Film review – 殯の森 / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

 

Naomi Kawase’s fourth full-length feature film came ten years after her debut ‘Suzaku’ won the Camera d’Or, the prize awarded to the best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The Mourning Forest’ was also the recipient of a prize at Cannes, winning the 2007 Grand Prix.

The contemplative film was inspired by director and writer Kawase’s childhood growing up with her grandmother, who suffered from senility. It follows the nurse Machiko (Machiko Ono), who starts a job at a home for elderly people suffering from dementia. The home is deep in a forest and allows a certain amount of freedom and tranquility away from distractions. The youthful Machiko forms a strong bond with and elderly man named Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), who has a tendency to run away as soon as he’s given the opportunity. Shigeki is a widower whose wife has been dead for 33 years, a significant milestone in the Buddha mourning period as the end of the liminal period, traditionally celebrated with a ceremony. The job is perfect for Machiko, also in mourning for the death of her child.

On Shigeki’s birthday, Machiko takes him on a car ride into the countryside. But when their car breaks down Machiko goes in search of help, only to find when she returns to the car Shigeki has disappeared into the nearby forest. She ventures in to find him and eventually the pair go on a cathartic journey of mourning and bonding as they journey deeper into the depths of the forest.

“I wanted to show as well that you could have a relationship across generations, that was very important. I didn’t want there to be any taboos between generations,” said Kawase in her statement at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. “It was important to me to show that despite their differences that you can have this relationship and you can have some sort of support in life.”

That is exactly what this film shows. It is an exploration of the relationship between two people at very different stages of their lives, sharing the same experience but at different stages of mourning, providing support for one another. Of course, Machiko is much more aware of what she is providing than Shigeki, but the results are very much the same.

Shigeki Uda was 60-years-old when the film was made, but he played a man of 70 years. To prepare for the role as someone who has dementia, he went to extreme measures to ensure he had an accurate portrayal. “I spent three months in a home for the elderly, a home that was used as a model for the film,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival press conference. “I spent three months with people who were senile. I ate with them, I bathed with them, I lived with them, and I felt with them.” The achievement is astounding, giving a real sense of the condition. There are moments where he has a blank look on his face, when asked a direct question, that will feel familiar to anyone who knows someone with dementia. He can still feel that he must provide an answer but he is unsure exactly what is being asked of him, so he pretends he understands and offers a response anyway. That can’t just be guessed at and Uda is showing a real understanding of his character when he does this.

The film is a contemplative, spacious film. The scant use of dialogue allows the viewer to take in the beautiful scenery captured by cinematographer Hideyo Nakano. This is heightened by a subtle score from Masamichi Shigeno, which never feels overbearing, mixing well with the organic sounds of the forest. The mix creatures something that feels extremely naturalistic.

Kawase created a sincerely wonderful film with ‘The Mourning Forest‘, which shines a light on dementia. It underlines the importance for those interacting with anyone with the condition to know that they are still human, with emotions, feelings and a personality. It exhibits the sort of understanding that can only be achieved by someone who has lived with someone with the condition. With two first-class performances from the lead actors, the results are magnificent.

 

Advertisements

Film review – 夜明け告げるルーのうた / Lu Over The Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Japanese anime? Quirky soundtrack? Human forms an unlikely bond with a fish person? Yes, it may look on the surface to be just like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2010 film ‘Ponyo’, but Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Lu Over The Wall’, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this weekend, is far from a simple rip-off.

The second release from the Science Saru Animation studio, after Yuasa’s earlier ‘The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’, centres around Kai (voiced by Suma Saitō), a gloomy and distant music-creating teenager living in a small fishing town in Japan with his father and grandfather. Kai is pestered into joining a band by two of his schoolmates. Their first rehearsal, on the abandoned Mermaid Island, awakens the interest of Lu (voiced by Kanon Tani), a mermaid who is vulnerable to sunlight but loves to listen to music and dance. Following a confrontation with bullies the band catch illegally poaching fish, Lu comes to the rescue and forms an unlikely bond with Kai and his bandmates as she joins the group and they are handed the opportunity to perform at a local festival.

This is a bizarre film that provides some genuine laughs throughout. The music is quirky, leading to some pretty imaginative reactions from the villagers when they first hear Lu singing. One suspects that this scene was exactly what the director Yuasa had in mind when he started, building the rest of the general idea towards making sure he got the best laughs out of these scenes. It’s daftly entertaining and really hits the spot.

