by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Japan Cuts 2017

July 25, 2017

Japan Cuts—the largest screening event for new Japanese films in North America—just wrapped its 11th annual edition this week. Our one and only dispatch from the fest this year includes new films from the auteurs Sion Sono (ANTIPORNO) and Kiyoshi Kuroawa (Daguerrotype); respected but lesser known directors like Nobuhiro Yamashita (Over the Fence) and Yûya Ishii (My Dad and Mr. Ito); and plenty of interesting work from the worlds of anime (Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World), documentary (Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Idols), and the avant-garde (Gō Takamine’s Hengyoro).

DaguerrotypeAlthough widely dismissed during its initial premiere, Daguerrotype, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first French-language production, finds the Japanese genre master in peak form; the first hour alone fulfills the promise of the director’s formal rigor being transposed to a ghost story in the French countryside. Jean (Tahar Rahim, superb), a pleasant if opportunistic young man, becomes the assistant of Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), a demanding, volatile photographer. Having exclusively dedicated himself to outmoded methods of daguerrotype photography, Stéphane captures his subjects—chiefly, his daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau)—with an obsessive fervor. Kurosawa’s camera—characteristically cool, distant and precise—infuses the proceedings with a spectral energy, as dust motes filter through ghostly shafts of light and a wooden staircase takes on a foreboding presence. The material does lose its potency by the end, as the film shifts its focus from romantic, horror-infused melodrama (triangulated between Jean’s solicitousness, Marie’s fragility, and Stéphane’s overbearing presence) to the details of a drawn-out real estate deal. Even at its most risible, though, Daguerrotype remains feverishly compelling—a chilly study of percolating grief and doomed romance, and a formalist wonder of diaphanous, ghostly textures. Lawrence Garcia

AntipornoCommissioned as part of Nikkatsu’s line of Roman Porno reboots, and adherent to its rules, Sion Sono’s ANTIPORNO is, as its title suggests, a screed against the pornography industry and the false liberation it purports to offer. Via the sort of direct, crazed monologuing typical of Sono’s work, central character Kyoko (Ami Tomite)—eventually revealed to be an actress in a porno— lays bare ANTIPORNO’s thematic ambitions, decrying the artificiality of social constructions of purity and sexual freedom in an oppressive society. Formally, Sono mirrors these concerns, constructing and deconstructing artifices and fragmenting his narrative’s timeline to lend fluidity to a continuum of sexual experience. So often the camera follows Kyoko through limiting space, like the bright yellow set we initially confuse for her apartment (after a moment of ecstasy that finds her awash in color, she crawls on the floor, screaming to be let out of this room with no exits). Without quite becoming didactic, ANTIPORNO marks a shockingly direct indictment for the often ideologically slippery Sono. And it’s still as wild and engaging as almost anything he’s made. Chris Mello

In This Corner of the World 2Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World—adapted from the 2007 manga of the same name—provides the perspective of a WWII Japanese housewife enduring the tragedies that take place off the battlefield. Set during the pivotal war years of 1944 and 1945, the film follows Suzu (Rena Nounen), who marries into the Hojo family when she’s only 18 and must bear the responsibility of caring for their household while her husband is away on naval duty. Most of In This Corner of the World plays as an extended comedy of manners, as Suzu repeatedly tries to fit into her new family and please her relatives, with varying degrees of success. For a manga series, a lackadaisical with pleasant misadventures taking up a bulk of the story can work, given how much breathing room there is within those serialized narratives. However, this two-hour film of mostly lighthearted comedy’s shift, abruptly, into wartime drama (and at about the 90-minute mark) feels forced, never making a smooth enough transition to allow the hardships its refocussing on to have a real impact. The final ten minutes of In This Corner of the World do reach an emotional peak that rivals other notable anime weepies like Grave of the Fireflies, but the more broadly enjoyable tone of the rest feels less substantial. Paul Attard

My Dad and Mr ItoBeneath the lightly comedic surface of Yuki Tanada’s My Dad and Mr. Ito lies a more serious and sharply observed riff on Tokyo Story that updates the premise of unwanted family elders to reflect the current economic realities of scarce full-time work and the difficulties of maintaining a stable middle-class lifestyle. Though the clever rhyming of the Japanese title (“Oto-san” to “Ito-san”) is lost in English translation, an analogous symmetry is preserved in the film’s three central characters, who are all perfectly equidistant in their ages. 34-year-old Aya (Juri Ueno) and her 54-year-old live-in boyfriend, whom she oddly calls Ito-san (Lily Franky), are suddenly visited by Aya’s 74-year-old father (Tatsuya Fuji). (In fact, he’s essentially dumped on their doorstep by Aya’s brother and his wife, who’s been driven mad by Aya’s father’s high-maintenance crankiness.) The overly neat generational set-up—with Ito as the mediator between the resentful, squabbling father and daughter—and the sitcom-like premise may not be initially promising, but Tanada deftly avoids cliché and sentimentality to deliver skillfully drawn portraits of characters who until now were more strangers than family. Though it all ends with hints of reconciliation, the film admirably doesn’t pretend that decades-old hurts and resentments are so easily resolved. Christopher Bourne

