1. “The Woodsman and the Rain” /「キツツキと雨」(2011)
This is the film that first introduced me to Okita’s gentle charm, and it’s the one I’d most highly recommend. The “woodsman” in question is Katsu (played by Koji Yakusho, from "13 Assassins"), a recently widowed lumberjack who seems far more comfortable cutting down trees with his chainsaw than interacting with anyone around him in the run-down village where he lives. His hermit-like existence is brought to an end, however, with the arrival of a film crew from the city, attempting to make, of all things, a low-budget zombie movie. After initially agreeing, with great reluctance, to help out the crew as a kind of local guide, Katsu then gets roped into being cast as a zombie extra, and slowly but surely a smile starts to show through his stubborn scowl. While Katsu’s character is the emotional center of the story, he’s not the only one to be transformed for the better by getting involved in the gory world of zombies. The crew’s hopelessly nervous rookie director Koichi (Shun Oguri) also grows over the course of the film, thanks largely to his unlikely friendship with Katsu. Indeed, the most enjoyable part of the film for me was observing the developing relationship between these two troubled individuals from such different backgrounds, how it gradually changes from bemused awkwardness to mutual grudging respect. If "Woodsman" does have a message, apart from “crappy zombie movies are bloody fun!”, it’s that the catalyst for change in a person's life can sometimes come from the most unlikely source.
2. “Antarctic Chef” / 「南極の料理人」 (2009)
I’ve long had a fascination with the incredibly harsh environment of Antarctica, in particular the brave, eccentric, or possibly mad, people who choose to venture there. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Okita’s second film focuses on this very subject. It follows a group of eight men who are holed up in a Japanese Antarctic research station for over a year, chronicling in a humorous and sometimes moving way the various issues that they face, with each other and their isolated circumstances, and how they manage to deal with everything, some more successfully than others! Among the rag-tag team, there’s the cheerful and super-fit doctor, who thinks nothing of going for half-naked bike rides in a freezing blizzard, the grumpy researcher, who cares only for his precious ice core samples, and his green young assistant, who develops a severe case of homesickness. Above all, though, there’s the chef, Nishimura (Masato Sakai) whose skill and enthusiasm for his work helps to keep everyone more or less sane. "Antarctic Chef" does have some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (I especially loved the team’s aerobic sessions, their only regular contact with women, albeit through a video screen), and its depiction of the lovingly cooked meals and the interaction around the dinner table is really well done. On the other hand, as a poignant character study, it’s not on the same level as "Woodsman" and the story jumps around a little too much, which I found slightly confusing at times. Those are minor gripes, though, as overall it works as what I feel it’s meant to be – a lighthearted portrayal of male bonding.
3. “A Story of Yonosuke” 「横道世之介」(2013)
This may be my least favorite of Okita’s short back catalogue, but in my eyes it still has a lot more going for it than most films around these days, from Japan or anywhere else. I’ve heard it described as a kind of “Japanese Forrest Gump,” which on one level is an understandable comparison, in that its titular hero, Yonosuke (Kengo Kara), is a simple soul with a warm heart who manages to touch the lives of those he meets without being fully aware of it. While quite naïve and childlike in some ways, Yonosuke is far from simple-minded though, and the main dilemma he faces in the film, hesitation on declaring his feelings for the girl that he loves, is something that most of us can identify with. Yonosuke’s story is mainly set in the 1980s, during his student days, and I thought all the retro ‘80s touches (clothes, hairstyles, music, décor) were really well done and fun to spot. Like all Okita films, there’s no shortage of awkward/funny moments, usually involving Yonosuke’s wide-eyed reactions at the behavior of those around him (whether it’s his nihilist older brother, relentlessly jolly best friend, or the object of his affection, rich-chick Shoko, who in some ways is just as naïve as he is). Of the three films here, though, “Yonosuke” had the least laughs for me, which is not necessarily a criticism. Indeed, some of its more serious sections were also its most effective, in particular a few flash-forwards to Yonosuke’s college friends in the present day reminiscing about how they met him. These scenes seemed to carry the main message of the film: that certain friendships, however fleeting, and however long ago, never lose their impression on our lives.