JAPAN CUTS 2016: Roundup #2 – BAKUMAN (2015), THE ACTOR (2015), FLYING COLORS (2015)

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We continue our coverage of the 2016 JAPAN CUTS film festival with a look at three modern-day dramas. Additional information, screening schedules, and contact information for the festival can be found HERE.  You can keep up with our continuing coverage of JAPAN CUTS 2016 HERE.

BAKUMAN (2015)

If it hadn’t been for its surprising, unexpected third act, I would have written off Hitoshi Ohne’s Bakuman as a capable but trite drama about two high schoolers trying to break into the manga industry. Moritaka Mashiro (Takeru Satoh) and Akito Takagi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two young men desperate to have a serialized series in Weekly Shōnen Jump, Japan’s premiere manga publication. They enter the magazine’s Tezuka Award contest for newcomers, come in second, have their first collaboration—a blasé sci-fi epic about a planet of clones battling the Earth—rejected, literally go back to the drawing board, and finally create a new property which gets accepted. Then comes the trials and tribulations of meeting the grueling weekly deadlines, the hyper-competitiveness among the different titles being serialized, and their frantic attempts to climb to the top of the magazine’s rating board. There are ups and downs, successes and set-backs. And all the while they have to contend with Niizuma (Shota Sometani), an arrogant manga prodigy gunning for Jump’s number one spot (we know he’s the villain because he draws his manga in what appears to be a dimly-lit dungeon).

There are a few interesting parts in these pedestrian developments, mostly having to do with the sausage-making of the manga industry. There’s a fascinating montage of Mashiro struggling to learn how to use the right ink nibs for different line thicknesses and styles while working on their first submission. The cutthroat inner workings of Jump’s editorial staff, deliberately set up in such a way that each department competes against the others, are so compelling it makes one wish the film had been about them.

The film also introduces some of Mashiro and Takagi’s fellow Jump artists, each of whom are noticeably more interesting than them: a street punk who uses photos of himself attacking people for art references; a middle-aged artist finally given a shot at his own series after laboring for 15 years as a background artist; an obsessive weirdo hell-bent on creating the most marketable manga imaginable so he can strike it rich.

But for a film about the struggles of the creative process, the narrative is ultimately contrived. It’s perhaps ironic that Mashiro and Takagi desperately seek to create a ground-breaking original series while trapped in a storyline replete with clichés. The film is so concerned with making Niizuma evil that it overlooks how his series looks infinitely more intriguing than anything Mashiro or Takagi come up with. There’s also a groan-worthy romantic subplot between Mashiro and a former classmate trying to make it as a voice actress that would have been laughed out of a third-rate shōjo manga. In an early scene, Mashiro compulsively proposes to her in a high school stairwell. She turns, hesitates, and chirps that she “had him in mind…” The lack of sakura petals swirling in the background must have been a production oversight.

But then there’s that third act I mentioned. In short, things fall apart in spectacular fashion. I won’t say what happens, just that it involves a toilet full of blood and a tragic career sacrifice. The eventual resolution may be a happy one, but the manner in which the movie gets there feels honest and earned.

7/10

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THE ACTOR (2015)

Watching Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor was like letting go the end of a big, fat balloon. At first it flies all around with an infectious spontaneity. But it soon slows down, crashes to the ground, and sputters its last. An hour into The Actor I was convinced I was watching one of the best films at this year’s JAPAN CUTS festival. An hour later, as the credits rolled, I realized that I had almost fallen asleep twice.

Ken Yasuda plays Kameoka Takuji, an aimless 37-year old actor assigned to an oblivion of bit parts and supporting roles. He staggers from film to film, stopping only to get drunk at taverns and karaoke bars. The first hour sees him navigate a number of less-than-glorious film shoots. Some of them are quite funny—the film opens with him nonchalantly teaching a pretty boy actor how to die convincingly of a gunshot wound. Others are more intimate and touching. There’s an extended sequence where he tries to shoot a romantic scene in a nightclub with a Filipino actress. Flustered with her Japanese lines, she remains uncooperative until Takuji suggests that they ad-lib the scene while drinking real whiskey instead of prop alcohol. It’s a genuinely sweet look into the tribulations of the profession and the depths of Takuji’s talents. The film reaches its apex when he auditions for a famous Spanish director named Alan Spresso (Frank Cap’chino and Bob Koffee must have been busy). At first Takuji acts out shouted commands in an empty sound-stage. But in an expressionist flourish the walls fill with shadows of characters and props, bringing his audition to life.

