The 10th anniversary edition of Japan Cuts, North America’s largest festival for new Japanese film, wrapped this past weekend. Our third and final dispatch features a 2002 romantic comedy from Ryosuke Hashiguchi and a 1982 cyberpunk watershed from Sogo Ishii (both of which played as part of the “classics” sidebar); Masao Adachi’s latest political provocation; and Yoji Yamada’s new drama set during the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s filmography represents various generations’ desires for individual expression in a repressed Japanese society. His 1993 debut, A Touch of Fever, follows two rent boys who numb themselves to sex and refuse to admit their feelings for each other, while 2008’s All Around Us cycles through years in the life of a married couple coping with external social pressures following the loss of their child. Hush!, Hashiguchi’s greatest film to date, falls distinctly in the middle of those two films: it’s about three young people who’ve made it to the other side of a youth spent denying who they are, but who are not yet able to overcome the cultural expectations that prevent them from living openly as the adults they want to be. After a chance encounter with a gay couple, Asako (Reiko Kataoka), a young woman from a broken family, asks the closeted Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) to have a baby with her (“you have fatherly eyes,” she says). As Katsuhiro and his boyfriend Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) begin to spend time with Asako, mulling over her offer, a bond forms between the three—one that Katsuhiro and Naoya’s families soon attempt to break up. With Hush!, Hashiguchi means to contrast the honest love and respect between his non-traditional family unit with the fractured values of the traditional ones that reject it. The desire for a baby at the film’s center, then, serves as a lovely, unforced metaphor: As one generation inevitably withers, a new one with its own ideals is on the way. Sam C. Mac
The most bluntly political of Japanese filmmakers, Masao Adachi returns to a comfortable controversy with his latest, The Artist of Fasting. Loosely based on a Franz Kafka short story, Adachi’s tale of a mute starvation protester hits on all the hallmarks of what made him such a sensation in the ’60s: critiques of global foreign policy, Japanese domestic policy (this film especially points to the harsh treatment of the native Ainu people), and performance-art-as-protest. These political jabs act as a rough structuring element for a film that’s simply about a man sitting around doing nothing, and often pose as some sort of explanation for this quietly radical behavior. Many groups walk through the shopping mall where the nameless man sits and project their concerns onto him, calling his protest alternately liberal, conservative, radical, problematic, or even messianic. These interactions are the only guiding action of the film, leaving no room for traditional narrative to create an empathy with the protester. However, this freedom from structure—or, even, from making sense—gives Adachi all the room he needs to have fun and inject some much-needed radical political discourse into the neoliberal Shinzō Abe administration’s culture. Where else will you get a sequence of ISIS-Guantánamo BDSM, pinku-film-ready Doctors without Borders, or death cults committing seppuku for comedy? The Artist of Fasting is ready-made for those tired of this year’s calamities, and who just want to laugh at the world’s slow collapse. Zach Lewis
Nearly every scene in Sogo Ishii‘s Burst City erupts into a fistfight, brawl, or outright riot—and every other scene sets up for a melee to come. With shaky camera work, studded leather, loud guitars, and roaring engines all vying for dominance as a handful of characters and a crowd of extras grapple in industrially lit darkness, swinging around blunt objects threateningly, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but the components at work are telling you everything you need to know. As a cyberpunk film, Burst City has the rare distinction of not relying on exposition to tell you about evil corporations, rival gangs, abused laborers, and rebellious youth. Instead, it just follows the characters as they live through the trials of their age. The problem—or, conversely, the very reason for its cult classic appeal—is that specifics of character and plot tend to get crowded out of the film. We don’t really know anything about the people in the rival punk bands that seem to be at the center of the film; we don’t really know what the yakuza-style gangsters are trying to accomplish or what atomic energy has to do with it; we don’t know where the two guys in sheet metal armor riding a motorcycle fit into things, or why they only communicate by screaming. Burst City is less a story than a spectacle of an alternate world, and those who want to see bikers and rockers spitting attitude and throwing a pig’s head at cops will get to experience that, and much more. Try not to spend too much time asking yourself “what for?”; Ishii’s aesthetic is the point here. Ivan DeWilde
When her son is killed in Nagasaki by the atomic bomb that ended World War II, Nobuko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), an elderly midwife faces life alone—that is, until her son’s (Kazunari Ninomiya) spirit returns to keep her company. Once preoccupied by a search for closure, Nobuko is now able to reconnect, to reminisce about the good times, and move on, as she and her son learn the virtue of letting go together. But Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is a film filled with as much beauty and pathos as it is hoary cliche. It’s at once a touching tribute to a mother’s love for her son and a baldly manipulative piece of emotional pablum. Director Yôji Yamada never quite seems to find the balance of magical realism he seeks, blunting his film’s emotional impact, while mostly ignoring the aftermath of the nuclear holocaust that enveloped Nagasaki. Yet Yoshinaga and Ninomiya find small moments of truth and humanity in an otherwise weak screenplay. Matthew Lucas