There are more laughs when Lu breaks into a centre for stray dogs and releases them to create a wave of mer-puppies. It’s easy to imagine how much fun the animators and story writers were having when they conceptualised that.

‘Lu Over The Wall’ won the top prize at this year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival, and there is good reason. Park the inevitable comparison to ‘Ponyo’ and seek out this fun and fancy free animation.

Then spend the rest of the day trying to get that music out of your head.

Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

Film review – Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

‘Journey to the Shore’ won director Kiyoshi Kurosawa the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is also the Masters of Cinema label’s latest foray into the new release market; the label is more frequently associated with the restoration of forgotten classic cinematic releases but has enjoyed success with the likes of ‘Listen Up Philip‘ and ‘Life of Riley‘ in recent years.
The film tells the story of Mizuki, a young female piano teacher mourning the death of her husband Yusuke, who we learn has drowned at see three years prior to the start of the film. However, when his ghost appears mysteriously at home one day, she is less surprised at his presence and more annoyed as he has forgotten to take his shoes off.

The reunited couple set off on a journey together as he takes her to visit the people who have helped him journey home from his point of death, with Mizuki’s resulting spiritually cathartic journey being the focal point of the story.


It’s a story that is rooted in Japanese culture, with the human grieving process following the death of a loved one a typical starting point for its fair share of Japanese films in recent years. Where this sets itself apart is in the very blatant separation from reality afforded by the seamless interaction between the living and the dead. There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule about who can talk to whom, nor does there seem to be any surprise or shock experienced by the living seeing a close departed friend or family member. Indeed, Yusuke is portrayed as a living, breathing being with he ability to fully interact with his surroundings. It’s a unique spin on the matter (pun intended).

There are some really effective cinematographic techniques employed to reflect the mood of the scenes, most notably in the dimming of the lights when a darker story is being retold. The credit here lies with director Kurosawa and his cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. It was subtle enough to have an impact before I realised what had happened, as key characters revealed their darkest of memories, and it added considerably to the picture.


Whether it really works as a whole is something I’m still not totally sure about. Certainly it is delivered with conviction, though the overall effect is something entirely morose. There seemed to be a relentlessness to the depression involved that, whilst perhaps reflective of the mood of the characters involved, seemed to offer nothing in the way of a positive escape for anyone watching looking to be guided by the grieving process.

The film achieves its aims and carries everything off to perfection. It’s just not a very pleasant experience to sit through.

Doing DisneySea Tokyo in one day

My wife and I are huge fans of Disney films and of the theme parks. We’ve visited several of the parks around the world, so when we’d booked a trip to Japan we quickly realised that going to one or both of the theme parks would be a unique experience we’d likely never be able to repeat.

After a bit of online research, we found that Disneyland Tokyo was very much a replication of the Magical Kingdom seen frequently around the world, primarily aimed at children with lots of meet-and-greets, slow-moving story rides and not many faster roller-coasters.

DisneySea on the other hand was aimed at older parties, with a fair amount of thrill-seeker rides, some unique rides and events not in other parks and a few more adult-oriented restaurants.

What’s so special about it?

DisneySea features a number of rides and activities that are exclusive to the park. This includes two exceptional fast-moving rides at the top of the park in the Lost River Delta area: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Raging Spirits. For us these were the best two rides in the park: the first a fast, jolty, exciting adventure and the second an exceptionally quick roller-coaster.

Elsewhere there are two highly popular rides in the centre of the park at Mysterious Island, a handful of great stage shows, a great version of Fantasmic (a video projection, boat performance and fireworks display that features at a number of parks), some familiar favourites and a great choice of restaurants. If you’re in the Tokyo area of Japan and have enjoyed Disney theme parks in the past, this is definitely one you should add to your list.

Can it be done in a day?

All the advice we saw online said it couldn’t be done in one day, that you needed at least two or maybe three days to see everything. After almost but not quite doing everything in one day, we left the park feeling like we hadn’t missed anything we were desperate to do and could have done a ride or two more if we’d really known what we were doing.

Firstly, the layout of the park is a little confusing and everyone else seemed to know where they were going. This meant we were disoriented and, coupled with arriving a little late in the morning, meant we got to our first FastPass at 9:15. You can get a FastPass every two hours, but most of the rides were fully booked by about 13:30, so realistically we only were able to get three FastPass tickets. Actually, in the end we didn’t bother with a third one because we were in a queue and missed out so went for lunch instead.

