Nippon Connection 2010: MIYOKO Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[Our thanks go out to Chris MaGee and Marc Saint-Cyr at the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow for sharing their coverage of the 2010 Nippon Connection Film Festival.]

In the past 20-years in North America we've been treated to a steady stream of comic book adaptations starting off with Tim Burton's "Batman" and continuing with every super hero from Spiderman to Iron Man. Japan has also been steadily converting their comics, properly known as manga, to the big screen, but manga encompass a much broader range of subjects than most comic books in North America. I say most because there has been a thriving underground comics scene and it too has been used for movie fodder. The best examples of this would be Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World" and Shari Springer Berman's and Robert Pulcini's take on Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor". In my recent interview  with manga artist and animator Akino Kondoh we talked about how in aamongst the popular manga adaptations like "Crows Zero" and "Tsurikichi Sanpei" there have been more and more art and underground manga being turned into films. The latest one of these is Yoshifumi Tsubota's "Miyoko", not just a manga adaptation, but a biopic of underground manga artist Shinichi Abe.

Set mainly between 1970 through 1974 "Miyoko" tells the story of Abe and his high school sweetheart, wife, and artistic muse Miyoko and how she inspired his best known work "Miyoko Asagaya Kibun" which was originally published in the experimental manga journal Garo in March of 1974. To create this work Miyoko must submit herself to endless nude photo sessions in front of her husband's camera the result of which he uses as visual references for his work. There's a perverse sexuality involved as Abe, in growing fits of agitation, photographs his wife, like a virginal high school boy frantically masturbating to a porno mag. Abe's colleagues, the novelist Kenji Kawamoto and obviously unbalanced manga-ka Ikeda don't seem much better. When the three get in a room together they spend their time intently staring at a glass marble, declaring the sunlight refracted through it as be "surrealism". It's that "surrealism" that Abe tells his editor at Garo he wants to achieve in his manga, but his pursuit of the strange, mostly fueled by alcohol and extra-marital affairs, slowing erodes Abe's sanity. Miyoko is left to try and make sense of her love for her husband, and her growing sexual unrest. Is it simply enough for her to be immortalized in the pages of her husband's manga?

Like so many of Japan's underground and experimental manga artists (Yoshiharu Tsuge, George Asakura) Abe's work has not been widely translated into English, so it's hard to gauge how faithful Tsubota's adaptation of Abe's work "Miyoko". It's clear that many shots and sequences are indeed faithful reconstructions of Abe's manga because Tsubota includes panels from his original manga throughout the film, but many non-Japanese audiences will only be able to take "Miyoko" at face value as the story of an artist and his muse. This also brings up my biggest problem with Tsubota's film. Without the same reference points as Japanese audiences I saw "Miyoko" as another of the mad/ tortured genius and his ever faithful wife/ lover/ mother caretaker genre of films that have been done over and over again. ("A Beautiful Mind" and "Pollock" are two examples that immediately pop to mind.) While all of these films are ostensibly based on true stories I find myself getting more and more doubtful of the sanity of the wives and lovers of these mad geniuses. Surely these women must have a breaking point, but on screen they dutifully put up with emotional and physical violence (in "Miyoko" Abe comes at his wife and child with a saw), adultery (Abe is having an affair with Miyoko's best friend Machiko), abandonment, and overall bad behaviour for...? The satisfaction that they have enabled the production of great artwork and accomplishments? It's a genre that is getting a little bit overplayed, and I'd like to see the tables turned and have a film about an unstable female genius with a dutiful, meek husband.

That personal gripe aside it is impossible to not to see the sheer visual beauty of "Miyoko". Cinematographer Daisuke Yamazaki gives us some truly breathtaking and memorable imagery like Abe feverishly working at his drawing table while Miyoko lays nude, bathed in blue moonlight on the bed behind him. Tsubota also makes sure that his film is entirely faithful to the period the film is set, even down to tiny details like a bottle of Mandom cologne with Charles Bronson on the bottle, old Tatsuya Fuji movie posters plastered onto telephone poles in street scenes, and of course original copies of Garo everywhere. The performances are also uniformly good, with Kenji Mizuhashi's performance as Abe being crazed, but never over the top, and Marie Machida's stately and suffering presence grounding the melancholic mood of the film.

If you, like me, haven't tired of the long-suffering wife of the genius genre and want to see a film that will, dazzle your eyes with some of the most beautiful cinematography in recent memory than you will definitely want to give "Miyoko" a try. That is of course if it can find distribution in North America , which might be difficult as some audiences will find the film hard to decipher without Shinichi Abe's manga as a point of reference. Here's hoping the drought of underground manga being published in North America ends soon though.

Review by Chris MaGee
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