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.

SEAdLINNNG 4/28/19: The Last Arisa Nakajima Produce Of The Heisei Era Live Thoughts

April 28, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan

Last year’s Arisa Nakajima produce show was awesome, and with her wrestling in three of the five scheduled matches this one looked to be great as well.

It’s going to be impossible to talk about this show without addressing the atmosphere, so let’s start there. There was a trio of loud, obnoxious foreign fans being rather disruptive throughout. Among other things, they were CONSTANTLY trying to start American style chants, which really aren’t done in Japan. I understand wanting to have fun and be a fan in your own way, but there is a level of respect that needs to be given to the fact that we are visitors in another culture with different norms and expectations. The problem was how incessantly they were doing it and the complete lack of awareness (or caring) that they were disturbing other fans (not to mention the wrestlers). After the first few times of literally no one in the arena joining in one would think they would have stopped, but instead they got increasingly louder.

Summarizing the whole fiasco was their insistence afterwards (when people tried to point out how poorly received their behavior was) that “the wrestlers loved us” and “what we were doing wasn’t illegal.” Yeah, they literally argued if they couldn’t get arrested then their actions must be ok. They actually were annoying enough to make a Japanese veteran wrestler pause in her post show comments to tell them to shut up, which is kind of insane given the culture over there.

I hate having to bring all this up at all, but it did impact the show so is unfortunately highly relevant.

1- Beyond the Sea Tag Title: Arisa Nakajima & Sae (c) vs Miyuki Takase & Himeka Arita

Ok, on to the wrestling. This was a fine opener, shining whenever Arisa was in. To be honest Sae just isn’t at the level of the others (including Himeka, who similarly has only been wrestling about a year and a half) and it did show at times. It was also tough to get into things here with the aforementioned disruptive fans at their worst, literally unsuccessfully trying to start “Let’s Go Arisa” chants TWENTY TIMES IN A TEN MINUTE MATCH. The wrestlers did their best to overcome it though and this ended up a nicely energetic opener, featuring what felt like a big title change. Takase has gotten incredibly good really quickly.

2- High Speed Match: Mei Hoshizuki vs Amazon vs Tsukushi

Ice Ribbon’s super-brat was in her element here, creating chaos and eventually settling on a shared victory with Mei as they double pinned their larger opponent (which liberal involvement from referee Natsuki). Perfectly acceptable in a high speed match, and a good way to keep Amazon looking like a threat even in defeat. These high speed triple threats tend to be quite enjoyable in general, and this one was no exception.

Mei had some of the coolest moments in the match, and how impressive she and her compatriot Marvelous rookies always are is definitely going to be a recurring theme in my reviews.

Amazon was decent here and utilized her size and power advantages well. She was a little off at times but actually noticeably evolved and improved over the course of the different shows I saw her at in the short time I was there, which was actually really cool to see. She’s got a lot of potential.

3- Best Friends (Arisa & Tsukasa Fujimoto) & Takumi Iroha vs Lovely Butchers (Hamuko Hoshi & Mochi Miyagi) & Yoshiko

Just a ton of fun all around with this one. Yoshiko did the full dancing Butchers entrance with her teammates, and after teasing reluctance Iroha sang along with Best Friends during theirs.

It’s always a treat to see Best Friends together, and everyone was on point in a high octane, exciting contest. Neck and neck with the main for best of the night, with Arisa and team proving victorious to make her 1-1 for the night going into the main event.

4- Tequila Saya & Mima Shimoda vs  Maria & Tomoko Watanabe

I’m a big fan of both Saya and Maria and their sections against each other were a treat. Would love a singles match down the line. Fine but somewhat unmemorable match otherwise, with Shimoda & Saya picking up the win at the rookie’s expense.

Main Event- Nanae Takahashi vs Arisa Nakajima

SEAdLINNNG owner Nanae was their top singles champion at the time, but this was non-title. I have mixed feelings on her in general (both in and out of the ring), but she’s certainly capable of great matches and this was an excellent, hard hitting war.

My instinct is that she honestly didn’t need to go over Arisa here, and a time limit draw would have served better in a variety of ways, but it was Arisa’s third match of the night and again Nanae was the reigning champ so I do understand the decision. Great match to end the show with.

Outside factors aside this was a really good show overall, and kudos to the wrestlers for performing at a high level regardless and constantly reengaging the crowd.

Japan Cuts 2019: Killing

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through today, July 28th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

“If you can’t kill, your sword is useless.”

This year’s centerpiece was my second film of the festival and interestingly both were samurai films. That’s entirely the end of the similarities however, as where Samurai Shifters is a full blown comedy Killing is a incredibly harsh yet thoughtful expression of fear and frustration with the state of the world told through the lens of a historical period.