But from there The Actor loses all momentum. He falls in love with Azumi Murota (Kumiko Aso), a middle-aged bartender in a podunk, nowhere town. He starts to question his life’s direction, particularly after meeting up with an old colleague on the set of a jidaigeki. The film begins to navel-gaze, becoming lost in slow, drudging scenes of stillness and reflection that seem out of place with the first half. The narrative starts to lose cohesion as well. There’s a bizarre scene where Takuji and his colleague friend go to an avant-garde theater production. We see them approach the ticket-booth, pay for tickets, and go inside. Then Takuji walks down the middle audience aisle, climbs onstage, and starts molesting the main actress. It turns out that the production was one we had seen Takuji rehearsing for earlier in the film. But then why did he have to buy tickets to get in? Why was he wearing street clothes while the main actress was in period dress? It felt like the projectionist had skipped a film reel. By the film’s end I simply didn’t care anymore. I was confused, bored, and thoroughly uninterested.

5/10

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FLYING COLORS (2015)

It’s a bit overlong, a bit indulgent, but Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors earns it. Based on a true story, it follows a gyaru—Japan’s answer to the Western dumb blonde stereotype—named Sayaka Kudo (Kasumi Arimura) who, following a lonely childhood, abandoned studying to pursue a full-time social life in middle school. With her high school graduation looming, she gets forced into a bottom-of-the-barrel cram school. But once there, she’s inspired by Tsubota-sensei (Atsushi Itō), a teacher who actually believes in her. Galvanized by his support—quite possibly the first she’s ever received from an educator—she swears to shape up academically and get accepted to Keio University, one of Japan’s most prestigious colleges.

Comparisons to Robert Luketic’s Legally Blonde (2001) seem inevitable, but there’s one big difference: Sayaka is legitimately stupid and has no qualms admitting it. Here is a young adult who doesn’t know that “south” is the opposite of “north,” who doesn’t know that Santa Claus isn’t real, who, when asked to draw an outline of Japan, scribbles a giant circle. I think we all suspected that Elle Woods was a latent genius. But Sayaka has a whole lot of nothing in her head. This is what makes her eventual triumph so powerful.

Most movies can only handle one really good, scene-stealing character. Flying Colors has two. The first is Sayaka herself, bubbly yet sincere. Arimura brings an infectious enthusiasm to the role as well as a touching honesty. The second is Tsubota-sensei. The closest parallel in Western cinema I can think of is probably Robin Williams’ John Keating in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989). The circumstances of the cram-school environment allow him to customize his teaching methods for each student. He never talks down to them, instead using positive reinforcement and their interests as motivational guideposts. He uses manga and anime as references for otaku students, video games for gamers, and Sayaka’s own vanity against her. One of my favorite scenes shows Tsubota-sensei forcing her to remove a piece of makeup for each English verb she fails to conjugate during a pop quiz. But Tsubota-sensei’s best scene comes when, in a stunning Machiavellian flourish, he convinces a shiftless street punk that the best way to get revenge on his overbearing father who wants him to become a lawyer is to get into the best law school in the country, graduate at the top of his class, and then not become one.

As I mentioned, the film is somewhat overlong. Much of it, particularly the second half, focuses on Sayaka’s tumultuous home-life dominated by her tyrannical father. There are times when this subplot serves the film—the best example being a touching montage detailing how each of her immediate family members sacrifice in their own way to help Sayaka afford extra cram school sessions—but often it veers into self-serving melodrama. Yet I find myself not caring. Flying Colors is too enjoyable, too delightful to let such things damage it in my eyes.

8/10

Nathanael Hood is a 27 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He graduated from New York University - Tisch with a degree in Film Studies. He is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and his personal film blog http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/. You can contact him via email at nathanael@theyoungfolks.com. Follow him on Twitter: @natehood257 and Tumblr: filmsfoodandfandom.tumblr.com