Japan Cuts Like a Knife 

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Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film

If you're worn out from the exploding garden of genre delights at the New York Asian Film Festival, then take a Vacation. Part of Japan Society's annual harvest of recent Japanese releases (and co-presented with NYAFF), Hajime Kadoi's unshowy drama is conducted at a hush that presides equally over a prison guard's family anxieties and one inmate's impending execution. Working from a story by Akira Yoshimura, Kadoi chronicles life as it flows around a fateful decision: Hirai, who's about to marry a divorcee with a quiet six-year-old, opts for standby duty at the hanging, thereby earning time off for a honeymoon. Fateful, but also ordinary, since it's part of the job, and Vacation's accretion of small gestures and scenes pays special attention to Hirai as a working stiff making ends meet and as just one of a tight-knit cohort of guards. The death-row prisoner is likewise not an aria waiting to happen, but the figure of an enigma, a man about to die, whose own final decisions are attributed more weight than he himself gives them. Much of this may well be reserved to a fault, but it's still the sort of underplayed film whose genuine achievements can slip by you.

Not so with Takeshi Kitano's Achilles and the Tortoise, in which the recently reflective showman cartoonishly depicts the perils of devoting oneself to Great Art. Tracking a tenacious, hapless paint-lobber named Machisu from boyhood to near-oblivion in middle age (played then by Kitano, never sans beret), this send-up hauls out arbitrary art dealers and Double Dare action-painting, though it might just trigger a rental of Art School Confidential. Inside Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's Non-ko lies a looping character study about the titular early semi-retiree, a 36-year-old ex-B-movie starlet (Maki Sakai) avoiding life at home with her Shinto priest father and blinkered mother. Unfortunately there's also a Shy Young Man who visits, trying to nab a stall at the shrine festival for his baby chicks. But a great deal can be excused by the well-observed habit-worn sex scene between Non-ko and her estranged ex-husband, a hoodlum-producer who tracks her down.

There's much else besides this, including the strung-together lunacy of Crime or Punishment?!?, the serviceable diva-off Pride, and dueling takes on high school angst Halfway and Ain't No Tomorrows. A genuine world premiere comes in the form of Be Sure to Share, from the director of Love Exposure, also showing, and police drama Confessions of a Dog looks like this edition's three-hour shame-of-a-nation feather-ruffler. Last but not least is the last film from the late Jun Ichikawa, Buy a Suit, an affecting sketch of a sister's reunion with her bedraggled, erratic brother.

June 30-July 12 at Japan Society

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