. In the city of Iwaki, the Joban coalfield was one such enterprise whose owners realized their time was running out. Determined to extend the life of the mine and to protect the employment of the town’s residents by any means possible, the management came up with the idea of opening a resort, taking advantage of the numerous hot springs in the area; the same spring water which used to seep into the mines and had ironically been a hazard and nuisance to the miners all these years! They selected a Hawaiian theme for the resort and in spite of the initial resistance of the miners, trained the young girls of the town to dance the Hawaiian hula. The resort went on to become one of the most popular in the country, famous as much for its dance troupe as for its spring water and at its peak in the early 70s, it hosted 1.5 million visitors a year.

This is the inspiring and extraordinary story which forms the basis for the film Hula Girls (Hura gâru), which won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy in 2007. It was also chosen as Japan’s entry to the Foreign Film category of the Oscars that year.

In this big-screen retelling of the story, the mining company recruits a dance instructor from Tokyo named Madoka Hirayama (played by strikingly beautiful actress/ singer Yasuko Matsuyuki), who agrees to come to this place in the boondocks because she is trying to escape her past in Tokyo. Nevertheless, she still retains her pride and a haughty demeanour.

She is asked to train a small group of girls, mostly daughters of the resident miners. In particular, the story focuses on a trio of girls Sanae, Kimiko and Sayuri, who defy local and parental opposition to volunteer for the dance classes. The plot goes through the predictable roller-coaster ride that one sees in these feel-good movies involving group effort in the face of adversity. The young girls overcome their own fears and the doubts of their instructor, plus other minor plot hiccups to triumph in a grand finale. The instructor battles her own internal demons and redeems herself through the success of the girls. The parents are won over by the efforts and self-belief of the girls and are there in the end to celebrate their success. We have seen this play through in films ranging from Bend It Like Beckham to Japanese films like Sumo Do Sumo Don’t and Shall We Dansu?. But it’s precisely because stories like this work (when well executed) that we are drawn to them time and again. I certainly enjoyed this good-natured film with its laughter, tears and comedic melodrama.

The film was directed by Sang-il Lee, a Japanese of Korean descent who was 33 years old at the time he filmed it. Four years later, his crime drama Villain (Akunin) was nominated for multiple awards including Best Film, Director and Screenplay. In 2013, he directed a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s award winning revisionist Western Unforgiven, with Ken Watanabe playing the lead role and getting nominated for Best Actor by the Japanese Academy. Certainly, it’s an impressive body of work in the past 7 years and hopefully more to come.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Departures

In 2009, the winner of the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars was Departures (Okuribito), directed by Yojiro Takita.

Takita is a veteran director who made his early living directing a series of ‘pink films’ (the Japanese term for soft porn), before graduating to more serious fare. His breakthrough year was in 1994 when he was nominated as Best Director at the Japanese Academy for two different films which he had released the previous year – Made in Japan and Shinjuku Shark – an amazing achievement. Sadly, I have yet to watch or even find a subtitled copy of either of these films.

His 2004 samurai film, When The Last Sword is Drawn won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film. He then hit the mother lode with this film Okuribito, released in 2008. It is a back-to-the-roots story in which young cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (played by former J-pop star Masahiro Motoki) quits his job in Tokyo and returns with his wife to his hometown Yamagata. He has decided to honor his mother’s last wishes and live in the house that she left to him following her death 2 years earlier. He answers an ad in the paper, mistakenly believing it to be for a travel agency assistant (the ad says “assisting departures”) only to find himself employed as an assistant at a funeral parlor – specifically, to clean, prepare and dress the recently deceased for the viewing at the wake.

What follows is an incredible story of self-discovery; the owner of the funeral service (Japanese acting veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki) plays the classical role of the ‘wise old man’ who helps the young protagonist find his way. It is not an easy journey; his wife as well as other townsfolk (including some of his deceased mother’s friends) are appalled at his new profession. He perseveres, initially out of a sense of duty to the funeral parlor owner and eventually out of a sense of fulfillment that he is bringing closure to all these bereaved families. He also must come to terms with his feelings towards his father who left the family when he was only 6 years old. There are some truly fascinating scenes showing Kobayashi at work reverentially preparing the dead, for which actor Motoki spent several hours of dedicated study. The movie is funny, bittersweet and at times, unabashedly sentimental. The music by Joe Hisaishi (the man who has scored the soundtracks for many Miyazaki films) pulls at the heartstrings. The main theme ‘Memory’ is an instant classic and I had written briefly about it in an earlier series of posts about my favourite soundtracks.

As much as I love Kurosawa’s samurai films, I would say that if there is one Japanese film you would watch in your life, it should be Okuribito.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Spirited Away

Given how many Japanese movies I have watched (103, to be precise, as of 18th Oct 2014), I haven’t really written too many posts about them. So, I’ve decided every now and then to share some thoughts about the most memorable ones. Since several of my favourite Japanese movies have won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy, that’s a convenient theme under which I can cluster my future series of posts. It could just as easily have been ‘Favourite Anime films’ or ‘My top samurai films’…

Today, I’ll write about Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi).

In 1997, when James Cameron’s Titanic was barreling around the world creating a global phenomenon, I read that it had become the highest grossing film in Japan by overtaking a Japanese animation film called Princess Mononoke which had been released a few months earlier. This was my first introduction to the name Hayao Miyazaki. Living in Chennai, India at that time, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the movie, but I remembered the article about Japan’s living legend of animation. This was in the days before regular access to the internet, so it’s not like I could just go online and read up about him.

Soon after, I watched my first ever Japanese film (it was either Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or Rashomon) and the love affair began. Miyazaki’s name came up again when his next film Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Film in early 2003. It had already won Best Picture in Japan a year earlier. By then, I had moved to Bangalore and my local DVD library on Church Street (named Habitat) soon got a copy.

Spirited Away was a revelation for me, brought up as I was on Disney’s version of animated storytelling. This is the story of a 10-year-old girl traveling with her parents to their new home. They take a wrong turn and soon end up in a magical world, filled with spirits, witches and other strange creatures. Her parents are turned into pigs and it’s up to little Chihiro to use her courage and her wits to save them. I was initially repulsed by the grotesque characters in the film, especially the ugly witch Yubaba, but was eventually drawn into the fascinating world and its myriad denizens – the young boy Haku who turns into a white dragon, the frightening No-Face and Kamaji, the strange ‘spider-man’ who runs the boiler room in the bath-house.

Watching it was an incredible, magical, scary experience. I vicariously lived through Chihiro’s fear so intensely that I still feel a sense of apprehension when I think about watching the film again! Since then, I have watched all the Studio Ghibli films, and to be honest I much prefer Miyazaki’s lighter fare like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service and even Howl’s Moving Castle, which can be considered as dark as Spirited Away.

We watched his bittersweet farewell film The Wind Rises earlier this year and also visited the Ghibli museum in Japan in April. How fortunate I am to have seen the works of this great man and what a great injustice that his films have not been seen by more people around the world.