Shinji Somai retrospective at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012
Introduction to one of Japan’s most popular and respected filmmakers
Never heard of Shinji Somai? You’re not alone. Jasper Sharp considers why one of Japan’s most popular and respected filmmakers - and the subject of a retrospective at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival - has so frequently been overlooked
It often seems like there’s an infinite wellspring of Japanese filmmakers revered in their home country yet barely heard of overseas, with every year bringing yet another retrospective of some unheralded cinematic maestro. It’s all enough to leave those not in the loop feeling quite jaded and wondering why, if these directors are so good, has no one heard of them until now?
There may be several reasons for the international invisibility of Shinji Somai, the subject of a retrospective coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival in June. First and foremost, his decades of activity, from his debut with Tonda Couple (1980) to his premature death at the age of 53 due to lung cancer, have remained resolutely untrendy for film scholars. Somai appeared at the same time as such influential voices as Donald Richie and Tadao Sato were proclaiming the dying days of Japanese cinema, long past the Golden Age of Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, and yet still some years prior to the turn of the millennium’s renaissance in Asian cult film fandom. Few Japanese titles made it onto foreign shores during these lost decades, and Western critics generally seemed content to assume much of the nation’s cinema was as frivolous as such other seemingly superficial cultural phenomenon as manga, anime and video games.
That Somai’s work defies such facile categorisation is another key to his relative obscurity today, the curse of many a filmmaker operating in the popular mainstream rather than the framework of international art cinema. It would be easy to dismiss cult items such as the delightfully-titled Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981), in which a uniformed high-school cutie played by one of the hottest teen idols of the day, Hiroko Yakushimaru, rises to become a yakuza gang boss, or Love Hotel (1985), his sole entry in the line of softcore erotic films created by Nikkatsu studio, as symptomatic of this decay. However, even such ostensibly throwaway titles were much better more ironic and nuanced than they should have been, making Somai one of the hippest, most popular directors of his generation, as well as highly respected among his filmmaking peers.
Alongside these, he also made works with what could be considered more mature subject matter. There’s The Catch (1983), for example, a gritty drama about tuna fishermen, and the poignant exploration of human frailty of his final work, Kaza Hana (2000).
Made at a time when Japan’s long-established studio system was undergoing radical restructuring, Somai’s films were primarily commercial endeavours. Though he was effectively an independent filmmaker, many of his key works were made for release by Japan’s major studios. However, though the signature hand of the auteur might be largely invisible, his films are celebrated in Japan for their deeply personal touch. Strongest of all are those focussing on young people, including his most celebrated title, Typhoon Club (1985), which charts the dynamics between a class of junior high school girls.
When it comes to Japanese cinema, Western festival directors of yesteryear, with their taste for surface exoticism might have once had a tough time with a director like Somai, who operated across a wide range of genres and dealt predominantly with everyday subjects. But contemporary viewers of these solid, entertaining and often highly moving films at Edinburgh will discover in all of them a level of quality, craftsmanship and emotional impact that transcends genre, age and culture. What more can one ask of a filmmaker?
Shinji Somai is the subject of a retrospective at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Wed 20 Jun–Sun 1 Jul.