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Synchronicity, Dysfunction, Spectacle

JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film, Japan Society, June 30 - July 12, 2009

From left: Hajime Miyazaki, Koji Okura, and Megumi Okina in <i>Crime or Punishment?!?</i> © 2008
From left: Hajime Miyazaki, Koji Okura, and Megumi Okina in Crime or Punishment?!? © 2008 "Crime or Punishment?!?" Production Committee.

A hodgepodge of themes coalesce in the third Japan Cuts, Japan Society’s pioneering festival of the latest in Japanese cinema: corruption, dysfunction, alienation, synchronicity, fatalism, artistic expression, honesty, and perversion. The festival’s trademark diversity pits blockbusters alongside odd films with singular vision. The popcorn includes the first two 20th Century Boys films, a manga-based series that’s given the Death Note franchise a run for its money. Boys targets an interesting demographic, spinning a tale of middle-aged men who must rescue the world from a villain named Friend. Throughout the variety of films in this year’s festival, the world is saved, shattered, and reinvented.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2009)
Director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano
Monday, July 6, 6:30pm; Sunday, July 12, 1:45pm

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a renaissance man: comedian, actor, filmmaker, poet, author, painter. His latest film concludes a trilogy examining his own tortured-artist self. Kitano is so nonchalant that inner turmoil simply gets his trademark deadpan-satire treatment. The final result is a cinematic treatise on art itself. The story begins as a pedestrian biopic of a fictionalized painter named Machisu (as in Matisse) by his art-loving tycoon father. Dad loses his shirt and hangs himself, sending young Machisu on an epic journey to become a true artist. An obsessed wunderkind whose talent goes by largely ignored, Machisu, can’t put down his brush, and sacrifices almost everything to keep creating. Kitano’s genius conceit is to tell the story of Machisu, and art history at the same time. We learn of modern artists and movements from Picasso to Basquiat, Cubism to Pop Art, while the film’s frames become pieces of art in their own right. As the story turns increasingly absurd, the film’s aesthetic changes from representational (realist) to presentational (spectacle). One standout moment has a group of artists in a circle, paint splattering on them á la Pollock. The camera shifts to a bird’s-eye view, creating a bold geometric form with wild splashes of color. When Machisu hits adulthood (played by Kitano disciple Yûrei Yanagi), Takeshi’s true nature reveals itself. Sight-gags verge on the sadistic, harkening back to Kitano’s television days of abusing colleagues with outrageous pranks. The art world is taken to task with an appropriately vicious section on conceptual art. But the ultimate target is Kitano himself.

Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008)
Director Yuki Tanada
Friday, July 10, 6:30pm

<i>Ain't No Tomorrows</i> © 2008 Akira Saso, Shogakukan/
Ain't No Tomorrows © 2008 Akira Saso, Shogakukan/"Ain't No Tomorrows" Film Committee. From left: Sakura Ando, Yuya Endo, Miwako, Tokio Emoto, Ayame Mizusaki, Ini Kusano.

How often do we see stories of high schoolers that are fantastically absurd, yet play out plausible and true? Director Yuki Tanada’s impressive adaptation of Akira Saso’s coming of age manga resonates with authentic adolescent fury. Tanada brings out naturalistic performances from her young cast in a documentary-like style. Paced to match the high tension and awkwardness of teenage sexuality, the resultant storytelling is always compelling, sometimes harrowing, and ultimately illuminating. There are three intertwined episodes: a straightforward young man defies his schoolmate’s animalistic instincts, rescuing a beguilingly aloof co-ed from sexual ruin; an overweight male classmate, nicknamed “Boobs” by his so-called friends who feel him up for 500 yen coins, ends up dating the desirable and well-endowed Akie, only to discover her oddly disconcerting fetish. The angriest young man, sexually desperate Hiruma, pursues the introspective and sickly Tomono after he spies her and their teacher exiting a love hotel together. The sum total is jarring and bleak. Yet, a glimmer of hope shines through these characters’s youthful honesty and outrage at an establishment that has failed them.

