Pia Film Festival Shows Off Japan’s Independent Streak (Pia Film Festival 1996)

Thursday, December 26, 1996

Judging just from the output of the major film companies, Japanese cinema is better off dead. Godzilla and Tora-san may have expired, but their studios are still breeding faded clones from their remaining genetic formulas.

If one looks at the independent scene, however, one encounters another world: a seething, vibrant creativity that threatens to melt the foundations of the movie establishment. It is in part thanks to the Pia Film Festival (PFF) that this cinematic revolution may succeed.

The PFF was launched in 1977 by the entertainment information magazine Pia to support the 8mm film movement already begun by the likes of Obayashi Nobuhiko and Morita Yoshimitsu and provide a major venue for aspiring filmmakers who otherwise had little public recognition.

The effect has been noticeable. Early entrants such as Ishii Sogo and Sono Shion are now independent giants, and recent winners like Hashiguchi Ryosuke have now graduated to 35mm productions, in part thanks to the successful 16mm features they made through the Pia Scholarship program, available to PFF veterans.

The 19th PFF, which ran from Dec. 14 to 20, confirms the high levels of filmmaking that have been achieved. Despite being created on half-of-a-shoestring budgets with inferior equipment, all 11 nominees in the award competition, selected from among 690 entrees, evinced special charms that made them well worth watching.

Yet each was also burdened with flaws that probably made it difficult for the five-member jury, led by film director Kudo Eiichi, to declare any of them outstanding. Perhaps it is for that reason that the Grand Prize went to Fukutsu Hiroshi’s A Cockroach Man (“Gokuburi Man”) which, at a tightly composed 33 minutes, revealed fewer blemishes than its longer competitors. Yet the film, while cleverly manipulating sound and image to delineate the existential anxiety that gives birth to the hero’s eponymous doppelganger evinced less ambition than the rest.

More remarkable was 19 (“Naintin”), the Excellent Film Award winner by Watanabe Kazushi and Kanmori Takashi. While sullied by excessive stylish editing, its representation of adolescent ennui through a youth who, starved for human contact, becomes friends with his abductors left a lasting impression on the audience.

Sophisticated City (“Kiben no machi”) by Iino Ayumu, which won the Special Judges Award, was definitely the most technically impressive of the bunch, expertly visualizing in black-and-white photography the issue of responsibility faced by a man challenged by a serial killer. Much of these stylistic flourishes, however, left a superficial taste in one’s mouth.

Blue Hearts, by Hirosaki Tetsuya, spent every second of its remarkable 112 minutes pleasing the crowd, so it is hardly surprising that it grabbed both the WOWOW and the audience-selected Chanter awards. Hilarious and narratively well-constructed, the film went to any length–however boorish–to get a laugh, and thus unfortunately rarely left the bounds of convention.

Matsumura Masahiro’s gentle love story, The Leading Hand (“Te no hanashi”), was another tightly constructed short; it earned the Just System Award, but was sometimes too light to leave a significant impression.

Other nominees also deserved recognition. Matsumoto Shinba’s Scarred Maria (“Kasabuta darake no Maria”) was probably the most narratively ambitious of the films, daringly weaving between two stories of failing love, albeit with dizzying camera movements that made the film lengthy. Kinoshita Megumi’s Jun Ichikawa-like photography in Moshi Moshi was notable for its self-assurance, but her narrative was so dispersed as to hinder comprehension. Komaya Yo’s Kakeru (“Shiranu ga Kakeru”), the only video work, was a delightful play with words and images that was hampered by technical problems.

Onoue Kazuhiro’s Naked Soul (“Mikiri hassha”) looked like 1970s Roman Porno filtered through the laconic 1990s, while being even more grimily lumpen. Chicken Head (“Chikin heddo”) by Yamamoto Taku was too Tetsuo-like for its own good and Uzuraya Nikichi’s Scent of the Sun (“Hinata no nioi: Sagasu akogare”), while quaint, did not live up to recent personal documentary.

Other sections of the PFF featured new works by recent PFF and other veterans, such as the gently structured Utatane by Miki Hidenori; previews of Nagao Naoki’s Tetto Musashino-sen and the entertaining My Secret Cache (“Himitsu no hanazono”) by Yaguchi Shinobu, the young hope of Japanese film comedy.

By Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 26 December 1996, p. 8.

Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow