Premiere Japan (Barbican, London)

Yo Zushi watches a year in Japanese film and receives some lessons in love.

Premiere Japan
Barbican, London EC2

One morning in March 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a lethal gas attack on the Tokyo subway, killing over a dozen commuters and injuring a thousand others. The mass murders briefly shook a soporific society out of the American dream that it had taken for its own since the end of the Second World War - a dream of individualism, of big business - and, for a moment, forced it to look squarely at its own conflicted culture. Three years later, the novelist Haruki Murakami concluded his book of interviews with survivors of the attack, Underground, with an essay asking, "Where are we Japanese going?"

That question occupied my mind as I attended the seventh Premiere Japan film festival, this year held at the Barbican. The films - the country's "best and most recent features", according to the organisers - ranged from the anime adventure Legend of the Millennium Dragon to Sketch of Mujo, a documentary about the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake. Introducing the festival, Hiroshi Suzuki, cultural director of the Japanese embassy, delivered a speech on cinema's ability to capture the "inner dynamics" of a society. If these films are an accurate representation of Japan today, Murakami's unease at our country's direction of travel doubtless persists.

The headline picture was Tokyo Park, a coming-of-age drama directed by Shinji Aoyama and starring Haruma Miura, a pop "idol" best known for Koizora - a high-school romance about stalking, rape, miscarriage and cancer. Tokyo Park clearly aims to be a subtler work but, like so many films of the Japanese mainstream, is marred by its underlying misogyny. It follows Koji, a photography student hired by a jealous husband to trail his wife across the parks of the capital. His stepsister, meanwhile, is in love with him and his housemate is a ghost.

In the film's most daft and offensive sequence, a woman is almost sexually assaulted by a work colleague. This and a following scene, in which she describes the incident to Koji, are played for laughs, their purpose seemingly to demonstrate that she is attractive to other men.
The broad message of the film - that emotional honesty will save the day - is shared by Hitoshi Yazaki's vastly superior Sweet Little Lies, another drama about a couple unable to communicate with each other. Unlike Tokyo Park, which idealises the wife, Sweet Little Lies is a downbeat, unromantic film that chronicles adulteries on both sides of a relationship. A Man with Style, Ishii Yuya's film about a repressed father learning to relate to his children, also shares the theme of stifled self-expression.

Linguists have made much of how the Japanese tend to avoid direct emotional vocabulary - researchers claim that even personal pronouns (such as "I" or "you") are omitted in some 74 per cent of spoken sentences. Japanese culture is based on subtlety and suggestion; the concealment of feelings does not equate to their absence. But the lesson of this year's films is clear: in the individualistic world of modern love, the old ambiguity no longer works

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral