Toronto Japanese Film Festival: From the harrowing "lost" Hiroshima to the light-hearted mysticism of Kamakura

By Jim Slotek

In the 73 years since fission's fury was unleashed, Japan has the distinction of being the only country to suffer both nuclear attack and an historic nuclear disaster (Fukushima being either the worst or second-worst depending on who’s talking).

And it would have been a perfect stroke of programming at this year’s Toronto Japanese Film Festival to program, as a double feature, the “lost” 1953 Hideo Sekigawa film Hiroshima and the 2017 Ryuichi Hiroki drama Side Job (about life in the under-populated ghost-town that is Fukushima, a disaster area that was never officially evacuated).

As it is, the festival – which runs from June 7-28 at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, has Hiroshima programmed for June 17 and Side Job for June 19 (coincidentally, the June 20 documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA, about the legendary Japanese composer’s efforts to continue making music while struggling with cancer, opens with him touring Fukushima’s contamination zone).

 The recently rediscovered 1953 anti-war film Hiroshima

The recently rediscovered 1953 anti-war film Hiroshima

In stark contrast, Thursday’s fantastical opening night film, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura by Takashi Yamasaki is one of the lightest-hearted films in the TJFF schedule. Kind of a Japanese take on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (with a bit of Orpheus & Eurydice tossed in, plotwise), it’s set in the real-but-fancifully-presented town of Kamakura, where the recently dead walk amongst the living, and various sorts of yokai (Japanese demons, demi-gods and monsters) live more or less in harmony with the human population.

Newlywed Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) knows there’s going to be a learning curve with her new husband Isshiki (Masato Sakai), but she’s unprepared to discover he’s not just an author, but a spectral investigator on retainer by the local police (who aren’t all human themselves). There’s warmth to the portrayal of these paranormal creatures, and even to the local Death god (Sakura Andô), who can be reasoned with. 

And Akiko herself, unknowingly comes with her own spectral baggage, a lovelorn demon that has chased her through multiple lifetimes.

 Isshiki (Masato Sakai) interrogates a mischief-making ghost in Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

Isshiki (Masato Sakai) interrogates a mischief-making ghost in Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

The effects range from the convincing to the straight-out-of-Power-Rangers. But Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is a true feel-good opener that’s worth a look. 

But Hiroshima – the screening of which will feature a Q&A with 2017 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Setsuko Thurlow - is the must-see of the TJFF. 

It’s a frankly angry and political anti-war film, set in Hiroshima and filmed just eight years after the detonation of Fat Man and Little Boy. Financed by the Hiroshima teachers’ union, it opens in a schoolroom, where some students have begun to fall prey to “atomic bomb disease” (leukemia), and are treated as pariahs by others – to the chagrin of the teacher Kitagawa (Eiji Okada).

Politically, Hiroshima is not kindly disposed to the American occupiers, and even, oddly, retains some sympathy towards Japan’s erstwhile German allies (A student at one point decries America’s allegations of German gas attacks as hypocritical in the face of their own use of a much worse weapon of mass destruction. Of course, in hindsight the Nazis were guilty of using gas much more nefariously).

But it’s when Hiroshima shifts into flashback mode, from the day of “the Flash” forward, that it becomes powerful and grueling viewing. It’s almost a zombie-film as it follows different families of survivors, some on auto-pilot (an officer demands respect for his rank as he shambles to his death, a military demand futilely demands that the populace “return to your jobs!” 

And in the most ghoulish touch of all, scavengers sift for skulls in the debris to sell as souvenirs to American soldiers.

 Side Job: Miyuki (Kumi Takiuchi) is an existential casualty of the Fukushima disaster

Side Job: Miyuki (Kumi Takiuchi) is an existential casualty of the Fukushima disaster

Side Job – a Canadian premiere - is an apocalyptic story of another sort. With a radiation level (since refuted and debated) deemed unworthy of evacuation, Fukushima nonetheless is shown as a town where everyone who could afford to leave has. The parking lots are nearly empty, and even the noisy pachinko parlors have only a few die-hard gamblers.

Miyuki (Kumi Takiuchi) is a clerk supporting her widowed father (an unemployed farmer awaiting news of a safe radiation level for crops), and works on weekends as a high-end prostitute in Tokyo. The double-life seems more existential than driven by financial need. But she is nonetheless clearly losing her will to carry on. Meanwhile, her co-worker, an earnest government official (Tokio Emoto) is also at wits end trying to put on a brave face for the angry and seemingly-hopeless public.

Fukushima was not obliterated in the sense that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were. But Side Job suggests there are other ways to decimate a city. 

Toronto Japanese Film Festival. June 7-28. Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, Toronto