Would you like to watch some Independent Japanese films if they were available at no charge and streamed direct to your computer, tablet or phone? Well, you can under the ‘Independent Cinema programme from the Japan Foundation’. There are 12 titles chosen to represent contemporary independent cinema by programmers of community cinemas and ‘mini-theatres’ in Japan. All you have to do is register and you can watch the first six films between now and March 15th. The second programme then follows until June.
I chose Wonderwall: the Movie, selected by ‘Cinémathèque Takasaki, a mini-theatre in a city in the centre of Japan some 90–100 kms from Tokyo. The film was partly selected because it is a film about young people in a city that is significant but not as large as Tokyo or Osaka. Kyoto is one of the former capitals of Japan being associated with tourism and traditional aspects of Japanese life. The focus is on the oldest student dormitory (i.e. in the UK a ‘hall of residence’) in a Japanese university, opened in 1913 and run ever since by students themselves – ‘Konoe dormitory’ of the University of Kyoto. It has survived both natural disasters and bombing during the Pacific War but now it faces the prospect of demolition by the university authorities. The ‘wall’ of the title refers to a new partition built in the student services area of the university, effectively putting the university staff behind a glass partition when talking to students. When our narrator Kyupi (Red Sudo) finds out about the dormitory as a new student he makes an ironic reference to the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 as well as Donald Trump’s plans for a Mexican border wall. Our narrator’s role seems to be to use his video camera to record confrontations between students and the university management.
The film is quite low key and relatively slow paced except perhaps for aspects of the final section. Overall it is quite short (under 70 minutes). However, I never found it dull and I was engaged throughout. Eventually I realised that it reminded me of From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011), a Studio Ghibli anime that includes an attempt by high school students to save a traditional student house in Yokohama in 1963. In Wonderwall, the dormitory appears to be unisex, but the narrative focuses on a group of male students led by the chief negotiator Mifune (Nakazaki Haya), a third year student. He seems to be doing well against the Professor who represents the university management but he is stymied by the middle-aged woman who rebuffs the students from behind the glass partition wall. The students call her ‘tetrapod’ woman – they can’t find any way round her defences. However, the next occasion when the students collectively enter the student services centre tetrapod woman is not there and eventually a younger and more attractive woman appears. Mifune and his ‘second’ Shimura are both at a loss for words and leave: the other students are dismayed. Surely their two colleagues can’t be so sexist when faced with a young woman as an adversary? Never fear, there is an interesting twist which I won’t spoil – but you might remember the enigmatic opening shots of the film.
As an ‘observer’ rather than a direct participator in the student protests of the late 1960s, I thought the discussions between the students about strategy and tactics and whether it is worth continuing to fight to be realistic. The same goes for the endless meetings about running the dorm collectively. I also discovered later that dorms like this existed elsewhere in Japan and that university authorities decided to shut them down as ‘hotbeds’ of radicalism’. I would say the film is very well scripted by Watanabe Aya, an experienced writer. The difference between the current protest and the 1960s/70s protests is that the earlier struggles were intensely political in the period when the Vietnam War was a live issue – I don’t know much about how that affected Japanese students – whereas the present struggle seems more philosophical. The students recognise that the dormitory represents a collective struggle over decades to keep the building under student control. The management predictably are only concerned with the value of the land and the possibility of generating more revenue through a modern building, but as one character observes, there is more to life than simply making money. It’s quite important, I think, that the students in the film seem like students everywhere and that the seriousness of some of the discussions are leavened by comedy moments. I also enjoyed the appearance of the cats and the chameleon.
I have struggled to find details of the cast and crew but there are several experienced cast members. Director Made Yuki made the film after starting his career with time spent on TV documentaries. It is produced by NHK, the Japanese public service broadcaster. The opening section seems like a documentary and then becomes a form of docudrama. The music is by Iwasaki Taisei, who has also contributed to the score of Belle (2021) a high profile anime. I found the final section of the film both frustrating (it wasn’t clear to me whether the dormitory has been demolished or has a stay of execution) and exhilarating with a performance by a community youth orchestra of the ‘Supporters of Konoe dorm’. They play the film’s theme song and it’s a great rendition and by the comments on the festival website has been appreciated as a fitting emotional ending.
The Japan Foundation also runs an annual touring festival of more high profile Japanese films in UK cinemas which I try to attend but nothing is showing close to me this year. The tour runs from the 3rd of February to March 31st. I enjoyed Wonderwall and this online offer looks like complementing the cinema screenings very effectively. I’ll certainly look at what else is on offer.