JFF Plus Online Festival Day 1 – Anime Design, Arranged Marriage and Hitman Career-Swapping

The online component of the Japanese Film Festival is in full swing in Australia, so you can expect me to go back to a daily schedule for the duration. Before launching into my first set of reviews, a quick word on naming conventions. Earlier this year, I read a review at Cineoutsider in which the writer mentioned his Japanese wife’s confusion about the inconsistent treatment of Asian names in the west. Why is it, she wondered, that westerners are perfectly capable of listing the family name first for Chinese or Korean names, but they continue to follow the western convention for Japanese names? Since starting this blog I’ve attempted to be consistent with my treatment of Asian names, although I’m no expert so mistakes may have crept in. So if I ever decide to write about the films of “Akira Kurosawa”, to take the example of one Japanese director well known in the west, you can expect to see his name recorded here as “Kurosawa Akira”.

Project Dreams – How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar [Maeda Kensetsu Fantaji Eigyoubu] (2020) is, I was astonished to learn, based on a true story. In 2003, the civil engineering firm Maeda Corporation established the Fantasy Sales Department, whose task was to plan and cost the construction of the giant robot’s underground hangar from Nagai Gō’s anime series Mazinger Z [Majingā Zetto] (1972-73). This movie (also known as Maeda Corporation Fantasy Marketing Department) tells the story of that project from conception through to fruition.

The project originates with maverick PR Team Manager Asagawa (Ogi Hiroaki), who drops an anime magazine on the desk of web designer Doi (Takasugi Mahiro) and asks whether it would be possibly to build what’s on the cover. Having established that he’s not actually referring to the giant robot, this seemingly random question sparks a lively discussion among the other employees in the vicinity, and before they know it Asagawa has assigned them to the new zero-budget project as “volunteers.” Cue a bombastic opening credits sequence providing anime-inspired action sequences in which each of the main cast displays a supernatural ability to wield elemental powers!

The only member of the new team who is excited by the prospect is Chikada (Honda Chikara), who despite having argued fervently that the hangar would be impossible to build, reveals himself as a massive anime otaku who owns the DVDs and is thrilled beyond measure to bring his passion into his working life. The other three members are less enthusiastic. Other Maeda employees shun them during break times, fearful of contamination by association with a project which seems like a joke, and several senior executives express concern that the corporation will be turned into a laughing stock. It looks like this is going to be the story of a midlife-crisis-driven grand personal project which will backfire spectacularly and end up destroying the careers of everybody associated with it.

PR Team Chief Bessho (Kamiji Yûsuke) is initially the most sceptical, but after being caught off guard by an unexpected compliment he binges episodes with his young son and returns to the office transformed – he’s suddenly moving and communicating in an exaggerated anime style, is bursting with knowledge about the inconsistent design of the hangar doors within the cartoon, and has worked up a full set of blueprints including the extrapolated shape and size of the hangar. Emoto (Kishii Yukino), who spaces out whenever discussions become too technical, is sent on a fact-finding mission to meet soil excavation engineer Yamada (Machida Keita). After the use of a snack food metaphor allows her to make sense of the basic problems and a visit to a bore site allows her to understand the sheer scale of the project, her increasing enthusiasm for this new field of knowledge blossoms into romance. Finally, Doi – the most skeptical all along – is challenged to solve the design problems of the hangar doors via mentoring under a dam engineer (Rokkaku Seiji). When despair strikes the team due to the late discovery of an additional engineering problem (only made apparent on detailed viewing of episode 69), Doi is the one to rally the team and inspire them to find a solution.

This film was an utter delight to experience. It never loses sight of the seeming absurdity of the project, choosing instead to revel in it. As the project develops, support begins to grow within the company, due in large part to the extent to which knowledge of the original anime has permeated society – previously hostile executives provide snippets of fan knowledge to inform the project’s direction, the project team talk about their work as if they were truly preparing a giant robot project to defend against the kikaiju of the resurrected Mycéne Empire, and in the final stages of the project other companies willingly donate their time and expertise to solving the thought experiment in the name of defending the planet. The film makes clear that, despite the project’s concern with a purely imaginary task, it has value in its own right as a testing ground for ideas and approaches which might never have been conceived without its existence. Perhaps most astonishingly, the film is also highly effective as a vehicle for glamourising civil engineering – a large part of the middle portion of the film is dedicated to instilling a sense of wonder at the pure scale of human effort and thought that goes into creating massive environmentally sustainable building projects. The association of dam construction techniques with giant robot infrastructure harnesses the power of childhood imagination to reinvigorate everybody associated with the project – with hints that the fantasy anime world may also leak into the real world in more tangible ways.

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice [Ochazuke no aji] (1952) is a low-key, slowly paced family drama exploring the institution of arranged marriage in post-WW2 Japan. We see this through the lens of the childless Satake family, married before the war and now stuck in a rut. Taeko (Kogure Michiyo) thinks her husband is dull and spends a lot of her time creating elaborate stories to justify her absence from the house in order to go away with friends. Mokichi (Saburi Shin) is an executive at an engineering company who was a Platoon Leader during the war and enjoys a quiet life of simple pleasures. Lately he has been spending his evenings after work dining with his younger friend Noboru (Tsuruta Kōji), who has recently passed his exams and taken a position with Mokichi’s company. Noboru introduces him to the small pleasures to be gained from pachinko, leading to his chance reacquaintance with an old army friend.

