19thmoviepass = Hereditary. A film that left me scared, disturbed, and deeply affected, has suddenly leapt into my top 3 of 2018. Proving that effective horror filmmaking is as much about the way of telling the story as the story itself (if not more so, it rides a line between real terror (the aftermath of loss, obsessive behavior) and the fantastical kind, it drags us through a dreary haze, frightening in how familiar it feels. It confuses, disorients, and finally turns into an all out assault. It might even go a tad too far, leaving less to mull on than if it were to pull out before its mind shattering conclusion. But rollercoasters are not praised for giving us something to contemplate. There is so much morbid acid-laced imagery that sears itself upon the brain, but the masterful performances of Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne as parents pushed to the brink of sanity that make the most significant impression. A shock to the system cutting through the notion of movie going as a slight diversion.
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.
By the time we reach the end of TWISTED JUSTICE’s convoluted police corruption tale spanning the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, it might be difficult to remember just what was the first link in the chain of immoral acts. It all starts with a young judo competitor named Moroboshi Yoichi being recruited to the Susukino (a crime ridden entertainment district) branch of Sapporo’s police force because it will bring their team a coveted championship. When the dust has settled, the ripple effect of this seemingly innocuous transgression is astounding.
The true impetus for the spiral out of control comes when a crooked senior cop (played by Pierre Taki, whose performance one again leaves a frighteningly indelible mark in a Kazuya Shiraishi film) begins to mentor the novice after taking a liking to him. Or perhaps not so much taking a liking to as receiving a rub to his ego by keeping him in his company. One striking element of the narrative is the virtual absence of any pure friendships, as everyone expresses a perceived financial or psychological benefit from the relationships they forge. A well intentioned ex-convict and hallucinogenic drug user describes how becoming Moroboshi’s subordinate on the wrong side of the law makes him feel like he can become a big deal. A fledgling female police officer who later joins the police force enjoys a boost to her self-esteem by being with Moroboshi at his most swaggering. And in one of several scenes of depraved sexuality, Moroboshi excites himself to climax by crying out how his love connection will bring him acclaim and help his star rise.
TWISTED JUSTICE is director Kazuya Shiraishi’s second feature film to take on the true crime genre and is evidence of an artisan thriving in his element. In a departure from the mood of slow creeping dread established in previous film THE DEVIL’s PATH, this is by design a lopsided, sprawling affair. The film’s off-kilter funky middle east tinged tune is puzzling when it first hits the ears but soon comes to perfectly suit the eccentricities. Rather than build an intricate plot piece by piece, Shiraishi sets up a landscape of lunacy gone unchecked with Moroboshi’s part in it taking center stage.
It is full of local color: The tacky flashiness of chinpira suits, giant crabs feasted on straight off the shore, and steaming bowls of curry create an appealing sort of low rent decadence as Moroboshi’s foraging into Sapporo’s underground leads to unlikely territory involving Pakistani nationals and hot car lots.
The often flailing occurrences of interagency conflict and blatant disregard for law and decency reach absurd heights as plans are made in Moroboshi’s department to purchase firearms so they can be reported found, giving credit to their agency. It is a display of the cost of results being pursued at any means that cuts as deep as the best of The Wire. Things become so far gone that when the bottom finally falls out, it is a shock to the senses.
Go Ayano plunges into the lead role, pulling off a riveting on screen transformation, from tepid ‘yes man’ to swindling operator and beyond. When Moroboshi is humbled to cowering in a life or death situation, the acclaimed actor’s (who was invited to the NYAFF for the screening to be bestowed with a Rising Star Award) depiction calls to mind Choi Min Sik’s unrestrained emotional performance in past NYAFF highlight NAMELESS GANGSTER. And the movie is a similarly jaw dropping character study, yet all the more curious for its anchoring in reality.
In this time of Asian film when director’s names are becoming more numerous but output less consistent, it is encouraging to see a director hitting his stride with uncompromising gritty celluloid visions.
