Saturday, July 26, 2008

Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition

Screened: Monday July 21, 16:25 – Spiral Hall

Each year, the festival screens several Japanese shorts and awards a 100,000 yen ($1000 US) prize to the winner of an audience award at the Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition. The goal, of course, is to connect these challenging independent filmmakers and their work with as large an audience as possible, and to encourage future production of queer-themed films. This year’s selection was as strong as it was varied, and provided a much needed view into the day-to-day challenges of gay life in Japan, alongside all the charming fantasies (as well as difficult realities) in the many foreign films that screened at this year’s festival. Let’s look briefly at each film, and then find out who our winner was!

Blue Seeds
(Director: Kawano Hiroki – 25 mins)
‘Blue Seeds’ is a story about an estranged father and son who reconnect while the father lies dying in bed of AIDS. In flashbacks, we see the relationship between the father and the woman who gives birth to his son. She obviously knows that the father is gay – they meet in a kind of club environment – and there is no suggestion of a sham marriage to legitimize the pregnancy. She accepts the fate she is consigning herself and her child to when she decides to have this baby. Years later, the son is a married man conducting a homosexual affair, which he feels honour-bound to break off when his wife becomes pregnant. It is thus a story of how we unwittingly repeat patterns we didn’t even know we had inherited. For all the grief and tragedy of these truncated relationships, however, the film ends with the promise that things will be different for this new baby, and that perhaps even the young lover cast out by the new father will be welcomed back into the life of his family. Provocative, moving, and ultimately hopeful, Blue Seeds speaks to the tremendous pressure gays still experience in Japan to conform to a heterosexual ideal of marriage and family, regardless of the costs to themselves, their wives, children, and same-sex partners.

(Director: Tanada Kiyoshi – 2 mins)
A film so short, cute, and clever, that to describe it even briefly is to risk revealing all! I shall do so here, certain that it will continue to screen and give pleasure to patrons at festivals around the world. Scene: A man and a woman play the board game Othello, in which pieces coloured white on one side and black on the other are turned over whenever the opposing player succeeds in trapping a row of the opponents pieces. This goes back and forth until, in about the third round, the piece turned over appears gray. Now a new player is sitting at the table. A title card reads, in Japanese and English: “The world is not only BLACK and WHITE.” Another new player places a bright red playing piece on the board. Title card: “It’s not all GLAY either” [‘glay’ is a popular misspelling of ‘gray’ in Japan; there is even a J-pop group with this name!] Another shot of the game; a drag queen has joined them and is filling up the board with all sorts of different coloured pieces. As we zoom out, rainbow coloured dots streaking across the screen, title cards read: “Be a colourful!” “Be a juicy!” And that’s it! A simple bi-lingual message in support of diversity and tolerance, delivered in charmingly mixed up Japanese English! What a treat!

Ten Years After
(Director: Igarashi Takayuki – 9 mins)
Imagine you are a young widow. One day, an attractive young man comes to the door asking about your husband. He’s asking questions about your late husband (a friend of his) from behind a beaded curtain that drapes the doorway – a beautiful cinematic metaphor for the barriers that stand between their mutual understanding of the same man. After some initial hostility, you let him into your home. After all, you intuited that your husband was gay. Part of you knew “where he got his kicks.” But this is your first chance to confront someone from the other side of that curtain of ignorance and deception. Your goal is not to lash out at this young man, but to understand. He explains that they had been lovers in college. But that in their final year, he broke it off. “We have to get married. This can’t go on forever,” he explained bluntly. This is the scenario of ‘Ten Years After’, another film that – like ‘Blue Seeds’ – interrogates the psychological reality of the pressure in Japan to remain in the closet. It ends with the cry of an infant, the young widow’s child, and an ambivalent, ambiguous look of compassion, incomprehension and doubt passes between her and the lover her husband cast aside.

When I Become Silent
(Director: Yamamoto Hyoe – 18 mins)
The only lesbian-themed film among this year’s selections, ‘When I Become Silent’ is perhaps the most understated and hypnotically beautiful, in part because of its stylish use of the austere urban landscape around Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building, and because of the serenely beautiful faces of its two lead actresses, who seem almost like and elder and junior version of the same person. It is the story of a professional woman and her younger lover who are about to move in together. The older partner, in perhaps her early 30s, is full of confidence, even promising to quit her job if she runs into any difficulties in fulfilling their dream of cohabitation. Her younger partner, a writer, is not so certain, however. Plagued with doubts, and unable to write, they go out for dinner together to discuss what is troubling her. When asked by her lover, the young writer tells her the story of the novel she is attempting to write, and we are forced to wonder if the plot, involving a love affair between an older boarder brought into a household with a young girl, is not some version of their own love story. Elliptical, beautifully composed, spare and economical in the information it conveys and conceals (both visually and through dialogue), this is a masterful film about the constraints and fragile hopes of a young couple secretly plotting their future happiness. Like them, we are unsure, but the film leaves us more hopeful than afraid that they will indeed find this place of expected domestic tranquility, and that the writer’s creativity will once again be unleashed.

