Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Warp and Weft of Chichibu

Once upon a time, starting with the fig leaf, the things we wore all came from the natural world. The human wardrobe was just a step or two away from the plants, animals and insects that gave their lives so that we might protect ourselves against the rest of nature. Carding, spinning, fulling and weaving the cotton, wool or silk took time and care and even the most basic garment was an expression of the maker's art. A fine bit of cloth was a cherished object to be worn until it was worn out, then perhaps patched, re-worked and passed on to another user.

The city of Chichibu, about 2 hours from central Tokyo, was for many centuries a center of Japanese silk production. The hilltops are now covered by plantations
of fast-growing
pine cultivated to feed the post-war housing boom, but they were once covered with mulberry trees that fed the silkworms. Families in the silk trade, once amounting to some 70% of the population, built large houses where they could warm the cocoons in winter. The city lent its name to a type of silk called Chichibu Meisen (秩父銘仙) in which designs are stenciled by hand onto the warp fibers before weaving. The result is a sort of ikat effect with the edges of the design bleeding into one another. The style remained popular well into the last century and still can be found in kimono fabric, cushion covers and small items such as purses and book covers.

Although there is not much left of the city's silk industry (war, fashion trends and the development of synthetics having dealt their death blows), you can still get an idea of what once was by visiting the Chichibu Meisenkan (秩父銘仙館). Established by the local meisen association in 1930, this center still engages in the entire process of silk production, from cocoon to finished product to gift shop. You can tour the workrooms (they were idle the day we visited) and take workshops on stenciling and weaving. They have a lovely small museum with examples of meisen dating back to the Edo era. The day we arrived in Chichibu the museum had scheduled its annual mushi boshi (虫干し, literally "dried insect") event during which the collection is hung in the courtyard to air. Unfortunately, the weather was too wet so the event was cancelled and we had to content ourselves with seeing just the items on view in the museum.

While searching the web for other local remnants of the sericulture tradition, I came across the website of Arakei Orimono (orimono is Japanese for textiles). They still produce meisen the old fashioned way. The site provides links to meisen-related events around Japan. I will endeavor to pay them a visit on a future trip to Chichibu.

VS


(Note: Yoichi Shimatsu's web article "Japan’s Silk Reelers Blazed an Asian Path of Economic Development" was the source for much of the background material on the Chichibu silk trade.)


Monday, October 4, 2010

Why We Shoot

Why do photographers take photographs? The question often has simple answers, yet we insist that there be something more behind them. An industry of criticism, historicism and photo-making often depends upon a false complexity constructed around the urge to take and make pictures.

So, why do photographers take photographs?

There are lots of reasons. A certain color. A play of light. An interesting object or face. A texture or play of textures. To remember.

To remember via a photograph is to create a piece of evidence. A record of time and place. A document (a piece of paper with an analog of the thing photographed) that simply states, I was here to see this. Of course there's a long history of tampering with this photographic evidence (famously with the doctored photographs of totalitarian regimes, more recently with nearly anything anyone can do in photoshop), but there is a long line of "honest" photography that encompasses the humanism of Cartier-Bresson and his acolytes and the documentary formalist strain of Atget, that looks to capturing the things of this world before they are lost to time and "progress." On can easily include, perhaps the most important photographers of the last 40 years, Hilla and Bernd Becher, whose life project of documenting industrial architecture in the Ruhr Valley opened the door to issues dealing with the typology of forms, the roots of industrial capitalism and questions about the reasons and functions of photo-documentation.

I imagine that when the Bechers woke up on a chilly gray morning in a place like Recklinghausen, looked and saw a decaying water tower or mine head, their original thoughts and motivation may have been far from their long term project and may have been more simply along the lines of "we like that thing" or "we like the flat and even light of this place and how it makes that thing look like a sculpture" or "we must take this picture of this thing in our world that we wake up and see every day."

