Japan Cuts

A Festival of Premieres at the Japan Society

Two dreams came true this summer: Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival finally graduated to high profile venues—The IFC Center and the Japan Society. The Japan Society joined forces with Subway Cinema to present the “Japan Cuts” festival, the cream of the crop of mainstream, art house, documentary, children’s animation and short films from Japan. Japan Cuts features films that are at once innovative and accessible (Nightmare Detective, Death Note, Memories of Matsuko) while still exhibiting an unclassifiable ‘Japaneseness’ (Faces of a Fig Tree, Matsugane Potshot Affair, Sway).

Death Note

Desu Noto (Death Note) 2006
Dir: Shusuke Kaneko
Friday, July 6 at 8:30 pm, Introduction and Q&A with the director
Sunday, July 8 at 3:30 pm

The most readily apparent, mind-blowing, seductive, entrancing aspect of Kaneko’s manga-adaptation is the steadfast, deadpan matter-of-factness with which it introduces and stands by its utter unreality. No science fiction, fantasy or horror film of memory presents death gods, forced imprisonment and torture (by the good guys!), non-stop sugar consumption in all its processed forms, government-sanctioned murder and surveillance or mortals thwarting immortals with as little explanation or backstory. Kaneko proves what we’ve always suspected as we suffered through those explanations: they only slow things down. The world he presents is quite lucid in its structures and where it ain’t, you never notice.

Light Yagami has possession of a death notebook. If he writes your name in it, you die. Light also has a death god at his side, ready to do his bidding to a point. Light, a teenage genius with a Small Faces shag, has a daddy who’s the head cop, and so Light easily infiltrates the uber-secret top-cop command center. Everyone there is trying to track down Kira, the mysterious killer who offs anyone he chooses via heart attack. Only Light’s nemesis, L, suspects that Light and Kira are one and the same. L is another teenage genius (with a Duran Duran pageboy) somehow in charge of this cop think-tank even though he’s still in high school. L eats non-stop, and as far as I could tell, consumes nothing either green or protein for the entire picture. His limpid movements and contorted postures place him in contrast to the upright, fresh-faced and megalomaniacal Light.

Enter Light’s love slave Misa, a TV star with her own death god, who wants to kill even more avidly than Light. Ditto an aspiring newscaster who seems no more shocked than anybody else when a death god appears on her apartment terrace. With the two women keeping the visual interest consistent for a presumed audience of thirteen year old boys, Light and L play out their battle of wits. The body count is high, as is the style. By the last act, a whole roomful of mortals has accepted a theological universe in which death gods converse, make alliances with lowly humans and are governed by an arcane but distinguishable set of rules. Kaneko has no more interest in parsing these rules than he does any other aspect of exposition. As a result, the film flies by, remaining consistently inventive, visually energetic, suspenseful, always true to itself and deeply satisfying.

I know little of manga and so can’t comment on whether Desu Noto 2 is an accurate and fitting adaptation. I found the story irresistible. Kaneko flips between classic In Like Flint techno-camp, textbook cinema grammar and startling special effects/computer-driven montage. The culture and motivations have none of the otherworldly opacity that can sometimes prevent a Westerner from fully inhabiting a Japanese drama. It’s a blast.

David N. Meyer

Nightmare Detective

Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) 2006
Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto
Friday, July 6 at 6:30 pm & Sunday,
July 8 at 9 pm

Nightmare Detective also refuses to explain its supernatural world, and that’s to its benefit. Again, occult occurrences are
accepted at face value by the power structure, in particular the cops, and this suggests a complete absence of faith in more conventional psychologies or legal methods. The Nightmare Detective has no name. At the behest of an almost too competent and too beautiful policewoman, ND moves into the dreams of afflicted sleepers in hopes of catching a serial killer. The serial killer also inhabits dreams, and when he’s done with his victims, they commit suicide. They think they’re dreaming, but as they do, they cut their own throats. Or open their own viscera. Or both. There’s a lot of blood.

Being a nightmare detective, it turns out, is tough duty. The detective is one tortured dude, and vacillates between a sense of service/fealty to his fellow man, and an overwhelming urge to kill himself. That a potential suicide must steel himself to the pain of life to prevent the suicide of others feels like a theme that might resonate more poetically in the film’s country of origin than here. But it’s also a theme any sensitive high-schooler can relate to.

Nightmare features a surprisingly touching and gripping story, told in a half-conventional policier-style and half-old school MTV weird angle/jumpcut/distorted lens mode. This combination feels like the current standard visual language of the 00’s horror universe, regardless of cinematic nationality. That is: Nightmare showcases contemporary horror tropes and utilizes them with skill. These tropes allow the director to shift visuals when he changes mood. And, until the sadly deflating final ten minutes, Shinya Tsukamoto has the ideas to back up his chameleon style. Unlike Desu Noto, which never runs out of gas nor leans on sentimentality, Nightmare feels like a high-wire act even as it engrosses you. I found myself thinking: wow, he hasn’t fucked this up yet—how long can he sustain? That’s a different audience state of mind than being enthralled, obviously. Nightmare is damn entertaining for as long as it is, and that’s 95% of the time. But its virtues will be lost on anyone not already inclined toward horror.

