News and Opinion
My primary hobby (other than watching movies; it's great to get paid for what you like to do!) is cycling. I'm not a "mania," spending thousands of dollars on my bikes (I can't afford that!), but I try do some long rides once or twice a week. Japan is neither a great place but nor a bad place for cycling. Many people ride bikes, but the laws tend to treat them as pests to be regulated not promoted. There are barely any bike lanes on major roads, but many of the major rivers have embankments or paved paths or roads where you can ride with relative safety. The roads in Japan tend to be narrow and it is scary as hell riding down an old major highway like the Machida Highway which has only two lanes, no shoulder, and huge trucks speeding by less than a meter from you. A lot of people ride on the sidewalk, but that is not only illegal in most cases (a special sign tells you when you can ride there), but impossible if you want to get up to 30 kph or more. I have thus developed over a dozen lengthy bike routes (from 30 to 80 kilometers in length) in the northern Yokohama, Machida, Kawasaki, and Hachioji areas, and most involve linking together various rivers.
Just a note that the body of Usui Yoshito, the artist of the popular manga Crayon Shin-chan, was found at the bottom of a cliff in Gunma Prefecture. Usui had gone hiking last week but had not returned; after a search, they found the body two days ago and identified it yesterday. Whether it was an accident or suicide is not clear. Some have speculated that it might be suicide given how the tone of the manga has changed over the last year or two (it has at times taken on terrorism, the death of characters, and suicide in serious ways). But it looks like it was really an accident.
I mention this not only because Crayon Shin-chan was often a good manga (a favorite in my family), but also because the movie versions, especially the ones directed by Hara Keiichi, were often masterful. While the TV episodes have shown a bit abroad (with the dialogue being made racier than the original to appeal to the anime fan base), the movies have been largely ignored. (I wonder if this does not have something to do with the image of "anime" that foreigners have created of Japanese animation, one which the Shin-chan films, if not quite a lot of other animation, don't quite fit.) Otona teikoku no gyakushu is one of the more interesting ruminations on 1970s Japan and Sengoku daikkassen was so good they just released a live action version of it (now in theaters under the title Ballad). There's even a book out there on Hara Keiichi's work: Animēshon kantoku Hara Keiichi (Tokyo: Shobunsha, 2005). Hara later went on to make such films as Kappa no Ku to natsu yasumi, which I once put in my best 10 list.
A few days after Sakamoto Junji visited my Yale Summer Session course, Matsuoka Joji came by to show his film from 2007, Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad (Tokyo Tawa: Okan to boku to, tokidoki, oton) and talk about his experience as a director.
I've long been a fan of Matsuoka and somewhat disappointed he hasn't gotten the attention he deserves, especially abroad. Bataashi kingyo was one of the first films I saw when I came to Japan in 1992 and I was impressed enough to later include it in my "Best 30 Japanese Films from 1989 to 1997" that the intellectual journal Yuriika (Eureka) asked me to pick a long time ago. I have not liked every single one of his films, but that is in part because he had for a long time been on the lower rungs of directors in the industry and thus the one that producers called later on or for lesser, more formulaic projects. He himself told the class that he had his own career crisis before even starting. After graduating from the film school at the Nihon University of Art, and winning a couple of awards at the Pia Film Festival for Sangatsu (1981) and Inaka no hosoku (1984) (incidentally, both starring the girl, he told the class, he started making films in order to get to know, but who ended up going out with the lead actor), he still was at a dead end and, while experiencing a little mental crisis, thought of giving up filmmaking. It was only because it was the bubble era and companies had money to throw around that a producer who liked his Pia films suddenly called him to offer him Bataashi kingyo. After that, he got a range of work from minor TV money productions to the very low budget Akashia no michi.
This report is about a month late, but I thought I would talk about Sakamoto Junji's visit to my Yale Summer Session class at the beginning of August. This was the second time Sakamoto-san has come to a class of mine. The first was in 1998, I think, when I was teaching at Yokohama National University. Sakamoto-san was a student at YNU way back when so when I once ran into him and Izutsu Kazuyuki at a Tokyo Film Festival party, I boldly invited him to come to my class. (This was right before Face (Kao) was released, sadly the only one of his films to be released on DVD in the USA.) Since then I have also become a fan of his producer, Shiii Yukiko, who has helped me out on a number of occasions. I have a piece in Japan Focus about Sakamoto's film Aegis (Bōkoku no īgisu), which is actually not one of my favorite Sakamoto films.
For the YNU visit, we showed one of the Kizudarake no tenshi films, but this time it was a much more difficult movie: Children of the Dark (Yami no kodomotachi, 2008). It is about trafficking of children in Thailand and was supposed to be screened at the Bangkok Film Festival until the authorities cancelled it. It stars Eguchi Yōsuke and Miyazaki Aoi and is one of a seemingly increasing number of Japanese films made abroad.