Seven Highlights From the UK’s Best Festival of Japanese Cinema

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Angry Son, 2022 (Film still)
Angry Son, 2022 (Film still)© 2022 “Angry Son” Films Partners

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme explores “the evolution of Japanese cinema”. Here, James Balmont explores a few of the countless highlights

Celebrating an impressive 20-year anniversary this spring is the UK’s largest festival of Japanese cinema – with the latest edition of the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme (JFTFP) collating 21 of the very best works from the country for a bumper event in 2023.

Previous editions have unified mainstream hits, indie breakthroughs, forgotten classics and animated innovations under themes like ‘Dark Minds’, ‘Joy and Despair’ and ‘Secrets and Lies’ – and this year’s event is no different. Under the banner of ‘Always Evolving: Japanese Cinema Then, Now and for the Future’, the 2023 programme poses questions on the history of Japanese cinema, its current global status, and the possible directions it may lead next. The event will tour the UK via 24 cities from 3 February, making stops at places like London’s ICA, Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, Edinburgh’s Cameo and Belfast’s Queen’s Film Theatre on the way.

There are countless highlights to be found this year – from award-winning blockbusters and contemporary horror films to challenging dramas and new queer classics. Find seven great places to start via the films outlined below, and check out the rest via the Japan Foundation website.

Intolerance (Keisuke Yoshida, 2021)

After boxing drama Blue impressed at last year’s JFTFP, director Yoshida returns to the festival in 2023 with a film of arguably even greater calibre.

A young girl named Kanon (Aoi Itô) dies in a horrific accident in a quiet port town in Japan. In the wake of her passing, members of the local community clash in an increasingly unsavoury fashion. Among them are Kanon’s belligerent father (Arata Furuta), a desolate shopkeeper (Tôri Matsuzaka, Wandering), and an inconsolable motorist – all of whom struggle with the weight of their grief and trauma.

A voracious media presence only stokes the flames of chaos in this captivating character study, as tragedy threatens to breed further tragedy in the wake of Kanon’s death. With powerful acting performances and an inspired use of a restrictive colour palette, Intolerance is a compelling and utterly effective work by an increasingly noteworthy filmmaker.

Wandering (Lee Sang-il, 2022)

Nine-year-old Sarasa (Tamaki Shiratori), the victim of sexual abuse at home, lingers at a local play park where she meets a quiet 19-year-old university student, Fumi (Tôri Matsuzaka, Intolerance). He shelters her at his apartment for two months, and though their relationship is purely platonic, it is soon revealed that he is a non-acting paedophile. He’s later arrested by police, who assume he has kidnapped Sarasa. Fifteen years later, the adult Sarasa (Suzu Hirose, The Third Murder) is being abused by her romantic partner – then, she meets Fumi again.

This controversial and challenging feature has polarised audiences with its uncomfortable subject matter – but it’s hard to deny the talents of Korean-Japanese director Lee Sang-il (Rage), who turns 150 minutes of slow-moving drama into something utterly gripping here. He’s helped immensely by the film’s exemplary acting performances and masterful cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo – who shot Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker, to name a few. 

My Broken Mariko (Yuki Tanada, 2022)

The latest film from Yuki Tanada, writer-director of 2008 cult drama One Million Yen Girl, opens with a disturbing news report: a young woman named Mariko (mononymous actor Nao) has been found dead, having thrown herself from a fifth-floor balcony. Her best friend Tomoyo (Mei Nagano) then decides to steal her ashes, and boards a bus headed to the coast to salvage a final road trip.

Though it deals with heavy subjects like sexual abuse and suicide, My Broken Mariko also offers plenty of humour and warmth as the grieving Tomoyo edges towards the cliffs of scenic Cape Marigaoka. A modest road movie at only 95 minutes long, it is ultimately a rich and restorative tale that declares: “the only thing you can do for a person who is gone is to live”.

Angry Son (Kashou Iizuka, 2022)

Queer schoolboy Jungo feels like he has a mountain to climb in this clinical coming-of-age story. A self-described “Jappino”, he is the son of a Filipina bar hostess and a long-absent Japanese man whom he has never met. His life is marred by homophobia and xenophobia, and his mother’s meagre income is barely enough to support the two of them. He lashes out after a major argument, and goes off searching for his father – learning a lot about himself and his family in the process.

Led by a powerful central performance from Kazuki Horike, and elevated by delicate and intimate handheld camerawork that imbues realism and emotion into every scene, Angry Son is a widely relatable LGBTQ+ tale from a writer-director with a strong mandate to tell it. Kashou Iizuka, who is a transgender man, was inspired to create the film after reflecting on the complicated relationship he shared with his own mother as a child.

It Comes (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2018)

Tetsuya Nakashima – who won Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards in 2010 for Confessions – is widely recognisable for his disorientating and fast-paced editing style, seen elsewhere in hyperactive films like Memories of Matsuko and Kamikaze Girls. That idiosyncratic flair is put to great use in this lively throwback to the J-Horror genre, with It Comes offering a sensory overload and plenty of twists and turns.

A couple lives in a modest apartment after the birth of their first child. He’s a popular parenthood blogger and office worker, and she’s a model housewife; together, they’re happy and thriving. But recurring visions of a ghostly entity soon become troubling after a coworker is bloodied in a freak workplace incident. Is it real? Or is it just imagination? 

Cue writhing caterpillars, apartment exorcisms and nods to modern horror classics like It Follows, The Babadook and Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing in this eclectic supernatural thriller.

Under the Open Sky (Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)

Mikami is an ageing yakuza who must reintegrate into society following a 13-year stint in prison for murder. On the outside, he finds few job opportunities. He can’t drive, he has limited social skills, and his temperament is impulsive at best – especially when he’s forced to battle with the country’s rigid and conformist social demands. He’s also hopeful to reunite with his long-lost mother, though his search for her could lead him back to his ways of the past.

Fuelled by a captivating performance from one of Japan’s greatest living actors  – Koji Yakusho, a three-time Japanese Academy Award winner known for his roles in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins Under the Open Sky is the latest work from leading female filmmaker Miwa Nishikawa (The Long Excuse). It’s a warm and poignant drama that competed for the Best Picture prize at the Japanese Academy Awards in 2022 – losing only to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s indie sensation Drive My Car.

Lesson in Murder (Kazuya Shiraishi, 2022)

The director of hit crime drama The Blood of Wolves – which won Under the Open Sky’s Koji Yakusho a Japanese Academy Award in 2019 – returns to the JFTFP in 2023 with a grisly serial killer thriller that recalls Silence of the Lambs and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder. 

Yamato Haimura (Sadawo Abe) is a respected local baker who is convicted for the brutal slayings of eight juveniles and one adult near a secluded house in the woodlands. Masaya Kakei (Kenshi Okada), a young adult who was groomed by the killer as a child, responds to a letter from Yamato and visits him on death row. There, Yamato claims that one of his murders does not match the modus operandi of the others – leading Masaya to investigate the crime himself. He soon finds out that there’s more to the murderer than meets the eye.

Punctuated by scenes of horrific violence, and an unnerving performance from Sadawo Abe, Lesson in Murder offers further evidence for why Kazuya Shiraishi has become one of the most sought-after filmmakers in Japan. Though this one is full of thrills, chills and twists, it’s the nuanced camerawork and clever editing that really elevates the film.