The Best of Contemporary Japanese Cinema at Japan Cuts 2019

The 13th edition of the festival features emerging Japanese filmmakers, as well as cult classics by Makoto Tezuka and Shinya Tsukamoto.
Sean Gilman

And Your Bird Can Sing

North America’s premier program of contemporary Japanese cinema returns this week as the Japan Society’s thirteenth annual Japan Cuts series comes to New York City. This year’s program includes 26 feature films, almost entirely by young filmmakers and/or directors largely unfamiliar in the West. I caught about a third of the series this year: dramas about alienated urban youth And Your Bird Can Sing, Blue Hour, and Demolition Girl; Francophile comedy Jeux de plage; a pair of social problem films in the throwback comedy The Kamagasaki Caudron War and the tastefully bland The Journalist; an unclassifiable avant-garde musical relic of the 1980s, Legend of the Stardust Brothers; and a pair of films by this year’s Cut Above award winner Shinya Tsukamoto, Killing and Bullet Ballet

The urban youth film is always reliable festival territory, and some of the best films to come out of Asia recently belong to this genre, from Chinese dramas like Angels Wear White and The Crossing, to the Thai heist film Bad Genius, to whimsical Japanese comedies like Love and Goodbye and Hawaii and Tremble All You Want (favorites of mine from the past two years of Japan Cuts). And Your Bird Can Sing sits comfortably among this group, straddling the line between entropic meditation on twenty-something ennui and slow-motion romantic comedy. It’s like a memory of Jules and Jim conjured on a long, dazed walk home from the club in the wee hours of the morning. The film is set in the summer in Hakodate, a city in Hokkaido, where a couple of bookstore employees strike up a romance. The boy is the kind of gregarious, effortlessly handsome slacker who gets along with everyone but authority figures, while the girl is more elusive, and may be sleeping with their boss. She strikes up a friendship with the boy’s roommate, shier and less stylish, and possibly even more lazy. The film drifts through their lives like summer, never really latching onto anything like a plot or drama. But director Sho Miyake, working from a novel by Yasushi Sato, has got the feel right. 

Blue Hour, the debut feature from Yuko Hakota, is even more elusive. Koho plays a director in her early 30s. After a long day of infidelity (she’s sleeping with a co-worker, and her husband appears oblivious) and dealing with a recalcitrant actor at work, she and her best friend (played by Shim Eun-kyung) head to her home town in the country for a visit with her parents and, the next day, her elderly grandmother. The film is thus split neatly in thirds, with the first, set in the city, being by far the most fun. The dread of the return home should be familiar to anyone who moved away to the big city to get away from their family, and the movie takes a sharp turn into sadness as Koho barely keeps it together seeing just how weird and empty her parents’ and brother’s lives now seem. A trip out to a local bar does her no better, as while her friend mingles easily with the karaoke crowd, she can barely string two words together. But she comes to something of a revelation visiting her grandmother, confined to a hospital bed in a nursing home. She realizes some kind of broader empathy for the human condition, or perspective on her life. The final moments give the whole thing a bewildering, and almost certainly unnecessary, twist.  

Demolition Girl is most similar to The Crossing. Both are about high school girls who skirt the law in hopes of raising the cash necessary to improve their economic circumstances. But where the heroine in The Crossing is driven by the need simply to escape her current home (to go on vacation to Japan, in fact), Cocoa, the eponymous Demolition Girl played by Aya Kitai, only wants to go to college. She has to earn the money herself because her deadbeat father, out of work and scamming the welfare office since her mother died years ago, has blown her college fund at the track, while her brother, a failed stand-up comic, refuses to do anything but lie on the floor watching TV all day. So Cocoa does what any girl in her situation would do: she stars in a series of fetish videos shot by a friend in which she wears her school uniform and steps on all manner of things: garbage, cake, balloons, et cetera. Despite the lack of any nudity or explicitly sexual material, the videos have to be distributed on the sly, which puts Cocoa and her partner in the grip of a shady local hood, all of which inevitably leads to chases, violence, trouble at school, and the coming of age through existential crisis. The whole thing would drift away were it not for Kitai’s performance: she keeps the rote drama grounded with a deep well of unexpressed disappointment in both her family and the world. 

Jeux de plage

The best urban youth film of the festival though is the ensemble comedy Jeux de plage, which takes its title, as well as every one of its many chapter heading intertitles, from the name of a French movie (Rules of the Game, Vivre sa vie, À nos amours, et cetera). Explicitly in homage to the vacation films of Eric Rohmer, and by extension the complete works of Hong Sang-soo, Jeux de plage is set across a single day at a rooming house at Shonnen Beach where a variety of young people from all over East Asia come to stay at the invitation of a mysterious woman whom we never meet. There’s a trio of Japanese women, one of whom may be in love with another one, who is in turn aghast at the third’s sexual freedom. There’s a Korean couple—well, that is a man who wants to be a couple and a woman who isn’t the least bit interested in him in that way. There’s a Japanese musician who runs into his former bandmates, women who dislike him very much. And there’s a professor of some type whose seminar unites several of the characters and who starts the film off waking up hungover sans pants in the house’s empty swimming pool. Watching it all is a disheveled Thai poet, who muses in voiceover asides about his various housemates. It might be a satire about the contemporary East Asian art film scene, if it wasn’t all so breezy. Director Natsuto Aimi keeps things bright and light, jumping between the various characters and their interactions, which veer easily from melodrama to farce to naturalist body horror. As post-Hong cinema goes, it isn’t nearly as radical an interrogation of the great director’s form and tropes as last year’s Hit the Night, but it better matches the tone of sustained chaos that marks both life on vacation and sexual relations between young people. It’s also got one of the most delightfully mind-bending endings in years. 

