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2020 Japan Cuts Preview

What’s a film festival without a room to fill? And it is only a room in Japan Society’s case, since all their film screenings are presented in their Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium, which seats 260 people (and sometimes more). I have years of good memories sitting in that room, several of which from Japan Society’s annual “Japan Cuts” survey of new, or just newly restored Japanese movies. 

I can also picture that room: I know where the best seats are (front and center, so that you have no trouble seeing the often newly struck subtitles); what the room is like when it’s empty, especially when you need to crane your neck around to confirm that somebody, anybody else can see what you’re seeing (press screenings of “United Red Army” and “Confessions” immediately come to mind); and what that room feels like when it’s filled with an excited audience, as it often is. (Belly laughs for “Hentai Kamen 2” and a standing ovation for “The Face of Another”; the latter movie screened on Halloween with the mighty Tatsuya Nakadai in attendance.)

In recent years, I’ve watched dozens of “Japan Cuts” selections on my home computer, though I always make time to attend one or two screenings in person every year. That room has an energy; it’s hard to imagine Japan Society, let alone Japan Society events, without it. Thankfully, Japan Society’s curators have no such debilitating nostalgia, and their characteristically rich, forward-thinking film programming tends to reflect that. This year’s “Japan Cuts” program will be held online (from July 17-30), so it’s hard to tell how some of my favorite selections will fare. As usual, I’m partial to the festival’s sidebar programming, especially their documentary, retrospective, and “Experimental Spotlight” titles. 

I’m also impressed, as usual, with Japan Society’s continued dedication to championing older Nipponese filmmakers, many of whose work are still neglected by other prominent international film festivals. This year’s Japan Cuts features a significant tribute to Nobuhiko Obayashi, the late ad man turned avant garde feature filmmaker. Obayashi is understandably best known for his 1977 psychedelic feminist fantasia “House.” But Japan Society has screened several of Obayashi’s movies over the years, including “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” “School in the Crosshairs,” “Seven Weeks,” and more. This year, Japan Cuts not only screens “Labyrinth of Cinema,” Obayashi’s final movie, but also “Seijo Story—60 Years of Filmmaking” (pictured above) a documentary tribute to Obayashi and Kyoko, his wife and long-time collaborator. Obayashi completists should also keep an eye out for his cameo appearance in “Extros,” a new comedy about a delusional (and comically destructive) movie extra.

Of this year’s Obayashi-related screenings, “Labyrinth of Cinema” (pictured at top) is predictably the most essential. That movie, like Obayashi’s other recent films, brings to mind the elegiac, surreal, atonal later films of other experimental masters, particularly Alain Resnais and Raul Ruiz. But “Labyrinth of Cinema,” which begins as a tongue-in-cheek critique of post-war Japanese cinema, eventually transforms into a corrective to what Obayashi identifies as an unnatural, but seductive escapist super-narrative. 

The tone and style of “Labyrinth of Cinema" changes with each scene, from a parodic war movie within a more serious war movie—as seen by the restless inhabitants of a small town, all of whom have huddled into their local cinema to escape a rainstorm—to an interactive communal forum, where audience members talk back at the screen and then not only enter the frame, but also rewrite the script. At which point “Labyrinth of Cinema” feels like a heartfelt, but typically jarring (and exhausting) farewell from a Utopian artist whose best work reminds us that the past is a tempting but dead place, and that art is a radical means of dealing with trauma. 

And if you’re not already burnt out on Obayashi: there’s always this year’s inaugural “Obayashi Prize,” which will be awarded to one of seven films featured in Japan Cuts’ “Next Generation” section. “Kontora” is my personal favorite of the Next Generation titles, and not just because it sometimes feels like a tribute to Obayashi’s anti-war/anti-naturalism cinema. Shot digitally and in black-and-white, “Kontora” is a gothic fairy tale whose unusually slow pace reflects how weird and haunting life after death seems to Sora (Wan Marui), a teenager who befriends a mute young man (Hidemasa Mase) who may or may not be the ghost of her recently deceased grandfather, a WWII vet. 

