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By Jack Richardson
27th November 2012

Film festivals are the highlight of any cinephile’s social calendar (or anti-social, as the case may be). They’re an all-too-brief immersion in everything cinematic – a chance to experience new horizons, preview the latest and greatest indies or blockbusters, unearth a quirky avant-garde gem, or rediscover old classics. And if you’re anything like me, the prospect of cracking open the fresh new festival program, salivating over its contents like Christmas dinner, and excusing yourself from society for two weeks straight, is about as good as it gets.

But as much as you’d like to sink every waking moment into viewing an entire festival’s catalogue of curiosities, the reality is much more constricting; bills must be paid and sleep must be had. With Sydney audiences recently treated to the 16th Annual Japanese Film Festival, and with Melbourne soon to follow, SWITCH has compiled a highlight reel to help you decide which films are worth your preciously restricted time, and those worth avoiding...

This year’s festival is the biggest yet, with 39 new films screening across twelve days. For fanboys, the biggest drawcard is ‘Rurouni Kenshin’ (2012), the much-anticipated live-action adaptation of the wildly popular anime series. A former assassin of the revolutionary government, Kenshin has renounced the path of bloodshed and now wanders Japan in search of redemption. But his past as the legendary "Battosai", the manslayer, is not so easily abandoned, and soon he’s drawn into a plot to destabilise the peaceful Meiji government and plunge the country back into chaos. Takeru Sato wields the reverse-blade sword with charm, and the film, co-financed by Warner Bros, is intended as the first installment in an ongoing series. Book early, as the Sydney session was a sellout.

Cult director, Sabu, delivers the uncharacteristically subdued dramady, ‘Bunny Drop’ (2011), starring Kenichi Matsuyama (of ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Death Note’ fame). When Daikichi’s grandfather dies, leaving behind an unexpected love child, the young man takes her in on a whim. Quickly warming to the charms of six-year-old Rin, Daikichi soon realises that being a single parent is a responsibility he might not be prepared for. Based on a popular manga series, ‘Bunny Drop’ is terrifically heart-warming, with wonderful performances and a subtle directorial touch offsetting some of its more outlandish quirks.

Matsuyama also stars in the less engaging ‘Train Brain Express’ (2012), about two unassuming railfans, Kei (Matsuyama) and Kenta (Eita), who bond over their mutual love of trains. A meandering and slow-moving film to the point of inertia, it’s buoyed by moments of levity, drawn mostly from the boys’ enthusiasm for train specifications. A moral about the insular nature of obsession is vaguely connected, and although the two leads are likeable, but may be too languid for some.

It’s not often teen-themed films make it to our shores (sans magic powers, superheroes, or body-swapping), which makes ‘The Kirishima Thing’, on the surface, somewhat refreshing. Taking a leaf out of Van Sant’s book of über-naturalism, the film observes the reverberations caused by student Kirishima’s disappearance, and the effect it has on the different social groups within a high school. While well-intentioned, the film employs a repetitive structure that’s groan-inducing, and although meticulously filmed and framed, its lack of any real drama or incidence make for truly interminable viewing. Some may see poetry, while others pretension.

‘Tokyo Koen’ (2011) also wears its influences on its sleeve, drawing from the romantic highjinks and jazz soundtrack of early Woody Allen. Koji, an aspiring photographer, is commissioned by a stranger to tail his wife from park to park. Casting himself as a private investigator, Koji is soon distracted by strange mysteries of his own, including his stepsister’s unrequited love, his best-friend’s depression, and his deceased roommate’s grip on the realm of the living. While appropriately well photographed, ‘Tokyo Koen’ is wildly inconsistent in tone and content. Its dramatic climax comes off as creepy rather than romantic, and it feels too burdened by underdone subplots. Performances are strong, however, and enough scenes land to keep the cluttered drama engaging.

The festival’s closing night film, ‘The Floating Castle’ (2012), is an unconventional epic. Based on the historical siege of Oshi Castle, five hundred men are pitted against twenty-thousand, led by the unlikely commander, Narita Nagachika, a buffoonish samurai beloved by the peasantry. By turns broadly comic and deadly serious, the film never finds a tone that completely gels: the image of massacred babies is followed by a clownish Butoh burlesque, while destruction on a grand scale is defused with a glib remark. As problematic as the narrative (and its treatment) ultimately becomes, the film boasts some excellent characterisation, a cracking battle sequence, and for the most part succeeds as undemanding entertainment.

The 16th JFF team has assembled a vast and varied catalogue of films for your delectation, and while there are some clear omissions (the latest from Takashi Miike, for example, or the blockbuster ‘Gantz’ movies), it’s provided a rare treat for film lovers to sink their insatiable teeth into. Happy viewing!

Jack attended the 16th JFF as a guest of the festival. Its Melbourne engagement runs from the 29th November to 9th December. Tickets are available online at

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