Ninja facing off against reptilian E.T.’s, Death Note’s Kenichi Matsuyama in a disturbing new role, the director of Kamikaze Girls returning with a blockbuster revenge thriller, and an expectations-defying adaptation of the Kengo Hanazawa manga Boys on the Run—all this and more at what has arguably become North America’s premiere showcase for Japanese film…

If there’s any theme to be noticed in this year’s lineup it’s one of audience discomfort—in a good way, of course. Make that “a very good way.” While there are several uplifting films and a couple of pure popcorn flicks, many of the other titles are dark and subversive—but oh, so good. At their best, films such as Hanging Garden, Boys on the Run, Sawako Decides, Bare Essence of Life, and others, all have a brand of ruthless honesty and artistic fearlessness that feels pure and at times even cathartic. So let’s take a close look at some of the fest’s standouts…

Alien Vs. Ninja
Quick question:  what does this film’s title evoke for you? A low-on-budget, high-on-violence genre-bender? And if you happen to know additionally (as you must, reading this piece) that the film is of Japanese origin and is screening as one of the jointly presented Japan Cuts/NYAFF titles…? Does that hint at zesty mayhem, endearing gore, and loads of laughs of both the intentional and unintentional variety? Well, if so, then you’re in luck, because “AVN” (as the credits call it) has all this and more. In fact, it delivers on just about every front—except a sense of accuracy, either to history or to reality itself. Actually, that’s not fair. Some of the hairstyles seem very well-researched for a period picture; it’s just too bad that the period in question appears to be the 1980s rather than the feudal era, when the story is set.

Part of the film's distaste for reality can be attributed to its portrayal of ninjutsu practitioners. Although in and of itself that’s nothing new—treating ninjas as some kind of spinoff from the rest of humanity is a B-movie specialty for decades now—AVN’s particular juxtaposition is fascinating: the ninjas are more like aliens than they have a right to be, and the aliens are far more like ninjas than other aliens we've seen. Obviously influenced by the designs in the Alien series—or maybe just cheaply made action figure knock-offs of them—these bad boys are even more clearly guys-in-costumes than old school giant monsters. In fact, they recall nothing so much as a slightly upgraded version of the kind of lizard dudes that Kirk would fight on the original Star Trek series. Oh, except here their humanoid characteristics extend to sexuality, too, as one of them seems to make a play for ninja-babe Mika Hijii in the middle of combat, which of course just riles her up even more.

Another area where realism, much to our delight, takes a vacation concerns the visual effects. The practical effects, to be fair, are quite good and creative in many places, particularly in their regard for detail (e.g. pay attention to how the ends of some severed limbs pulse ever so faintly). All in all, they’re not so bargain-basement that you’re offended and get popped out of the movie, but rather they’re just lame/creative enough to bring a smile to your face—witness the little alien offspring that squiggle and squirm like pink baby mice from their parents crania. And the CGI? Well, it’s so obviously handcrafted and so patently unbelievable to one’s eyeballs as a form of photographic reality that it ultimately comes to resemble a subcategory of the practical effects: you just can’t really believe that a computer was somehow involved in the process.

And if this doesn’t sound like a rave, it should. There are only a couple of slow moments in the entire movie and the violence is consistently overwrought and playful. In short, the Power Rangers meet Predator... and we’re the winner. Alien Vs. Ninja is midnight movie no matter what time of day you see it.

Electric Button (Moon & Cherry)
For those who long to enjoy Japanese “pink film” or “pinku eiga” for its creative approach to erotica but can’t stand the repetitive shtupping and the campy premises, here’s a possible solution. It’s also recommend for those who wish that romantic comedies simply reflected reality more by featuring sex scenes that are more, er, realistic and less starry-eyed. In fact, Electric Button, a 2004 film that’s screening as part of the festival’s “Best of Unreleased Naughties” strand that highlights overlooked films of the past decade, is so refreshing that it may be upsetting to some audiences.  

Focusing on a college student who joins a group of writers of erotica, writer-director Yuki Tanada’s script then does something interesting by making the most talented, committed, and sexually self-expressed member of the group a woman. As one might expect, there are also some interesting meta-fictive aspects to the story since the film is an example of erotica while also being about the creative process of making erotica. With smart, efficient storytelling, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and at least a couple of highly erotic scenes, Electric Button delivers much, much more than one can reasonably expect from such an entertainment.

And this is despite the fact that the script cuts a few corners to prove its points; for example, the hero is conspicuously never shown having sex with his nice, “square” girlfriend, which to me underscores the very idea the movie is intent on disproving: that "normal" people don’t have down-and-dirty sex. A bigger issue, but one that’s certainly open to debate, is that in the end Electric Button doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions, as it caves to the emotional conventions of the genre (romance, not erotica) instead of holding its ground. Then again, this is precisely what so many will admire about the film:  the way it allows us to be naughty and then reclaim innocence from the fire at the last possible moment—it’s Godard’s Breathless in reverse.

Boys on the Run [warning: some thematic spoilers follow]
Remember when I said that the 2010 Japan Cuts is all about the pleasures of being uncomfortable? Well, this film, which is receiving its North American premiere, sounds the keynote in that respect.

Moreover, of all this year’s offerings in both the NYAFF and Japan Cuts lineups, this one was the biggest surprise for me. Perhaps it’s my unfamiliarity with the source material—a popular manga that I’m guessing one doesn’t instantly peg as movie fodder—that set me up for my overwhelmingly positive reaction to Boys on the Run. After all, I bet its best, most radical ideas existed before the transition to the big screen. Still, that wouldn’t diminish the fact that in the context of movie history/culture it’s dramatically subversive in ways that will probably make it a benchmark. Underdog movies such as Rocky and The Karate Kid, regular guy transforms-into-hero fantasies à la Taxi Driver, as well as geek-makes-good fare—a staple of movies’ appeal to from Harold Lloyd through Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker—are not simply turned on their ears, but shown in fact to be lies. Maybe dangerous ones.

For much of the film, I was admiring the small touches and the overall air of directness: Boys on the Run has a frankness that starts with the sexual and extends outward in all directions. Still, the overall trajectory of Boys on the Run seemed self-evident, which had me feeling bored even when I was enjoying the story in a moment-to-moment way, if that makes—I was just so certain of where things were headed. The nice girl that our loser-ish protagonist longs for would look beyond his missteps and reaffirm the love and attraction she first feels for him; this same junior version of the classic salaryman would redeem his company’s second-rate status in the world of novelty vending machines; and similarly he would prove himself against an arrogant bully from a rival company.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to predictability…

And yet, strangely, the concluding note of triumph rings true despite how the narrative does not play out according to standard movie clichés. Is that because our would-be hero has become victorious in internal battles against fear and inhibitions, and maybe those are really the only battles worth fighting? That’s one interpretation, I suppose. I guess another one might involve straight-up psychosis.

To be clear, Daisuke Miura has made a film that many people will not be wild about—it’s not a crowd-pleaser, and that’s its point. But it’s the kind of film that stays with you and earns your respect—the kind that you want to discuss with others whether they liked it or not.

Sawako Decides
Early on the central conundrum of Yuya Ishii’s richly satisfying film becomes clear. His star, the charismatic Hikari Mitsushima of Love Exposure fame, is called upon repeatedly to be uncool (or, as she calls it, “lower middling”)… but the more she embraces her uncool plainness, of course the cooler she becomes. With this dynamic in mind, it’s no surprise, then, that when her passion over her own passionless existence ultimate bursts forth, the results are explosive.

When we first meet her, though, the title character is a kind of female Bartleby whose refrain “It can’t be helped” clearly both reconciles and relegates her to the mediocre life she’s all too aware that she’s living. While it’s not really a “slacker comedy”—it tackles too many heavy themes— Sawako Decides exhibits the best of what we typically mean by an indie-style film. The characters are offbeat, but they don’t push their idiosyncrasies beyond what’s bearable. Like many American indies, the film unfolds in a series of loosely-connected sketches, but there’s also a level of seriousness that ties everything together just below the surface. Yes, there are some just-plain-silly elements (a female journalist researching dioxin falls hard for a run-of-the-mill fisherman who seems rugged and outdoorsy to her), but fortunately these are kept to a minimum. Instead, it’s the deadpan way that Sawako decides to deal with running her father’s company and deal with his mortality, and with her exasperatingly subpar boyfriend, that makes the movie memorable. And when Mitsushima finally does break out of her deadpan, as noted above, the fireworks are memorable. But it should also be stated that she’s so good throughout that she makes the film the type that can be watched again and again.

In sum, it’s probably fair to say that Sawako Decides is an inspirational movie for those who are deeply suspicious of inspirational movies… a designation that might fit more of us than Hollywood would be comfortable acknowledging.

Sawako Decides: company song as rousing anti-anthem.

