Sharing half of its 24-feature lineup with the freakier, geekier New York Asian Film Festival—including opening-night selection I’m Flash!, Toshiaki Toyoda’s indeed flashy crime thriller about a shadowy cult guru—Japan Society’s seventh annual survey of contemporary Nipponese cinema is as wonderfully peculiar as ever, its edge perhaps sharper. Sure, there are panty-masked crusaders (Hentai Kamen: Forbidden Super Hero) and overambitious gang-war science fiction some 20 years in the making (Bad Film), but for the most unflinching renegade intensity, brace yourself for Junichi Inoue’s last-days-of-WWII psychodrama A Woman and War.
As an acolyte and former assistant director to the late Koji Wakamatsu, Inoue shares his mentor’s propensity for mixing sex, brutality, and politics in his explicit directorial debut, adapted from a novella by Ango Sakaguchi. As the nation submissively awaits an Allied assault on the mainland, a bitterly desensitized barmaid (Noriko Eguchi)—who was once sold into prostitution by her impoverished family—desperately declares she’ll shack up with anyone who will still have her, and winds up with an equally disenchanted novelist (Mystery Train‘s Masatoshi Nagase) who wrote propaganda-film screenplays to avoid the draft and now wallows in shame. These two will fuck their despair away until either the war ends or they die. Hope is also lost for a one-armed soldier (Jun Murakami) who returns home to only apathy and misplaced anger from his elders—and the monstrous sexual inability to get it up unless repeating his atrocious last few years of raping in China. Racier and bleaker than a “pink film,” Inoue’s pitch-black provocation isn’t empty nihilism so much as a subversive critique of both Japan’s own war crimes and the self-persecution complex within the postwar culture.
Tamer but still speaking volumes is Japan’s Tragedy (the title an homage to Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1953 masterwork A Japanese Tragedy), writer-director Masahiro Kobayashi’s dramatic dedication to the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the tens of thousands of Japanese people who committed suicide in 2010. Never leaving the confines of a meager, rice-paper-windowed home, the film stars screen legend Tatsuya Nakadai (Ran) as a widower diagnosed with lung cancer on 3/11, who forgoes treatment so he can wither away in a room by his wife’s altar, the door nailed shut so his depressed, unemployed son (Kazuki Kitamura) can’t intervene. Economically shot in the classical style of Ozu or Naruse, and mostly in black-and-white (color is used sparingly, as are flashbacks), Kobayashi’s humanist tribute to the economic and emotional plights of the modern Japanese family is precise, powerfully sobering, and oddly optimistic.
Adapted from Kyoko Okazaki’s manga by fashion photographer-cum-filmmaker Mika Ninagawa (one of three films in the series directed by a woman, alongside the pensive, Linklater-esque rom-com I Have to Buy New Shoes and the erotic cosplay affair The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky), Helter Skelter is as shallow and unsubtle as it is luridly entertaining. “All the high school girls want that face,” it’s said of ubiquitous supermodel Lilico (sultry musician-model Erika Sawajiri), a cruel-hearted diva whose relentless opportunism, hedonistic excess, and self-destructive meltdown are directly linked to her dependence on a nefarious cosmetic-surgery regimen. As if Brian De Palma borrowed Dario Argento’s hyper-saturated color palette to tackle the specifically Japanese “cute” obsession, Ninagawa’s psychosexual hall of mirrors lets you root for both Lilico and her predictably grotesque downfall.
It’s too easy to write off the gimmicky logline of the dark doppelgänger comedy It’s Me It’s Me—which sounds like a post–Charlie Kaufman composite of the dueling Nicolas Cages in Adaptation and the meta-master’s “Malkovich Malkovich” freakout—but Adrift in Tokyo auteur Satoshi Miki’s absurdist nightmare is more Kafka than Kaufman. The can’t-miss film of this year’s Japan Cuts, Ore-Ore (as it’s called back home, based on an actual phone scam and Tomoyuki Hoshino’s novel) tracks the escalating misadventures of electronics-store clerk and failed photographer Hitoshi, craftily played in 20 incarnations by pop star Kazuya Kamenashi. After a loathsome customer accidentally leaves behind his cell phone, Hitoshi nabs it and calls the guy’s mom, posing as the son in order to scam her out of some directly deposited yen. But then the mother shows up—convinced that Hitoshi actually is her spawn—and suddenly our befuddled hero bumps into a dapper look-alike who claims he’s the impostor. Then another “Hitoshi” arrives, more wild-eyed and volatile than the others, and does anyone remember who the “original” is once alliances are formed throughout the metropolis-wide spread of the Me Empire? “Multiplication could easily lead to deletion,” warns one of the replicas, as the ultimate narcissistic civil war is spearheaded with devil-may-care logic, a wicked sense of timing for casually dropped sight gags, and a trickily executed dedication to grounding the outlandish within a naturalistic world.