MC 2.2 Shades of Sion Sono at Japan Cuts 10th Anniversary

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

Part of this year’s 10th Anniversary Japan Cuts festival of Japanese film is a mini focus on outspoken rabble-rouser Sion Sono. It’s a fitting addition to a landmark edition of the festival, which has shown numerous films by the prolific director whose works have jarred, delighted, and flabbergasted their audiences for the past several years. It also jels perfectly with the festival’s unstated theme of radicals and rascally revolutionaries, running through both its narrative and nonfiction selections. Sono’s uncompromising attitude and artistic work puts him right at home in this group.

Three films may not seem sufficient to give him his due. But considering this isn’t a full on retrospective (the last to occur in New York was at the Museum of Design in 2011), the trio of works being shown on July 16 – 2 of his recent films plus a documentary made about him, along with an appearance by Sono himself, do form an elegant statement.

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© 2016「園子温という生きもの」製作委員会ࠖ © 2016 “The Sion Sono” Film Partners

THE SION SONO (directed by Arata Oshima) takes an insightful look at the philosophies and working process of the man, mainly by spending time with him and letting him speak – something he does not mind doing at all. Perspective can also be gleaned by talks with those who have worked closely with him. While Sono’s contemptuous attitude toward widely accepted commercial films and critics are well known but amusing to see unfold – we all like someone who names names – real illumination comes in the opening sequence of the film wherein Sono prowls through his studio filled with paintings and sets to work on some of them while deconstructing notions of good and bad. It’s a multilayered act, as the artist appears to reacquaint himself with his work in this medium, engage in the process while discussing it.

The intensity of feelings burning in and around his brought to the surface, not only in hearing from the director himself, but emotional conversations held with Megumi Kagurazaka his wife and an actress that has figured prominently into many key roles in his films, including WHISPERING STARS. She will also appear in person for its screening on the 16th.

Amusing testimonials on Sono’s singular quirks and compulsions come from Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani, who speak of their work on Sono’s critically acclaimed HIMIZU. And lest one has been taken primarily with Sono’s ‘bad boy’ image, there is a decided charm to be found in a glimpse of Sono’s earliest activity, which holds uncanny earnest. A very early journal of movie going with collage elements and reviews show signs of a connoisseur and voice of remarkable wit in the making.

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The Whispering Star © SION PRODUCTION

THE WHISPERING STAR is made all the more interesting for the insight we may gain from the documentary, which features footage from the planning stages of this stark exploration of the science fiction genre. There is not much to speak of plot, which finds an android with extremely human qualities (Kagurazaka) as an intergalactic courier in the wake of civilizational collapse. The film is shot in a mesmerizing monochrome.   Here Kaguraka’s subtly expressive voyager, taking in this new world around her with understated wonderment and consternation, is also entrancing against the overall static unfolding of events.

These are accompanied by LOVE AND PEACE. Released in 2015, it is too early to call it one of his classics, but by all rights this will be one. It is essential viewing, not only for Sono fans but anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. But in terms of the director, it prominently features so many hallmarks of that have distinguished his work, with a notable absence of lurid violence or sex. There is what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘psychodramatic’ style that Sono employs, wherein personal trauma is magnified by key characters to the point of feeling like a large scale devastation. Music turned way up in the mix pulses and pounds, extreme closeups turn bystanders and casual tormentors alike into grotesque monsters and capture every detail of the actor, who has apparently been told to exaggerate mannerisms to cartoonish proportions, and regular scenery is augmented by vibrant colors. All the while scenes are sped through quickly, highlighting only those that emphasize the character’s plight.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

This only describes the first 10 minutes or so of LOVE AND PEACE, during which a fumbling menial worker at the offices of a recording studio dreams of rock stardom and pines after a subdued colleague (Kumiko Aso) while serving as the punchline of the office jokes. But with a bit fantasy and Sono’s panache for plot progressions both imaginatively far fetched and compelling, his fate takes a turn for the better. It is a rise and rise story that ends up a unique twist on the usual convention of exploding egos leading to an inevitable fall.