I also image Atget scurrying around Paris, taking photos of funky old shops and businesses, merely because there was something that caught his eye, something he liked in the window, something that just felt right and the place was preserved on a glass plate. As these things and places started to fall to the wrecking ball, a new urgency and new reasons for his profound documentation developed.

Last Saturday the Ajimi team (short of one) had the opportunity to briefly meet Chinese photographer Zhang Yuming at Tokyo's Zen Gallery. He was in town with The Ancient Towers, an exhibition of a series of his photographs documenting old stone towers that are rapidly disappearing from the Chinese landscape. Between neglect and thievery, active destruction during the Cultural Revolution and the vicissitudes of rain, snow, sun and wind, these cultural markers are on the endangered architecture list. The towers he has beautifully and austerely documented are largely places of worship, roadside shrines, sacred place markers and village offering-places. The forms are beautiful, in their shabby and distressed appearance. Their phallic forms mark the landscape, whether hidden behind brush or high on some pillared hill. Evidence that men were here.

Yuming noted that his desire, his reason for taking these photos was to document these things before they disappear. Like Atget, like the Bechers, his motivation is remembrance. The aesthetic choices he makes for framing, lighting, point-of-view and presentation involve the many choices a photographer must make from before the click of the shutter to the mounting of the framed print on the wall. But when it comes down to what makes Yuming go out to far flung landscapes with camera in hand is to remember.

These towers, though, are things that Yuming may not know about, may not have seen before and once found only had a moment to spend with - these towers that house a collective tradition and memory of a culture, where numerous lives (lives with memories) have intersected over the centuries. How does one remember what one doesn't know? Maybe the photographer's function is to be the hippocampus, the center of long-term memory, for the collective entity that we define as humanity. Maybe the photographer is merely the synapse that triggers the memory. As Chris Marker once asked, "How did we remember before photography?" Things like stone towers hold the answer to this question. Collective memory focused on a single object of veneration. It's appropriate that Yuming's choice of subject, with simple motivations, opens the door to a world of new questions.

Zhang Yuming's exhibition, Ancient Towers runs from September 24 until October 17, 2010.

画像提供:Zen Foto Gallery|Copyright © Zhang Yuming


Zen Photo Gallery
150-0002 Shibuya Ibis Bldg. B1
2-17-3 Shibuya
Shibuya-ku
Tokyo

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

She Saw Showa

Photography galleries in Tokyo tend to be well on the miss side of the hit or miss equation. Since most galleries function as show rental spaces, there's a decided lack of curatorship or championing of good art on the side of gallery owners. The artist sucker pays for putting his/her work, sits around the gallery for the week or two of the show and the wall-space owner walks away with the rental fee.

It's a pleasure to discover a place where one can find good photography, generous and passionate owners and ultimately good photo art. Gallery Cosmos is a case in point. Hidden on the 3rd floor of a nondescript (aren't most in Tokyo?) building in Shimomeguro, the gallery is the brainchild of Yoichi Niiyama, son of famed photographer, Kiyoshi Niiyama. Since 2003, he has run a tight ship that highlights some of the best in Japanese photography.

Last Tuesday night found the Ajimi team (or at least half of it) rubbing shoulders with photographers and fans in the crowded space for the opening of Tsuneko Sasamoto's (笹本恒子) photographs. The flyer for the show touted her as Japan's first woman photojournalist. One may quibble about whether she really was the first, but she may be the best. At 96 years old, she held court magnificently. Well-wishers and acolytes gave her her well-deserved kudos.

She started her career in 1940, moved to Chiba during the war years to work for a local paper. She returned to Tokyo in 1946 and started working for the Fujin Minshu Shimbunsha (Women's Democratic News). By the next year she was freelance, documenting the reconstruction, growth and changes of postwar Japan.