Killing is tense, unsettling, and violent. This is completely intentional on the part of director (and one of the lead actors) Shinya Tsukamoto, who didn’t want the fights to be things of beauty but instead realistic, uncomfortable experiences that made his film leave a strong impression on its viewers. He certainly succeeded, as the impact of the movie lingers long after its end. In fact I found the effects actually strengthened after the viewing, with things coming into focus more as I pondered what was presented.

During the movie I was increasingly enthralled by the choices Tsukamoto and his actors made and the way everything unfolded, but the frantic, headache inducing cutting of the fights, extremely graphic violence (made more stark by the frequent matter of fact nature of its delivery), and other aspects made it hard to process as I was watching. These aren’t criticisms per se though, as again it was all an intentional part of what Tsukamoto wanted the film to be and instrumental in achieving the right atmosphere and feeling. The more I think about this after the fact the more I come to grips with it and the more impressed I am.

Tsukamoto was in attendance, and received this year’s Cut Above Award for Outstanding Performance in Film before the screening. His Q&A after the movie was an excellent. The provided insightful look into what he hoped to accomplish and convey with the film was fascinating and added layers of context to help unravel all the themes and implications swirling around beneath the surface.

The approach taken makes it tough to generally recommend Killing, as there’s a lot in this film that will be too much for many viewers. But that’s the entire point, and there’s meaning to every artistic choice made supporting a stunning emotional core to the film. There’s an escalating madness lurking inside Killing that both arises naturally and seems to have no true reason behind it, and that achievement alone makes this challenging, compelling drama well worth the effort.

Japan Cuts 2019: Dance With Me

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through July 28th.

My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

That feeling when hard work and a stroke of luck is about to pay off with a possible promotion and you have to chase a hypnotist across the country to reverse a suggestion that makes you break into song and dance at the slightly hint of music.

I wasn’t able to make it to this year’s opening screening, so was really pleased to have an encore was added that gave me a chance to see one of this Japan Cuts 2019’s most anticipated films.

Dance With Me’s silly premise and willingness to poke fun at the very genre it encapsulates is its greatest strength. It’s at its best when it fully embraces its concept and subverts genre expectations, with absurd surprises are every corner and main character Shizuka is joyfully dancing across the screen despite herself.

In contrast it does lull a bit the couple times it instead falls into the very genre trappings it tries so hard to subvert, and the story framework doesn’t quite support the weight of the film when time for thought to settle is allowed. There are tiny disconnects between the themes the filmmakers seem to be trying to let creep in and the actual zany happenings of Shizuka’s adventure at the exact points everything needs to come together into a cohesive whole.

But there isn’t anything wrong per se in a movie like this with the background setup existing solely to give rise to the entertaining, madcap weirdness that is the whole point of the film. The detail needed to properly explain my small criticisms above might give the impression that they are bigger issues than they actually are. In fact it’s just a little bit of background noise that keeps this “only” in the realm of being excellent instead of the masterpiece it seemed on the edge of becoming.

The movie is hilarious overall with strong acting surrounding and supporting an excellent, anchoring performance by Ayaka Miyoshi (as Shizuka). There were several genuinely captivating twists as Shizuka’s journey kept escalating into higher and higher levels of wonderful ridiculousness.

Dance With Me has a joy to it that’s infectious, always simmering beneath the surface waiting for the right times to burst out. I found it impossible not to smile during this movie, and really enjoyed it overall even if it was best to turn my brain off just a little at times. Highly recommended.

The Farewell Review

“Based on an actual lie.”

Billi’s family moved to New York when she was young, but she remains close and in touch with her grandmother. When her grandmother is diagnosed with cancer and given just a few weeks to live, Billi makes a difficult trip back to China under the pretense of a family wedding to see a loved one who hasn’t been told she’s dying.

 

the-farewell-movie

 

Let’s just state things up front: The Farewell is FANTASTIC. It’s an emotional, genuine feeling depiction of a family making, arguing about, and going through with a tough decision as they seek to bear their matriarch’s potential emotional burden in her stead.

Director/writer Lulu Wang built off of personal experience and presents a deeply resonant story that transcends the specifics of the involved cultures while lovingly embracing them and making the pressures and beliefs that motivate the characters understandable to all viewers. There’s an incredibly authentic feeling of family permeating the film that’s completely relatable at the same time it presents weighty glimpses into a culture that isn’t my own. Flashes of humor, awkwardness, conflict, love driven actions both admirable and misguided, etc make Billi’s family feel real in way seldom so perfectly captured in any form of media.

