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 second dispatch features Junji Sakamoto’s new comedy; teen movies from Takeshi Ohne and Shiro Maeda; and Yoshifumi Tsubota’s adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Set in low-income housing and offering glimpses into the hardships of the working class—the central couple’s son was killed by an overworked truck driver—Junji Sakamoto’s comedy The Projects lightly gestures towards class commentary, but a convoluted structure and a last-minute shift towards science fiction deaden what might otherwise be a lively, meaningful film. Having lost both their only son and their herbal remedy business, the elderly Yamashitas retreat into an Osaka housing project inhabited by a close-knit community of gossipy neighbors. When Seiji Yamashita (Ittoku Kishibe) goes missing, those neighbors are quick to cast suspicion upon his wife, Hanako (Naomi Fujiyama). Through repeated use of expository flashbacks, Sakamoto clues us into what the neighbors don’t know is happening within the Yamashita’s apartment. The film works best when exploiting this comedic irony, as it does during a tenant meeting in which the would-be detectives bicker around a table, all framed in one well-staged, static shot. But moments like this are few and far between, as The Projects spends too much of its time in flashback, explaining a joke it rarely gets around to telling. Even the bizarre twist can’t escape the deadweight of exposition, as the last 20 minutes offer little more than an explanation to a surprise happy ending. Chris Mello
Less a slice-of-life teen movie than a dramatized crash-course in Japanese popular comics, Takeshi Ohne’s Bakuman follows Mashiro (Takeru Sato) and Takagi (Ryuunosuke Kamiki) as they try to break into the industry. They submit their first comic to Shonen Jump, the real-world magazine that ran the comic this film was adapted from. And just as Jump is geared toward young boys—its pages filled with adventure, camaraderie, humor, and material that stretches the limits of good taste—so too, naturally, is Bakuman. Tensions peak in the form of rivalry between artists, as a confrontation taking place between quiet studios set miles apart from each other is rendered as an ink-splattering clash of giant, phallic fountain pens. Unsurprisingly, there are times when a dedication to shonen manga tropes is clearly a handicap; notably, when it comes to the sole female character here, a blank slate who seems to exist merely as a love interest for Mashiro. And while an affinity for this subject matter may be enough to get some through the film’s two hours, even otaku may find its treatment of their world a bit too glorified. In Bakuman, interpersonal conflicts and occupational hazards are just the obstacles in an adolescent hero’s journey, each overcome unfailingly with bravado and friendship. Ivan DeWilde
Kako: My Sullen Past is a film that tells you life is boring. Even with the numerous odd events taking place, our titular character (Fumi Nikaido) only begins to notice the wonders of her life when her aunt, Mikiko (Kyoko Koizumi, a Kiyoshi Kurosawa favorite), reappears after being reported dead for years. Unfortunately, the movie never fully develops the idea of the change this event should affect on Kako. Neither does director Shiro Maeda have a lot of faith in his images, relying too heavily on exposition and direct explanation, while also wrongly assuming the film’s more wooly story elements can overcome the burden of weak characterization. Kako isn’t even really a character in the film that’s been titled after her; instead, she’s a facile vessel for angsty teen movie tropes. You’ve seen this film before: teen opens up to the world around them thanks to the influence of a quirky adult friend. Maeda attempts to invoke some originality with a bomb threat and a kidnapping, but he doesn’t manage to hide the derivativeness at his film’s core. Paul Attard
Sourcing material from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr certainly lends Yoshifumi Tsubota’s second film a certain pedigree—and indeed, The Shell Collector looks as if it may prove an evocative drama of dueling personalities for much of its first half. Unfortunately, awkward tonal shifts, which may have worked on the page, undo a promising start. After a suicidal woman, Izumi (Shinobu Terajima), washes ashore, interrupting the cultivated quiet of his isolated beach cottage, a blind Professor (Lily Franky) rescues her from the waves and learns she is a former artist who has lost the use of her right hand. Later, Izumi is stung by a poisonous cone shell and endures a trippy dreamscape high, from which she awakens to find her ailment miraculously cured. As the Professor’s life is upended, what should have been another 45 minutes of discomfiting character exorcism instead turns to camp and pedantry, as a larger world outside intrudes and disrupts the film’s patient flow. Tsubota still allows for some dazzling shots of coastal beauty and a few welcome surrealist touches, such as the Professor’s recurrent dream of being seated in a chair on the ocean floor, but in the end he sacrifices too much in the name of plot, his vision seen only occasionally as bits of beautiful flotsam. Luke Gorham