Japanese Film Festival

The 35th edition of the Montreal Japanese Film Festival will be held on Friday November 30th and Saturday December 1st at the Cinémathèque québécoise (web). There will be three Japanese films screened for free. The event is presented by the Japan Foundation (Toronto) and the Consulate General of Japan in Montreal. The films are in Japanese with English subtitles. Seating is limited and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. No reservations is required but you’ll need to take a ticket at the box-office.

Karera_ga_Honki_de_Amu_Toki_wa-tpClose-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは、/ Karera ga honki de amu toki wa / lit. “When they seriously knit”): Japan, drama, 2017, 127 mins; Dir.: Naoko Ogigami.

After being abandoned by her mother, 11-year-old Tomo is taken in by her uncle and his transgender girlfriend. Close-knit offers a heart-warming reflection on discrimination and ignorance and, more importantly, on the true meaning of family.

Screening on November 30 at 18:30.

[ AsianWiki / IMDb / JMDB / Official / Wikipedia / Youtube ]

Chihayafuru_Part_3-p001Chihayafuru: Musubi (ちはやふるー結びー / Chihayafuru – knot) : Japan, Youth drama, 2018, 127 min.; Dir.: Norihiro Koizumi.

The young members of a competitive karuta (classic Japanese playing cards) team stand together against the odds and the emotional turmoil they face, seeking to capture and hold on to a treasured moment forever. Can they overcome their opponents?

Screening on December 1 at 13:00.

[ AsianWiki / IMDb / Official / Wikipedia / Youtube ]

La_La_La_At_Rock_Bottom-p02La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース / Misono Yunibasu) : Japan, Drama, 2015, 103 min.; Dir.: Nobuhiro Yamashita.

Redemption is key in this humorous story about an amnesiac thug turned singer. A powerful and moving tale that reveals human complexity, baring charms and faults alike, and will make anyone want to believe in second chances. Added bonus: great musical moments!

Screening on December 1 at 15:15.

[ AsianWiki / IMDb / Official / Wikipedia / Youtube ]

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Festival du Nouveau Cinema 2018

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The 47th edition of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC) will be held in various Montreal theatres (Cinema Impérial, du Musée, du Parc, Quartier Latin, Theatre Maisonneuve, Cinémathèque Québecoise, etc.) from October 3 to 14, 2018. In their own words, this festival is a gathering to “celebrate our shared passion for film, (…) for cinema of all types, from offbeat, one-of-a-kind niche works to crowd-pleasers to daringly innovative big events”.  It is “resolutely forward-looking, has long been the unfailing advocate of new technologies“ making it “the best place around to preview the cinema of tomorrow”!

This year, it will offers over three-hundred movies including ten from Japan (click on the links for details & schedule):

Press review:

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary_and_the_Witchs_Flower-covThis smooth and beautiful animation was produced by the Studio Ponoc, staffed with people who worked at the famous Studio Ghibli. The movie is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (who was a key animator at Studio Ghibli and director of The Secret World of Arrietty [2010] and When Marnie Was There [2014]), with a screenplay by Hiromasa Yonebayashi & Riko Sakaguchi and character designs by Akihiko Yamashita. It is based on Mary Stewart‘s 1971 children’s novel The Little Broomstick (although it is never mentioned in the staff interview included with the Dvd).

Mary and The Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花 / Meari to Majo no Hana) offers a good storytelling and quite a cute story but it doesn’t really look original at all. It rather feels like it is a mishmash of every Ghibli designs: the witch part is vaguely reminiscent of Kiki’s Delivery Service, the witch school in the sky reminds me a little of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, a herd of animal fleeing seems similar to a scene in Princess Mononoke, a costume design evokes Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the girl being away from home with some distant family members is similar to When Marnie was There, etc. This could be explained by the fact that most animators learned their skills while working at Ghibli. However, the influences are not limited to this source: Doctor Dee’s design makes me think of Dragonball’s Master Roshi and even Harry Potter makes a cameo appearance in one of the school classroom! I guess it was all intended as hommage or humour.

