Even though current day Japanese cinema can't really match the quality present ten years ago, there are still enough signs of life that point at a promising, positive future. Koki Mitani's The Kiyosu Conference [Kiyosu Kaigi] is one of those signs. It's not the most outrageously innovative film you'll watch this year, but it's a pleasant, fun and enjoyable romp. It's also the perfect film to get acquainted with Mitani if you haven't seen any of his films before.
For a while now Koki Mitani has been growing as a director. With his previous film (Sutekina Kanashibari) he finally moved far enough up the ranks to become one of big players. The Kiyosu Conference builds on that, though it doesn't actually improve on Mitani's previous film. That's not necessarily a bad thing of course, but people hoping to see some progress here might be a bit disappointed. The Kiyosu Conference is (almost) exactly what I've come to expect from a Mitani film.
There is one big difference with Mitani's earlier films and that's the film's setting. Mitani's work has always been grounded in modern day life, for his latest he travels back into time to recount one of the more important moments in Japanese history. Not a true to life retelling mind, the film is based on his own novel and is quite liberal when dealing with historical facts. Not only that, the film also feels very different from other history-based Japanese films. Much lighter in tone, less grim and serious.
The setup is quite simple. When the head of the Oda clan is killed, the clan is in dire need of a successor. With two eager brothers and a son eyeing the throne though, finding the right candidate is easier said than done. Ikeda and Shibata, two life-long rivals, each pick a favorite for the throne and start rallying to get their candidate in pole position. Both are certain they can win, but convincing their fellow voters proves a lot tougher than expected.
The color palette for these kind of historical dramas is usually quite muted, dull and overly reliant on brown tints, Mitani breaks with that tradition and turns The Kiyosu Conference into a warm, colorful film. There's a little CG that stands out just a bit too much, but apart from that the visuals are bright and cheerful, helped by some very solid camera work. It's nothing too out of the ordinary, but those who've seen their fair share of samurai flicks will definitely notice the difference.
The soundtrack too is a lot more upbeat than usually the case with these type of films. It's big, bold and orchestral, with lots of drive and positive vibes rubbing off of it. It does its part in helping to brighten up the atmosphere and while none of the individual tracks made a big impression on me, overall the soundtrack does make a big difference.
Mitani loves to work with big casts (just have a look at the posters for his films), but he truly outdid himself with The Kiyosu Conference. And it's not just the size of the cast that is impressive, just looking at the actors featured put a big smile on my face. Koji Yakusho and Tadanobu Asano team up, Susumu Terajima has a sizeable role and there are small but fun parts for Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Yusuke Iseya. But the undeniable star of the film is Koichi Sato. Normally I can't stand the guy, but he's perfect here as the goofy but cunning Ikeda.
Even though the setup is quite simple, the path from there becomes complex real fast, with all forms of treason, scheming and leg-pulling going on. Almost every character has ulterior motives, stretching far beyond the candidate election. Even so, Mitani keeps a clear overview of what's going on, helped of course by the film's generous running time. It never becomes boring though, neither does it start to drag, the film's just to jolly and fun for that.
The Kiyosu Conference is good, solid, old-fashioned fun. Mitani has a great cast to his disposal and goes with colorful visuals and an upbeat soundtrack. The plot is engaging enough without ever outstaying its welcome. The Kiyosu Conference is a film that confirms Mitani's talent, even though it does hint at the fact that he might have reached his top. Either way, it's a great way to spend 2+ hours without so much of a worry.