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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

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Japan Cuts New York 2015

Japan Cuts is the largest annual festival of Japanese films in the United States celebrating its 9th edition from July 9-19 at New York’s Japan Society. It is no longer tied to the New York Asian Film Festival and offered a comprehensive survey of current Japanese cinema. The selection ranged from the bizarre, to the popular, to art house productions, films which were never shown before in New York with half of the titles North American premieres. The 2015 program had 28 features, including several documentaries, the restored versions of Osamu Tezuka’s Belladonna of Sadness and Nagisa Oshila’s feature Cruel Story of Youth as well as a series of experimental shorts.  Nine Japanese directors and film stars presented their films to an engaged audience in mostly sold out screenings. Sakura Ando  received  the Cut Above Award for Outstanding Performance in Film and two of her films were screened; Asleep by Shingo Wakagi and Masaharu Take’s 100 Yen Love.

As the third largest global film market behind the United States and China, Japan has a growing film industry and released in 2014 1,184 titles of which 600 were local productions. With a share of about 20% the US no longer dominates the box office, though the top grossing film Frozen originated in the States scoring $249 million of the total $1.79 billion box office in 2014. Local productions had a 58% share. Given the large number of films produced in Japan and the reputation of Japanese films enhanced by its anime productions, their status in the US theatrical distribution is of interest. To recap data I used in a prior write up about German films in the US, “Mojo reports that to date the revenue of German films released last year [2014] amounted to $242,000. Those from France scored $1.7 million.  The largest proportion of foreign language films in the United States originates in India which scored $31 million thus far with their 2014 releases, about half of the foreign language box office for that period.”  There may have been some Japanese films with a minimal box office of less than $25,000 but Mojo does not list a single Japanese production scoring higher than that.

The theatrical route seems to be getting narrower for foreign language films and most publicly shown productions are found at film festivals. These festivals can constitute sub-markets if there are multiple editions serving the same linguistic or special interest niche such as the Jewish, Environmental, and Gay fests. With respect to Japanese films, there are other Japanese film festivals in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco, though New York’s Japan Cuts is the largest.

Similar to the reorientation of independent films to the internet realm, the digital platforms may generate more exposure to Japanese and other foreign language films. Given the domination of multiplexes by mass market and Hollywood block buster films, and the mass release of these films preempting the space in which other productions could be shown theatrical venues are fading rapidly for specialty films. Narrow exposure through Japanese language television programmers in the US is limited to two outlets TV Japan 24/7 and the Los Angeles based digital channel KSCI.
Though there is no summary data on revenue derived from digital platforms by independent and foreign language films, video streaming of feature films and other productions have become paramount.  Noteworthy is the aggressive expansion of Netflix which now serves globally 65 million streaming members and 5.3 million DVD subscribers in the United States who have access to close to 100,000 titles. Like Amazon, Direct TV, and smaller providers such as iTunes and Hulu, Netflix is acquiring productions like independent and foreign language films directly from festivals. Often these transactions are not predicated on prior theatrical runs. Netflix carries numerous Japanese titles which can be streamed in Japanese with subtitles or dubbed in English.

To review briefly some of the 2015 Japan Cuts selections; successfully assembling all elements of a fast moving action story Joker Game (Yu Iries, 2015) portraits the exploits of Jiro Kato who works for the newly established Japanese intelligence agency D just before the outbreak of World War II. He is charged with getting a micro film revealing plans for a nuclear bomb held by the American ambassador. Battling with Nazi and  British secret services and an independent female operator, Kato eventually succeeds  after numerous chases, martial arts battles, romantic involvement with the operator, and a daring escape from the British secret service headquarter blown up in that process. There are superb sets faithfully replicating the time periods, plausible but surprising story lines and an intriguing presentation of the Japanese imperial military general staff disdaining the D agency. They are shown as bungling and arrogant characters driven by the obsession to engage the Americans in a war.