Like Obayashi’s own movies, “Kontora” forces viewers to adjust to a uniquely surreal way of looking at things. It has a story, but is most effective when it’s least concerned with narrative: an unsettling mood is established by tableau-like long takes, as well as Max Golomidov’s vividly detailed cinematography, and composer Yuma Kona’s brooding soundscape score. “Kontora” is haunted by echos: negative space, ambient sounds, and pregnant pauses all suggest a dark past that’s not-so-subtly laid Sora’s present to waste. “Kontora” is also 143-minutes long; I hope it finds a receptive audience.

Then again, it’s hard to know how anything will play without an in-person audience, even crowd-pleasers like “Special Actors,” a new comedy directed by Shinichiro Ueda, whose “One Cut of the Dead” is a huge word-of-mouth smash. Like “One Cut of the Dead”, “Special Actors” loads viewers’ expectations (it’s all about the Power of Acting!), and then tweaks those expectations. I won’t spoil “Special Actors” beyond that, but I will say that while I found most of it too precious, I did enjoy the show-stopping climax. I bet “Special Actors” will find a good audience, with or without a good room.

I’m not so sure about “Cenote” and “Kinta and Ginji,” two very different selections from this year’s “Experimental Spotlight” sidebar. “Cenote” is a beautiful, spacey tone poem about humankind—all of us, as a group—and our conflicted relationship with nature; the movie features some gorgeous and extensive underwater photography, shot inside fresh water caverns in the Yucatan. And “Kinta and Ginji” is a weird little lo-fi doodle of a buddy comedy starring one guy in a cardboard robot costume, and another guy in a dog-like raccoon mask; they hang out, bicker, and imagine what life without each other would be like (Imagine a no-wave “Waiting for Godot”). Both movies works as art gallery installations and midnight movies, since they both seem like stray transmissions from another dimension. You don’t make progress when you watch “Cenote” and “Kinta and Ginji,” not like you do with most linear, narrative-based films; you drift along their dovetailing streams of consciousness. 

I also highly recommend two titles from this year’s documentary sidebar, both of which are impressive for their formal accomplishments and mutual focus on social justice and political reform. In “Prison Circle,” director Kaori Sakagami condenses two years in the lives of four young prisoners—all of whom undergo a radical (and apparently effective) kind of group therapy rehabilitation—into two hours. And in “Reiwa Uprising,” agitprop maestro Kazuo Hara takes four hours to document the Reiwa Shinsengumi (or “New Squad”) party’s righteous, carnivalesque campaign for the 2019 House of Chancillors election. Both movies left me feeling elated and exhausted. 

I want to say that Hara (“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”) and his pioneering spirit have rubbed off on Sakagami, but it’s just as likely that Hara, whose amazing recent “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” began a late-career comeback, has taken inspiration from young, ambitious documentarians like Sakagami. I wish I could see “Prison Circle” and “Reiwa Uprising” with a Japan Society audience, if only for that amazing moment where we’d all drift upstairs into the lobby, wondering aloud what hit us, and if somebody, anybody got their license plate numbers. 

With all that said: my favorite movie at this year’s Japan Cuts has to be “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here,” a relatively modest send-off to Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi), the beloved title character from director Yoji Yamada’s decades-long “Tora-san” film series. Yamada (“The Twilight Samurai,” “The Yellow Handkerchief”) concludes this extensive (50 films!) cycle of light, episodic, and yes, formulaic comedies without a firm resolution, or all-caps recommendation on how you, the viewer, should live your life. Instead, “Wish You Were Here” plays out like a bittersweet memory play, accompanied by clips from the last 49 “Tora-san” movies: middle-aged novelist Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka) tries to imagine what his next book should be as he remembers his late uncle Torajiro, a happy-go-lucky mooch and clueless romantic. 

You don’t have to have seen any of the other “Tora-San” movies to appreciate the familiarity and light touch that Yamada and his series’s returning cast members bring to this small, but devastating cinematic eulogy. I encourage anybody who’s curious about the “Tora-San” movies to try any of the three older “Tora-san” movies that will screen alongside “Wish You Were Here.” They’re all good variations on the same themes and recurring conflicts: self-fashioning vs. settling down; domesticity vs. individuality; “hard, honest” work vs. creative opportunism. I was lucky enough to catch three “Tora-san” films with my dad last year at Japan Society, and all three earned big laughs and applause. I’m looking forward to seeing a few more online, if only to see how they’re affected by a change of scenery.

For more information about this year's Japan Cuts festival, click here

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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