Japan Cuts 2018 Film Festival at the Japan Society

This past few weeks I  volunteered for the Japan Society Film Department’s annual Japan Cuts film festival, which screens a host of new Japanese blockbusters, avant-garde films, and documentaries. This 10-day festival included 30+ films shown in the Japan Society’s mainstage space, as well as numerous shorts being screened on a loop in the Japan Society Murase room.

Admittedly, I only saw a small cross-section of films- to see them all would have required an insane time commitment and to be honest, for some reason, I get a horrible headache after staring at a screen for more than a few hours, so watching films back-to-back-to-back is hard for me.

That being said, the films I did see ran the gamut of stuff I really liked to things I just plain hated- but I guess that is the point of a film festival, right? So, here’s what I saw-

SATURDAY JULY 21 @10:15PMNIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL (夜は短し歩けよ乙女) and DREAMLAND.

Dreamland was a short that preceded Night is Short, by experimental animator Mizue Mirai. There was a blurb before the short saying this was an ongoing project from the 1960s, but since Mizue was born in 1981, I’m not quite sure what that meant. Mizue is known for cell-based animation that, of late, hyper-focused on linear shapes. This was quite clear from the showing, as it might best be described as a game of Q-Bert on acid. Squares and rectangles undulate to the pulsing beat of Scarlatti Goes electronica score, transforming into various cityscapes. As I am no animation expert, I don’t have a lot to say about this one, but it was cool.

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Night is Short, Walk on Girl is filmmaker Yuasa Masaaki’s first feature length in a decade. Yuasa has the distinction of being an animation director for such notable anime as Vampyrian Kids, The Tatami Galaxy, Samurai Champloo and Kaiba. Stateside he has worked on popular shows like Adventure Time. He has won numerous awards for animation and is noted for his wild, unique animation. Night is Short won the 2017 Japan Academy Animation of the Year Award.

Night is Short follows the one-night adventure of second-year college student, Otome, who is on the hunt for the rarest of sake, and her love-struck senpai (senior student mentor), who is determined to win Otome’s hand after a year of failing to make “coincidental” meetings turn into a relationship. What starts off as a very funny chase, with Otome befriending various weirdos in Kyoto’s nightlife and her senpai finding consistent troubles in Otome’s wake, it soon transforms into a ethereal dreamscape. With each new liquor she imbibes, Otome gets into increasingly strange situations– a drinking contest with an old man on a floating train, a chance encounter with the god of used books, and a leading role in a roving guerrilla play trying to avoid the authorities as it pops up throughout Kyoto. While you would think this crazy night might be attributed to the insane amount of booze Otome can put away, the movie doesn’t get truly weird until she sobers up and dedicates herself to curing all of Kyoto, which has strangely come down with a crippling sickness.

Night is Short proved to be fun and full of intriguing metaphor. Part love-story, part coming-of-age comedy, Otome’s happy-go-lucky and steadfast dedication to seeking out the truths she hopes to uncover inspire all those she comes into contact with. The film’s endless supply of memorable characters enrich Otome’s journey and provide an ongoing source of weird comedy– a group of crab-walking professors, a tengu in human form, a man who refuses to change his underwear until he once again meets his true love– just a few of the curious people that make this film a joy to watch. The end of the movie definitely veers into the abstract and it is here where Yuasa is truly engaging his passion for telling stories through the wild animation that he is known for.

SUNDAY JULY 22 @4:15PM- SIDE JOB (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない)

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Directed by veteran filmmaker, Hiroki Ryuichi, and starring Takiuchi Kumi (who has appeared in other films as part of past Japan Cuts Series), Side Job‘s subject is the familiar 3/11 disaster, which refers to the 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant meltdown. The story follows Iwaki City resident, Miyuki (Takiuchi), who lost her home fleeing from the nuclear meltdown and whose mother was swept away by the tsunami never to be found. She now lives in a small apartment with her father, who is an out of work farmer (due to his land being declared unsafe for farming) that spends all his days gambling in a local pachinko parlor. While by day she works at a local office, Miyuki has a secret. Though her father believes she travels to Tokyo in her free time to study English, she has in fact become a female escort who specializes in “sensual massages.”

As I mentioned, 3/11 is a familiar subject in Japanese film, television, and other media. In fact, I just met a film scholar at the most recent Association For Asian Performance (AAP) this past week whose dissertation was examination of this “genre.” To say I “enjoyed” this film is probably not the best way to put it. We at the front desk were in fact pondering what exactly would be the best thing to say when someone picks up a ticket for a film like this. “Enjoy the movie” seemed inappropriate. I think it might be best to say the film moved me.

