Nation, Identity, and Memory: Japanese Cinema in Conversation

The Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival combined cult films and contemporary shorts to examine the theme of “nation.”
Ren Scateni

Fighting Elegy

Lately, unstable times are shaking countries the world over. While in the West we’re dealing with breakups and a resurgence of conservative politics, the East is not faring well either. The past few months have seen news of escalating tensions between South Korea and Japan on the matter of apparently unresolved issues of compensation for Korean forced laborers during World War II, but frictions between these two countries never ceased to exist after the period of Japanese imperialism came to an end in 1945. 

Proposing yet again its successful formula of pairing classic new wave films with contemporary experimental shorts, this year’s London-based Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival dove deep into the concept of nation and explored Japan’s multifaceted and problematic relationship with its own past and national identity. Putting together a thriving selection, the festival proved once again to be attentive to current political turmoil and social trends. 

Known for his massive production of jarring, exuberant B-movies, Seijun Suzuki worked on a satirical flick penned by director and scriptwriter Kaneto Shindō, Fighting Elegy (1966). The film, centering on juvenile violence and gang culture, looks at displays of macho manhood as the only vent to release some pent-up sexual urgencies. Mocking a militaristic, violence-driven behavior but confining it into the regulated boundaries of scholastic institutions, Suzuki turns his eye to the disquieting times of pre-war Japan and the country’s rising ultranationalist movements. Since there’s no room in Suzuki and Shindō’s story for exploring female identities, the festival paired it with three shorts by new voices of Japanese cinema, which came to the rescue. In these works, relatives of the filmmakers are called to offer their personal renditions of the past resulting in vibrant shorts infused with memories. Whereas Monika Uchiyama’s Bright Beyond Bearing (2017) tells intergenerational stories of birth control while implicitly subverting and denying the ideology that wants women to be just child-bearers in a patriarchal society, Chiemi Shimada’s Chiyo (2019) merges fragmented portraits of her grandmother with visual explorations of Japanese suburbs in a 16mm short film, whose style and intentions are both reminiscent of Naomi Kawase’s documentary works . Finally, revisiting her grandmother’s wartime and the inability of making sense of its atrocities, Mizuki Toriya’s How Can You Know Where To Go If You Don’t Know Where You Have Been (2018) combines voice over with a refreshing yet honest animation.

If, in the words of Toriya’s grandmother, the Americans hand candies and gums to the poor Japanese kids right after the war, in Shōhei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships (1961) soldiers, on the other hand, fuel the sex industry. Pointing at a mutually exploitative relationship between the U.S. military and some local yakuza members, Imamura encapsulates the ambivalent times of the occupation period, in which both men and women tried to juggle their dreams of a better life and their being entangled in the mechanisms of a cruel microcosm. Characters are framed in a series of medium shots, which give them room to act but, at the same time, cage them in a defined space mirroring their condition in life. In this limbo, the story unfolds hectically while salvation is ultimately denied to the patsies. As a counterpoint to the film, Ryushi Lindsay’s short Kokutai (2019) presents the rigid yet eerily pleasing military aesthetics that blossom among the ranks of high school baseball teams. An intelligent and meticulously realized short, Kokutai features a crisp black and white photography, fitting slow motion shots, and the initial scroll of a roll bearing the short’s title, a detail reminiscent of Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism (1966), which also screened at the festival.

Kokutai Assembly

To explore the delicate relationship between Japan and Korea, JAEFF presented a strong pair of films: Death by Hanging (1968), by Nagisa Oshima, and the video installation The Educational System of an Empire (2016), by Hikaru Fujii. Exceptionally Brechtian in both scope and intent, Oshima’s film is a fine work of the absurd, which lures the audience in believing the film wants to address reality with a documentary flair while it instead navigates the ethical quandary posed by the death penalty in a fabricated, symbolic space. At its center is R, a Zainichi—a Japanese resident of Korean descent—who has been sentenced to death for his inhumane crimes. As Korean ways and behaviors are often ridiculed by the officials crowding the theatre-like death chamber where the story unfurls, the director’s critical stance towards the persecution of the Korean minority filters through every detail. In this sense, Fujii’s work is equally unforgiving in that it openly questions the Japanese educational system via a colonialist—and often vilifying—video of the U.S. Army Pictorial Service, which, in turn, merges with clips from the artist’s 2015 workshop where Korean students re-enact tortures as seen in a Japanese archive propaganda footage. 

There couldn’t be any discourse on the nation and cultural identity without including Mishima, one of Japan’s iconic intellectuals. Having penned many successful books filled with decadent metaphors, beauty, and death, Mishima became more and more interested in pursuing a sort of modern bushido (samurai code), which resulted in fully embracing a right-wing nationalist ideology. Blinded by the alluring aesthetic of manly vigor, pure form, and unflinching honor, in 1966 Mishima directed a masterfully composed silent short, Yūkoku (Patriotism), in which he staged a ritual suicide while impersonating a fictitious army officer—the perfect self-inserted character, as future will tell. Two years later, Mishima would then go forth with his audacious plan to restore the power of the Emperor, but would fail to excite a coup d’état and resorted to performing seppuku. The day of the coup—November 25, 1970—is the starting point of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a visually stunning psychoanalytic deconstruction of Mishima’s works and life. By enriching its main plot with vignettes from three of his major books, the film basks in the writer’s elected themes while building up momentum through the continuous disruption of the mise-en-scène and the characters’ lives. 

Shifting from the overtly public to the extremely personal, the last segment of the festival moved in and out of intimate spaces. By neglecting a focus on society at large but willing to explore his inner circle of past and present family members and by doing so reflecting on himself, Kazuo Hara directed his camera on his ex-wife, the radical feminist and activist Miyuki Takeda. From Tokyo to Okinawa, where Miyuki lived with different partners, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974) is a voyeuristic and controversial intrusion in another person’s life, which allows for a portrait of the filmmaker stemming from the subject’s words. By contrast, in Dialogue (2018), the filmmaker invades public spaces and lays her gaze on urban landscapes, although largely from a distance. In her short, Yuka Sato relates the nighttime forays of a social recluse (hikikomori), who wanders the city longing for yet refraining from establishing connections. Withdrawing from society considered as an endless flux of people striving for fleeting ambitions, this woman eventually embodies the torn, modern, always questioning individual, who is just a piece of the ever-morphing puzzle of Japanese nationhood.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Monika UchiyamaSeijun SuzukiChiemi ShimadaMizuki ToriyaShohei ImamuraRyushi LindsayNagisa OshimaHikaru FujiiYukio MishimaPaul SchraderKazuo HaraYuka Sato
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.