Akihiko Shiota is not a name known to Sydney Film Festival audiences. He is now 55 years old and his debut feature Moonlight Whispers premiered in 1999 at the Yubari Film Festival, the same festival that recently screened Australian Ben Cho’s new film Colonel Panics. How about that. Neither was selected for the SFF in their year.
A check of Shiota’s IMDb entry lists fifteen films, so fourteen of which have not been shown at the SFF. The one that has been shown is a piece of soft-core porn made by Nikkatsu Studios in some probably misguided executive’s view that the Japanese people are pining for a return to the days when the studio turned out dozens of relatively short porn movies and played them in dedicated theatres where for some time they did quite well. Both boredom and the internet contrived to bring the series to an end.
Shiota himself has travelled some distance while making those fifteen films. His early work won prizes at home and abroad and if you click on the link above for Moonlight Whispers you will find a nice review by the esteemed A O Scott which appeared in the New York Times. Among his supporters was Tony Rayns who selected his early films for screening in the prestigious Dragons and Tigers section in the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Interest in the director fell away when he went to work in the Japanese studio system. But in the last year or so Shiota has made a comeback and produced some quite distinctive work. Most notable is the feature Lifeline which screened at VIFF last year after its premiere at Tokyo FilmEX. It has to be said that few if any other festivals took up the chance to screen it or an accompanying short The Promise but for the record just once more these are the notes that appeared on the VIFF website about the program.
It’s much too long since VIFF last screened a film by Shiota Akihiko, but that’s not entirely our fault. After his early successes with idiosyncratic indie films like Moonlight Whispers and Harmful Insect, offbeat pictures of young people in love, usually with a slight edge of sado-masochism, he went mainstream and made a string of commercial entertainments. So Lifeline (which was commissioned, amazingly, for a corporate website) represents a return to his indie roots – and a rediscovery of what made his work so special to begin with. It was retrieved from internet oblivion and subtitled for the first time by the always-smart Tokyo FILMeX festival last year, and we’re delighted to bring it to its first audience outside Japan.
Ryosuke runs a used car dealership in the sticks, some way outside Tokyo. He inherited the business, and doesn’t enjoy running it. When a girl is dumped by the driver of a car on the road outside his forecourt, his life starts to turn upside-down. The seemingly flaky Shiori is demanding, rude and disinclined to explain herself. (It’s only later that we get tsunami-related hints as to why she behaves as she does.) First she takes up residence in one of the used cars, then keeps turning up like a bad penny, complicating Ryosuke’s life in ways he can’t handle. Fresh as a ‘new wave’ daisy, this is the sparkiest trip to Heartbreak Hotel since Chungking Express. TONY RAYNS
So, given the ignore for that film it’s a little difficult to get excited about Shiota’s SFF debut with a movie that’s just an assignment to make pornography. In some respects however, he has reworked the plot of Lifeline to get his job done. He has filmed it elegantly and incorporated more than a few jokes. The tiny crowd down at the Dendy Opera Quays found it amusing. But really, its selection sends entirely the wrong message and does a disservice to a very talented director.