Japan Cuts—the largest program of new Japanese films in North America—just wrapped its 12th annual edition earlier this week. Our one and only dispatch from the fest this year includes a passion project from octogenarian auteur Nobuhiko Obayashi (Hanagatami), a new work from iconoclastic anime director Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), the festival’s opening night film (Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop) and its centerpiece presentation (Shûichi Okita’s Mori, the Artist’s Habitat).
Anime visionary Masaaki Yuasa’s first feature since his 2004 breakthrough Mind Game (though kid-friendly Lu Over the Wall made it to the U.S. first), The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl applies the director’s fluid, warped, and dazzlingly colorful trademark style to a fanciful fable about love, fate, and the conviviality engendered amongst heavy-drinking strangers. Unfolding over one improbably eventful night in Kyoto’s riverside Pontocho district, the film tracks the adventures of a young woman (known only as “the black-haired girl”) determined to let “the thread of fate” guide her from one drink to the next, her cheerful optimism seemingly converting the alcohol she imbibes into bursts of pastel-shaded flowers. She’s pursued on this quest by an infatuated older student (referred to as “Senpai”) whose anxiety keeps him from approaching her directly, instead relying on increasingly farfetched coincidences to intertwine his own thread of fate with hers. The first half of The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl thrives on this unpredictable energy, as both would-be lovers collide with an array of eccentric characters and increasingly bizarre obstacles to overcome. There’s an ancient man named Rihaku, who presides over an enormous, unbearably spicy hot pot and challenges anyone who wants access to his rare collectibles to eat it; a “God of Used-Book Markets” in the form of a prankish kid determined not to let sellers disrupt his “sea of books”; and a guerilla theatre troupe performing a traveling rock opera while staying one step ahead of the cops trying to shut them down. The film’s conceits are often delightful, and Yuasa’s animation remains restlessly kinetic and inventive, lending a charming sense of boundless possibility which, along with charismatic voice performances and a warm sense of place, helps even the more out-there concepts go down smoothly. The episodic structure does grow a bit repetitive after a while, however, and though the spectacular climax will thrill Yuasa fans longing for the hallucinatory highs of Mind Game, it disappointingly retreats into Senpai’s psyche and renders the black-haired girl as the blank-slate crush object her resourcefulness, drive, and “friendly punch” had seemed to subvert. At least The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is far more visually stimulating and conceptually playful than the average, self-pitying sensitive-guy romance. Plus, how many of those include a character named “Don Underwear”? Alex Engquist
“Seen through the wrong end of a telescope, an ordinary scene becomes an ancient story. No, it’s not nostalgia! It’s heartache for all that’s lost.” This quote from Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novel Hanagatami, a coming-of-age story set in a coastal village during Japan’s pre-WWII invasions of Manchuria and China, appears onscreen at the beginning of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film adaptation, both as an introduction to the themes of the story and a guide to the viewer. An irised, black-and-white image of the film’s young protagonist Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) standing atop a cliff, waves crashing against the rocks below — along with intertitles and a choppy framerate that suggests the quality of movement in silent film reels — immediately evokes early 20th century melodrama, immersing the viewer in an idea of the past so formally disorienting as to transcend nostalgia. This introduction heralds Hanagatami’s many re-inventions of the wild, hallucinatory, in-camera techniques that characterized Obayashi’s 1977 cult classic, House; overlaid CG effects, abundant greenscreen, and frenetic digital zooms all contribute to an equally phantasmagoric vision here. But whereas these elements (and a vibrant color scheme and psychedelic pop-rock soundtrack) lent House its childlike imagination, in Hanagatami they suggest a memory of the past distorted by time, grief, and anger, becoming something both vivid and surreal. Obayashi uses his myriad tools of artifice to collapse the distinction between the “ordinary scenes” of Dan’s novel and the “ancient story” of Japan’s indoctrination of young people into nationalism and the glory of military sacrifice. The film was in fact first conceived by the director 40 years ago, but only completed at age 79, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer; it navigates a structure at once linear and digressive, but with relentless momentum. Images and voices of dead lovers intrude on the present, while the same few bars of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1” play over and over, interwoven with a swelling original score. There are dizzying moments when the camera, its subjects, and the digitally inserted backdrops all seem to move separately, unmoored from time and reality. The displacement of time is especially prevalent in Obayashi’s decision to cast actors in their mid-30s as teenage boys, playing characters’ bold emotional beats with no hint of irony and creating a sense of kids growing old before their time, having had their childhoods cut tragically short by a recurring cycle of destruction. Hanagatami is an anti-war film with no battle scenes, a period melodrama unstuck in time, a long-gestating lament for a nation consuming its young; it’s more urgently inventive than any film released this year, rife with fascinating contradictions, and undoubtedly the work of a lifetime. AE
