Once again it is that part of the summer when the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Films is ready to commence. Truly a survey of the past year’s Japanese cultural product, the 10 day affair essentially covers it all, from under-the-radar indie productions to mainstream studio crowd pleasers. The gamut is run from low key interpersonal dramas (OVER THE FENCE) to archetypal historical anime (IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD), and includes on its menu documentaries tackling social issues (TOKYO IDOLS, A WHALE OF A TALE), suspense thrillers (SHIPPU RONDO), experimental works both new and old (HARUNEKO, ONCE UPON A DREAM), narrative dramatizations of intriguing figures of artistic and historical relevance (THE EXTREMIST’S OPERA, FOUJITA). The festival opens a unique window to homegrown film ‘happenings’ like the Nikkatsu Studio’s Roman Porno Reboot project, from which they have shown an entry by revered cinematic instigator Sion Sono, who throws all of himself into the project whilst creating a feverish subversion of its tenets (ANTI-PORNO). The inherently Japanese samurai drama is given inclusion with a twist; placed in the unusual position of opening night film (MUMON: THE LAND OF STEALTH) – as the festival welcomes its prolific and esteemed director Yoshihiro Nakamura, known for festival favorites (Fish Story; A Boy and His Samurai) who will introduce the film and participate in a Q & A. With no intention of letting up on its recent run of hosting iconic guests, the festival will also celebrate its eleventh year with the appearance of venerated actor Odagiri Jo along with the screening of two recent films he has starred in (OVER THE FENCE; FOUJITA). Asian film fans of a certain age calling New York their home may have seen the actor get his start and continue along his path toward success, with his breakthrough performance in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2002 film Bright Future getting a theater run at the East Village art house stalwart Cinema Village in our current millennium’s infancy.
Notable of its current curatorial team, this edition of Japan Cuts continues to emphasize inclusivity and a tackling of social issues, perhaps with a greater sense of urgency than ever. This is evident in its screening of powerful drama by first time director Takuro Nakamura, NORTH NORTH WEST, whose two protagonists, an Iranian expatriate facing visa problems and a native Japanese lesbian, give voice to groups that are particularly marginalized in Japanese mainstream society. This year also shows a marked interest in redefining the boundaries of national cultural identity, showing it to be anything but simple; and celebrating its complexities. Along with NORTH NORTH WEST’s diverse starring cast, its lead actresses both scheduled to appear at the screening, screenings include Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s latest horror film DAGUERROTYPE, which finds the director working for the first time with an all French-speaking cast and filming in France and Belgium. Then, there is SUMMER LIGHTS, directed by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot, working for the first time in Japan with an all Japanese cast, which tells a tale of a documentary filmmaker visiting Hiroshima to delve into its traumatic history.
There is a noticeable favoring of more grounded, realistic works in this year’s lineup than that of fantasy or genre works. And don’t look to blame sister fest and perennial summer pal New York Asian Film Festival; it mirrors this tendency in their latest salvo. Perhaps it reflects both an internal movement among creative thinkers in Japan’s landscape, as well as a sense of responsibility among the fest’s programmers to educate as well as entertain.
Of the films in this year’s assortment that I’ve seen, an admittedly narrow slice of the pie, small scale, largely interpersonal dramas have by far fared the best. The film that I find myself wanting to scream from the hilltops for everyone to see is Yuya Ishii’s THE TOKYO NIGHT SKY IS ALWAYS THE DENSEST SHADE OF BLUE, a wondrous mix of offbeat romance and atmospheric rendering of life in Japan’s great metropolis, Tokyo. Those who have fallen under the spell of Asian films weaving tales of unconventional relationships between hopeless nonconformists – Last Life In The Universe, Castaway On The Moon – need not hesitate to grab a ticket. Other highlights include Kenji Yamauchi’s witty and acerbic attack on social codes in his adaptation of his own stage production AT THE TERACE and the Jo Odagiri-featuring OVER THE FENCE, which tells a quiet yet intensely brooding tale of personal redemption. As visually stunning as it is unnerving, the aforementioned ANTI-PORNO is a singular cinematic experience, and surely this opportunity to see it is a rare one. From the documentary side, TOKYO IDOLS is a well-balanced, insightful glimpse into a phenomenon growing increasingly familiar to those outside of Japan at a surface level, which is being regarded with grave seriousness in its birthplace. Meanwhile, films of a more dynamic nature like Yu Irie’s adaptation of South Korean thriller MEMOIRS OF MURDER and the buddy action of ALLEY CAT, essentially a vehicle for members of the popular rock band Dragon Ash, have interesting moments but fail to satisfy on all fronts.