While Jeux de plage looks backward to French cinema and sideways around Asia for its inspiration, The Kamagasaki Cauldron War goes back to the 1930s films of Sadao Yamanaka, specifically his very great Humanity and Paper Balloons, for a portrait of a slum community united against the various forces (criminal and capital) arrayed against them. Centered around a young orphan who hooks up with a disaffected prostitute and her pickpocket boyfriend, the plot, such as it is, revolves around the theft of the local yakuza organization’s ceremonial cauldron (basically a giant bowl for drinking sake). The gangsters, vainly searching for the lost item, begin buying up every sake bowl in the area, leading to a boom market for the areas homeless junk recyclers and petty thieves. It all comes to a head in a conflict between gangsters and prostitutes, slum-dwelling scam artists and capitalist gentrifiers. The makeshift family dynamics recall Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Shoplifters, but the political satire is much more committed and the warm spirit of community echoes Yamanaka’s classic portrait of community under pressure, albeit with a lot more cockeyed humor. Critic Evan Morgan described it to me as something like Yamanaka meets Preston Sturges, which is both a high compliment exactly right. 

Everything Kamagasaki does right as a social problem film, its energy, its warmth, its sense of humor, is missing from The Journalist, a conspiracy thriller about fake news that embraces all the worst clichés of conventional dramatic storytelling. A young woman reporter stumbles upon a major scandal involving the building of a medical school. This scandal isn’t that interesting (if only because we have no idea what it’s about until the end of the movie, though it makes everyone who touches it sad and/or paranoid), but she doggedly pursues it, eventually earning the help of a young bureaucrat who works at a dimly lit government office of disinformation. This organization is the most ridiculous thing in the film, not because of its idea of a government propaganda center, of course, but simply because of its design: the entire building appears to be lit only with cobalt blue lights and the layout is something like a cheap telemarketing operation, but filled with drones at desks sending tweets and press releases. Shim Eun-kyung, the Korean star (Sunny, Miss Granny) who played the best friend in Blue Hour and was that film’s lone spark of joyous exuberance, plays the reporter as morose and mopey, on the verge of tears in any given scene thanks to a laborious backstory (her father too was A Great Journalist). There might be cinematic gold to mine in the newspaper film genre at a time when old media notions of consensus and truth have splintered beyond all recognition, but The Journalist has nothing to offer other than an old-fashioned belief that reporting the god damned news is a noble pursuit in and of itself. 

Bullet Ballet

Decidedly not old fashioned, despite being almost 35 years old, is Legend of the Stardust Brothers. Makoto Tezuka’s rock musical is being given the marketing of a midnight movie for its long-delayed North American release (it should be making the rounds later this year), and it’s not hard to see why given its low budget, goofy costumes, and great music. But it rightly belongs more in the vein of Japanese experimental art-house film, alongside filmmakers like Nobuhiko Obayashi and Seijun Sezuki. The film is the story of the rise and fall of a boy band, with incredibly catchy New Wave music, a conspiracy theory significantly more clever than anything to be found in The Journalist, and an aesthetic very much in line with what you’d see on any random segment of mid-80s MTV, which seems to have been in retrospect a far wilder era aesthetically than it appeared to us at the time. Or maybe its just that our present has become so programmatically flattened that we’ve forgotten what creativity on screen actually looks like. Tezuka is the son of legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and made the film shortly after graduating from film school, and his movie has all the infectious energy of a 22-year-old kid bursting with ideas.

Belonging in this same group of filmmakers is Shinya Tsukamoto, who had a cult hit with his first feature, 1988’s Tetsuo: the Iron Man and who is receiving a career achievement award from Japan Cuts this year. In addition to his newest feature, the samurai drama Killing, which was well covered here at the Notebook when it played at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Japan Cuts is also presenting, on 35mm, Tsukamoto’s 1998 film Bullet Ballet. Tsukamoto himself stars as a film director who, after his girlfriend kills herself with a gun, becomes obsessed with finding one for himself, ostensibly to kill himself as well. The first half hour follows his descent into the underworld, where he becomes enmeshed in a war between rival yakuza gangs, and also smitten with one of the gangsters, a girl with a pixie cut. Gradually, so gradually one barely notices it, the film reveals itself not be not just a moody exercise in loathing and self-destruction, but actually a gritty reboot of Chungking Express. Other directors have merged the crime film with desperate romance, The Odd One Dies, for instance, ostensibly directed by Patrick Yau in 1997 but more probably belonging to Johnnie To, finds a Wong Kar-wai film in the middle of a stylish Triad saga. This was always Wong’s strategy as well: almost all of films have elements of popular genre material, obviously so in the case of Ashes of Time and As Tears Go By, but even Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express itself are outgrowths of the Heroic Bloodshed era of the Hong Kong crime film. Bullet Ballet switches the emphasis around, foregrounding what were minor genre moments in Wong’s original (and example: Takeshi Kaneshiro’s desperate chase after his lost suspect through Chungking Mansions becomes Tsukamoto’s chase through the back alleys and dark corners of Tokyo after his lost revolver) and twists his more romantic moments into something far darker (the montage of Faye Wong rearranging Tony Leung’s apartment is recreated, with even some of the same shots, but only when the girl has set Tsukamoto up to quite probably be killed). Trading Wong and his cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau’s bright pop colors for a gritty black and white, Tsukamoto crafted something like a negative version of a classic, one that, despite it all, still embraces the life-changing possibilities of romance, where running away from something or someone might be exactly the same thing as running toward them.

Japan Cuts takes place July 19–28, 2019 at New York's Japan Society.

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Festival CoverageJapan CutsJapan Cuts 2019Sho MiyakeYuko HakotaGenta MatsugamiAimi NatsutoLeo SatoMichihito FujiiMakoto TezukaShinya Tsukamoto
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