Hey there, and welcome to another edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. At the time of this article going live, there’s still one day left for the Japan Cuts online film festival for those living in the US. I mostly mention it here because, if you live in the US (unlike me) and can check it out, there are a few films worth checking out if you have time! Between Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s final film, Shinichiro Ueda’s latest film, Tora-san and more, you have a good selection to choose from if you have a chance before the festival ends.
Speaking of festivals, I want to cast a focused eye on another Japanese director, one far less well known than directors like Obayashi that I’ve covered in the past, but no less worthy of attention. Recently given a large celebratory look at the online Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy where his latest film, I’m Really Good, received a worldwide debut, Hirobumi Watanabe is an intriguing director for his use of black and white and for the settings of his films, with every single movie being set in his hometown of Otawara.
This time, I want to look at this director’s hyper-local filmmaking and what makes his voice one of the most interesting in the modern Japanese indie film scene.
Tracking Life in Rural Japan
A beloved character on the film festival circuit at home and abroad, Hirobumi Watanabe’s work remains a relative unknown outside of film circles. While I don’t want to be the sort of person who makes snarky comments about the film festival archetypical production, the sort of works traditionally desired and showcased at some film festivals tend to have the sort of abstract stylistic qualities that can be found littered throughout Watanabe’s work. No wonder his work is so regularly picked up for a showcase at these events and often ends up on the receiving end of praise from those who attend such events.
I don’t want to discredit film festivals for their film selections as the sort of person who enjoys such films as well, though. It’s just that these more abstract works don’t necessarily have mass appeal, which I feel is true here when talking about this director. Even within this context, however, I feel that the unique voice Watanabe brings to the table is notable, not just when the director’s films are considered on their own merits but within the context of the director’s wider filmography.
Hirobumi Watanabe was born and grew up in Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, and his varied filmography centers around the director’s life in the rural town and the various emotions and experiences that come with life outside of the major cities. Most of his films rely on long, unbroken takes with a fixed camera designed to capture a mood and moment in time, the simplicity of the cinematography masking the complicated characterization that comes from framing and dialogue. What may at first appear simple has a lot more going on underneath the surface that unmasks itself over time and on repeat viewings.
You can see this style established from his very first film, And The Mud Ship Sails Away, although I feel that the more personal tone that defines his later works is missing here in an attempt to create a more narrative-driven work. Here, an unemployed slacker named Takeshi lives alone at the age of 36 with his grandmother. He remains stuck in his ways until a girl named Yuka claiming to be his half-sister comes to the house, setting his life in a new direction.
It’s not that this film is bad, per se. Kiyohiko Shibukawa plays the cynical Takashi well as he draws you intriguingly into a character you can’t help but dislike. Takashi is lazy and aimless without enough life care to even check up on their 5-year-old daughter, after all. Yet it’s easy to be drawn into the hypnotic, slow, repetitive pacing of their life, as well as the deadpan humor that comes from Takashi’s interactions with his new, far younger half-sister. Underlying Takashi’s cynicism for life is a tension that the work he could once rely on is being lost to declining rural populations accelerated by Otawara’s proximity to the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor. This becomes most apparent as the film bursts into color when portraying Tokyo’s anti-nuclear protests.
Yet whereas I can praise this direction and can say that the first 2 acts serve as an interesting slow cinema slice-of-life picture, the final act takes a rather sudden twist into the hallucinatory that’s too much of a departure from the rest of the film. It loses the human touch here, and with it loses me.
The clash between the events of the world and the seclusion of Otawara underscore a filmography that serves as a more introspective look towards rural life and community. These films following Mud Ship become more personal works that reflect the director’s mental state as much as they tell a story, with the fictionalized tales being told transforming almost into a personal diary of Hirobumi Watanabe’s life, albeit with some exaggeration. After all, his personal life seeps into each of his works. Watanabe’s real-life grandmother featured in each of the director’s films from his debut until her death at the age of 102, and you can feel the love he has for his grandmother in every scene she appears in (while her dry laugh occasionally steals the show). Watanabe himself is the star or, at the very least, makes a cameo, in almost every film as well.
When looked at from this starting point, the direction each of these films takes begins to make a lot more sense. The long takes and slow nature of each movie reflect the slower nature of rural life with fewer people and things to do, but it goes beyond that. In a review for The Japan Times, Mark Shilling describes Poolsideman as a film where repetitive isolation is an easy victim to the violence of news reports on the suffering of the world, with the stresses it can bring even to a peaceful existence represented within.
Watanabe released 2 films in 2019 that suggests a mindset clouded by cynicism. Cry is a 70-minute slog of a film, an endurance test more than an enjoyable experience. The same snorting of the pigs, the same shoveling, the same morning, the same night, this tale of a week in the life of a pig farmer repeats endlessly until a brief reprieve when Sunday rolls around. Internalized despair is the overriding emotion, which is understandable when considering the director’s grandmother was gravely ill at the time, but it’s also a stressful film I’m not sure I can recommend. The director’s frustration at struggling to find a new idea for a film tells a narcissistic self-portrait in Life Finds a Way, too, though this is an intriguing insight towards self-loathing and a more interesting film overall as a result.
