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Loosely tied to the New York Asian Film Festival, the Japan Society’s artier, slightly more serious survey of contemporary Nipponese cinema may never escape the ferocious and freaky shadow of its partner fest. Yet in its fourth and biggest year yet, Japan Cuts proves too vital to be considered a spillover event, with a section dedicated to the best unreleased treasures of the past decade (fittingly billed here as “the Naughties” and including 2005’s shouldn’t-be-missed Hanging Garden and the equally necessary Memories of Matsuko, a 2006 candy-colored musical tragedy).
Matsuko director Tetsuya Nakashima’s latest, Confessions, opens the series with a question: What is it about Japanese culture that creates its peculiar cinematic blend of sentimentality and brutal revenge? The titular avowals are both freely offered and demanded of others, as a middle school teacher (Takako Matsu) chillingly lectures to her class about the two unnamed students who she believes murdered her four-year-old daughter, and tells of the first of many twisted retaliations she has taken with HIV-infected milk. Hopping between points of view at an unsettlingly drowsy pace, shot in depressed blue-grays and sustaining a low-lying tension through its soundtrack drone (and theme song by Radiohead), this ethereal and sinister daydream explores (unleashes?) the psychological breaking points of the aggrieved, the groupthink of bullies, and the potentially toxic outcomes of untreated mommy issues. Note to self: Don’t ever become a Japanese teenager.
To confound you even more, Satoko Yokohama’s erratic eco-dramedy Bare Essence of Life (the Japanese title literally translates as Ultra Miracle Love Story) focuses on Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama), an excitable young organic farmer who lives with his grandmother in the stark northern prefecture of Aomori and can’t quite be classified as mentally retarded. His eccentric behavior—uncontrollable laughter, quick flight responses, scheduling his day with a squadron of alarm clocks—comes out of his stunted, childlike logic. Enter mismatched love interest Miss Machiko (Kumiko Asô), a kindergarten teacher who fled Tokyo after her boyfriend was decapitated in a car crash next to his mistress. Finding that sweet spot between tender and creepy, with sidebar conversations addressing nature and evolution, the film empathizes with Yojin’s boneheaded attempts to woo the new girl (dragging her through a classroom window) and “correct” his condition by self-medicating (with pesticides). Stranger still, Yokohama shows his hand halfway through when Yojin dies for the first time (!) and meets Machiko’s headless beau in the afterlife. While these free-spirited splashes of surreal J-quirk make for unpredictable and occasionally astonishing episodes, the game-changing tonal shift also erodes the naturalism of this anti-romance between a beauty and her cabbage-patch “kid.”
How the lone anime feature in the mix, the thrilling and crazed King of Thorn, didn’t end up on the fanboy-friendly NYAFF schedule, I do not know. Adapted from Yuji Iwahara’s manga series about a mysterious “Medusa” pandemic that literally marbleizes people, Kazuyoshi Katayama’s sci-fi survival horror tracks high schooler Kasumi, who is separated from her twin sister after being selected as one of 160 candidates to be cryogenically frozen for a hundred years, hopefully to outlive the virus. Waking from hibernation much sooner than expected, Kasumi finds that the facility where she’s been stored is overrun with barbed vines and even thornier problems: a Cthulhu-like monster in the elevator shaft and other prehistoric-looking beasties that prey on flesh, malevolent computers, and an experimental biotech weapon gone horribly Cronenberg-awry. The strange juxtaposition of animation styles (characters have a hand-drawn, ’90s-throwback quality, while many of the future elements are low-rent CGI) can’t play in the same league as Japanese masters Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, but the convoluted storytelling—even in an overambitious third act that doesn’t quite jell—is heaps more satisfying than that last season of Lost.