Shooting largely with a Rolleiflex, the classic double-lensed box camera, she captured politicians, organizers, artists, writers, musicians and normal folk in detailed, beautifully lit and lusciously printed photographs. The slightly low angle demanded by the camera lends a certain heroic quality to her subjects, contrasting with the domestic backdrops and environment she poses them against and within. The photos undercut the ostensible reason for photographing these people (they are famous, they are movers and shakers) and democratizes them (they are just like us). Photos of Prince Mikasa commuting on a bus and Princess Yuriko with her children bring the royal family down to a human level. A picture of Socialist Party Head Inejiro Asanuma in 1955 shows him yukata-clad against a non-descript but new housing project, laundry hanging in the background. A new American car peeks from the left side of the frame. With mixed messages about the future and the past, progress and tradition, we are left with the man in the center of it all.

Apart from just how damn good the photos are, with the strength of years, they are a magnificent testament to the times and history of the post war years. From early photos of the meanness and excess of the early occupation to the beginnings of the economic miracle and the rise of the new middle class, Sasamoto-san had her finger on the pulse and her eye on the prize, catching a world in transition with rare honesty and grace.



The show runs from Sept. 28 - Oct 5.

She Saw Showa
Postwar Perspectives by Tsuneko Sasamoto, 96, Japan's First Woman Photojournalist

Tanimoto Bldg. 3F
3-1-22 Shimomeguro
Meguro-ku
Tokyo 153-0064
03-3495-4218


NV






Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eaten off the Beaten Path

In search of "off the beaten track" the Ajimi team occasionally stumbles, but more often than not stumbles onto places and experiences that give a glimpse of... what shall we call it?... soul, essence... maybe... meaning... in this often generic world. A quick weekend getaway to Katsuura, on the Boso Peninsula, brought a sampling of this "stumbling upon" and an experience beyond the traditional trappings of a vacation at the beach.

Katsuura is a medium-sized fishing village on the Pacific Ocean about an hour and a half from Tokyo - taking the express train. A tourist Mecca, it ain't. The waterfront is built for commerce, not for lounging. At the southern edge of town, there's a beautiful kitschy monstrosity of a hotel and waterpark, Mikazuki. We stayed next door to it at Rinkaisou, a tidy little ryokan with an ocean view and various collected bric-a-brac, including a couple of dessicated whale penises. The little breakwater-protected beach in front of the lodging was the only one in town. North of it were packing and distribution warehouses for the remaining fishing operations that launch from this little port. Katsuura is most famous for its daily morning market. According to the tourist info, its been going on for several centuries. It's a lively little market, leaving one to question how on earth it has survived with the dearth of tourists and facilities in the village. But the economics of farmers' markets will be left for a future posting.

When we arrived in town, in the early afternoon, it was hot and getting hotter. The friendly lady at the tourist office had marked a few dining options on our map. We had asked for the best fish places in town. She happily marked off a handful and away we went. Walking the few short blocks of the main shoutengai, the temperature seemed to increase exponentially, so that by the time we found the first couple of recommendations, it was imperative that we choose quickly. Ducking into anyplace cool was the first order or business. Perusing posted menus was out of the question.
We saw the sign for Sawa, one of the recommended places - the tourist brochure highlighted its local fish. Ducking under the noren and sliding the door open we were greeted by a blast of icy air. A good very good sign indeed. As were the tall jokkis of ice cold beer that we ordered as we were sitting down. And the nutty edamame that appeared as our otoshi.
Sawa's an unassuming place. It consists of a fair sized L-shaped counter, a tatami dining area with 3 tables and a back room. We ordered a couple of lunch sets, one with tempura, the other with grilled fish. When asked what was being grilled that day, our host pulled up a thick round midsection of fish and told us it was engira, a local variety of kamasu (梭子魚 - barracuda). He offered to grill up the head and cheek section, but I declined, sticking with what he first showed us.

Each of the sets came with a plentiful and very tasty array of sides. A sampling of sashimi included katsuo and buri, both fine, along with an exemplary tai and the best tako I've had in Japan. Far too often, particularly in Tokyo, octopus is like thin cuts of tasteless sea leather. It's more of a workout for one's jaw, rather than something worth eating. At Sawa, thick, juicy cuts of briny flesh that were tender, but with a certain cephalopodic fight, brought back my diminishing faith in ever finding good octopus in Japan.

