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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


New York: Japan Cuts

Presented by New York’s Japan Society with some corporate support from UNIQLO, Sapporo, Sony and private assistance, the eighth edition of Japan Cuts, The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema was held from July 10-20. Its program featured 27 feature films, of which 17 were not shown before in the US, and overlapped with the New York Asian Film Festival which carried 13 of the Japan Cuts selections.  Among the few festivals celebrating Japanese films in the United States, Japan Cuts is by far the largest, premiering the most recent features and documentaries and covering multiple genres; from action oriented productions, horror films and melodramas to independent eclectic films. Discussions with many directors and actors as well as renowned post-screening parties were again incorporated into the festival. Japan Cuts has been programmed for eight years to a loyal audience of followers with most screenings sold out. It is difficult to ascertain if the festival creates a larger audience for Japanese films through traditional and new distribution platforms. As is the case with other foreign language films, Japanese productions have a close to impossible task in US theatrical distribution.  Since 1980, only a few Japanese films have earned several million dollars at the US box office, such as Shall We Dance, Ran, and Kagemusha. It remains to be seen if internet distribution will open new windows here. What it is certain, is that the Japan Cuts showcase is mandatory for cinephiles of Japanese productions interested in emerging talents, innovative artistic approaches, and new thematic realms for the followers of Japanese popular culture.

The program covered an amazing spectrum of themes and approaches including many award winning films. TALES OF A BUTCHER SHOP, directed by Aya Hanabusa, documents the demise of a family run slaughter housed near Osaka that raised cattle and processed meat for seven generations.  Taking an ethnographic approach, the filmmaker recorded work and family interaction, and presented the discrimination they endured as descendants of the buraku people. They were part of the untouchable outcasts involved in un-clean jobs, lived in segregated neighborhoods, and have suffered discrimination ever since the feudal period; a rejection the family still may face even though they have given up their trade.  Yuya Ishii received several Japanese Academy awards for his endearing film, THE GREAT PASSAGE. Focusing on a young editor who works on a massive new living language dictionary in the mid-1990s, the superbly enacted, seemingly simple story, accompanies him over decades until publication.  As a trained linguist, the young editor conveys his love for language and its power of connecting people.  Working with a growing team of editors he gradually emerges from the reclusive shell he occupied when he started working on the dictionary.  In our over-digitized world the film is appealing given its emphasis on the quest for meaning and the power of the word. 

Eji Uchida offers us in GRATEFUL DEAD a fascinating and morbid story. Nami was raised in a disturbing pathological family where the loveless mother disappears, a father commits suicide after a bizarre religious ritual, and a sister leaves her. She turns into a voyeur, first just watching lonely people, but slowly deriving satisfaction from the misery of the solitarians. She gets involved in one old man’s life but when his status as a solitarian changes following a religious encounter with a missionary, Nami descends fully into insanity with bloody and murderous consequences. Given its unique story line, the compelling performance of Kumi Takiuchi as Nami, the progression of the plot from harmless, though bizarre voyeurism, through sadism and torture to extreme bloodshed, the viewer gets hooked. Grateful Dead is likely to generate a cult audience.

The narrative of MISS ZOMBIE is equally unique. The director, Sabu, sets the absorbing film in a future Japanese society where individuals can buy or rent Zombies and use them as pets or servants.  Teramuto, apparently a medical doctor, mail ordered Shara, a female zombie with instructions not to feed her meat, and a gun, just in case of an emergency and assures concerned neighbors that she is harmless.  Shara diligently, though monotonously, executes her duties such as cleaning the terrace in exchange for her food, rotten vegetables. The story picks up speed when Teramuto is sexually turned on by Shara’s maimed body parts and his young son contract’s an ailment, semi-zombifying him. Shara seems to regain humanity by showing affection to the son, celebrating a touch of motherhood in the strange monochromic setting of the films. Miss Zombie impacts the audience through the power of acting and visual imagery, and in the absence of any extended dialogue, silence seems to prevail.

