Intro: JAPAN CUTS 2017

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The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade of Blue/夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ

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.

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Over The Fence/オーバー・フェンス

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.

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Anti-Porno/アンチポルノ

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.

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At The Terrace/テラスにて

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.

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Tokyo Idols

There is much more to the festival, which begins July 13 and runs through July 23, all taking place at The Japan Society. For tickets and more information, visit the festival page here.

Mondo Porno: The Roman Porno Reboot films @ the 2017 NYAFF & Japan Cuts

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One of the more exciting features of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is its presentation of 3 of the films comprising 2016’s Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot project. And a bit later into the summer, sister film fest Japan Cuts will be featuring one very pointed film from the project. Referencing anything titled as such is bound to produce a range of reactions, from excitement to indignation to utter confusion, so some context is in order. 

Roman Porno refers to a mode of soft core pornography produced under the umbrella of Japanese film industry mainstay, Nikkatsu, when the studio was threatened with bankruptcy in the early 70’s. They put forth a modest amount of guidelines: have a scene of simulated sex occur approximately every ten minutes, produce the movies on a shoestring budget and shoot them within a week’s time. Casual and more ardent fans of Japanese movies alike will know them for their outlandish English titles, grouping together words with little or no regard to what seems conceivable. One is probably aware of the movement’s place in many a more established film director’s filmographies. The most famous instance perhaps being Yojiro Takita, director of the Academy Award winning film Departures, whose early career is peppered with them.

This revival project appeared in time for the 45th anniversary of those early films’ launch, with the selection of 5 directors to each helm a film following the same guidelines as those described above. Between the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts, four of these films can be seen in New York this summer, with the fifth piece of the puzzle (directed by horror maverick Hideo Nakata) maddeningly absent – one can let their imagination ponder over the reasons why. It is a curiously diverse quintet indeed. Most recognizable to overseas audiences will surely be Sion Sono (who is the mastermind behind the lone offering of the set to be shown at Japan Cuts) and, among the 3 presented by the New York Asian Film Festival, Kazuya Shiraishi, whose last two features, The Devils Path and Twisted Justice, were both selected for NYAFF (the former as a co-presentation of both NYAFF and Japan Cuts). The two other films’ directors have achieved no small level of commercial success in Japan, with works that are not altogether unfamiliar to NYAFF’s annual festival-going audience; Akihiko Shiota’s filmography includes fantasy adventure hit Dororo, for one. And Isao Yukisada’s entry features the instantly recognizable Japanese everyman Itsuji Itao, who’s graced the screen in festival hits such Scabbard Samurai and Hanging Garden, to name a few.

Giving attention to this project, aside from maintaining a degree of edginess, serves as a celebration of Japan’s very unique cultural landscape. Can you imagine, for just a moment, a cross section of 5 American directors both veteran and young, successful in the realm of both commercial and independent productions, and widely known being invited to create films of an explicit sexual nature? It just wouldn’t happen. It speaks of a singular sort of compartmentalization in Japanese society, which is by no means renowned for openness of expression, where numerous forms of cultural product are made and consumed by just as many audiences; what is deemed unfit for some is left to its audience, allowed to remain in relative obscurity without being the target of national scrutiny.

The results, which I will unpack a bit herein, are varied in approach and content, filled with self-reflexivity, and all worthy of one’s attention.

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Kazuya Shiraishi’s DAWN OF THE FELINES, may bear the most fruit for discussion, while it is also arguably the most problematic of the bunch. Set in a metropolitan red light district, it tells the stories of three women working for an escort service, or ‘health express’ as it is referred to throughout the film. While aspects of the industry as it is has taken shape in Japan are intimated throughout the film (there are apparent loopholes that allow such business to operate undisturbed by the law, and while direct sexual intercourse is officially off limits, it is not entirely off the table) it is mainly an account of key experiences of the three women that illuminate each of their personalities and the details leading to their taking on this kind of work. Needless to say it involves some precarious situations, but it does not merely dwell in incessant gloom. It is easy to suppose this will be a cautionary tale, and be disappointed when events play out otherwise. There could be some understandable outrage at say the proportion of storylines involving the women aspiring to fall in love with their clients, claiming this is in direct opposition of empowerment. Yet when considering Japanese society is one in which forming new relationships outside of rigidly structured situations is out of the norm, it does not seem strange for feelings to develop in these intimate encounters.