Secondly, and most importantly, we didn’t realise some of the rides had a single rider feature on them until about midday. If we’d known earlier, we’d have done this much sooner. Without opting for single rider, you can’t realistically do all the big rides.

So how do you do it?

This guide assumes you get your first FastPass at 9am having arrived prior to this time, bought your ticket and spent a few minutes working out where to go.

Step one (09:00): head straight to Mysterious Island and get a FastPass for Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We weren’t overly enamoured by this ride, but it’s so popular you have to do it, especially since it’s a DisneySea-exclusive.

Step two (09:05): Get in the queue for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It’s right next to Journey… and thus makes sense. This should take about 45 minutes. This ride is sinilar to Pirates of the Caribbean in that it’s a slow-moving story-based ride with lots of animatronic characters, with the additional exception that it makes you feel like you’re underwater. Not many thrills here I’m afraid! However, it will be really popular later in the day and you need to do it – don’t just avoid it because we didn’t like it! Again, it’s a DisneySea-exclusive, plus if you understand Japanese you may get more enjoyment out of it.

Step three (09:50): Head up to the top of the park via the “stroooong bridge” and get onto Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull using single rider. This was one of two rides you can get on with single rider and doing so will knock about two hours off your queuing time. This is an excellent ride, especially for thrill-seekers, and is another park-exclusive. It’s possibly one of the best rides we’ve ever been on and would be perfect but for Harrison Ford speaking in Japanese.

Step four (10:10): Coming out of Indiana Jones, go left and do exactly the same for Raging Spirits, getting a single rider and jumping straight on to the ride. This will take, in total, about twenty minutes. Another fantastic ride for thrill seekers and well worth doing, especially for the 360 degree loop.

Step five (10:30): By this stage you will have the option to repeat one or both Indiana Jones and Raging Spirits, if you enjoyed them both enough to do so and have the time to. You’ll have time to kill before you get your next FastPass at 11:00, but you NEED to get it at the earliest opportunity. Another option would be to simply take a stroll over to the area for your next FastPass at the Tower of Terror. This is in the American Waterfront area, also home to two great stage shows: A Table Is Waiting on the Dockside Stage (a comedy show that is all visual) and the Big Band Beat at the Broadway Music Theatre (a brilliant and classy tribute to the music theatres of New York City). If you’re lucky you could catch one of them on your way through, or you could just grab a snack or drink somewhere and take in the fantastic scenery and ginormous ship in the New York Harbor – the SS Columbia.

Step six (11:00): Go to get a FastPass for the Tower of Terror. The time will be disappointingly late in the day for you, probably around 7pm, but it’s the only way you’ll enjoy this excellent ride that has a completely different back story to the USA version given it has no tie-in with The Twilight Zone. Don’t worry – they will provide a translation of the back story before you start.

Step Seven (11:10): Now will be about the right time to get in line for Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It’s mainly a dark-ride attraction that tells a story, but does speed up a bit near the end to give you a bit of a thrill.

Step Eight (11:30): If you want to single-rider any of the rides at Lost Island Delta again, now is your chance. It will take another 40 minutes but those two rides are well worth it.

Step Nine (12:10): It’s time to pick up some lunch from a vendor – we recommend the giant turkey legs located in the Mysterious Island – and get in line for the last big ride we’re yet to touch on: StormRider. It’s the only attraction of note in Port Discovery and is set to close in May 2016, so get this in whilst you can. Queuing for this is the only way now that you can get on it, but since there’s nothing else you haven’t done that’s aimed at adults this is the best option. Expect to queue for around 90-120 minutes for it.

Step Ten (14:30): After such a hectic morning, you now have about five hours to do with as you please before your Fast Pass for The Tower of Terror and Fantasmic. This was the point we chose to get on a gondola and ride around their interpretation of Venice, took a stroll through Mermaid Lagoon (none of the rides appealed) and really absorbed the park.

If any of the other rides take your fancy then now would be the time to go for them. However, there’s plenty to see and you need to take it all in! There’s also chance to do some shopping and pick up some souvenirs.

Step Eleven (17:30): Dinner time brings many options. For parties with fussy eaters not used to Japanese cuisine, a good option is Sailing Day Buffet in the American Waterfront, which offered some Asian options but also steak, steamed veg, loads of salad options, Italian-style pasta and free refill soda. You get to eat for up to two hours.

