Photo: Japan Cuts
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Japan Cuts 2020 – Dispatch 2

July 24, 2020

Labyrinth of Cinema

Nobuhiko Obayashi, who passed away earlier this year, on April 10, was until recently relegated to the periphery of cinematic discussions of legacy. His status as a master filmmaker — he humbly preferred to be called a ‘film artist’ or a ‘cinematic magician’ — was taken for granted, and his career, which spanned nearly sixty years, is to this day defined to casual filmgoers largely by his uncategorizable, psychedelic ghost tale of sorts, House, which found new fans through its Criterion release. It’s surprising enough that Obayashi’s swansong, Labyrinth of Cinema, was made after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and given only three months to live, but that he delayed death and completed a final brilliant work that goes beyond his own established brand of experimentalism and unleashes the wildest recesses of imagination is something approaching miraculous. In Labyrinth of Cinema Obayashi casts on the screen the potentiality of filmic language as he envisions it, a three-hour, madcap anti-war odyssey through the deliriums of Japanese cinema, history, and poetry and weaving these threads with (semi-autobiographical) memories, nightmares, and dreams. Fittingly, it’s a deeply personal cinematic journey, its story set in Obayashi’s childhood hometown of Onomichi, and it revolves around a cinephile schoolgirl named Noriko and a cohort of three young guys — Mario Baba, a movie geek who’s in love with Noriko, his two pals, one a nerdy film historian, the other a wannabe yakuza. The quartet soon find themselves on the silver screen, omnipresent within an unending stream of Japanese war films and period dramas, that take place during an all-nighter acting as a farewell to the oldest movie theater in town. 

Undoubtedly, many of Obayashi’s cinematic and historical references here will be difficult to grasp, but they are far from the film’s central concern. Instead, the director employs brisk editing, fast-paced camera angle shifts, trippy color saturation, and his familiar chaotic imagery and cartoonish tonal atmosphere to immerse us in his final creation in much the same way that his teenaged protagonists here find themselves absorbed within the horrors and absurdities of the past. Labyrinth of Cinema suggests it’s through these cycles that we can “build the future,” but Noriko also states that it’s an effort “to find ourselves.” Obayashi likely thinks the answer is both, and in that spirit he never tries to conceal his visual gimmicks, instead proving eager to reveal cinema’s artifice as not just a method for reclaiming imagination in a despairing world but also as a means to effect our realities from within. It’s what Obayashi always sought to accomplish with film, and so it’s fitting that in his final work he has chosen to depict himself as the strange old pianist who decides to live in the movie forever, crouching over a piano, playing the music of peace toward eternity. Ayeen Forootan


There’s a half-hour experimental short located somewhere in Cenote, one that drops the lame docu- framing device as a pretext for the gorgeous underwater footage shown and is willing to just indulge in expressive, opulent imagery. Until that massive re-editing occurs, left are the morsels of a fully developed work within the husk of Kaori Oda’s latest feature, one that interrupts long sequences of visual ecstasy for history lessons regarding the nature of humanity and the spiritual connection one forms with the planet — in other words, a bunch of discursive kumbaya bullshit. The message is virtuous but unnecessary. 

Considering what’s shown of the naturally-produced sinkholes without the intrusion of any voiceover (save for a few annoying lines of faux-introspective narration), it seems like an illogical move for Oda to make here: she’s essentially finding ways to linguistically articulate something that’s best and most powerfully communicated in image and atmosphere. No amount of verbalized context could further enhance the sensation of being fully submerged without the weight of one’s body restraining their movements, on the verge of breaking surface tension as light pours through — one can look to either Stan Brakhage’s A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea or Barbara Hammer’s Pond and Waterfall, both of which capture the beauty, power, and sensuality of water in these regards, for this type of perceptual experience that forgoes needing some form of human drama to center the phenomenon. The moments where we are treated to extensions of these visual ideas (one can only imagine what either of these makers could accomplish with 4K digital technology) usually stimulate on a euphoric level; the variety of colors and sheer intensity of the strobing lights almost feel straight out of a nightclub, the totality of nature creating figures more intoxicating than man. One only wishes the rest of this material was equally concerned with stimulating on a level this phenomenological. Paul Attard


Kiyoshi Kurosawa has mostly veered away from the kind of oblique horror films that made his international reputation back in the late 90s and early 2000s. But his influence lives on, as evidenced by last year’s Japan Cuts selection Red Snow and now again with Taku Tsuboi‘s Sacrifice (Tsuboi actually worked on Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore when he was still a film student). Much like Kurosawa’s most famous genre entries, Sacrifice is less concerned with outright terror than a kind of abstracted, creeping dread, an unnerving sense of reality being just slightly off. Tsuboi uses the 2011 Tohoku earthquake as a kind of structuring fulcrum. College student Midori (Michiko Gomi) predicted the earthquake when she was a child and part of a bizarre doomsday cult along with her mother. Now an adult, her school’s campus is dealing with a series of cat mutilations and a dead female student, each having something to do with the upcoming anniversary of the quake. Midori’s classmates all appear to be outwardly normal, but each are hiding some unsavory aspect of their personality. Toko (Miki Handa) is friendly and demure, but becomes convinced that the quiet and studious Okita (Yuzu Aoki) is responsible for the feline killings. For his part, Okita quickly reveals that he’s capable of great violence, which he seems both fascinated by and attracted to. Further complicating things, some cult members reappear in Midori’s life, a few posing as students and attempting to bring her back into the fold.

