Hello there, and welcome to a special edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. The structure of this article will be different from previous columns as I discuss the Fantasia Film Festival, currently entering the final few days before coming to an end on September 2nd.
Rather than following the structure I normally follow for this edition of my column, I instead want to use this space to discuss the Fantasia Film Festival more broadly. Having watched a large number of the films being shown at this event, I want to discuss the common themes and ideas that define this year’s event, how a move online has shifted its focus, before discussing the most interesting and best Japanese films from this year’s event.
And so, let’s look back on a successful inaugural online edition of Fantasia Film Festival 2020.
How Communication Dominated a Disconnected Online Event
Before specifically discussing the Japanese films that were highlighted at this year’s event, I want to take a step back and look at the 2020 festival as a whole. It’s an interesting one that feels more reflective of our current world than previous years, intentionally or otherwise, as it lasers in on communication as a core theme that encompasses many of the major films that are showcased this year. These are all films produced and conceived long before this rollercoaster of a year could ever have been imagined, and yet the ideas they explore are all major problems from recent years that have reached fever pitch as societal ills have been amplified by COVID-19.
Issues of our relationship with the internet and how it has transformed communication and the way information is shared and understood, especially how the decline of trusted outlets of information has fueled the rise of fringe ideas into the mainstream, are explored by a few of the most popular and high-quality films being screened at this year’s event. Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, is perhaps the best example of this. This documentary powerfully explores the rise of the far-right and the internet’s use in spreading disinformation with an exploration of the toxic underside of online culture through the lens of the Pepe the Frog meme. The Columnist’s exploration of the toll of online harassment is another example, too.
Not all these films are so doom and gloom on our current predicament. Films like Woman of the Photographs by director Takeshi Kushida explore the toxicity of social media in a deeper light, not only attempting to explore why people embrace themselves in these environments but exploring the more positive relationships that can be formed thanks to exposure to it, even while criticizing the way its influenced body standards to a dangerous extent.
When the world becomes as crazy as it has in 2020, we inevitably turn to media in a last-ditch attempt to understand the experiences we’re going through. While many of the films, Japanese and otherwise, discuss our fracturing political status quo, even films that don’t are inevitably cast into this mindset in our attempts to grapple with the world we live in.
While the fact the event is online at all is a reflection of how 2020 has fundamentally changed our relationship with the world, the films of Fantasia 2020, whether through their escape or embrace of our current issues, are unavoidably linked to this mad, mad year.
Obayashi’s Humanist Grand Finale: Labyrinth of Cinema
Nobuhiko Obayashi is a director I’ve brought up in this column before, and as a fan of their work I’ve used previews for this event and the prior Japan Cuts film festival to preview his final movie, Labyrinth of Cinema. I’ve not been able to share my thoughts on the film until now, however, and I’m happy to report that not only is this an incredibly thoughtful, humanist final feature from a director who knew this was to be his last, it captures everything I love about cinema in the process.
Although Obayashi has only become more outspoken over time, this final feature is easily his most activist film. In this sense, the film is joining a worldwide reckoning with how a sanitized view of history has maintained a fundamentally unequal status quo when it comes to race and class. The Black Lives Matter movement has forced a reconsideration of racial history around the world, while in ways more relevant to this film, its focus on post-Meiji Japan frequently comments on how modern nostalgia for bushido code and imperial history threatens to repeat the atrocities of the past while sending the country on a potentially disastrous path towards war.
The film does this by combining his trademark green screen-heavy filmmaking techniques and surrealist imagery with a historical time-traveling tale that takes its cast through the cinema screen for a film that explores these ideas while also celebrating the magic and power of the medium of film. Complete with a direct address to the audience of what’s to come, it’s clear that the director approached this film as his legacy, imbuing it with his knowledge for the next generation to learn from.
While not Obayashi’s strongest film (that honor goes to his previous work, Hanagatami), it feels like the perfect summation of the career of an incredible auteur, and arguably an essential film to understand the career of this incredible director.
No Budget, All Heart: Monster Seafood Wars
Monster Seafood Wars is an unpolished gem from Fantasia Film Festival 2020’s on-demand catalog.
A cycling accident on his annual visit to the shrine is just the start of the troubles awaiting disgraced scientist-turned-sushi shop employee Yuta Tanuma. The octopus, squid, and crab he was transporting have transformed into giant kaiju monsters that threaten the city, an event that leads him to reluctantly join the Seafood Monster Attack Team in an attempt to save the city (and use their meat to end city-wide hunger).
Monster Seafood Wars is rough around the edges but lives vicariously as a heartfelt, enjoyable and ultimately fun no-budget kaiju parody where a team of civil servants defeats giant sea creatures with vinegar. It’s silly, and even if the pacing is rough at times it knows what it wants to be and never outstays its welcome. Although some jokes may go over your head if you don’t follow the news in Japan, much of it is hilarious regardless and it a blast from start to finish. There are better films at Fantasia Film Festival 2020, but I’d much prefer to watch a flawed diamond in the rough like this thanks to the love that went into its production.
Embracing Absurdity to Thread the Live-Action Adaptation Needle: Kakegurui, Wotakoi and Fly Me to the Saitama
Having very recently discussed the live-action anime adaptation conundrum in my last column, three Japanese films at this year’s event attempt to adapt popular manga and anime series into live-action. I argued in that piece that attempts to adapt anime into live-action should not only embrace the strengths of the new medium but the strangeness inherent to taking these stories into a 3D space. Each of these films at Fantasia Film Festival 2020, to varying degrees of success, followed this formula.
