Japan Cuts 2008, Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, July 2-13
Japan Cuts’ debut last year announced the triumphant return of Japanese films to the international cinema map. This year’s festival amazes with mainstream films that look like wild fever dreams (Sakuran) and singular visions of revelatory emotional depth (Mourning Forest). In its 20-some odd features and over 60 shorts, Japan Cuts reveals an ineffable passion for cinema that can only be described as Japaneseness.
The Mourning Forest (Mogari no Mori)
A languid wind blows ripples through a field of lush green grass. This narrative punctuation proves to be one of many mesmerizing images in Mourning Forest. What makes the film so beautiful is how its simple moments belie the complexity of emotions lurking behind them.
Director Naomi Kawase eschews traditional modes of exposition, relying instead on images to reveal both narrative and thematic concerns. From the opening spare shots of trees and fields, a montage of enigmatic human activity emerges. We are witness to some sort of ritual. The ethereal pacing and presentation of action render explicit explanation unnecessary. The intersection of man and nature, elegantly expressed in these quiet images, forms a potent metaphor for an arc of loss and catharsis.
Kawase reveals her documentary roots in her style and scope. We are shown the routines of life in a country retirement home. We meet Shigeki, an aging widower suffering from slight dementia. Still traumatized by the loss of his wife 33 years ago, Shigeki has regressed into an aloof, child-like state. Machiko, a young volunteer recuperating from a trauma of her own, develops a special bond with him. They embark on a journey together which brings them to a foreboding forest.
In an early pivotal scene, the residents of the home meet with a zen priest. Shigeki asks “Am I alive?” This bold philosophical koan paves the road to the events in the titular forest. The striking naturalism established early in the film gives way to an almost otherworldly transcendence — as Shigeki and Machiko undergo a life-changing experience. Kawase eloquently draws a suspenseful and moving parable from the two characters in the wilderness. The transformation the film mirrors the spiritual awakening of Shigeki and Machiko. Mourning Forest is a perfect example of a film that surrenders all its narrative concerns to the rewarding power of cinematic metaphor.
A Gentle Breeze in the Village
After a few unassuming indie films, director Nobuhiro Yamashita proved himself a star auteur. In 2006, the New York Asian Film Festival featured Linda, Linda, Linda, Yamashita’s breathtakingly sublime tale of four high school girls who form a rock band for a one-time performance. Last year, Japan Cuts showcased Matsugane Potshot Affair, a delirious black comedy of crime and perversion in a small town. Yamashita’s latest, A Gentle Breeze in the Village, is an adaptation of a popular manga about adolescents in a remote Japanese village.
Apparently, in Japan, even the most sparsely populated areas have their own schools. This one has a student body of exactly six, ranging from first to eighth graders. The only boy in the group is the sixth grade brother of the eldest student, our narrator Soyo. The film opens with the arrival of a new student, Osawa, a handsome eighth grade boy transplanted from Tokyo. This simple set up allows for a preciously subtle, yet familiarly real drama. The natural tension of adolescent curiosity between Soyo and Osawa foretells expected moments of teenage awkwardness. Less predictable is how their relationship evolves into one of mutual understanding. How this transpires constitutes the beauty of a Yamashita film. We see what really takes place when almost nothing happens. The children walk a supposedly haunted stretch of road where Soyo and Osawa have their first chance to bond. A clumsy night at the local summer festival manifests the adolescent pangs that come from balancing friendship with romantic yearning. As summer comes to a close, Soyo and Osawa go on a chaperoned trip to Tokyo. The sprawling metropolis anticipates their impending entrance into a real high school with a full student body (not to mention their blooming adolescence).
While Yamashita has proven hard to pigeonhole, he has shown a knack for subdued nostalgia. The idyllic countryside, from gorgeous mountain vistas to a tranquil beach, is framed in picturesque shots and ellipses that would make Ozu proud. The serenity of the village reflects the children’s innocence, while the arrival of city boy Osawa marks their coming of age. Yamashita’s quiet style matches the refreshingly simple story. Avoiding the lurid clichés of teenage films, Yamashita allows every moment, both awkward and tender, to exist like a floating memory.