The misoshiro looked innocuous enough with bits of wakame and negi floating in the bowl. But the broth knocked us out with chunks of white fish a deep piscine taste. A little plate of smoky cured katsuo next to a tube of spicy karashi konyaku was scrumptious. The usually bland konyaku was mustardy hot. It went perfectly with the sweet and smoky fish. A little garnish of carrot and piman added to the fusion of tastes. A nice cake of local tofu sported a dollop of enoki mushrooms marinated in mirin and shoyu with fresh sliced negi. It lent a cooling moderation to the set. Tangy pickled cucumbers with katsuo flakes were the mandatory zuke plate. Plus there were three big sweet red beans - for good luck.


The tempura was a fine version, highlighting the usual veggies - eggplant, kabocha, mushrooms - white fish and prawns and a batter-fried shiso leaf. And the engiri? A revelation. It was served perfectly cooked, moist with a charcoaly char. Though slightly bony, it was the sort of fish that started off mild in the mouth, becoming sweeter as it was chewed, leaving a umami-ish aftertaste.

Of course, we had to try some jizake to go with the ji-sakana and this led us to Koshigoi, a local favorite that shows up even in the konbinis in these parts. But the fact is, it's a fine sake. We knocked back a small bottle of their daiginjo, an unpretentious brew that's very sure of itself.

Sawa's website - http://www2.ocn.ne.jp/~sawa/index.html - is as unpretentious as the place itself. There's a tab where you can get fortunes by clicking on your favorite fish and another that has a recipe for namerou, local fish minced with onion and ginger. A traditional Boso Peninsula dish, namerou comes from nameru (なめる - to lick). Apparently because it's so good you gotta lick off the plate. We missed it this time, but we're sure to try it next time we stumble back to Sawa.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Cinephile's Guide to Tokyo

The Ajimi team has always found a certain comfort and sense of well being in the darkened spaces of movie theaters. With all eyes focused on the big screen, the collective experience of watching movies engenders our better natures as human beings - especially when there's a good movie involved! In celebration of going to the movies, Nick writes on his favorite haunts in Tokyo at Film in Focus.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The fierce urgency of lunch


One of the downsides of being a foodie is that, when you travel, lunch can never simply be lunch. That is, it cannot just be an intake of nutrition adequate to the task of carrying one through a productive afternoon. No. Lunch must be an event. There is nothing more disappointing than working up a good appetite then wasting one of your limited lifetime restaurant units on a so-so meal. After all, I might only have 5,000 or so more chances to eat out before I die.

So finding the right place for lunch takes on a fierce urgency when the Ajimi Team is on vacation, particularly in Spain where one is generally within a 5-minute walk of something delicious. We will bypass a dozen perfectly okay places in our quest for the superb.

Such was the case in Donostia in mid-March. Our St. Joseph’s day meanderings led us across the river from La Parte Vieja -- Donostia's tapas central -- to Gros, the rapidly changing working-class district near the Kursaal. By 1 pm we were peckish in a way that augured ravenousness in about an hour. It was early still for a Spanish lunch but we raised our restaurant antennae.

There were bars aplenty, filled to overflowing with contented-looking holiday patrons. But we wanted a sit-down lunch, nothing too fancy, just a chance to relax for an hour or two with some good food, conversation and wine.

We have a rule at these times: either party can reject an option for any reason and we will move on without a backward glance. However, if the hunger pangs start coming 3 minutes apart, either party can also invoke the 10-minute rule. That means we have to choose a restaurant within 10 minutes or risk tantrums.

We were on about minute 9.5 that day when we pulled up in front of a Galician restaurant, La Casa Galicia. It looked like a tidy but otherwise not very remarkable bar at first glance. But the specials board offered an interesting degustation menu served in the rear dining room so in we went.

The dining room was completely booked. But our host laid a crisp white cloth on a table near the bar. Families of various sizes were dining, drinking and chatting all around us. An elderly couple at the next table picked at a plate of patatas bravas sharing a bottle of rosado.