The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of BlueIn The Great Passage—a film for which Yûya Ishii won Best Director from both the Japanese Academy Awards and Kinema Junpo—the decades-long story of dictionary writers was told with a slow, patient accumulation of detail, lives and loves built out of the tiniest of gestures and moments. In adapting Tahi Saihate’s poetry collection The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Ishii adopts a less prosaic, more eclectic style, mixing techniques and tones in an unstable but sweet story of young love. Sosuke Ikematsu plays Shinji, a young construction worker with one functioning eye who kindles a kind of romance with Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), a nurse and occasional bartender. Both are mopey, urban-loner-lost-in-the-crowd types, characters familiar in cinema going back to Paul Fejos’s Lonesome at least. They’re haunted by death, both in their pasts (a long-lost mother) and their present (a friend and a boyfriend) and barely able to communicate (Shinji alternates between eerie muteness and non-stop babble). Ishii throws in some animated sequences, lots of rapid cityscape montages, a handful of POV shots from Shinji’s half-vision (blacking out the left side of the frame) and the occasional deadpan oddity to keep things interesting, but ultimately the desolation of the film is only leavened by the purity of its romance. Sean Gilman

HengyoroOkinawan filmmaker Gō Takamine’s Hengyoro is an unclassifiable collage. More or less centered on the story of a couple of elderly men who perform what they call “chain plays” (fluid mixtures of film and theatre), the two get into trouble when one accidentally steals a bagged aphrodisiac from their village store. The aphrodisiac looks exactly like flour, right down to the packaging, but for a small label marking its contents as “explicit.” The store owner sends his three wives, a trio of dripping wet women who are apparently some kind of spirits, to cut off the guy’s ear. The old men leave town, but are eventually drawn back to the village, driven either by the circular nature of reality or the allure of its avant-garde scene. (Represented by, among other things, a woman singing while despondent people paint plaster on each other; Bill Morrisonian decaying strips of 8mm film stock, soaked in sea snake soup in an attempt at restoration; and a modernized caveman who wears a feathered hat and digs rock music.) I don’t know how much of this is sourced in folk tradition or myth, possibly none of it, but the pervading sense is of a culture lost in time, of past and present colliding in explicable conversations, and bits and pieces of a lost world adrift in forgotten places. Film and reality fold in on themselves, creating unfathomable mysteries. SG

Over the FenceIn Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence, Joe Odagiri plays Shiraiwa, an apparently lost man attempting to rebuild his life and studying carpentry at a vocational school he bicycles to everyday from a tiny house on the outskirts of town. A quiet loner,Shiraiwa’s dragged out for a drink one night with a classmate and meets Satoshi (Yû Aoi), a beautiful woman with a fondness for imitating the calls and mating rituals of various bird species. A kind of manic depressive pixie dream girl, Satoshi eventually seduces Shiraiwa, but then flips out on him. We learn the man’s backstory, but hers is only ever hinted at; in fact, we learn less about her than we do many of Shiraiwa’s classmates, including a reformed yakuza, a retired bartender, and a young man enacting a low-key version of Full Metal Jacket. This unfortunately makes Over the Fence, for most of its running time, dramatically less compelling than Yamashita’s last feature, La La La at Rock Bottom, let alone his 2005 film Linda Linda Linda, one of the very best movies of this century so far. Thankfully, Yamashita excels at endings: there’s some kind of magic when this occasionally funny, but mostly depressing, not-quite love story suddenly turns into a stealth remake/inversion of The Natural. SG

