Discover the engaged cinema of Katsuya Tomita

From 26 to 27 November, BOZAR will be paying homage to Japanese film director Katsuya Tomita.

On the programme will be two of his films, Saudade and Bangkok Nites, through which the artist casts a lyrical and critical eye over contemporary Asian societies.

When talking about Japanese film, several names instantly come to mind. The essential neorealist films of Yasujirō Ozu offer a reflection on time, and their pared-down images have become legend, filmed from the viewpoint of someone eating on the floor at a traditional low table – the director’s trademark tatami shot.


Toshirō Mifune
Toshirō Mifune

Another name that comes to mind is Akira Kurosawa, the best-known Japanese film-maker in Europe. The face of his favourite actor Toshirō Mifune often features on the posters to his films. He has had many international hits, a number have become part of the world’s cinema heritage: from Rashōmon (Lion d’Or 1951), which portrays four versions of a crime committed in Japan in the 8th century, to Ran, an epic historical fresco inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, along with Seven Samurai (Lion d’Argent 1954), Hidden Fortress (Ours d’Argent 1959) and Kagemusha, The Shadow Warrior (Palme d’Or 1980 and César du meilleur film étranger 1981), his often spectacular productions are hailed by the public, his peers and film journalists alike. His films explore a historical Japan through heroic epics, and also through contemporary reality, criticising its politics and morals.


… And Ōshima
L’empire des sens
L’empire des sens

And then there is Nagisa Ōshima, whose transgressive cinema, combining sex, violence, blood and power, is entirely in keeping with Japanese tradition. Based on fact, In the Realm of the Senses tells the story of two lovers in which the man becomes a mere instrument of pleasure for his partner, and was long censored both in Japan and the West. Ōshima takes a similar taboo-breaking approach when he deals with political topics, as in Night and Fog in Japan, which castigates the repression of leftist students, or historical episodes, such as the WW2 prisoner of war camp that serves as the backdrop to Furyo. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (starring David Bowie) with music by Ryūichi Sakamoto was an international success.


Brasilia Carnaval

While the engaged cinema of Katsuya Tomita draws inspiration from his predecessors, there are also similarities with the social cinema of Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers. His interest in the seventh art is intertwined with a strong class consciousness. It is because of his bread-and-butter job as a delivery driver that he was able to produce Saudade, a work that falls somewhere between documentary, fiction film and science fiction as it looks at a Brazilian community in the Japanese city of Kofu. Dealing with themes such as identity, encounters and mixed cultures amid a backdrop of nightlife and hip-hop battles, Saudade, filmed in 2011, draws a Romanesque and poetic portrait of Japan’s proletarian reality.


In the heat of Bangkok

Five years later, the director turned his lens on Soi Thaniya, the Japanese red light district in the Thai capital, to produce Bangkok Nites. The film follows the story of Luck, a prostitute who works on Thaniya Road, which is mostly frequented by Japanese clients. With his natural affinity with the camera, Katsuya Tomita once again sets out to reproduce the atmosphere of the location. It was no easy task to film in a place where suspicion is rife, cultivated by the Japanese population, who come across as wholly unconcerned by the reality of the Thai people, and by the bar owners who prefer to keep their business activities in the shadows.


A critical distance
Un quartier « chaud » de Bangkok
Un quartier « chaud » de Bangkok

Nor was it easy to maintain the right distance from his subject: not too far away, so as not to lose the factual element, nor too close, so as to avoid the excessive detail that would mask the overall situation. The viewer senses that the producer has a fondness for the subject and that he continuously wavers between delighted fascination and shocked withdrawal. However, the tone is of an accuracy that is all too rare, delving into the life of the prostitute but never judging her. That is the undeniable strength of this film by Katsuya Tomita, who will be present during these two evenings dedicated to him at BOZAR on 26 and 27 November. This is a unique opportunity to watch two films by one of the key figures instrumental in changing the shape of Japan’s film-making landscape.


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