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Jam Films 2

The original Jam Films was such a kaleidoscopic journey of contemporary Japanese cinema; penetrating multiple moods and emotions to whisk the viewer into a completely different world. Each title was a miniature window into the individual director’s style, illustrating unique visuals, editing and storytelling techniques that left the audience spoilt for choice.

Two years later and we have Jam Films 2 – the number of films has decreased to four but the average runtime is now approximately thirty minutes per segment. Whereas the first collection was somewhat of an introduction into the alternative realm of new-wave Asian cinema, Jam Films 2 acts as a demonstration of what four first-time directors can do. They all share a common history of being established music video directors, who are given the challenge of helming their own short movie. They may consider this a prerequisite for bigger and greater projects in the foreseeable future.

Jam Films 2
Junji Kojima starts the ball rolling with Armchair Theory – the definitive guide to Japanese love culture. The first half is a documentary highlighting the behaviour of Japanese couples and offers guidance to the male members of the audience on how to successfully approach the opposite sex. On the contrary, this is in fact a mockumentary that places tongue firmly in cheek. The narrator offers a few ‘useful’ steps on how to woo your potential girl, which are further demonstrated by animations or on a live model. A wide range of examples are covered, from telling the right jokes to how to act in the event of competition. After going through each of the steps, there is a short drama in the second half that applies the knowledge gained from the documentary.

Some of the steps covered are so ridiculously over the top; the film evidently ridicules the uptight attitude towards Japanese love culture. The documentary and short film are both hilarious, offering impeccably timed humour yet maintaining a distinct layer of sweetness. The latter follows two men – one handsome playboy and an uber geek – as they try and win the love of a cute waitress. Director Kojima has created a film with splendid execution, uniting two diverse forms of filmmaking to create a delightful, memorable episode. Every aspect of the film has been confidently taken care of but the flawless casting is perhaps the fundamental reason why this segment succeeds. The two starring males are famous Japanese comedians, whose performances are pleasantly exaggerated but kept to a level for the audience to relate to – whether it be themselves or a friend, these characters are regular people and very much exist today.

The documentary itself takes a while to get used to because it is narrated in English but is dubbed over in Japanese. Of course on top of that there are English subtitles. There are regions where Japanese and English texts litter the screen, making it a challenge to read everything but it is not overly difficult to follow. Armchair Theory is the ideal opening film for Jam Films 2 – it establishes an upbeat mood but more importantly, has confirmed that the director has the knowledge and elbow grease to handle larger productions.

Jam Films 2
The following title, Clean Room by Eiki Takahashi, depicts a girl’s fear of germs and bacteria. Yuka, the child with the immense phobia, lives in complete isolation inside a tent, located at a high maintenance research institute. One day, a female visitor approaches Yuka, persuading her to abandon the solitary confinement of the ‘clean room’ and enjoy the delights of the outside world. Yuka, being cautious, doubts the visitor’s motives and is convinced that her actions are solely to win the love of her father. However through erratic flashbacks and dreams, the deep secrets behind both characters are finally revealed.

Clean Room is a fascinating exploration of human dreamscape, fantasy and maturity. What begins as a science-fiction type premise gradually evolves into one girl’s struggle against reality. The themes explored are not too dissimilar to those in Peter Pan, teaching us that isolation from a cruel world may be the easy option however the brave step would be to adapt and move on. Essentially, we all need to learn how to cope with the sickness but embrace whatever joys and beauties that are openly available. The photography is breathtaking and hauntingly beautiful, illustrating vivid oceanic landscapes and cold isolated corridors. Certain shots utilise wide angle lens that capture a vast amount of detail and artistry. It is refreshing to acknowledge that Takahashi applied his vast experience in music video direction into this title.

Hanae Kan, who plays the role of Yuka, is a splendid rising young actress. Her performances are always remarkably sincere and well delivered. The best example can be highlighted in Hirokazu Koreeda’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful Nobody Knows, which is a social commentary on Japan’s forgotten parentless children. Kumiko Aso on the other hand, who plays the mysterious woman, is intentionally monotonous due to the nature of her character. Japanese cinema enthusiasts may recognise her from Casshern, where she performs at the opposite end of the spectrum with over-the-top melodrama and emotion. She is evidently not the strongest actress around but is suitable for this particular role. Clean Room is another fine addition to Jam Films 2 and is a startling contrast to the first title. With its unpredictable editing and complex themes, Clean Room is guaranteed to begin mass discussions on the messages that Takahashi tried to portray.

