Tsujiura Renbo. Courtesy Chicago Japan Film Collective

Every January, Japanese young people celebrate Seijin-no-hi, or Coming of Age Day, to commemorate their passage from childhood into adulthood. With this, and both the calendar and Lunar New Year in mind, cofounders Yuki Solomon and Hiroshi Kono of the Chicago Japan Film Collective decided to put on a free, virtual New Year’s Screening featuring two young Japanese filmmakers. 

“We picked out two films—one was directed by director Seira Maeda who is 25 years old and showing the freshness of the new voices from Japan, and the other is a little older, director Daisuke Ono, who started making films five or six years ago,” says Kono. Each film was made within the context and constraint of the COVID-19 pandemic, though neither deals with the pandemic directly. 

“We saw that these days there are many challenges—not only the pandemic, but also the lifestyle of people is changing and within that limitation what you can do. I saw that these films maximized their potential within those limitations and saw that those young filmmakers are somewhat better at it than the people who have done this for a long time,” says Solomon.

The first of the features is Back to That Day, directed by Maeda (94 minutes, in Japanese with subtitles) and follows a 30-year-old playwright (Reina Matsui) struggling to understand the place of art in her life when she receives the staggering news of her younger sister’s (Miwako Kakei) abrupt death. Pensive and poignant, the film moves slowly through the haze of sudden grief, seeking ultimate redemption in the heroine’s decision to restage a play. Though the pace and focus can wobble from time to time, crisp cinematography and subtle performances from its lead actors propel this drama for the entirety of its runtime. Threaded throughout is the anomie and anxiety of youth in Japan, particularly from the lens of the late 20s and early 30s woman, surely a reflection of Maeda’s own experience as a creative woman in Japanese society. 

Tsujiura-renbo (111 minutes, in Japanese with subtitles) also follows a young female artist (Saori), this time a singer-songwriter named Emi. Emi meets Shinta, played by director Ono, who becomes her manager. Together they navigate the unglamorous tedium of a musician trying desperately to succeed, while also balancing a tenuous sometimes-romance. Most compelling about Ono’s characters are their fierce devotion, Emi to her art and Shinta to Emi, layered with their sheer spiky realness—in one memorable scene, Emi refuses to play nice with a radio DJ and instead slams her guitar into his head. Granular and unflinching, Ono turns an exacting lens onto the prosaic reality of trying to live as a young artist in Japan. A distinct sense of bleak humor offers much-needed room to breathe. Still, there are times the film struggles with the disjointedness of its plot. The story too neatly mirror’s Emi’s own stop-start trajectory, risking shaking off its audience in the pursuit of depicting disorientation. 

In many ways, the experiences exhibited here are universal ones—loss of a loved one, the fight to hold on to a younger self’s uninhibited dream. CJFC’s New Year’s Screening asks an American audience to consider the frailty and necessity of art in a mire of human difficulty and loneliness. Taken together, the two films paint a portrait of a thoughtful younger generation of Japanese artists, seeking to carve out a space for themselves in an inhospitable and insensitive world. 

The CJFC New Year’s Screening runs from February 10-13. Tickets are free at Chicago Japan Film Collective (cjfc.us)