Step Twelve (19:30): Tower of Terror fast pass will be around now.

Step Thirteen (20:00): Fantasmic. A must-see!

Step fourteen (21:00): Home.

Conclusion

Hopefully this guide will help you get the most out of a single day at DisneySea. Sure, there is plenty to do if you want to spread it over two days, but if you’re short for time then plan ahead and it can be done.

Have a great time and let me know if you found this guide useful!

Top things for Westerners to know for a trip to Japan

Going to a country with an alien culture to that of your own can be unsettling and confusing, especially when the country has such a defined way of life as Japan does. On a trip there for two weeks, I came across a few things that nobody told me about before I arrived but will hopefully provide you with a head start if you’re preparing for a visit.

Note: I’m from Britain and so some of this post relates back to my own country.

Language barriers

I learnt a small amount of Japanese before I went and took a pocket book to help me. This was enough to get by, though a few times I struggled to get my message across.

Most people speak a bit of English so as long as you can indicate you speak English you won’t have much trouble. If you can learn a few set phrases at least you will show you made an effort and be looked a little more favourably on.

Japan Rail Pass

We saw Tokyo, Kyōto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Nara in two weeks. This was made much more affordable by having the Japan Rail Pass.

Just get it. It’s brilliant.

[Note] I should add a caveat. If you’re going to go to one city only, this might not be the best option. For example, going to Tokyo to go to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. You will probably just be based in a hotel very close to the Olympic Stadium and surrounding venues. There might be cheaper options that can be easily discovered with a bit of Googling on trips between your hotel and your destination.

Bullet Trains / Shinkansen

Yes, they are amazing. You can travel the length of Britain in about two hours. They’re always on time. They’re almost silent. There’s loads of room on them. They swivel the chairs around so you always face forwards.

That said, don’t think it’s going to be as entertaining as a roller-coaster or a trip to the cinema. Take a book or a pack of cards.

Smoking

Cigarette smoking is surprisingly frequent. The rules on it are essentially the reverse of the U.K. There are designated places to smoke outside and you are not allowed to smoke whilst walking in most places. This is good for people who are fit and healthy and get around by walking and resolves a huge bugbear of mine in the UK.

However, inside is another matter. Most restaurants still operate smoking and non-smoking areas like the UK had up until the 1990s. Some restaurants we visited didn’t even have non-smoking areas and people generally aren’t considerate at all of other people’s desire to not second-hand-smoke, meaning when we were hugely hungry we just had to deal with it.

Crossing the road

I was begging for a Kevin Keegan video telling me how to cross the road safely.

Generally, crossing roads outside of designated crossings is a no-no when crossings are available. Crossing the road when the red man shows is generally frowned-upon. Basically, pedestrian-wise you just have to be patient and sensible and do whatever anyone else is doing.

Surprisingly, if only for British residents, you can wait for ages for a green man to show, then just as you cross the road a car appears from a side road. Initially you’ll doubt yourself because it seems so unusual. Then once it’s happened a few times you’ll realise it’s because cars are allowed to enter a main road from a side road when a pedestrian crossing is on green, as long as it’s safe to do so. Don’t worry, they won’t run you over. You’ll just feel like they’re about to.

Taxis

Some of the taxis look like police cars. Specifically police cars from a 1970s American police show. I don’t know why.

Everyone is ridiculously helpful and lots of people will practice their English with you

I was in a train station looking like a tourist, with my map out, a huge rucksack on my back and a gormless look on my face. Suddenly a strange couple started approaching me and tried to say something. My immediate thought was to say “No, I don’t have any change.” Then I realised the woman was asking where I was going. She then proceeded to give me full directions then asked me where I was from and how I was finding the country. We exchanged a short conversation and then she wished me luck on my quest.

Amazing really.

You can’t do everything

There are some seasonal-specific activities that you can’t do at all times of the year and even if you do try to do them you might get unlucky with the weather.

We had to weigh-up seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms to people outside Japan) with climbing Mt. Fuji. The former has a short window of opportunity that you can achieve best by visiting around the start of April. The latter is only permitted for three months a year, from early July to mid-September.