But even beyond the deft presentation of the subject material and masterful acting (particularly by lead Awkwafina, who spends the film completely torn and wrecked over figuring out what the right thing to do is) that captivated me as I watched, the film shines even further through brilliant cinematography. I don’t often get into camera treatment, etc because it should be largely invisible when done right. And it is both here, but the stunning way everything’s done to heighten emotion and drawn the viewer in deserves special mention.

The way scenes are framed, the general use of when longer range shots that let emotion sit for a moment when it needs to and magnifies the impact of the film’s few close ups when they happen, etc all combine to create a very real feeling of being present and included in the events. I didn’t feel like I was watching Billi’s story, I felt like a was there. I can’t overstate what a difficult and impressive achievement that is.

A day later and I still feel the full impact of the thoughts and emotions swirling about in the wake of seeing The Farewell. Excellent in pretty much every possible aspect of it’s creation, appropriately tough to watch in parts, bittersweet, and genuine, I can’t recommend this engaging, thought provoking, emotional gut punch of a film enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Knight (Sibyl’s War Book 2) Review

Knight is the second installment in the Sibyl’s War series, and this review will contain some spoilers for the first book, Pawn. The story is a direct continuation of events in Pawn, and I highly recommend reading that first.

 

As one of the special humans who can communicate with the starship Fyrantha, Nicole found herself of even more mysteries and trouble than the others kidnapped to work as the ship’s repair crew. Now parts of the ship itself have chosen Nicole as its new Protector, a role that will be particularly difficult since she needs to keep the competing factions from realizing the true potential of her fellow humans if she wishes to save her planet.

 

39863301

 

Pawn was a good start to Sibyl’s War that presented an extremely interesting world with decent characters whose actions and characterizations felt occasionally unnatural due to the necessities of the plot. Overall though I enjoyed it and was curious about where things would go from there. I wasn’t able to confirm this 100%, but I think this is a trilogy which would make Knight the middle portion of the ongoing story.

Knight has a slower, more deliberate pace than Pawn, with a LOT of establishing geography, etc. Zahn manages not to turn these sections into info dumps, but there’s still a lot of detail in constant streams woven throughout. I could see and certainly understand some pushback over this style and the resultant pacing, but I actually found it appropriate and enjoyed this book a touch more than the first.

I found characters’ actions more reasonable and internally consistent which allowed me to get even more caught up in the intrigue and Nicole’s efforts to outplay the various competing influences and figure out what was truly happening on the Fyrantha. The build for the next installment felt natural and the revelations in Knight set things up for another direct sequel while feeling like this story still had a suitable end point. I like the way things are building and will be impatiently waiting for the next book since I’m now caught up with what’s been published thus far.

Japan Cuts 2019: Samurai Shifters

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through July 28th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

 

“The hero of this story is a librarian.”

In an age where samurai clans are often ordered to relocate at the whims of the shogunate, one lord is tasked to make a particularly difficult move to a smaller holding across Japan. Hoping to avoid responsibility for the difficulties ahead, from the planning to the costs to the actual physical move, his advisors choose a shut in bookworm samurai named Harunosuke to be new relocation officer.

 

samuraishifters_xl

 

Samurai Shifters starts with the unique subject of having to uproot an entire clan and travel across Japan and makes its story captivating and accessible. Rather than gloss over the minutia and logistics of such a move, they become the focal point of the movie in a grounded, expertly presented way that makes use of a sublime application of humor. The balance of the writing is fantastic, and the sly way themes that reflect today’s work culture are folded into a story that is still so clearly of its own time is masterfully done. There are several legitimate laugh-out-loud moments delivered at exactly the right times without overstaying their welcome.

Yet Samurai Shifters is also anchored with underlying drama amid the desires and limitations of its characters, and becomes surprisingly weighty and poignant at times. There are difficult decisions to be made and consequences to be carried out, and by careful choice of which ones to highlight the film makes everything resonate.

The audience truly feels for and relates to the constantly in over his head Harunosuke, despite the specifics of his situation and environment being a far cry from their own. Gen Hoshino heads up a cast full of excellent performances, including costars Issey Takahashi as Harunosake’s loud, overbearing brute of a friend who causes as many problems as he helps solve and Mitsuki Takahata as the former relocation officer’s daughter with a lot of key knowledge and very little reason to help. This film is incredibly and intentionally over-the-top in all the best ways, and the director and actors knowing exactly how far to push things and when to reign it all back in to convey emotion is key.

It’s always a bit extra interesting and significant for me to write about Japan Cuts, as beyond the quality and variety of the films every year it also marks the anniversary of writing this blog, now four years and counting. Samurai Shifters is an excellent film and was a great way for me to start out this year.