The Japan Foundation’s Japanese Film Festival has been a highlight of my annual viewing experience for a few years now. This is, after all, the festival that introduced me to long running favorites like If Cats Disappeared From The World (2016, dir. Akira Nagai) and Anthem of the Heart (2015, dir. Tatsuyuki Nagai), along with a few other memorable pieces – Ryota Nakano’s Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016) and Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse (2016) come to mind.

This year, I was particularly worried about not being able to fit in at least a few movies to my hectic schedule, but luckily Shangri-La Plaza, where the festival is typically held here in Manila, is but a stone’s throw away where I’m currently staying with the fiancée. I was able to watch a few films within two days, sandwiched between bouts of work for clients. I would have definitely liked to watch more, but alas, time is an unrelenting master. I’m happy to report my choices (thanks to my fiancée for picking some animations for me) were very decent, if not downright entertaining picks from the festival. As always, the festival organizers did really well in making this year’s lineup.

A lot of the films I’m reviewing here I’ve also logged to my letterboxd, where I post a lot more about films I may not necessarily blog about here. So if you’re interested, come give me a follow!

Blue Thermal (2022, dir. Masaki Tachibana)

Tamaki Tsuru is a newly-minted freshman at Aonagi University, and she’s excited about opening the first chapter of her college life. Above everything, she’s looking forward to creating a college experience full of socializing (as she describes it at one point, a “smorgasbord of socialization!”) and, perhaps more importantly, some romance. However, fate has other plans for her, as a clumsy accident on her first day leads her into signing up for the university’s gliding club.

Through the gliding club, Tamaki goes on an adventure for self-discovery. The club’s captain quickly discovers her innate talents for flying. At last, Tamaki finds a way to heal her past scars and flies her heart out into the skies.

The entire flying storyline reminds me of Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises (2013), but this is certainly lighter fare than that. Most of the plot is designed to make this into a feel-good movie, which I think does get in the way of its potential to be a truly memorable and stand-out film. But a light fare is always welcome, and director Masaki Tachibana is able to keep up the pace from beginning to end. The animation isn’t much to speak of (standard anime movements on sunlit frames) but isn’t really terrible either. Overall, it’s a fun little film to cap a day off of crime procedurals and family drama at this year’s Eigasai.

In The Wake (2021, dir. Takahisa Zeze)

Takehisha Zeze’s drama cum police procedural takes a sobering look at the scars left behind in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake (the film was initially released just after the 10th anniversary of the disaster). At the forefront are survivors Tone (Takeru Satoh) and Kan-Chan (Kaya Kiyohara) who must find a way to reclaim their disrupted lives nine years after the disaster, while a disgruntled police detective (Hiroshi Abe) pieces together a series of connected killings.

Sato is always a welcome presence (he also stars in If Cats Disappeared From The World) but his performance here really pushes the border between realistic human and hyper-kinetic anime. He carries his role of the lonely, traumatized survivor bearing the weight of his tragic past on his shoulders, but one ends up wanting a little bit more out of the star. A pivotal conversation halfway through the movie between Tone and Kan-Chan, reunited years after the disaster, could have been his opportunity to really shine, but the script doesn’t seem to quite give him that space.

The script, after all, was busy with other matters. The narrative juggles between three time periods: 2011, days following the earthquake, as Tone and Kan-Chan begin their bond; a few years later, as Tone leaves to try and get work in the city; and then nine years after the quake, when the murders begin to happen. All plot lines run in parallel, with little to no signals provided to the viewers where we are in the narrative (hint: watch Sato’s hair). It’s a fun little exercise in attention, and it keeps the audience on their toes as the mystery unravels little by little.

Though of course this also means that at times, the complicated narrative structure gets clunky, and almost grinds to a halt. Nevertheless, the audience’s attention is suitably rewarded. A fun experience for any fan of the police procedural… or Rurouni Kenshin.

Inu-oh (2021, dir. Masaaki Yuasa)

Ah yes, QUEEN in ancient Japan. A terribly fun and hilarious movie to sit through, especially on the big screen. Masaaki Yuasa and company appear to be mostly just having fun in this one, and it definitely shines through to the audiences. The film opens with the birth of an unnamed and deformed child, whose ghastly face and monstrous body terrifies his mother and father. Then, after the title sequence, we are introduced to Tomona, who is looking for answers to a mysterious moment that happened in his childhood, a moment that left him blinded and his father dead.

Growing up, Tomona is recruited by an old biwa (a traditional Japanese string instrument) priest, and eventually trains to become a member of the shogun’s favorite troupe. During this apprenticeship, he meets the deformed child from long ago, and they begin an unlikely friendship. Because of his blindness, Tomona hardly flinches at the child’s terrible appearance. Through Tomona’s playing the biwa, the deformed child discovers a passion for dancing, and discovers his fate of singing and dancing the stories of an old, defeated warrior clan.

The eccentric, woodblock print inspired animation style adds a surreal twist to the already refreshing plot of a traditional biwa musician discovering rock and roll in Feudal Japan.

Lessons In Murder (2022, dir. Kazuya Shiraishi)

This movie took me places I wasn’t expecting to go. It’s the last one I saw from the festival, but it’s also the last one I’m mentioning in this post because I really want to get into a little more detail about what I found so satisfying about the film. Also, for some reason, it’s not listed on Letterboxd yet, so I don’t really have any other place to pontificate about its genius.

Anyway, the writers take little time setting up the plot: college student Masaya Kakei (Kenshi Okada) receives a letter from notorious serial killer Yamato Haimura (Sadao Abe), asking him to meet at the prison where Yamato is held. From the way Masaya is addressed in the letter, it’s immediately apparent that the two share some form of acquaintance, or were at least familiar in some earlier time, before Yamato was arrested on suspicion of nine murders.

We later learn that Yamato Haimura once ran a bakery that Masaya frequented when he was in middle school. Through the bakery, Yamato lured in young children in high school, mostly aged 17 to 18 years. He would take them to his house at a remote part of town next to a forest, and there he would torture them for days. Part of his MO is removing the children’s nails one by one. This grisly scene is shown in a perfectly choreographed flashback sequence, with a perfect balance of gore and highly suggestive acting and camera work. The make up department sure spared no expense making the nail removal shots as convincing (and stomach churning) as possible.

At his arrest, Yamato is unapologetic about his murders. He even claims he might not have been captured, had he not let his confidence run too high, and that he would certainly kill again, if allowed to roam free. Torturing and murdering the children, he claims, is essential to his identity. Naturally he is sentenced to death on nine counts of murder – but Yamato denies having any involvement in the ninth one. Thus is the purpose of his correspondence with Masaya: he asks Masaya to investigate the case once more and help him find the other killer still roaming free in town.

Like In The Wake, this movie depends on separate timelines running in parallel throughout the movie’s runtime, but Kazuya Shiraishi is much more playful and experimental with how he handles the narrative structure. The film makes good use of news reels, interviews, and flashbacks to move around various periods in Yamato and Masaya’s lives, and in the process reveals mystery that spans far and wide within the community. Yamato and Masaya, we learn, are even more deeply connected than initially suspected, and Yamato’s MO benefits from the conservative mores of modern Japan and the heavy weight of family secrets.

Of course, all this would have broken down had it not been for the performance of its primary star. This is after all, a Japanese take on the Hannibal Lecter lore, and such an enterprise requires a standout performance from Sadao Abe. Abe even outshines our primary hero in Kenshi Okada, whose acting at times feel monotone and wooden at worst. Even in scenes where Abe can only be seen from behind the glass panel of his prison’s visitation room, he manages to terrify and puzzle viewers.

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