Asleep (2015) and 100 Yen Love (2014) reveal superb acting by Sakura Ando in features with radically different settings and intriguing divergent thematic story lines. In Asleep filmed in an elegant minimalistic style we encounter an unemployed young woman Terako who appears to withdraw from reality by excessive sleeping only to wake up when her lover, a married man, calls her. Everyday activities require a tremendous effort and she does not want to get up if she has a good dream. Flashbacks and her talks with a close friend make her behavior plausible. After urging her to start living her friend who passes sexless nights with sleeping strangers commits suicide. When Terako’s lover Iwanago turns out to be married to a comatose woman Terako wakes up and starts working as an interviewer. Intimacy and withdrawal set the boundaries for the film's surprising plot. In Take’s 100 Yen Love, a name also designating a Japanese 24/7 chain store, a totally different milieu is shown far from elegance and an upscale life style. Here semi-skilled workers in a rundown working class neighborhood are presented in an action comedy. Sakura Ando has the role of Ichiko Salto living with her conflictual family who run a fast food take out. Ichiko spends her time with video games and fights with her divorced sister. After moving out she starts working as a sales clerk in the 100 Yen convenience store with disgruntled employees and gets friendly with a boxer. After a dinner on the occasion of the boxer’s last fight her rape by a 100 Yen worker is depicted in a gruesome fashion. She decides to learn boxing and succeeds against all odds. Her transformation from aimless unskilled shop clerk to a professional boxer is extraordinary. Driven by the desire to succeed, she enters a professional match and loses but has proven to herself that she can stand up. The acting of Sakura Ando’s in a difficult role is superb.

The underbelly of Society with its outcasts, misfits, individuals displaced by traumatic experiences, dysfunctional families and the demi monde of criminals is seamlessly documented in The Light Shines Only There by Mipo O. There is no apparent exit for the people grounded in the fringes of this world and hopelessness prevails. We have an unemployed former quarry worker Tatsuo who cannot overcome the memory of an accident he caused costing the life of a fellow worker with his existence shaped by alcoholism, Takuji an energetic parolee working as a gardener in an outfit controlled by a gangster and his sister Chinatsu who is a prostitute but also the gangster’s lover and supports her family. Her parents are an elderly withdrawn mother and an immobile father who had a stroke whose sexual craving is met by the daughter.  In this film darkness and despair prevail. As Chinatsu says, there is nowhere to go. The film was nominated as a foreign language film for the Oscars and received excellent ratings. As Deborah Young observed in the Hollywood Reporter it reflects a fierce character study.

Two appealing productions were devoted to labor conflicts, the oppression and the struggle of common people against dominant groups. Based on actual events the Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn, is a 2014 black and white feature film, set in 1726. It depicts the struggle of farmers with their feudal overlords fighting for an adjustment of taxes. They organized an uprising which was quashed by the samurai.  The film is characterized by remarkable photography, animation and an appealing score.  The documentary The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories from 2014 by Sanrizuka Ni Ikuru is a brilliant reconstruction of the struggle local agrarian communities were having for decades fighting the construction and expansion of Narita International Airport.  Since other suitable land in that area was owned by the imperial household, the government decided to disown local farmers ever since the plans were articulated in the 1960’s.  Though some peasants sold their farms most refused to do so and formed a coalition with the emerging radical student movement. Many farmers were given this land in their post war relocation and felt deprived because of the many years of work they spend transforming their holdings into farmland and cultivating it. Exhaustive research for this film did generate superb archival material because the different phases of the frequently violent struggle were closely followed by the press. Opposition was initially restricted to peaceful demonstration but evolved into armed struggle because government agencies used police and soldiers to combat the farmers and students, though more protestors were killed than police or military. In the well-organized movement women and young people played crucial roles. Extensive interviews with survivors of the resistance movement including some still in active opposition reveal the motivation for the long term struggle. State power was resisted because the farmers had a close relation to their land.  In some cases the century old cultural tradition of villages was destroyed and communities and their networks of interpersonal relations disappeared.  The Wages of Resistance is an object lesson of the costs and benefits of popular opposition to the government, a collective movement rarely observed today. After all the likelihood of success is no longer plausible nor the language of effective opposition available.

Now functioning as a standalone film festival with an enlarged program Japan Cuts provided an outstanding selection of films and perspectives on current film making tendencies.

 

Claus Mueller

filmexchange@gmail.com

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