Because of its subject matter, sexual scenes do not feel tacked on, nor are they as much the attraction as in the other films in its ranks. Sometimes they necessarily advance storylines, while elsewhere they are part of the backdrop. There is only one blatantly out of place sequence, rather ill-timed to be near the film’s ending, leaving a baffling off note in one’s mind as it concludes. Another sequence in which two of the characters are totally keen on participating in as the subjects of live BDSM performance seems a tad too convenient, and also does little if anything to advance any part of the story. But for the most part the scenes jibe with the overarching aesthetic of the film.

Shiraishi deals with an ambitious number of plots, with no one taking obvious precedence over the others. The first of the main characters we meet begins to form a relationship with one of her clients, a misanthrope and hikkikomori (a social condition considered epidemic in Japan wherein individuals refuse to step foot outside their home, or do so as little as possible). Her colleague, whose complicated personal life has led her to this career, finds popularity with an elderly customer and begins to feel a bond due to her apparent part in helping him to cope with his emotional duress. The third of the ‘feline’s stories is as much about her pursuit of a personal relationship as the apparent physical abuse dealt upon her elementary school-aged son. A difficult line is walked in telling these out-of the-norm stories while representing routine aspects of this escort industry objectively. And so it seems almost by design that some turns of events feel contrived. But, perhaps owing to the director’s experience directing true crime dramas, he adeptly maintains an objective voice in the mix. There are several points where one might expect a course of actions to lead to a cliché outcome to find that this is not the case. For the most part, however eventful occurrences may be, they leave a city largely unchanged, their impressions lingering in the air, much like the hypnotic film score that begins and ends the film (and is itself worthy of spending time with the film).

I revisited this film a lot. In some ways it feels as though it doesn’t quite transgress the more somewhat simplistic and exploitive movies of its kind. Yet seen in a different light, it is a rather honest portrayal of a phenomenon, steadfast in its unwillingness to lead the viewer to make certain judgments, and creates an impeccable mood and tone. Ultimately I admire the film for its very human presentation of its often marginalized subjects, presenting hardship while resisting the temptation to present them as victims.

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WET WOMAN IN THE WIND stands as a nice contrast to FELINES’ complicated terrain. In addition to being free of much of the moral quandary attached to the aforementioned, it has a startlingly straightforward plot. You could easily say this is the film of the bunch that most sincerely embraces its form. It finds a successful playwright, who has sought refuge from distractions in a quaint rural retreat, ambushed by an enigmatic woman, just emerged from the bay. A self-described ‘love hunter’ she sets out to incur his adoration, while he spurns her advances in hopes of reconnecting with his creativity. Aside from some interludes involving the arrival of (at least one of) the writer’s romantic interest and fledgling members of their acting troupe, this is the mode of the film; save for the important distinction that once his attraction is kindled the ‘Wet Woman’ is determined to embrace his advances only once they occur on her own terms. Here is a refreshing diversion from the norm, in which female players are often characterized as submissive objects of desire. In this Reboot the titular character is very much the aggressor, and played with a gleeful mischievous energy by actress Yuki Mamiya (who will be in attendance of the NYAFF screening along with director Shiota).

The director’s statement on sex is a positive one. After several comic follies, in which the meeting point between the creative process of directors and actors are fair game, the final third of the narrative is a veritable race between three makeshift couplings toward an eventual (ahem) climax. Across these cases, sex is show to be an answer to frustration, an awakening, and a cathartic experience. Of course the main event amidst this three ring circus is that of the ‘Wet Woman’ and the playwright. It is filled with clever visual stunts and overflowing with energy. For those that want a pure and uncomplicated tribute to the genre, this is the film to be sure to watch.

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AROUSED BY GYMNOPEDIES also feels like a throwback of a film aimed expressly at titillating its audiences. From its acid-trip title harkening back to Nikkatsu movies of old to its surreal affront of an opening sequence that finds a topless woman standing outside an archetypal suburban home waving cheerily at the main character (played by Itsuji Itao, as an ill-reputed film director), nostalgic eroticism would seem the express goal. But under the surface there is much to consider as well. While not wont to push topical buttons in the way DAWN OF THE FELINES does, its depiction of sex is most likely to offend, if given a straightforward read.

