Japan Cuts 2012 Preview: For July, A Cool Slice of Cinematic Pie

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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Japan Cuts 2012 Preview: For July, A Cool Slice of Cinematic Pie
Though the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival is winding down, cinephiles in New York, or those visiting, have plenty more to look forward to in July. And Japan Society's Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, running from July 12-28, is most certainly reason enough to visit the big apple. In fact, it's 39 reasons! This includes a focus on one of cinema's most treasured actors, Koji Yakusho, a tribute to the late and oh, most wonderfully great Yoshio Harada, and I haven't even mentioned any brand, spankin' new films yet, many bowing with their U.S. premiere -- okay, I'll mention one, Hitsohi Ohne's Love Strikes!, which is pictured above. For more on the films themselves I turn it on over to the indispensable Peter Gutierrez and his preview of what to expect at this year's Japan Cuts. Peter, take it away! -- Ben Umstead

asura_nyaff.jpgASURA | Thursday, July 12 @ 6:30om, Japan Society

I don't exactly disagree with Dustin Chang's quick assessment of Asura in our NYAFF preview , but I would like to take issue with the notion that Keiichi Sato's striking anime is "unrelentingly brutal." Indeed, what's most impressive, in terms of tone and theme, is the degree to which Asura convincingly injects a bold moral and spiritual optimism into its admittedly desolate landscape.  Several characters, especially a key religious figure who functions as a surrogate father to our pint-sized cannibal, are admirable despite the hellish conditions in which they find themselves. Moreover, the script's clear and continuous sympathy for the title character makes the film recall the classic "Universal monsters" cycle- and that's even before a sequence in which a rural mob undertakes a James Whale-style torchlit campaign to hunt down our anti-hero. At once one of the most arresting horror flicks I've seen this year and one of the most thoughtful and memorable animated features I've seen in far longer than a year, Asura is the kind of title that proves the value of Japan Society's curation skills: you may not ever get a chance to see this on a big screen in New York again, so please don't pass on this opportunity.

hard_romanticker.jpgHARD ROMANTICKER | Friday, July 13 @ 6:30pm, Japan Society

You'll certainly be forgiven for experiencing any symptoms of aesthetic déjà vu while watching Gu Su-yeon's flamboyant slice-of-crime opus: with the sound and fury of '70s-era Kinji Fukasaku fight scenes, the overall coolness of Seijun Suzuki, and the off-handed (and borderline absurd) brutality of Takashi Miike's gangster flicks, Hard Romantciker is clearly a treat for a particular brand of cinephile. That said, writer-director Gu does come across as his own artist, not a copycat auteur and, frankly, he's too busy telling a personal story to care much about what cinephiles think. Indeed, even the film's beginning makes few concessions to the audience, opening with a flashforward which is hard to recognize as such and then introducing several characters and relationships in rapid-fire succession before settling down with our point-of-view character. In this role Shota Matsuda is rarely less than mesmerizing, and thanks to Gu you'll never know when he'll erupt into violence or what the consequences will be when he does (off-screen space holds surprises more than once). Swerving between "style" and anti-style in a way that might confuse, and sporting a few miscalculations (characters shouting full-frame into the camera don't heighten immediacy but rather pop us out of the action), Gu probably hasn't constructed a masterwork here... but surely Hard Romantciker is the kind of little-known gem that makes  Japan Cuts the valuable fest that it is.

miscarriage_henge.jpgLET'S MAKE THE TEACHER HAVE A MISCARRIAGE CLUB / HENGE | Friday, July 13 @ 8:40pm, Japan Society

