Far away, too close: Nippon Connection 2020

Marion Klomfass, Nippon Connection director, had planned a number of noteworthy events for the twentieth edition of the festival. To her credit, and in light of the current COVID-19 global pandemic, she has succeeded in staging virtual versions of her program, including 70 short and feature-length films and pre-recorded film talks with directors, notably with Werner Herzog (Family Romance, LLC), Isamu Hirabayashi (SHELL and JOINT), and Nanako Hirose (Book-Paper-Scissors). Live stream lectures and panel discussions have been planned with formatted panels on The Post-Covid Future of Japan’s Film Industry (with Karen Severns talking to Shozo Ichiyama of Tokyo FilmEX, producer Miyuki Takamatsu, director Isao Yukisada) and Nippon Connection 2020 – Two Decades Of Japanese Cinema (Alexander Zahlten from Harvard University talking with Stephan Holl of Rapid Eye Movies, Marion Klomfass, and Tom Mes, co-founder of the Midnight Eye website).

More significantly, the film program explores the topic of Female Futures? – New Visions of Women in Japan (a future apart from the Post-Covid one?) and the role of women in the Japanese film industry, through a selection of both fiction and documentary films directed by female filmmakers.

Yangyu Zhang and I have selected six titles, five documentaries and a film based on a true story which was also made into a documentary about a fearless female Tokyo journalist; both were directed by male directors.

A highlight of Female Futures? is Book-Paper Scissors by Nanako Hirose, which retraces the career and work method of Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, a 75-year graphic designer behind15,000 book covers, all done by hand. Hirose, a former assistant-director to Hirokazu Koreeda and director of a remarkable first feature, His Lost Name, spent 3 years building this monument to Kikuchi, whose vocation begins and closes with French writer and thinker Maurice Blanchot when he encountered the Japanese translation of his L’Espace Littéraire leading to what he describes as his life’s crowning achievement, designing the set of translations of Blanchot’s L’Entretien Infini. In between, Hirose assembles a chronology of breakthroughs whose traditional craftsmanship resonates across the publishing industry and transforms it as digital technology looms ahead.

All this set to a jazz score, seemingly a popular Murakami-esque trope in Japanese documentary filmmaking. Hirose has acknowledged that her father was also a designer and so the film is a labor of love, as the one Kikuchi intensely displays for his work, through the tactile relationship he has built with it over the decades. The director throws in a possible heir, a young designer who dares to show what he has done, and who gets chewed out in the process by a smiling Kikuchi. The film would be worth viewing if only for the closing concept behind the design for the Blanchot text. The designer explains that at the time Blanchot wrote L’Entretien, he was ‘dating’ Marguerite Duras. His selection of the paper for the cover spoke to the skin of Duras while the sleeve looked to her lingerie. And not Blanchot’s boxers.

Director Nakano Hirose

Nobuyoshi Kikuchi, Book-Paper Scissors

With Prison Circle, Kaori Sakagami also finds herself in an all-male environment, making the first feature length documentary on the Japanese prison system. While shooting two films about Americans in jail, she endeavored nearly six years to get permission to shoot inside a Japanese prison, the Shimane Asahi Rehabilitation Program Center, which relies on a particular program termed therapeutic communities (TCs), a self-help treatment based on monitored group therapy.

Her film selects four young inmates over the two-year program. The filmmaker is allowed to interview each one in a supervised capacity. All speak of childhood traumas, having been the victims of school bullying or uncaring parents. They speak of a Japan that seems so far away, though each narrative took place during the nineties. They each share one recollection, isolated as a marker for the path taken, which is then given a sand animation treatment by Arisa Wakami.

Not all subjects are equally engaging, and while composition and long takes evoke a disinfected Wang Bing, the film is closer to the sentimentality of Hirokazu Koreeda. The absence of concept for addressing what defines incarceration in Japan, for men and women, never leaves the frame. Neither warden nor councilor come to the director’s assistance.

Prison Circle

Sand Animation by Arisa Wakami

Reiko Kamata, with Jun-Ichi Saito, takes over ninety minutes to voice what would have been a riveting 52-minute subject rich with Imamura Shohei undertones. Sleeping Village is all about a voice magistrates refused to hear. It belonged to Okunishi, a villager in Nara prefecture caught in a love triangle, and accused in 1961, aged 35, of having killed five women using poisoned wine. The voice is also that of Tatsuya Nakadai, narrating the proceedings as if conceiving CSI Nara. Its rich gravel tone enables the cohesion of decades worth of episodes all leading to the disappointment of all those who believed Okunishi’s confession was coerced both by police and the judicial system as testimonies were changed then forgotten. It hints at indignation.

The film’s merit points to what justice encompasses in Japan, and what does not find room in its definition. Such as retraction. And evidence. Once a judge assigns verdict on the accused, based on the latter’s confession, the film suggests that it is the next judge’s responsibility to insure that verdict is maintained, that a decision, while allowed to be challenged, remains irrevocable. That a voice is finally silenced though the village had long since gone back to sleep.

