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Jasper Sharp on the movies coming to a cinema near you

It is that time of year again, when the Japan Foundation treats audiences across the UK to their lavish smorgasbord of the latest and best in Japanese cinema, running this year from 30th January to 26th March. Its annual touring programme has snowballed in scope and ambition over the ten years, and has now expanded to a total of 13 titles shown throughout 11 venues across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, kicking off at its regular launch pad of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The organising principle of the programme of “Encounters” is looser than in previous years, focusing on “titles in which characters experience seemingly unusual meetings, plunge into unexpected circumstances and new environments, as well as collide with different generations, ideals and ideas – asking the question, does it really only happen in the movies?”

The range of movies shown covers dramas, crime movies and comedies and includes retrospective screenings of two seldom-shown Japanese classics, Seijun Suzuki’s giddy portrait of 1960s cabaret culture Carmen from Kawachi (Kawachi Karumen, 1966) and the celebrated auteur Mikio Naruse’s final film Scattered Clouds (Midaregumo, 1967).

Elsewhere there’s Yoichi Sai’s cross-generational saga of Koreans in Japan, Blood and Bones (Chi to hone, 2004), with its eye-popping central performance by Takeshi Kitano; Tsutomu Hanabusa’s comedy Handsome Suit (2008), in which the titular set of clothes magically transforms the life of its wearer; and Shinobu Yaguchi’s feel-good coming-of-age drama Wood Job! (2014), about a university dropout who learns some valuable life lessons when he embarks on a one-year forestry programme out in the sticks, with the London, Bristol and Sheffield screenings attended by Yaguchi himself.

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Anime and manga fans are particularly well catered for this time round. Like last year’s Otakus in Love (Koi no mon, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004), Keisuke Yoshida’s My Little Sweet Pea (Mugiko-san to, 2013) similarly features Ryuhei Matsuda (of Gohatto, Nightmare Detective and The Raid 2) in a tale of an anime-obsessed aspiring voice-actor Mugiko (Maki Horikita) who travels to her estranged mother’s hometown. The film is of special interest due to its tender animated sequences from the legendary Production I.G studios.

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The contemporary face of Japanese animation is represented by the UK premiere of another film by Production I.G, A Letter to Momo (Momo e no Tegami, 2012), a more family-friendly offering than its director Hiroyuki Okiura’s powerful debut, Jin-Roh (1998), which was more in the darker tones of its screenwriter Mamoru Oshii’s pioneering works as a director like Ghost in the Shell. As with My Little Sweet Pea, its character’s “encounter” is also prompted by the loss of a parent as, following the death of her father, the 11-year-old Momo moves from the big city to her old wooden family house situated on a remote island, where she is forced to adapt to more timeless, traditional ways of life.

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For me, the one to watch out for is the Short Peace (2013) animated anthology, whose four segments are varied enough to appeal to all tastes. The top-billing, of course, goes to Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo, whose Combustible whisks us back in time to an ancient Edo consumed by a fiery conflagration. A Farewell to Weapons is redolent of anime’s 1990s heyday, its portrait of a not-so-distant future dystopia again scripted by Otomo, but directed by Hajime Katoki, the man responsible for the designs of Gundam and many another mecha classic, while Possessions, in which a solitary traveller is besieged by ancient spirits when he winds up at an abandoned shrine, earned its director Shuhei Morita a Best Animated Short nomination at last year’s Academy Awards. Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo, featuring an epic battle between a red demon and a phantasmagorical white bear that leaps to the protection of the royal family, completes the mix of ancient-meets-modern themes articulated using traditional pen-and-ink and cutting edge digital techniques.

Now here is a set of encounters to get really excited about.

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