The Intimate Details of Japanese Life in “Extreme Private Ethos”


This palm-sized program of six films has a narrow focus: Japanese docs obsessing, for good or ill, on the emotional undulations of modern family life. The predictable hallmarks are parental deaths and births (duck, there’s no shortage of straight-on vaginal deliveries). Naturally, this runs the risk of self-absorbed home-movie-ness, but Yonghi Yang’s Dear Pyongyang (2005) avoids the pitfalls, documenting her family’s outrageously suppressed relationship, as displaced Koreans in Japan, with the North Korean regime they’ve pledged allegiance to. The doc is loaded with sociopolitical weirdness, focused on the huge Korean population in Japan, how they all had to choose citizenship once the peninsula was split after WWII, and how many, like Yang’s parents, have proudly stuck by their increasingly demented decision. With three older brothers permanently “sent over” to the DPRK when she was young, and a lifetime of her mother sending huge boxes of food and medicine to the continent so an expanding pool of grandkids don’t die, Yang is notably reserved, letting her strange historical tale accrue its own understated horror. Ample Pyongyang trip footage offers glimpses of the genuinely dystopian.

Mani Sunada’s Death of a Japanese Salesman (2011) is unfortunately restricted to a too-cute portrait of her anal retiree father’s last-days preparation as he succumbs to cancer; likewise, Naomi Kawase’s featurettes Embracing (1992) and Tarachime (2006), while pondering troubled parentage and new motherhood, drip with narcissism, and rarely resist the filmmaker shooting herself in reflecting surfaces. Some things are better left private.

Thank goodness Japan has had Kazuo Hara, a one-man agent of genre destruction whose famously “kamikaze” m.o. exudes a refreshing electrical charge. His Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974) recounts a relationship so unstable and twisted the film itself feels like a series of catastrophic personal decisions; Hara begins trailing after his self-destructive, defiantly independent girlfriend with his camera, and never takes no for an answer, even after she squats on newspaper in her threadbare flat to pop out yet another illegitimate baby. Hara’s too wrapped up in the umbilical mess to suggest a theme or takeaway, and the upshot is serotonin-free.

An authentic anti-authoritarian with a long record of domestic resistance, Kenzo Okuzai is another breed of predator, and is the subject of Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), a rough and tumble chronicle of a sociopathic moralist dramatically confronting postwar Japanese society. Okuzai is committed to uncovering an illegal killing in New Guinea during WWII, and in the process assaults and kicks his aging, ailing fellow veterans, and even unearths admissions of cannibalism. When the police deal with him (which is frequently), they are at a loss as to what to do – the man’s rampaging behavior sets society’s fragile structures shaking. Of course, Hara colludes with his subject, and reportedly the megalomaniacal Okuzai attempted to take over the film at several points. Leaving familial bonds in the dust, it’s a film in seething flux from scene to scene, with no cozy palliatives in the offing.