The incorporation of diverse musical pieces that are pitch perfect fits is another attribute of Sono’s films in peak form and here it occurs both within and without the story. Aside from wonderfully catchy rock anthems that our down on his luck protagonist begins to magically produce, background music provides numerous callbacks to previous films. Viewers of the director’s numerous works are rewarded in spades, with a rousing callback to the infectious jingle that rang throughout WHY DON’T YOU GO PLAY IN HELL.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

While the story has feel good elements, it is far from slight. Throughout the movie, scenes that may seem like background noise show Japanese youth with a general lack of awareness about the atom bomb’s treacherous role in the country’s history. Names are also used to show misunderstandings or perhaps a repurposing of history’s scars. Then there is Sono’s unprecedented incorporation of elements straight out of Western imports like Toy Story, a representation of Disney and Pixar both. When this comes to clash with mass destruction ala quintessentially Japanese kaiju movies, it is as though the collective Japanese self identity and its subjection to Western influences is being exploded onto a moving canvas. Who wins may come as a surprise. It is heady thought provoking stuff works on the mind while the personal story of sad sack turned star stirs the emotions.

For tickets and information on these and other films in the JAPAN CUTS lineup, visit the Japan Society website.

MC 2.1 Four Razor Sharp Dramas at JAPAN CUTS 2016

 

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Kako: My Sullen Past Ⓒ 2016 “Kako: My Sullen Past” Film Partners

There is a focus on hard hitting dramas with a conscience at this significant 10th year anniversary edition of JAPAN CUTS. Here are four that stand out.

KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST

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Kako: My Sullen Past Ⓒ 2016 “Kako: My Sullen Past” Film Partners

A work brimming with mystery and engrossing verbal sparring. Fumi Nikaido and Kyoko Koizumi sharing the screen together is pure electricity with the constant promise of fireworks. The story centered around an unsophisticated family slyly introduces a backdrop of political anxiety as adolescent Kako scorns the world around her while making sense of it at the same time, as suddenly she is faced with an aunt who has suddenly returned home under strange circumstances. Embraces ambiguities like the best of Japanese cinema.

 

THREE STORIES OF LOVE

 

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Enter a captionThree Stories of Love © Shochiku Broadcasting / Arc Films

A Harrowing unfolding of three of individuals stuck in the margins, and at the whim of a society that is often insensitive to those who have fallen on hard times or are different. A victim of discrimination against homosexuals, a widow whose wife was senselessly murdered, and a woman stuck in a dull and seemingly loveless relationship. The subtle storytelling leaves some question over who we are following at first. But While the stories are quietly told they bring about a slow release of emotion that is each gripping. They also reveal that the best triumphs of the human will are evident simply in the hanging on and weathering the storm.

 

KEN AND KAZU

 

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Ken and Kazu © Third Window Films

An amazingly accomplished and at times extremely suspenseful low budget production focusing on two drug dealers. One is hot headed, impulsive, tethered to a maternal figure he harbors resentment for. The other is calm, loyal, and looking for a way out so he can make a peaceful life for his wife and soon to be born child. There is raw violence, heated exchanges, and a brooding intensity in the two leads, both with surprisingly small on screen acting resumes. While the tale is a classic one, this feels nothing like the typical yakuza prototype. There are no tacky suits or rolling r’s. And while the scope of the action ends up being relatively small scale, ambitions are huge, to make this more than an exercise in style. The characters here are faced with challenging decisions and the question of what you do when they are placed before you. An essential look at an exciting new voice in Japanese filmmaking.

 

BEING GOOD

 

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Being Good © 2015 “Being Good” Film Partners

An unflinching look at several aspects of how adults navigate the lives of children they raise. Another triptych looks at a novice fourth grade teacher struggling to keep order in his class, a mother of a preschooler with tendencies to strike her child welling up within her, and an autistic child’s encounter with an elderly lady suffering bouts of dementia. Scenes feel extremely real. They are left to unfold calmly yet are extremely compelling. The drama is often nerve wracking. While even handed for a while, as it reaches its conclusion things become a bit more manipulative. But characters are also moved to action as the film decided to not only catalogue problems faced by our youth but show how individuals can take a stand.

For more information and tickets visit the Japan Society website.

MC 2 JAPAN CUTS Deeper Into Movies

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.