TWISTED JUSTICE (or NIHON DE ICHIBAN WARUI YATSURA) received its World Premiere screening at the New York Asian Film Festival and is now playing in theaters throughout Japan. For more information about the New York Asian Film Festival’s programming, visit the Subway Cinema website.
The WORLD OF KANAKO is the latest in a line of several films helmed by Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima, but is closest in spirit to its immediate predecessor CONFESSIONS. Both are adapted from literature, more specifically tales of a current generation of youth acting out in ways unfathomable to those that spawned them. As a result both are forced into situations of violent conflict with, and perpetual lack of understanding for, one another.
This powerful 1-2 punch of films also chronicles various individuals’ descents into hell as they are pulled into the growing vortexes of suffering by the most pained central figures around them. The downward spirals are all encompassing, and made alarmingly entertaining at times due in no small part to the diverse and meaningful palette of music Nakashima employs. Not only does his excellent taste help to complement and enhance the emotional drama in scenes, they add a playful flair to the otherwise heavy transgressions on screen. Even more so this time around, music is a trigger to underscore particular recurring themes. It is also a sign of the culture that surrounds the characters in the story, pervades their lives, no different than us the viewers.
I decided to dive into the film another time, on this occasion attempting to recreate its dizzying path with an emphasis on its sonic features. It was a harder task than I’d imagined it would be, a virtual trip down the rabbit hole, bringing to mind the same allusion made in Kanako to Alice as an escape from reality (for some pleasurable, for others a nightmare). In my pursuit I realized Nakashima’s hip soundtrack is something of a gateway to discovery of some of Japan’s elusive underground music landscapes and edgier pop. The soundtrack itself not getting its own release (a mystery since the CONFESSIONS soundtrack did and this is very much its equal), but rather bundled with the domestic release of the movie on dvd. A sole reason I can think of for keeping the soundtrack obscured is it is a collection of music that perfectly complements themes of disorientation and confusion running through the film. Old familiar songs appear but with different twists – as covers or in a strange context. Songs that approximate moods from specific time periods or genres in American culture end up being the product of Japanese artists.
After a good chunk of my mind was blown by sonic oddities like Trippple Nipples’ ‘LSD’, and I saw my Macbook Pro survive one too many flirtations with free download website that wanted to install something unknown into it, I called it a day. So while I cannot yet tell you the artist who performed the smoldering version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ heard throughout the film, I have compiled some videos and taken some notes on how the soundtrack of WORLD OF KANAKO is an essential element of this unrefined cinematic experience.
Panis Angelicus by Cesar Franck
This mournful religious choir performance bookends the film as a pure snow comes down on a Japanese cityscape. It is a holiday that is not celebrated for religious reasons, but people are seen going through the motions of dining out with loved ones and reveling in near new years’ cheer. Meanwhile, unseemly bouts of suffering filter through, a ghastly triple murder at the outset, and a weariness of delving into so much psychic pain at its close.
Gone Away Dream by Barbara Borra
The words “A loving life and a loving home” appear as alcoholic private detective Akikazu envisions the idealized family life that is far from his grasp. It is an easygoing waltz recalling 1960’s America, sung by an apparently Italian vocalist who has performed on other Japanese OST’s before, but whose activity is elusive. The word ‘dream’ appearing right in the title is a none too subtle reference to the theme of escape from reality that plays a big role in the movie, and it is not the only song to do so. The song appears later on, ironically, as layers of humanity are stripped from an Akikazu who has been pointed in the direction of a bigger monster, given an excuse to unleash his inner demons. We see a part of him whose desire laid bare is to destroy the dream. And this he does.
