Category Archives: Joshua Zapf

Film weakened by force-fed poignancy

Shiawase no taiko o hibikasete: Inclusion
Directed by Ken’ichi Oguri
Canadian premiere, Eric Martin Theatre
May 29, 2013

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf.

The Canadian premiere of  Ken’ichi Oguri’s Shiawase no taiko o hibikasete: Inclusion was hosted by Friends of Music Society, an organization that offers “partnership-based music programs to build relationships between people with mental illness and those without.” Inclusion follows a Japanese drum troupe (Zuiho Taiko) composed of players with mental disabilities who find “creative independence” through music.

Before any preconceived notions of inability can be summoned, the opening to Inclusion informs the viewer that this troop plays 130 concerts a year–a glorious achievement, but one that leaves no room for the viewer to settle into the movie before Ken’ichi fills scenes with poignant and bittersweet displays of kindness and achievement. This style of force-fed moments of warmth, affection, and modesty mostly resolve the movie’s conclusion without even having made it 45 minutes in.

That is not to say that there isn’t a power to Ken’ichi Oguri’s decision to display compassion; the film exudes genuine emotion all the way from the small Nagasaki prefecture in Unzen City, to the troupe being discovered and coached by a famous Taiko performer to competing in the Tokyo International Taiko Contest.

Despite the temporal transitions, Inclusion never skips a motivational beat. Most members of Zuhio Taiko were ostracised, institutionalized, and perceived as people who could not achieve something worthwhile. It is clearly Ken’ichi Ogrui’s desire to show that those with mental disabilities can lead normal family lives, as the film enters the drummers’ homes at every opportunity. These moments when the camera entered the homes always felt heavy handed with shots that linger and probe as though waiting to find something specific rather than just tell the story as it happened.

Without ruining the film, there are moments that evoke paternal instincts to protect those that seem to need defending. While this is effective in reaffirming that people with disabilities should not be approached as “functioning disabled people, but seen as a member of society,” the movie fails in its zealous attempt to cast the members of Zuiho Taiko in any role other than brow-beaten drummer. Even though time is spent with the family of the Zuiho Taiko’s leader, the documentary devotes most of its time to reproducing scenes of social stigma.

Still, much of Inclusion is bursting with humor and sincerity. There is a beautiful story hidden within: a vocational rehabilitation centre full of people institutionalized for their mental disabilities. A director who asked residents if they were happy received a resounding “Yes.” That same director who shut the facility down after hearing that the only thing in the world the residents wanted was to leave.

This juxtaposition of honest storytelling to directed moments of tension is counterintuitive to the crux of the film: “The world is more beautiful when the world is in harmony.” It muddles the achievements of the Zuiho Taiko drum troupe. I’m left wondering, are we to feel sad for these people who lead mostly ordinary lives or bask in how they’ve mastered something that others would only dream of?

Despite its weaknesses, the movie is a success. If you’ve watched and enjoyed small documentary films before then Inclusion will leave you feeling hopeful. Moreover, those with a penchant for documentaries that fall outside the “norm,” will be smitten by the warm sentiment and strong narration.

However, if you’re used to the types of documentaries that spring up around Oscar season with vivid production value and a distinctly unabridged story, then Ken’ichi Oguri’s Inclusion is not for you.

Films worth revisiting: The Fog of War

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Directed by Errol Morris; Starring Robert McNamara as himself

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

This 2003 Sony Pictures Classic opens with some black and white footage of former United States Secretary of State Robert McNamara preparing for a press conference.  It then shows a wartime montage played back to sweeping strings and stressed flutes. From that point onward, the film’s tension  never abates. Fog of War is an interview with McNamara, President of the Ford Motor Company and former President of the World Bank. It is a history lesson that does not sidle around difficult issues and involves a man who, with determination, lived an amazing life burdened with decisions that, right or wrong, caused his vilification.

“Any military commander who is honest with himself will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily–his own troops or other troops–through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is ‘don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes.’ And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.” –Robert McNamara

Fog of War viewers follow eleven lessons from McNamara which range from “Empathize with your enemy” to “Maximize efficiency” to “You can’t change human nature.” Viewers step into the war room and hear the conversations of John F. Kennedy and McNamara during the Cuban missile crisis. Viewers become privy to the startling facts of how close mutual destruction came to the nations of Earth.

Director Errol Morris shifts focus to McNamara’s early life and the initiation of the Second World War. From there we witness a whole new side to the Pacific Theatre. Bravery is bested by statistics: tackling fuel efficiency so that more sorties could be run overtop of Japan, the mathematics behind using firebombs that burned Tokyo to the ground. For those who knew only the nuclear attacks on Japan, to see the loss of life based solely on firebombing is startling, gut wrenching and physically chilling.