If I found this a little odd, I was not really annoyed by it. The movie is good entertainment (critical rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes) and, if you don’t feel the same depth as in Ghibli’s productions,  I was still quite glad that another major studio (even if this is their first real movie) would continue to produce traditional full length anime. Indeed, with the closing of Studio Ghibli after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, I really hope that Studio Ponoc will become its rightful heir… So, all in all, it is definitely worth watching. It is available on Netflix and on Dvd. stars-3-0

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Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex-libris-dvd“Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris – The New York Public Library, goes behind the scenes of one of the greatest knowledge institutions in the world and reveals it as a place of welcome, cultural exchange and learning. With 92 branches throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, the library is a resource for all the inhabitants of this multifaceted and cosmopolitan city, and beyond. The New York Public Library exemplifies the deeply rooted American belief in the individual’s right to know and be informed. It is one of the most democratic institutions in America – everyone is welcome. The Library strives to inspire learning, advance knowledge and strengthen communities.”

Earlier this week I stumble upon this enormous documentary on PBS. If you are into books and libraries, you’ll just love this movie that gives us an extensive tour of the New York Library and demonstrates how dedicated and welcoming the staff of its 92 branches are, what are the challenges they face in order to keep up with the demands and needs of their patrons, and particularly how important libraries can be to foster the diffusion of culture & knowledge as well as artistic creativity. It’s certainly one of the best examples of what an ideal library should be (as I recently discussed).

It is amazing how our local libraries look insignificant and puny in comparison of the behemoth collection and the huge diversity of services offered by the New York Public Library… With 53 millions documents, it is the second largest public library in the U.S. (third largest in the world after the British Library and the Library of Congress). Surprisingly, despite its name, it is a private, non-profit library, but it’s using public/private partnership (and funding) to work in collaboration with local governments (city, state, federal) in providing a large array of services… It is quite interesting (and serendipitous) that, with our imminent provincial elections, a librarian and teacher at the U de M Library Science School has been very recently questioning the commitment of the government in regards of libraries. Will the government create a strategic plan for the development of libraries (like the PLA recently did) ? It is direly needed at a time when the usefulness of libraries (and even our society’s fundamental concepts of knowledge and truth) are being challenged  (NYT, The Guardian) !

Of course, for such an enormous documentary, the reception has been rather mixed (with a critical response at 97%, but with only a 61% audience score, on Rotten Tomatoes) with reviews going from bad (Globe & Mail), to good (Variety) to excellent (The Guardian).

For me it was very interesting to watch and compare (seeing the similarities and differences) our library work here, in relatively small municipal library branches, to what’s done in NYC. However, even with the mastery of legendary documentarist Frederick Wiseman, I do think that 3h17 is really too long for any documentary to keep the attention of the viewers (at least in one sitting)! Many sequences are unnecessarily long. Also someone can get easily annoyed by Wiseman’s “no-comment” documentary style where he just show the scene as it happens without much editing or information (like not telling us who is talking!). In the end, despite those faults, this documentary is definitely worth watching for anyone (with spare time) who’s interested in the realm of books and libraries.

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library : USA, 2017, 197 mins; Dir./Ed./Sound/Prod.: Frederick Wiseman; Phot.: John Davey; Exec. Prod.: Karen Konicek; Cast: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elvis Costello, Richard Dawkins and the very dedicated staff of all NYL branches. The DVD will be available soon from the producing company, PBS or Amazon (UK / FR). It can also be streamed online (legally?)… stars-3-0

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FFM 2018: Wrap-up

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It has been a good festival this year.

There was no scuffle to get the credentials, no problem with the schedule or screenings and an excellent selection of titles. 

Of course, it could be better. Apparently they brought back the Movie Market (and the press room?). I heard it was on the third floor of the Imperial, but couldn’t find how to get to it… In the past, they were always the practical places to access press information and to be able to screen video on our own schedule. However, what I really miss is the press conferences where we could have direct access to the film crew and cast of the movies in competition. Beside that, for me, the festival is already all I needs it to be.

As long as there’s good movies to watch, people should be happy. At least, as long as there’s Japanese movies, I’ll be happy. Although, come to think of it, the festival deserves a bigger audience. In the past, I used to see lots of people from the local Japanese community, but I saw very few of them this year. Most of the movie I’ve screened this year had barely an audience of a dozen people! Of course, there was absolutely no advertising this year and very little media coverage, so it certainly didn’t helped. And the last couple of years have had a fair share of scheduling and screening problems which might also have discouraged people from attending this year. If there is a festival next year (the same question come back every year lately), this really must be improved.