The plot deals with another creative figure, this time a director of just the sort of prurient fare representative of the Roman Porn output, who has a reputation in some circles as being an autere of extraordinary talent. The events we see, however tell a rather different story, as the director’s latest production is suddenly halted due to an uncooperative lead actress and a sudden freeze on funds. He resorts to all manner of depravity to try to collect the funds to get his production back on track, while at the same time experiencing occasional pangs of remorse for a romantic partner now hospitalized and kept alive by life support. The depths to which he sinks makes for the blackest of awkward comedies. I felt something very reminiscent of Lowlife Love, a drama by Eiji Uchida screened at last year’s Japan Cuts, in its characterization of independent film directors and their thespian hopefuls. Yet as a sendup, GYMNOPEDIES comes across with a lighter touch and more piercing barbs.

It may occur to audiences that its plot doesn’t necessitate any sex scenes at all, a notion that I do not feel is lost on director Isao Yukisada in the slightest. Rather, his adherence to form seems to be a pointed reference to the reliance on such exercises as a little more than a crutch, and tired tropes of film in general. After a point the main character’s sexual escapades make like a list of softcore clichés: actresses he has worked with, a student taking his college class, and if not blatant enough, a nurse in the hospital room where his incapacitated wife lays. And while initially subtle, at different points will it dawn on viewers that these scenes are increasingly arbitrary. The meaning behind the title will also hit viewers at different points in the film, to those not offended hilariously so.

GYMNOPEDIES may just have its cake and eat it too. While playfully commenting on its tropes, its required sex scenes are no less seriously rendered. So it goes, a scene like that in which (one of) the director’s exes concedes to subject herself to an S&M session with a stinging wire (its intended purpose connected with set design), it can be a hard scene to watch, even if it is in the spirit of self awareness. Some will no doubt be offended while others will find it hard to dismiss the precision with which the sequence is put together. The art of it is impossible to dismiss.

As in WET WOMAN IN THE WIND there are inventive, often funny, though definitely outrageous visual gags. While it is not going to win any accolades for being progressive in nature, it is a wryly funny production that cannot help but revel in the excess it is afforded.

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It is pretty clear once one gets into infamous provocateur Sion Sono’s that his ANTIPORNO is an altogether different work from the rest of the pack, making its appearance in an altogether different festival seem perfectly logical. While probably the most anticipated of the pack for many (I would not have caught wind of the Reboot project earlier this year if not for Sono’s participation), it is, unsurprisingly, poised to surprise. Although its title may suggest a play on the Roman Porn’s seeming European influences, it is actually strikingly straightforward: This is Sono making a movie that is against porn. The renegade director is no stranger to this sort of subversive act. It calls to mind his somewhat recent and more difficult to obtain movie ‘Real Onigokko’ (or ‘Tag’ as it was titled for the foreign market) which appeared to be an official chapter in a franchise of slasher thrillers that turned the premise on its head and served as a bleak statement in condemnation those very movies.

As in other Sono films, it is set against a backdrop of vivid swatches of paint, making every frame a work of art to behold with colors indicative of a mood – alternating red’s and yellow’s are its main motifs. Nudity is so much the norm it loses most of its allure, and the film’s imagery conjures feelings of insecurity, physical disgust, and outrage within the main character. Set in the midst of a softcore porn film shoot it shares an element of reflexivity with some of its brethren, as well as painting those in charge of in with a rather unflattering brush. The star of the production within the production, and in effect Sono’s production itself, speaks knowingly, in one instance addressing the 1 sex scene per 10 minute rule it is meant to abide by. It is interesting to consider whether here Sono is presenting a form of mea culpa, he has been known to include copious amount of female nudity and scenes of an explicit sexual nature in some of his work. Or perhaps it is drawing a line in the sand, distinguishing his work from the Romans as delving into such areas for sound reasons as opposed to including it merely to gain commercial success. As in all of his works, it makes for fascinating discussion. More will be said about ANTIPORNO closer to its screening for Japan Cuts, but be assured it is as captivating a provocation as the best of his films.

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WET WOMAN IN THE WIND is being shown at the Walter Reade Theater on July 4 at 8:00 PM with director Akihiko Shiota and actress Yuki Mamiya in attendance to do a Q & A as part of the 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets and information.

DAWN OF THE FELINES is being shown at the Walter Reade Theater on July 4 at 10:30 PM as part of the 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets and information.

AROUSED BY GYMNOPEDIES is being shown at the SVA theater on July 14 at 10:30 as part of the 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets and information.