While the title (at least the English title) suggests that perhaps Miyuki took her escort job at first as a way to earn money, we quickly learn that the job means a lot more than money. Forced to support a father who is unable to cope with his loss and (as we discover) the victim of a marriage proposal that failed to materialize due to her partner’s own inability to cope with the responsibility of supporting a woman who lost her mother, Miyuki is very much alone. Her several encounters with a woman of similar employ in a bus station bathroom, and the deep friendship that develops between her and her “bodyguard,” demonstrates a woman desperately trying to rebuild basic human connections any way she can. However, her tragedy creates an unimaginable divide which always keeps her at arms length, sometimes by choice, sometimes just because. And yet, the movie is not all sorrow– it ends with a kind of hope, albeit a deeply compromised one, harkening to a common theme in Japanese film, that life is not about happy endings, it is about finding the strength to endure in spite of seemingly insurmountable hardships.

SUNDAY JULY 29@ 12:00PM- DEAR ETRANGER (幼な子われらに生まれ)

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Winner of the 2017 Special Grand Prix of the Jury Award in the Montreal World Film Festival, Dear Etranger deals with the thorny issue of being a step-father in contemporary Japan. Makoto, played by the popular actor Asano Tadanobu, is a 40-something salary-man who has been living, remarried, for the past 6 years with his new wife, Nanae (Tanaka Rena), and her two daughters. Makoto himself has his own daughter from the previous marriage and the film begins with him asking his own daughter the complicated question “What if I had a baby with my new wife?” This question turns out to be quite important, as Nanae is in fact pregnant. Along with the issue this raises with his own daughter, the news of a new baby causes a deep rift between he and his adopted teenage daughter, who accuses him of being a stranger living in her home and demands to live with her birth father. This is a more than difficult request as Makoto knows her birth father is an alcoholic abuser and all-around dead-beat.

I had mixed feelings about this one. Asano is definitely an actor with craft, as is the girl who plays his stepdaughter, Kaoru (Minami Sara), does some seriously moving work. From the standpoint of tackling serious issues in male-female expectations in Japanese society, this film also does some interesting heavy lifting. A side-story of Dear Etranger is Makoto’s failing career due to the fact that he has placed spending time with his family above his job. At one point his superior criticizes him for taking all of his vacation days and laments that he had “high hopes” for Makoto when he started. As a result Makoto is transferred from an office job to a shipping plant where is wholly aware this is a move by his employer to encourage him to just quit. The subject of overwork and the salaryman sacrificing all for his job is a familiar problem in Japanese society, particularly as this film challenges the contemporary salaryman to reevaluate his responsibilities as “head” of a family. Asano plays Makoto’s deep desire to subvert the common idea that “job first” should be practiced with a complexity that highlights a pull perhaps many contemporary Japanese fathers feel.

Unfortunately however, this film is clearly a vehicle for Asano. Tanaka’s Nanae is woefully underwritten and she typically falls into the “female needing to be saved” trope. While this works well for helping to define the beleaguered Makoto, it would have been nice if more attention had been given to Nanae as someone who was also going through the difficulty of having to explain to her own children how a child not-of-their-father might fit into the new family structure. As it is, she is written as if Kaoru’s protestations are merely teenage angst and more often than not, she appears confused as to what is going on with her daughter– a kind of naiveté that seems wholly unbelievable considering her past as a battered wife and she, herself, grappling with the social stigma of being a batsu-ichi (one-strike divorcé).

SUNDAY JULY 29@ 2:45PM AMIKO (あみこ) and NAGISA (なぎさ)

Like Night is Short, Amiko was preceded by the short film Nagisa. Nagisa is a 2018 short by Kogahara Takeshi and tells the story of a teenage swim-team boy’s encounter with a mysterious girl who loiters by his pool. Unfortunately, I felt as this smacked of a bunkasai (annual public school culture day) student play in which morose teenage angst gives way to a predicable reveal that a character is dead and we are watching someone’s lament over the deceased’s demise and the subsequent feeling of loss that proceeds it. Not much to say beyond that.

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Amiko is a 66 minute film by 20-year Yamanaka Yoko. It won the 2017 Audience Award and Hikari TV award at the Pia Film Festival and was notably shot for just 2,500 bucks. The story follows a chance encounter of high school misfit, Amiko, and a soccer boy named Aomi. Entranced by Aomi’s cynical view of life, a view that mirrors her own, Amiko pines away for him for an entire year after their one day together, never speaking to him. Then, she discovers suddenly that Aomi has quit the soccer team, dropped out of school, and shacked up in Tokyo with some beautiful upperclassman who had recently graduated. Amiko gathers what money she has and sets out for Tokyo, determined to track down Aomi and get to the bottom of just what the hell is going on.