Throughout all this, Tsuboi conjures an eerie atmosphere of unease, manipulating the material reality of the narrative by inserting flashbacks to Midori’s childhood, cryptic images of crashing ocean waves, and scenes that may or may not be manifestations of Midori’s psychic abilities. In addition, each murdered cat has been tagged with a number, gradually counting down to zero. What happens when the countdown ends is unclear, but apocalyptic implications abound. The ultimate reveal of the murderer is neither particularly surprising nor satisfying, but the film’s pleasures lie elsewhere. As a moody, evocative mediation on millennial ennui and encroaching doom, Sacrifice is unnervingly successful. Throughout the film, people refer to the Tohoku quake simply as 3/11, and much like 9/11 in the U.S., both events represent a line of demarcation, a before and after. This is societal trauma writ large, here manifested in a generation of damaged children forever haunted by the threat of it happening again. Daniel Gorman

It Feels So Good

Haruhiko Arai is a four-decade veteran screenwriter and director specializing in erotic films, cutting his teeth with the legendary pink film auteur Koji Wakamatsu, and going on to become a key screenwriter of Nikkatsu’s roman porno genre. In more recent years, Arai scripted some great films for fellow pink film associate Ryuichi Hiroki (Vibrator, It’s Only Talk, Kabukicho Love Hotel). It Feels So Good, Arai’s third and latest film as a director, alas, falls significantly short of his previous screenwriting work. Based on Kazufumi Shiraishi’s novel, the film could be considered an unofficial entry in the roman porno revival of recent years, adhering closely to its formula of interpolating frequent sex scenes within the narrative. 

The plot here is fairly minimal. Kenji (Tasuku Emoto) gets a call from his dad that his former girlfriend Naoko (Kumi Takiuchi) is about to get married, and what’s more, he’s been invited to the wedding. Kenji shows up a few days before the wedding day to meet up with Naoko, whose fiancé, a high-ranking military officer, is away on a job. With precious little hesitation on either of their parts, they end up sleeping together. Naoko envisions this as just a last-time fling, but Kenji, his dormant desire for Naoko now enflamed, decides he wants more, and acts on that impulse in a scene that’s disturbingly close to rape. The two then negotiate a five-day mini-affair, with earnest conversation and reminiscence alternating with intense sex sessions. The specter of Japan’s 2011 natural disasters lingers in the film, which was shot in the region affected by the disasters, and the ostensible dramatic progression is informed by an apocalyptic resonance that emerges late in the narrative. 

But It Feels So Good  also struggles to overcome a few severe miscalculations. There is an almost total absence of dramatic tension as the central couple, the film’s only two characters, slide with absurd ease into their affair, with almost no qualms about Naoko’s almost-married status, effectively lowering the stakes to an unrecoverable level. Equally disruptive is the woeful lack of chemistry between the leads, as well as the substantial gap between in their performative appeal, with Takiuchi making an overwhelmingly greater impression and reinforcing the struggle to connect with the pair. (Ryuichi Hiroki’s far superior, similarly sex-heavy Side Job makes far better use of Takiuchi’s talents.) It also doesn’t help that the sex scenes are so unimaginatively staged, damning the film’s rhythm to one of dull repetition, especially when stretched to nearly two hours. It’s a shame that the film’s title so grievously misrepresents the viewing experience. Christopher Bourne

ON-GAKU: Our Sound

Kenji Iwaisawa was able to accomplish something few in the contemporary anime industry are ever able to pull off: he was able to play, and win, completely on his own terms. And just what were the conditions by which Iwaisawa wished to create his first feature-length work ON-GAKU: Our Sound? That of circumnavigating the need for a traditional studio to animate the project (it took him seven years of consistent output and required over 40,000 of his own drawings to produce this single work; for the rest, he hired a team of non-professional animators funded by crowdsourcing) and of forgoing a more “kawaii” aesthetic that tends to sell better in the West. Because, after all, what is anime if not a shameless marketing plug for popular manga series/dating simulators in Japan? Like all great artistic mediums, the mode of animation has been one susceptible to exploitation in terms of not just animators and the fucking terrible lives they lead, but also in regards “creative” output; Hollywood’s current operating principle, with its love for adult-facing comic book franchises and endless re-boots, re-tellings, and sequels, is the aptest comparison. 

So Iwaisawa choosing to adapt a self-published work from independent mangaka Hiroyuki Ohashi, undertaking the project in a completely independent manner, is both rather fitting in terms of capturing the spirit of the original series’ ethos and, perhaps more notably, radical in terms of production practices. But he also takes things a step further, employing Ohashi’s oddball designs — he favors abstracted, saturated backgrounds for our angular characters to wander around — and conveying their non-classical use of space in a particularly unflashy manner that doesn’t seem like it would suit a medium built on motion. The actual “animation” on display here is hardly even that: the deadpan, minimalist style employed recalls the rhythm and humor of recent hits such as One-Punch Man, where seconds of dead air will hang before characters speak (oftentimes not blinking once, so you start to notice how their faces consist of only a few lines and scattered squiggles). It’s simple and to the point, often choosing to focus on the action surrounding our protagonists; the narrativized series of events that follow work in tandem with this muted approach, with a high school trio of hoodlums forming a band, crafting some lo-fi drone riffs and then playing in a local music festival. If anything, the lack of movement within the frames heightens the less indexical qualities of the medium while also conveying an earnest, if still somewhat flippant, tone. 

The stakes are never raised dramatically (except for a few detours that range from amusing to absurdist), and the only moments of emotional volatility come in the form of some rotoscoped jam sessions that convey the mysticism, gravity, and extreme goofiness that come with communal creativity. It’s existential sublimity located within the insignificant comradery of youth. In other words, it’s a contradiction — much like ON-GAKU: Our Sound itself — that manages both stupidity and profundity in equal measure. Paul Attard