Japan Society has curated an impressive program that includes classic and recent works from the late grandmaster Kon Ichikawa, the funniest Giant Monster flick you’ll ever see, and Quentin Tarantino in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western DjangoRunning twelve days and offering 18 features and over 60 shorts, Japan Cuts deserves attention not just from genre fans but really from anyone interested in catching up on today’s finest films from Japan.  For its first few days Japan Cuts overlaps with NYAFF and includes such works as YASUKUNI, the controversial doc on Tokyo’s war shrine, and the aforementioned (and much-buzzed-about) Western from Miike.  In addition, Japan Cuts is screening award-winning fare such as THE MOURNING FOREST and A GENTLE BREEZE.  While I’m still unfamiliar with most of these titles, here are several that I was eager to check out.

In UNITED RED ARMY veteran new-wave director Koji Wakamatsu has made a powerful, often harrowing, docudrama on the Japanese radical scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  The characters themselves would probably prefer the term “revolutionaries” and that’s in fact where things start to go seriously awry—they're so intent on overthrowing the bourgeoisie that they discard many of the commonsense organizational and ethical practices that this group has helped popularize over the last several centuries.  For starters, you don’t beat to death folks within your own ranks for reasons on par with their not having done their homework.  Indeed, the members of URA act as if the most important duty for militants is conducting tribunals, not waging the class war that's supposedly their overarching goal.  By the end of this you-can't-believe-it's-true true story, whatever grander ideals they might once have espoused are sacrificed on the altar of their ultra-reified commitment to Communism.  "Extreme" isn’t the word for their mindset:  it’s more like they demand that each of them embrace their own Inner Totalitarian.  Yet remarkably Wakamatsu maintains an even, sober tone and does not combat the polemics of his characters (including the two leaders portrayed in creepy but believable fashion by Go Jibiki and Akie Namiki) with his own.  Instead we’re given a level of unembellished psychological truth that the audience can’t help translating into a variety of other contexts, from terrorist cells to dysfunctional families.  The end result is more like a Sartrean horror movie, as the remote mountain “base” becomes the setting for an almost gothic psychodrama that is ostensibly about political correctness but is actually about the double-edged themes of courage/cowardice and leadership/loyalty.

© Wakamatsu Production

Running more then three hours, UNITED RED ARMY nonetheless commands attention pretty much every step of the way.  The opening third is particularly heavy on the documentary footage and exposition, but the driving rock soundtrack and intelligent presentation of the relevant history keep things engaging until the lava starts to flow.    Throughout, Wakamatsu’s style is not exactly minimalist but rather ascetic:  the stripped-back sets and straightforward storytelling help hint at the isolation and growing distance of the characters from the real world.  Then, when UNITED RED ARMY finally opens up to include a series of aerial shots as the authorities track one group of fugitives, the effect is spectacular since they’re depicted as small animals scurrying in the wilderness rather than the vanguard of massive social upheaval.  The final act, which features a prolonged stand-off with the police, recalls Claude Chabrol’s masterful NADA (1974) except that it offers more glimpses of redemption and, surprisingly, fewer of outright nihilism.  These moments are neither overdone nor underscored and so help turn the film into a work of art that is emotionally affecting without ever straying into sloppy sentimentality.

© 2007 “
KISARAGI” Film Partners

One of the high points of Japan Cuts has to be its closing film KISARAGI, which I’ve raved about elsewhere.  This fandom-set whodunit is that rarity in a movie mystery—the kind whose ample surprises never seem forced.

  Another film that I urge people to see whether or not they consider themselves aficionados of Japanese cinema is DAINIPPONJIN, a mockumentary about “Big Man Japan,” an ordinary guy who expands to Gojira proportions when gargantuan critters threaten to trample the skyline.  Played by the brilliant writer-director Hitoshi Matsumoto, he’s a little like Gamera—that is, if that famous flying turtle were dealing with a divorce and concerned about his TV ratings.  Together KISARAGI and DAINIPPONJIN (also reviewed at FFN) are two of the more impressive and entertaining movies I’ve seen this year from any country.

© 2007 Yoshimoto Kogyo Co Ltd.

Kon Ichikawa, who passed away earlier this year, is given a special tribute through some inspired programming that includes his 1976 hit, THE INUGAMI FAMILY, along with the remake he made three decades later, MURDER OF THE INUGAMI CLAN (2006).  Largely shot-for-shot identical twins of each other, both films may come as a surprise if you know of Ichikawa’s work only through nuanced classics such as THE BURMESE HARP (1956).  Adapting a popular novel with a series detective as the protagonist, at times the director uses some interesting, practically subliminal insert shots and flashbacks but otherwise plays things exceedingly straight.  Of course since the story is a mystery, there’s a certain amount of misdirection throughout, which only makes the straightforward approach more deceptive and, indeed, more effective.  However, aside from an occasional discovery-of-the corpse set-piece, you should expect far less lyricism than is present even in Ichikawa’s all-time great doc TOKYO OLYMPIAD (1965).

©1976 Kadokawa Pictures, Inc;
©2006 “Inugamike no Ichizoku” Film Partners

The killer-is-one-of-us plot, which is set in motion by the reading of a wealthy patriarch’s convoluted will, allows for a feudal-like drama of court intrigue and succession to play out in modern terms as a post-war, English-style murder mystery:  there’s a huge cast of potential victims, an even huger cast of potential suspects, and of course conventional police are helpless but for the intervention of an unconventional outsider.  Think GOSFORD PARK (2001) minus the pretension and self-congratulation, and plus ax blows, facial disfigurement and an overall atmosphere of shadowy menace.  The result, true for both films but more so for the earlier one, in many ways seems akin to a European film of the ‘70s, maybe even a giallo except here the narrative always manages to stay rational despite its lurid aspects.

Viewing THE INUGAMI FAMILY and MURDER OF THE INUGAMI CLAN side by side not only provides a neat opportunity to see how Ichikawa revised some of his own ideas, but also offers up a primer on styles that went out with the ‘70s; in a drastic oversimplification you might even say that the latter film is essentially the first one without the TV-style pseudo-funk music of the period and the reverse zooms.  Yet in their very sameness the two films reassert Ichikawa’s greatness:  it wasn’t until I’d seen both versions that I realized that watching one did little to hamper my enjoyment of the other even though I knew everything that was going to happen.  The reason for this partly stems from Ichikawa’s gift for working with actors, and in both films he has impressive casts to work with.

©2008 “Accuracy of Death” Film Partners

Despite its title, ACCURACY OF DEATH leaves a decidedly lighter taste in one’s mouth.  With smooth star Takeshi Kaneshiro playing a “Grim Reaper” (in the film’s cosmology there are many of these guys, kinda like the Green Lantern corps), the storyline first appears to ape MEET JOE BLACK (1998) as an allegory about romantic love and death.  Stick with it, though.  The screenplay uses a very transparent three-act structure to establish a novelistic sense of time’s passage.  The fantasy/speculative elements are often flimsy, including the so-so CGI, but I’m not sure the filmmakers care since their focus seems to be on the comedic aspects—Kaneshiro’s timing and delivery are priceless—and developing certain philosophical ideas.  A thinking person’s date movie?  Maybe.  The airiest feel-good movie you’ll encounter about mortality?  Probably.  All in all, ACCURACY OF DEATH is a cute diversion that’s worth seeing but probably not worth beating the door down for—unlike many of the other titles that Japan Cuts is featuring.