This movie had a lot in common with Night is Short, at least in terms of presenting an outspoken and quirky protagonist who is easy to side with. Sunohara Aira as Amiko is a rebellious spitfire whose balances her charming candid nature with the deep longing of a teenage crush. You want her to succeed so badly– in spite of her sour look on life, there is a earnestness to what she hopes life could be that you really want to pan out. Also, like Night is Short‘s Otome, there are moments when Amiko is able to infect those around her with her nuttiness and create a world uniquely her own. I won’t spoil the end, but it’s really a “rad” ending– that’s the best way to put it. I will also say this movie reminds me A LOT of the 2001 Terry Zwigoff film, Ghost World– if you like that movie, there’s probably something in Amiko for you.

SUNDAY JULY 29@ 7PM- HANAGATAMI (花筐) and HOW CAN YOU KNOW WHERE TO GO IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN

The final showing of the festival was a 2018 short film by NYU student Toriya Mizuki and the epic 2017 World War II drama by legendary Japanese experimental filmmaker, Obayashi Nobuhiko. How Can You Know Where to Go is a documentary-style 6-minute short in which the filmmaker, Toriya, interviews her grandmother about what it was like to live in Kobe during World War II. The interview is a voice-over while the visual work is animated, utilizing sand to create shapes and figures. I don’t have a lot to say about this short film, it was clearly a pet project by the filmmaker– while there may be film innovation that I, as a non-film scholar would be unaware of, its subject matter was fairly straightforward.

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Hanagatami is the coming to fruition of a pet project of Obayashi’s 30 years in the making. Already in his mind before he released his debut horror comedy, House (1977), this film combines stage-style acting with Obayashi’s trademark green-screen collage work to create a truly operatic spectacle. The story is an adaptation of Dan Kazuo’s 1937 novella of the same name and follows the story of a group of teenagers before the start of World War II in the coastal town of Karatsu. Toshihiko (Kubozuka Shunsuke) is a wide-eyed optimist who is obsessed with his tough-as-as-nails classmate, Ukai (Nagatsuka Keishi), and their monk-like compatriot, Kira (Mitsushima Shinnosuke). Toshihiko lives in the home of a widow named Keiko (Tokiwa Takako ), who is earnestly attending to Mina (Yahagi Honoka), who is slowly dying of tuberculosis. Romance, rivalries, and suicides occur, all set to a few bars of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1,” which plays almost through the entire 169-minute epic. This film won the 72nd Mainichi Award in 2017 for Best Film.

Of all the films I saw, I have to admit, I hated this. The narrative was as compelling as paint drying, the editing was so self-indulgent it was almost unbearable, and to call the acting histrionic is an understatement. I know the idea was to film a “play” of sorts, which explains the unrealistic backdrop and over-the-top acting, and I am aware that the point was to create a kind of pastoral, impressionistic world where strong 2-dimensional characters created a rich tapestry of viewpoints that combine to create a unique view on the pointlessness of war. The film is not short on strong statements, but they are made with all the subtlety of a dump-truck driving into a nitroglycerin plant, giving the entire film an air of self-importance that is so smug it made me consistently angry. To make matters worse, while the hammy acting is clearly a choice, it robs the characters of developing beyond the stereotypes they are playing and, after almost three-hours, I am left basically at the same place as where I began. Perhaps the greatest offense is, in a move made by the most poorly written of scripts, Toshihiko appears at the end of the movie as an old man and proceeds to explain the symbolic role each of the characters in story played, deeply undermining the intelligence of the very patient audience who has endured this bloated mess.

Ok fine, narratively speaking it’s not the best. So then what about the filmmaking aspects? Again, I am not a film scholar, so I am limited in understanding the contribution a film like this is making. However, I will say they green screen technology, which is Obayashi’s trademark, may have been innovative in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but today it just looks bad and it is hard to move past the poorly rendered cherry-blossoms falling cartoonishly in the foreground, or the 3-dimensional actor in front of the clearly 2-dimensional backgrounds of parades, war scenes, etc. Again, I get the point is to present an artificiality, but the low-tech nature of a very dusty filmmaking tool took me out of the movie, it did not absorb me into it– and I did not “get used” to it, it was alienating from start to finish.

I am sort of dumbfounded as to how this won such a prestigious award. But then again, Forrest Gump and Gladiator won Best Picture Oscars in the United States and these films suffer from a lot of the same criticisms as I am hurling at Hanagatami. Ultimately, the jingoism that pervades throughout Hanagatami might well be the reason it was received so favorably– it is full of references to epic Japanese historical, literary, and artistic figures, it hearkens to an illusory past of halcyon days before WW II that Japan so loves, and it makes the universally celebrated point that war is terrible.

Well, that was my time with the Japan Society’s 2018 Japan Cuts Film Festival. I am curious to learn what film was considered the best (I suspect it is probably the live-action adaptation of the anime, Bleach, which I didn’t see)– I hope they publish this info on the Japan Society website! Of course, my opinions are mine alone, and I am sure there are plenty who disagree with me. But in the end, isn’t half the fun of a film festival, dishing about it afterwards?

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