I had the fortunate opportunity to dive into Japan Cuts coming out of Japan Society.
Japan Cuts showcased a unique and diverse selection of interesting films. They showcased a great curation of films ranging from fun and wild, to tragic and moving. I enjoyed seeing these films virtually and in person, and I highly recommend to keep these films on your radar.
It’s A Summer Film!: This incredibly relatable film about high schoolers making a samurai movie captures the spirit of making an indie film with friends. Director Soushi Matsumoto clearly loves chanbara, sprinkling references to films like Zatoichi and Sanjuro without making the film feel like a list of movies he likes. He still puts the focus on his characters, and there are some strong ones. Most notably, the lead, Marika Ito, gives a great performance as Barefoot. You see how she uses film to connect with people and expand her horizons, all portrayed likably and earnestly. Even her negative qualities, like her rivalry with her school’s other film club shooting a romance film, were really funny. I totally get the frustration of trying to introduce people to films you like, only for them to wander off somewhere else. Some genre moments felt out of nowhere, but I still found myself enjoying the ride. It’s just a likable and breezy film that any film buff can relate to it, whether it’s from the joy of making films or sharing them with people you love.
Wife of a Spy– an intriguing drama that slowly evolves into an espionage film, Wife of a Spy shows us a unique perspective on the genre to convey heartache and tragedy. Set in 1940, the film follows Satoko Fukuhara (Yu Aoi), whose husband, Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), travels to Manchuria, only to return home acting strangely after witnessing a horrific tragedy abroad. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa depicts a Japan slowly changing into something more militarized and aggressive, a far cry from the warmth and modernity of the life Satoko grew up in. Yu Aoi does an excellent job making Satoko relatable, grounded, certainly the last person to get involved in an espionage plot. I like how before the espionage plot kicks into gear, the stakes for Satoko feel more akin to a romantic drama, like is her husband having an affair, or is the returning childhood friend flirting with her. These scenes add a personal touch to the overall stakes of the mission once the espionage plot gets into gear. She’s an average person, with her average life broken apart due to forces beyond her control, and she has no business being forced to deal with this. It’s a heartbreaking film that only gets darker moving forward.
Wonderful Paradise: This is a weird one, a very weird one. The premise sounds simple enough, a family is forced to move out of their wealthy suburban home, so the daughter decides to throw a party. Over time the party, like the movie, goes completely off the rails. What starts as a completely normal family drama with a twinge of dark off-beat comedy slowly transforms into a bonkers festival of madness. Director Masashi Yamamoto shoots the entire film matter-of-factly, making you feel less like a part of the world and more like a party guest just watching everything unfold, amplifying the funnier and stranger moments. By the halfway mark, it’s up to your taste as to whether you can handle this bizarre cacophony or not. I had fun at this party, even if I felt like I had a few too many drinks by the end.
The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai: A reflective jidaigeki, the film follows Kawai Tsugunsoke (Koji Yakushoi), a feudal lord who decides not to join the battling Eastern and Western Armies and tries to broker peace between the waging armies in the wake of encroaching colonial forces and the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Pass works as a meditative piece on the modern relevance of samurai values and an homage to the jidaigeki genre of the past. Director Takashi Koizumi molds his dialogue scenes with an atmosphere of impending doom, as Tsugunsoke is painfully aware of how inevitable his fate is. Even in moments where he tries to have fun with his wife or his friends, you get the sense of how disconnected Tsugunsoke became because of his samurai life. Koji Yakushoi delivers a powerful performance, combing mixed and layered emotions with Koizumi’s direct and blunt dialogue. The foreboding early half of the film builds into ugly and brutal scenes of war. The overwhelming dust and dirt envelop the audience more than gore ever would. Anyone who’s felt anxious about the changing political and social climate will relate to this film. Its dialogue-heavy nature may make it challenging for some, but it’s well worth it by the end.
The Great Yokai War, Guardians– Takashi Miike is one of my favorite directors, part of which is because of his sheer versatility. In addition to successfully tackling horror, jidaigeki, and yakuza films, he shows through The Great Yokai War, Guardians that he can also do fun family films. A spiritual sequel to Miike’s first Great Yokai War film in 2005, the film follows Kei Watanabe (Kokoro Terada), a boy with the ability to see and commune with yokai. When his brother is accidentally chosen for a dangerous quest, Kei journeys to save his brother and save Japan from an oncoming destructive spirit. Miike’s trademark high energy and creativity are all over the screen. He draws influence from Japanese folklore and fantasy films like Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters and Daimajin to create brilliant-looking yokai. His practical make-up and costume effects make them feel real, but even the heavy CGI fits the cartoonish atmosphere Miike created. I like that even with these destructive stakes stakes, Kei’s desire to save his brother was the film’s focus. It kept me grounded as I was being introduced to this strange new world. Plus Kokoro Terada is a great actor, showing a wide range of urgent emotions without being annoying. Kids will enjoy the creative characters and action scenes, while adults will appreciate the references and creative production. The Great Yokai War, Guardians is fun notch in Miike’s long, stellar career.
Labyrinth of Cinema– The late Nobuhiko Obayashi is one of the most unique and passionate filmmakers of all time. He’s most well known in the United States for Hausu, and Labyrinth of Cinema is a masterpiece exemplifying his entire amazing career. Obayashi uses the history of Japanese cinema to explore Japan’s history of war. The film follows Mario (Takuro Atsuki), Shigaru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), and Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), as they literally travel through different Japanese film genres to rescue Noriko (Rei Yoshida) and explore Japan’s relationship with war. Obayashi shows how film can be reflective, escapist, influential, propaganda, and validating concerning war, all at once without contradicting each other. The film is emotion at its purest, also acting semi-autobiographical for Obayashi, showing his relationship to film during Japan’s political and cinematic growth. The film provides context for its historical and cinematic references, so it’s accessible to anyone. But the film is less plot-focused and more mood-focused, and it excels and making you feel everything as you let the film wash over you like lying in a stream. Obayashi injects such raw love, passion, anger, humor, and joy in this film; it moved me to tears. I want to learn more about these film genres and moments in Japanese history so I can connect stronger to this movie. I loved this movie with every fiber of my being. Labyrinth of Cinema is a triumphant curtain call for Nobuhiko Obayashi’s legacy.