The Japan Society in Manhattan, which now resides next to the United Nations building, celebrated its 111th birthday in May. Its annual film festival, Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film, begins its twelfth iteration this Thursday. The century prior to the screen festival’s founding was a tumultuous one for the institution, to say the least; the Society was forced to shutter entirely during the Second World War. And though its subsequent expansion under John D. Rockefeller III would be significant — Rockefeller also established the Asia Society, mere steps from Hunter College, in 1956 — the Japan Society wouldn’t resume operation until 1952. The decadelong hiatus feels especially egregious in hindsight, given the Society’s original mission to deepen “mutual understanding between the United States and Japan in a global context.”
This year’s Japan Cuts lineup, however — like many of the Society’s efforts year-round — features a widespread assortment of works with the potential to foster that very dialogue. Japan Cuts 2018 boasts a slate as diverse as that of any international festival, with nearly forty films from across the breadth of Japanese perspective and experience, spread over eleven days at the organization’s East 47th Street headquarters. Some of the pieces are as short as a minute long, like the hand-drawn WAAAH, about a baby’s wail, programmed in the “Empty Orchestras and the Speed of Your Voice” experimental section. On the other hand, the mammoth Sennan Asbestos Disaster — a decade-in-the-making production in the “Documentary Focus” slate — extends to three and a half hours.
Despite a long-running affinity for the avant-garde, Japan Cuts hosts no dearth of popular attractions. Chief special-guest opportunities on the forthcoming calendar include the dual appearances of the actor, model, and singer Takumi Saitoh, who will introduce opening-night selection Ramen Shop (in which he stars) as well as his own directorial debut, blank 13, the following evening. Yocho (Foreboding), by the acclaimed Kiyoshi Kurosawa, will make its U.S. premiere, expanding on the director’s high-concept alien-invasion drama Before We Vanish from 2017. Fans of anime and manga will be able to feast on two separate screenings of the live-action Bleach movie, also making its U.S. debut.
Many of the 2018 titles confront challenging questions regarding past and future. Both Ramen Shop and blank 13, as well as Toshiyuki Teruya’s comedy Born Bone Born, deal with the revelation of new information in the wake of domestic loss. Generational and familial threads recur in the antique-trade satire We Make Antiques!; Nobuhiko Obayashi’s closing-night film, Hanagatami, an eerie World War II period piece; Dear Etranger, in which divorced parents break normative family bonds when faced with dire circumstances; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ten-year-old Still Walking, about a family’s unaddressed feelings on the anniversary of their son’s heroic death. The collective impression is of a Japan reflecting on its changing identity — and it would be hard not to, given the nation’s recent right-wing nationalist resurgence.
Dealing with the cracks of the past has always provided fertile artistic ground in Japan, whose cinema continues to deal with the fallout from World War II seven decades on. The trauma of new disasters like Fukushima have also proved irresistible to the country’s writers’ and directors’ psychological to-do lists: The 3-11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami forms both the explicit and implicit backdrop to a number of this year’s entries. At the same time, another subset of work is moving away from the nation’s history, recent or otherwise. Four of the 2018 films focus on Japan’s prominent place in an increasingly global world: Ramen Shop and Tourism, both set in Singapore; Toward a Common Tenderness, set in Bosnia and Herzegovina; and, most notably, Passage of Life, about Japan’s undocumented Burmese refugees.
Whether through bold stylistic experimentation or fresh perspectives on the past that feel increasingly and usefully fluid, this year’s Japan Cuts roster finds artists wrestling with the uncertainty of what comes next, and how best to approach it. For a nation that has experienced both the best and worst of human advancement within the last century, societal evolution is a tightrope, though one its filmmakers are adept at walking. Below are five films at Japan Cuts 2018 that best capture the shifting Japanese zeitgeist, each with their own unique flair and defined point of view on modern Japan.
Amiko (dir. Yoko Yamanaka)
Shot with the manic verve of an amateur travel vlog, twenty-year-old Yoko Yamanaka’s surreal debut captures the unspoken, often inarticulable facets of modern youth. High schooler Amiko (Aira Sunohara) exists in a perpetual state of detachment — an attitude that swings rapidly in the opposite direction when she falls for aloof Radiohead fan Aomi (Hiroto Oshita) after a single conversation. But once Aomi pursues a girl more sociable and in tune with the naked sincerity of popular culture, Amiko begins drifting aimlessly through her school year, while casually stalking the budding couple on social media — an obsession that eventually gives her purpose and spills over into the “real world.” In a mere 66 minutes, Yamanaka takes us on a media-saturated journey without resorting to shots of screens to deliver emotional information. Instead, she crafts the world as she sees it, with social media acting less as disruptive catalyst and more as a matter-of-fact avenue through which teenhood’s messy, volatile contradictions unfold.