Another needed improvement, beside more advertising, would be more screens. The festival could use at least a couple more rooms of the Quartier Latin (if not the entire floor like in the good old years). However, for that to happen, the festival would need more budget. Not to put on lavish parties, but to make sure that all the movies can be screened at least a couple of times. Why not giving the festival a chance and give it again at least some subsidies?

The festival certainly has its share of detractors. People who don’t think it can improve or who want to see something else in its stead. Strangely, most of the criticism seems to come from the anglophone community (for example, the articles in The Gazette appears to be quite hostile). However, I don’t think that the majority of people in or around the local movie industry want the festival to continue in its downward spiral of death. But we don’t want a glamorous festival like Cannes or Toronto either (yeah, it’s nice to see Brad Pitt or the latest blockbuster with its load of stars, but what’s the use if that movie is gonna by in all theatres two weeks later?). Personally, I want a festival where I can see movies I couldn’t see anywhere else. Movies from all around the world. A festival that gives their chances to young or unknown directors, to small productions. A festival that doesn’t exclude stars, but that is not built around them. That’s what the festival was in the past and I think this formula can still works. There is no other festival like this one. And we can still mend its wounds. We must. Of course, every parties will need to water down its position a little. The government (local, provincial or federal) must look past previous disagreements and accept to provide a little help. And Losique needs to let go of his creation and prepare some sort of succession. Pass on the mantle while still remaining in the background to provide his knowledge and wisdom. If he doesn’t do that, the festival will surely die with him… We’ve seen a little improvement this year, so let’s hope it can continue in that direction…

All in all, this year, I’ve succeeded to watch five of the eight Japanese movies. I am pretty happy with this score. The selection included a great variety: a samurai movie, a docudrama-style movie, a comedy, a yakuza movie and a biopic — I wish I could have added to my score card the documentary, the action movie and the scary co-production!  And almost all the titles I’ve seen were good movies — save one which was a disappointment. Beside this last entry, I was able to write seven articles (including five movie comments) about the festival (which represents more articles than La Presse, Le Devoir or The Gazette each wrote about the FFM !).

Please read our other articles on the festival:

Your can also check the review of the Japanese movies at the FFM by Claude R. Blouin (in French: “FFM 2018: Cinq témoins japonais de la condition humaine” on Shomingeki.org)

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The festival’s awards:

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Ready Player One

ReadyPlayerOneIn a dystopian future (Is it? It realistically could be just our future or it could be a “trumpian” future), the reality is too tough to take and people are looking to forget their troubles. What was originally created as a virtual reality game become the perfect source of escapism for the people. In virtual reality they can be whoever or whatever they want! It is based on the novel by Ernest Cline. 

This is a typical fantasy story where the hero (with a group of companions) must find an artifact to save the world from an evil overlord (or a nefarious corporation plotting to control the world). The only difference is that, this time, the artifact is a legendary Easter Egg in a virtual reality video game. It is also a quest to find the heir to the Halliday’s fortune and ownership of the entire virtual world, known as OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). The movie improves on the book by providing a great visual: the part inside the virtual reality (60% of the movie) was created with motion capture CGI. It is certainly not very original, but it’s brilliantly written and well orchestrated.

For me, what makes the movie interesting is that it’s a treasure trove of popular culture references (mostly related to movies and video games) from the 80s (including a few anime like Akira, Dragon Ball, Godzilla, or Gundam !) that plays on the nostalgia of a long gone era. In that aspect, it can particularly appeal to two different audiences: those who grew up in that era (the Millenials or Generation Y) or those who grew up hearing stories from their parents and have a glorified impression of the era (the Generation Z or iGen, Centennials). It is so rich in references that you could see the movie a dozen time and still discover new ones! 

