JAPAN CUTSby David Wilentz
Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema
JAPAN SOCIETY | JULY 1–16, 2O1O
Possibly the biggest achievement of Japan Society’s former film programmer Ryo Nagasawa was the inception of JAPAN CUTS, New York’s annual festival of Japanese cinema. JAPAN CUTS has become an anticipated summer event, featuring special guests, theme parties, and the best movies Japan has to offer, from mainstream hits to crazy cult epics. Now in its fourth year, the festival boasts its biggest line-up yet, proving that Japanese cinema is still enjoying its incredible resurgence.
SWEET LITTLE LIES
Director Hitoshi Yazaki’s adaptation of Kaori Eguni’s novel is a touching meditation on loneliness and infidelity. Sweet Little Lies finds a seemingly perfect couple on the third year of what appears to be an ideal marriage. Miki Nakatani, star of the breakthrough Memories of Matsuko, never looked more exquisite, or more melancholy, as Ruriko, the teddy bear artist wife. In perfectly poised ellipses, two white bears are seen bonded together by a black sash, followed by a shot of the couple’s shoes in orderly alignment at the doorway. Emotional stagnancy is further underlined by the constant fatigued expression worn by Ruriko’s I.T. worker husband Satoshi, underplayed to a tee by Nao Omori. The film shares some narrative ground with Little Children, but is cinematically reminiscent of Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani: carefully framed, barely populated spaces and finely metered pacing evoke longing and heartache. The one heavy-handed metaphor—‘a red rose for passion, a white for truth’—still can’t deny Yazaki’s sense for visual poetics. What is unspoken in Sweet Little Lies is mutually understood by our protagonists, and leads to an ethereally poignant resolution.
BOYS ON THE RUN
It’s a little surprising that the original manga of Boys on the Run has not yet been published in the U.S. It’s a tragicomic story of a sex-starved, porn junkie sad sack (who works supplying raunchy novelty toys to arcades), who tries to transform himself into a fighter. You’d think that would be popular here! This faithful film adaptation follows Tanishi as his bad judgment and bad timing foil him at every turn on the road to bettering himself. Perhaps the manga hasn’t been licensed here because it is so classically Japanese in its themes of self-deprecation (the obsession with sex might cancel that out, if it too weren’t so self-defeating). We are constantly baited with the promise of catharsis or happy resolution only to have it taken away from us at the comic expense of our suffering Tanishi. When his super-cute and quirky co-worker actually shows an interest in him, Tanishi almost has it made, but a bizarre turn of events drives everything down the drain in what becomes the most ascetic coming-of-age comedy. Every single character is corrupt, severely flawed, or soon to be tarnished by this cruel society. Former stage director Daisuke Miura brings a sense of realism to the manga frame, and inspired performances from his talented cast. Boys on the Run cracks you up while it gnaws on your heart and spits it out.
Director Miwa Nishikawa’s dream-inspired films Wild Berries and Sway explored moral ambiguity through tight-knit, slowly simmering dramas. Themes of guilt, redemption, and familial dissolution underline humanistic concerns. In Nishikawa’s own words Dear Doctor is about “a man who is fake.” A provocative seed for drama: what secret could this country doctor, whose concern for his local community is so sincere, be hiding? What starts off as a modest tale of doctor and patients delves deeper, perfectly balancing out the classic weepy paradigm with succinct social commentary (Japan really does have many isolated towns that are in need of medical caretakers) and genuine emotion.
BARE ESSENCE OF LIFE:
ULTRA MIRACLE LOVE STORY
Director/screenwriter Satoko Yokohama’s second film is a fascinatingly original, metaphorically rich take on young romance. After Machiko’s unfaithful boyfriend is decapitated in an accident, she escapes to a teaching job in the countryside. She soon meets Yojin, a hyperactive young farmer whose strange brain makes him outspokenly direct and unpredictable. It’s love at first sight for Yojin who takes bizarre actions to “be normal” when he’s with Machiko. In the tarot the fool is the hero. His childlike nature makes him fearless on the quest for truth. Yojin, in his pursuit of Machiko’s love, is heroic, healing, and tragic.
ONE MILLION YEN GIRL
This year’s festival features a “best of the naughties” sidebar: standout films from the last decade that were unreleased stateside. Just based on last year’s Ain’t No Tomorrows alone, director Yuki Tanada makes incisive, honest films about misunderstood youth. One Million Yen Girl follows outcast ingenue Suzuko (perfectly cast babyface Aoi Yu) whose compassion brings her a stint in jail. Back on the street she’s a pariah, but also a fighter—the way she handles bullies is crowd pleasing. She takes to the road for a series of illuminating episodes. One Million Yen Girl avoids maudlin romance as it tackles a curiously Japanese sort of love story. Flawed Japanese social conventions are continuously exposed in the course of Suzuko’s journey, realized as a celebration of youthful independence.
ABOUT HER BROTHER (OTOTO)
Director Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai) helmed the legendary 48-movie long series about the quintessential Japanese everyman, Tora-san, an obnoxious, yet hopelessly endearing traveling salesman. Yamada is incredibly skilled at making the sentimental palatable, often imbuing his films with just the right touch of irreverence. About Her Brother follows the story of Ginko and her younger brother Tetsuro, a black sheep reminiscent of Tora-san. Tetsuro, whose drunken antics precede him, embarrasses the hell out of everyone at Ginko’s daughter’s wedding. Tsurube Shofukutei, who also stars in Dear Doctor, gives a tour de force performance as Tetsuro. Shofukutei’s background is in rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of comic storytelling, a bit of which he shows off in the film. Tetsuro ends up getting disowned by his family, but then changes everyone’s lives as the film shifts gears from farce to familial melodrama. Yamada does for his genre what Clint did for the western with The Unforgiven. About Her Brother is a self-referential, revisionist, and touching update of the Japanese tearjerker.
FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE CINEMA
OVER 20 FILMS FROM JULY 1 – 16, 2010
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About the Author
David Wilentz dreams in color.