The Japanese Irreverence

Film POP Hosts a Retrospective on Sho Miyake, a Landmark in the Japanese Independent Scene

Photo Courtesy Pop Montreal

Film POP will showcase a special retrospective of the work of a young, upcoming independent filmmaker from Japan, Sho Miyake for the 14th edition of POP Montreal. The two films being presented are Miyake’s most recent productions, Playback (2012) and The Cockpit (2015). Curator Ariel Esteban Cayer, a fellow Concordia film student and Japanophile, who has been working as programmer for the renowned Fantasia International Film Festival for the last four years, sheds light on the current state of independent filmmaking in a country whose artistically prestigious silver-screen has never ceased to map out the polarities of Japanese realities and fantasies with a strong and enduring undercurrent of rebellious zeal.

Sho Miyake, who will be present during the screenings of his films on Saturday Sept. 20 in Concordia’s J.A. De Sève cinema, is one of many largely unheard voices.

Both films have a place at POP and deserve to be included within the musical cultural event for different reasons. The Cockpit dives into Tokyo’s underground hip-hop scene: showcasing a group of sampling musicians building beats in a shoebox-sized apartment. The film takes its audience’s mind through the repetitious, hypnotic process of beat-making and sampling, revealing the block-building, looping magic behind the final finished product.

On the other hand, Cayer teases, “the musical quality of Playback relates more to the rhythm with which its story unfolds,” that of an ageing voice-actor stuck in a midlife crisis, transported back into his past through a strange, introspective reverie. These gems will give their audience glimpses into a sensuous and private world; contemporary work trickling from one of the world’s richest cinematic heritages and generations of relentless boundary-pushing filmmakers.

Japanese Cinema in Retrospect
For a better understanding of the relationship between the industry and those that work outside it, a brief overview of Japan’s modern film industry is necessary: in the Golden Age of the 1950s, the Japanese film industry was under the monopoly of six major studios—of which three (Toho, Toei and Shochiku) still, to this day dominate the entertainment mainstream.

These studios established themselves by delivering the works of the great masters that we all know from every ‘Top Ten Best Japanese Films Ever Made’ list: Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yoji Yamada, to name a few.

The genius expertise of these artists set the bar at an all-time high and in order to enter the industry, youthful newcomers were tutored as humble assistant directors, under a strict student-teacher hierarchy. It wasn’t until a roaring new wave of radical individuals, much like their French counterparts, that a movement was launched aimed at rejecting the ideologies, styles and stories of the past, which they saw as antiquated, over-reliant on literary adaptation and out of touch with current realities.

Although New Wave filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige Yoshida or Masahiro Shinoda all started out at Shochiku, the company which had nurtured the restrained, traditional artistry of Ozu, their films chronicled the younger generation’s iconoclasm, in a time of deep social unrest. Studio heads saw how their verve might invigorate a cinema undermined by the domestic attractions of television.

“Young audiences at the time marveled and mimicked the cool irreverence of the film’s causeless rebels, and the slick poise of Japanese modernity, coupled with a selective appropriation of American styles, enhanced by nifty cinematography, continues to fascinate audiences today,” said Cayer.

Tools for an Alternative Socio-historical Narrative
In 1959 and 1960, when these directors made their debuts, mass protests against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) were raging. Oshima himself responded quickly to these events, making Night and Fog in Japan as a satire on the disunity of the radical left.

By the mid 1960s, Japan’s postwar economic miracle was at its height: 1964 witnessed the opening of the shinkansen, the Tokyo Olympics, and Japan’s admission to the OECD. But there was a dark underside to this success story, and the New Wave directors were its chroniclers. Shohei Imamura’s films can be read as an alternative social history, focusing on those excluded from the official postwar narrative of peace, reconstruction and economic growth.

In films like Death by Hanging, Oshima denounced the power of the Japanese state and highlighted the oppression of the ethnic Korean minority in Japan. The history of the New Wave shows both the rewards and penalties of innovation and independence.

In the late 1960s, its directors were able to work on subject matter and in styles of their own choosing, producing some of the most individual and imaginative films in the history of Japanese cinema. The unforgettable B-movie visionary Seijun Suzuki has had considerable influence, in elaborating a boundlessly inventive pop-art aesthetic of frenzied and voluptuous excess: in Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill (a film that Jim Jarmusch revers to and cites explicitly), disaffected yakuza gangsters sprawl through surreal and seedy streets and deal with a unanimously corrupt society.
Such stylistic exuberance and narrative chaos, despite the films’ commercial success, were deemed incomprehensible by studio heads who ultimately revoked Suzuki’s contract. Within a few years, funding became scarce for workers outside the studio system.

Independent Cinema & Major Studios: The Conflict
Once the home of serious auteur directors, the major studios became hostile environments for filmmakers unwilling to produce mass-audience fare. Rather than nurture new talent or develop new ideas, they recycled tried-and true formulas whose appeal was simply steady returns.
In the 1990s, while the mainstream was growing ever more sclerotic, new blood was injected into the industry with the arrival of young filmmakers, with diverse sensibilities: Shunji Iwai’s arthouse production, Hideo Nakata’s and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hugely influential and oft-imitated and remade approach to horror (Ringu and Pulse a.k.a. Kairo, respectively), Takashi Miike’s hyper-productive shock cinema, to name a few.

All seem desirous to shape a more contemporary and personal cinema within the bounds of the industry. The international sway of Hollywood packaged glamour has its share on Japanese screens, but it seems Japanese audiences remain faithful to domestic entertainment.
Against all odds, it is through independent film and a local theatrical scene that the most exciting, aesthetically groundbreaking film genres were coming to the fore. For example, Sogo Ishii is credited as a precursor to the underground cyberpunk movement that emerged in the 1980s, of which Shinya Tsukamoto is another definitive example.

Ever since the generational break within Japanese cinema in the 1960s, the desire to reject the status quo has grown considerably.

A stable manifestation of this is the perpetual return to and innumerable derivations of what Oshima had launched with his Cruel Story of Youth: the alienation and solitude of young people, determined to live on the margins of society.

This underground rebellion against rigid social constructs, portrayed in so many films of the 60s, up to today (in the more low-key and nonchalant work of contemporary filmmakers such as Yuya Ishii or Satoshi Miike, for example) mirrors exactly the romantic desires of young film artists forging their visions outside of the stale studio system.

The flourishing of independent filmmakers coming out of Japan, producing low-budget films on their own and with their friends, is largely invisible to a worldwide audience, despite sporadic festival show-casings.
However, a growing number of small theatre venues have started screening independent Japanese films in the 1990s, including several mini-theatre operators like Tokyo’s Theater Shinjuku and Eurospace, who started investing in film production. Not to forget, the rise of new-media venues, like cable and satellite channels, have also created more demand for indie films, all this building towards an increasingly tasteful and attentive audience.