Halfway (2009)
Director Eriko Kitagawa
Monday, July 6, 9pm
Sunday, July 12, 7pm

Successful television writer Kitagawa, known for frank tales of troubled romance, makes her directorial debut with this bittersweet take on first love. Director Shunji Iwai, a master of cinematic adolescence and melancholic love stories, brings a refreshingly lyrical influence in his role as producer. Iwai is an auteur; Kitagawa has her pulse on genuine human feelings (and Japanese concepts of interpersonal relationships). Together, they have rendered an artful film about young love. Effervescently cute and innocent Hiro goes weak in the knees at the mere thought of her crush, earnest, handsome and clueless Shu. After a couple inspired moments of slapstick highlighting their naiveté, they start dating. Hiro’s charms quickly degenerate into possessive annoyance once she discovers Shu’s plans to leave their small town for college in Tokyo. The handheld camerawork, jump-cuts and improvisation remind us that this is about real teenagers with real feelings. Kitagawa and Iwai deliver a genuinely Japanese story of self-sacrifice and emotional maturation.

<i>Love Exposure</i> (Ai no mukidashi ) © 2008
Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi ) © 2008 "Love Exposure" Film Partners. From left: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima, Atsuro Watabe, Makiko Watanabe.

Love Exposure (2008)
Director Sion Sono
Friday, July 3, 6:15pm;
Tuesday, July 7, 6:30pm
NY Premiere, Q&A with director Sion Sono
Co-presented with the New York Asian Film Festival

Prolific and outspoken poet-cum-avant-garde/exploitation filmmaker Sion Sono (Suicide Club) continues to vie with Takashi Miike for the title of Japanese cinema’s l’enfant terrible. Love Exposure is Sono’s triumphant outcry of, “Yes, I can make a 4-hour hentai (pervert) epic about a priest’s son who masters ninja-like techniques of up-skirt photography.” Sono revels in lechery with plenty of panty shots, plus a catalog of transgressions that indict religious and societal duplicity. For Sono, transgression leads to transcendence. The title proves a double entendre, with exposure referring to the dirty photos, but valuing, above all, the ability to lay one’s emotions bare. Ah ha, for all its lowbrow leanings, the underlying theme of Love Exposure is classic sentimentality: true love is the key, and will deliver one from all the pain and suffering of highly dysfunctional familial relationships. The action-packed fights recall psychedelic Sonny Chiba and Etsuko Shiomi karate movies from the 70s. Another absurd, eye-winking homage to Japanese cult cinema finds our protagonist Yu donning the black hat and coat costume of Scorpion from the Meiko Kaji-starring women-in-prison series that was a key Kill Bill inspiration. The other parallels with Tarantino’s epic—running time, revenge, sordid sub-plots, chapters and time jumping structure, juvenile humor and film buff pastiche (including vintage grindhouse-style zooms and split-screen)­—might infer that Sono took Kill Bill as a personal challenge. Yet Love Exposure, a prime example of what the Japanese call eroguronansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense), is marked with Sono’s distinctly schizophrenic shifts in tone and disturbing sexual undercurrent.A definite highlight of the festival, albeit wholly exhausting.

All Around Us (2008)
Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi
Thursday, July 2, 8:45pm
Sunday, July 5, 2:45pm
NY Premiere. Co-presented with the New York Asian Film Festival

It is simply amazing when a film captures that instant in a relationship, that tension of turmoil when emotions run wild; an argument that speaks volumes, its zenith manifested in violence, but ultimately cathartic, with a denouement of healing and love. All Around Us chronicles ten years in the life of a young married couple. The husband, Kanao, goes from shoe store manager to court room sketch artist, allowing the human drama of the couple to be punctuated by grisly crimes based on real-life cases. Kanao’s possessive wife Shoko, an editor, hurtles into depression after a miscarriage. The couple also survives indiscretions and loathsome in-laws, not to mention the metaphysical malaise of trying to be normal in such a fucked-up world. Director Hashiguchi, whose previous films were all about gay relationships, makes a triumphant return to the screen after a seven-year hiatus. All Around Us leaves one in wonderment at how Hashiguchi and cast articulate those familiar, but ineffable feelings of relationship trauma so effortlessly and with such eloquence.

