Japan Cuts is finally coming to an end. There were plenty of films I missed, and indeed several still to come this weekend that I won’t be going to, but, after seeing about ten films in the last few weeks, well, it’s over for me, for this year. Big thanks to everyone involved in making Japan Cuts happen, and for having me as a volunteer. It’s a great feeling to be involved, not just as a spectator, but as a member of a team, an insider in whatever tiny way, rather than a total outsider simply paying to come…
The highlight of tonight, and for me one of the highlights of the whole festival, was that I got to meet Ogigami Naoko (Director of Megane, Toilet, Kamome Shokudô, and now Rent-a-Neko). It’s one thing to see celebrities from a distance – and seeing Yakusho Kōji speak was certainly exciting in its own way – but actually getting to talk to someone is a whole different level. It was very brief of course – just a little more than “I really like your movies, thank you so much for coming here tonight,” “Oh, thank you. I’m glad you like them.” But, still. A special opportunity. And she was very nice, very personable. Shy even. Not like a celebrity at all.
They screened her newest film, Rent-a-Neko, tonight. It was followed by Loan Shark Ushijima, which is a very different film, and which I’ll get to. But, between the two films, I think the theme of the night was very much one of deviating completely from the Hollywood formula, defying expectations or norms.
Rent-a-Neko follows a young woman who rents out cats, to help people suffering from loneliness. She herself has been quite lonely since her grandmother passed away, and herself without any boyfriend or husband, just a whole bunch of cats who, it would seem, are strangely attracted to her. There’s something very sweet about her, as she charges very little, and seems to really genuinely provide people with true comfort, both with her cats, and her words. The film is, for the most part, episodic, focusing on one person after another whom she helps. But nothing ever really develops out of it. There is very little overall plot, and no real resolution at the end.
I’m guessing that Motai Masako, who plays the friendly but decidedly odd older woman in Megane and in Kamome Diner, as well as the grandmother in Toilet, must not have been free for this. Perhaps I’m judging Ogigami’s distinctive style too much from those two films alone [I had not yet seen Toilet when I wrote this post], and expecting too much that this film too ought to have a similar feel. But, with Motai absent, and for other reasons besides – reasons I cannot quite put my finger on – Rent-a-Neko, while certainly enjoyable, lacked that particular feel or flavor which I have come to expect from Ogigami-sensei.
The world premiere of the film Loan Shark Ushijima (Yamikin Ushijima) was the second film of the night. An extension of a live-action television drama based on a manga, and centering on a world of loan sharks, prostitutes, protection money extortionists, and sadistic blackmailers, Ushijima is decidedly a very different film. But, here too we see a deviation from norms that leaves me scratching my head.
Films, of course, do not need to follow the standard, oh-so-predictable, Hollywood formulas. They don’t even have to have clear-cut good guys and bad guys. But, still, there should be some straightforward sense of a plot, and some underlying theme or message, as to how one ought to behave. Or something.
The chief protagonist of this film, perhaps, is the young ikemen Ogawa Jun (played by Hayashi Kento), leader and event organizer of a sort of ikemen idols group. He seems a good guy, near as we can tell, with innocent sorts of goals. He seeks fame and success, seeks to turn this idols group thing into a successful career for himself as head of a modeling agency, or event organizer for big nightclub events… And he’s gotten himself into trouble with a loan shark, with a protection racket, and with a crazy frightening blackmailer / serial killer / torture artist. Now he owes too many people too much money, and everything he does to try to resolve it only makes things worse.
There are a couple of other characters in the movie who are relatively innocent, who are not quote-unquote “bad guys,” but who have simply gotten involved in bad stuff, and who we root for to get out of it, and to survive. But basically everyone else in this film is one kind of wretched criminal or another, making it hard to really feel like we want to root for any of these people.
Maybe I just need to suspend my disbelief or something, but there were just way too many parts of this film that made no sense. Some of it can be chalked up to characters just making very dumb choices, but… To start with, the loan shark Ushijima charges truly ludicrous amounts of interest (e.g. something like 50% interest added on every day), and somehow is able to get away with it. Granted, we do get to see the full process of why it is that the cops can’t seem to hold him. But even so, the very idea that one can buy up others’ debts and then apply your own arbitrary and ludicrously high interest rates seems bizarre. Then again, I guess when you’re operating an illegal extortion racket, anything goes.
Why does Jun never call the cops? And where was the security at this very large, well-attended, high-profile venue, that everyone from the loan shark to the protection racket guys are able to get in without even the slightest indication that they had pushed through, or even ever encountered security to begin with? Where were the security guys, or the police, to kick them out? And, again, why does Jun try to play these terrible people against one another rather than call the cops?
In the end, I feel bad for Jun because he had such innocent, non-criminal goals and intentions. But, in a sense, he really brings it on himself by handling the situation so poorly. At every step, he has people making utterly unreasonable demands of him, and rather than tell them how unreasonable it is, rather than demonstrating any degree of business acumen or law-abiding common sense, he runs off to borrow more money to pay these extortionists, getting himself more and more in the hole. Miko, a friend of Jun’s who is forced by Ushijima to pay off her mother’s gambling debts, similarly makes asinine decisions. She agrees, for some reason, to pay all the interest on her mother’s debts, week after week, but on principle refuses to pay the principal, i.e. the original debts. What nonsense. If she had any marbles in her head at all, she would pay the principal, and refuse to pay the interest. At least then, very quickly, there would come to be no principal to owe interest on. Meanwhile, I guess we are to assume that her mother keeps accumulating new gambling debts because otherwise the whole thing should have been paid off ages ago.
Perhaps the message of the film is that our world is a twisted, nasty place, where the violent and criminal win, and the innocent and noble-minded lose. The message that you need to be careful, to not be naive, or else the world will ruin you, will destroy you. That if you’re going to get involved with the seedier aspects of our society, you had better know what you’re getting yourself into, or you will get eaten alive.