There are several big-name movies unveiling at this year’s edition of the States’ boldest showcase of Japanese cinema.  These include adaptations of well-known manga such as Gantz and Tezuka’s Buddha, as well as the latest from Takeshi Miike, Ninja Kids!!! Well, here’s a look at some highlights from the rest of the lineup—meaning, those films whose screenings have probably not sold out… yet. Japan Cuts runs July 7-22 at New York’s Japan Society.

Sketches of Kaitan City, with its unassuming title and quiet intensity, may not be a film that generates a lot of buzz but it’s one that certainly deserves some. Showing remarkable restraint by indulging in sentimentality only once or twice, director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri and writer Takashi Ujita adapt the interrelated stories of Yasushi Sato (which I imagine are like a Japan-set Dubliners) in a way that manages to capture a novelistic sense of setting and emotional nuance. That doesn’t mean the film is dull but edifying, or even “literary” in flavor—far from it. There’s a pulsating tension that runs throughout each of the gently interlocking storylines, a tension that soon enough results in self-destruction, infidelity, and other forms of implosion.  As a director, Kumakiri takes the idea of remaining invisible and letting his cast and script tell the story to such extremes that he nearly violates this aesthetic by his blatant evasiveness—in some scenes the camera seems to peek out on the mise-en-scène as if a bit ashamed to be intruding on the characters.  The result, however, is intimacy and humanism on a tectonic level, and it’s accompanied by a moral vision that never becomes preachy. Think Iñárritu crossed with Kieslowki’s Decalogue, and you won’t be too far wrong.

Much has been made of the 278-minute runtime of Takahisa Zeze’s epic revenger, but, like Olivier Assayas’s 5-hour version of Carlos, when Heaven’s Story hits its stride, time spent with a movie never passed so quickly:  you don’t want it to end. Bleak, mysterious, and rich, Heaven’s Story benefits hugely from the strength of its own convictions, its duration being just one example. Zeze, who seems to have approached the project with the spirit of putting everything he’s ever felt up on the screen and not keeping anything in reserve for the future, has an exhilarating faith in writer Yûki Satô’s compelling characters… which is not to say that he’s unwilling to sacrifice them. Indeed, the opposite is true: his making them suffer is a measure of how he feels for them, whether they're killers, victims, or, more often than not, some thought-provoking combination of the two.

Sadly, in certain moments the film reveals a lack of technically proficiency that can lead to a crudeness that detracts from the overall
greatness on display. These are generally small things, to be sure, but they irk. One character throws a snowball across rooftops at another who has to be about fifty yards away, and he effortlessly hits his target in the back of the head—an act not implausible by itself, but not staged in a particularly careful way, and that’s what’s troublesome :  as if the idea of the snowball landing perfectly has become more important than conveying the reality of the situation. Likewise, after waiting hours for the showdown between the primary killer and the man whose family he wiped out, we get a lot of horribly fake-looking blood—and don’t get me started on the squibs.  It’s as if Zeze so didn’t want Heaven’s Story to be viewed as a mere genre movie that he didn’t invest in a crew that could handle its genre elements with any kind of assurance. Which is a shame because this is a film that has serious potential to bridge a wide range of audiences. Still, while you’re held in its spell it’s the kind of ambitious and deeply-felt work that renews your allegiance to the grandiose revenge thriller in all its disturbing majesty...
and just when its tropes were starting to get tired, as evidenced by the slick pretensions of I Saw the Devil.

Gorgeous to behold without feeling overproduced, unforgettably brutal but with only a few scenes of violence, and unfailingly eloquent despite the near-silence of its protagonist, Sword of Desperation is more than a model period piece and yet one more conscientious samurai flick:  it’s a contemporary classic that’s just waiting for audiences to discover it. With a deceptively simple story that inexorably drills down into both the genuine nobility and diabolical corruption that rode sidecar to busihido, Hideyuki Hirayama’s film uses its own conventionality to devastating ends. We start with what seems to be a murder of unnecessary cruelty, and then we learn the motivation for it via a see-saw structure that sways between the past and present of the killer,” a loyal but rather nondescript retainer played  by Etsushi Toyokawa. Is the film feminist, antifeminist, or postfeminist in terms of how it positions its transparently scheming concubine villainess? A good argument could probably be made for all three, but Hidehiro Ito and Itaru Era's novel-based script makes the issue narratively moot in the film’s second half as it establishes a deeper, more complex conflict, one that’s tinged with mystery.

I wish I could convey more here than “deeper, more complex” but the twists near the end, even if some viewers may see them coming, are so potent thematically and dramatically that I don’t want to say more. And again, the conventional aspects set up the audience perfectly. Toyokawa has a “special move” that’s common in such movies, and of course the bloody climax features the kind of slashing-through-the-Shoji-screens confrontation you've seen in dozens of movies. With such formulaic elements in place—they’re akin to the obligatory Main Street gunfight that concludes the  archetypal Western—I didn’t really expect Sword of Desperation to blow me away although that’s exactly what it did.  Stirring, unforgettable, formally flawless, it’s an example of why its genre endures, and a highlight, for me, not just of Japan Cuts but of the movie-going year so far.

Moving from the sublime to the almost-ridiculous, let’s take a look at the anomaly that is A Night in Nude: Salvation, whose presence in the lineup is somewhat puzzling. Is it the programming influence of the wilder New York Asian Film at work here, or is including Takashi Ishii’s film a vague nod in the direction of the not-quite-ready-for-pinku audience segment? Splitting the difference between a downmarket-but-trying-hard genre film and outright sleaze, A Night in Nude: Salvation can, at its best, exude a measure of camp that might engage some viewers. It’s not clear, however, whether the camp is intentional, or just the result of the film’s shamelessly opportunistic approach to its lurid subject matter. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have a few things going for it:  it has fun experimenting with different garish lighting effects (sickly yellow is followed by sickly green and sickly gold), and early on the protagonist, a game Naoto Takenaka, appealingly recalls Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. A handyman who’s available for the odd investigatory assignment, he must navigate a path of integrity through cops, slimeballs, and his own not-quite-trustworthy client. The latter, played by the undeniably fetching Hiroko Satô, has one long scene of dialogue where she appears in the nude for no apparent reason. This may be amusing to some and arousing to others, but to me it just felt like padding, or awkward pandering, or both. At a way-too-long running time of two hours, and sporting a half-hearted supernatural element and subpar editing, A Night in Nude: Salvation is a disappointment. You can probably catch similar “erotic thriller” fare on late night cable without the subtitles.