Quarantine may be necessary, but it sure is a mood-killer. What’s worse is feeling ill while in quarantine. Although the issues I’ve been having aren’t related to coronavirus, when you’re stressed as your life is turned upside down by this new reality, being ill only compounds these feelings and makes them worse.
On a more positive note, the lockdown has given me the time to watch films. A LOT of films. I’ve been able to watch films I’ve wanted to watch for a while but lacked the time, rewatch some old favorites, as well as check out some films I maybe didn’t have my eye on initially that suddenly gripped me and fascinated me.
This latter example came when I found out that a selection of films submitted to the MOOSIC LAB Japanese film competition was now available streaming for free online with English subtitles. This amateur film competition encourages inexperienced creators to create music-infused cinema, while the awards themselves have produced some breakout hits and well-known musicians and actresses.
I’ve been meaning to check out a few of the more well-known films linked to the festival for a while, such as Rent-a-Friend, and the availability of these films for a wider audience allows me the perfect opportunity to discuss them alongside a brief history of MOOSIC LAB itself and why it’s an event worth paying attention to.
With that, let’s get started.
What is MOOSIC LAB, And Why Should You Care?
With more people isolating or locked inside due to the coronavirus, the downtime leaves many people with time to kill while they’re trapped inside. While many musicians and film companies have plugged this thirst for content through releases of their past work for free online through websites like YouTube, the release of a selection of 12 MOOSIC LAB films for free streaming at this time of global panic is a bit of a lucky accident. While it seems likely the release of these films on March 12th was planned long before the current crisis (the timescale required for the translation of 12 feature films to be created and approved isn’t short), these films have released to the public just as everyone has retreated to the safety of their homes for the foreseeable future.
But what is MOOSIC LAB, and why should you care about it? It’s all well and good making 12 films available for free worldwide, but why should you care about this obscure Japanese film competition and the films which come out of it? There are other, larger film festivals and competitions worth keeping an eye on which I’ve discussed in previous columns, both in Japan and abroad. Why should you pay attention to this competition?
For me, I think the appeal of MOOSIC LAB stems from its promotion of debut and amateur creators, its intent to scout out new music and acting talent, as well as its dedication to creating films featuring or about music that experiments with the types of stories you can tell within the medium.
Films submitted to the MOOSIC LAB film competition in either the feature film or short film categories, including the films which have been made available for streaming internationally, must integrate music into their work. Music must play a role within the film’s narrative, either diegetically through the actors performing the music or non-diegetically through its soundtrack. To give an example of this at work through the films freely available to stream, taken from in-competition and award-winning films from the 2017 and 2018 events, you can see both of these styles at works in the films ‘The Sacrament’ and my personal favorite of the MOOSIC LAB films streaming in English, the short film ‘Inner Loop Couple’.
The Sacrament tells the story of 3rd-year Waseda University student Iwaraki Isora’s attempts to create a film. Despite a poor script, he follows up on a rumor of a girl who mysteriously appears once every 4 years who can turn any film intolerable masterpiece if cast in the main role. The movie is shot like a found-footage J-Horror, yet to categorize a film that mostly serves as a critique of otaku culture and the sexist, objectionable views that many within the industry and Japanese society hold of women which mostly ridicules its protagonist would be inaccurate. This film comments on the filmmaking process through film, while it fulfills the competition’s requirements by bringing in Bonjour Suzuki to work on the film’s music, who’s bubbly synth music enhances the film’s climax to wonderful effect.
In contrast, Inner Loop Couple is a film about a former small-time idol and former fan who meet after endlessly riding the last Yamanote Line train until its termination before wandering Tokyo’s urban streets together until morning. ‘Negative Idol’ Hoshino Akane’s signature performance style was her negative lyrics and outlook, doused in a preppy, J-pop cloak which she performed proudly for her adoring fans. This positive sound masked the truth behind the insecurities she spoke of in her lyrics, however, and these issues only grew once she was forced to leave the industry for unrelated reasons. The two talk about their insecurities as they wander and gawk at Tokyo’s nightlife and atmosphere, with her old songs reinforcing the film’s message.
The utilization of music in these films can range from insert songs to films about the music itself and the joys the medium can bring. Such filmmaking best suits multi-talented creators, where their musical and acting ability can shine through in these unique requirements. As a result, some of the amateur directors and musicians who have proven their talents in award-winning productions have gone on to have successful careers in their respective industries on the back of success through MOOSIC LAB.
In the competition’s first year in 2012, Oomori Seiko’s work on the film ‘Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn Are Dead’ guided her to a Best Musician Award that helped to kickstart her music career. In the same year, director Rikiya Imaizumi won the Grand Prix with the film nico and has gone on to have an illustrious career in film as a result. Their most recent film, his, released at the beginning of this year.
For me, the thing I like most about the MOOSIC LAB project is the excitement that radiates from the films highlighted for the award. Something is exciting about going into a film created by an amateur or first-time director, as you have no idea what to expect from their work without a filmography to reference against. I also love discovering new talent while they’re still finding their voice.
