London Film Festival review: Around Japan With a Movie Camera

The eye wants to travel, and never more so than in these pandemic times. Which means that this presentation from the BFI’s blockbuster Japan season is actually more welcome on its delayed arrival.

In Around Japan With a Movie Camera, across an hour and a quarter, we are transported through space and time to Japan in the very early 20th century – the films span the period from 1901 to 1913. But you’ll want to devote a full ninety minutes to this one and click the “Watch introduction” button on the BFI Player. The films are more than ably introduced by the BFI’s own Bryony Dixon and Japanese film historian Mika Tomita, and the programme is hosted by Michelle ‘Bioscope Girl’ Facey. They also take time to introduce the band, as it were. The films are accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch, Costas Fotopolous, Stephen Horne and Lillian Henley – their hands are sometimes visible thanks to the ingenuity of Gabrysch’s pandemic-era innovation, the “piano-cam”.

Watching the selection of shorts is both adventurous and meditative – I felt like I was strolling around the past, moving among people from long ago and far away at a pace far removed from the frenetic early 21st century. Watching a craftsman deftly paste paper on to parasol frames, or a woman tasting tea is a balm for the soul. The music helps – transforming what may have been intended as actuality footage, a demonstration of travel and technology, two modern marvels, into something else entirely: lyrical, and often poignant.

And there is so much beauty here. I loved the brightly coloured procession, some picturesque scenes of Kyoto in the rain, of women at the rice festival shielding their beautifully painted faces from the sunlight with their fans, of more women in stencil-coloured kimonos taking tea together, of boats drifting down river in a stencil-tinted landscape with verdant green banks, and grey, misty mountains in the background. The landscapes are timeless, although the natural world of Japan feels both exotic, and familiar: herons feeding and preening at a lake or so many precious glimpses of bonsai trees and cherry blossom. There was also a lot that was very unfamiliar to me, such as the practice of fishing with cormorants, filmed on the Isle of Jeso in 1911.

The faces of infants, eyeing the camera with fascination and a little wariness, are always very moving. So much history was to happen to and around these youngsters, but for now they are children, playing, learning, and walking in pairs, in a crocodile, through a world that now seems unimaginably distant.

Next time a film cuts to Japan with a snippet of speeded-up footage showing commuters thronging the gleaming steel and neon streets of Tokyo, I will think of this collection, and remember that there is another side to this country, that I so desperately want to visit one day. In person. But for now, the cinematographers of the Edwardian era have given a gift for the generations to follow.

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