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.

Japan Cuts 2017: Over the Fence Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is 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.

 

Divorcé Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) has settled into days spent at a vocational school learning carpentry as part of his unemployment benefits agreement. When a fellow student invites him out to pitch something better, an unusual bar hostess (mating) dances into his awareness.

 

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Over the Fence is another adaptation of Yasushi Sato’s short stories of the northern port city of Hakodate. I’ve previously seen one of the other two, The Light Shines Only There, which was one of my favorite films of 2015’s Japan Cuts. This is another story about two broken people coming together, but it feels quite different. We learn less about what causes the leads’ character flaws here, and the situations and personalities involved are simultaneously more low key and stranger. It also seems a bit lighter overall, despite heavy themes and volatile dramatic scenes.  The humor’s well integrated and the acting superb, particularly from both leads. Yu Aoi (playing the eccentric Satoshi Tamura) has numerous intense and/or weird scenes and traits to convey, and her devotion and skill in doing so makes even absurd spectacles like her frequent recreating of bird mating dances captivating.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t quite do justice to her masterful performance. More background was needed for Satoshi to help explain her point of view and actions. It wasn’t enough to demonstrate that she’s (partially) crazy, that she knows it, and it deeply bothers her (all of which were done quite explicitly and appropriately).  Some context was needed as to how she got to that point for the conflicts between her and Yoshio to resonate properly, and to make her a fully formed character instead of being defined by a single, negative characteristic (even if it manifests in a few different ways). What should have been powerful scenes often seem like weirdness and conflict for its own sake. Aoi did an amazing job with what she was given, but the plot let her character down.

The core story and its unique perspective were interesting, the acting excellent, and the key scenes filled with emotion. But there are some slow parts, and again the film’s main weakness is not giving the viewers enough background to truly connect to the characters and empathize with their struggles. As such this was a decent movie that could have been great with tweaks to the pacing and writing.

 

Actor Joe Odagira received Japan Cut’s Cut Above award before the screening and had a Q&A afterwards. The questions were varied this time, with honestly a lot of stuff that would have been more appropriate to ask a director, not the lead actor. He broke out laughing a couple of times as he tried to process what he was being asked, but generally responded well and made the most of each to say something interesting (or at least a polite acknowledgement, as in a gracious response to someone who raised their hand to complain about the editing).

 

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I’ll be back later with thoughts on two more films from this year’s festival.

Japan Cuts 2017: Tokyo Idols and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is running through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here, on last year’s starting here, and on the opening film Mumon: The Land of Stealth here.

 

Tokyo Idols

 

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“This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.”

Man, there’s a lot to unpack with this one, and a good deal of it is unsettling. Kyoko Miyake’s documentary of Japan’s idol culture provides a stark examination that is as fascinating as it is thought provoking.

Miyake’s camera and even handed approach isn’t judgmental when dealing with individuals and their stories, giving them room to share their views and answer questions as they see fit. But she’s more than willing to put subjects on the spot with pointed questions, and the general structure and flow of the movie provide a critical viewpoint.  She knows there are troubling aspects and issues to explore and lets a matter of fact approach to documenting her subjects bring them to light.

One of the most interesting things about the movie is how much there is to it. It continued past several seemingly natural stopping points to present numerous new layers for consideration. Using one idol’s story as an anchor throughout the movie while interspersing looks at other groups and fandoms gives her film excellent scope and structure . The narrative form is fantastic, with extremely powerful points often made in simple manners such as by translating select portions of the lyrics the idols are singing to their fans.

From an outsider’s perspective some of the scenes we’re extremely uncomfortable, even though things are set up to be safe for the performers. I’m tending towards the apparent tilt of the movie that there’s more negative than positive, but it presents a lot to think about on both sides. Comments from stars, their families, and fans as to the culture and what they think the positives are interweave nicely with societal experts’ comments about the negative effect they think it’s having on Japan’s society and gender dynamics. The careful tightrope Miyake walks along with her excellent sense of how to put everything together makes this a real gem.

 

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue

 

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The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, a story of two eccentric loners stumbling into each others spheres of existence was interesting but odd. The filmmaking is front and center in a way that often calls attention to itself. Characters’ points of view and emotional states are reflected with an often blurring camera, extreme close ups of object and unusually cut off frames, and even some sections of animation. Some of it works really well and adds a lot to the movie, and some of it doesn’t and simply breaks any building immersion.