Hirobumi Watanabe’s approach to filmmaking makes him a difficult director to recommend. His films aren’t the most accessible even if you have the opportunity to watch these movies at all, which the rare online and home video releases make difficult. The content, too, is designed to confront. And yet, for every obtuse filmmaking decision designed to push the audience away, you only become further intrigued, drawn further into this hypnotic everyday Watanabe seeks to explore.
With these film’s Watanabe invites us to explore rural Japan from a new light: not as an idealized countryside paradise or a place of terminal decline caused by an aging population and migration to urban centers, but as a home for many just as messed up as anywhere else, yet full of small glimmers of hope. And it’s why, no matter how slow or difficult some moments are, you can’t look away.
Future Film Focus: I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)
I’m Really Good had a well-received world premiere at the recent online edition of the Udine Far East Film Festival at the end of last month, giving the film a very quick release from its initial announcement when the lineup for the festival was first revealed. As a result of this quick turnaround from announcement and premiere and with Japanese cinemas only starting to re-open (with indie cinemas the film would most likely be found in taking a slower path to recovery), the movie is yet to receive a Japanese release at the time of writing, and it’s well worth checking out when it does release or if it gets shown at any future festivals going forward.
At a time when the world is still struggling through a global pandemic, I’m Really Good is the most tranquil and, dare I say it, hopeful, of any of Hirobumi Watanabe’s films to date as it covers a day in the life of a preschooler. There’s not much more to the film than that, with the only ‘exciting and unusual’ element to their day being a visit from a scam artist trying to sell them child’s textbooks for a marked-up price (the salesman being played by Watanabe themselves).
What makes this film work, though, is the way it captures a child’s perspective on the world. A child can find an exciting tale of wonder in even the most mundane of afternoons, and the pacing of the story reflects the slow pace of the day yet the wonder and adventure this monotony feels like in the mind of a child. We understand the salesman is bad, but they see it as intriguing, while the realistic conversations the kids in this movie have with one another as frantic as they are meaningless.
After a long day (a descriptor that fits almost every day in 2020), a film like this brings with it renewed hope that things can be better. Running at just 62 minutes and leaving the audience with a renewed outlook, maybe that’s what’s needed right now.
I’m Really Good was recently streamed at the Udine Far East Film Festival, and will receive a Japanese cinema release at a later date.
Film Flashback: Party ‘Round The Globe (地球はお祭り騒ぎ, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2017)
There’s an argument to be made that Hirobumi Watanabe’s work is best enjoyed solely in their release order, in order to get the full emotional thought process his journal-like filmography offers when viewed in such a manner. Certain films, like Life Finds a Way, I would argue can only really be enjoyed within the context of his wider filmography due to how they act as a reflection on his career until that point as they tackle the creative pressure of this career path. Party ‘Round the Globe’s story of Beatlemaniacs wanting to visit Tokyo from Otawara to see Paul McCartney is a wonderful self-contained piece, one that is ultimately elevated by the way it finds joy in the minor moments of life.
The film is a slow burner that uses its pacing to explore the central plot between the reclusive Honda’s (Gaku Imamura) growing friendship with his Beatles fan friend Hirayama, played by Hirobumi Watanabe himself. Over the next 2 hours, we first see Honda’s monotonous routine play out in relative tranquility before the news of Paul McCartney’s return to Japan sees them unexpectedly invited to travel to Tokyo by car with Hirayama.
A lot of the film’s humor can be found within Hirayama’s car-based monologues, comprising the journey to Tokyo and being told interspersed between clips of Honda’s routine as opposed to chronologically. Honda spends most of this time in silence as Hirayama drones on about anything from music to One Piece without giving Honda a chance to interject.
These scenes are funny, and Hirayama’s endless rambling about inconsequential topics are as engaging as they are overwhelming. Most would maybe find it annoying to be talked at like this, unable to get a word in edgeways. For a recluse like Honda? There’s almost a sense of relief to be felt here as he isn’t pressured to respond. The clips of his daily routine suggest a person who mostly spends their time walking a dog or playing catch to avoid confronting his own issues or the issues of the world he lives in (constant news clips of Japanese civil liberty debates and more act as the only noise punctuating his silent routine), leaving you sympathetic towards Honda’s loneliness.
On their journey to Tokyo, you begin to see Honda open up a little more and become more relaxed, with an exhilarating live concert at Tokyo Dome being exactly what they needed to bond over a once-in-a-lifetime experience neither will ever forget. As they celebrate Hirayama’s grandmother’s 100th birthday he joins a little bit happier and a little less alone, and the close-knit friendship formed over Paul McCartney and One Piece looks like it’ll be one to stay.
With all of this coupled with a music box-like original soundtrack, you find yourself leaving the film with an appreciation for the little things that make you happy in life. Spending time with others, going to concerts, the birthdays of the people you love. Community shines through here. While it may sound like a cheesy phrase to summarize a film with a lot of depths within its meandering runtime that I don’t have the space to cover here, home is where the heart is. To find your home, you need to let people in.
Then, things begin to feel a bit easier to handle.
Party ‘Round the Globe was recently streamed at the Udine Far East Film Festival.
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!