We preview the Toronto Japanese Film Fest: Dried bone rituals, mindfulness, tea and sake

A top rewarding experience in the buffet of film festivals in the city, the eighth Toronto Japanese Film Festival kicks off Thursday, June 6 with a lineup of 28 features at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

The films, many of them here on the heels of events like the Tokyo Film Festival and the Japanese Academy Awards, run the gamut of action, antic adventure, science fiction and tradition-bound tales. The opening night film is the North American Premiere of Masayuki Suzuki’s mystery thriller, Masquerade Hotelstarring Takuya Kimura and Masami Nagasawa, about an undercover cop posing as a hotelier to intercept a murderer.

Full program, ticket and box-office info is available at


Hotelier Masami Nagasawa and undercover cop Takuya Timura crime-solve together in Masquerade Hotel

Hotelier Masami Nagasawa and undercover cop Takuya Timura crime-solve together in Masquerade Hotel

Original-Cin’s Liam Lacey and Jim Slotek previewed eight of the films on offer at TJFF.

Masquerade Hotel

The festival’s opener is a glib, police procedural that seems to be begging to be made into a TV series about mismatched crime-solving partners. Takuya Timura is Nitta, a shaggy police detective who doesn’t play by the rules (he rarely bows to his superiors). But when analysis of a serial killer’s trail indicates the next victim will be a guest at a high-end hotel, the police seek permission to go undercover as staff. Nitta ends up under the tutelage of Naomi (Masami Nagasawa), a by-the-book desk manager who forces him to clean up his act and treat customers with respect. Her obsessive attention to detail also makes her a natural detective and the two effectively become close, bantering partners. There are a few too many red herrings and wild goose chases in the plot, most played for laughs. But the ultimate vibe is crowd-pleasing. Thurs. June 6, 7:30 p.m. (JS)

Born Bone Born

It’s not unheard of for a noted comedian to turn successfully to drama, but Toshiyuki Teruya (better known in Japan as “Gori” from the duo Garage Sale) doesn’t fall far from the comedy tree with this moving tale of a family that reunites on Okinawa for a very different bereavement ritual. Seems after a period of interment, the loved one’s body is removed, the bones are cleaned and they are sent presentably to the afterlife. That’s the backdrop for a dysfunctional reunion that includes a suddenly-pregnant daughter (Ayame Misaki), her flakey, hippie-ish boss/father-of-her-child, a drunken dad, a disapproving, straitlaced son and an aunt who’s become the de facto matriarch. A bittersweet and oddly feel-good film that I recommend highly. Director Teruya will be in attendance. Monday, June 24. 7 p.m. (JS)


Set near the end of the Second World War, Organ (the musical instrument, not a body part) follows a group of daycare workers and teachers who supervised the evacuation of 53 preschoolers to an abandoned temple to save them from the war. Director Emiko Hiramatsu previously worked as a screenwriter on all three of Yôji Yamada’s What A Wonderful Family  trilogy (the third film plays this year’s festival) and she brings an unsettling sort of We Bought A Zoo quality to this dark chapter in Japanese history, though the film does turn a corner toward the melodramatic in its third act. Mostly,  the daycare staff act like bustling, squabbling aunties to dozens of cute kids, drying their pee-soaked futons and trying to find new ways to make radishes for breakast seem appetiizing. At the start, a by-the-book supervisor Kaede (Erika Toda) is at odds with the adorable but immature organist Mitsue (Sakurako Ohara), who is, in turn, comforted by the saintly Yoshiko (Yui Sakuma), and eventually everyone comes to appreciate everyone else. June 12, 7 p.m. (LL)

