At IFFR 2021, two Japanese films provide complementary perspectives into the intersection of class and gender

At first glance, the two films look quite different, and yet they succeed in drawing out what they see as certain fundamental features of the national temperament.

Srikanth Srinivasan February 14, 2021 10:29:50 IST
At IFFR 2021, two Japanese films provide complementary perspectives into the intersection of class and gender

A still from Yukiko Sode's Aristocrats

Like several events over the past year, the 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was reconceived in light of pandemic-imposed restrictions. In addition to a significant part of the proceedings taking place online, the festival is also split across February and June, with a host of repository screenings (online and off) and a special exhibition at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam offered for audiences in the interceding time.

It was also the year that the festival found a new director in Vanja Kaludjercic, who, in an interview with Screen Daily, evoked her work as a programmer with festivals specialising in a diverse range of cinemas. The programming at IFFR this year, too, was nothing if not eclectic. The films on showcase spanned a range of styles, genres, budgets and themes, suggesting a festival beginning to open up to newer horizons while remaining focused on its mission of promoting up-and-coming talent around the world. The June leg of the IFFR promises to throw more light on the overall character and orientation of the festival under the new direction.

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Two films set in Japan, featured in the Big Screen Competition section of the festival, provide complementary perspectives into the intersection of class and gender in Japanese society. At first glance, the films couldn’t be any more different: one is a classically-styled fiction, while the other is a sport documentary. Yet, the two succeed, in their own ways, in drawing out what they see as certain fundamental features of the national temperament.
Adapted from Mariko Yamauchi’s serialised novel Ano Ko wa Kizoku (2015-16), Aristocrats presents two narrative arcs each centred on one young woman. Hanako (played by Mugi Kadowaki) is the last child of an upper-class household in a posh ghetto of Tokyo. The opening scene, a New Year dinner in an upscale restaurant, establishes the family dynamic: just jilted by her fiancé, Hanako sits humiliated in silence as everyone from grandma to her sisters offers tone-deaf advice on how she should find a new partner soon.

And so, Hanako is sucked into the rigmarole of arranged marriage, meeting one unsuitable boy after another in locations across Tokyo. Where another film might have dispatched these unfortunate encounters in a quick, comic montage, director Yukiko Sode chooses to flesh out each meeting, dwelling on Hanako’s discomfort in not just interacting with these basket cases, but in negotiating these alien spaces of the city.

The problem with Hanako, however, is less romantic than existential. She is a cipher with no identity of her own. Brought up in the cocoon of ultra-privilege, she never comes into her own, moving straight from the role of a father’s daughter to that of an aristocrat’s trophy wife to that of a mother to a political heir. In the duty-bound upper echelons of Japanese society, Hanako must fulfil the social function ordained for her, whether she wills it or not.

Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), on the other hand, has always had to fend for herself. Born in a modest household in the provinces, Miki is nearly forced to drop out of her college by her ne'er-do-well father and takes up a job as a hostess to be able to continue her studies. Not all spaces of Tokyo are open to her, but as a working-class girl, she enjoys freedoms that Hanako in her regimented social station cannot. She lives alone in a studio in the city, drives around on a bicycle and forges friendships in a way her social better can’t imagine. Even formally, her story moves freely between the past and the present, in contrast to the strict linearity of Hanako’s narrative.

The first time the two women meet, it’s in order for Hanako to confront Miki about her relationship with her aristocrat husband, whom the latter had met in college and had an affair with ever since. What one expects from the scene is an expression of jealousy and anger from the women; what we get, instead, is mutual curiosity and respect. The affair itself comes to an end in a dignified, bittersweet fashion.

The two meet one more time in the film. Hanako, resigned to her gilded cage, spots Miki on the road. Miki takes her to her tiny studio, which Hanako peruses with a fascination recalling Greta Garbo’s ‘memorisation’ of the bedroom in Queen Christina (1933). It’s a busy loft, filled with souvenirs and photographs, attesting to a life of individual enterprise and genuine camaraderie – concrete signs of a personality that prompts Hanako to take control of her own life.

Issues of class and gender identity are present in a more subdued manner in Witches of the Orient, French filmmaker Julien Faraut’s documentary about Japan’s legendary national women’s volleyball team that won the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Given the epithet of the film’s title by the Soviet press for their athletic wizardry, the team went undefeated for 258 games in the early sixties – a still unbroken record – and were eventually assimilated into Japan’s broader pop culture.

The film opens with a lunch meeting between some of the players as they are today. Faraut takes us through their daily sport routine, while their voices on the soundtrack furnish recollections of their glory days. Some of the teammates are no more, some infirm, but most still very fit, and at least one still coaching younger volleyball teams. The film doesn’t get too much into the details of their private lives, allowing their public role to take centre stage.

The team originally belonged to a textile factory in the Osaka prefecture, where the women worked at daytime. After their shift, they would train for the rest of the day, sometimes until dawn. Faraut, who is in charge of the audiovisual repository at the French national sports institute, INSEP, unearths archival clips that show the rigours of the women’s training: a barrage of balls directed at individual players, who keep throwing themselves at the ground with the last ounce of energy in order to gain the points that will allow them to wrap up the session.

Faraut charts the team’s dream run by intercutting footage from the games with clips from an animated television series that was later made based on the team’s sporting exploits. Set to pulsating electronic music, these dynamic sequences neatly illustrate the way the rugged working-class bodies of the players were idealised and exaggerated into elegant, expressive anime forms that became part of Japan’s popular lore.

Towards the end of the film is a sequence presenting Japan’s astounding rise from a country left in ruins by the war to being a global industrial giant in less than two decades. In a bit of cultural essentialism, Faraut equates this economic miracle with the volleyball team’s ascent to world domination, the common thread being the indomitable determination of the Japanese in beating almost impossible odds. It is pertinent that the team’s brutally exigent coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu, was a commander in the Imperial Army who survived starvation with his platoon in the Burmese jungle.

Despite the heterogeneity of their source material, both Aristocrats and Witches of the Orient adopt a relatively simple style that can at times even feel rather flat and disinterested. But through accumulation of detail upon detail, both films manage to achieve a certain critical weight and emotional resonance. They are likely to travel far.

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B

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