I didn’t realize they’ve only been doing Japan Cuts for six years. While I am sure that the Society’s film department has done lots of excellent work in prior years, I think this festival is an especially good idea. It brings truly brand-new (or within the last year or two) films to New York that the NY audience might not otherwise see, or hear about, including both big, popular Japanese films that anyone keeping up with Japanese pop culture should want to be on top of, as well as smaller, or even independent, but excellent films. The size and visibility of the festival – due in part to its conjunction with NY Asian Film Festival, and with simply being a festival and being on the radar of Foreign Film geeks – brings more visibility to Japan Society, and brings people in the door who might not otherwise know about the Society.
Anyway, since I’m watching all these films, I might as well introduce them to you, and review them a bit. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum :)
The big “opening film” this year was the US premiere of Moteki, or “Love Strikes!”, and I think they chose very well. There’s something about this film that makes it feel like a big deal, worthy of being a spotlight feature in this way. Not only does it have a quality plot, but it has its own unique, distinctive style that I think really sets it apart. It reminds me of Love Exposure a bit, in this way. Not that the two films are at all alike in terms of their plot, themes, or overall flavor or character, but just that both these films are each quite distinctive in their own ways, as if they were sui generis (woo, big word), defining their own genres unto themselves.
The film, written and directed by One Hitoshi, is a sequel to a TV drama based on a manga. It stars Moriyama Mirai as Fujimoto Yukiyo, a 31-year-old awkward guy about to start a new job, but who has had no luck at all with women in recent years… He meets and amazingly quickly hits it off with Miyuki (Nagasawa Masami), who is a few years younger, super cute, shares many of his interests, and seems to be really into him. But then that’s where things get complicated. I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but suffice it to say that this film has many of the same twists, and highs and lows, that one might expect of any romcom; yet, here, for me at least, the highs seem so much higher, and the lows so much more devastating. I felt so happy for some of the characters at some points, and at other points, felt so so bad for all of them at once. There is certainly much to this film that is unreal & fantastic (see the next paragraph), but at the same time, elements of it seem tragically realistic, in internal mental agonizing over what to say and do, how to react to each and every thing a girl is saying or doing, and what one is feeling; in terms of bad decisions made, and their repercussions; in terms of not always feeling the same when someone else says “I like you.”; in terms of hurting people when we don’t mean to; in terms of finding the right girl at the wrong time.
But, all of that relationship drama and plot content aside, the film was particularly amazing, I thought, for the way it used music, and elements of super-up-to-date Internet culture. First of all, the soundtrack is excellent; I seriously will be keeping my eyes open for the CD at BookOff. But, the film also incorporates elements of song & dance sequences, sometimes with the actual band, and, perhaps more creatively, interestingly, and eye-catchingly, it includes karaoke sequences, in which the lyrics to the song that’s playing appear on screen in precisely the same font and style as if one were in a karaoke room. It’s not so much purely that this is amusing, or for the purely functional aspect of that we could (hypothetically) actually sing along; but, rather, in terms of theme and style, this just makes the movie so much more distinctive. Like a musical film, but in a different way from your standard musicals like Oklahoma or Mary Poppins or something; because several of the main characters are involved, in one way or another, with the concert circuit, we see live bands, YouTube videos, Twitter tweets, webpages, and, yes, karaoke elements.
The film was followed by an opening party for the film festival. The Society’s lobby was all decked out with hot pink paper lanterns, and the ladies of COBU rocked the house with their hip-hop style outfits and powerful taiko playing. Oh, and Nagasawa Masami, the lead actress, was there too, to answer a few questions from the audience. I think Japan Cuts has more special guests than ever before, some of whom are especially big-name. Personally, while it doesn’t get much more big-name than Kôji Yakusho, I’m particularly excited to see Ogigami Naoko, director of Kamome Shokudô, Megane, Toilet, and now, Rent-a-Neko.
One of the other films I enjoyed this weekend was “Scabbard Samurai” (さや侍), a comedic samurai film directed by Matsumoto Hitoshi, one of the most famous/popular comedians in Japan. I’m not sure I’m really a fan of Matsumoto, to be honest, as a comedian, talk show host, or television ‘talent’, but as a director, apparently, he does great work. A wandering samurai who has given up fighting (and given up his sword, and now wears just an empty scabbard at his side) is apprehended by the authorities of a small daimyô domain. The daimyô’s son hasn’t smiled since his mother died, and the scabbard samurai is given 30 days to make the boy smile, or else he must commit seppuku. The film consists largely of us being amused by his efforts – essentially, one gag after another, precisely the kind of humor one should expect from a Kansai comedian like Matsumoto.
