Japan Cuts 2019: Night Cruising

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 ran from July 19th to July 28th. This year I previously saw Samurai ShiftersDance With Me, and Killing.

Also see my thoughts on films from prior years’ festivals (list and links at the end of this article).

My final film for this year’s festival was a fascinating documentary following the journey of blind musician Hideyuki Kato’s efforts to direct a short film (a science fiction story told using several disparate techniques called Ghost Vision).

At 2 hours and 25 minutes, Night Cruising admittedly feels its length in parts. It presents a bit of a conundrum: while I feel like it could have and perhaps should have been a touch shorter I can’t really point to anything to be left out. The short film in question is “shown” twice (once at the beginning and again towards the end) for important reasons and the creation of each section of the film is highlighted in between. Rounding out the documentary is personal perspective on Kato’s journey, which is of course is most important of all. So everything’s appropriate and in some sense needed, but none the less it does feel a bit of an endurance effort at times.

That said, this is a engrossing film overall. Among all the many points of interest along Kato’s captivating journey, the most fascinating section is where he learns about color via an ingenious method of explanation of the color wheel and gradation through a physical model he can feel and color patches containing braille-like identifiers. It’s these numerous insights into the process of a blind director creating art in a visual medium that make Night Cruising something special.

As alluded to above, one of most intriguing things about the “movie within the movie” Ghost Vision is the variety of techniques used. Each of the six sections is done in a different way, from models to live action to anime, etc. To be honest I’m not sure it 100% comes together, but it’s mostly there, it’s really creative and interesting both as a project and in the story and themes of Kato’s vision, and is definitely an impressive achievement.

An curious byproduct of the unique nature of the documentary and its subject is that in at least one section watching it as an international viewer alters the intended experience. The documentary opens with a presentation of Kato’s film as he himself would experience it – sound only with the audience looking at a blank screen. It’s a bold and meaningful choice and even more striking in retrospect when the full short is shared later. But for an audience that does not understand Japanese, translation is of course needed and provided. I found myself wishing I could understand what was said though, so that the stark subtitles against the black screen weren’t there. For me, even as someone who watches subtitled movies all the time without distraction, it was distracting here. It’s a small and unavoidable thing but particularly when discussing a documentary which is largely about sensory perception I thought this consequence of presentation worth discussing.

Ghost Vision was a wonderfully ambitious project of personal growth and determination for Kato, and following along via the efforts of Night Cruising’s director Makoto Sasaki was certainly worthwhile.

My prior years’ Japan Cuts thoughts:

2015: Make Up Room, Strayer’s Chronicle, & 100 Yen Love, The Voice of Water, The Light Shine Only There, & Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn, and the experimental spotlight.

2016: Bitter Honey & Lowlife Love, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son & Bakuman, The Shell Collector & Being Good, and Flying Colors, Kako: My Sullen Past, & Emi-Abi

2017: Mumon: The Land of Stealth, Tokyo Idols & The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Over the Fence, and In This Corner of the World

2018: Ramen Shop & Night is Short, Walk On Girl, and Mori: The Artist’s Habitat & Hanagatami.

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