Although the prix fixe menu looked great we opted for the ala carte menu: several nights of tapas-hopping had taken their toll. The menu advertised a hybrid Basque-Gallician cuisine, which was reflected in the presence of more sauces and meat than one would generally find in a straight-up restaurante gallego. The artichokes with foie were served with a lightly garlicked béchamel. Everything on the plate was nicely crunchy - artichokes, leeks, deep-fried potato chips, even the liver. The layers in the milhojas de bacalao included ragout of eggplant and veggies, cod, a crispy cracker that tasted like the sea, and a topping of lightly sautéed shrimp. The meat course was cordero asado, roasted lamb shank with red peppers and potatoes with sprigs of epazote and a sauce that might have contained a splash of balsamic vinegar in a meat reduction. Oh my. We accompanied these magical items with glasses of the house Albariño. We passed up dessert, but the perfectly mellow sensation of wellbeing that followed the meal was better than a million cheesecakes.

Back in Nihon, we discovered that La Casa Galicia is affiliated with an organization of the same name that promotes Galician culture in Gipuzkoa, the Basque province of which Donostia is the capital. They offer gastro-cultural events throughout the year, including barrikotes – tastings of fresh cider out of the barrel – in March.

Casa de Galicia
C/Zabaleta, 28
Donostia - San Sebastián
tel. 943. 274.391


VS

Photos: NV

Friday, April 9, 2010

Pintxatu

The Ajimi team was out in the Alde Zaharra of Donostia with a few Basque music industry insiders. Between glasses of crianza and mandatory pintxos we brought up the recent collaboration between Fermin Muguruza, political punk/ hardcore/ ska/ reggae international musical activist, and the trendy local eatery, A Fuego Negro. The project in question was Pintxatu, a smartly designed cookbook highlighting the latest in A Fuego Negro's Fernan Adria-inspired postmodern tapas and an attendant CD of post-rock reggae electronica curated by Muguruza. A few eyes rolled. Questions about Muguruza's sanity and/or commitment to DIY aesthetics and political ideals jokingly made the rounds. But a grudging respect ultimately prevailed for an artist whose creative hunger and boundless energy for collaboration and community found new expression - in a cookbook.

Pintxatu punningly takes its name from pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, and Murguruza's legendary punk band, Kortatu. I'm quite sure that the man who penned the enduring anti-anthem, Mierda de ciudad, never expected to be creating a soundtrack for your dining pleasure.

The conceit of the cookbook is 19 different dishes with 19 different songs to complement and highlight each culinary experience. The food, largely crafted and designed by star chef Edorta Lamo is alternately, sometimes simultaneously, amusing and appalling. Under the spell of molecular cuisine and kitchen science 101, such flights of fancy as Sangre Crujiente - frozen blood sausage balls tossed into the deep fryer - are submitted for your approval, and take you into a culinary twilight zone. This metaphorical mix of revenge and passion also includes squid ink and leek ash, among a host of ingredients. Or how about a seafood Koktela surrounded by a foam of bitters and vermouth, topped with a lemonade foam? These are just the tip of the iceberg in a book filled with impossible-to-make recipes and often questionable combinations. And for every cook who's embraced the pretense of the molecular food revolution, Ajimi suggests spending some time with food scientists at General Foods or Kraft to see how the big kids do it.

Nonetheless, even though it's a perfectly useless cookbook (do you really want to burden your kitchen and your life with a whippit containers, obscure you'll-only-use-once ingredients or a shelf full of various gelatins and gums?) it's brilliantly designed, quite amusing and will certainly become an historical window on the ideas of the times.

There's even a specious introduction espousing a a rather quaint European philosophy of negritude. Connecting the innovative Basque cuisine and music to the development of black music in America is a rather big leap. And it's picked up by some rather embarrassing recipes in the book. Case in point is Afro Txipi, a variation on the tried and true Txiperones en su tinta (squid in its own ink), but this one creating a sepia-infused edible 'fro to anthropomorphise a cooked squid into something signifying a black person. But it's food for thought. Something to muse over while eating a grilled cheese sandwich - which technologically speaking is a pretty wild experiment with wheat, yeast and milk and rennet.

