July 10, 2012

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For the sixth year running, the Japan Cuts film series in New York City presents an eye-opening glimpse of contemporary filmmaking from across the Pacific, the vast majority of which will never receive distribution in the United States. Programmed in concert with the ongoing New York Asian Film Festival (which I covered for Film Comment), it runs from July 12 – 28 at the Japan Society, and will screen 37 features and two shorts. The normally sober-minded fest has gone pop this year, booking a slate bubbling with hyperactive rom-coms and sci-fi extravaganzas, but there is also a sidebar of films responding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as a tribute to the expressively stone-faced actor Koji Yakusho, who will appear in-person for the screening of The Woodsman and the Rain (2011).

Japanese studios wring established brands as dry as any Hollywood outfit with a superhero license, as the caffeinated pleasures of Love Strikes! (2011) can attest. It’s a manic romantic comedy adapted from a hit TV show (Moteki, 2010), which was in turn the small screen version of a blockbuster manga comic book by Mitsuro Kubo. Toho, the largest Japanese production and distribution company, dominates the native box office with re-dos such as these, especially the endless iterations of anime behemoths Pokemon and Doraemon.

Love Strikes! was a solid hit in 2011, and it is a cross-promotional machine, playing clips from what seems like every J-pop band of the last twenty years. But instead of a bubblegum-tween romance, it’s pitched towards an older crowd, aiming for the instant nostalgia of the early-30s set. The main character is Yukiyo Fujimoto (the mousy Mirai Moriyama), a 31-year-old virgin who quotes Goethe and reads way too deeply into teen pop lyrics. He gets a job at an internet culture magazine, but is thrown through a loop when the perky hip chick Miyuki (Masami Nagasawa) responds to his music nerd musings on Twitter (Yukiyo: “Someone register her as a world heritage site”). Director Hitoshi Ohne (ported over from the TV show), slathers the screen with scrolling Twitter pages and karaoke lyrics, topped off with Fujimoto’s self-doubting voice-over.

The highlight of this ADD-cinema is an impromptu music video featuring girl group trio Perfume, who dance through Tokyo with Yukiyo to their hit “Baby Cruising Love”, enacting his budding self-actualization. I was largely won over by this shock and awe pop assault, deluded male fantasy though it is, thanks to its witty screenplay by Ohne and an energetic performance by Nagasawa (justly deserving of the festival’s Rising Star award), who injects her thankless object-of-nerd-lust role with an unexpected aggressiveness and spunk. The third act devolves too far into passive male wish-fulfillment, but Ohne keeps the visuals popping around it.

The Closing Night film of the festival is another Toho-stravaganza, the sci-fi spectacular Space Battleship Yamato (2010), a live-action adaptation of the much beloved 1974 animated series. Directed by visual effects specialist Takashi Yamazaki, director of the Japan Academy prize winner Always, it pushes the limits of Japanese FX technology, sometimes to the breaking point. The story is ultra-nationalist, pushing themes of self-sacrifice to self-destructive lengths (the Yamato was the lead Japanese battleship in WWII). It follows one-time rebel Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura), who learns to love the military after the country is attacked, and about to be decimated by, the alien Gamilas. With a $29.4 million dollar budget, it is a major production, but the scale of the film needs Hollywood-style cash, and some of the alien worlds lack detail and dimensionality, giving them a video-game flatness. The film has a lack of self-consciousness in its propaganda, kind of Starship Troopers played straight, which to be honest has a refreshing pulp quality to it, as men speak in clipped moralistic phrases and rush around feverishly blinking panels.

Koji Yakusho doesn’t need flash to sell tickets. With his prominent cheekbones, piercing stare, and air of calm reserve, he could be a model, an assassin, or a model assassin, but instead he has chosen roles of subtle dramatic gradations, including the rumpled detective in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, or the crusty old patriarch in  Chronicle of My Mother (2011), another Toho-hit, in which he grapples with the growing senility of his mother. It’s a solid family drama, the kind of well-crafted multi-generational weepie even second-tier Japanese directors like Masato Harada can churn out with ease. Although not on the level of Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother (2010) or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008), Harada uses distanced camerawork and detailed 50s era art direction to emphasize the distance he has set up between his own family members. Kirin Kiri is endearingly batty as his equally withholding mother, and their inevitable emotional breakthrough is underplayed so well that Yakusho’s grin has the same impact of a full-throated sob.

