This is a banner year for the annual JAPAN CUTS film festival, which looks to celebrate its tenth anniversary this summer, and marks its second edition as a fully independent entity. We can see it here continuing to redefine itself with the continued push into new directions – documentary films are even more prominent, and workshops on experimental film continue to happen, yet are joined by a collection of 30 minute movies by new artists that will run continuously in a room that all can visit. Not only is its programming more expansive, but there is a marked focus on serious films. Most of the slate is grounded in reality, its best films often grounded dramas, with fantastical elements far less prominent than in previous years and light, airy entertainment little to be seen. The landscape is notably characterized by voices decrying injustice and seeking to illuminate, even come to grips with terms with challenging circumstances. The world-weariness of the fest may very well be a reflection of the frustrations and concerns of a current generation of filmmakers, as well as the elder representatives of Japan’s film scene returning, perhaps reminded by current political climates of situations they rallied against once before.
The cast of characters in this year’s onscreen world looks like a rogue’s gallery of freedom fighters, revolutionaries, teachers going against the grain, as well as those trapped in the margins of a society turning its back on those who are different or lack the economic resources to get by. Those characters reel in psychic pain or strike out in the form of drug dealers or those who have turned to petty crime to support their artistic endeavors. The stories of those who have been spurned by the world and lash out in turn are as compelling as those who are striving to save it.
A CAPELLA looks at students in the throes of the anti war movement of the 70s who meet at a smoky café to discuss their activity and favorite art. Its female lead played by Riko Narumi is striking as both a fiery and ruminative girl on the verge of adulthood. While there is a palpable backdrop of activism, the story zooms in on the relationships she and her peers forge, filled with betrayal and sexual frankness. The characters here often feel like they are just playing at being revolutionaries and this is very much the point, as we see these far too young individuals struggling to be leaders in a fight against apparent oppression yet find love, belonging as their ids rage during the tumultuous time. The tone of the film and Narumi’s performance will linger on the brain days after viewing.
KAKO: MY SULLEN past is a more contemporary tale that sees radicalism as the background of a tale of growing up and facing a mysterious figure from the past. The narrative brims with mystery as Kako (Fumi Nikaido), a scornful sardonic student’s world is disrupted by the return of a woman in her family named Mikiko (Kyoko Koizumi). There is a tension as strange disappearances are spoken of and reported on in the news and the behavior of those around them become strange. The sparring of accomplished leads from different generations in Kikaido and Koizumi is exhilarating.
THE ARTIST OF FASTING comes from Masao Adachi, a director with years of experience, and feels very much like an artifact harkening back several generations yet comes to us from 2015. It shows a man who dedicates himself to fasting for 40 days in hopes of finding enlightenment, who does so in the unglamorous street of a shopping arcade. A circus of media frenzy, religious and political groups, and radical organizations erupts around him in a decidedly dark and unhinging viewing experience.
A male elementary school teacher (played by Kenga Kora) is one of the protagonists in BEING GOOD, which lays bare the disconnect among adults over raising children. Abuse at home and the trail it brings into the classroom is shown with a matter of fact cataloguing of gripping real life horror. Steadily and almost unnoticeably at first, characters build the resolve to follow their convictions to bring about the change that they can.
Not so new to the realm of Japanese film are examinations of interpersonal relationships, a source of endless wonder in a society still marked by gender inequality and strict rules of conduct. BITTER HONEY navigates a relationship between male and female, artist and muse in a tale that incorporates playful magical elements. While it is mostly flirty and perplexing, the shifting tones land on an explosive exchange between writer and muse (Fumi Nikaido in another mesmerizing performance) that gets to the core of struggles over desires for commitment and freedom.
The best moments of THE ACTOR are also its bookends, in which an actor who is respected, seasoned yet far removed from the spotlight has an encounter tinged with romance with a bartender he meets in a small town he stops at for work. In these brief but patiently paced exchanges, The possibility of the two falling in love is thrown up against real life problems of family situation and the pursuit of one’s individual goals, and it quickens the pulse to see.
MOHICAN COMES HOME and THE PROJECTS are noisy dramas with plenty of comedic relief that aim at families veering off from the traditional notion of conventional. The returning MOHICAN sees his dreams of rock stardom dashed early on but his visit to his family finds him facing more universal plights such as a family illness. The film shows how devastating it can be while also finding unique ways to point out the little everyday moments of heroism among us. THE PROJECTS shows paranoia run rampant in a housing development populated by the elderly and those in less secure financial situations. The squabbling among tenants as they gossip over what the mysterious activity of an older couple who has recently moved in, and is dealing with their own tragic loss, is filled with unrestrained hilarity. The verbal exchanges both within and around the couple take from and center stage, even more compelling than the off kilter fantastical element that makes it ways into the story.
Maneuvering around this year’s festival may present a challenge. The schedule is not set at so much of a leisurely pace as past years, but comprises 10 days densely packed with films and talks. Within is a great variety of focuses. A new focus looking back to films of the past looks at less widely known yet important works that dealt in dark matter. Here there is Sogo Ishii’s BURST CITY with similar industrial shades as TETSUO: THE IRON MAN and a punk intensity running throughout. A section of documentaries offers an early look at FAKE, whose controversial subject Mamoru Samuragochi was both acknowledged as a musical genius and discredited in turn.
Here and in other cases across the diverse lineup, the participation of guests working on both sides of the camera will create immediate dialogue between creator and audience. The troubling narrative LOWLIFE LOVE, whose central figure is a driven independent filmmaker prone to pushing around students and blurring lines between professional and sexual relationships with his crew, will no doubt generate questions about whether parallels exist between character and real life director Eiji Uchida. It is a dizzying array of guests, both young upstars and established figures the likes of which include director Mipo O who masterfully helmed last year’s CUTS highlight THE LIGHT SHINES ONLY THERE and this year’s BEING GOOD, actor/artist Lily Franky and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Sono Sion, director of many a festival favorite whose works have been celebrated in previous editions of JAPAN CUTS and other festivals, will also be on hand as he is given a brief multidimensional focus. Documentary THE SION SONO gives vital insight into the filmmaker’s guiding principles, formative years, and creative process going into a few recent films, one of which, WHISPERING STARS will also be shown. It is destined to be one of the director’s more esoteric experiments with a decidedly entrancing black and white aesthetic but little narrative substance to carry the stark vision of science fiction. The day long focus is balanced out by the director’s recent hit LOVE AND PEACE, which arguably puts the best of Sono on display including an intricate plot, frenetic music both within and outside of the story, and themes that find a collective Japan wrestling with its own identity. The only signature element missing is gore, making the film more accessible yet leaving just as much of a mark.
While the action on screen is mostly somber, a burst of fantasy and perhaps a bit of optimism comes through in a collection of short experimental animated films culled from the works of new artists. Yet there is still a look to the past. Think of trippy psychedelic works such as PLANET SUAVAGE and even the recently unearthed BELLA DONNA as stylistic influences. TENSAI BANPAKU is a fast moving swirl of bright color patterns that playfully manipulates shapes and lines while MASTER BLASTER is a slinky roughly drawn cycle of female figures moving into and out of each other with uninhibited abandon, set to a jazzy score recalling the ‘70s. Another work, LAND walks a deft line between that surreal aesthetic and more precise renderings brought about by digital technology.
While grim portents run throughout this year’s movies, JAPAN CUTS has intensified its vision and secured itself a promising future as an essential survey of Japanese film. For more information and tickets about screenings and events, visit JAPAN SOCIETY website.