Critic Shigehiko Hasumi once suggested that Japanese filmmaker Shinji Somai – who died young aged 53 in 2001, after directing 13 features – “is the missing link between the end of the studio system of Japan and the rise of independent filmmaking”. In their compassionate depictions of loneliness and alienation, you can certainly see the influence of Somai’s films in the works of several younger directors who followed, including Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse).
So why is Somai relatively unknown in the west? It’s all down to the mysteries of international distribution. For whatever reason, none of Somai’s films got released in the UK, with opportunities to see them relegated to festival appearances or one-off repertory screenings. Even a particularly high interest in contemporary Japanese cinema in Britain in the early 2000s – the time of the J-horror boom – didn’t result in distribution for Somai’s final features, Wait and See (1998) and Kaza-hana (2000).
In recent years, the Edinburgh International Film Festival showcased a full retrospective of his work in 2012, while Moving (1993) was part of the touring programme in support of Mark Cousins’ A Story of Children and Film (2013). At the time of writing, we’ve just seen the first ever home-video outing for any of Somai’s features in the west: Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981). It’s hopefully a sign of good things to come, as Somai’s CV includes some of the finest Japanese films of the 1980s and 90s…
Full feature for the BFI
When re-evaluating critical or commercial disappointments, it can happen that artists’ work goes underappreciated because of trends and tastes at the time of its original release, only for the film, album, or artwork to age like fine wine as the world changes its sensibilities. Case in point: Tim Burton’s gleefully chaotic Mars Attacks!, in which humanity at large is incredibly stupid and short-sighted in the face of a potential extinction-level event. Sound familiar?
Mars Attacks! opened to largely middling reviews in December 1996 and commercially bombing domestically. It was unfairly and unfavourably compared by many to Independence Day. The two projects have little in common beyond alien invasion plots, big ensembles, and the same year of release. Independence Day had opened five months earlier, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It was a no-win situation for Mars Attacks! opening that Christmas season, coming across like a rushed, snarky response to its supposed counterpart film, despite the established (and then still fresh) brand of Burton and a much more star-studded cast…
Full feature for Dazed
“I was going for a tone where you can find what’s funny in what’s painful, which has always been my kind of strategy anyway in life,” says Adrienne Shelly through archive footage in a new HBO documentary, Adrienne (2021).
An actor, screenwriter and director, Shelly broke through in the early 90s as the luminous lead of indie maverick Hal Hartley’s first two features: The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990), which were key early texts in a wave of independent films that helped define the stylistic directions of a considerable number of American movies that decade…
Full feature for AnOther