So, who are we to pass judgement on contemporary food trends?

As for the musical accompaniment, it's a mix of derivative electronica (isn't it all!) with a lot of reggae and ska. When not being downright embarrassing or unlistenable, most of the tracks seem a bit like afterthoughts by artists who are generally more thoughtful. Highlights include Muguruza's own offering, Kamakaze's nutty rap Cuenta Remix and Selector Matanzas' Latin groove Arroz con Coco.

Despite Ajimi's rather critical take on Pintxatu, for some reason we still love the book - whether its fleeting topicality, the fact that a good friend was involved, the genuinely great visuals and design of the book object or the magic of Donostia and all it represents musically and foodily.


NV

Friday, March 5, 2010

Love Letters in the Sand

One half of the Ajimi team went out the other night to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Moon Stomp's bimonthly bluegrass jam session. Moon Stomp is a small bar/live house in Koenji that highlights roots music, bluegrass, gypsy jazz, jump and various amalgams of traditional styles. The anniversary night brought out the regulars - some of the best pickers and fiddlers on the Tokyo bluegrass scene.




Here's a link to an article we wrote on Tokyo bluegrass for the Japan Times - Going Where the Grass is Bluer

Moon Stomp's website - click here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Saru Show

Over the last few years the Ajimi team has managed to run into same saru (猿 - monkey) show at different temples around Tokyo. We recently came across this team at our own local temple, Miyohoji. The steadfast macaque in question went through the same sad routines - walking on stilts, climbing stairs, doing handstands and leaping across abysses. A perfect straight man in how his thin-lipped demeanor denoted a certain indifference to his being the ultimate brunt of the jokes. And the sheer humiliation of his "entertaining" activities brought a fleeting feeling of pathos to the crowd when not enjoying their questionable evolutionary superiority over their monkey-cousin.

Animal shows, at least in the 1st world, are on the decline. Shows like this are few and far between in big cities. The best one gets these days is the parade of dressed-up and fetishized lap dogs that are ostensibly being walked every day in Tokyo parks. That is if running after poochy with plastic bags and brandishing butt-wipes is what's become of "walking the dog." The obsessive anthropomorphizing of these poor canines, their bodies used as naked displays of their masters' insecurities makes the old fashioned monkey show look relatively benign. At least Saru-kun and his keeper are making a buck out of it. And he does look pretty smart in that happi coat!


video

NV

Saturday, February 13, 2010

10 Best Japanese Films 2009

Over the last 3 years, Japan's become my beat. Of course, I try to keep up with international cinema as best as I can, but at about 1,800 yen (20 bucks) a pop for a night at the cinema, I've been quite judicious in my filmic consumption. However, I've become quite a regular at the industry screening rooms hidden in the bowels of generic buildings (exception - Eiga Bigakku in the Tokyo Film School does have quite a bit of character) clustered around the old film industry center in and around Ginza. Many of the films on my top ten list probably won't cross the pond. It's a shame, because they're good films. But keep an eye open for festival screenings, online streamings or any opportunity to catch a glimpse of Japanese film production for 2009.

The list below is not definitive. I missed a few that had good buzz. Bandage - a fictional paean to the 90s band boom in Tokyo - and Live Tape - a single shot film following an improvising street busker wandering through the streets of Kichijoji, a hipster area on the west side of Tokyo - are both on my must see list. I saw a few too many that had good buzz that turned out to be total time wasters.

Symbol

I have to place Matsumoto Hitoshi's Symbol at the top of the list. From his roots in the groundbreaking manzai team (two person standup - imagine Abbott and Costello in Japanese) called Downtown, Matsumoto hit the big screen a few years ago with the strange and hilarious Dianipponjin (Big Man Japan). His followup goes over the top with a deconstruction of comedy that's part Kubrick, part Tashlin, completely original.