Free Fall By Yoko Kanno with Ryo Nagano
A dream pop song that I could’ve been told was a product of Elliot Smith and I would’ve bought it. It is an impossibly catchy, feel good, lush tune that desperately needs to exist in its own life outside of KANAKO. But it is utterly brilliant within it, as essential to its identity as Radiohead’s ‘Last Flowers’ was to CONFESSIONS. The song appears on cue when the film flashes back to 3 years prior to the central story, a teen beset with the most teenage case of angst is seen moping, an outcast who is constantly bullied. Yet, all pain is erased by the perfectly angelic appearance of Fujishima Kanako. It is a most pristine love at first sight experience. The (cruel) joke of it is the eventual floor dropping out to reveal a hellish abyss where salvation was thought to be. The Barbara Borra track is used to similar effect, making pain that much more palpable by dangling a truly blissful sensation in front of us. It’s absence makes the heartbreak stronger.
‘Denden Passion’ by Dempagumi
Many of the more modern-sounding tracks came in a blur during an underground rave-like party scene. Here is where visual flourishes and psychedelic effects were heavily emplyed. Songs came in a blur, starting with this song that could be regarded as J-Pop on speed. Nothing serious in mind is seriously head-spinning. Print club graphics pop onto the screen imbuing adolescent cute onto a bad acid trip, as the teen crushed out on Kanako is suddenly in way over his head. Cleverly, a snippet of this mostly harmless time stamped flash in the pan is used in such a way to instill panic and anxiety around the ritual bonding of a current generation.
LSD by Tripple Nipples
The party continues, as does the descent into loss of control. And the generation gap is further emphasized with the scene and sounds feeling even more alien. Musically, it’s all obnoxious screams coated in sugar and reverb, with a rave of effects whirring around and around. This trio occupies some real estate in Tokyo’s underground music scene, but information is hard to come by about this enigmatic unit.
Fog by Daoko
The party is now starting to simmer, eyes glaze over, and another side of Kanako begins to show: the center of attention, a cult of personality… Here is another artists making cult status music on Tokyo’s cool fringe, as glitchy chip hop and stream of consciousness vocals blend into a soothing spell. It is like Kanako finding herself at ease in the hidden realm of a 3 AM drug party.
‘Rusalka – Song to the Moon’ by Antonin Dvorak
A lush mournful opera from Czech plays as illusion is shattered, the innocent at first believing he had found love realizes he is the butt of a brutal joke. Akikazu is faced with ugly truths about Kanako, about himself… Is there a connection between the opera’s theme and the events onscreen? It is interesting that Rusalka involves the daughter of a goblin considering the constant reminders that Kanako is the stuff of her father, Akikazu. Rusalka seeks love despite her form, inaccessible to humans, yet everyone wants to love Kanako. Have forces beyond her control made her into what she is? Would she be better able to love if not for he that brought her into the world?
Under the Sky by Yasushi Sasamoto
A suave flash of 70s funk that could be right out of a Blaxploitation film but is in fact performed by a Japanese band of a bygone era, which little information could be obtained about. It signals the charge into action of Akikazu and a ruthless killer for hire. When Akikazu is pointed in his direction, both go at it in a blaze of guns and machismo, and both seem to revel in the violence-filled moments, even as others around them are swallowed up by the horror. Here dreams are again a surrogate for a painful and far less glamorous reality, in which men act out gun-weilding fantasies set to a grooy soundtrack.
‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ by Dean Martin
A heart-warming sentiment that is hard to swallow after enduring the psychic pain exchanged between everyone in the film and those they are connected to. With the tension ratcheted up, the kitsch novelty brings about an expulsion of air, a loosening of the knot in one’s stomach allowing a reprieve from all of that pent up aggression as the film comes to an end. It is one of the many reminders in the film that the characters do not exist in a vacuum; the culture informs them of what their dreams should be. The gap between dream and reality is a killer.
This is but a bit of the THE WORLD OF KANAKO’s diverse soundtrack. Other genres in the mix include rockabilly, dubstep, and beautiful soundscapes, the latter also arranged by Yoko Kanno. The film is playing in select theaters across the US now, and is available on VOD. It will also be shown at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Yonkers December 11 through 13.