Accidental Kidnapper
Like a brighter, sunnier version of the searing Tilda Swinton vehicle Julia, Hideo Sakaki’s film posits a loser whom desperation drives to kidnapping. Even more a loser than Swinton’s character, Katsunori Takahashi’s doesn’t even set out to be a kidnapper… a narrative maneuver from which both the film’s sweetness and facial elements spring. After all, if a child doesn’t know he’s being kidnapped, then it’s not so bad, right? And he won’t even make a run for it, will he, when opportunity presents itself? Especially if heading home means returning to a Daddy who ignores you rather than hanging with the neat-o kidnapper who teaches you what it feels like to be free.

Such ingredients sound like part of a recipe for a pat exercise in sentimentality, if not outright schlock. And indeed, if re-imagined as a Jim Carrey, Tim Allen, or Adam Sandler vehicle, this same material could be execrable. Yet somehow a sufficiently light touch is maintained, and the sentimentality is held in check until the final scene when, as the saying goes, I dare you to keep a stiff upper lip. To its credit, the ending is strong despite our guessing its general tenor well in advance. And that’s part of an overall strategy that keeps Accidental Kidnapper feeling fresh and engaging—it does the details right, particularly in the nuanced performances of the leads, even if we're not ever surprised in terms of the big picture. And the film gets bonus points for its casting of strong actors such as Sho Aikawa (Zebraman, Dead or Alive) and Shun Sugata (Confessions of a Dog) in secondary roles. (It gets negative points, by the way, for a cop subplot that seems clumsy and obvious in respect to the rest of the movie.)

So although probably a great movie to see on Father’s Day, Accidental Kidnapper also represents a pleasant and ultimately touching way to spend a summer evening as well. It’s simply hard not to like.

Bare Essence of Life: Ultra Miracle Love Story
The “Ultra Miracle” in the subtitle might be the first indication that something is afoot, something that undermines the “love story” part. Is it meant ironically? Watching Bare Essence of Life, it’s hard to say one way or the other whether irony is the intention or if there’s a deeper earnestness at work. Will Yojin (a brilliant Kenichi Matsuyama) marry the girl of his dreams, sweet schoolteacher Miss Machiko, or do his efforts point to the absurdity of romantic love itself? The shocking turn of events that mark the final act of the film doesn’t really answer the irony-vs.-earnestness question so much as situate the entire conversation on a different plane. The irony then concerns the degree to which us puny humans feel that a boy-meets-girl storyline ever really matters… in the movies or in real life: the script equates those who do value hearts-and-flowers with the clueless and mentally unhinged (but essentially harmless?) Yojin. The earnestness then involves the degree to which we should pay attention to the real rhythms of life and its true patterns of growth—an existential vision of nature that underscores not simply its indifference toward us, but our indifference to it.

To drive home such points, the film sometimes takes on a tone of what might be called cheerful nihilism. Yojin’s ecstatic self-use of pesticides and his visions of the dead do more than prompt uneasy laughter:  they undercut our own fantasies—and those in which we expect cinema to indulge us. Yet with all this provocation, it’s easy to miss the tremendous formal accomplishment of the film. As in Sawako Decides, the camera usually selects an unspectacular vantage point from which to provide a clean, simple line of sight into the action, and then settles into astounding long takes, with the duration of the shot adding to the deadpan effect (a maneuver not uncommon in Japanese film). Unlike in Sawako Decides, these takes go beyond humor… then travel past uneasy humor as well… and finally enter into a realm of controlled anarchy, usually at the prompting of Yojin, who concludes the shots by careening into the background or sprawling off-camera: it’s as if the movie cant contain his life-energy, a visual conceit that fits thematically. The response of the ordered human world, a world that comprises both the cinema and society, to someone as primal as Yojin is to try to kill him. Otherwise he’s  just too embarrassing to us.

Of course if you want to view Bare of Essence of Life with an eyebrow cocked to such metaphysical speculations, that’s fine—chances are, you will still rank it a top contender for the most-uncomfortable-to-view film of the year. And yes, it’s likely you’ll leave the theater shaking your head. But if you see the film merely as a practical joke, which is an understandable response, you may find yourself shrugging in mild disappointment. If, however, you feel that the cosmic joke is on all of us, you’ll probably leave with a smile on your face.

Well, that's it for now. Check this space for some thoughts on Confessions, for which there may still be some tickets for the July 4 screening, and other films worth catching (I'm looking forward to Toyoda's Blood of Rebirth in particular). But also please know that I've omitted titles such as King of Thorn and Nightmare Detective 2 from this preview only because I'll be covering them separately for Twitch. In fact, that pretty much sums up 2010's edition of Japan Cuts:  there's almost too much good stuff to write about... or see.