Capsule reviews of Sion Sono’s Be Sure to Share, Takeshi Kitano’s Achilles and the Tortoise, the wonderful meta-gangster flick The Magic Hour, the bizarre Crime or Punishment?!?, and the sci-fi punk rock odyssey Fish Story

Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw. Just pure chance. But I’ve been fortunate enough to sample five titles screening at Japan Society’s “Festival of New Japanese Film” (not including those already seen courtesy of NYAFF), and I wasn’t disappointed by a single one of them. Far from it. Each is surprising, highly creative, and thought-provoking in its own way. Genre films? Well, kinda sorta. They certainly contain genre elements and, in some cases, have genre filmmakers behind them. But more often than not, they tend toward blends of subversive comedy, black comedy, and outright surrealism—you get the idea: fun stuff, but heady, and often most serious when at their most fun.

The Magic Hour
While it’s a tad slow out of the starting gate, Koki Mitani’s farce made me laugh out loud more than I recall any other movie doing recently. Indeed, when it’s in its groove, The Magic Hour features acting, writing, and editing that all click together to produce long stretches of pure, giddy, entertainment. The plot is fairly straightforward and represents an inverted companion piece to Korea’s Rough Cut (reviewed here), in which a gangster enters the world of filmmaking. Here the gloriously hammy/cocky Koichi Sato, as a B-movie stunt man and bit player, enters the world of true crime—the problem is, he doesn’t know it. Instead, he believes that he’s on some wildly improvised film shoot under the direction of Satoshi Tsumabuki (so good in Dororo), who needs Sato to portray a shadowy hitman in order to save himself from a real mob boss. Stylishly produced, and with winning performances across both the lead and supporting roles, The Magic Hour feels like the Kisaragi of this year’s Japan Cuts: it takes a high-concept premise and manages to fashion a lighthearted entertainment that’s smart, silly, and surprising all at once. Would have liked to have seen personal favorite Teruyuki Kagawa in a larger role, but that doesn’t even qualify as nitpicking. In the end, The Magic Hour is the kind of film find you can’t wait to tell your friends about—or watch again.

Crime or Punishment?!?
Its goofy title certainly does not prepare you for the serious-minded goofiness of this film. Indeed, its mastery of the black comedy/crime hybrid brings variously to mind such Korean films including Attack the Gas Station!, Save the Green Planet!, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance—except Crime or Punishment?!? has a pronounced edge of classic surrealism that those films lack. More satirical than nihilistic (even when it’s quite dark, the tone never gets altogether bleak), Keralino Sandorovich’s feature sets the tone with an opening epigraph from Kafka. The rest of the narrative follows suit, as teen model Riko Narumi becomes “police chief for a day”... on a day that happens to see a robbery/hostage drama unfold in addition to other crises. Crime or Punishment?!? also uses the now-commonplace device of nonlinear storytelling to jump around in time and space and show us how various storylines intersect. While I’ve grown mostly tired of this approach (it’s too often gimmicky), here Sandorovich’s script uses coincidence and serendipity to great comedic effect and the result is plotting that’s at once elegant and unpredictable. With fun performances from its cast (including Love Exposure’s Sakura Ando in a small but important role), this is crowd-pleasing zaniness at its best. Expect to have your mind scrambled but to leave the theater somehow upbeat and inspired.

Achilles and the Tortoise
One of the oddest movies I’ve seen in a while—and I see a lot of odd movies.
Takeshi Kitano’s meditation on creativity doesn’t initially present itself as odd at all—quite the opposite in fact, which ultimately adds to its odd feel. A good portion of the strangeness is part-and-parcel of the plot itself, as we follow the rocky childhood of Machisu Kuramochi, who wants nothing more than to paint and draw. We kept expecting his genius to be acknowledged, but then, well, other things happen instead. Trying to be responsive to the coaching of a gallery owner, who appraises his canvases by saying things like “Getting original, but you need more madness,” Machisu eventually goes to greater and greater lengths to become inspired (“lack of oxygen” is one tactic). And that's where the film's tonal oddness comes into play, as Achilles and the Tortoise plays for the most part as a somber character study full of pathos and suicide before morphing into an exaggerated absurdist romp full of sight gags and deadpan humor. Is it heartwarming, cynical, or somewhere in between? See it and decide for yourself. You may not fall in love with what Kitano’s done here—he doesn’t really want you to—but this is a film that's probably worth seeking out if you’re into Japanese cinema... and fans of the filmmaker certainly won’t be disappointed either. My one major gripe is that the cinematography was not as vivid as I would have liked, especially given the theme of the movie. Then again, that could have been a function of the screener I watched, in which the aspect ratio was also off.
 
Be Sure to Share
More Ozu than Sono, Be Sure to Share is a quiet tearjerker that’s wonderfully, often touchingly, played by its cast, including pop star Akira. On the surface nothing at all like Love Exposure, or Sion Sono’s other films, Be Sure to Share still mines similar thematic territory:  warped (but loving) parent-child relationships, the way death informs how we live our lives more than anything else, and a non-starry-eyed allegiance to the concept of ultimate reconciliation and redemption. One might expect Sono to feel his way through this kind of material, in which subdued hospital visits and chaste dates feature prominently, with the results being largely hit-or-miss. But, impressively, he takes to family drama as if he’s been making movies like this for his whole career. Well-crafted and managing for the most part to avoid the full-blown sentimentality of the typical "dying-relative" flick, Be Sure to Share is the quintessential “small gem” of a movie. The fact that it happens to be made by a cult director at the top of his game, and should prove fascinating to his many fans (if they know what to expect), is an added bonus. Note: both Sono and actor Eiji Okuda are scheduled to appear at the world premiere on Sunday, July 5.

Fish Story
It’s easy to see why Fish Story is currently leading in the audience balloting at the New York Asian Film Festival, which is co-presenting the film: it’s a thinking person’s feel-good film. And what makes it so smart is that it avoids coming across as a feel-good film. In fact, it’s mostly feel-bad, as the story concerns a giant comet about to collide with Earth and destroy all life. From there we get a series of Russian doll-style backstories and digressions although it’s not clear at all which doll nests inside which—and that’s a big part of all the movie-going pleasure to be had here. The other pluses include a smart script, rousing action scenes, and consistently likable performances. What might not be so obvious as you sit there enthralled by Fish Story is the degree to which director Yoshihiro Nakamura moves seamlessly across genre terrain, touching on martial arts flick, sci-fi comedy, fictionalized rock ‘n’ roll biopic, and even J-horror. In the end one might claim that the points that Fish Story makes about interconnectedness and the value of heroism are facile, but the film arrives at them so artfully, and you have such fun getting there, that they no longer seem quite so corny.

Finally, you should know that there are a bunch of other films Japan Cuts is screening in conjunction with NYAFF, including the two 20th Century Boys films (reviewed here) and my favorite film of the year, the aforementioned Love Exposure (reviewed here). Also on tap are Cyborg She and Confessions of a Dog, which I hope to catch and report back on.