(Director: HiBi-Papa – 4 min)
A computer-animated cartoon about a rainbow-coloured assortment of (presumptively male) creatures that bear a passing resemblance to a Japanese Tanuki (raccoon-dog). They live in a little tumbledown shack behind, what appears to be, the iconic castle at the centre of Disneyland – a kind of low-rent dormitory complex for queers! When the orange HiBi-Chan comes home and tries, rather innocently, to watch a bit of porn (“I [heart] Mens” is the title!), his attention is repeatedly drawn away by the one working out upstairs, the one listening to symphonic music at full blast next door, the one practicing heavy-metal guitar on the other side, etc. Various slapstick scenarios play out, first with dueling remote controls, and then with a too-short headphone cord that keeps popping out of the TV, allowing the whole complex to hear what’s going on. Eventually, the whole place comes crashing down as the other HiBi-Chans strain to listen to – or better yet – catch a glimpse of “I [heart] Mens”. A cute, quick glimpse into a cartoon send-up of our own rather compartmentalized and media-saturated lives!

(Director: Watanabe Kazuki – 25 mins)
Like a lot of young men, Kaku wants it all. And to get it, he has been lying. To his mother. To his girlfriend. To his boyfriend (an amateur drag queen) as well! But his lies are not uncovered until he dies in a tragic motorcycle accident, and all three descend on his apartment to sort out his worldly possessions. What begins in tragedy, soon becomes a kind of domestic farce, as the unlikely trio begins cohabitating, until they can decide what to do with Kaku’s stuff. (The title is thus a play on words: 'Sankaku' is the Japanese word for triangle, but in this film there are also 3 Kakus - the different Kakus that each person knew.) What they discover is that for all his deception, Kaku loved and was loved by all three of them, and that seems to be something worth holding onto. But this is not a maudlin piece about grief or deceit. It is a hilarious, punk-rock fuelled, kicking, screaming, howling celebration of the unexpected twists, and unexpected people, that love of whatever kind is forever bringing into our lives. As the slightly melodramatic opening title card warned us: “Love is the only thing that matters. Don’t laugh at me, or I’ll kill you!”


After the screening, the directors and casts of all 6 films joined us, for a total of more than 20 people on stage – a living, breathing embodiment of the diversity of the community and of the films they were there to share with us. The director of HiBi-Chan, who credits himself as ‘HiBi-Papa’, even introduced us to his own little HiBi-Chan – a 16-month-old boy who was there being gentled dandled by his proud mother.

The audience were asked to submit their votes after the screening, and the winners were announced at the beginning of our closing event, with festival director Miyazawa Hideki, Margaret and Rachel D’Amour all in attendance for the festival’s last screening. Miyazawa-san informed us that the festival had attracted nearly 8,000 visitors, which makes it the most successful year ever (Tokyo’s rather modest annual Pride parade attracts a mere 3,000 participants).

All six directors from the Rainbow Reel screening were invited back up on stage, and then Margaret announced the winner of this year’s Rainbow Reel award…

San-Kaku, directed by Watanabe Kazuki, who was forced to reveal that he is not in fact gay! But which Margaret quickly interjected made us all the more grateful that he had chosen to make this very enjoyable and oddly inspiring film, with its infectious punk-rock attitude of ‘I am who I am and f**k you if you don’t approve’!

But since the Rainbow Reel award is an audience award, the festival thought it appropriate to add an additional juried award this year, and Jonah Markowitz (director of the excellent ‘Shelter’ – see my interview with him on this blog) graciously agreed to judge the selections and give the Special Jury Award to…

‘When I Become Silent’, directed by Yamamoto Hyoe.

Jonah was asked what he thought of the films, and this is what he had to say:

“I live in Hollywood, where lots of movies are made the same way. To see all these young filmmakers telling such different stories in such different ways is really nice to see.”

And why did he select ‘When I Become Silent’ for the Special Jury Award?

“I chose this film because I think it’s a film in which there was as much importance to what was not said as to what was said. And I think that’s very cinematic. But I also liked the way that all of the films showed the importance of women in our lives, even in men’s films, because that is something often left out of these stories.”

So, hopefully, all the directors went away feeling that their work was appreciated, as it clearly was. The festival will offer the Special Jury Award, as well as the Audience Award for the Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition, again next year.

So, with the prizes given away, and without any further ado, it was time to settle in for our final feature, ‘Out at the Wedding’, and bring the festival to a close with our final guests, Cathy DeBuono and Jill Bennett.

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