Jam Films 2
Hide Inoue’s Hoops Men Soul is the third instalment in this unique series of short films. This hard-hitting urban tale illustrates a kidnapping of a young girl in order to settle her father’s debt with the yakuza money lender. Hiroshi witnesses his girlfriend’s kidnapping and seeks aid from a gang of skaters, BMX bandits and nu-ass goons in order to get Miku back. The mischievous plan involves robbing ¥10 million in order to pay the ransom and free Hiroshi’s girlfriend.

Hoops Men Soul is decidedly annoying, dull and by far the most uninspiring short film in this collection. Inoue experiments with flashy wide-angled camera work to showcase fast paced visuals and bass thumping audio but has flushed the entire story down the toilet. The film is just an excuse to delve into the Tokyo underground street culture but is sadly very little else. The kidnapping itself is a random staged play with cheap costumes; obviously the director is trying to show initiative and insert some originality. On the contrary, it looks horribly misplaced and unrewarding – the idea of providing this alternative angle is simply absurd.

The characters attempt to illuminate the murky film but are just as uninteresting. The ultimate message is that a person cannot be bought with money and even this is redundant and badly integrated into the story. The final shot leaves a disgustingly bitter taste that is only washed away due to the presence of Reiko Suho, who plays the kidnapped girl Miku. Suho is a famous Japanese idol who pretty much has the perfect face and body. Thus, the only positive outcome of Hoops Men Soul is that I have a new purpose in life – to locate Reiko Suho ask her to marry me.

Finally we arrive at the ultimate and most twisted short film, Fastener directed by Kouki Tange. A dying man looks back on his life, from his childhood days right through to achieving adulthood in this Lynchian like tale. This surreal journey embarks on abstract imagery and metaphors to illustrate his first kiss, pressures of bullies, sex and smoking and further human vileness. The primary idea is that becoming an adult involves hiding behind an identity – or a closed fastener. Kouki Tange is a genius, giving birth to something so distorted but a closer examination reveals a blossoming tale of the pressures of growing up. The disturbing images are purposefully explicit, portraying the confusion and hesitance of being an adolescent. The fastener eventually becomes a metaphor for opening the correct path in life, in the sense that the dying man chooses his own life, death and rebirth.

Jam Films 2
There is very little colour used in this film, appearing almost monochrome during certain instances. The bleak industrial wasteland atmosphere further amplifies the desolate nature of the dying man’s life. This unique vision makes it very unambiguous to the audience about the black and white choices available during life’s various crossroads. Tange has created a provocative masterpiece and has displayed the utmost competence in direction, editing and storytelling. His exemplary style is exactly what this collection needed to conclude this series of short films.

In retrospect, I really wish that first time director Kazuaki Kiriya, responsible for the abysmal Casshern, created a short sci-fi segment before indulging in an overly long anti-war melodrama. Kiriya himself has a background in music video direction and it is paramount that the Jam Films 2 directors do not make the same mistake. They all know how to bring their background knowledge into their work, as each film offers a high level of visual and audio vibrancy. However unlike Kiriya, they need to ensure that the premise remains the first priority because without it, all they have is another music video.

Jam Films 2 is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, maintaining an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The quality varies depending on the film but generally, as is the case with Japanese DVD transfers, the video is nothing short of admirable. Armchair Theory utilises a luminous pallet for the animations with nice solid shades that show no evidence of smearing. The following drama is filmed using a handheld camera so the colours are remarkably natural, producing healthy skin tones with well balanced saturation levels. Clean Room makes use of an exaggerated colour scheme that really does emphasise the warm yellow fields and the rich blue sea. The saturation is quite strong here but never harmful. The transfer for the first two titles is strikingly sharp, capturing the smallest of details with remarkable precision.

