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New York: Japan Cuts - Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema

New York: Japan Cuts - Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema

JAPAN CUTS offered a cross section of contemporary Japanese film productions of which 12 were co-presented with the NYAFF in their sixth year of collaboration.

The remainder of JAPAN CUTS 39 features was screened through July 28 at the Japan Society. What Sam Javier, the programmer of Japanese films observed several years ago, still applies,” … unhinged [film] insanity is unleashing hell on unsuspecting U.S. and other foreign audiences”. Thus we can enjoy extraordinary risky and gross film story telling which frequently result from the film adaptations of manga and comic strips.

The manga market in Japan amounts to a six billion dollar business. In 2011 23 Japanese film adaptations of manga were produced, roughly one quarter of all 2011 Japanese films.
There is a dominant strain in many of these Japanese films in the Japan Cuts program. It reflects discontinuities, doomsday scenarios, perverse eccentricities, use of torture, razor edge phantasies, slum life, and the conflict ridden life of petty and established gangsters, to mention but some elements. In short, violence, chaos and uncertainty are dominant themes with love, harmony and continuity relegated to a secondary role.

Moral considerations have faded into the background in most of these films. Sure there are normal Japanese films like the romantic story of LOVE STRIKES, the Nakamura’s comedy POTECHI, The LONELY SWALLOWS documentary and the SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO science fiction venture fighting aliens destroying earth. And some other countries feature also crudeness and debasement, like the Korean Yeun Sang-ho’s THE KING OF PIGS, an animated savage drama of domestic violence and class driven confrontations in the high school setting. But the imagery which stays in one’s minds after watching the Japan Cuts films are the cannibalistic dwarf ASURA, the extended torture scenes in THE SMUGGLERS or the walking bio-mechanical fish monsters devouring mankind in GYO. The fertile imagination of Japanese film makers depicting the surreal and abnormal, their willingness to rupture the few remaining taboos and to expose the decrepit is simply amazing. One cannot sense similar tendencies in the selection of some other countries like Taiwan.

ASURA, Keichi Sato, Japan ; Based on the banned manga “King of Trauma”, this film was produced in a complex animation process featuring three dimensional characters against beautifully painted backgrounds. It focuses on an orphaned child whose mad mother tried to eat him as an infant. Born into a war torn and chaotic world he did not want to be part of he leads a dwarfed semi-mute existence, surviving feudal poverty stricken village life by killing and eating anything living, animals or human beings. Asura becomes a driven demon who cannot escape his cannibalistic and barbaric instincts. Keichi shows the utter depravity we are capable if our world has collapsed. Still, after having gone through extended periods of bloody savagery Asura is led to a different life at the end by a Buddhist monk.

MONSTERS CLUB, Toshiaki Toyoda; This is an intriguing portrait of an articulate terrorist from an upscale background who has withdrawn from the fallen world and society to live in a cabin in the snow bound woods. He believes that his letter bombing forays aimed at corrupt corporate executives will lead to radical change and he makes a good case against the current system. Against the background of classical music, his poetry and long Marxist quotes condemning capitalism and the consumer society we learn to understand him and his motivation. The context of his conviction and isolation is shown through flash backs of his family life, a visit from his frustrated sister and ghostly appearances from his dead brothers, one who had perished in a suicide and the other in an accident. The story as derived from the Unabomber Ted Kaszynski is retold in a plausible way. Unfortunately the monster haunting him in the film distracts from an otherwise thought provoking cinematic essay.

SMUGGLER, Katsuhito Ishi ; In this elaborate film an indebted actor is forced into the criminal underground and recruited into a gang which burns the bodies of dead gangsters. They fail to dispose of a psychopathic killer who had been involved in Japanese Chinese mob war fare and let him escape. In a cover up the actor is forced to play the role of the killer to deceive the mob who had ordered his deposal. In a most elaborate and long torture sequence a truly sadistic mobster tries to extract the truth yet the actor sticks to the cover up thus changing from a meek person into a real man.
GYO an anime movie by Takayuki Hiraror is based on Ito’s nightmarish manga and provides an innovative doomsday scenario of the end of the world. Flatulent mutant biomechanical fish of all sizes on steel legs invade Japan and infect human beings through their death stench. There is no defense against these zombie sea creatures which leave no human unaltered and mankind in its current form disappears. GYO presents a novel fish mongering apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. As a deranged scientist explains, the mutant fish originated during World War II in a research project of the Japanese army.

LONLEY SWALLOWS by Kimihiro Tsumura is a college based uneven but appealing documentary on the Brazilian Japanese minority in Japan which had about 300 000 members at its peak. The film makers tracks the problems through case studies of five young Brazilian Japanese and their parents who came to Japan as migrant workers in the 90s. Uprooted by the economic down in Japan they face unemployment and discrimination. Though born and raised in Japan, the children are treated as foreigners in a very homogenous society. Several are forced to return to Brazil. Few feel there however at home and long for going back to Japan. Since the documentary focuses on individual portraits, there is not much consideration of the systemic context of Japan’s closed society and its xenophobic consequences.

THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION; As stated in the catalog these three films are most extreme and challenging. It is Let’s Make the Teacher have a Miscarriage Club by Eisuke Naito which disturbs the unsuspected viewer most. The second Henge (“Metamorphosis”): by Hajime Ohata covers the unconditional love of a wife for a man inhabited by a bug who turns into a Kafkaesc insectoid monster, eventually so large that it destroys the city. The third The Big Gun also by Ohata from his student days narrates the revenge of a gun maker after he was conned to produce revolvers for the Japanese crime syndicate, the Yakuza. The miscarriage club consists of five junior high school girls who decide under the leadership of apparently cold blooded Mizuki to cause the miscarriage of their teacher Sawako who is four month pregnant. While the story evolves the viewer participates in the steps of the ordeal, first the use of poison placed in the teacher’s lunch, than a chair is disabled by the club prompting the teacher’s fall, followed by concocting a chemical mixture, and finally the ultimate physical assault. When the teacher comes to the aid of one of the students hurt by the exploding chemicals, the ring leader jams the base of a lamp into the teacher’s belly until she faints and starts bleeding, having a miscarriage. The soundtrack is perfectly chosen, the acting is superb specifically Aki Miyata as the teacher and the story well paced. There is some accounting. Mizuki is deranged or disoriented by her role as a woman and the film ends with Mizuki and Sawako burying together peacefully the fetus. But the film is traumatic and profoundly upsetting. This adolescent willingness to engage in horrendous acts, the joy the girls openly experience causing harm, the complete absence of a moral fiber, the shallowness of the parents and fellow teachers, all this shows a universe without morality or remorse.
The sentiment of the world coming to an end seems peculiar to Japanese films. This may be prompted by the repressed memory of decades long cruel victimization of the countries Japan occupied, the recent natural and man-made disasters impacting Japan, the failure of that country as a testing ground for capitalism and extreme privatization.

As JAPAN CUTS ironically notes when introducing each feature, the 39 films selected serve as an antidote against problems faced today. Only seven percent of all Japanese believe that their economy is doing well. Virtually all, that is 90%, believe that the next generation will be worse off than the current one, in other words as the sex pistols phrased it “there is no future”.
Yet the JAPAN CUTS programs remains one of the most appealing film selections offered in New York City because of its somber and dark overtones and grim representations of our problem laden reality. I am certainly looking forward to next year’s program.

Claus Mueller filmexchange@gmail.com

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Chatelin Bruno
(Filmfestivals.com)

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