Trailer (Japanese)

Kuki Ningyo / Air Doll

Kore-eda Hirokazu's Air Doll tended toward a bit of critical dismissal - too light, too commercial. With the stunning performance of Du-na Bae as a blow-up doll come to life, this reworking of Pinocchio (or is it Blade Runner?) is amazingly frank and touching with what may be Kore-eda's persistent theme - what makes us human.

Trailer (English Subtitles)

Ai no Mukidashi / Love Exposure

At 4 hours, Love Exposure seemed a bit short. When the lights came up I wanted still more. Sono Sion's over the top skewering of contemporary culture had a little something to offend nearly everyone - Catholicism, terrorism, up-skirt photography, high school mores and so much more came under the knife. Love Exposure is a delightfully excessive and tasteless film by the man who made Suicide Club.

Trailer (Japanese)

Wakaranai / Where Are You?

This year I saw Kobayashi's Masahiro's 2005 film Bashing. Wakaranai mines the same territory as the previous film, the lives of the marginalized and forgotten of Japan. Though not quite as perfect as Bashing, Wakaranai expands on similar themes. Along the lines of the Dardenne brothers, Kobayashi's creating an oeuvre of beautiful and terrifying films of lost hopes, fuckups and ultimately, dreams.

Website (Japanese)

Miyoko Asagaya Kibun / Miyoko

Adaptations of manga are a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema. Most manga/film crossovers are built solely with marketing in mind. Miyoko Asagaya Kibun is from a definitely different sensibility. Adapting Shiniro Abe's seminal 1970s mangas that documented the craziness of the times along with his own faltering grasp on mental stability, Miyoko Asagaya Kibun mixes manga, fiction, history and biography brilliantly. This directing debut by Yoshifumi Tsubota is the most auspicious of the year.

Website (Japanese)

Dotei Horoki

Director Komuna Yuichi is making his mark as the low budget storyteller of the special fringes of Japanese culture that are becoming the mainstream. He hit the scene a few years ago with Maid in Akiba, about the otaku/maid cafe culture centered around Akihabara in Tokyo. In Dotei Horoki (more or less meaning "virgin perv"), Komuna tackles the Japanese 30 year-old virgin problem with incisive humor and smart dialogue.

Trailer (Japanese)

Dear Doctor

While not quite as wicked as her debut film, Wild Berries, Nishikawa Miwa's Dear Doctor beautifully realizes a small community where lies big and small sustain its functioning. Following in the footsteps of Kore-Eda, Nishikawa, along with Kawase Naomi are creating a cinema style that exhibits profound ideas and sensibilities with a light touch.

Trailer (Japanese)

Raise the Castle

There's a somewhat annoying tendency in Japanese pop horror and comedy movies of having long dead samurai come back to life, in most cases ghoulishly zombified, to avenge some past wrong. It's a hoary plot device. In Raise the Castle it works. Kohatsu Yo's low budget debut manages to balance sweet comedy, a bit of a social/historical message and a love story. This film may be the be-all and end-all of this genre.

Website (Japanese)

Mental

Soda Kazuhiro is the Frederick Wiseman of Japanese documentary. His first film, Campaign, was a fascinating study of the political scene in Japan. In Mental, Soda visits a small town mental clinic, exposing the stigmas around talking about mental illness and health in Japan through touching, funny and downright harrowing stories from the patients themselves.

Website (English)

The Code

Hiyashi Kaizo will be known to Seattle audiences for his wonderful homage to silent cinema, Sleep So As to Dream, presented a few years ago at NWFF with live accompaniment by Aono Jikken Ensemble. Hiyashi's been working for years sending up the conventions of detective/spy movies. The Code is his latest and it never lets up with its nutty story, hilarious characters and situations. Plus, giving Suzuki stalwart Shishido Joe (Branded to Kill) a role makes The Code extra special.

Website (Japanese)

Originally published in Hot Splice

NV