JFF Plus Online Festival Day 2 – Dance with Me, Little Fox

After cramming 6 hours of viewing together for Day 1, I needed a bit of a breather so I decided to skip the 160 minute heart-warming drama about a nice young man who died too young. I went instead with the musical comedy and the fox fable.

Dance with Me [Dansu wizu mî] (2019) demonstrates that it’s not always as fun as it might seem to live your life in a musical. Career woman Shizuka (Miyoshi Ayaka) is landed with the care of her niece for the weekend, just as she’s trying to complete a huge amount of work for a Monday morning meeting which could be important for her future. After finally finishing her work, she remembers the free amusement park ticket which stuck to her heels the previous day. At the park her niece, nervous about her role in an upcoming school musical, drags her into a shabby stand to visit a dodgy hypnotist (Takarada Akira). He tells her that, beginning the next day, she will feel like she’s the centre of her own personal musical every time she hears music.

Shizuka used to sing and dance all the time as a child, but has buried that side of her since an incident of stage fright in grade five and can’t stand musicals because it makes no sense for people to suddenly break into song – so she’s a little surprised when her morning iPod music almost leads her to dance into traffic. Determining to avoid music for the rest of the day, she’s horrified when her new boss (Miura Takahiro) adds a song to their presentation and she ends up dancing across the desks – and discovers that while it looked to her as if the entire office staff joined in, they were in fact staring in amazement at her. Fortunately it turns out that her performance sealed the deal – but a celebratory dinner at a quiet (and very expensive) restaurant goes wrong when a band comes in for a birthday celebration, leading to her swinging from the chandeliers. As it turns out, her amazing ability to tug away tablecloths without disturbing the meals on top of them wasn’t as successful as it first appeared, and she’s left with a huge bill for damages which she can only pay off by selling all of her possessions.

Returning to the amusement park only to discover that the hypnotist has done a runner to escape his debts, she runs into Chie (Yashiro Yuu), the woman who seemed to have been hypnotised into thinking onions taste like apples (is that what happened to Tony Abbott?) but was actually his accomplice. They end up on the road together chasing across Japan to try to catch the hypnotist (now performing under a different name) at one of his elusive performances and have him undo his work. At this point the movie transforms into an odd-couple female-bonding picture, peppered with musical numbers as the two women find themselves encountering various complications such as street gangs (leading to a rap battle dance-off) and a lonely busker (Chay), a singer-songwriter on her way to perform at a friend’s party which turns out to be a surprise appearance at her ex-boyfriend/singing partner’s wedding to the new girl – not the only instance of male betrayal in the film. Chie has been abandoned by her temporary business partner without being paid and is later conned by an attractive guy they meet on the road. Shizuka’s new boss is the idol of her female co-workers, but she is the only one who suspects that his sheepish grin is a calculated performance to make him appear unaware of the effect he has on women. The fact that a position has just opened up on his team due to the young female employee suddenly going on an extended “holiday” which will have a negative effect on her career progression doesn’t ring any warning bells, but he later leaves his dinner with Shizuka to take a “business call” which turns out to be from that same disgruntled employee, feeling the frustration of her enforced absence.

Star Miyoshi Ayaka is an actress and model who used to be a member of J-pop girl group Sakura Gakuin (2010-12). Yashiro Yuu plays well opposite her as the impoverished slob who wants to start her own dance studio. Chay (real name Nagatani Mai) really is an established singer-songwriter with a back catalogue going back to 2012 and is clearly having a ball, especially when she embraces the crazy and charges across the room at her ex’s wedding. (She also has a small but crucial role to play in ticking the last boxes for a full romance-free happy ending.) And Takarada Akira brings a credibility to his role as a faded celebrity magician which is difficult to fully appreciate without having grown up in Japan, where he would have been a constant presence. A respected actor who has some experience with stage musicals, including the preparation of a 1970 adaptation of Gone with the Wind, he’s best known for his appearance in multiple Godzilla movies, playing navy diver Ogata Hideo in the original Godzilla [Gojira] (1954) and appearing in five further series entries between 1964 and 2004 – it would be six, but his appearance in Godzilla (2014) was cut before release.

It’s pretty lightweight but a lot of fun, supported by an able cast of performers. It doesn’t really take advantage of the premise to interrogate the form of the cinematic musical, but then it doesn’t really need to – it’s an entertaining romp with solid dance numbers, fun characters and female self-realisation.

Gon, the Little Fox [Gongitsune] (2019) is a melancholy short film based on a popular children’s story written in 1930 by Niimi Nankichi, who has been described as the Japanese Hans Christian Andersen. Hyoju is a soft-hearted boy who deliberately misses his shot whenever his father takes him out to hunt foxes. When his mother falls ill he goes out to catch her an eel, her favourite food, but it’s stolen by the young fox Gon. When Gon sees that Hyoju’s mother has died, he feels bad and starts to leave gifts of food for Hyoju every day, which improves both of their lives until the tragic ending.

Director Yashiro Takeshi has created his stop-motion animation using carved wooden puppets, real fur and other natural materials. Gon looks like a regular fox when there are humans around, but for most of the film he better resembles a small boy walking around in a fox suit, making it easier for the audience to empathise with the fox’s playfulness (seen by the humans as nuisance behaviour) and his compassion for another creature who has also lost a mother.

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