June 19, 2012
The characters in a Nobuhiro Yamashita film do a lot of standing around. They are waiting for something, whether it be a friend, a bus, or simply for the day to end. Yamashita’s films are about killing time, in the hope that the following morning will contain less of it. But each day seems to grow longer, and these young men and women continue to stand, until they have forgotten what they were waiting for in the first place. These are films attuned to the rhythms of in-between moments , reveling in their awkward absurdity and percolating anxiousness. Yamashita’s films are frequently hilarious but of a kind that sticks in the throat, as life sails by his weightless, indecisive characters. Operating in near-anonymity out of Japan, with little festival or international distribution, Yamashita has forged a consistently funny and bittersweet body of work that is deserving of a vastly wider audience.
Nobuhiro Yamashita was born in Aichi Prefecture, Japan in 1976. It is the country’s most heavily industrialized area, perhaps leading Yamashita toward his ambivalent attitude towards work, as his characters are all either unemployed or terrible at their jobs. He went to film school at the Osaka University of Arts, where he met his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Kosuke Mukai. They made a series of short films together before completing Hazy Life, which was accepted into the Rotterdam Film Festival’s Tiger Award Competition for young filmmakers in 2000. A startlingly assured debut for a 24-year-old, it is very much under the sway of Jim Jarmusch, a series of deadpan blackout sketches about two aimless youths stuck between immaturity and adulthood.
Minami (Yamashita axiom Hiroshi Yamamoto) enters life pompadour first, as the film opens with his conical hair horn poking into the frame. The next shot is a street-level of his high-heeled boots, a man of style if not, at this point, any perceptible substance. He walks across a parking lot to grab a soda, where he stands next to the schlubby Machida, in usual college slob wear, dingy sweatshirt and jeans. It is their first meeting, set up by Yamashita in fixed camera shots and symmetrical compositions, which repeat throughout, the form following the enervating sameness of their days and nights. Minami recruits Machida to help him dub amateur porn on VHS tapes for a nominal fee, after which they become friends, more out of inertia than pleasure. They are standing next to each other, so they might as well hang out. They each fantasize about taking an active role in life, of going on dates, assaulting a deli clerk and joining a motorcycle gang, but by the end of the film all they have are dreams, as they sit on a bus bench and rationalize, “at least we’re alive”.
Ramblers (2003) is Yamashita’s third feature, made after No One’s Ark (2003), which I have yet to track down. Ramblers is the last film he would make in Osaka, before he decided he needed to make a living and moved to Tokyo to work for the studios. Once again working with Mukai (who adapted the script from a manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge), it tells another story of two young men thrust together in order to wait. This time it is a director, Kinoshita (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and a writer, Tsuboi (Keishi Nagatsuka) who meet up in a sleepy mountain town to set up the production of a feature. They are waiting for a third collaborator to arrive…who is indefinitely delayed. The duo has to kill time, so they go fishing, practice their golf putting, encounter a series of obstreperous locals, and briefly fall in love with a young runaway who breezes through their life. Atsuko (Machiko Ono) appears to them like a mythical creature, running naked down the beach as they sit and shoot the breeze. Someone has robbed her while she was in the water, and Kinoshita and Tsuboi immediately let this apparition into their daily routine of putzing around. Their emotions briefly buoyed, she just as quickly disappears, jumping on a bus that actually arrives, something inconceivable to a Yamashita character. Alone once again, they begin running out of money, their hotels (and their managers) becoming comically decrepit, until they are forced to leave, the Atsuko interlude more shared myth than reality.
Yamashita’s first contract job once arriving in Tokyo was Cream Lemon (2004), made for the Fullmotion production company, known for their erotic “pink” movies. It’s an adaptation of the hentai manga (or pornographic comic book) of the same name, but Yamashita and Mukai turned it into an unsettling art film. It is the story of a step-brother and sister who fall in love, but instead of a parade of sex scenes, Yamashita stretches out the moments beforehand, when the two nervous siblings send out feelers of mutual desire. It remains a film about waiting, this time of the anxious moments yearning for another’s touch.
Then came Yamashita’s one major box office success, the ebullient high school musical Linda Linda Linda (2005), which is the only film of his to receive a limited release in the U.S. The script by Wakako Miyashita had won a screenwriting competition, which garnered the attention of producer Hiroyuki Negishi, who then brought in Yamashita. Yamashita and Mukai were allowed to re-write the scenario, but this is the first of their films to lack their deliberate pacing and obsession with in-between moments. This is very much a mainstream comedy, but is a thoroughly delightful one, and shows Yamashita to be adept at energetic pop entertainment. It concerns a high school girl band who needs to recruit a new vocalist three days before a festival performance. They settle on Korean exchange student Son (Bae Doo-na), whose shaky grasp of Japanese is the source of the film’s manic comedy of mis-communication. Add that to the insanely catchy theme song adapted from The Blue Hearts’ pop-punk “Linda Linda”, and there’s little secret to the film’s popularity.
He returned to more familiar ground in The Matsugane Potshot Affair (2006), a sprawling black comedy about a fictional small town (shot around the snowy climes of Nagano) that is slowly falling apart. It returns to the slow-burn, fixed camera set-ups from his independent days, but set across a wider locale, as this time an entire town watches their lives pass them by. Families are crumbling, the police are clueless, and the coroner incompetent. The opening sequence ends with a declared death coming back to life. The fulcrums to the story are fraternal twins, one a directionless cop, the other a farmer who knocks a woman unconscious in a hit and run. Their respective disdain for action leads them to slip further and further into crime and ignorance. Bags of gold, heads in bags, and mice in the ceiling act as triggers for their slow mental decline. Unable to alter the deep grooves of their daily routines, they are doomed to circle in their morally deficient hometown, with neither the will nor the imagination to escape. Yamashita’s protagonists have aged, and their indolence no longer has roguish charm but has curdled into sour regrets.
Shortly after the release of Matsugane Yamashita told Midnight Eye that, ” these past three years the films I’ve made have always been ‘based on’ something. I do feel that it’s about time that I do something that I’m completely involved in from scratch. If not, I don’t know if I will continue to feel so comfortable for very long.” Since Matsugane, he made the lovely rural school comedy (and manga adaptation) A Gentle Breeze in the Village (2007, and his first film without a script by Mukai), the ’70s student radical drama My Back Page(2011), adapted from a novel, and he has a new comedy, Kueki Ressha (2012) opening in Japan in July, which is also based on a book (and was written without Mukai). Since his arrival in Tokyo in 2004, he has not produced an original script, and his comfort level must be dwindling. His films have never been shown at Cannes, nor at most of the other major festivals, so he cannot depend on foreign investment to produce his work. He has to make what the Japanese studios will support, making the possibility of another Hazy Life close to nil. But unlike his protagonists, Yamashita has proven to be adaptable, deepening high school musicals and sentimental teen romances with his outsider sympathies and eye for oddball detail. He is, as ever, a director to keep an eye on.