“Three characters. Two languages. One truth.” This is the idea behind Odessa (オデッサ), Koki Mitani’s first new play in three and a half years, set in 1999 in the American town of Odessa, Texas. A Japanese tourist is detained on suspicion of murder. The detective, while of Japanese descent, only speaks English. And so an interpreter, a Japanese student studying abroad, is brought in to translate. But as the tagline tells us, “現実 (genjitsu, ‘truth’) is stranger than TRUTH.” Confused? Hell yeah.
Kōki Mitani is pretty much the theater world’s version of Juzo Itami: a sensationally multitalented artist who writes and directs all of his own productions, frequently re-casts the same groups of actors in everything he makes, working to create intertextual comedies that are often inspired by American sensibilities… He’s even, fittingly, the recipient of last year’s Juzo Itami Award, which honored his achievement and outstanding talent in many of the same areas Itami worked. And while, also like Itami, he’s (for some cruel and baffling reason) practically unheard of in the West, writer Nobuko Tanaka starts off her 2012 article and interview in the Japan Times about his domestic popularity with a simple fact: “Koki Mitani is far and away the nation’s best-known dramatist.”
If you pay attention to movies at all, you’ve probably heard of – and should have seen – RRR, the incredible, ridiculous, and insanely over-the-top 2022 historical action-drama epic about colonialism, friendship, and loyalty. The film was directed and co-written by S.S. Rajamouli in the most expensive Indian film production to-date. Rajamouli previously made waves on the internet for this preposterous scene in his previous film, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, and he’s probably the world’s most well-known director in Tollywood (not Bollywood, as his films are in Telugu, not Hindi). Japan loves Indian films, too – a recent ad at my local cinema taught me the word マサラ上映 masara jouei, or “masala screening”… which is apparently the Japanese term for a participatory/singalong-style showing of an Indian film where moviegoers are invited to recite dialogue (or, well, the subtitled dialogue) in real-time, dress up in costume, and emotively react to scenes. (This seems like the antithesis of most Japanese movie theater experiences I’ve had so far, so honestly I’d be interested in going…)
I think RRR really began to take off in Japan once its iconic “Naatu Naatu” scene & song won Best Original Song at the Oscars and Golden Globes last year, causing its associated dance and awards show performance to finally spread eastward on social media like wildfire. So what was this country to do with an outrageously over-the-top foreign movie that depicts one of the greatest bromances ever? Well, have the Takarazuka Revue adapt it into an even more over-the-top musical with super gay undertones, of course.
Ever since I began planning my move to Japan in mid-2023, there was one place I promised myself I’d go at the first possible opportunity: the Itami Juzo Museum (伊丹十三記念館 / Itami Juzo kinenkan) in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. Shikoku is the smallest and least-populated of Japan’s four main islands, and I’d never been off Honshu, which added to my excitement. So with a full week off work for the New Year’s holidays, I made the trip.
Juzo Itami is my favorite film director in the world, a true visionary and master of subtle social satire and life-affirming comedy who dared to poke fun at and push back against his own rule-bound culture’s customs (“I make movies to get the Japanese to look in the mirror”, he said in 1996). He made his directorial debut at age 51 after spending decades as an actor and essayist… and editing a 1980s psychoanalytic magazine, designing commercials, illustrating print ads, translating Western cookbooks, living in London and becoming fluent in English and French… After writing and releasing ten feature films, he was murdered by the yakuza in 1997 for criticizing them and mocking their practices, remaining unafraid after a prior violent attack and continuing to investigate their ties to a religious cult. I can only dream of what the film and literary landscape today could have looked like today if he had been able to keep making movies into the 21st century.
