Wood Job

I have been looking forward to this film since it premiered in Japan in May. It stars Shota Sometani (who is in 7 films showing at the festival this year!!) as Yuki Hirano, a city kid who has flunked his college entrance exams and gets dumped by his girlfriend as a result. With no direction in life, he decides to take on a 12 month course as a trainee lumberjack because he likes the photo of the girl on the flyer. It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. If I saw Masami Nagasawa on a recruiting poster for the worst job in the world, I would probably do the same thing.

Regular visitors to Japan will recognise the director’s use of different types of trains to show Yuki moving further out into the countryside and at the end of his journey, he finds himself without cell phone coverage and about to enter a whole new world. From this point on, it’s your typical fish out of water tale. He fails to impress one of his instructors, Yoki Iida (another of my favourites, Hideaki Ito) and as well as the girl on the flyer who catches him trying to escape training one day.

He decides to stay and ends up boarding with the stern instructor and it’s there where his slow transformation from city slicker to mountain main takes place; there and high up in the trees. Along the way, there are dramas and romance, ancient traditions and the constant counterpoint of town versus country. The mountain goddess angle of the film was a subtle introduction to a traditional festival that takes place on the mountain and for mine, really added a deeper layer to what at first appears to be a pretty light comedy. But for me, the scene that stood out takes place back in the city when Yuki smells fresh lumber and the camera focusses in on some exquisite joinery on a building site. It was a nod to Japanese carpentry and by extension, to its traditions that sometimes take place far from the glittering lights of Tokyo.

A really enjoyable movie.

8 axes out of 10

Advertisements

A Drop of the Grapevine

I watched this movie immediately after Snow on the Blades and a more different movie to that would be hard to find. It started as a fairly normal movie about rural wine grower Ao, (Yo Oizumi, from last year’s Bread of Happiness) and his brother Roku (Shota Sometani) who live together but do not share the best of relationships. You see, Ao was a gifted musician and composer who left the family farm to pursue music until an ear infection forced him to return to the Hokkaido countryside. Its telling to note that the death of his father prior to this was not enough to bring him back before this.

He decides to start growing pinot noir grapes in pursuit of the perfect wine and along the way becomes a bit of a prick, something his brother, who felt abandoned by him, reminds him of. One day, the eccentric Erica (gorgeous Yuko Ando) drives up to the paddock nearby and starts digging. For what, we don’t know and she instantly puts Ao’s nose out of joint while getting on marvellously with everyone else around her.

This film had a similar feel to Bread of Happiness about it, not just because of the Hokkaido landscape but also the same quirky feel and also how it left the viewer wondering exactly where this movie was going. Despite going off in some strange directions with Erica’s relationship with her mother and more hole digging, its ultimately a story about the two brother’s relationship, love and acceptance. I ended up enjoying it even if I felt a bit lost for most of the film.

8 lazy glasses of pinot noir out of 10

Snow on the Blades

I really liked this movie. An homage to the dying days of the Samurai in Meiji era Japan, it starts with our protagonist Shimura Kingo (Kiichi Nakai) getting promoted to head of the bodyguards for his lord Naosuke Ii, the First Minister to the Tokugawa shogun. On a snowy day, whilst escorting Ii to the Shogunal residence, the group are ambushed and Shimura is the only survivor, after battling with one of the assassins. He returns to see the palanquin containing his charge full of swords and bloodstains. So begins his descent into shame as well as his 13 year quest for revenge and to restore his lost honour.

The middle half of the movie shows him tracking down the 5 remaining assassins only to find that due to circumstances, all have died except for one, Sahashi Jyubei played by another of my favourite actors, Hiroshi Abe.

It’s this middle part of the movie that paints the scene of a rapidly developing Japan and more particularly, its changing attitudes to modernity and the samurai. Underlying this is a pretty unsubtle theme that honour and the old ways have some validity and that Japan is losing something in its rush to embrace the West. I don’t mind this heavy handedness as the story moves along well enough. We are left to sympathise with Shimura while also getting a glimpse of what our villain, Jyubei, has become and the life he is living now and without spoiling it for you, it leaves the viewer in a quandary.