Summer-LightsMarking French writer-director Jean-Gabriel Periot’s first step into fiction filmmaking (after a string of documentaries), Summer Lights opens, fittingly, with a simple, sustained talking-head interview. “That summer was especially hot…” begins Mrs. Takeda as she recalls the moments leading up to the Hiroshima bombing, which she and her sister Michiko both survived (though her sister died of radiation soon after). Save a few cuts to the interviewer, Akihiro (Hiroto Ogi)—a Paris-based Japanese expatriate visiting Hiroshima—her vivid testimony is captured in a sustained, fixed frame. The rigor of that opening anchors the more wistful remainder of the film, which follows Akihiro’s chance encounter with a young woman (Akane Tatsukawa) as the two stroll through Hiroshima and a neighboring town. Suffused with a distinct sense of time, place, and memory, the Before Sunrise-esque romance that blooms after the pair meet deepens considerably as the film goes on, until a belated exchange of names pushes the scenario fully into the metaphysical. There’s a frequent clumsiness to the dialogue that tempers the subtly magical air Periot and his collaborators strive to create, making for a bracing immediacy that’s dragged down by trite platitudes. Summer Lights’ ending, though, is a perfectly judged, tender recapitulation of not just the preceding 80 minutes’ look at the beauty contained in a moment, but also a sobering embrace of its passing. LG

Tokyo Idols“The selling point is that they’re not yet developed” says otaku Shin after seeing a concert of middle school-aged girls singing their hearts out to a crowd of mostly middle-aged males. Such is the appeal of an “idol”—a Japanese pop-star whom older men obsess over to startling degrees (which includes, as a fan named Koji proudly admits, blowing an amount of cash on idol concerts equivalent to buying an apartment). Tokyo Idols tries to shed light on this weirdly fascinating industry, but unfortunately director Kyoko Miyake does much the same that these excessive fans do: she treats idol fandom as a means of escapism and not much else. The focus of her documentary is on the admirers and the different reasons each has for pursuing fandom, ignoring how the idol industry operates and how cutthroat it can be. There’s commentary thrown in sporadically about how the business empowers guys to look at women as objects, but there’s never enough information given for criticism to stick. Miyake relies too heavily on simply showing overly cutesy performances rather than say anything about the culture that exists around them. This is a missed opportunity to try and understand a deeply unique facet of Japanese culture. PA

West North WestTakuro Nakamura’s West North West—the direction to Mecca from Tokyo—details a sort-of-kind-of love triangle between three women: Iranian exchange student Naima (Sahel Rosa), bartender Kei (Hanae Kan), and Kei’s pathologically jealous model girlfriend, Ai (Yuka Yamauchi). West North West is well acted and often affecting, despite an unfortunate reliance on obvious, overdetermined metaphors (a caged bird, a malfunctioning compass). Nakamura takes on lots of themes (homophobia, xenophobia, cultural differences, aimless youth) and balances them with a remarkable intimacy. When Kei at one point denies being a lesbian, saying she just keeps falling in love with women, it comes across less as Kei deluding herself than as an acknowledgement that sexuality is often fluid and ill-served by constricting labels. This makes the central relationship between Naima and Kei the film’s most fruitfully fascinating one, its ambiguous nature making it all the more palpable. That’s the strong emotional core here, and the most impressive aspect of a film that’s sometimes too enamored with its own self-consciously arty moodiness. CB

Love and Goodbye and HawaiiShingo Matsumura’s Love and Goodbye and Hawaii is a rare gem, an off-beat light comedy about young people that is neither cute nor contrived, founded in a reality unadorned by screenwriterly gimmicks. Rinko (Aya Ayano), a young woman a few years out of college, lives with her ex-boyfriend/best friend Isamu (Kentaro Tamura). Despite the fact that they’ve been broken up for six months, they seem to have no interest in changing living arrangements, happy in their easy rapport and comfortable routine. But when her friends learn what’s going on, and at the same time another woman shows interest in Isamu, Rinko must choose whether to move on or try to rekindle their romance. Matsumura follows Rinko as she talks to friends, prepares for a long-awaited trip to Hawaii for a wedding, and fruitlessly searches for another place to live; his film is as small and lovely as real life, building out from not much more than the quiet moments, minor epiphanies, and bleak sweetness of being young and free in the city. SG

The Extremists’ OperaAdapted from its director’s own novel, Junko Emoto’s The Extremists’ Opera is often at its best when its roving handheld camera has the good sense to stop and observe. A theatre director making her film debut, Emoto’s interest in watching her actors navigate the spaces she creates for them provides both the film’s most playful and most emotionally taxing moments. In the opening scene, two women engage in oral sex while rolling on the floor, the camera subtly pulling back to emphasize their movement within the empty room. Later, and repeatedly, characters are positioned at opposite ends of a still frame, separated by the vertical beams of their home or rehearsal space, until one of them moves to either close the distance or make it permanent. The film’s narrative, in which the manipulative, womanizing director of an all-women theatre troupe falls for her lead actress but ruins that relationship and jeopardizes her career by falling for other women, is largely familiar. But as it is totally disinterested in attaining a facile sense of closure and guided by the assured hand of its director, the film’s keen emotional intelligence is always apparent. CM