A welcoming note in the programme for the upcoming Japanese Film Festival speaks of vernal beginnings and the coming of the cherry blossoms. One trusts the unseasonal weather will take note and allow the unfortunate flowers to emerge.
No matter. An excellent line-up, put together by Access Cinema in collaboration with the Japanese embassy, offers many delicious alternatives to death by exposure. That nation boasts the most fecund of cinematic cultures, but too few Japanese films make it into distribution on these islands. The latest edition of the festival works hard at establishing a harmonic balance between genres: there are tributes to venerable masters, light-hearted comedies and – scandal would arise otherwise – a sprinkling of high-quality animes. It is difficult to convey the scope of Japanese cinema over a weekend, but the organisers make a commendably determined effort. The tone veers from sedate to deranged to contemplative. A continuing angst runs through the programme. But lashings of good humour are also on display.
The opening film, From Up on Poppy Hill , emerges from the good people at Studio Ghibli. In recent years, Hayao Miyazaki, founder of the enterprise, has taken a back seat and allowed his son, Goro, to step in front of the curtain. Goro's Tales from Earthsea was greeted sniffily, but his latest feature for the studio has been a big hit in its home territories. From Up on Poppy Hill follows two young people coping with collective amnesia in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Securing the film for the festival looks like a real coup.
Other animations include two parts of Toshiyuki Kubooka's deliciously violent fantasy Berserk . The movies are set in a supernaturally twisted version of Europe in the middle ages, but lean more towards the absurd horned-helmet imaginings of Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock. Expect shouting.
In further animated news, The Ticket is happy to sponsor a screening of Mamoru Hosoda's Wolf Children . Tara Brady will introduce this off-centre drama concerning a couple – one human, one a class of werewolf – whose crossbred children encounter discrimination in an intolerant, vanilla society. The latest from the director of the greatly acclaimed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was the winner of the 2013 Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year.
Ms Brady, president of the Dublin Film Critics' Circle, will join an official panel of fellow DFCC members to select their favourites from the films being unspooled. The other judges are Daniel Anderson (from Click magazine), Rory Cashin (Entertainment.ie), Brogen Hayes (movies.ie) and Nicola Timmins (Average Film Reviews). The panel will pick a best film and a best anime from the programme.
The recently late Nagisa Oshima, director of such uncompromising pictures as Max, Mon Amour and Death by Hanging , will be celebrated with a rare screening of Paul Joyce's documentary Nagisa Oshima: The Man Who Left his Soul on Film . The documentary points out, somewhat delightfully, that this great controversialist was also a popular personality on mainstream Japanese TV. Among those contributing to the picture we find such luminaries as Donald Richie, Roger Pulvers and Paul Mayersberg. Oshima, a political and sexual non-conformist, died in January of this year.
Those in search of lighter fare need look no farther than Naoko Ogigami's charming comedy, Rent-a-Cat . Each day, Sayoko prowls the city, renting cats to lonely folk from a little handcart. Its light subject matter coloured by hints of genuine poignancy, Rent-a-Cat has the potential to do proper crossover business. It will appeal to all decent people.
You can't stage a Japanese Film Festival without contributions from Takashi Miike. The veteran film-maker manages to combine a furious work ethic with formidable quality control. His Ace Attorney , made on a respectable budget, turns out to be a version of the popular, insane Nintendo game concerning juiced-up lawyers in a futuristic courtroom.
If, however, you only have time for one Miike then For Love's Sake is probably the one to go for. Based on a popular Manga, this latest variation on the theme of Romeo and Juliet throws everything at the frame: musical numbers, high-end violence, the odd fleck of animation. Considering the promiscuous versatility of Takashi's career, you could see the film as (if such a thing were possible) a baggy summary of his many aesthetics.
Yes, as the title suggests, Thermae Romae does bring us to a bath in ancient Rome. It then brings us back to contemporary Japan. In a festival not short on eccentricity, Hideki Takeuchi's time-travel drama still stands out as a delightful oddity. As Lucius, an architect from the ancient city, zips backwards and forwards between the two eras, the picture reveals sharp truths about the modern world and its depressing compromises.
Also worth keeping an eye open for is Kaori Imaizumi's Just Pretended to Hear . This moving picture studies a young girl as she tries to cope with the death of her mother and her father's apparent descent into a derangement of grief. The picture grapples with issues of belief and self-deception without ever seeming didactic or laboured.
The festival has also got its hands on one of the most acclaimed mainstream dramas of recent years. Izuru Narushima's Rebirth concerns a woman who abducts the baby of her married lover and raises her as a daughter. Later, the grown child seeks to uncover the truth behind her strange upbringing. Based on a popular story by Mitsuyo Kakuta, the film picked up an astonishing 11 awards at the recent Japanese equivalent of the Oscars. It has also been a commercial hit in domestic cinemas.
Fear not if you are nowhere near Dublin. Next weekend, the festival will play itself out at three venues – the Light House, UCD and DCU – in the capital, and at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, but, reflecting Access Cinema’s dedication to getting good cinema to every corner of the nation, a selection of films will later play in Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
By that point, the cherry blossoms will surely be on the trees.