The 2019 edition of New York-based film festival Japan Cuts runs from July 19 to the 28th (find the full schedule of screenings here). We are forever grateful for Japan Cuts for many reasons: there’s that Sion Sono triple feature they programmed back in 2016, which in large part prompted our full retrospective on the filmmaker, and of course there’s the spotlight that they put on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s audacious epic, Hanagatami (one of our top films of this year so far), at last year’s fest. As such, we’re always on the lookout for gems that might have escaped our attentions were it not for these fine folks’ sharp programming. (And I can say that, in our first of two dispatches from this year’s Japan Cuts, we’ve already found a couple.) Below, you’ll find our takes on five films from the festival’s slate: Sho Miyake’s unconventionally breezy romantic triangle movie, And Your Bird Can Sing; and four debut features, Leo Sato’s The Kamagasaki Cauldron War, Aimi Natsuto’s Jeux de plage, Tadashi Nagayama’s Being Natural, and Hirokazu Koreeda pupil Nanako Hirose’s His Lost Name.
Set in the Osaka slum of the title, The Kamagasaki Cauldron War’s very existence testifies to its politics: it defies a local ordinance that deems the neglected neighborhood literally unnameable. It also stands — along with former Japan Cuts comrades Sanchu Uprising and Hanagatami — against Tokyo’s cinematic hegemony, which strictly insists on prime city cosmopolitism. Director Leo Sato partnered with Kamagasaki’s decidedly un-cosmopolitan outsider community to revive a proletarian tradition arguably dormant in Japan since 1937, when, on the day of its premiere, Humanity and Paper Balloons effectively printed Sadao Yamanaka’s one-way ticket to the front lines. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War lifts a few compositional strategies from Yamanaka’s final testament, though the antics of The Million Ryo Pot form a clearer narrative model. Here, the local yakuza’s ceremonial rice pot has gone missing, triggering a sudden supply-and-demand spasm, inflating the value of this widely available, mundane object and subjecting Kamagasaki’s day laborers to the market’s most idiotic whims. The madcap scramble to nab all the local product for resale is led by neighborhood fixture Nikishi, rapscallion turned accidental anarcho-Marxist; he wouldn’t for a second feel out of place in the wildest Preston Sturges comedy. That Sato plays Nikishi’s transformation — from self-interested conniver into a man of higher, if grudging, consciousness — for laughs suggests that the filmmaker is an honest purveyor of proletarianism in a World Cinema of pretenders. He has little patience for the liberal (read: arthouse) pieties that would demand that a poverty of humor match a poverty of means, to say nothing of dubious neoliberal redevelopment ideologies, which here meet a perfectly blunt dismissal: “The Osaka Expo kills people.” So yes, The Kamagasaki Cauldron War is raucous and ramshackle and very funny, but that’s because Kamagasaki is raucous and ramshackle and funny, and because having a better time than the better classes is the best class weapon. Evan Morgan
Jeux de plage, the debut feature from Japanese director Aimi Natsuto, is a film that’s more than eager to engage with the greats of French cinema. “07:30 Week End” reads its opening title card — a bit of scene-setting that doubles as a reference to Godard’s 1967 masterwork, which is just the first of the many titles Natsuto name-drops across her film’s slight, 77-minute runtime. Somewhat distracting, these titles are ultimately less significant than the milieu that the film occupies. Set in Japan’s Shonan region, over the course of a single day, Jeux de plage (“beach games”) unfolds as a sexual roundelay between the houseguests of a beachside mansion — a motley bunch who arrive in anticipation of some sort of party, and who are all vaguely connected to a woman named Miwako (never seen), and a university film course. There’s a trio of female friends, one of whom has a crush on the other; a musician who has a gig at a nearby restaurant; a couple of college-age Korean students, one of whom is taking the aforementioned class; and the student’s hapless professor, who’s first seen waking up in the villa’s empty swimming pool after a drunken night. As in the work of Hong Sang-soo, there’s a continual emphasis on punishing caddish male behavior, though certain out-of-left-field details (e.g. a female character unexpectedly pissing in a hallway) are less easily explained. The much-awaited party, though, never arrives, and neither does the film — which is partly by design. Although Jeux de plage has a set-up that would be at home in one of Rohmer’s summer outings, it takes place in late spring, and this seasonal shift alters the expected rhythms — though in this case the film mostly just moves like farce in which none of the farcical elements come off. Scene by scene, Natsuto attempts to subvert expectations, but too often stops short at limp suggestion. Lawrence Garcia