Sakuran is based on a popular manga about an orphan girl, Kiyoha, who rises through the ranks of a brothel in samurai-era Japan to become the top oiran (boss courtesan). We see Kiyoha grow from a foul-mouthed waif into a poised super-oiran. Kiyoha retains her free spirit and nasty attitude throughout, learning how to skillfully mask her true feelings in order to get ahead in a rigid society. Yes, even the houses of ill-repute in ancient Japan adhered to strict codes of moral (and immoral) conduct.
A large appeal of the manga and the film is how Kiyoha dons the most gorgeous kimonos and puts on airs but still curses like a sailor and engages in vicious cat fights. The maudlin moral of the story is to follow one’s own heart, despite societal restrictions. A cherry tree that never blossoms becomes a tiresomely overt metaphor for Kiyoha’s gilded cage existence.
Period pieces have long been a staple of Japanese cinema. But along with Princess Racoon, Seijun Suzuki’s wildly surreal operetta, Sakuran marks a modern melding of historical drama with bravura displays of outré high fashion. Author Moyoco Anno is not only a manga artist but a fashion writer as well, thus Sakuran’s outlandishly stylish flourishes (and enormous popularity with a young female audience). Sakuran is the directorial debut of renowned photographer Mika Ninagawa. Ninagawa’s work is marked by luscious colors and bold, dreamy, couture-driven art direction. She has a penchant for goldfish, images of which open the film. Ninagawa shoots the fish close up, as beautiful dream-like abstractions of freedom and artistry. Ninagawa’s eye is the perfect match for Anno’s manga. The free spiritedness of the main character is brought alive with a sumptuous color palette. Wild fashion icon Anna Tsuchiya (Kamikaze Girls, The Taste of Tea) is perfectly cast as Kiyoha. Ninagawa’s loud tones highlight Tsuchiya’s inspired performance. Ninagawa keeps things moving at manga pace, without compressing the complexity of the story. Underneath the lovely exterior, however, Ninagawa misses the chance to break the limits of her formulaic source material. Instead she delivers a rather cornball ending to this wild and tawdry tale. Nevertheless, Sakuran is an exhilaratingly seductive cinematic experience.
A Filmful Life
(Ichikawa Kon Monogatari)
In a career that spanned from 1934 to 2006, director Kon Ichikawa made everything from animation to transcendent war films (The Burmese Harp), Samurai dramas (The 47 Ronin), operatic tales of female vengeance (10 Dark Women) and metaphoric murder mysteries (The Inugami Family). His many films are all marked by a few common elements: an effortless ability to weave a visually compelling story, a markedly feminine sensitivity, and a fascination with complex characters facing dramatic revelations or change. For most of his career Ichikawa collaborated with his screenwriter wife Natto Wada; together they formed a brilliant creative composite persona.
A master in his own right, Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana & Alice) offers a quiet and beautiful documentary on Ichikawa that is both a poetic tribute and touching eulogy (Ichikawa passed away this February). Iwai’s film breaks away from conventional documentary approach. There are no voiceovers or interviews. Instead, Iwai’s stream of consciousness script about Ichikawa’s life and career appears on the screen in metered verse, at times reminiscent of haiku. Photos are used sparingly to help illustrate the story. When we reach Ichikawa’s discovery of cinema and subsequent career, film clips are brought in. These are edited together into a series of enticing coming attractions.
The salient revelation of Iwai’s film is not only how prolific Ichikawa and Wada were, but the far-reaching breadth and insight of their work. Highlights include their adaptations like Conflagration, based on a Mishima novel about a young monk who burns down a temple and Odd Obsession (from a Tanizaki novel) a film as elegantly perverse as the author’s original prose. Rhyme of Vengeance, an example from Ichikawa’s later period, opens with the murder of a young woman and is particularly striking for its visceral set pieces. Iwai succeeds in matching the tone of his documentary to the character and sensibilities of Ichikawa the man. Presaging the need for a retrospective, Japan Cuts further memorializes Ichikawa with screenings of his 1976 mega hit The Inugami Family and his final film, the 2006 remake of the former: Murder of the Inugami Clan.
David Wilentz dreams in color.