Although I've seen only the first two-thirds of "The Atrocity Exhibition" triptych--not a trilogy because the films aren't connected by content or creator--I have absolutely no idea what the concluding short film, Big Gun, might hold in store. That's because the first two installments, despite having similar runtimes, are pretty far apart in terms of sensibility and technique. Let me start by saying flat-out that Eisuke Naito's Let's Make the Teacher... is a disappointment on nearly every level, with its title proving to be both the most shocking and thought-provoking thing about it. That's not to say the basic premise, as telegraphed by that title, isn't ripe for a lurid little horror-thriller dripping with nastiness, but the poor filmmaking throughout really hamstrings things. And by poor filmmaking I mean everything from the lighting and makeup/blood effects to the spotty acting and, worst of all, the horrendously clumsy staging and editing of the scenes of violence, including the climax. A shame, really, especially given the strong screen presence of the two leads. Henge, by contrast, has a polished feel despite its low-budget vibe and exuberant practical effects. That's partly because director Hajime Ohata patiently layercakes mystery and body-horror as if a thoughtful student of Cronenberg and Tsukamoto. As things wound down I grew impatient that the script didn't more fully exploit its sex-and-monsters theme (talk about atrocities), but then it more than made up for this with its wildly expansive ending. Bringing to mind the finale of Miike's first Dead or Alive film, it's a gloriously over-the-top concluding five minutes--completely unpredictable, and unexpectedly delightful as a result. I could have done without the CG blood splatters in several scenes, the kind that look pretty in the air but never seem to land anywhere, but these and other somewhat awkward moments you should consider overlooking in consideration of Ohata's sheer spirit.

tormented.jpgTORMENTED | Saturday, July 15 @ 4:15pm, Japan Society 

In some ways, Tormented represents, at least for me, a kind of "dream team" of talent. The DP is Christopher Doyle, lead Hikari Mitsushima can do no wrong in my book, and as her character's Dad we've got Teruyuki Kagawa, another fave whom I feel simply makes any film he's in that much better. And I can't forget that I've always liked director Takashi Shimizu's work more than most, especially the way he can create truly nightmarish dislocations of time and space. Well, the good news is that much of his skill in that respect is in full display for a good portion of Tormented, and during that period I was mostly transfixed. The problem is that the script eventually explains its own vast mysteries by means of a twist that will feel a bit familiar to many fans of Asian horror. Sure, one might claim, as the fest write-up does, that Tormented is not, strictly speaking, a horror flick... but aside from any hedging such a disclaimer represents, the bigger problem is that, post-reveal, the film doesn't fully work as a psychological character study or an exercise in creepy surrealism. In this context, all of Shimizu's cinematic ideas, which are often admirable and sometimes quite grand, unfortunately seem like empty gestures meant to shore up a story that is not worthy of them.

potechi.jpgPOTECHI (Chips) | Sunday, July 15 @ 8pm, Japan Society

A Japan Cuts favorite, director Yoshihiro Nakamura returns with a tale that at first seems so slight that you might be tempted to overlook it--even when you're watching it. In fact, it goes down so smoothly, and is so outrageously sentimental, that I won't blame you if you dismiss it as lightweight fluff. For me, though, the very winning performances by Gaku Hamada, Fumino Kimura, and Nao Omori, the baseball theme, and the small-time crime-comedy element (which isn't overplayed for its quirk factor, as an American indie film might) together add up to the kind of experience that I won't soon forget. Part of the charm of the film is that you're not really sure where it's going, and then when you finally are sure, it doesn't really matter because Potechi already has you in its emotional clutches. I'm tempted to call it a "thinking-person's feel-good movie," but it might be more accurate to term it a "deeply-feeling person's feel-good movie."

thebrat.jpgTHE BRAT! | Saturday, July 28 @ 7pm, Japan Society

Sticking its toes into meta-film waters but never fully wading all the way in, Taichi Suzuki's nearly unclassifiable movie doesn't want us to fixate on its loser-protagonist's filmmaking career per se: we hear a lot about star Hiroki Konno's "vision" but intentionally don't get a sense of whether he's actually any good or not. Instead, the protagonist's filmmaking chops, or lack thereof, become a metaphor for self-expression--arguably self-actualization--as does the film's romantic subplot. Likewise, it's not really important whether he ultimately "gets the girl" (an appealing Sayaka Tashiro) but that he at least makes a move in that direction. Along the way in this personal, character-driven journey, we're treated to a brief foray into J-horror, a flirtation with heavy family drama, and some behind-the-scenes showbiz stuff. For some audiences, this might speak to a meandering feel that will be a turnoff, but to me Suzuki is a strong storyteller, so I was curious about where he was leading me. No, I wasn't hit by the emotional haymaker that The Brat! appears to be striving for, but I did find it consistently interesting, and Konno delivers an undeniably bravura performance.

Click here for the full 2012 Japan Cuts lineup, and in the coming days keep an eye out for full reviews of even more films from Dustin Chang and Christopher Bourne.  

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