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.

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.

 

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. 😉

Japan Cuts 2018: Ramen Shop and Night is Short, Walk On Girl

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2018 started on July 19th and is running through July 29th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

 

Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh)

 

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Once again I came into Japan Cuts’ opening movie unfamiliar with the director and star and without any frame of reference or preconceptions. And once again I was extremely pleased with the result. Ramen Shop is a wonderful drama where people’s lives are affected in significant ways via food and longing. It parcels its story out slowly, letting everything build from the actions and emotions of the characters in a strong example of showing versus telling. There are admittedly a couple of small oversights and parts where a little more spelling out would have been appropriate, but overall the balance of what’s implied and what’s addressed more explicitly is excellent.

The story of Masato’s (Takumi Saitoh) search for his mother’s estranged family in unfamiliar Singapore is carefully grounded and supported with his love of food and desire to understand more about the recipes that arose from the crossing of his parents cultures, as well as perfect touches of humor from Mark Lee to lighten the atmosphere whenever the film’s in danger of getting too heavy. There are serious, important topics and themes of prejudice, tragedy, acceptance and rejection, the fleeting nature of life, and parts of history often avoided that are handled extremely well, conveyed and addressed with nuance and respect by careful treatment from director Eric Khoo and excellent acting. Saitoh and Beatrice Chien have several particularly difficult, important emotional scenes and both are absolutely fantastic in them.

With the creation and love of food being so integral to the film its depiction is extremely important, and those aspects are incredible. Excellent food photography, just enough explanation of what’s being done and made, and a real sense of of why the characters relate and care so much about the creation of food all work in harmony to make these crucial elements work wonderfully.

The Q&A after the screening was great, with Khoo especially fascinating to listen to as he talked about his goals with the film, the process of working with crews and actors from two countries who couldn’t fully communicate, the uncomfortable topics he wanted to shine some light on, and several other great insights into the films creation. Saitoh was equally gracious and engaged in the conversation, and both stayed for the after party to continue to talk and meet the audience.

Overall this was a great movie and a fun night, and an excellent way to kick off this year’s festival.

 

 

Night is Short, Walk On Girl

 

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I don’t know exactly what I expected from Night is Short, Walk On Girl, but this wasn’t it. It follows college student Otome from a friend’s wedding reception out into a weird, epic night of adventures that connect and unfold in unusual, absurd ways. At times it was admittedly a bit too much for me, but I still found it interesting and engaging and it featured clever several surprises that I really should have seen coming, which is always a difficult, wonderful thing to accomplish that I adore. Also, Otome is a wonderfully strong, compelling protagonist.

A friend of mine was initially critical of certain aspects of Ramen Shop but liked it more and more the more she thought about it, and I’m having a similar experience here. It took me by surprise and while I generally enjoyed it immediately parts of it, including certain characters, content, pacing, etc, put me off a bit at first. But the more it settles in my mind and I’m able to digest it all the more I appreciate it. The animation style is striking and unique, going for exaggerated forms for emphasis often while still managing to stay grounded and create a connection with the characters. Despite some of my own conflicted and evolving feelings here Night is Short, Walk On Girl is an easy recommendation that any fan of animation should check out for themselves.

 

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Preceding this was Dreamland a five minute short film showing a constantly evolving cityscape composed of shifting rectangular shapes that felt like a kinetic M.C. Escher vision come to life. It was interesting enough, with the complex, technically precise motion paired well with the score and made for a nice pairing with the main feature.

Japan Cuts 2017: In This Corner of the World Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and ran through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here and on last year’s starting here. This year I’ve previously seen and reviewed Mumon, Tokyo Idols, and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue.

 

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Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is one of my favorite manga of all time. Fumiyo Kōno’s tale of life in the shadow of the nuclear bombs during the following decades is thoughtful, informative, and masterfully told. So I was extremely interested when I found out that her other work about the war was being adapted into an animated movie, and pleased when I found out Japan Cuts would be screening it.

The scope of In This Corner of the World is likewise how the war affected everyday life in Japan, but this time Kōno presents a picture of gradual effects and changes, as well as point of view of average people, leading up to and during the war.

The focal point is a young woman named Suzu who goes through school, gets married, and joins a new family against the backdrop of increasingly dire world events. There’s a wonderful use of time passage to illustrate key aspects of the story. The viewers are given little glimpses of both significant and mundane experiences to establish the status quo of Suzu’s life at different stages. The careful balance of light, amusing moments and interactions of normal life, the adjustments forced by the background war, and the more heartbreaking, “gut punch” events and realities of war combine to form a genuine feeling, important look at a dark time in world history.

The knowledge of what’s going to happen to Suzu’s hometown of Hiroshima tensely looms over the movie and the lives observed. Seeing their everyday concerns and normal worries (including arranged marriage, growing up, self-doubt, etc) intermixed with those of life and death makes the war less abstract in an important way. As such there are certain things that can predicted (yet still have enormous impact when they happen) and others that are still complete shocks and upend the viewers’ expectations. The film is frank in its depictions without anything feeling exaggerated or exploitive. The reality of the war and dropping of the atomic bombs is more than horrific enough. The numerous effects, physical, emotional, societal, etc, all creep into Suzu’s life in harsh ways that are allowed to resonate with the viewer due to the film refusing to shy away from showing the impact they have on the attitudes and outlooks of those affected. The actual violence shown differs in graphicness, often focusing more on the aftermath yet occasionally presenting graphic details for emphasis in certain situations.

The animation is gorgeous and perfectly captures Kōno’s drawing style and adapts it for film and motion. The color palate is beautiful and helps to draw viewers completely into the narrative. Producer Taro Maki mentioned it was well researched to be historically accurate in the representation of scenery.  The contrast of soft visuals depicting often horrific and tense events and situations works quite well to highlight the themes and emotions the film means to convey.

 

Producer Taro Maki was excellent during the post viewing Q&A, responding well to sensitive topics (including the fact that the everyday citizens of Japan would have been informed by propaganda and not aware of larger world events, leading to the presence of points of view in the film some audience members incorrectly took as biased endorsements of Japan’s side) as well as sharing interesting insight into the crowdfunding aspects of the film’s production. His appearance was somewhat of a full circle for me, as I saw a screening of Millennium Actress many years ago that he also attended and held a Q&A at.

 

In This Corner of the World is opening for limited theater release in the US on August 11. It’s both excellent and important. I highly recommend seeing it if you can.