(Japan 2007, directed by Koichi Imaizumi)

I wouldn’t have bothered writing a review for this movie, this is just too remind myself of what sort of film not to stand in line and pay for ever again: The fact that I did go and see it was because my friend was really interested in the subject of young gay people in Japan. I jokingly mentioned to her that I’d made a promise to myself not to see any Japanese lo-fi indie films at the Berlinale anymore due to some very bad experiences in the past. I told her that most of these films featured very shaky and/or blurry camera work without any sort of aesthetic intention, completely talent-free amateur actors, a thin storyline and at least one disturbing masturbation scene.
Hatsu-koi was no exception. It was basically a commercial to legalize gay marriage in Japan, one scene even featured the older characters (20-somethings) reiterating all arguments for legalization… not the subtlest way of bringing your message across but oh well. The story was so-so, the coming-out story of the school boy Tadashi was kind of cute, though I could’ve done with that godawful masturbation scene, thanks very much. The film handled sex scenes quite explicitly, one in the toilet of a bar felt extremely awkward. Quite a few people left the cinema, I think both due to the slightly gross sex scenes but also because the actors’ performances throughout the whole film where extremely inconvincing. The film had its serious, touching moments but on the whole it was just too silly, too amateurishly executed and too inconvincing on all levels.

Kabei – Our Mother (Kaabee)
(Japan 2008, directed by Yoji Yamada)

During World War II, Kayo Nogami, called Kaabee (a variant of okaa-san) by her children, is left too take care of her daughters Teruyo/Terubee and Hatsuko/Hatsubee (Mirai Shida, I’ve seen her in various dorama before, like 14 sai no haha and Watashitachi no kyôkasho) on her own because her husband Shigeru (Toobee), a professor for German literature, gets imprisoned under the Peace Preservation Law. To get through the hardships the war and her husband’s imprisonment bring with them, she can rely on the help from Yamasaki (Tadanobu Asano), a former student of her husband’s, her sister and an uncle. The film focuses on the everyday life during the war and lets you experience the propaganda and general madness from the inside. The family forms a sort of safe haven from all this. The life in the Noyami’s house is framed by the passing of the seasons, intouched by the war but affecting the house itself and its inhabitants. The movie finds a fine balance between serious, moving scenes, especially those set in prison where Noyami is treated so unfairly and cruelly or when his family reads out his letters, and the more lighthearted, funnier ones (usually involving Yamasaki).
The film was slightly episodic but never boring, always touching, true, convincing and deeply humanistic. Sometimes it was trying a bit too hard to be emotional but I think that’s a common trait of mainstream Japanese movies. The cinematography was solid, on the conventional side of things but offered new insights into a country at war, from the point of view of ordinary people. The set design was brilliant, especially in the town scenes where you could see the propaganda posters and larger crowds of people.
The film ran in the official Berlin International Film Festival competition. The director Yoji Yamada, the screenwriter Teruyo Nogami whose own life story this movie was based upon, Sayuri Yoshinaga (Kaabee), Mitsugoro Bando (Toobee) and Tadanobu Ando (Yamasaki) were present during the premiere screening. They all came up on stage afterwards and told a bit about the making of the film. Nogami, who worked for Akira Kurosawa for a very long time, expressed her gratitude for the fact that his movie had mad its way to Germany because her father who loved German literature so much never had the chance to visit the country himself. Needless to say, the audience was deeply moved by her words.