Sho Miyake‘s And Your Bird Can Sing, based on a novel by the late Yasushi Sato, is sort of like Jules and Jim in Japan. The film version shifts the action of the novel from 1980s Tokyo to present day Hakodate. An unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto, listed as “Me” in the credits) works as a part-time bookseller, and is friends and roommates with Shizuo (Shota Sometani), who is unemployed. “Me,” true to his hipster/slacker personality, takes a super casual approach to life, one that extends to his relationship with Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), a coworker whom he begins dating. Though “Me” initially flubs things by standing Sachiko up on what was supposed to be their first date, soon, the two are sleeping together in “Me”‘s cramped bunkbed. Later, Shizuo expresses some vague romantic interest in Sachiko — and “Me” isn’t the least bit upset, even encouraging Shizuo to go for it. The best feature of this lovely, beguiling film is how deftly it avoids romantic triangle clichés, structured as it is, instead, around lengthy scenes of the three young lovers hanging out, enjoying each other’s company at bars, karaoke joints, and nightclubs. The woozy, languid score — by DJ and producer Hi’Spec, who also cameos in a key scene here — is a crucial element, perfectly matching the physical and emotional drift of the film’s characters. This emphasis on mood and atmosphere, rather than conventional narrative, will no doubt frustrate viewers who, for some reason, want to see yet another variation on the tired scenario of two guys fighting over a woman. And Your Bird Can Sing is more interested in earnestly engaging with a joyous and poignant mood, one that lingers well beyond the final frame; it is a beautiful depiction of the attractions, and the limitations, faced by characters who reject societally imposed career ambitions and go with life’s flow. Christopher Bourne
Being Natural is one of those impossible objects, difficult to talk about without spoiling but also not particularly interesting to think about without acknowledging its bizarre narrative left turn. The film begins as a kind of genteel portrait of Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in the country and cares for his elderly, senile uncle. When the uncle passes away, Taka must navigate some typical family drama, ultimately finagling his way into staying in the uncle’s large home and working for his cousin, a middle-aged divorcee who’s recently returned from the city. We are also introduced to the Kurihara family, urban transplants who flee the congestion and pollution of Tokyo to seek peace in a small town. The Kuriharas are city-slicker-hipster caricatures, pontificating on healthy, organic living, and fetishizing the countryside as a purer place, alienating their teenage daughter in the process. Director Tadashi Nagayama invokes a calm, almost serene pace in the first half of the film, setting up various conflicts but then ending them quickly, without much incident or fuss. It’s idyllic, with Taka’s character setting the goofy, almost cornball tone, content to take in the scenery and play on his bongo drums. It’s all a lovely, pastoral vision of unencumbered living. Then, without warning, the Kurihara family reveals its true face, charging Taka with bogus claims of pedophilia and usurping his home for their own use (opening an organic, healthy eating café). This is pure tonal whiplash, and that’s even before these brief intrusions of magic realism give way to a full-blown surrealist meltdown, involving violent revenge, exploding heads, and a glowing gold figure stalking through the city. It is, finally, in the film’s coda that Nagayama reveals himself to be a master troll, as a bird feasts on a decomposing corpse while discordant, high pitched noise metal/jazz blares on the soundtrack (think John Zorn and Merzbow). One is tempted to give Nagayama credit, just for simply not giving a fuck, but the result is also not particularly satisfying. Once you get the joke, and understand that the audience itself is the butt of that joke, there’s not much left to work with. Ultimately, this is sneering sarcasm blown up to 90 minutes, without the willingness to truly transgress, ala Sion Sono or Takashi Miike. Nagayama has a good eye, knows how to use the camera, and gets fine performances from his cast. If he can put childish pranks behind him, maybe he could make a real movie. Daniel Gorman
As the former assistant and protégé of the great Hirokazu Koreeda, Nanako Hirose has made a debut film that unsurprisingly doesn’t stray too far from Koreeda’s own mode of domestic drama. His Lost Name tells the story of an aging carpenter, Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi), who takes in a shy, unassuming homeless man named Shinichi (Yuya Yagira). Hirose means to engage with paternal themes here, as suggested by the bond shared between Tetsuro and Shinichi, and the complications which arise from their secret emotional histories. But her film is awfully slow, and it’s beset with too many scenes designed to telegraph unspoken feelings between the two men — scenes that are actually rather inert, and so unhelpful in this regard. It’s not that the actors don’t have chemistry, per say, just that the dialogue in their exchanges tends to feel, alternately, too tentative or too forced. To Hirose’s credit, the director still manages to create ambiguity with regard to the pair’s gradually-forming interdependence, to the point where we aren’t always quite sure who is more reliant upon the other. One of the most trenchant (if hardly revelatory) observations gleaned from His Lost Name is the way in which the film shows how we artificially replace relationships, using people as placeholders for the sake of our own happiness. However, the most impressive and complete element here is the performance of Yagira — a breakout, Best Actor winner at Cannes 15 years ago for Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, and who should be better known outside of Japan than he is. The actor is fully committed to unpacking Shinuchi’s tortured, post-trauma psyche, giving a performance that deserves a better film than this. His Last Name‘s abrupt epiphany of a finale reinforces the sense that Hirose has been straining to hit emotional beats she can’t quite nail, and while there is admittedly something manifestly encouraging in at least what she’s attempted with her first foray into feature filmmaking, ultimately, this debut feels unsure of itself and fatally underdeveloped. Calum Reed