Violence Voyager (dir. Ujicha)
Following in the footsteps of 2013’s The Burning Buddha Man, the artist Ujicha once again incorporates his “gekimation” style of 2-D animation, employing cardboard dioramas reminiscent of a pre-digital world to deliver a wildly imaginative childhood adventure. But this film is by no means meant for youngsters. It’s a story of friendship and parenthood no doubt, but one told through a grotesque lens. American student Bobby (Aoi Yuki) and local chum Akkun (Shigeo Takahashi) already exist in an uncanny world, marked subtly by the effects of nuclear power; Ujicha’s hand-painted cutouts are garish even when depicting the mundane. Yet things grow stranger still after the boys venture into the mountains and stumble upon a makeshift theme park known as Violence Voyager. It seems like a low-budget scam at first but soon reveals a rabbit hole of biomechanical body-horror concealing a tragic tale — a past whose present has mutated beyond repair. Rife with nods to B-horror and kaiju fare, Violence Voyager is a brutally inventive nightmare born of a singular, disturbing vision.
Kushina, what will you be (dir. Moët Hayami)
The winner of the Japan Cuts Award at this year’s Osaka Film Festival, Moët Hayami’s poetic debut is an intimate story of mothers and daughters whose future rests on a knife-edge. Hayami’s vivid tale is set in an isolationist village of aging women escaping the sorrows of modernity. That is, except for preteen Kushina (Ikumi Satake), who was born in the forested community and has never ventured beyond its surrounding rivers. Kushina’s only connection to the outside world is her mother’s Walkman. Everything changes when detached anthropologist Soko (Yayoi Inamoto) and her male assistant, Keita (Suguru Onuma), stumble upon the arresting haven, bringing with them both curiosity and complications. Soko grows fond of Kushina, shedding her clinical approach and discovering the beauty at the core of her field. But the male presence Soko brings intrudes upon this separatist paradise, crafted carefully over decades, thus locking Kushina’s mother, Kagu (Tomona Hirota), and grandmother, Onikuma (Miyuki Ono), the community’s matriarch, in a riveting generational debate over the girl’s future.
Hanagatami (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)
Nobuhiko Obayashi continues his streak of exploring Japan’s responsibility in times of war and disaster with the phantasmagoric epic Hanagatami, a film he began writing prior to his 1977 cult classic, Hausu. He brings with him much of the cast of Seven Weeks (Japan Cuts 2015), exchanging that movie’s post–3-11 musings for a World War II setting. The year is 1937. As the Second Sino-Japanese War looms, the tiny pacific town of Karatsu plays host to Obayashi’s meditative incest-themed melodrama, lit and shot like low-budget television for jarring effect. Green-screen backdrops obscure the relationship between the actors and their surroundings; harsh theatrical lighting and soap opera–like rapid editing magnify the weight of every withheld word, as young adults attempt to live life to the fullest in the face of certain doom. It’s ultimately a cautionary plea to avoid the perils of the past, in the form of an auteurist fever dream.
Toward a Common Tenderness (dir. Kaori Oda)
A fascinating entry from this year’s “Documentary Focus,” Kaori Oda’s Toward a Common Tenderness would feel right at home alongside Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. Oda uses the lens and memory of her DSLR to journey backward through time, inspecting her use of the camera as both an aggressor and a tool of understanding. Whether revisiting her first short, Thus a Noise Speaks, a vessel for coming out to her mother; her time as a foreigner in Bosnia and Herzegovina under the tutelage of Béla Tarr; or the various films she’s made in the interim (Aragane captures the daily lives of Bosnian coal miners), Oda investigates the ethics and impulses behind her desire — and occasional lack thereof — to document life on a cinematic canvas. She stares her subjects in the face once more, revisiting old footage and stills of labor and poverty while questioning her choices as a filmmaker. She’s unable to move forward until she confronts her decisions, as if deconstructing not only the craft behind cinema, but the existential drive underlying art itself. We document in order to be remembered.
Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film