A Day in Mori’s Garden, and The Impending End of Innocence

Japan Cuts 2018: Mori: The Artist’s Habitat and Hanagatami

 

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2018 ran from July 19th through July 29th. I saw previously saw and wrote about Ramen Shop and Night is Short, Walk on Girl, and here I’d like to share thoughts on the centerpiece and closing films.

Also check out my features on films from 2015’s2016’s, and last year’s festivals.

 

Mori: The Artist’s Habitat

 

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This year’s CUT ABOVE Award winner for Outstanding Performance in Film was actress Kirin Kiki, who was a joy to listen to in the Q&A following the centerpiece screening of Mori: The Artist’s Habitat. Kiki plays the tolerant wife of eccentric artist Mori, who’s barely left his home in thirty years and spends his time intensely studying life in his overgrown garden. In between a constant comedic stream of visitors and delicate, incredible cinematography featuring Mori’s garden and sharing his fascination with the viewers are encroaching themes about an intruding outside world and the passage of time. A decent movie with some interesting things to say and flashes of absolute brilliance in its techniques.

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Hanagatami

I usually discuss the main feature of a showing first and then offer brief closing comments on any accompanying shorts  that preceded the film. I take that approach to place the spotlight as seems appropriate as since while often quite good and complimentary accompaniments, they are also non-essential sidebars to the viewing / discussion of the full feature.

 

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Not so in this case. The 6 minute How Can You Know Where to Go If You Do Not Know Where You Have Been stop motion short not only held it’s own being as striking and memorable as the 3 hour film that would follow, but also served as a wonderful primer for the kind of lens through which the topics of both films could (and perhaps should) be viewed. I feel that having this in front of Hanagatami had a direct impact on my viewing experience of that film in a meaningful way.

In some ways a “simple” conversation with her grandmother about the past set to animation, director Mizuki Toriya’s short contains a powerful message about remembering and sharing the past delivered through an equally important demonstration of that practice.

 

 

Having Toriya at the screening in person to introduce the short and share thoughts about she made this film was an additional bonus. She humbly apologized in advance for the limited nature of the animation, but it was in fact perfectly paired with the conversation it accompanied and impactful in a touching, genuine way. It’s not entirely fair to compare shorts with full length films, but in the interest of full honesty and credit where credit is due this was my favorite film of anything I saw at Japan Cuts this year.

 

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I have to admit I don’t think I’ll ever fully know what to make of director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s epic examination of fleeting youth as war looms. Between nonlinear storytelling, hyperrealistic visuals that are as relentless as they are striking and gorgeous, adults playing teenagers, and numerous other creative and off kilter approaches there’s a lot to absorb from Hanagatami, and it’s often overwhelming. Nothing is spelled out (save for one short unfortunate immersion breaking monologue where the film seems to realize the layers of symbolism are getting too deep and simply states what a few things represented), and I left the theater far from close to unraveling the meanings and messages beneath the strange happenings I’d just witnessed. Also, the film felt every bit of it’s length, and as I tried to process the scenes at face value, the underlying subtext that was the real point of everything, the complex emotions of all the characters as their lives forever changed, the shifting relationships and love… octagon … that seemed to be going on, etc the movie did seem to strain under its own weight at time.

And yet, I still enjoyed the movie and feel it’s an extremely good one overall. The acting, anchored by star Shunsuke Kubozuka who was present to share valuable insight into the film’s creation in a post screening Q&A, was exquisite. Kubozuka’s performance was exaggerated in a way that fit with Obayashi’s kinetic visuals and gave depth and a captivating edge to his character without going too far. Everyone around him likewise had to push certain characteristics and traits within their performances while staying grounded and they all nailed it. I felt the anxiety of wanting to see how it all turned out and wanting to understand more and more of what was happening and the movie’s message every step of the way. I didn’t get all the way there, but what I did take from the film was affecting.

 

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Imperfections and all, Hanagatami is a film I’m glad I saw that will be pulling at my mind for a long time to come. It’s a collaboration between a director and cast that were all unafraid to push boundaries the craft on display itself is as worth seeking out as the important topics and themes addressed.

 

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That’s all for this year’s Japan Cuts from me. As usual I’m extremely happy to have been able to attend and thankful to all involved. Start counting down to next year. 😉

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