The two leads (Sosuke Ikematsu and Shizuka Ishibashi) were excellent and their acting raised this above the interesting but uneven execution. They imbued their characters with something extremely endearing, major flaws and all. This wasn’t a favorite of mine, but I think I liked it overall.

Japan Cuts 2017: Mumon: The Land of Stealth Review

“I know everyone is expecting to see cool ninjas. These are not those ninjas.”

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is running through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here, and on last year’s starting here.

Mumon’s home of Iga is a territory of mercenary ninjas who care little of anything but practice and pay, and certainly not about each other. Mumon’s among the best and greediest (in attempts to impress and satisfy his bride), and sees little value in anything outside his immediate sphere. But an ambitious warlord’s son’s hopes to complete domination of the countryside will have repercussions for everyone.

 

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Not being previously familiar with the director nor the star, I came into Japan Cuts 2017’s opening movie without any framework or preconceptions. It’s an engrossing tale that both embraces and subverts the conventions of being a period piece and ingeniously blends a variety of tones, themes, and genres. It develops at a excellent pace, keeping things moving with humor and action while deeper themes and schemes are slowly formed and revealed.

The balance is pitch perfect throughout and the juxtaposition of intense, visceral scenes of drama and violence and a light touch of comedic moments. I was really impressed with how it all came together and with the heavy themes of money, duty, and what’s really important that were expertly woven within the overlaying war conflict plot and often over the top (and amusing) battles. Even some individual conflicts  turn on a dime from humor to poignant, unsettling drama seamlessly and effectively.

One of the key successes of the movie is that both sides of the conflict have characters with complex motivations and goals that change throughout as said personal considerations come into conflict and new points of view and information are presented to each of them. It’s wonderfully acted, with a handful of key people on each side anchoring the story and providing logical progression for each film’s major changes in direction.

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura introduced the film (including the wonderful quote I opened with), participated in a Q&A afterwards, and met with fans during the after party. He was friendly and approachable, and seemed genuinely excited to be there. His answers during the Q&A were quite interesting and gave some nice further insight into the film.

Really enjoyed this one overall. Great start to the festival.

 

Update: There is a Japanese translation of this review. Thanks to Junko Czerny!

Japan Society Talks+: Gifu, The Heartland of Japan

Japan Society’s Talks+ program features a variety of lectures and events throughout the year that provide wonderful examinations of numerous aspects of Japanese culture. Currently there are several related events running that provide a spotlight on the Gifu prefecture, which began with a lecture and reception entitled “Gifu, The Heartland of Japan.”

 

 

The lecture portion of the evening was introduced by Japan Society president Motoatsu Sakurai and had opening remarks by The Honorable Hajime Furuta, Governor of Gifu, who gave historical context to Gifu and talked about his current US trip and some exciting new developments in terms of cooperation towards tourism and historical preservation and recognition between Gifu and parts of the US.

 

 

Moderator Susan Miyagi Hamaker then explained the basics and traditions of Jikabuki, including audience participation and the amateur nature of the performers, and introduced an abbreviated ten-minute performance by the Tono Kabuki Nakatsugawa Preservation Society. It was fun to watch and a nice spotlight on this form of Kabuki theater that is most active in Gifu.

 

 

After the performance Graeme Howard, Coordinator for International Relations for Gifu Prefecture’s Tourism Promotion Division, gave the longest section of the lecture in which he talked about some of the wonderful places and things to see and experience in Gifu as well as their culinary and artistic specialties.

 

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Following Graeme’s presentation the lecture concluded with a personal tale from Dr. Sylvia W. Smoller, whose parents survived the Holocaust due to the decision of humanitarian Chiune Sugihara, who issued transit visas to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust despite his government’s orders. In addition to the emotional tale of her family’s journey and Sugihara’s selfless actions, her talk including interesting thoughts about the character behind such important acts and the environment needed to foster them.

 

 

The entire lecture was wonderful, highlighting everything from the history to the art and culture to the food of Gifu, as well as the people themselves.

 

 

But that was only half the evening, as afterwards attendees were treated to a sampling of incredible dishes featuring Gifu’s famous Hida Wagyu beef and sake brewed using Gifu’s pristine waters as well as an exhibition of some of Gifu’s pottery and a chance to meet and gets pictures with the Jikabuki performers.

 

 

Excellent even above Japan Society’s Talks+ already high standards, “Gifu, The Heartland of Japan” was a great evening that provided a multitude of information and experiences related to the subject province.

 

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