Confessions of a Dog (2008)
Director Gen Takahashi
Thursday, July 9, 7pm; Saturday, July 11, 2:15pm
International Premiere. Q&A with director Gen Takahashi

Japan is one of the most orderly societies in the world. Benevolent beat cops are conveniently stationed in corner police boxes throughout every city. But in Gen Takahashi’s searing indictment of rampant police corruption, even the beat cops are lecherous, power-hungry dogs. This three-hour exposé follows one cop’s descent from working class do-gooder to hard-boiled detective on-the-take. Interweaving shock-filled subplots drive the point home. While austere and clinical, Confessions of a Dog does occasionally recall the intensity of Hong Kong cop-noir. But for much of its running time, with claustrophobic medium shots and talking heads, it plays like a higher caliber TV true-crime series. The bleak conclusion breathes a cinematic air of conviction and mastery with the Brecht-like confession of the title.

Buy A Suit (2008)
Director Jun Ichikawa
Sunday, July 12, 12pm
U.S. Premiere

Director Ichikawa’s 2004 adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Tony Takitani is possibly the most poetic, sad, and beautiful film about loneliness ever. Ichikawa (no relation to Kon Ichikawa) unexpectedly died immediately after completing Buy A Suit, a personal project shot on a camcorder with a few friends. Ichikawa’s gift for quietly capturing unspoken feelings is evident as an unobtrusive camera follows a young woman seeking out her estranged brother in Tokyo. The film unfolds as an expressive ode to the city, invoking pathos for its inhabitants.

Crime or Punishment (2008)
Director Keralino Sandorovich
Tuesday, June 30, 7:30pm; Saturday, July 11, 12pm
Opening Film—International Premiere

Interconnected stories and non-linear time frames have become de-rigueur elements in modern pre-fab cult films. We can blame the success of Reservoir Dogs: the trend of cinematic stories inspired by cinematic stories. Japan has seen a conscious cult movie genre emerge over the last few years, with films such as A Stranger of Mine or Survive Style 5+ gracing previous editions of the New York Asian Film Festival.

Crime or Punishment exists in an alternative universe, a quirky world of a gravure idol (sexy model) whose shoplifting is punished with a one-day stint as the chief of police. She’s reunited with her serial-killer ex-boyfriend who’s now on the force. Add to the mix bungling would-be criminals and random transgressions in everyday situations. It’s all brought to life with a nod and a wink by cult movie fan and ex-noise rocker Keralino Sandorovich (yes, that’s an alias). Last year Kera’s high school memoir Gummi, Chocolate, Pine explained his love for the outré in a rather conventional manner. Crime or Punishment   strives a little too hard to be weird for weirdness sake, though its broad slapstick often succeeds. To its merit Crime or Punishment manages the astute conclusion that the convenience store is the center of modern Japanese society—automation, consumerism, a diligent workforce and a disturbed customer base.

Fish Story (2009)
Director Yoshihiro Nakamura
Thursday, July 2, 6:15pm
North American Premiere.
Co-presented with the New York Asian Film Festival

When punk rock emerged in the 70s, it rejuvenated rock and roll. The idiom was raw, dirty, and fierce once again. Based on a novel, the magnificently convoluted Fish Story tells how a fictionalized proto-punk band from 1975 inadvertently saves the world from Armageddon in 2012. But Fish Story is slick and calculated, albeit entertainingly so. The premise allows for a ridiculous blend of popcorn cinema and odd pop-culture references; a balm for the attention-deficit generation, though not completely punk rock in spirit. Jumping through time and circuitously related plotlines, Fish Story revels in an intangible nostalgia, sort of like listening to old mix-tapes.


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.


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