But there’s more to it, of course. The scabbard samurai is accompanied in his journeys by his young daughter, Tae, played superbly by the newcomer Kumada Sea. She has perhaps the most lines of any actor in the film, and perhaps the widest range of emotions to express, and does it all like an absolute pro. As with any samurai film, the best part is the costumes and sets, immersing you in the romantic(ized) aesthetics of a Japan of the past, but, while I don’t know if anything will ever surpass the tap dancing ending to Kitano Takeshi’s Zatôichi, this film’s overall hilarity, and touching, emotional moments, put it up close, easily in my top 10 samurai films if we exclude the classic Kurosawas.
Then, there’s Smuggler. Not knowing anything about the manga, or that it was even based on a manga, I went into this expecting a sort of crime drama film, where he gets caught up in a smuggling ring, and we get to see a handful of jobs, and the tension of how they might almost go bad, and how they manage to get out of it, until, maybe they cross the yakuza the wrong way or something…
Instead, it’s crazy ultra violent from the very beginning. There was definitely a plot, something about the Chinese triads hiring these two superhuman assassins – Vertebrae (sebone) and Viscera (naizô) – to kill Boss Tanuma of the yakuza. And who was behind it, and how did they know where to find Tanuma at that secret meeting.. But, mostly, the movie is just incredible over-the-top violence – the kind of thing you go to a kung-fu movie for – and some wonderfully humorous bits.
I quite liked Mitsuyuki Yasuko’s character, the banker. By virtue of being based on manga, so many of these films have these wonderfully caricatured or sort of over-the-top personalities. In contrast to the rough, violent gangsters all around, the banker has the appearance of a delicate goth-lolita, in frilly black lace head to toe. When we first saw her, I thought she looked a bit younger, and was super cute, a real anomaly, for someone so professional and so connected to be so young. A few shots later, she looks a tad older (probably just an accident of my impressions/perception), and there’s something cartoonish, over-the-top, but strangely entrancing about the way she holds herself up so straight, nose in the air, speaking very formally, in (presumably) high-heeled boots, and a large, flowy dress that she picks up and waves around when stepping over, for example, bloody bodies.
The two assassins were great too, in terms of their style, Vertebrae in particular, in their long Chinese coats. Kind of formal, but sort of stylized/stylish. There’s a wonderful and interesting contrast, how these two who are so extremely violent, so mentally twisted, wear these very clean, smooth, nicely-put-together coats. And then, when they fight, the coats come off, and they’re wearing just shorts, their bodies covered in scars, tattoos, and tight, chiseled muscles.
Finally, we have Tsumabuki Satoshi, who’s in fact older than me, but passes so well for an awkward, sort of innocent, inexperienced, sweatshirt wearing young guy. There’s something wonderfully relateable about him, at least early in the film. In fact, there’s something wonderfully relateable about many of the young male leads in these Japanese films – e.g. not only Tsumabuki’s character in “Smuggler,” but also Moriyama’s character in “Moteki’. At the risk of making excessively broad sweeping generalizations, I think that American culture, or American definitions of masculinity, emphasize too much that a man has to be a player, that he has to be in it for the sex. Either that, or that he at least has to have some experience and composure when it comes to relationships. If a lead character in an American film had the kind of internal monologues that Fujimoto does in ‘Moteki’ – e.g. when she suggests sharing the bed, because there’s only one bed, and the floor is cold and hard, he thinks “oh my god. Does she mean sleep together, or sleep together? What should I do? Does this mean sex!? Should I get undressed? Should I undress her? Should I kiss her? Or does she just want to sleep?” – he would have to be a complete loser total nerd character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “500 Days of Summer” comes closest perhaps, as a man who is looking for love, for a proper romantic relationship, and not just for sex, and finds it, but even then he’s never that insecure. But, I must admit, I absolutely would be. I’m sure there are plenty of counter-examples from American films, but overall, I feel that men in American films are either cool, experienced, and confident, or total losers. There certainly is a stigma in Moteki about him being a virgin (he’s not, actually) and a manga otaku and such, but, still, he’s the relateable and attractive protagonist, not a totally hopeless nerd like we might see in American media.
JAPAN CUTS! runs through July 28th at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, NYC. If you’re in the area, there are plenty of seats left for most of the screenings (though not for today’s showing of Ace Attorney, T_T ), so come on by!
I’ll be seeing plenty more films before it’s over, so expect another blog post or two, and if you’re interested, keep your eyes out for these films at other film venues, or at your local Japanese video rental store.