ANTI-PORNO is being shown at the Japan Society on July 22 at 10:30 as part of the 11th annual Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. Click here for tickets and information.

The article Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot Project by Karen Severns for FCCJ was references for the writing of this article. 

http://www.fccj.or.jp/news-and-views/dispatches/item/841-roman-porno/841-roman-porno.html

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.

 

MC 1.2: Twisted Justice/日本で一番悪い奴ら(NYAFF16)

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© 2016 TWISTED JUSTICE Film Partners

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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.

MC 1.1: IF CATS DISAPPEARED FROM THE WORLD/世界から猫が消えたな (nyaff15)

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“IF CATS DISAPPEARED FROM THE WORLD” © 2016 TOHO CO., LTD. / Hakuhodo DY Media Partners Inc. / Shogakukan Inc. / AMUSE INC. / CROSS COMPANY INC. / Magazine House Co., Ltd. / Lawson HMV Entertainment , Inc. / Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. / KDDI CORPORATION / GYAO Corporation / NIPPON SHUPPAN HANBAI INC.

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This elegantly heartrending movie gets right to the core of some of our modern existence’s cruelest contradictions: To experience love for people and things, we must also know the sensation of losing them. With the acquaintance of delightful new friends comes the inevitability of goodbyes. Is it a manner by which the universe maintains some semblance of balance? Or is it little more than life’s cruelest hoax? These are difficult questions for anyone to ponder, but especially the young souls at the center of this delicate narrative, found in their early 20s and 30s, a time when ids still cling to the idea of being the center of one’s particular universe, yet realization of being insignificant in the vast scheme of things begins to dawn. It is also a time when many experience their insecurities and self-concerns must share space with that of others, as the frailty, the mortality of other loved ones in their lives comes suddenly to the fore.

These are the emotional currents ridden by the main character as he experiences a cruel twist of fate that leaves the young man with only a few days to live. A deal with the devil, who takes on the character’s exact same form (is there a more loathsome or frightening opponent to consider than our own selves?), presents itself: grant this demon permission to take away something from the world in exchange for one more day to live. A deliberately paced taking stock of life and connecting with those who are most important in the daydreamer’s life ensues.

Akira Nagai, a director with a surprisingly scant filmography, perfectly captures the vibrant life forces through the couple played by Takeru Sato and Miyazaki Aoi. wistfulness, outrage, despair, and wonderment are communicated naturally through their dialogue and body language. As in many Japanese films, difficulties of communication is a prominent theme. As the inextricably entwined couple grasp at what lead to their drifting apart, or a father maintains an emotional distance from his ailing wife, it feels extremely familiar, relatable.

IF CATS DISAPPEARED… joins other contemporary films from Japan (see Daihachi Yoshida’s THE KIRISHIMA THING/桐島、部活やめるってよ) that share a love of films overtly, in the actions and conversations of characters. It is a love that becomes instantly infectious as characters meet and form disarmingly sincere connections over their passions. Interactions between the main character and his film connoisseur friend he mistakenly and repeatedly calls Tsutaya (the name of a popular chain of video stores) are quirky yet show people at their most fragile and compassionate states. They also create an urge to go out and acquaint or reacquaint oneself with classic works like Lang’s Metropolis or Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together.

The parts of the story touched by magic realism are sparing yet rendered in eye-catching fashion, just enough to shake up the melancholy with a much welcome dose of wonderment. The music accompanying these scenes has an assured coolness about it to boot.

Boasting scenes of natural beauty, amidst the brilliance of waterfalls in Argentina or the sloping landscapes of Hokkaido, Japan, it is a film that effectively calls for us to marvel at life’s marvels, even in the face of the most wicked of curveballs thrown our way. Mr. Nagai, I eagerly await your next film.

IF CATS DISAPPEARED FROM THE WORLD received its North American premiere at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival June 24th, and will be shown again on Monday, June 25th, 9 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.

MC 1: Japanese Perspectives @ NYAFF 2016

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The New York Asian Film Festival has long been offering a sliding door peek into distant cultures and landscapes by way of programming rare and adventurous films from distant shores. Perfect for New Yorkers to get a dose of exotica without leaving city limits, one can get a quick blast by way of a day at the movies or really immerse oneself in salient aspects of a country’s culture as well as trends in its film output with repeated trips to the festival’s home of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (June 22 – July 5) and new digs the SVA Theater (July 6 – July 9).