Sleeping Village

Sleeping Village


Naomi Mizoguchi focused her camera on another voice that has been neglected and silenced for hundreds of years, which is the voice of Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan. Being iron-handedly assimilated by the Meiji government at the end of the 19th Century, the Ainu community has dramatically shrunk ever since. Furthermore, its unique existence had been denied by the contemporary Japanese government until 2008 which used to claim that there was only one ethnicity in the country. Yet to this day, its history and culture remain unfamiliar to many Japanese.

Years of NGO work with the Columbian indigenous people inspired Mizoguchi to return to Japan to look at the indigenous community there, which she knew little about, like  every other Japanese from the main island. After a number of visits, she was asked by the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum to make a documentary, and recommended  4 elderly people in their 80s who devote themselves to preserving and spreading the endangered culture. The 80 minutes long documentary is loosely structured along the turn of seasons, while weaving in the natural sceneries, the oral histories and historical archives, the indigenous activities and rituals, as well as the protagonists’ daily lives oriented by the efforts to spread the nearly-lost knowledge (language, songs, cloth-making, canoe-making, planting, etc.) to the local people, school children, and tourists. The director actively quotes the Ainu vocabulary when depicting the natural scenery and never gets tired of typing explanatory notes, showing her respect for this community. The documentary enthusiastically examines an abundance of focus points, though not always stopping to ask questions or explore further. But as a commissioned piece for the Ainu Museum it fulfills its purpose.

Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan

Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan

Similarly, the expected documentary film format probably wasn’t the first priority for Listening to the Air (dir. Haruka Komori). Its main purpose was to document what happened after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and how the local people managed to recover from the disaster. Komori, a media art student at the time, went to the devastated area immediately after the earthquakes with her collaborator Seo Natsumi where they volunteered while recording what they witnessed. Later, they decided to move to the area to continue their work, which led to a series of photographs and videos. And the commitment still continues in various ways, with Listening to the Air being one of the latest results.

The film follows the announcer Hiromi Abe, who had lost her restaurant during the disaster and started to work at the local radio station, reporting the local events and interviewing the local people, providing a sense of support and accompaniment to many listeners during those following years of trauma. Led by a caring and optimistic protagonist, the simple but heart-warming documentary reveals a tenacious community that won’t be beaten down by misfortune, striving towards the future while not forgetting the past—an admirably inherent quality that endures in those familiar with natural disasters. 

Hiromi Abe

While Listening to the Air expressed emotions contained within the physical context, The Journalist (dir. Michihito Fujii) relies on film language to express mood and atmosphere, with most of scenes happening at night, using dark color effects, and melancholy background music. The fiction is based on Isoko Mochitsuki, arguably Japan’s most controversial journalist today, who in the last few years has been investigating sensitive issues related to power abuse and corruption by the senior government authority. Producer Mitsunobu Kawamura simultaneously produced this film and i -Documentary of the Journalist (by Tatsuya Mori) about the same journalist. With Mochitsuki’s distinctively persevering and fearless personality and Mori’s experience in documenting eye-catching social issues, the documentary is no less dramatic than the fiction. 

Producer Kawamura asked Fujii to direct the film acknowledging that he belongs to a younger generation which has little interest in paper media and politics. This could explain Fujii’s attempt to focus on the political thriller and distance the film from the Shiori Ito rape case and the US military base issue in Okinawa which played a key role in showing not only the journalist’s political stance but also her humanitarian concerns. The film has a young fictional government employee as the male protagonist (played by Tori Matsuzaka) who still maintains a sense of righteousness, paired with the journalist (played by the Korean actor Eun-Kyung Shim). It was reported that due to the topic’s sensitive nature, no major Japanese talent agencies wanted their actors to play the journalist, a claim denied by director. However, the producer did point out that advertisement of the film was never allowed on all forms of broadcast media including radio in Japan, which points to Japanese society’s position on soft censorship. Which is possibly why two distinct productions on the same issue needed to be shot at the same time: as two exclamation marks to address the urgency.

the journalist Erika Yoshioka played by Eun-Kyung Shim

the male protagonist played by Tori Matsuzaka on the left

All three films take on the task of social engagement in order to poke into intractable social issues, with the agenda in Mizoguchi’s film in favor of the Ainu community, Komori revealing tolerance/acceptance when it comes to collective trauma, and The Journalist sugarcoating reality to a certain extent but still being boycotted by the mainstream media. These films have presented a number of caring and responsible female figures, either the directors or the documented subjects, which may still be the only kind of feminist portrait that the Japanese society would accept. But once they become powerful or aggressive like the journalist—the one in real life or the fictional character—they are no longer welcomed. They become a monster, a female gorilla, which is what Ghost in the Shell’s warrior Motoko is once called, although here not without fondness…



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