Big in Japan Cuts: Experimental, Classic, Avant-Garde and Free-Form Film

07/09/2015 8:00 AM |

sound of a million insects

Japan Cuts 2015
July 9-19 at Japan Society

This year’s edition of Japan Cuts marks a few changes for the Japan Society’s yearly showcase of contemporary Japanese film, cutting ties with the New York Asian Film Festival and adding a focus on restorations, documentary, and a new experimental film spotlight screening. The changes are for the best, with the new categories providing the most interesting elements of an always diverse festival, which now swings even more vigorously between the mainstream Japanese film landscape (sometimes a tough find in NYC) and the various currents of the Japanese independent and avant garde world.

Half of that experimental spotlight was programmed by Takashi Makino, with films from his [+] (Plus) collective providing a summation of one of the most vibrant contemporary experimental scenes. Makino’s favored approach entails an exceedingly thorough investigation of a limited set of formal possibilities, while keep that approach aesthetically specific rather than moving into structural or ontological categories, and the result is films that treat aesthetic as material and materialism in radical and important ways. His own films often take the form of impossibly dense “noise” films, where abstract imagery derived from 16mm film’s grain patterns and scratches are processed, often digitally (bye bye purism!), into vertiginous multi-planar landscapes. Emaki/Light, his film here, is made in collaboration with Takashi Ishida and features Ishida’s vaguely organic abstract animations. It’s more playful and suggestive of a human element than much of Makino’s work, making it somewhat of an outlier in his filmography but still firmly bearing the stamp of his vital approach.

Makino’s other selections are DUB HOUSE Experience in Material No.52, by Kei Shichiri and Ryoji Suzuki, and EMBLEM, by Rei Hayama. The former is an investigation of light and camera pans across stark modernist architectural forms in a large room, slowly adding formal elements as it emerges from an unlit screen and an ambient soundtrack; the latter hybridizes digital and analogue processing techniques that interact sporadically with footage of an endangered bird caring for its child. Both are at once powerfully minor and thoroughly rigorous, and the three films as a whole point towards a materializing rather than onotologizing of aestheticism that seems rather prescient.

The rest of the experimental selection, programmed by Brooklyn’s Mono No Aware, is less focused and more eclectic, swerving between a fetishistic 16mm approach and more narrative concerns. But the films are often quite invigorating: the first half of Relay, Steve Cossman’s pulsating document of a Ei Wada concert that uses CRT TV monitors as instruments is particularly edifying, even if it turns towards a focus on 16mm as object and nostalgia rather than as material in its second half. Tomo Nishikawa’s two-minute sound of a million insects, light of a thousand years is stunning: nothing more than the resulting images of a can of 35mm negative buried 15 miles from the Fukushima power station explosion for 24 hours and exposed, it’s a gorgeous-looking abstract film, a heartbreaking emotional experience, and a furiously tangled mess of beauty, politics, and material investigation.

cruel story of youth

Neatly bridging the outre and mainstream worlds is a new digital restoration of Nagisa Ôshima’s 1961 feature Cruel Story of Youth, an uneven but deeply essential film that oscillates between some of the most gorgeous modernist compositions in film history and a conflicted view of Japanese youth culture. Made within the 60s mainstream Japanese production system but standing at odd angles to it and the contemporaneous European art film culture, it’s a portrait of youth in deliberately diffuse revolt. It never quite figures out where it stands on issues of sexual relations but dives fully into the sticky morass of 60s nihilism with verve and nervous energy. A tautly difficult film, it’s also one whose lighting schemes call out for theater projection over home viewing.

The messy sexual politics and tensions of that film spill over into some of the best films of the rest of the slate, which include the excellent new feature Makeup Room, a fiction work with some interesting quasi-documentary spillover, made by Japanese porn film director Kei Morikawa and set entirely within the titular makeup room of a porn shoot. Starring real-world porn actresses, the film is both a farce of low-budget filmmaking—circuits blow, helicopters invade the soundtrack, and nothing is on schedule—and a casually astute dissection of the economic and social relations of the world of Japanese pornography. It dances around the conventions of the adult film and integrates them into its own plot, which remains just barely exterior to the porn film at its center, and which manages moments of ennui that avoid dehumanizing the profession, even managing to touch upon the cliche of rape in Japanese pornography in unexpected terms—the actresses just don’t like doing it and are somewhat confused why it’s such a cliche in the first place. Grounded by a lovely performance by Aki Morita as the overworked makeup artist who keeps the set together, it’s deftly comical, clear-eyed, and wears its more sentimental moments with a lightly ironic edge.

The other standout digital restoration of the festival, 1973’s animated feature Belladonna of Sadness, is equally dripping with sex—it’s a psychedelic jolt of freeform sensuality and Satanism whose medieval fantasy traces a woman’s progression from rape survivor to orchestrator of massive Satanic orgies and, eventually, ruler of the fiefdom that oppressed her. The sexual politics are an incoherent mess, but that ends up rather appropriate for a film whose best moments involve a polymorphous image of an orgy constructed out of ever-shifting phalluses and vaginas and mouths merging into new creatures disconnected from human form, in an ecstasy of revolt. On an imagistic level, it’s quite forward-looking, with Satanic desire possessing the key towards new forms of sexual arrangements and fluidity that the central plotline can only hint towards, resulting in deeply arresting images.


Also worth a mention is 2014’s Sanchu Uprising, a gorgeous and austere black and white film that initially presents itself as a deliberately paced retro-modernist retelling of the Seven Samurai narrative, only to slowly drift into stranger and admirably minor pomo territory, with a free jazz soundtrack, a 3D/2D animated sequence, and a narrative about-face halfway that undercuts the central story entirely and reformats the film. That these striking formal decisions are underplayed is to their advantage, and the specificity of farming as an actual activity and not just a mythic stand-in is given an atypical and refreshing weight, which one can’t help but associate with director Junichiro Yamasaki’s history as a tomato farmer. As a bonus, it also offers a wonderfully low-key and affectionate scene of cunnilingus between a farmer and his pregnant wife.

Less formally off-kilter but even more open in its scope is Voice of Water, which focuses on a New Age religious cult but takes an approach that is both refreshingly business-oriented—how to make money off your cult in pragmatic terms, standing in contrast to the recent spate of psychologically oriented Sundance films on the subject—and digressive, making room for some neon-lit dance numbers and multiple sides plots, including one that dips into yakuza genre film territory. A rape scene can’t escape mundanity and lazy characterization, but the film as a whole functions as a good justification for the workshop system whereby the film was financed: its leads paid for acting lessons overseen by the director. The film’s broad scope of characters takes full advantage of the range afforded by this model.