Gaining insight into Japanese culture is unavoidable after even a little time spent with its films, and this 15th anniversary edition of the NYAFF gives plenty of opportunity to do so. Below is a preview of some of the Japanese movies being shown along with some impressions. For a list of all of the movies as well as offerings from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South East Asia, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.

1.CREEPY

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CREEPY is a psychological thriller from Kiyoshi Kurosawa that has more than a little Hitchcockian flair for suspense. Its biggest reference point, though, is probably early Kiyoshi Kurosawa with the director going back to the kind of off kilter takes on seemingly familiar terror (CURE and KAIRO) head scratching affairs that made singular lasting impressions . This return to form is all the more riveting for casting popular actor Hidetoshi Nishijima as its brooding yet fiery lead and Teruyuki Kagawa, a reliable everyman of Japanese cinema who plays the far more fun villain with maniacal glee. The film’s score dances along a highwire, sending waves of tension down the viewers’ spines. All the while, an equally accomplished sound design makes for a thorough sense of dread and foreboding. The film has its fair share of awkwardness, it is Kiyoshi Kurosawa after all, so prolonged sequences of horrid acts may cause discomfort. It is as though the director is subjecting us to the same notion of being helplessly trapped by circumstances as its flailing protagonists. Like Kurosawa’s other thrillers, CREEPY brings out existential questions of free will and the entanglements of social structures, as well as more local issues of community and the notion of being a good neighbor.

 

2. WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY

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Don’t let the charming façade of WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY fool you into thinking it is entirely innocuous. The film similarly pokes and prods at traditionally accepted institutions of marriage and family life. The vehicle here is a light comedy focused around an increasingly rare three-generation household, whose eldest figures threaten divorce. While peppered throughout with a gentle zaniness that may seem antiquated, it slyly raises questions over values as family members’ true objections to the split are exposed. The main event is a protracted family meeting scene, which manages to be both no holds barred and civil. Everyone in the cast is on point but Hashizume Isao stands out as the family’s foible-filled patriarchal figure. He is delightfully incorrigible and a joy to watch throughout.

 

3. A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE

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Rougher going is the nearly 3 hour BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE, the latest from iconoclastic director Shunji Iawai (who will be honored at the festival with a lifetime achievement award). It is an odyssey of sorts for its wide eyed protagonist, whose transformative journey, along with the help of a peculiar ‘fixer’ (played by Rising Star recipient Go Ayano) takes her from lonely soul in need of salvation to a savior figure. Far less subtle in its skewering of society, Iwai takes on everything from narrow minded parents to the wastefulness of a population that frowns on recycling old goods. Interesting for its strange straddling of the line between realism and storybook logic, as well as its steadfastly independent production, it can be a tough slog due to some overly long static scenes, in particular those between the main character and one played by COCCO, an actress and singer whose own real life nuances makes for compelling onscreen viewing.

4. KIYAMACHI DARUMA

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Faring less well is the more straightforward genre exercise KIYAMACHI DARUMA. Its title a reference to an ill-fated yakuza member’s limbless state, the mostly plodding narrative only occasionally engages viewers in his unthinkable plight. Although initially suggesting off color humor at the main character’s expense, the proceedings largely maintain 1 sustained note of gloom and denigration. It doesn’t help that the movie’s look is lacking in innovation, reminiscent of video nasties from the 90s (remember Guinea Pig anyone?) that lacked any substance beyond their shock factor. A few points for not pulling any punches, but this story of betrayal amidst a backdrop of criminal activity mostly shouted through by its assorted lowlife characters failed to stir much interest.

 

5. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN

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In honor of its 15th anniversary, the festival is screening a few favorites from the past, including an appropriately slotted 11 pm showing of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. For those more interested in a visceral experience without the societal context, this was the world’s introduction to Tsukamoto Shinya’s wild imagination. It is a short blast of roughly hewn metallic imagery accompanied by a clanging and banging industrial soundtrack that tells the tale of individuals warped into industrial strength iron clad monstrosities drawn to destroying each other or the world, whichever comes first. With nods to the over the top transformation sequences in Akira, it has been recognized as a pillar of the body horror subgenre, but truly nothing has looked like this before or since. For those uninitiated, the opportunity to see the film that launched hundreds of thousands of passions for Japanese cinema, my own included should not be taken for granted.

For more information about the NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.