LOVE’S WHIRLPOOL lacks the reflexive dimension the films discussed thus far, to different degrees. Daisuke Miura offers the audience exposure to four men and four women who have paid for a five hour anonymous swinging sex session in an upscale flat. With different social backgrounds they engage in lengthy debauchery on four beds faithfully recorded by the camera. Yet apart from perfunctory identifications, we learn very little about their personalities and motivations. After all, in this straight story with the participants unclad most of the time, uninhibited sex rather than discourse or mental interaction is the order.  It is noteworthy that the Japanese documentary THE LOVE HOTEL shown at the Asian American International Film Festival breaks this linear mold and provides insights about the people seeking unusual sexual activities.  The debut feature, THE PINKIE, by Lisa Tokeba, is an original sci-fi exploration of a sexual obsession. Momoka, the ugliest girl in town has been stalking the attractive Ryokue. She gets hold of his pinkie, chopped of by a yakuza whose girlfriend Ryokue bedded.  Momoka grows, with a cloning kit, a second edition of Ryokoe that meets her sexual desires perfectly. Now she has to cope with the original and the clone in a series of fast moving and strange episodes. Though in part violent and strange bordering on the bizarre, the film will have an audience.   WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL by Sion Sono provides a humorous and fast paced introduction into a failing group of indie filmmakers, 'The Fuckbombers', who are eventually hired by a Yakuza mobster to produce a film. He wants to feature his daughter as a film star and present the film as a gift to his imprisoned wife who murdered several gangsters on his behalf.  With no expenses spared the indie filmmakers set out in a furious fashion to make a 35 mm film employing gangsters as their crew. They design a story involving the mobster’s gang and their rival Yakuza with the unintended but inevitable result of a blood bath involving the local police. Only one person survives, the indie director.  Sion Sono delivers an action packed film that is delightful to follow.

Widely praised for achieving superb aerial combat imagery, the ETERNAL ZERO, a Japanese World War II tale has achieved immense box office success in Japan, becoming one of the country’s ten biggest hits of all times, as reported by Variety. Yet in spite of the emotionally compelling story of the aviator Miyabe, who eventually gets killed on a kamikaze mission, extraordinary staging, and excellent acting, the film has proven controversial at least for its foreign audiences.  His grandchildren researched Miyabe's biography and discovered that he is far from being a coward, as alleged by his surviving associates. He embraced the value of surviving the war and considered the kamikaze strategy an utter failure. He trained young pilots for it and saw them all perish. Towards the end the film, which is based on a bestselling book by Naoki Hyakuta, a friend of the current Japanese prime minister, there is a turn to the patriotic. Death through Kamikaze is presented as a sacrifice for later generations with the film suggesting that the soldiers’ death during World War II was not in vain.  It would be difficult to suggest such a patriotic message to a German audience, though it is apparently accepted by the Japanese. 

0.50 mm by Momoko Ando ranks among the most important features shown in the 2014 Japan Cuts selection, where it was a world premiere. Lasting more than three hours, the film provides a compelling tale with extraordinary acting by Sakura Ando. In the role of Sawa, she delivers professional care services to the elderly. As urged by his daughter, she agrees to provide a sensual service to her father, a dying old man. But in an unexpected turn he causes an accidental fire and Sawa loses her job after an investigation. Not having funds to support her, Sawa initiates encounters with numerous other older men. She finds their weak points and uses black mail or promises to invade their lives. Sawa gains their confidence but does not exploit them. To the contrary, she provides caretaking services including running their households with the old men taking a liking to her.   Her ventures include accompanying an old man she meets on the street to a night-long session at a karaoke establishment. She threatens a lonely rich man to report him to the police for vandalizing bikes and he lets her stay in his home. Living there until he enters a nursing home he rewards her with his rare car and money hidden in it.  Afterwards she lives with a former professor and naval officer who has a fetish for school girls, takes care of him and nurtures his demented wife. When his daughter fires her, Sawa receives from him a tape with his sharp criticism of Japanese war crimes and current state of affairs. At the end she runs the household of an impoverished worker and his mute son in a decrepit before leaving the home with the child. Sawa, though pursuing an unusual survival path, proves to be kind, caring, mature and pragmatic. Momoko Ando touches persuasively on many problems of current Japanese society. Foremost is the problem of aging and care giving, the isolation of elderly in the rapidly aging Japanese society, generational conflicts, the class system, sexism of the patriarchal structure and the danger of growing conservatism and military thinking. Nothing eludes the sharp eyes of the director.

Japan Cuts proved again to be an outstanding festival platform for new Japanese films.

Claus Mueller


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