At times the montages of fire, bullets, personnel, and explosions that overlay McNamara’s narration feel heavy handed. They make his voice seem unwavering in the face of deciding the fate of others.  Yet, that is the basis of this film. To see the face and logic of someone rationalizing the decisions of war–where the freedom of some outweigh the deaths of others. What makes Fog of War so compelling is McNamara’s penchant to look inwards, without guidance from Morris, to ask himself the most difficult moral questions. Such honesty coupled with humanity is what should beat in the heart of leaders, and here we see a man who doesn’t shirk from responsibility–knowing his job would leave him a monster.

The movie visits McNamara’s time with Ford and the introduction of the seatbelt–McNamara figured he could save upwards of twenty thousand lives. Morris then begins to shift the focus towards the Vietnam War, but stops in at John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Whenever Robert McNamara’s confident voice cracks from pressure, falters in lieu of teary confession, when Philip Glass’ soaring original score lifts McNamara’s voice so that we can feel it more than hear it, Fog of War is at its best. It educates, empathizes, critiques. A more touching and fear-rousing documentary may not exist.

Joshua Zapf loves rediscovering movies from the past. 

Films worth revisiting: The Kid Stays in the Picture

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein
Written by Brett Morgen. Narrated by Robert Evans

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

1957: Robert Evans is plucked from the poolside by Norma Shearer to play her late husband and renowned producer, Irving Thalberg. From there Evans, driven by lust for the movie industry, works his way up to become producer for the lowliest movie studio around–Paramount Pictures. He goes on to pull the studio out of a nose dive with titles like The Godfather, Love Story, China Town, and Rosemary’s Baby. Having done the impossible, he falls in love and gets the home of his dreams.

Right there, we have enough drama to make a cute, based-on-real-life, film. But Morgen and Burstein follow Evans’ story to its bitter end–through divorce, alleged associations to a murder and drug scandals. We are privy to every up and down in the life of a man who seems to have had it all handed to him on a silver platter.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is more than thoughtful documentary. It is a heart-wrenching tell-all narrated by Evans himself. His growling baritone supplies the film with a seen-it-all veracity that leaves you–at least, it did me–sympathetic for every decision, challenge and heartbreak.

And that’s the satisfaction this movie offers. Everything that seems lined in silver is, in fact, coated with Evans’ blood and sweat. Each of those movies listed earlier was crucial to Paramount’s success and each was pocked with drama during all stages of production. The film’s ability to divulge freely is maddening at times. Honesty, as poignant as Evans, is the base of all sad stories.

The documentary is told almost purely in a photo-collage style, but Morgen and Burstein work cinematic wizardry by making scenes feel animated. They weave the exposition of personal life and career through motifs; by the end of the film, viewers are left feeling nostalgic, as if Evans were a close uncle they’d like to see more of. Despite Evans’ first-person narration, it’s easy to forget the movie is a documentary. Morgen and Burstein have masterfully adapted from Evan’s autobiography to make an enchanting, sorrowful movie to watch.


Joshua Zapf  loves to research older movies

Films Worth RE-visiting: The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)

The Illusionist (Lèillusionniste)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Original screenplay by Jacques Tati,
Adapted by Sylvain Chomet.

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

The Illusionist is beautiful for many reasons, but most of all because it is believable.

The story takes place during the 1950s. The protagonist, Tatischeff, is an illusionist and a master of his craft.  We follow him, and a handful of other entertainers, as they struggle to make ends meet. In desperation, Tatischeff travels to Scotland and, after a small performance in a local tavern, he settles into his room. A young maid becomes so perplexed by Tatischeff’s abilities that she is convinced he is magic. She follows the illusionist to escape the humdrum life of her village, a place that has seemingly just seen its first electric light. Tatischeff, awash in her admiration, shows fatherly affection for her. He attempts to give her everything her heart desires but cannot prevent the slow disenchantment that comes with time.

The film does not incorporate hard dialogue. You might suggest, if you had to explain it, that there are no spoken lines. That’s why I nearly overlooked this film; I figured the premise too lofty, the design too avant-garde for my liking. Nevertheless, The Illusionist is one of the finest films I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I predict that after just twelve minutes you will be enchanted.

The Illusionist is a cartoon of the highest quality, drawn to the grandest scale. Scenes sprawl like photographs. The music, originally pieced together by the director Chomet, guides you seamlessly through scenes. No spectacle is spared as background characters move with their own accord giving life to every scene–more life than most live action movies could ever hope to attain.

At times the movie is like rolling artwork. The trip from Kings Cross to Scotland is outstanding. You could review that segment a dozen times and continue to discover new and wonderful details (the advertisement on the bus, the gulls meandering near a cliff, the Border Collie managing his flock, the change of passengers, the name of the Scotsman’s boat.)

Chomet has done a masterful job. The music, the sentiment, the novel characters, the idiosyncratic movements of the lead are all threads woven into a touching storyline. The Illusionist is a resounding achievement–a film that that should not be missed, no matter how old or young you are.


Josh Zapf just committed himself to Co-op Studies in Writing at UVIC; he  was mesmerized by Star Wars and Indiana Jones as a kid.