Not only is Hoops Men Soul the weakest title but it also suffers from the weakest image. It can be argued that this is the director’s intended look but it cannot be denied that the picture is comparatively soft and the details are not as clear as the other titles. The saturation is once again quite boosted, resulting in colour bleeding and manipulation. Furthermore, certain segments are slightly too dark, making it a challenge to distinguish distant objects. The image for this title is perceptible but is hardly showcase material.

Jam Films 2
Lastly Fastener once again has a splendid transfer – maintaining a crystal clear image with a raw sharpness. Every bead of sweat or puff of smoke is gloriously detailed without loss of quality. Brightness levels are kept under control so even secondary props are sufficiently presented on screen. The pallet is quite bleak so there are no amplified shades or tones, only rough greys and startlingly strong blacks. Even skin tones appear purposefully pale and unnatural.

In general, the black levels are consistently strong, especially in Fastener but perhaps to a lesser extent on Hoops Men Soul. In addition, contrast levels are well balanced as to not distort the image. Digital misrepresentations such as edge enhancement and ghosting will not be found on this disc; however there is a slight layer of grain that is noticeable on all four titles. Aside from the occasional speckle, the transfer is acceptable and should not destroy your viewing enjoyment.

The only audio option available on Jam Films 2 is a Japanese soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Once again, as with the first collection, many retailers are misleading the public by stating that Jam Films 2 contains a DTS track. The audio mix is reasonable and the encoding is of a higher standard in comparison to the first. The dialogue and primary sound effects originate from the centre channel, whilst the score is elegantly distributed throughout the remaining speakers, especially at the rears. Directional effects are minimal but muffled footsteps and background conversations are often amplified at the surrounds.

Jam Films 2
Obviously music plays a predominant role in each title. Armchair Theory and Clean Room utilise mellow rock and electronic ballads respectively. The calm soothing melody is wonderfully reproduced without unnecessary distractions such as audio dips or distortion. Conversely, the latter titles Hoops Men Soul and Fastener make use of more upbeat rhythms, namely hip hop and industrial mixes respectively. Overall, the Dolby Surround track is rich, deep and makes use of delicate audio separation and balance – ideal for demonstrating what these newcomers have to offer.

The optional English subtitles are excellent but quite colloquial at times, thus it may be wise to question their accuracy. However, they are free of spelling and grammatical errors and also translate the story well.

Each title apart from Fastener has its own ‘ Behind the Scenes’ featurette that lasts around seven minutes. These are fascinating to watch, as certain secrets and filming techniques are revealed to the curious. The directors receive a lot of screen time, discussing their ideas and messages that they wish to reach across. Furthermore, the principal actors are also interviewed and talk about the filming process. As is the tradition with Japanese filmmaking, there is always a celebration once the title has wrapped and the performers are presented with a bouquet of flowers and gifts. It is a shame that Fastener does not have its own featurette, it would have been fascinating to get inside the mind of such a warped creator.

Again another common Japanese extra made it onto the disc; they seem to love their premier footage and on Jam Films 2, there are no less than three of them. The first is just a one minute montage but the other two last approximately 5 minutes each. The director and stars of each title answer questions from the audience and discuss what they gained from the film. The audience reacts well to the stars of Armchair Theory – the two Japanese comedians.
Jam Films 2
There are three very trendy trailers for the DVD, basically a montage of the four films on offer with various tracks from the freshest Japanese artists playing in the background.

Lastly, there is text information on each director, followed by a track listing.

It is reassuring to see the distributors make a greater effort with the extras this time round. Every record of the films should be stored, as these may well be ‘make or break’ titles for the directors. However the supplementary materials on the disc are in Japanese (including the text information) and do not contain English subtitles. The menus are in English though and are easy to navigate.

It has been a while but Jam Films 2 was worth the wait, especially for those who cherish short films and alternative cinema. The conclusion is that at least three out of the four directors have a possible future in the Japanese film industry. Hide Inoue may wish to re-evaluate his work on Hoops Men Soul before tackling a major project but is confident enough with capturing fast and furious imagery. The new-wave of Far Eastern cinema is rapidly evolving; pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling and audio/visual interaction. The Jam Films series captures this evolution in miniature bites and it does not end here. The third instalment is on its way – this time seven directors are nominated by the original seven from the first collection. Roll on Jam Films S.

You can buy this title for ¥4800 from top retailer CD Japan.