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Jasper Sharp gets down with the kids

The Japan Foundation’s annual touring film programme is back for another year, and kicking off at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts at the end of the month. Now in its eleventh iteration, the season offers audiences across the UK an insight into Japan and its cinema by way of a wide-ranging and accessible selection of titles assembled by the Foundation staff under a certain theme. This year, that theme is youth, with the eleven-film ‘East Side Stories: Japanese Cinema Depicting the Lives of Youth’ programme travelling to eight venues across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from 31 January to 27 March.

It’s a particularly canny entry point for those with little familiarity with Japanese film, in that there are few themes which are more universal. Younger audience members get the opportunity to see their lives reflected onscreen (albeit from the perspective of a different culture), while older viewers are offered a chance to engage in a little wistful nostalgia for a time when life seemed a bit simpler, or at the very worst came accompanied by its own unique and seemingly insurmountable problems. As an example, one only has to look to Shin Togashi’s comedy-drama Sorry (Gomen, 2002), in which a 12-year-old’s emergence into puberty comes accompanied by those familiar lapses in bodily control that are sure to provoke shivers of recognition.

The scope of the ‘youth movie’ is also very broad, with the films in the season focusing on characters ranging from the piano-playing child prodigy of Koji Hagiuda’s Shindo / Wonder Child (2007) through the feckless student flat-sharers of Isao Yukisada’s Parade (2010) to the nerdy pop culture-obsessive manchild at the heart of Love Strikes! (Moteki, 2011) – the star of which, Mirai Moriyama, will be appearing alongside its director Hitoshi Ohne to introduce the London screenings.

Youth is the very stuff of drama. Younger protagonists represent the ultimate blank canvasses upon which audiences can project their hopes and desires, as life’s lessons are learned, rites of passage are revisited and our underdog heroes emerge to find their place in the world in which they are cast. Sometimes all of these things might happen more than once, as in Keiichi Hara’s magical animation Colourful (Karufuru, 2010) – already covered on this site – in which a lost soul drifting through the ether is offered a chance to make amends for its earthly transgressions by returning to the material world once more, this time as custodian of the body of a 14-year-old boy with suicidal thoughts.

Colourful is the only animation contained within this year’s series. Among more restrained live-action dramas such as Ryuichi Hiroki’s Your Friends (Kimi no tomodachi, 2008), which depicts a friendship between two elementary-age schoolgirls forged through circumstances beyond their control, namely disability, and a chance to see Yoshishige Yoshida’s rarely-screened classic of the Japanese New Wave, 18 Who Cause a Storm (Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin, 1963), there are, however, a couple of films worth hunting down for their gleeful celebrations of the more exuberant aspects of J-pop culture.

One such title is director Suzuki Matsuo’s Otakus in Love (Koi no mon, 2004). Adapted from the manga by Jun Hanyunyuu, it comes chockfull with references to anime and cosplay subculture. Ryuhei Matsuda (Gohatto, Blue Spring, Nightmare Detective) plays the central role of Mon Aoki, a sensitive and sexually naïve down-on-his-heels manga artist with a rather unorthodox approach to his art, which consists of Zen-like arrangements of painted rocks lovingly placed in wooden boxes. One day, Mon is whisked off his feet by the altogether more assertive Koino Akashi (played by Wakana Sakai), whose own amateur manga works have earned her a loyal and appreciative horde of admirers. Her idea of seduction is to knock him out with booze and dress him up as a character from her favorite video game. The ensuing tug-of-love is portrayed within a gaudy patchwork of subcultural references to pop music, anime, gaming and cosplay, presenting a vibrant portrait of what so many young people get up to in Japan, as seen through the eyes of this very, very odd young couple.

More details: http://www.jpf-film.org.uk/films

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