Film

Deep Cuts: The Challenging Pleasures of This Year’s Japan Cuts Film Fest

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The rape plot is tough to swallow, but the animation is jaw-dropping.

“Japan Cuts,” the Japan Society’s annual survey of pop cinema, stands apart from film festivals that pander to contemporary trends, encouraging attendees to revisit the past through an eclectic slate of both new and repertory titles.

This year’s highest highlight is, tellingly, the new 4K digital restoration of Belladonna of Sadness (1973), a beautiful and disturbing X-rated animated fantasy based on Satanism and Witchcraft, Jules Michelet’s sensationalistic historical primer. Belladonna of Sadness‘s rape-centered plot — a beautiful peasant (Aiko Nagayama) makes a pact with Satan (samurai movie star Tatsuya Nakadai) after he repeatedly violates her — is a tough swallow. But the film’s surreal animation style is jaw-dropping.

Co-writer/director Eiichi Yamamoto’s Yellow Submarine–meets–The Devils aesthetic is heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt’s golden paintings and Aubrey Beardsley’s art nouveau drawings. Yamamoto draws viewers’ attention to his feathery pencils and psychedelic watercolors by presenting his illustrations as a series of still images filmed in slow camera pans. These static animation cels are so gorgeous that they might persuade you not to dwell on Belladonna of Sadness‘s more objectionable content.

By contrast, feminist doc What Are You Afraid Of is a stirring but unpolished tribute to the activists who led the Japanese feminist movement in the Seventies. This account of bold, deeply personal demonstrations feels unfocused, since many of its interview segments are presented in over-edited montage sequences. As a result, much of the film’s in-their-own-words accounts of concerts, protests, and retreats demand more annotation than we’re given. Thankfully, relatively obscure subjects like Mitsu Tanaka and Keiko Higuchi, authors of vital texts on gender roles in Japanese culture, are charismatic and articulate enough that their essential perspectives come across persuasively even through soundbite anecdotes.

Intoxicating, multilayered indie drama Voice of Water also combats cultural amnesia, in this case by focusing on the dramatic ripples cast by Min-yung (Hyunri), a religious cult leader who becomes estranged from the rituals she performs as the high priest of the God’s Water cult. Min-yung, the skeptical granddaughter of a devout exorcist, is one of several protagonists, including skeptical adman Akao (Jun Murakami) and Min-yung’s deadbeat dad, Mikio (Akio Kamataki). But none of the film’s tangential subplots are as interesting as Min-yung’s struggle to take her place as the cult’s surrogate mother. Hyunri’s consummately mannered performance suggests a world of sublimated pain, particularly when she robotically declaims vague religious bromides to her desperate followers.

Seven Weeks, a cheery, engrossing domestic drama written and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (House), similarly concerns a singular character — a recently deceased poet and WWII veteran — whose actions unite a community of supporters. The key difference is that Seven Weeks is a sunny feature-length memorial, while Voice of Water is a dramatized jeremiad.

Obayashi’s dialogue-intensive narrative has a uniquely aggressive style: The dynamic ping-pong pace of the fluid conversations is represented through manically edited extreme close-ups. That superficially confrontational technique suits the film’s alternately tranquil and anxious dual focus on the beauty of mundane activities (especially reading, cooking, and reminiscing), and post-Fukushima wariness of nuclear power. All praise due to Japan Society for treating Obayashi’s urgent, loving civics lesson (never before screened in the U.S.) like the major event it is.

Japan Cuts

July 9–19, Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street