Co-presented with the New York Asian Film Festival, though most titles were screened at the Japan Society, JAPAN CUTS is the largest Japanese film festival in the United States. Held for the fourth time from July 1st through the 4th, it offered this year during the Asian Film Festival and at the Japan Society 24 titles spanning a wide variety of themes and styles. This diversity in film making approaches is certainly startling ranging from the anime KING OF THORN on a world threatening cold sleep center inhabited by a variety of monsters through the blood splattering MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD and the feminist Hitchcock venture ZERO FOCUS, to the superbly enacted Kammerspiel SWEET LITTLE LIES. What is also amazing is that the Japanese sub cultural cult following for anime films or, ALIEN vs. NINJA and MUTANT GIRL SQUAD type of productions has also a committed American audience counterpart. Thus most of these genre films were sold out.
Among the highlights of this year’s festival was the presentation of some of the best 2009 and 2010 Japanese films. The large number of films premiering in New York, the US or internationally and the selection of unreleased films in a new section labeled the ‘Naughties’, included cinephile treasures transcending the mainstream taste. As the film curator Samuel Jamier notes in the program “ JAPAN CUTS presents the toughest, sharpest and smoothest of today’s cutting edge Japanese film scene … psycho dramas, thrillers, period pieces, bizarre comedies, refined melodramas, artistically adventurous indies, j-horror, and even anime…. Overall this year’s festival is exemplary of where Japanese cinema is today”.
One of my favorites in the JAPAN CUTS selection was the independent film SAWAKO DECIDES (Yuya Isjhii, 2010). Here we have a fast moving low key comedy in a neo- realistic vein without frills or glamour about a meandering young woman finding herself and reconciling with her father. The action is set in her family’s freshwater clam packing business and profiled a waning father, an alcoholic civil servant uncle and a dozen disgruntled employees. Sawako who appears uprooted without any orientation or will power at first, seemingly driven by the environment she is in, does gain eventually enough strength to make her own decisions and runs the show. The film is conveying a feminist undertone contrasting strong female with weak male characters. CONFESSIONS (2010) by the famed director of MEMORIES OF MATSUKO Masaki Okada played during the festival for a sold out audience. It is a superb production, close to a masterpiece, about a young school teacher unraveling the murder of her young daughter by two of her students. She skillfully avenges her death using the entire 7th grade class as a psychological weapon. The film has an elaborate structure moving through different levels of presentation with a perfectly attuned score and a darkly toned cinematography. It provides an impressive portray of the teacher, her motivations and analysis of the killers whose actions were prompted by feelings of inferiority and abandonment. But the film also shows rather well how these young students are overtly addicted to mischief, destruction and violence, in a society that apparently does not provide effective boundaries. This close to perfect film is marred by an ending with overbearing computer generated visual imagery of explosions and destructions. HANGING GARDENS directed in 2005 by Toshiaki Toyoda, is a supreme presentation of a dysfunctional Japanese lower middle class family, featuring a nightmare of characters including a submissive and happy go lucky mother on the surface, who is a-sexual yet full of suppressed rage. A wimpish father with affairs, a son leading a close to shut in existence, a teenage daughter frequenting sex hotels, and an apparent deranged grandmother, to name but a few are part of the cast. The director invents a harmonious ending. After rebirthing through a figurative but confusing blood bath both the mother and the housing complex, there is an apparent ‘happy’ celebration of mother’s birthday. Yet, the images linger of a bizarre neurotic spaced out family. Thinking of Todd Solondz portrayal of suburban US families one wonders if the director wants to share with us the interior landscape of a typical Japanese family.
SWEET LITTLE LIES (2010, Hitashi Yazaki) is a marvelous small treasure with an extraordinary acting performance by Miki Nakatini playing the spouse in a three year long marriage that has lost its bearing. Set in an upper middle class setting, it is a story of the couple, the wife a teddy bear maker, the husband a business man, in a highly routinized but lifeless relationship, both starting affairs to compensate for the lack of affection and sex. They maintain through their sweet little lies the surface of normalcy to protect each other. When her favorite animal a neighbor’s dog dies she lies next to him in his grave dug by her husband. The neighbor, an old lady confides over a cup of tea that she had killed her husband stating “… people are monsters but not when they are dead.” Miwa Nishikowa has a related concern in her multi award winning film DEAR DOCTOR (2009) where she depicts the interactions between a kind old doctor and elderly villagers living in a tiny hamlet far away from the next city. Assisted by a most knowledgeable nurse, he seems to have healing powers taking care of all ailments of his patients. An adoring young intern comes to train with him most attracted by this countryside doctor who is humble and so different from the modern ones he got to know as a student. Yet the doctor suddenly disappears apparently having been an imposter according to investigators. However, the villagers and the intern have a hard time accepting it since he served them without fail over three years. The film is beautifully photographed and enacted and a telling statement about modern medicine.
ZERO FOCUS, which was directed by Isshin Inudou in 2009, is one of the best films included in this year’s JAPAN CUTS selection, another US premiere. It is a feminist hitchcockian psychological thriller set in 1957 and involving the three best Japanese actresses in the lead roles. The first, Teiko, plays a subdued yet strong newlywed investigating the sudden disappearance of her husband Uhara after a trip to his company’s regional office. The second, Sachiko has the role of a provincial power broker using the resources of her wealthy husband Murato, who is a client of Uhara’s company to foster the election of the first female mayor in Japan. The third, Hisako, is working as a company receptionist employed there at Murato’s request. Teiko’s search soon reveals her husband’s troublesome post-war past as a policeman near an American army post of which she knew nothing and she discovers that Sachiko and Hisako served as Pan Pan girls or prostitutes for the GI’s. The three are linked and knew each other, a fact which remained unknown to their families and friends in the world they were living in ten years later until Uhara shows up and Teiko unravels his disappearance. There is much to recommend in ZERO FOCUS. The film contextualizes rather well its story. Superb sets and post war stock footage visualize the chaotic rebirth of Japan from the ashes of the war, including a traumatic occupation, and the personal traumas the historical changes caused. It is superb story telling that is reinforced by stunning acting, interspersed at the end of the film with melodramatic overplayed scenes.
If the films dealing with contemporary Japan in the Japan Cuts selection present glimpses into Japanese society, then the view one gains is that of contradictions, repressed problems, and deviance from whatever could be considered normal. In post industrial Japanese society which has gone now through fifteen years of a sagging economy there seems to be a troublesome disconnection of ritualistic appearances from reality accompanied by the disappearance of a solid center of orientation. Maybe the phenomenon of hikikomori or shut-ins can be located there as well as the sub cultural cultish appeal of anime and visual bizarre violence.