David N. Meyer

Memories of Matsuko

Kiware Matsuko no Issho (Memories of Matsuko) 2006
Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima
Saturday, July 7 at 8:45 pm & Sunday, July 8 at 1 pm

Memories of Matsuko proves two phenomena: The Japanese penchant for dynamic pastiche and the immense popularity that Moulin Rouge, Amelie and Chicago must have enjoyed in the land of the rising sun. Director Tetsuya Nakashima’s smash-hit is the follow-up to his unhinged manga adaptation Kamikaze Girls. Nakashima again favors a sympathetic outcast as protagonist, this time with a little more depth than the ‘Lolita’ or biker chick of his previous film

Miki Takatani (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Loft, Hideo Nakata’s Chaos) gives a tour de force, if somewhat affected, performance as the title character. Matsuko’s life story, including a career turn from schoolteacher to ‘fashion health’ (legal sex-worker), is decidedly somber. The darker moments and cinematic excess vaguely recall Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. But despite Matsuko’s sad story, this is a happy movie that never belies its feel-good (and all-too-often maudlin) tone. Matsuko always appears endearing, remaining faithful to the Japanese obsession with cuteness.

The volume of the whole production is cranked to a campy, pop-art ten, assuring that this epic tale of a girl-next-door abandoned by the world features the most eye-popping streak of bad luck ever committed to celluloid. Nakashima never misses a chance to squeeze beautiful flowers into the front left corner of the shot, reminding us how beautiful the world can be even if it isn’t real. The musical numbers blend in seamlessly, though the saccharine lyrics and explosive color make one wonder how much of Matsuko is intentional camp, and how much is hollow artifice and manipulation.

The first five minutes alone are so bright and loud it’s as overwhelming as life itself. Cutting from a blaringly upbeat music video billboard to a multitude of stories across the bustling Tokyo metropolis proves Nakashima a master of 21st century, MTV-inflected hyper-montage. With such stylistic conceit come lapses into slick yet sterile computer-generated imagery that Nakashima compensates for with meticulous detail. Cultural references from music and tattoos to ‘70s detective TV shows resonate across borders, maintaining a vibrant energy throughout the film’s jam-packed 130 minute running time.

David Wilentz

Matsuganae pot-shot affair

Matsugane ransha jiken (Matsugane pot-shot affair) 2006
Dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Monday, July 9 at 8:45 pm & Wednesday, July 11 at 6:30 pm

After the lyrical charm, bittersweet triumph and kickass rock and roll finale of Yamashita’s low-key masterpiece Linda! Linda! Linda!, his new film marks a shocking departure. Matusgane abandons Yamashita’s modernized Ozu contemplation of high school social dynamics (complete with long unbroken takes, weirdly effective shots of blank high-school walls, a family made up on the spot of four girls thrown together in a talent show band) and moves into the understated, super-realist, sex and death and family and social bullying that marks the heyday of Japanese master Shohei Imamura (Pigs & Battleships, The Pornographers). Is this a comedown? No, but Matsugane’s joys and pains are more concealed, and its pleasures reside more in its processes than its narrative.

Matsugane most strongly evokes Imamura’s Unagi, his late-career study of small-town dynamics, misplaced self-loathing and equally misplaced self-regard. In Unagi, a slightly sensitive and repressed protagonist pretty much wants to be left alone. When he has to go out and solve problems (he is, after all, a local policeman), he’s no more adept than his dim brother, who’s housing two murderers/gold thieves in his grandparents’ abandoned house. The other family members are barely holding off killing one another as they struggle to keep their dairy farm afloat, and they don’t want to hear a word about the policeman’s problems. Nobody lacks humanity, even the murderers, and everyone would like to be treated in a way that matches their inflated self-worth. Only our policeman takes himself at face value, and this marks him as a sucker.

Matsugane is empathetic and hilarious, and acted with naturalist gusto. Like Imamura, Yamashita makes you feel—in a way reminiscent of Isaac Babel or Vasily Grossman, say—that you are observing life in its very processes. The wide-screen compositions recall Imamura’s off-hand beauty and use of color to provide perspective in a series of naturalist but carefully composed frames. The story is slight—it’s a tale of atmosphere and family dynamics that cannot be fully understood until the final shot. Like the rest of the film, the finale explains nothing, but provides a lovely coda. Yamashita’s greatest gift as a director, like Imamura, is the rough compassion he has for everyone’s wounded feelings. And the pitiless view he takes of their moronic actions.