In attempting to navigate some difficult familial terrain in a similar vein as her contemporary, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Yukiko Mishima ultimately fails to escape rote contrivance with her latest film, Dear Etranger. Tadanobu Asano plays salaryman Makoto Tanaka, who’s living with his second wife Nanae (Rena Tanaka) and her two children from her last marriage. Both adults are batsu-ichi (once divorced) and are trying to make their new family function peacefully, but an already delicate situation is complicated when Nanae gets pregnant, and around the same time as Makoto is handed a substantial demotion at his once-high paying job, which forces him to work longer hours and be away from his family. As if this isn’t enough tedious melodrama for Mishima’s film to encompass, one of Tanaka’s step-daughters also hates him — and the whole idea of having a new father — and goes to extreme lengths to undermine her new dad’s attempts to bring the household together. Add to all that some subplots about dying family members and abusive ex-spouses, and you get a narrative that relies more on external forces exerted against a family than an exploration of psychological issues within it — essentially giving these characters no interiority, even as they’re saddled with ever growing dilemmas. Most of these story elements are hurriedly addressed, and there’s actually little sense that the Makoto clan will ever buckle under the weight of them; each ends up generically resolved (learning to live with much less, coming to realize the importance of our loved ones, etc. etc.) and a more serious interrogation of the family’s complications never comes. Paul Attard
Charting the emotional whiplash experienced by a young girl as she develops a crush on a classmate who subsequently gets together with her high school rival, Yoko Yamanaka‘s Amiko depicts wild vacillations between happiness and loneliness. But the director’s aesthetic is tired at this point, placing the character slightly out of frame or capturing her on the fly in YouTube or personal vlog-style videos — lacing a contemporary melodrama with references to social media. There’s even a quick interlude on a subway platform that turns into an impromptu musical number, another cliched quirk. Amiko feels tedious even at 65 minutes, winding up to a completely anticipated self-actualization that simply doesn’t feel earned because the rest of the film is so perfunctory. There’s confidence here to spare; Yamanaka was only 19 years old when she made this, and the tight running time and engaging lead performance from Aira Sunohara suggest a young talent firmly in control of their voice. But there’s simply nothing new or insightful here; Sunohara is content to recreate an emotional state mined by dozens of others who came before her. Matt Lynch
A young man heads to Singapore in search of his mother’s family after his father, a successful ramen chef, dies. Gauzy flashbacks fill in his parents’ backstory in-between meetings with his estranged uncle and grandmother; his Chinese mother married his Japanese father against her own mother’s wishes, a hostility that was the result of lingering hatred for the Japanese following their occupation of the city-state during World War II. Just as resentments and hatreds were passed down through the generations, so too were recipes, taught from parent to child, and adding personal touches learned through individual life experiences. The cuisine of Singapore, with its influences from throughout East and South Asia, as well as Europe, is the blunt instrument of metaphor in Eric Khoo’s quiet but still pretty maudlin melodrama. The young man’s journey is as much about learning the recipes of his mother’s family as it is reconciling himself to the past atrocities of his father’s homeland. English serves as the lingua franca, bridging the gap between ancient hatreds, facilitating the fusion of Japanese ramen (itself a combination of Japanese flavors with Chinese noodles) with Singaporean pork rib soup (a combination of Chinese soup with Southeast Asian flavors). As a vision of transnational solidarity dramatized by a Japanese person’s trip to Singapore, Ramen Shop is vastly more conventional and less interesting than Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism, also playing at this year’s Japan Cuts. But the food, at least, looks much better. Sean Gilman
It’s not until around the 20-minute mark that Mori, the Artist’s Habitat fleetingly entertains a notion of conflict. An inn manager begs famed oil painter Kumagai Morikazu (Tsutomu Yamazaki) to arrange the lettering on a new sign, to which Morikazu refuses, because it would take away from his daily routine of roving endlessly around his forest-like garden and observing the minuscule movements of the various bugs that inhabit his backyard. Once the issue is ironed-out between the two, the 94-year old modernist returns to his stomping ground, wandering around steadily with the help of two wooden canes. The refusal to burden its central figure with a cycle of constant conflict allows director Shûichi Okita to focus instead on one contemplative day in the life of this eccentric recluse; his film observes many delicate interactions between the painter and his seemingly mundane environment, and it’s this meditative quality that elevates Mori into being the rare biopic that’s less interested in why someone is acclaimed or famous and more in exploring the psychology of the person themselves. The film can still feel a little too aimless, considering just how little happens dramatically, but the moments of grace here tend to shine though; like many Morikazu works, the beauty is in the simplicity. PA