This was supposed to be the month when all eyes would be on Japan, with the presumably lavish festivities for the Tokyo Olympic Games due to kick off shortly. It’s rather surreal to imagine any such scenario now: perhaps, in a year’s time, the hype of an Olympics won’t feel like such an alien concept, though even that feels soon for such a different world to come back into being.
In the meantime, if you are feeling a Tokyo 2020-shaped hole in your life, there is a nostalgic solution. The Olympic Channel, amid its bevy of Games-related video content, has the magnificent Tokyo Olympiad available to stream for free. Kon Ichikawa’s ravishing, nearly three-hour official documentary of the 1964 event belongs in the pantheon of great sporting documentaries, shot and edited with seamless, balletic fluidity as it captures the concentration of athletes and the fever of spectatorship alike. (It’s as technically towering as Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Olympia, minus the fascistic overtones; the Japanese government, hoping for something more conventionally rousing and patriotic, was unhappy with the result.) It’s certainly as transporting as anything you could hope to watch in this Olympic summer that never was.
Sporting concerns aside, much of my viewing of late has been Japanese-themed, in ways coincidental and otherwise. The BFI Player’s superb Japan 2020 season may have lost the calendar-related hook of the Olympics, but no matter – it’s a celebratory event in itself. If you haven’t dived in yet, it’s the platform’s best subscription lure in ages, and not yet complete, with new collections being added on a monthly basis.
The BFI opened the season, however, with the gold standard: a retrospective of Akira Kurosawa’s films that goes gratifyingly far beyond the canon titles. If you’ve never seen the medium-changing moral roundelay of Rashomon (1950) or the staggering, Shakespeare-meets-samurai spectacle of Ran (1985), this is obviously an ideal place to start, but if you have, chances are there’s still a discovery to be made among their 20-plus Kurosawa selections. I was new to Drunken Angel (1948), the first of the director’s collaborations with star Toshiro Mifune, and a duly intoxicating fusion of postwar realism and long, film noir shadows. The same goes for One Wonderful Sunday (1947), a tender, life-in-a-day study of a cash-strapped, newly engaged couple traipsing around Tokyo that reminds us what a sweetly humane film-maker Kurosawa could be outside of his signature genres.
One Wonderful Sunday is closer to the kind of beautifully formed miniature you’d expect from Yasujirō Ozu, who of course gets his own showcase in the BFI season. Here, again, universally agreed classics sit beside less discussed gems. If you’ve seen the rightly but routinely celebrated Tokyo Story (1953), but not the equally lovely The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) – a marital study as delicate and inviting as the title – or his unexpected jaunt of a silent gangster film, 1933’s Dragnet Girl, you’re missing out.
Contrast in the season comes via the more sexily esoteric Cult Japan section, which runs the gamut from the barking, irresistibly titled yakuza erotica of Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967) to the sleek, piercingly nasty J-horror of Takashi Miike’s Audition. One selection, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film House, is clearly having a moment: a fascinating, grisly mashup of adult fairytale, escapist teen fantasy and old-dark-house horror, it’s also coming up on the Mubi menu this week.
The Japan 2020 season hasn’t reached its anime chapter yet – though it’s on the docket for the coming months – so in lieu of that, head to Netflix, whose marvellous collection of Studio Ghibli features has been one of its great recent coups. If you’re hankering for newer anime, meanwhile, stay on Netflix and seek out Japan Sinks: 2020. A new series by Masaaki Yuasa (of Devilman Crybaby renown), adapted and updated from Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 sci-fi novel, it’s apocalyptic fare of arrestingly bleak, vivid proportions, carrying one family through the terror of an urban landscape literally sinking in the wake of multiple catastrophic earthquakes. One can only hope Japan 2021 holds brighter prospects.
Also new on streaming and DVD
(Curzon Artificial Eye, 18)
South African director Oliver Hermanus’s fourth and finest film is a shattering, unexpectedly sensuous march to the frontline of the Angolan border war in the early 1980s, as experienced by a young, terrified and closeted gay conscript.
The Portuguese Woman
A 2019 festival find now having an exclusive Mubi run, Rita Azevedo Gomes’s seductive, painterly period drama brings a lightly surreal touch to its living-tableau classicism.
A Criterion release for this 1928 Buster Keaton vehicle, famous for its troubled production, which saw the star, newly signed to MGM, subject to unprecedented creative interference. Not that you can tell from the nimble, elegant showbiz comedy that results.