David N. Meyer

Sway

Yureru (Sway) 2006
Dir. Miwa Nishikawa
Wednesday, July 11 at 8:45 pm & Friday, July 13 at 6:30 pm
Introduction and Q&A with the director.

Nowhere does the existential weight of family ties provide a stronger field of gravity than in Japan. Ozu spent most of his career exploring the repressed emotions simmering beneath the reserved surface of the Japanese family. Miwa
Nishikawa’s impressive debut film Wild Berries (2003) modernized the paradigm, exposing severe dysfunction behind a family clinging to decorum and pride. Nishikawa tackles similar themes in Sway, proving herself a mistress of cinematic lyricism and understatement.

Like Ozu, Nishikawa’s stories have a basic interchangeable structure that showcases the conflict between emotion and obligation. Both Sway and Wild Berries focus on the tension between two siblings. One is a prodigal black sheep, the other a martyr who has given up ambition to anchor the drowning ship of their nuclear family. Sway’s handsome, hip and successful photographer Takeru, played with ennui-inflected cool by heartthrob Jo Odagiri, replaces the roguish thief brother of Berries.

Upon returning home for his mother’s memorial ceremony, Takeru clashes inevitably with his brooding father. Takeru’s melancholy older brother Minoru—resigned to taking over the family gas station—strains to conceal pangs of resentment and jealousy while trying to keep the peace. Takeru’s reunion with his ex Chieko, now also working at the gas station, fuels the powerful crux of the film. Nishikawa conjures the metaphoric power of a rope bridge over a gorge where Chieko stirs the conflict between the siblings. The ensuing confusion over what really happened at the gorge becomes a heart-wrenching tale of repression and catharsis.

What makes Sway compelling is how its emotional complexities are manifest in the story itself. As the milieu changes from jazzy cool Tokyo to the idyllic yet oppressive countryside and then again to psychological courtroom drama, the character’s true feelings are provocatively parsed out. The question becomes: when the family is finally torn apart, what remains?

David Wilentz

Face of a Fig Tree

Ichijiku no Kao (Faces of a Fig Tree) 2006
Dir. Kaori Momoi
Friday, July 13 at 9 pm & Sunday, July 15 at 6 pm

Faces of a Fig Tree looks at the cycle of life through the lens of an average Japanese family. As envisioned by actress turned auteur Kaori Momoi, typical family life is comically absurd. Momoi plays the housewife in colorful ethnic outfits and the household itself is a modernist explosion.

The eccentricity of the family in Faces of a Fig Tree is matched by the provocative production design of famed Seijun Suzuki collaborator Takeo Kimura. A bird’s-eye shot of the family enjoying a hot pot dinner reveals a luxurious composition of warm colors and soothing shapes. The zen-like symmetry of the family grouped around a table bountiful with bowls and vegetables takes on a new form, reflecting the surreal beauty of the seemingly mundane. Faces of a Fig Tree casually hits a breezy stride with simple moments such as blue-collar dad waxing on about salty squid guts.

Cherubic comedienne Hanako Yamada is fittingly aloof as the offbeat daughter, while Beat Takeshi regular Saburo Ishikara rules as the coarse, diligent father. For all its inspired imagery, Fig Tree loses steam at about the halfway mark, giving way to Momoi’s indulgent thesping and long takes. Prior to the letdown we are treated to inspired visceral metaphors such as the complex figuration of pipes that dad must repair—this quirky family is plagued by bad plumbing.

David Wilentz

Komaneko

Komaneko 2006
Dir: Tsuneo Goda
Saturday July 14 1:45 pm

Featuring an animated stuffed kitty cat, Komaneko showcases a purely Japanese combination of deep corniness and profound emotional power. This collection of short, stop-motion cartoons feature the seemingly gender-free stuffed protagonist, his/her dad, his/her new pal, a monster in the forest (brilliantly modeled on both the monster from Frosty the Snowman and on the Abominable Snowman from Tin-Tin in Tibet), charming houses of meticulously constructed family or perhaps, family fable mise-en-scène, and some of the most mythical, archetypal, dream-like and moving forest and mountainscapes any supposed children’s film has ever presented.

I watched with a six-year-old, and he was rapt. Again, it’s the naked deadpan presentation of usually hinted-at dilemmas that make the stuffed animals and their interactions so moving. Though Komaneko lacks the deeply perverse and equally unconscious sexuality of Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll books, there’s a similarly adult grasp of grief, solitude, romantic obsession and terror of/joy from the natural world. Though it may be offered only as a children’s program, Komaneko should be sought out for the sophistication of its design, rendering, soul and story.

David N. Meyer

Contributors

David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.

David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.

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