Ambassador Toshihoro Tsujihara
Ambassador Toshihoro Tsujihara

One of my favourite characteristics about film as an art form is the ability to completely engross you into another world. When the lights go dim in a cinema, and the only thing you see is the massive screen in front of you – it’s difficult not to feel completely engulfed sensually for the next few hours. And like all great cinema experiences, the recent Japan Film Festival in Kuwait transported the audience into a culture and the lives of its people that is wholly unique.

The Japan Film Festival was organized by the Embassy of Japan with the cooperation of Kuwait National Cinema Company and was the seventh edition of the festival. It was held at Laila Tower in Salmiya and the small single screen theatre (quite rare in Kuwait nowadays) really enhanced the intimate feel of the event. The outgoing ambassador to Japan, ToshihoroTsujihara opened proceedings with a short speech. He was humble in his appreciation for the sizable crowd that showed up and detailed the themes for the festival which revolved around the various inter-relationships between Japanese parents and their children and loved ones as well as the power of memories and their ability to affect our actions in the future.

Even though they were extremely small-time independent movies, the opening two films summed up these themes almost perfectly. The opening pair of films were ‘My Pretend Girlfriend’ by Saiji Yakumo and ‘Be Sure To Share’ by Sion Sono. Both films captured such an intimate look at these everyday characters, you felt almost ashamed at invading their privacy. If the goal of the organizers was to showcase films that captured the very soul of the everyday Japanese person or family, they succeeded tremendously.

A look at the films
‘My Pretend Girlfriend’ is a quirky, simple and sometimes dramatic romantic comedy that like the description itself, is not easy to pin down. The story, told as a flashback, revolves around high school student Aihara, a strange loner type and his popular friend Shun Miyazaki. After meeting two girls Momose and Tetsuko, Miyazaki plans out a scheme that will help keep his deceptions hidden from both his girlfriends. The plan – convince Aihara to pretend t date Momose, a small town girl from school while he continues to date Tetsuko, the high school sweet heart in the open.

The romance is there but like the title alludes to – is all pretend. The characters are seemingly funny and nonchalant but all of them seem to be hiding a vulnerable and hurt person that is crying to come out. The characters were surprisingly complex and deep, and this made them all the more human. The story captures the dramatic, world-encompassing feel of high school love and even though all the characters don’t come across as likeable, they all seem very relatable.

The second film ‘Be Sure To Share’ was a little stranger and a little more ponderous but still captured a rarely seen look at Japanese life. As the earlier film dealt with high school love, this story was on a more serious subject – cancer. The film is about a son dealing with his father’ cancer and how through time, grew to appreciate and understand his father’s strictness and code of conduct. A deeply personal story (the director dedicated the film to his own father who died of cancer) sprinkled with flashbacks and memories throughout, the film captures the difficult relationships parents have with their maturing children. Sadly, even though the first two-thirds of the film hold up, the last act borders on parody and seems pretty aimless by the end.

Arigat? say?nara
After the screenings, I was happy to see the organizers interact with the attendees and even give out a small questionnaire for feedback. Talking to the organizers, I was curious to find out their own view points on Japanese films and how they plan to continue promoting Japanese culture in Kuwait. Dana Zibar, the cultural assistant from the Japanese Embassy and a big fan of Japanese films herself was quick to point out its wide influences.

She said “the Japan film industry is famous for its uniqueness and style. Till today, it is highly regarded in the world of cinema, most popularly in the horror genre. Many famous horror films like ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Grudge’ were remakes of the original Japanese versions.” I asked her to recommend some Japanese films to check out for those interested in the industry and she suggested to watch ‘RurouniKenshin’, ‘High School Debut’, ‘Bokuragaita (We Were There) and Kiminitodoke(From Me To You). Regarding upcoming events, they are planning to host a book fair and an art gallery, so keep an eye on that.

The fact that the entry was absolutely free was amazing as take a lot of time and trouble to not only get permission to screen these films, but to host these cultural events in the first place. The festival and most importantly the films were a thoroughly rewarding experience, one I would love to see more of them in Kuwait.

(Note: The festival screened two more movies on Wednesday night, they were ‘The Place Promised In Our Early Days’ by Shinkai Makoto and ‘Wanko: The Story of Me, My Family and My Dog’ by Isamu Nakae. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the screenings.)

By Aakash Bakaya