The Best of Contemporary Japanese Cinema at Japan Cuts 2018

The 12th edition of the NYC festival features highlights from "Mind Game" director Masaaki Yuasa and "Hausu" director Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Sean Gilman

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl

New York City’s remarkable summer of Asian film programming continues this week, when, just as the New York Asian Film Festival comes to a close, the Japan Society begins its annual series highlighting the best of contemporary Japanese cinema. This twelfth edition of Japan Cuts features 28 films over ten days, most of which are premiering for the first time in the United States. It’s an eclectic mix of arthouse and genre films from world famous directors as well as young unknowns. I was able to sample a handful of this year’s program, for the most part steering away from the biggest names1 in favor of less heralded filmmakers. In all I saw six films: three romantic comedies (Masaaki Yuasa’s Night is Short, Walk On Girl, Amiko from Yoko Yamanaka, and Tremble All You Want from Akiko Ohku); a road movie (Tourism, by Daisuke Miyazaki); a 1980s pink film (Masayuki Suo’s Abnormal Family); and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami, which is some kind of a historical drama. 

Masaaki Yuasa is most known here in North America for his cult favorite 2004 anime Mind Game, a surreal trip inside and through the mind of an average loser as he fails a test of courage and is reborn in the belly of a whale (or something like that). His Lu Over the Wall, an exercise in kids movie myth-making with a sophisticated edge beneath its candy-colored joy, played briefly here earlier this year. The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl exists somewhere in-between those two extremes, and is a kind of extension of his TV series The Tatami Galaxy, which is based on a different novel by the same writer and shares a setting, some characters and visual sensibility (and much of the same production crew) though it is for the most part entirely its own thing. Set at Kyoto University, it follows the trajectories of a would-be couple over the course of One Crazy Night. The heroine, “The Girl with Black Hair,” sets out with a purpose: to drink like a grown up. She does, at a wedding and then at a bar and eventually challenging an old master drunk to a contest, which she wins. Then she hangs around at a used book fair and ends the night taking part in her university’s guerrilla theatre production of a romantic musical. The hero, referred to only as Senpai (meaning he is her senior in school), is crazy about her and attempts to keep up, but always at least a step behind. Crazy obstacles are thrown in his way (he has to join a spicy-food eating contest to win a copy of the book she cherished as a child, for example), but he more or less perseveres. If Yuasa has a weakness, it’s in his male heroes, men who idealize women and are therefore afraid to the point of paralysis of approaching them. The Night Is Short does a better job than Mind Game at humanizing the heroine, of privileging her point of view more so than the hero’s and so avoiding manic pixie savior clichés. In the film’s final section, after all the wildness of her free and invigorating journey, she still finds herself alone, the only person in the town so isolated as to have not caught a cold. It’s then that she seeks out her Senpai, because after all the excitement of youth fades away, we still need someone to sneeze with. 

Amiko is the debut film from 20 year old director Yoko Yamanaka, an ultra-low budget story about a high school girl who has a crush on an older boy. One day they share a magical walk home, talking about life and music and all the important things. Her crush persists but he moves on, eventually dropping out of school to live with another classmate, a pretty and popular one. Devastated, Amiko tracks them down, demanding answers in a way that might be scary if it wasn’t so off-handedly silly (“Does she even listen to Radiohead?” she demands). A quiet film, with handheld close-ups capturing mellow minor moments, attuned to the irrational rhythms of teenage life, it’s at its best in the scenes of Amiko exploring the big city, talking to strangers and kicking of a dance routine on a subway platform that recalls Band of Outsiders and Simple Men

Tremble All You Want features yet another unrequited school crush, this one seen in flashback as 24 year old Yoshika is still obsessed with a boy she had a couple of fleeting interactions with a decade before. Now working as an accountant, a young man has shown interest in her. She must choose between these two men, the fantasy of her adolescent crush and the awkward reality of a decent, if somewhat bumbling, peer. Director Akiko Ohku locks us firmly in Yoshika’s magical perspective, where she has a rich life as the vibrant center of a wide community of friends and allies, the kind of girl who sings and dances her way through life, when in fact she is painfully shy, awkward and quiet. Mayu Matsuoka is terrific as Yoshika, easily shifting between mousy nobody and sparkling rom-com star, equally at home pounding away at a ten-key, discoursing on the wonders of extinct animals and being barely able to speak while she hides her longing expressions through glasses and an unruly mop of hair. Bright and energetic where Amiko is moody and somber, Tremble is nonetheless a remarkably similar film (Yoshika is in many ways simply a grown-up version of Amiko). Coupled with the paralyzing shyness and reality-transforming creativity of Night is Short’s hero and heroine, one wonders if these films aren’t tapping into something new in the romantic comedy genre, a reflection of the neurotic split between online (and therefore created) personae and awkward real life.  

Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism isn’t a romantic comedy, rather it’s an exceedingly simple road movie that is no less entrancing for its lack of dramatic ambition. A young woman named Nina wins some kind of a contest online that earns her two airplane tickets to anywhere in the world. After a couple of swings and misses at randomly choosing a destination (Yemen and Honduras ruled out as being a bit too dangerous), she and her roommate Su set off for Singapore. They see some sights (the mer-lion is disappointing) and do some shopping and, at one point are separated. Having lost her phone as well as her roommate, Nina wanders the streets, lost in a city of strange shops and people where she doesn’t speak any of the languages. Despite a few odd touches around the edges (mentions of ghosts, a mysterious narrator), the film is essentially a travelogue, following in semi-documentary style two young women in a strange land. In this sense it’s like all the best parts of Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, without any of the bad flashback dialogue or any hint of violence. Two kids bumming around a new world, one that accepts them with all the openness they bring into it. 


Last year’s Japan Cuts featured a series of films made in tribute to the pink film genre, that peculiar cycle of low budget softcore porn films that served as both a training ground for young directors and a free space to explore subjects too controversial for mainstream cinema in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. This year’s festival features one such film, a restoration of Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride, made in 1984 by Masayuki Suo, who would go on to direct the international art house hit Shall We Dance? in 1996. It’s a kind of parody of films by Yasujiro Ozu, but with even less plot and a whole lot more sex. Ren Osugi does a creditable Chishu Ryu impression as the father, adopting many of the great patriarch’s mannerisms as the father of two sons and a daughter. The oldest son gets married and spends his evening engaged in marathon tumbles with his bride, Yuriko. The younger son seems to have a crush on his sister, who, disgusted with men in general, gets a job at a sex sauna and finds fulfillment in her work. The father spends every night drinking himself into a stupor, and tells every woman in the film that they look like his dead wife. As a compendium of Ozu nods, the film is pretty funny, although Suo, like so many who have attempted to ape the master only gets the notes right, never the rhythms. The pillow shots and 90 degree frames and jaunty music (now deformed into classic porn grooves) are all there, but that only makes the breaks from Ozu’s rigorous style (into a close-up say, or an off-kilter framing) more disruptive. As satire, it doesn’t really do much to subvert Ozu: the critiques of masculine power and the limitations on women’s freedom in Japanese society were all already there. All Suo does is make the artful more explicit. 

Finally, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami is the kind of maximalist masterpiece that simply has to been seen. A story about the lives of young people in a remote village in Japan in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, it’s awash in the poetic dreams of youth, aswoon with love and death and poetry and moonlight. It’s unlike anything in contemporary cinema, the closest analogue in the English-speaking world is probably something like the early films of Guy Maddin, Archangel say, breathlessly romantic films as much in love with the artifice of cinema as the young characters are alive to all the extremes of life. Toshihiko is a young man who comes to live with his aunt in the coastal village. At school he meets the dashing and intense Ukai, a handsome and athletic man who swims in the ocean at night, and the decrepit and intense Kira, a creepy guy who wears ratty green robes and walks with a cane. Attracted to the positive qualities of both men, Ukai’s physical vigor and Kira’s indomitable will, Toshihiko befriends them both, along with a trio of young women: Kira’s quiet cousin Chitose, the daughter of the local restaurant owner Akine, and Toshihiko’s cousin Mina, who is dying of tuberculosis. Mina’s name is significant, as the film, though based on a 1937 novel by Kazuo Dan, is as much an adaptation of Dracula as anything else, with the war and its all-consuming ideology as the vampire sucking the blood out of Japan’s youth.

Obayashi packs the film with wild edits, eschewing traditional shot/reverse-shot in favor of a kind of shot/mirror-shot, where he swaps the positions of characters in a two shot and then cuts between them during dialogue. It’s an eerie effect, even more disorienting than his more obviously anti-realist choices: elaborate painted backgrounds, vibrant colors, old style composite shots and multiple exposures. Throughout, the film is scored operatically, ever-rising to a pitch of emotionality that can’t possibly resolve itself happily. The effect is overwhelming, as crushingly desperate as the lives of teenagers who know that before them lies nothing but their collective doom.

Obayashi is mostly known here as the director of the cult horror film Hausu, but the only other of his films I’ve seen is 1986’s Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, which the Japan Society played as part of a retrospective on his films in 2015. I thought that film was crazy, another story of youth in the prewar years, something like How Green Was My Valley meets No Greater Glory meets Moonrise Kingdom as directed by a young, angry Tsui Hark working for Hal Roach. But it isn’t half as audacious as Hanagatami. At 80 years old, Obayashi is still representing the best of what Japanese, and world, cinema has to offer.

1. I skipped a revival of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s very fine Still Walking, the latest in Takashi Kitano’s yakuza series Outrage Coda, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Foreboding, which was covered here at the Notebook earlier this year when it premiered in Berlin.

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Festival CoverageJapan CutsJapan Cuts 2018Masaaki YuasaYoko YamanakaAkiko OhkuDaisuke MiyazakiMasayuki SuoNobuhiko Obayashi
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