So here I am once more, seated in my customary position somewhere in the murky depths of south-east London staring at my face partially reflected in the monitor of my Mac. Wasn’t it always thus? It seems so, the past few weeks now reduced to a fragmented fever dream of regurgitated sense memories; floating faces from a previous life, flashing neon signs of alien characters, the repetitive blare of electronic melodies echoing through my subconscious. But no – the paper trail of ticket stubs in my back pocket and appointments jotted in the pages of my diary, the unpacked suitcase overflowing with dirty laundry, DVD screeners and chirashi one-sheets, and a camera memory card full of surreptitious snapshots seem to indicate that somewhere within the blur of the past month or so, I was there, back on the other side of the world again.
I don’t know why I always feel the need to make such disclaimers, but yes, I had originally intended to give regular updates on my movements during this last trip to Japan, if only for my own benefit as some sort of confirmation that I was actually there as much as to jot down my impressions on current developments within the Japanese film scene. Somewhere along the way however I was absorbed into the vortex, with barely a moment to draw breath between the stream of meetings, screenings, research sessions and barroom re-acquaintances with old friends. Even sleep was a rare luxury.
This post, then, is the first of several, I hope, in which I will attempt to set down the salient points of my stay, beginning with my first weekend at the legendary Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in Hokkaido. This isn’t intended as any sort of review or festival report. You’ll be able to find these from previous years on Midnight Eye, with Eija Niskanen’s piece on last year’s here and Tom Mes’ from the one before here. No, basically this is just an excuse for my to put up some of my photos from that weekend and assemble them into some sort of narrative.
I’d been in Tokyo a couple of days before flying up to Hokkaido, the evening before spent back in a bar run by a certain pink director best known for his work in the 1990s. All this meant I didn’t get a huge amount of sleep before heading to Haneda airport at some ungodly hour on the morning of Thursday 25th Feb. Turns out I needn’t have bothered rushing as the flight was delayed by several hours due to the dense fog encircling Tokyo, so several hours were spent loafing around drinking coffee and saying hellos to all the others heading up north. These included such notable luminaries as director Nobuhiro Yamashita and actor Ryo Ishibashi, both of whom were sitting on the festival jury – as well as a whole swathe of festival staff members, casts and crews of the films playing there, and numerous others drawn to the buzz of one of the high-points in the Japanese movie world’s social calendar. My own reason for going, aside from the sheer joy of being there and looking out for some decent titles to introduce to England, was to participate in a panel discussion with two other Japanese film specialist programmers, Marc Walkow (NYAFF) and Alex Zahlten (Nippon Connection), about the overseas appreciation of Japanese cinema, which all went pretty swimmingly, I thought.
Without saying too much about the individual titles that played at this years fest, which I’ll have ample opportunity to do over the coming months, my overall impression of YIFFF was that the overall emphasis was on the fun and the films rather than glitzy red carpet posturing (the various financial difficulties suffered over the past few years, not only by the festival but the actual town itself, have been well-documented elsewhere). Outside of the festival, Yubari town was quite an experience in itself. A tiny place about an hour-and-a-half drive from Sapporo otherwise better known for its melons and its now defunct coal industry, it consisted of little more than a couple of hotels and a handful of buildings surrounded by snowy mountains and linked by a main road covered in a thick sheet of ice that made crawling between its small selection of screens, bars, eateries and karaoke joints a pretty perilous experience.
The other most noticeable thing about the town is that its streets are festooned with hand-painted classic film posters, both Japanese and western. This is a clearly a town that takes its cinema pretty seriously. Aside from skiing and melon farming, one can’t imagine there’s much more for people to do here other than watch films, although outside of the festival one imagines that opportunities to catch the latest releases on a big screen must be pretty limited. The eclectic programming mixed recent foreign hits such as District 9, The Hurt Locker, Sherlock Holmes and An Education and home-grown premieres like Tomoyuki Furumaya’s Bushido Sixteen and Shusuke Kaneko’s Bakamono- The Idiots with a host of modestly-budgeted jishu eiga titles, the best of which screened in the separate Off-Theatre section. The less said about the opening film, Surely Someday, the better. A puerile caper movie involving a boy band starring and directed by Shun Oguri (from Boys over Flowers, Crows ZERO), it did at least provide a welcome opportunity to catch some shut-eye. Elsewhere however, there were some great discoveries, with the premiere of Yu Irie’s 8000 Miles Part 2, the follow up to last years Off Theater winner 8000 Miles (the Japanese title Saitama Rapper gives a better indication of the film’s contents) capped off with a sprightly performance from its pert ensemble cast of girl rappers (comprised of Love Exposure’s Sakura Ando and the newcomers Maho Yamada, Fumi Sakurai, Kumiko Masuda and Mayumi Kato) providing an uplifting end to the Friday evening.
It also soon became clear that in packing for my trip to Japan, I’d failed to appreciate just how damn cold it got in Hokkaido in March. Ok, so it wasn’t so much of an issue while watching films of course, but the walks between the various venues and post-screening drinking holes might have been a little less gruelling had I thought of bringing along a pair of gloves, at the very least. The Saturday night ‘stove party’, which followed a mind-blowing selection of ero-guro anime including Naoyuki Niiya’s revelatory kami-shibai workout, Man-Eater Mountain (Hitokui yama), was great fun, swilling down warm sake and feasting off charcoal grilled dear meat, octopus and scallops, although sadly the cold soon got the better off us and we beat a hasty retreat to the cosy Grace Karaoke bar for a lengthy singsong session.
Christ knows what the place is like once all traces of the festival have gone, but it was clear that the locals definitely appreciated the massive influx into their town, and were the epitome of politeness and welcoming geniality. Lovely people. The cosy friendliness of the place was infectious, meaning that it was easy to rub shoulders with the other festival guests, including the highly-personable Ryo Ishibashi, and the legendary Johnny To, who generously treated all of the other guests to a farewell party at a local sushi restaurant. Yes, Yubari 2010 is a memory I am going to treasure for a long, long time, as it was one of the best film events I’ve ever attended in Japan. I pray I make it back again sometime in the not-too-distant future.