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.

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

Quick Takes: Venom, Into the Spiderverse

As I’ve done in the past I recently took advantage of a long plane ride to catch up on a movies I’ve been meaning to watch. Here are brief thoughts on a couple films I checked out this time (with a thematic link this time 😉 ).

 

Venom

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Venom (in some of his encarnations at least) is one of my favorite comic book characters. I was gutted at the mishandling of his prior cinematic appearance. So I watched this with a bit of trepidation, even though the previews looked decent.

And to be honest the character has potential for a more nuanced story/adaptation than what we got here. I also wasn’t thrilled with the casting/approach of a key cameo at the end.

But this was pretty awesome otherwise. While it wasn’t perfect the approach to Venom’s character is still great, he looked right, and Hardy is perfect as Eddie Brock. The story was solid enough, and most importantly this movie was fun.

I can understand wanting something else, and even within the direction they chose to take I would’ve liked some of the details done differently, but this was a surprisingly good take overall.

 

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

“You wanna know what happened next? Me too.”

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It took me way too long to get around to watching this masterpiece, and I regret it. Simply incredible. Go in with as little foreknowledge as possible and enjoy the ride. I refuse to say more because in the unlikely case someone reading this is still unspoiled it’d be awful of me to do so. This is a creative, clever, unique masterpiece.

 

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As a big childhood fan of Spider-Man comics, it was treat to see and enjoy both of these. Admittedly there’s a gap here as one’s “quite good for what it is” and the other is transcendent, but they’re both well worth watching if interested.

Incredibles 2 Review

“How do you balance the superhero stuff with the life stuff?”

 

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It’s been a long time coming, but Incredibles 2 was worth the wait. I found this to be an excellent sequel that captures spirit of the first film while progressing the story and characters’ personalities and situations nicely. It’s exceedingly precise in mostly the right ways, being carefully measured down to minutia in a way that only occasionally calls attention to itself. Admittedly there aren’t a lot of new ideas here with one main underlying plot thread being a light spin on the first film, and there are some issues with falling back on outdated stereotypes. But it’s what’s done with the various elements that matter most in the end, and everything is executed well. The stereotypes are played with and moved beyond, the plot structure is there to support the themes and emotions the movie’s truly about, etc. I found the key points being made and the conflicts and issues the family was working through relatable and genuine despite the fantastical setting, which is a wonderful accomplishment.