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New York, 2011 Japan Cuts Film Festival

For the last five consecutive years JAPAN CUTS, the New York festival of contemporary Japanese Cinema   has been embedded in the New York Asian Film Festival and steadily gained in importance. There are now more films from Japan at the NY Asian Film Festival than from any other country. Programmed during the Film Festival, at the Walter Read Theater and the Japan Society from July 1-14, 35 Japanese films were shown. It included 32 new titles, mostly premieres which were presented only once. The gamut spanned virtual all  genres of  Japanese film making,  from  psycho-horror films like Naoki Hasimoto’s slowly moving and  non-dialogued BIRTHRIGHT to the superbly animated portrait of BUDDHA: THE GREAT DEPARTURE by  Kozo Morishita.  Art cinema fare was present as well such as SKETCHES OF KAITAN CITY by Kaitanshi Kumakir that reflected individual fates and coping strategies of those   impacted by the demise of this ship building town and urban renewal. Another art film was the long but profoundly philosophical epic HEAVEN’S STORY directed by Takahisa Zeze. There were independent productions, like the semi successful low budget film LOVE ADDICTION by Nobuteru Uchida and the original THREE POINTS by Masashi Yamamotu.   Whatever Japanese film aficionados desired was offered, thus most screenings were sold out.            That the curator Samuel Jamier could assemble such a comprehensive programs was surprising.  Certainly quality and depth of the Japan Cuts program was present in past editions, yet the number of films this year amazed. In the Sacramento and Los Angeles Japanese film festivals only between 6 and 18 Japanese films were scheduled. There has been a dramatic decline of domestic films releases in Japan. Last year 250 features opened compared to the 2009 figure of   400. Further as Katsuta Tomomi also observes since 2005 not a single Japanese film has been among the three top grossing box office hits in Japan. As he suggests there is a funding problem for independent and low to middle range budget films. This situation is getting worse due to the immense problems faced by Japan’s economy.              Among note worthy entries were Takashi Ishii’s A NIGHT IN NUDE: SALVATION, a sexually oriented thriller staged in bleak settings whose dark overtones remind one of classic cinema noir tales.  This films packs in its well told story the exposition of murder, prostitution, family pathology greed and incest. The independent THREE POINTS feature by Masahi Yamamoto depicts in three segments set in Okinawa, Kyoto and Tokyo a homeless character and marines in a tattoo parlor, episodes of rappers, and a drifter’s involvement with an oversexed office worker.  All episodes are presented in a spontaneous film making style in fictional and documentary sequences without enough content to warrant several additional features. There is a sense of unmistakable authenticity in Yamamato’s approach. GANTZ : THE MOVIE PART I and GANTZ, PART  II: PERFECT ANSWER are  two live action films based on the best selling Japanese  manga and anime series  by Hiroya Oku. The Gantz films were directed by Shinsuke Sato and released in 2011. Gantz is a black sphere with a nude man inside who orders individuals assembled around the sphere to go out and kill what turns out to be aliens living on earth. If after the successful completion of several missions they score one hundred points and can return to their normal lives.  Settings, alien creatures, action, innovative storytelling, and cinematic imagination are simply outstanding and both films scored second in audience appreciation at the New York Asian Film Festival.  Also ranked very high by the audience, in spite of running more than four hours was Takahisa Zeze’s HEAVEN’S STORY, an exegesis of crime, survival and redemption interconnecting characters linked by a several murders. Beautifully photographed over a year in settings covering wrecked housing estates, boring suburban vistas and small seas side towns, the film covers a complex multi level story spanning a ten year period. We closely experience the hell and heaven its characters are faced with and the emotional make up driving them to action. As the film maker puts it   “...pain will not be erased and sins not forgotten but life is reborn…in a never ending story”. This long elaborate moral tale generates an understanding of the drives and dilemmas faced by the characters yet unfortunately beyond film festivals and art house screenings this great film will hardly find a larger audience.            Japan Cuts offered a great up to date selection of films with future editions hopefully not impacted by a decline of Japanese film making. Claus Mueller, New York Correspondentfilmexchange@gmail.com 

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