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"Japan Cuts" at Japan Society

Overall tamer than the New York Asian Film Festival's pop freakout (the two series co-present nine of their films, including must-sees like Love Exposure and Fish Story), the Japan Society's third annual showcase of contemporary J-cinema is just as eclectic in its array of seasonally appropriate blockbusters and micro-budget indies.

Perhaps most anticipated is "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's Achilles and the Tortoise, the director's final cathartic installment in a bizarre, autobiographical trilogy that reflects his eccentric career and creative frustrations. Deeply pessimistic and bleakly comical, the film charts the life of Machisu, from an impressionable young boy who is inspired to become an artist, to an embittered old painter (Kitano), whose ridiculous gimmicks for splatting color on canvases only produce cheap imitations of better-known artistes. Poking a big fat middle finger into the chestnut that anyone with a hungry heart should express themselves, Kitano posits that process and dedication aren't enough to compensate for a lack of raw talent. But at the same time, he knows that the gatekeepers aren't infallible—that art appreciation is just as imprecise a skill as creating art itself.

A scene from Crime or Punishment.
A scene from Crime or Punishment.

With its inarticulate youth and heavy improvisation, Eriko Kitagawa's HD-shot Halfway (co-written by All About Lily Chou-Chou's Shunji Iwai) begs to be called Japanese mumblecore. However, in telling the simple story of a high school couple in crisis over a college application that would separate the two, the film nails the overdramatic, awkward flare-ups of love at an embryonic age. Similarly lo-fi and talky but far richer is Tony Takitani director Jun Ichikawa's final project, Buy a Suit. (He died the night he finished editing.) In what appears to be his only overtly personal film, Ichikawa's love-hate ode to the mystery and urban sterility of Tokyo sneaks in an intimate drama about temporal relationships and the fragility of existence.

 
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