The 10th anniversary edition of Japan Cuts, North America’s largest festival for new Japanese film, runs from July 14th to the 24th, and we’re aiming to cover as many of the films in its program as we can. Our first dispatch features two new films from Sion Sono; a pitch-black movie industry comedy from Eiji Uchida; and Gakuryû Ishii’s goldfish fetish movie. Find the fest’s full schedule here.
With The Whispering Star, the ubiquitous and ever-evolving Sion Sono has opted for a lo-fi sci-fi yarn, a literal chamber drama dominated by textures. Sono shoots in high-contrast black and white, lighting his film with stars, matches, and candles, and penetrating the quietude of his main character’s existence with the sonic rhythms of the mundane, from footsteps plodding up and down a corridor to dialogue and voiceover delivered only in a whisper. Star slyly opens with rote shots of a lone female engaged in scenes of domesticity that belie the film’s genre roots. Soon we find that this woman, Yoko (Megumi Kagurazaka), is an android who delivers packages to mostly isolated individuals populating ruined landscapes (filmed in real locations devastated by the 2011 Fukushima Earthquake) in a future where the remnants of humanity are few due to some sort of vague, self-inflicted annihilation. And while Yoko’s habitual sneezing throughout Star operates as a nod to her approximate humanity, it’s her silent study of the connection between object and emotion—as she combs through the boxes of ephemera she’s been tasked with delivering and inspects the faces of the recipients—that brings her closer to understanding her creators. Sono’s meditation on memory likewise becomes subtly yet measurably more powerful the closer we get to the film’s brilliant, and surprising, penultimate sequence, an extended set piece which serves to highlight the duality of what it means to be human. Luke Gorham
Resisting his usual genre fare of bizarre hyper-violence accented with blunt sexual imagery, director Sion Sono has shifted to more straightforward material for Love & Peace. There are no swords or exposed breasts here, just a man’s quest from desk jockey to rock star by way of his magical kaiju turtle who feeds him lyrics and melodies. Kyo (Hiroki Hasegawa) even behaves like a turtle when he’s in full loser mode, hunching his head to shoulder-level to hide himself from the ridicule of the outside world. When he transforms into a rock god, he’s equally expressive, donning a full-length leopard coat over an all black outfit and comically announcing his greatness and lust for power at every turn. Then, almost unannounced, Sono switches the film to a Christmas kaiju movie. Kyo navigates through these legions of genre tropes to find his identity and the respect of his equally nerdy crush, Yuko (Kumiko Aso). Love & Peace is explicitly a cartoon from its initial set-up to the over-the-top acting, the scores of talking animals and puppets, and its bizarre sense of humor. These silly qualities don’t stop Sono from including a few political points (the turtle, Pikadon, is named after the Japanese word for an atomic blast, thus signifying a classic kaiju quality) or showing off his filmmaking know-how by limiting Love & Peace to practical effects. And despite the family-friendly atmosphere neutering Sono here, his crew’s talents still translate to screen, granting this otherwise fumbling picture a strange energy and an even stranger finale. Zach Lewis
A film about the love affair between an anthropomorphized goldfish (Fumi Nikaidô) and an aging writer (Ren Ôshugi), Gakuryû Ishii’s Bitter Honey is less surprising for its whimsical premise than it is for its not infrequent excursions into dour melodrama. What appears at first to be a supernatural sex comedy soon involves the ghosts of the old man’s past lovers and friends and shifts its focus towards the heavy subject of death. His demise soon approaching, the old writer struggles to produce quality work or even control the women he has functionally created, as both Akako the goldfish and the ghost (Yôko Maki) are more or less fictions the old man has constructed. Yet the film’s interest in skewering the writer’s masculinist ideation of women so often feels at odds with the sex, comedy, and goldfish fetishism that fill out its runtime. Although Nikaidô once again proves more than capable of handling massive tonal shifts as an actress, and is as fun to watch confronting Ren Oshugi as she is detailing her desire to be swallowed, the unfocused Bitter Honey vacillates too loosely between pervert comedy and death-obsessed melodrama. The ending, then, functions as the film in miniature: a cruel twist of fate that’s undercut by an unearned moment of bliss. Chris Mello
“Filmmaking is a battle we can’t lose,” says a possible investor to director Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) in Lowlife Love. If that’s the case, then call this film a defeat of the highest order. Eiji Uchida’s latest follows Tetsuo, his crew, and his competitors for three seasons, as the director scams his way into financing a new production, one that will hopefully rejuvenate his failing career. Among the film’s many lows, the most glaring one might be Tetsuo himself: his cantankerous unlikeability borders on sociopathic. He steals from his family, molests countless women, and assaults anyone who disagrees with him. Tetsuo is so vehemently toxic that the pathos the film tries to afford him (“at least he hasn’t sold out”) wrings fatally false, especially in the “redemptive” last act. And that’s without even fully delving into the film’s wild misogyny, its degradation of practically every woman who enters the frame. Women exist here largely just to have sex with the men, using this to get them ahead in their careers or just because they have so much love for our director. Worse still, there’s not really a laugh in sight throughout this black comedy. Paul Attard