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku was always going to be the most difficult adaptation to execute. The original manga and anime captivated audiences as a romantic comedy with relatable humor for fellow love-seeking otaku that appealed more broadly by tackling workplace woes for a target audience that skewed older to match its adult cast. With a wider appeal, a straight adaptation was always unlikely to appeal, so the decision was made to lean heavily into turning the romantic comedy into a musical.
While it certainly helps to make the movie memorable, I can’t say it’s all that successful. For each memorable tune, another mediocre tune takes up too much time, and the story meanders and feels overly long due to an over-abundance of music that doesn’t advance the main plot. The movie feels like a missed opportunity as a result.
The Kakegurui live-action film is stronger than Wotakoi thanks to the nature of its anime source material. The concept of a gambling school where students bet millions and those in debt become house pets have no basis in reality, and it allows the series to get away with highly-dramatic overacting that enables high-intensity matches of rock-paper-scissors.
Where this film falls apart somewhat is a lack of understanding for its target audience; it heavily explains its setting for newcomers while overlooking the student council and hierarchy that leaves those audiences unable to understand the stakes of the student election at the film’s core. In saying that, thanks to its flashy nature, an interesting third-act twist and the intensity of the gambling itself, you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat as it rises to climax. Despite its flaws, Kakegurui is an enjoyable ride for fans and newbies alike.
However, Fly Me to the Saitama is the best showcase of how embracing your source material and taking advantage of how manga tropes can appear laughable when turned into live-action can work to hilarious effect. This comedy is almost impenetrably Japanese on the surface, with its alternate-reality period tale portraying a real-life border between the mighty Tokyo and lowly Saitama leaning heavily into regional jokes and local pride, the local rivalry at its core will feel relatable to anyone who lives in a place overshadowed by a more affluent neighbor.
In the alternate past of Fly Me to the Saitama, directed by Thermae Romae director Hideki Takeuchi, Tokyo has visa restrictions on its surrounding prefectures and discriminates against those who live there, with a group of Saitama rebels seeking to start a revolution against these rules.
It’s hard to avoid the parallels this story intended for commentary on regional rivalries (as seen with one particular scene where Rei Asami is asked to prove he isn’t Saitamese by stepping on a rice cracker with the regional seal printed) has to real-life racial discrimination, which results in some insensitive commentary on racial equality. Jokes about how one region lacks tourist attractions are harmless; police forces rounding up and arresting undocumented Saitamese feels somewhat more sinister.
The film spends more time on its boys-love Romeo and Juliet story and regional jokes without lingering on these problematic aspects, leaving them feeling ignorant, not malicious. Setting and costume designs are strong, and the story engages throughout as it expanding from shojo troupes to samurai action in the final third. I can appreciate this film and rate it the best adaptation of the festival thanks to its enjoyable ribbing of local rivalries, but I could understand if these offhand scenes with problematic connotations were off-putting.
Biographing a Monster: Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human
How do you explore the life of an undeniably terrible human being? That was the question being asked in perhaps my most anticipated film of the festival, No Longer Human. Directed by Mika Ninagawa and named after their most well-known literary work, this film attempts to document the life of one of the most celebrated Japanese authors of the 20th century and legitimately awful human being, Osamu Dazai.
No Longer Human was perhaps her most ambitious work to date. While she’s tackled period pieces before with films like Sakuran, and tackled the themes of reputation and projected images of the self in almost all of her filmography and in her drama series Followers, this film was the first time she was tasked with portraying the life of a real-life historical figure. On top of that, the person she chose to cover was not only beloved for his work but derided as a self-centered adulterer that took advantage of the women and people in his life and wrote novels in an attempt to condone his actions until he killed himself. Portraying Dazai is a difficult task, and I don’t think Ninagawa quite succeeds at it.
Ultimately, I’m left uncertain of what she is trying to say through her portrayal of Dazai. We see the final years of his life until his death following the publishing of his final story, No Longer Human, but outside of the film’s visual strength the story of a man like Dazai shouldn’t feel so boring. Perhaps most frustrating of all, when it comes to the argument of how we should look back on the life and times of Osamu Dazai, the film fails to define its message. Can an author’s literary achievements excuse their past, or are such achievements inevitably tarnished no matter their success? For a director with such a powerful voice, I find the lack of messaging here frustrating.
While this may sound overly harsh, I did enjoy this movie. Ninagawa’s talent for cinematic framing and color enhances certain scenes and turns early postwar Japan into a larger-than-life yet not exaggerated reality that feels like it comes from the mind of the author himself. I just know that Ninagawa is better than this movie.
The 5 Best Japanese Films From Fantasia Film Festival 2020
Having discussed what I feel are the most interesting films from this year’s event, it’s now the moment of truth: what movie stands out as my top pick from Fantasia Film Festival 2020? Admittedly, this is a tough one. Several strong Japanese films were shown at this year’s event, including the tearjerker The Traveling Cat Chronicles I never had a chance to discuss in this article. I chose to exclude it since this is the film’s second showing at Fantasia Film Festival following a showing in 2018, but the film’s touching tale of family as he has to give up his pet cat due to personal circumstances left me in tears and is a must-see on-demand film from this year’s 2020 event.
With that in mind, the top 5 Japanese films from Fantasia Film Festival 2020 are as follows:
5. Fly Me to the Saitama
4. Tezuka’s Barbara (Review)
3. The Traveling Cat Chronicles
2. Labyrinth of Cinema
1. Special Actors (Review)
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!