I got to see a very, very rare Japanese film last night: Tomcat’s Big Adventure (ちびねこトムの大冒険 地球を救え！なかまたち / Chibineko Tom no Daibouken: Chikyuu o Sukue! Nakama-tachi)
Tomcat’s Big Adventure was to be the debut feature of Ryūtarō Nakamura, best known as the director of serial experiments lain (1998) and Kino’s Journey (2003). Five years in the making, it was an anime adaptation of a children’s book by Masumi Iino and Yumiko Imai, and featured incredible talent from the likes of Toshiyuki Inoue and Hiroyuki Okiura (key animation), Manabu Ōhashi (a.k.a. Mao Lamdo, animation direction & character design), Kenji Kawai (music), Hiromasa Ogura (art direction & background art), and Shigeharu Shiba (audio direction). Despite production being temporarily halted due to a cost overrun – underscored by the burst of the Japanese economic bubble – Tomcat’s was completed in 1992. But when the movie’s production/distribution company went bankrupt, plans to release it were shelved indefinitely; its theatrical run didn’t ever happen, with its only screenings being in small, local venues plus a handful of showings on regional TV. Even animators in the industry often hadn’t heard of its existence, and it began to be called a “phantom” or “fabled” (幻 maboroshi) work – as this translator puts it, “something so fantastic, rare and mysterious that its very existence has come into question”.
Nearly 20 years later, an individual named Mitsuhiro Akashi learned of the film through a friend of his who held the copyright, having inherited the rights from her late father who had invested in the work. Akashi and the friend began promoting the film online which reinvigorated fan interest, and resulted in a screening event hosted by Manabu Ōhashi in late 2012. This (presumably) caught the attention of Tollywood – a small, independent/arthouse cinema in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo (where, incidentally, I got to see the great 1987 film Gondola back in 2017) – and they were able to bring Tomcat’s to their theatre at the end of 2014 for a one-month-only engagement (which was then extended another month due to demand).
Akashi also ran a crowdfunding campaign around this time to produce a 35 mm digital remaster of the film, but the Blu-Ray’s distribution was limited to the 225-ish supporters, and it has never appeared online (legally or illegally). The digital version has been shown briefly in a couple venues in Japan (such as at Tollywood again in 2019), once in Switzerland, and once in France, but it’s never been available to publicly purchase or watch at home.
Posted in Film
Hi! I decided to make this blog as an old-school-internet-style way to show off some photos I took during my trip this past weekend to the Special Exhibition “YOTSUBA&! Exhibition of Original Manga Drawings” (よつばと！原画展 / Yotsuba to! Gengaten) at the Tokiwaso Manga Museum in Toshima-ku, Tokyo. I figured some other people online would want an English-language trip report, so here we go! Below are 85 pictures in full resolution. (By the way, if you use these somewhere, please do let me know, and give credit by linking back here – it’d be appreciated.)
The entrance in Tokiwaso Park
Yaaaay, made it!
Quick backstory: I moved to Nagoya, Japan last month and took the Tōkaidō Shinkansen up to Tokyo (only a 1.5 hour ride on the Nozomi train, at nearly 300 km/h!) this past weekend in order to see this exhibition of Kiyohiko Azuma’s work before it closed at the end of the month. I was (and still am) elated that I was able to move to Japan in time and go, just before it wrapped up, especially as I have commitments the following two weekends this month! I went right when it opened at 10 a.m.
The Yotsuba&! exhibition itself is housed in a museum that’s a masterful reproduction of Tokiwa-sō, an apartment building that was inhabited by numerous famous manga artists in the mid-20th century, including Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Dororo), Fujiko F. Fujio & Fujiko Fujio Ⓐ (Doraemon), Shotaro Ishinomori (Super Sentai, Kamen Rider), and Fujio Akatsuka (Osomatsu-kun). The upstairs showcases the original living quarters, and the downstairs floor hosts revolving exhibitions like this one.
Danbo is in one of the rooms! This is a faithful recreation of Tokiwa-sō in the 1950s and 60s, surely!
A big Yotsuba greets you at the end of the hallway, next to the small elevator to head downstairs. Hi!
Heading downstairs and going around the corner, you turn left and find yourself in the main room. But we’ll talk about what’s there later! For now, we’ll turn left again and walk through these sliding doors, which takes us into the exhibition space.