Our Departures

Setsuo (Jun Kunimura), a crusty old train engineer in rural Kagoshima gets a surprise visit one evening: His estranged son’s second wife, Akira (Kasumi Arimura), shows up, accompanied by a pre-teen boy, Shunya (Ryusei Kiyama), who is Setsuo’s grandson and the child of his now deceased former daughter-in-law. Unable to reach Setsuo by phone, Akira has come in person to hand him a box full of his son’s ashes. Akira, who has been evicted from her Tokyo apartment, asks to move in with him. To take the intrusion one step further, Akira applies for a job as a train driver’s apprentice with Setsuo’s company. Within the predictable celebration of extended family values, the film’s novelty is its train geek appeal, particularly the old-fashioned single-car diesel engines that putt through the countryside, while Japan’s famed bullet trains streak by on the horizon. Thursday, June 13, 7 p.m. (LL)

Of Love and Law

This wonderfully engaging documentary follows a couple of gay lawyers, Fumi and Kazu, who practice law together in Osaka and take on pro bono civil rights’ cases, Their extended family includes the mother of one of the lawyers, a teen-aged orphan they have raised and a cat who shares their tiny flat. Their clients include the hilarious iconoclastic artist, Rokudenashiko, whose “vagina art” has led to obscenity charges; a teacher who refuses to stand for the national anthem because of her opposition to Japanese nationalism, and people who are denied civil rights because they were born out of wedlock. Director Hikaru Toda deftly interweaves heartfelt personal stories with political insights in a portrait of a culture tearing away from a tradition of quiet obedience. Saturday, June 15, 4 p.m. (LL)


For Love’s Sake

A young millennial woman, Shiori (Rina Kawaei) a student at a wine academy in Tokyo, is assigned to an internship at a Hiroshima traditional sake brewery. She would much rather be studying Bordeaux in France, since sake disgusts her, thanks to an unfortunate indulgent evening.  When she arrives in Hiroshima, things look bad when no one at the brewery seems to have expected her; the aging widower owner has a heart-condition and his resentful son, Kanji, would rather make crockery than oversee the business.

The film has everything -- a mildly amusing fish-out-of-water comedy, a romance, a drama about an artisanal family business fighting new-fangled “data-driven” methods — though all these fictional elements seem almost incidental. The film as a whole feels like a long-form commercial created by an organization with a name like the Hiroshima Sake Promotional Council and Tourist Board, and to that end, it succeeds: We learn a lot about the history and complexity of sake, and the city, with its system of bridges, looks beautiful. June 20, 7 p.m. (LL)

Wine lover Rina Kawaei learns to love making sake in For Love’s Sake

Wine lover Rina Kawaei learns to love making sake in For Love’s Sake

When My Mom Died, I Wanted to Eat Her Ashes

Adapted from an autobiographical manga, this wryly titled diary film follows a thirty-something mama’s boy, Satoshi (Ken Yasuda), who recalls his life at different stages – at age five, when he was caught shop-lifting, again at 15, when he spent a year undergoing leukemia treatment, and finally, the last two years of his mother’s life.  Moments of sentimentality are deftly undercut both by the narrator’s mordant humour and well-observed details of how each of the family members deal with grief and denial in different ways. Well worth watching. Wednesday, June 26, 7 p.m. (LL)

Every Day A Good Day

An awkward young college graduate, Noriko (Haru Kuroki) is persuaded by her mother and cute cousin to take weekly tea ceremony classes. Initially skeptical, and clumsy, she eventually learns valuable life lessons over the next twenty-four years with her master, Takeda, played by the late, great Kirin Kiki (most recently seen in Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters). Adapted from the essays of Noriko Morishita, the film presents a subtle argument that the traditional ceremony, which may look to outsiders like elaborately ritualized female subservience, is a way for women from various walks of life to find solidarity and resilience in an art form and a way of learning to stay in the present.  Director Tatsushi Ohmori, known for films of boundary-pushing sex and violence  (The Whispering of the Gods), is all about patience and mindfulness here:  the twenty steps in folding a napkin, the difference between the sounds of hot and cold water, the subtle variations of the tea ceremony with the seasons. The movie may even lead you to greater mindfulness or at least, greater awareness of one of your senses:  Those tea cakes look scrumptious. Thursday, June 27, 7 p.m. (LL)