The build up to the climax is some of the best piece of cinema I have seen in a while with Shimura catching Jyubei’s rickshaw in the snow (a recurring theme and nod to the title). They each know who the other is and the acting here is first class. Even if you are not a fan of samurai flicks, this is a very fine movie and one you should definitely go and see. I am hoping it comes out in subtitled DVD so I can add it to my collection.

9 clashing katanas out of 10

A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story

The third of my intended movies for the festival but only the second I saw was A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story. It tells the story of Oharu (the gorgeous Aye Ueto), a maid in the Edo residence of the House of Kaga who is a tremendous cook. She is discovered and eventually, reluctantly agrees to marry the son of the head chef of the House (Yasunobu, played by Kengo Kora).

At this stage, it’s looking like a fairly mundane and plodding film. Her task is to inspire and ultimately train Yasunobu in cooking, as due to the death of his older brother, he is now required to give up the sword and become a ‘kitchen samurai’, a step down for him. He naturally resists giving up the sword and joining the family business as even at this late stage of the Tokugawa shogunate, the more administrative samurai were looked down upon by those who continued as warriors.

Throughout the first half of the film, I was trying to decide what sort of movie this was. A love story? Wayward son redemption drama? Feel good schmaltz? It was not until the second half that I realised and it made perfect sense. I will give you the answer at the end.

Just to add some spice to the mix, (see what I did there?), the movie takes a detour into castle intrigue with plots afoot and skulduggery aplenty. Our hero loses a friend and it’s left to Haru-chan to do the right thing.

I won’t spoil the ending for you but I will tell you the type of movie it is:- As with most samurai movies, it’s about duty and honour. I think I went in with different expectations and was disappointed but on reflection overnight and after talking to my Japanese sensei, I realised that the film had a quality about it that lifted it above the usual sword dramas and showed an aspect of samurai culture that I was not previously aware of. And it had a nice love story along the way so what more could we ask for?

An enjoyable film.

7 sashimi knives out of 10

Lady Maiko

The 18th Japanese Film Festival opened on Thursday with Lady Maiko and what a surprise packet it was. Telling the story of My Fair Lady but in a Japanese context, it follows the the journey of Kagoshima bumpkin Haruko, played by first time actor Mone Kamishiraishi who desperately wants to become a Maiko, or apprentice Geiko like her mother. A small cultural note, Geisha in western Japan are called Geiko. She happens upon a teahouse and her rural accent is overheard by a linguistics professor who decides he will help our fair lady in her attempt. Hey presto, movie success ensues.

The surprise packet? Well, I did not realise it was a musical. When the camp but stern Geiko valet bursts into song, I realised I was in a far different movie to what I expected but what the hell, hang on for the ride I said, and I was so glad I did.

While remaining authentic to Geiko culture and played by Japanese actors (I am looking at you Memoirs of a Geisha on both counts), this delightful film had the right blend of feel good charm and deft emotional play that does not bother with digging an artificial emotion pit for our main character to fall in.

This movie knows what it is, the director knew what he was delivering and for a sweet and colourful start to the festival, this was a win.

Note: Look out for one of my favourite actors, Tamiyo Kusakari who some might remember from A Terminal Trust at last years festival.

8 Hairpins out of 10

http://japanesefilmfestival.net/jff_movie/lady-maiko/

Japanese Film Festival – Sydney

Yes, its that time of year again here in Sydney. After what seems longer than 12 months of waiting, the 18th Japanese Film Festival has returned with a selection of Japan’s finest films, and this year its bigger than ever. Passing through every state capital and major regional centres as well as Auckland, New Zealand, the line up has grown to sixty seven movies.