The movie was well received (with a Rotten Tomatoes critical score of 72% and a slightly better audience score of 78%) and did well at the box office (bringing back in revenue three time its budget of $175 millions). Unfortunately, even if it’s directed by Spielberg, it has the usual flaws of most teenage action movies: it offers an heroic but superficial story (and characters) where the exploding action (full of car races, fights and magic!), a shared cultural trivia, visual overload and an expedited storyline replace the depth and richness that usually make truly excellent movies. However, it remains a great and funny movie that celebrate geek culture. It is entertainment at its best. I enjoyed it immensely and, if you are in the right demographic, you will certainly too. stars-3-5

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The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan

Nakimushi_Shottan_no_Kiseki-PosterBased on the true story of Shoji “Crybaby” Segawa, a talented player of shogi, a Japanese variant of chess. After rising quickly in a shore-kai, an organization that supervises professional shogi status, Shoji fails to fulfill the ironclad requirement of reaching the 4th rank by age 26. With the encouragement of his friends, he sets out to achieve the impossible: to be the first amateur to become a shogi professional. (FFM)

WARNING: May contain traces of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot’s elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.

This is a great feel-good movie based on the autobiographical book about the incredible career of Shoji Segawa, a Shōgi player. Shōgi  (将棋 / “The game of generals”) is a Japanese strategy board game very similar to chess (as you have a king, surrounded by his gold generals, his silver generals, rook and bishop, knights, lances and finally pawns pieces). We often see this type of “sport competition” story (where sport is often replaced by any possible type of occupation) in manga or anime (the best similar example is Hikaru no Go manga by Yumi Hotta & Takeshi Obata, which is about Go, but there are plenty of manga about shōgi like March Comes in Like a Lion) but it is rare to see this type of story in a live-action movie.

The movie has a strong cast of stars, so it is not surprising that the acting is quite good (although I’ve notice poor performances in the case of some minor characters). The photography is good enough (it’s not always optimum, but I guess it’s due to the attempt to give the picture a look of the 70s or 80s). The storytelling is, however, excellent considering that it is not easy to make such a subject interesting and to keep the attention of the audience while showing two guys sweating over a board game! The upbeat music and some comedic devices are very helpful for that.

Shoji Segawa (nicknamed Shottan) is a shy, introverted boy who has been interested in playing shōgi since elementary school. Encouraged by his school teacher and his father (Jun Kunimura), he improves his skill playing against his neighbour Yuya. They both go to a shōgi dojo where they are tutored by the local master (Issey Ogata). He is known for sometime crying after a game (hence the other nickname of “crybaby”). Learning that you can become a paid professional player of shōgi, Shottan (Ryuhei Matsuda) decide to apply to the shore-kai (the Japan shōgi Association’s apprentice school) but he doesn’t give his all and fails to reach the 4-dan level by age 26. A good part of the movie is dedicated to showing him agonizing over his chance of success (despite being a little overconfident) and over his failures. He finds himself in his late 20s, with no high school diploma, no job and becomes depressed. He eventually finds a salaryman job, but keeps playing shōgi for pleasure. He becomes quite skilled as an amateur player and, eventually in his 30s, gets some fame as the amateur who keep beating professionals (a miracle record of 17 wins and 5 losses!). He then starts fighting for the JSA to give him a second chance at becoming professional…

Strangely, nowhere in the movie they talk about the rules or strategy of the shōgi game. I guess, if the movie is solely aimed at a domestic Japanese audience, they assume that everyone know them. Anyway, the knowledge of the game is totally irrelevant to the story. The movie is more about fighting for your dream, learning the discipline (not being too distracted) and to play for the right reasons (not to win but just for the pleasure of it). It is interesting to note that the director, Toshiaki Toyoda, attempted himself to become a professional player when he was younger.

All in all, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is an upbeat biopic that provide a very good entertainment. Well worth watching.

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡 / Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki): Japan, 2018, 127 mins; Dir./Scr.: Toshiaki Toyoda (based on the autobiographical novel of Shoji Segawa); Phot.: Norimichi Kasamatsu, Kôji Naoi; Ed.: Masaki Murakami; Prod.: Ryo Otaki, Kyôichi Mori; Cast: Ryûhei Matsuda (Shoji), Yôjirô Noda (Yuya), Shota Sometani, Kento Nagayama, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Ryusuke Komakine, Hirofumi Arai, Takako Matsu, Issey Ogata, Kaoru Kobayashi, Jun Miho, Jun Kunimura.

Screened at the Cineplex Quartier Latin 13 (Thu. 8/30 at 21:30) as part of the “Focus on World Cinema” program of the 42nd Montreal World Film Festival. There was a little more than half-a-dozen people in the theatre. stars-3-5

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