The most exciting thing about this selection of films available for streaming from the 2017 and 2018 slate of MOOSIC LAB films, as is emblematic of many of the films submitted for the event, is that they’re often experimental by nature. Many of the films I’ve discussed, as well as my film recommendation at the end of this column, aren’t just films that utilize unrefined talent, they’re films which experiment with film structure and how you should create a film. The Sacrament turns conventions from found-footage J-Horror cinema and utilizes them for a comedic critique of female objectification. The film Please Don’t Go Anywhere uses the same actors to tell a love story spanning over a decade, while Infinite Foundation does away with fundamental aspects of the medium itself.
A selection of 12 films taken from the 2017 and 2018 cohort of MOOSIC LAB productions are now streaming online with English subs, and these films provide an exciting glimpse into the future of Japanese film. What are you waiting for?
Future Film Focus: On The Street (街の上で, 2020)
Considering his success in the very first MOOSIC LAB competition with nico, I’d like to use this space to preview Rikiya Imaizumi’s next film, On the Street (街の上で).
Originally scheduled for release on May 1st before unfortunately (yet unsurprisingly) being indefinitely delayed, On the Street is a subdued story that follows the life of an overall unspectacular man living in the trendy Tokyo district of Shimokitazawa, Aoi Arakawa. Aoi’s adventures rarely take him beyond the Shimokitazawa area, and he lives a simple life working in a second-hand clothing store in the local area.
In his spare time, he’ll travel to second-hand bookstores and bars on his own, although his life was a relatively uneventful one free from hardship. This life is suddenly flipped on its head by a request to appear in an independent film. On the Street chronicles his new life as a result of this request, with a focus on the relationships he begins to form with a variety of women he meets along the way.
My interest in the film comes from its subdued nature. This film is a drama in the sense that it chronicles the daily life of its protagonist as his life undergoes a period of transformation, but the trailer makes these changes appear relatively ordinary. There’s no artificiality to the story being told or the stakes at play here. This is a window into the life of Aoi Arakawa and nothing more, and the cinematography and strong acting found in this trailer help to sell the mundanity of this low-stakes drama. I want to explore and learn about their lives.
It’s a shame that the movie has been indefinitely delayed as a result of the currently-unraveling global pandemic. A film like this would be perfect in the turbulent times we’re in right now. The life of Aoi Arakawa is so ordinary and normal that it feels such a far cry from how things are right now. In any case, considering the director’s track record, I’m excited to see this movie upon its eventual release.
Film Flashback: Infinite Foundation (無限ファンデーション, Akira Osaki, 2018)
My reason for highlighting this film is simple: Infinite Foundation, a 2018 entrant for MOOSIC LAB with lead roles played by the recipients of that year’s best actress and best musician awards, is a film that I feel best represents the competition’s purpose and potential.
Infinite Foundation is an interesting project. It’s the work of an inexperienced director striving to experiment with the filmmaking process with rather enjoyable results. The most radical experiment was the choice to create this film without a script; instead, director Akira Osaki asked the cast of the film to improvise their lines for every scene. The result of this unique request is an experimental work that retains the spontaneity of real-life as the actors are forced to respond to each other’s lines and performances in real-time.
The film follows a shy girl called Mirai who attends a small, rural high school and has a passion for fashion design. Upon catching a glimpse of her designs by chance, Mirai is coerced into joining the school drama club by Nanoka with a request to design the outfits for the school’s upcoming performance of Cinderella.
Self-doubt rises to the surface when she joins the club and during various crises the club undergoes throughout the movie. Mirai thinks she isn’t good enough to design clothes, she feels left out and antagonized by the other girls, while the club as a whole struggles to find the unity they need to work on the play and make it a success. Every time a crisis occurs Mirai heads to a recycling center, where she finds a mysterious girl playing the ukulele called Cosame Nishiyama (played by the singer-songwriter of the same name). These scenes act as a musical commentary on the events which just occurred, with Cosame acting as a reassuring presence to guide the group forwards as she sings soothing platitudes about their situation.
This approach has its benefits and drawbacks. The natural feel to every scene, especially when coupled with the amateurish feel and handheld camera, really draw you into the struggles of the high-school cast of this seishun eiga in a way that some other productions can feel forced. This is a high-school coming-of-age drama, and whereas too often such school-age characters can somehow possess maturity far beyond their years, these characters feel realistic and human as a direct result of the improvisation embedded within the creative process.
To ensure continuity between all the scenes in the film within this looser structure, however, the plot is forced to remain relatively simple, and mostly takes the form of an episodic exploration of each character’s problems, coupled with the musical talents of the maybe-real maybe-imaginary Cosome. The overarching plot is mostly a vessel that gives these vignettes structure, rather than being an interesting story in and of itself.
These vignettes both make and break the production by giving it a natural heart while holding it back from a larger story. Overall I prefer this approach, even if it’s not for everyone and it stops the film innovating on the traditional structure of the seishun eiga. While I appreciate how down-to-earth and realistic the acting and story felt, it is a shame that the story beats of the film remained relatively predictable.
In saying that, there’s a reason Cosame Nishiyama and Sara Minami (the actress playing Mirai) won the 2018 MOOSIC LAB awards for best musician and actress respectively. They carry this film in many respects, elevating the work and making this 100-minute production a worthy investment of your time.
Infinite Foundation is currently streaming as part of the Japanese Film Festival Magazine‘s MOOSIC LAB film selection, alongside a variety of other MOOSIC LAB films.
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!