Oscar shocker: Grim director nominated
For 20 years, the Academy Awards for “ best foreign language film” have become the baby food shelf of global cinema: It’s where you find movies that are bland, safe and unambitious. Which is why it’s downright shocking that this year’s shortlist features “Confessions” by Japan’s Tetsuya Nakashima, the darkest and most intense director working today.
Nakashima had two obscure features under his belt before he arrived on the international scene with “ Kamikaze
Girls” in 2004. The first 15 minutes feature a motorbike accident, a defense of 18th-century Rococo art, an ad for Jusco department stores, a vagina cam, a top-tobottom analysis of the counterfeit fashion economy and a summary of the main character’s entire life. The remaining time was devoted to an uneasy friendship between two teenage girls trapped in a hick town, one of whom belongs to the Lolita subculture (dedicated to all things adorable) and the other duty-bound to live and die as a Yanki ( juvenile delinquents obsessed with ’50s greaser style).
“Kamikaze Girls,” a critical and commercial hit, was followed with a seven-minute short, “Rolling Bomber Special,” starring members of the Japanese pop supergroupSMAP. It’s Power Rangers-esque superheroes against their greatest villain: an aimless slacker. With these two films, Nakashima showed himself to be fluent in pop culture, cutting together movies that were cinematic tornadoes of animation, freaky digital effects, sight gags, radioactive colors, super-stupid hairstyles and bizarre narrative tangents. But no one was prepared for what came next.
“Memories ofMatsuko” (2006) was a paradigm shift. A musical version of “Citizen Kane” except centered on a dead bag lady. Matsuko is a young teacher with a beautiful voice who always dreamed big, but never caught a break and finally fell from grace and into squalor. Nakashima follows her all the way down, using the big musical numbers normally reserved for cinema’s winners to tell the story of an ordinary woman who followed her heart into a blind alley where life was waiting for her with a lead pipe.
“Memories ofMatsuko” was a huge hit that garnered an avalanche of acclaim. It’s around this time that the Japanese press began referring toNakashima as “a genius.” They almost changed their minds with his next film, “Paco and theMagical Picture Book” (2008), a fairy tale about a young girl with a traumatic brain injury that featured a cast of Japan’s best actors, mugging gruesomely.
Nakashima redeemed his reputation quickly, however, writing and producing “Lala Pipo” (2009), which was helmed by one of his assistant directors, but it clearly bore his stamp. Another kaleidoscopic “whatzit,” the movie interweaves the stories of five people working in Tokyo’s porn industry, using puppets, costumed superheroes, dream sequences and elaborate fantasies to give humanity to the losers who normally serve as motion picture punch lines.
Next, there’s “Confessions” (2010), which exchanged eyepopping color and a manic soundtrack for a restrained grayand-white color palette, and Radiohead’s melancholy “ Last
Flowers.” CastingMatsu Takako (sort of a Japanese Jennifer Aniston) as a teacher named Yuko, the beginning of the movie is a tour de force, in which Yuko gives an unbroken 20-minute monologue to her class on her last day of work. She informs them that not only did two of them murder her 4-year-old daughter but that she knows who they are and she’s already taken steps to avenge her child. But by the halfhour mark the murderers are revealed and retribution exacted. That’s when “Confessions” truly takes off.
Nakashima has a lot to say about victims, violence, revenge, living a worthwhile life, parents and their children, and he says it all while never pointing fingers. Instead, he wants to illustrate how far we can go, and how much damagewe can do, when we’re convinced thatwe’re right.