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Having mostly dabbled in stories set in current times, Koki Mitani‘s latest piece is a departure of sorts, given how it unfolds largely among nobility, warriors and their squires within a castle in 1582. But the period setting — evoked remarkably by Yohei Taneda and Kimie Kurotaki‘s production design — belies the film’s modern vibe: based on the Japanese writer-helmer’s own novel of the same name, The Kiyosu Conference reworks a real-life episode in Japanese history into a political satire, with a 16thcentury battle for succession in a deceased warlord’s clan made to resemble a contemporary backroom power grab.
It’s perhaps even wrong to call Mitani’s film a historical epic as such. Playing fast and loose with some historical facts and restraining from hinting at the remarkable ramifications the conference would bring about in Japan, The Kiyosu Conference is probably an attempt on Mitani’s part to simply use the past to channel some present-day comedy. In a way, the film can be seen as a full-blown exploration of the key trait of the director’s previous film A Ghost of A Chance, when the spirit of a 16th-century samurai (played by Toshiyuki Nishida, who reprises this character in a cameo in The Kiyosu Conference) was summoned as a key witness in a 21st century trial.
After premiering at Montreal’s World Cinema Festival and at the Hawaii International Film Festival, The Kiyosu Conference was warmly received when it took its domestic bow at the Tokyo International Film Festival in late October, and has since generated satisfactory box-office traction during a commercial run that began on Nov. 9. It topped the charts during its opening weekend and has since raked in $28.3 million, about the same as Mitani’s past hits. While its emphasis is placed squarely on the comic absurdities arising from Machiavellian strategies employed by politicians everywhere, The Kiyosu Conference‘s export potential – the film has already opened in Taiwan on Dec. 27, with a Hong Kong release on Jan. 23 to follow – will probably be dampened by its 138-minute runtime and, at times, mise-en-scene that relegates the whole exercise into tele-film territory.
While the taut intrigue does sometimes get derailed by the repetition of the odd running gag (such as a warrior shown regularly running, in vain, to reach the conference) or longeurs featuring scheming protagonists flipping and flopping with their own conscience and (largely absent) ideals, Mitani has delivered a nuanced dramatic narrative depicting wildly varied (and hilarious) strategies being deployed for the sake of attaining political power. Front-of-stage pronouncements of friendship and fidelity run in parallel to back-room deals that make or break political alliances — a game of mutual political attrition, in which everyone, even concubines and janitorial staff, comes into play.
All this follows the Honno-ji Incident in June 1582, when warlord Nobunaga Oda (Eisuke Sasai) — then the most powerful feudal ruler in Japan — killed himself when besieged by mutinous soldiers in Kyoto. With his eldest son and heir apparent Nobutada (Kankura Nakamura) also having committed suicide, the Oda clan is left devoid of a leader, a power vaccum which two of Nobunaga’s vassals see as a perfect opportunity to enhance their political standing by getting their candidates to become the next ruler.
All is set for a war between two very different approaches in the pursuit for power: the earnest but brutish Katsuie Shibata (Koji Yakusho, Babel) sides with Nobunaga’s third son, the decent and competent Nobutaka (Bando Minosuke), the wily Hideyoshi Hashiba (Yo Oizumi) hedges his bets on the eccentric second son Nobukatsu (Satoshi Tsumabuki). While Shibata and his ally Niwa Nagahide (Fumiyo Kohinata) count on more traditional, arm-twisting ways in getting their way – with the former showing his unsophisticated ways in efforts to woo his master’s widowed (and scheming) daughter Oichi (Kyoka Suzuki) – Hashiba, an uncouth peasant-turned-general nicknamed “The Monkey”, is canny in bringing the relevant people over to his side. Entertaining the castle’s managerial staff with parties hosted by his flamboyant wife Nei (Miki Nakatani), and getting a seemingly harmless underling to tell him crucial morsels of information about the clan, Hashiba strings together everything to pull off a daring coup during the actual conference itself.
Living up to is title, The Kiyosu Conference is indeed more preoccupied with subterfuge than swordplay; bar the film’s prologue, the film’s only real action scene is a flag-grabbing competition on the beach between the two teams vying for power – a game that reveals more about the psychological state of the participants than the physical prowess involved.
This scene provides a comic touch that is omnipresent throughout the film: whether this is historically accurate is probably besides the point, as Mitani strives to present characters whose strength in spouting banalities would eventually bring them enormous success. That’s perhaps why the film doesn’t mention how the victor to emerge from this five-day summit would eventually go on to unify Japan and reshape the country’s social and political norms — just as one of the film’s characters muses towards the end of the film, the Kiyosu Conference will mark the end of an era for old-school military heroism; just as the fate of a clan — and a country is to be decided in a comedic vote by a four-strong junta, politics in general is all about playing with hearts and minds rather than bombastic triumphs on the battlefield. While one can certainly take umbrage over Mitani’s non-committal approach in evaluating the cynicism on show, his film itself does provide an amusing look at modern-day power plays.
Venue: Press screening, Hong Kong
Production Companies: Fuji Television Network and Toho
Director: Koki Mitani
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Yo Oizumi, Fumiyo Kohinata, Koichi Sato, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tadanobu Asano, Kyoka Suzuki, Miki Nakatani
Producers: Takashi Ishihara, Minami Ichikawa with Kuga Maeda, Kazutoshi Wadakura
Screenwriter: Koki Mitani, based on his novel Kiyosu Kaigi
Director of Photography: Hideo Yamamoto
Editor: Soichi Ueno
Production Designers: Yohei Taneda, Kimie Kurotaki
Art Designer: Takayuki Sato
Music: Kiyoko Ogino
International Sales: Pony Canyon International Licensing
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