I hope to bring you the reviews of those that I get to see but this year, my daughter is at an age which demands a bit more attention than last year so I have already needed to cull my favourites list down to those that fit in with the family schedule. For those of you who have the opportunity to go, I highly recommend it. Original stories are hard to find in film nowadays and those that take place in a different cultural setting are an added bonus for all cinephiles.

Enjoy.

Canberra and The Australian War Memorial

Hello friends,

I think I may have previously mentioned that I purchased a shiny new camera for the coming birth of my daughter. Well, seeing as my brother had just moved back to Canberra, is far more experienced that I in photography and the instruction booklet for the Canon 60D is a pain in the arse, I thought it would be easier to kill ‘three’ birds with the one stone and get myself and the camera to Canberra.

By the way, it’s the capital’s centenary this year. Yes, its one hundred years since the nations’ most distinguished and others got together and proclaimed this former sheep and lambing area the Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia. As a quick shout out to Jeannie, the first reader of this blog, the capital was designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin and personally, I think they did a great job. The city still has the vibe of a big, friendly county town but with urban planning that makes moving around the city a breeze.

Visit Canberra

ImageLooking down from the War Memorial across Lake Burley Griffin to the Old Parliament House and up to the New Parliament House with the large flag pole on top.

Anyways, after a frustrating and laborious drive down from Sydney, I finally arrived at my brothers’ place on the northern outskirts where we had a chance to catch up over a Chinese hot pot meal before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the Canon 60D.

The next morning, the plan was to visit some of the sites around Canberra, including the old and new Parliament Houses before heading over to the War Memorial and then finishing at the Botanical Gardens to try out the macro features of the camera. However, as with all good plans, it did not survive initial contact. While driving into the city, and with my brothers’ wife sick at home, we decided we would just limit ourselves to one location:- the Australian War Memorial.

Australian War Memorial

Image

 

The imposing front entrance of the Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial was opened in 1941 and was conceived by Charles Bean, the official historian of WW1 and prior to that, an accomplished war photographer. It is considered one of the best examples of a memorial to servicemen and women anywhere in the world.

Image

The 5 inch A mount gun of the former HMAS Brisbane and her bridge behind the gun

Surrounded by beautifully manicured grounds with large exhibits, smaller memorials and unit plaques, the visitor could easily spend an hour out here but eventually they find themselves arriving at the main entrance that opens on to the reflection pool. This pool has an eternal flame which is just one of many memorials to the fallen within the museum. Image

Reflection Pool with the Walls of Remembrance to the sides and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the far end

On either side of this area, are the Walls of Remembrance that list all those who have served. As we were visiting the week after ANZAC day, there were still many poppies next to the names.

Image

 

Poppies placed next to the names of the fallen

Why Poppies?

At the opposite end to the entranceway is the Hall of Memory that contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a very serene and respectful place with an amazing dome ceiling and is surrounded by stained glass windows showing men and women of the armed forces and service branches. After my brother and I paid our respects, we moved on to the museum proper.

Once inside, we came across The Hall of Valour that contains the medals, photographs and stories of the ninety-nine Australians who had received the Victoria Cross. This was a highlight for me as there are some amazing stories that are not well known and reading them is very moving. The museum is further divided into various halls housing artifacts, paintings, dioramas and reconstructions of the various campaigns that Australian military forces have been involved in including WW1 and the Gallipoli campaign as well as WW2, then on to the Korean and Vietnam wars, the many peace-keeping missions and then finally our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Image

 

Image

 

Image

 

A six-wheeled Landrover used by the SAS in Afghanistan

I have included some photos of the memorial but must apologise for their quality as the lighting conditions were not the best and the competence of the photographer was even worse.

 Later that evening I got a chance to catch up with my best mate from my navy days for a few beers, some Thai food and some good conversation before returning home to hang our with my brother again. Although the museum was very special, the highlight of the short trip was being able to see my brother, his family and my mate while on a break from the hussle and bussle of Sydney.

Lest We Forget