The Satakes’ niece Setsuko (Tsushima Keiko) joins her aunt on one of her trips away and is dismayed to hear her disparaging statements about her husband. Setsuko’s parents are in the process of attempting to arrange her marriage, but she keeps ducking out on their attempts to arrange meetings with her prospective husbands. Although her view of arranged marriages has been caused in part by her aunt’s dissatisfaction, her aunt still insists that it’s Setsuko’s duty to enter into an arranged marriage herself. Having been used as an excuse for her one of her aunt’s trips, she drops in on her uncle when she should be elsewhere and spends the day with him and his friend, persistently resisting his half-hearted attempts to get her to meet her family obligations. When his wife returns home that evening and demands that he chastise Setsuko, he confesses that he can’t in all honesty insist that their niece submit when she has such a poor example in front of her. Although this rare moment of open and truthful communication initially worsens their domestic relations, it eventually results in a firmer grounding for their marriage as they become able to relax, be themselves and learn more about each other.

Writer/director Ozu Yasujirō is considered one of the world’s most influential directors, but I’m not sure whether his work is really for me. He’s certainly good at eliciting the performances he wants from his actors, relying on facial expressions and pregnant pauses more than the dialogue itself to convey his character-based drama. This is nowhere more evident than in the shift to more casual and comfortable interaction between Taeko and Mokichi near the end of the film. Although their conversation is important to establish the reason for the shift in their relationship, it’s the shift in the mode of their interaction which makes their exchange plausible after what has gone before. The simple activity of the couple quietly preparing a meal together in the kitchen after the maid has gone to bed goes much further to establishing their new closeness than any dialogue possibly could, and was my favourite scene in the film. While I don’t expect that I’ll seek out more of Ozu’s work – he simply doesn’t make the sort of films which are likely to grab my attention and demand that I watch them – I don’t regret having taken the time to enter his world.

Key of Life [Kagi-dorobô no mesoddo] (2012) introduces us to the soft-spoken Kanae (Hirosue Ryōko), a methodical and organised magazine editor who announces her impending marriage to her staff at the end of their latest meeting. She hasn’t yet selected, or even met, a groom, but she has allocated one month to select a candidate and another month to get to know them before the wedding date, scheduled in her personal organiser for 14 December. When asked what she is looking for in a man, the only answer she has is to repeat the same requirements she has just specified for a new part-time employee – reliable, hard-working, methodical.

Kondo (Kagawa Teruyuki) is a reliable, hard-working, methodical hitman who has just completed a job. Sakurai (Sakai Masato) is an unemployed, debt-ridden, suicidal actor living in a dump who has just failed to hang himself. Their paths cross in a public bath when Sakurai drops the soap, which ricochets off the walls and ends up underneath Kondo’s descending foot. Kondo’s locker key goes flying and lands near Sakurai who – after some hesitation – drops his own key and leaves. Kondo wakes in the hospital with no memory and Sakurai’s belongings, while Sakurai (after checking on Kondo in the hospital) sets up in Kondo’s home and pays off his own debtors.

Kanae is leaving the hospital after visiting her sick father when she happens across Kondo, asking directions to what he has been told is his house. She takes pity on him and drives him home. While he methodically tries to reconstruct his life (tidying the apartment, discovering the suicide note, successfully taking acting jobs, taking notes on what he has learned about himself) the two of them grow closer together. Meanwhile, Sakurai’s new material wealth hasn’t left him any happier and he begins to record a suicide video, including apologies to Kondo for appropriating his life. His decision to answer a phone call which would normally have gone to voice mail leads him to discover evidence of Kondo’s means of living and to become embroiled in cleaning up the loose ends left after the last hit.

This is a quieter and more slowly paced film than I had expected based on the premise, which works to the benefit of one plot strand but the detriment of others. The highlight for me was the slowly developing relationship between Kanae and the amnesiac Kondo. Both are withdrawn characters who find it difficult to build connections but find much to admire in each other. Their shared methodical approach, which might have come across on the surface level as overly clinical to others, allows them to slowly discover each other’s qualities and build a relationship which could develop into something deeper. If this had been all there was to the film, I would have been surprised but happy.

Unfortunately I found it very difficult to connect to Sakurai’s character – whether due to the actor’s performance, or to the overall pacing and tone of the film (which doesn’t allow for an overtly comic performance which might have made him more engaging), is difficult to say. Whatever the case, I found myself utterly bored by his self-pity and his attempts to fake a life as a successful hitman. Even his decision to attempt to save the woman he’s asked to kill failed to make me care much about what was going on in his life. This aspect of the film livened up after Kondo regained his memory and the paths of all three of the main characters became intertwined, leading to a satisfactory resolution of this part of the plot (and some new revelations about what Kondo’s previous life actually entailed), but ultimately the film remains lopsided. The ending demonstrates conclusively that the relationship between Kanae and Kondo was what really interested writer/director Uchida Kenji, closing with their potential reconciliation. By this point Sakurai has completely vanished from the picture – only reappearing in a brief coda during the end credits setting him up with with his cat-loving shut-in neighbour. The sight of him cuddling the neighbour’s cat finally allowed me to find something to enjoy about him.

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