Horror, Romance, and Artistry at the Japan Cuts Fest
Appropriate to its name, Japan Cuts slices a cross section of a fecund film culture. This year's festival, the sixth, includes 37 features, almost all recent releases. Ranging across all genres, between industrial and independent filmmaking and the poles of the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum, it's less a winnowed-down selection than a potpourri representing a goodly chunk of Japanese cinematic output.
As with the fest's older brother, Subway Cinema's New York Asian Film Festival, there is a contingent of movies for devotees of "Asian extreme cinema." Anticipated J-horror offering Tormented, shot by Kar Wai Wong's voluble cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was still in customs at the date of this writing, but Eisuke Naito's self-explanatorily titled Let's-Make-the-Teacher-Have-a-Miscarriage Club was available, offering a pungent view of adolescent nihilism and demonstrating that student-teacher relations have gone significantly downhill since 1954's Twenty-Four Eyes. ("Idiots give birth to idiots who give birth to more idiots," Aki Miyata's targeted instructor says of her charges.)
Keiichi Sato's anime Asura likewise deals in the process of reclaiming feral youth. The film begins with a harrowing scene of famine times and hunger-induced madness in feudal Japan: A starving mother feeds on human carrion so that she can nurse her infant son, then, in still-deeper desperation, attempts to feed herself on the child—scenes that caused quite a stir when they appeared in George Akiyama's 1970 manga, the film's basis. The baby grows to be an ax-wielding, cannibalistic hellion, but Asura is not concerned with gonzo shock for its own sake. Instead, it vividly draws heaven and hell on earth to suit the story of a wild child hanging in the balance between acculturation and barbarism.
Scabbard Samurai, the third feature by comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan), shows a comic strip sensibility of another sort. Unarmed ronin deserter Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is captured by a local lord and given 30 days to make the lord's young son, who has been catatonic with grief since his mother's death, laugh (a plot possibly inspired by Jerry Lewis's The Geisha Boy?). Nomi looks like a cross between Groucho and a fakir—caterpillar-browed, nearly toothless, bandy-legged, thick lips fixed in a frown—and Matsumoto gets comic mileage from subjecting this pathetic figure to increasingly elaborate feats of comic degradation that gradually reveal noble endurance. Matsumoto builds an emotionally potent narrative from what's essentially a vaudevillian series of blackout gags. After watching one of Kanjuro's feats, one character gives a concise review: "It was flamboyant and refreshingly stupid."
Nothing if not democratic, Japan Cuts offers self-conscious art alongside the uncanny experience of seeing mainstream multiplex tropes, slightly distorted through the lens of national difference. Yoshihiro Fukagawa's Girls for Keeps, for example, is promoted as "like a Japanese Sex and the City"—which means no sex, in practice, while two hours is a lot to wade through for the privilege of making a "You're such a Yuchiko" joke. Hitoshi Ohne's Love Strikes!, from a manga and TV show, presents the amorous misadventures of a 31-year-old virgin in Tokyo, a hipster rom-com given erratic personality by Mirai Moriyama's manic voiceover and karaoke-video musical numbers.
One can also see familiar Western nemeses replanted in Nipponese soil. Monsters Club transports the Luddite one-man revolution of Ted Kaczynski to the remotest snowy recesses of the archipelago. Through hallucinatory sequences where the mail-bombing hermit (Eita) is harassed by a demon (Pyuupiru) with a face like a frosted cupcake, director Toshiaki Toyoda seems more committed to dreaming up unintegrated "creepy" theatrical effects than to putting across any particular insight. The Woodsman and the Rain approaches the imported zombie-apocalypse movie from an unorthodox angle—though, as one character astutely asks, how could Japan have a zombie problem when they burn their dead?
Shuichi Okita's Woodsman concerns the friendship between a taciturn widowed logger, Katsu (Koji Yakusho), and Koichi (Shun Oguri), the novice 25-year-old director of a horror epic. Yakusho can also be seen as the lead in Masato Harada's fine period piece Chronicle of My Mother, premiering here as part of a retrospective tribute to the Shall We Dance? actor, who will be visiting 47th Street.
Katsu and Koichi meet as the latter is shooting in a remote mountain village, and he adopts the older man as his good-luck charm and surrogate father. Okita has made a film that is patient, understated—and all those other adjectives that usually denote a total bore. In fact, beneath the placid surface, it's brimming with ideas about family ties, the relationship between fantasy and everyday horror, and the function of genre in the folk imagination—a "Focus on Post 3.11 Cinema" sidebar highlights films about the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear crisis, but the nation of Hiroshima and Godzilla has frequently best sublimated national tragedy in genre trappings. If Japan Cuts is any indication, their neon pop imagination is undimmed.
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