Outside that time you are only going to get to one of either the fourth or fifth stations at best, which are just essentially a café and bus stop halfway up a windy road that you can take a photo from. In hindsight the bus tour to Mt. Fuji, organised through JTB and Sunrise Tours, was very disappointing and we didn’t feel we got our money’s worth from it. It took a whole day out of our holiday and we spent almost the entire time on a bus, leaving with the feeling we could have spent the time in much better ways.

Fast-paced walking

Be prepared to walk. A lot. The subways and overground trains are fantastic and the big cities all have phenomenal networks connecting them. However, they only take you so far and once you’re near it’s usually common sense to just walk the remainder, taking advantage of the safe, clean and beautiful surroundings.

I had my sports watch on a few days and we usually clocked up upwards of 5km on each day, with a peak of just over 7km.

People walk much faster than in the UK. I am a genuinely very fast walker and rarely get overtaken in the UK. In Japan people were zipping past me all the time.

There is one exception: when they are distracted by their mobile phones… Which is about 50% of the time. The number of people who don’t have the ability to walk from A to B without spending the entire time engrossed in their phones is unbelievable and quite funny.

The reason we can’t do this in the UK is the likely possibility of standing in some unattended dog excrement – an event so likely that we have to spend most of our walking time looking at the ground. This would never happen in Japan as the residents there are far too respectful of their own country and their surroundings. Just a difference of respect I guess.

Queues

If you’re someone from Britain you might hear the words “Nobody enjoys queuing like the Japanese” and think they’re not familiar with the British way of life. Well, I’m British and I’m telling you – nobody enjoys queuing like the Japanese. People queue for restaurants over an hour before they open. People queue for curried popcorn at Disney Land. People queue for the toilet to such an amount that on several occasions I saw a man whose job can only be described as Toilet Queue Co-ordinator.

Yet these are not disorderly queues. There have never been better organised queues than the queues in Japan. I sometimes wondered if people were just queueing for the sake of queuing, or maybe to join another queue.

You’ll immediately see the benefit of this when you get on your first train. Such is the efficiency of the trains, they stop at exactly the correct position on the station every time they arrive. As a result, there are designated queuing zones that people line up in before the train arrives. People getting off the train have space to exit, and there’s no chance of pushing and shoving when the time comes to board. In quiet times it is bliss.

Rush-hour Tokyo subways are a nightmare

Everything you have heard is true. You will be shoved into the train and just as you think there is no more room, ten more people will get on. If they don’t fit, a man will come along and shove them in with a brush-like tool and make damn sure they fit in.

People are as polite as they can be, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re so tightly-packed.

Face masks

Everywhere you look you’ll see face masks. I read somewhere that it started as a fad with people trying to avoid hay fever. Then it caught on as people realised they could avoid getting illnesses on the subway (often people in Japan don’t get paid sick leave by their employers).

Nowadays you’ll probably see about 1 in 3 people wearing these on the subways. Don’t worry – you haven’t woken up in a zombie apocalypse. It’s just that they don’t want to breathe in your filthy germs.

Just try not to get annoyed at that one guy coughing and sneezing everywhere without a mask on.

Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo

As this is website is primarily a film blog, it is likely you are a fan of cinema in general. If you like films and are planning a trip to Japan then it’s likely you’ll want to take a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.

Your decision of when to visit with regards to Mt. Fuji or the sakura could be made if you want to visit the museum as it shuts in May for two months whilst the new exhibition is prepared. This was a priority for us so we opted for a March/April visit.

Massive fans of Ghibli who are here for a long time may wish to do two trips to the museum: once at the start of the holiday and once at the end. Going twice will mean you may see two different short films. It is recommended that you plan to visit it for around three hours. There is a lot to take in and it would be a shame to feel rushed whilst doing it.

Disney Theme Parks

The Disney theme parks are great for Disney fans but not so much for thrill-seekers

There are two Disney theme parks in Tokyo: Disneyland and DisneySea. If you have children then make sure you go for the former, which is essentially very similar to Magical Kingdom in America. If you’re looking for thrills then DisneySea is the better option. Contrary to most advice found online, it can be done in one day as long as you’re willing to go on a couple of rides with a single rider pass.

I wrote an expanded guide for DisneySea here as we got a lot out of it in a day.

Go and see some sumo

It’s extremely difficult to get hold of tickets to these if you don’t live in Japan. Check out BuySumoTickets.com to find the schedules for the biggest upcoming tournaments. There are six large tournaments every year: three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya and one in Fukuoka. They’re quintessentially Japanese experiences and a must-do for anyone visiting Japan.