Yoshihiro Nakamura is a director who deals with Toho but has been able to maintain an individual artistic identity. While making cash-grabbers for Toho like last year’s dreadful-looking Eiga Kaibutsukun (watch the trailer – if you dare) he has also pursued a productive collaboration with mystery novelist Kotara Isaka , whose twisting Rube Goldberg narratives Nakamura has adapted multiple times over the years. His breakthrough film in the West was the briskly entertaining Fish Story (2009, available on DVD and streaming on Netflix) in which a long-forgotten punk song from 1975 inadvertently prevents the Earth from getting creamed by an asteroid in the present. Then in 2010 Nakamura adapted Isaka’s Golden Slumber (2010), a rather plodding conspiracy narrative that piles on subplots without Fish Story’s fleet pacing. Golden Slumber was Isaka’s first novel translated into English, with the title changed to Remote Control.  Last year found Nakamura take a break from Isaka’s work, and made his simplest and most affecting film, A Boy and his Samurai (aka Chonmage Purin, 2010). A sweetly sentimental fish out of water comedy, it plops a time-traveling samurai into modern Japan, who promptly becomes a master pastry chef.

This year has Nakamura return to Isaka’s work, adapting one of his short stories for Chips (aka Potechi, 2012), a svelte 68 minute comedy that combines the deadpan humor and narrative web of Fish Story with the naked emotionality of A Boy and His Samurai. Partly funded by the Sendai Miyagi Film Commission, Chips was shot in Sendai, and was recruited to help bring business back to the city, so devastated by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 2011. That is why Chips is included in the Japan Cuts sidebar, “Focus on Post 3.11 Cinema”, which consists of four fiction films attempting to respond to those events, including Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone and Masahiro Kobayashi’s Women on the Edge. You can read more about them in Dennis Lim’s NY Times piece here.

Chips begins with Imamura (Nakamura regular Gaku Hamada) and Kurosawa (Nao Ohmori) watching an empty stage in the park. Imamura is the funny one, and Kurosawa the serious one, playing off the personas of their famed director namesakes. Their circuitous actions will fill the stage of the screen, set in motion when Imamura answers the phone during one of his petty thievery jobs, one of those small actions that has epic existential effects in Nakamura’s world. The girl who answers is threatening to commit suicide. He talks her down, but then the two of them are sitting during another robbery, and another phone rings. This time they are ensnared in a blackmail ring involving the baseball player Ozaki. Stories sprout new stories, all of them tinged with loss, from the prospective suicide to the final revelation, which opens up doubt about Imamura’s own identity. Imamura’s life becomes doubled with Ozaki’s, ending at a baseball game that unfurls with the compressed ritual intensity of kabuki theater, one that will shake the two men’s destinies apart. It is a wildly melodramatic and deeply sad conclusion, which pushes Imamura into a place where he is cheering for the destruction of his own identity. All this is accomplished with an unobtrusive fixed camera, usually focused on Hamada’s slackjawed moon face, which looks as if it is in a perpetual state of stunned surprise, which is a decent description of Nakamura’s audience as well.

Toshiaki Toyoda has staked out a less accommodating stance with the studios, and has become persona non grata since his arrest for drug possession in 2005. His new film Monsters Club is an unsettling re-telling of the Unabomber story, complete with a mail-bomb POV shot, from construction to explosion. Shot over two weeks without a script in snow clogged mountains, its method of shooting was as mad as its main character. Although it opts for rote pop-psychology explanations by the end, the visuals are far more unsettling, especially the hallucinations of colored shaving cream covered swamp people designed by transgender Japanese artist Pyuupiru.

This year’s Japan Cuts holds fascinating insights into how the Japanese commercial cinema works these days, which is not too far off from our own much-maligned Hollywood model of the necessity of “brand-awareness”. As Love Strikes! shows, though, these pre-digested products don’t have to be creatively diluted, as long as they fulfill their promotional duties first. Yoshihiro Nakamura is the most intriguing figure here, one who seems to be able to float back and forth between Toho-blessed A-pictures and his own little curios, much like the soon to be retired Steven Soderbergh. It will interesting to see how long he can survive the balancing act, before getting burned out and frustrated like his American counterpart.