Japan Cuts: Far Out in the Far East

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The New York Sun

Do you ever wonder what the Japanese think of Hollywood’s interpretations of “Speed Racer,” “Transformers,” or even “Memoirs of a Gesiha”? For those who want to experience that reverse lost-in-translation feeling firsthand, the second annual Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film, which begins today at Japan Society, offers a healthy swath of selections that will do the trick. What’s more, the lineup is reflective of how the country’s film industry is grappling with its global reach while struggling to defend its home turf.

J-horror remakes (“The Ring,” “Pulse,” “Dark Water,” et al.) have stormed stateside theaters in recent years, and ABC has imported programs such as “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” and “Wipeout” into its prime-time lineup. But the island nation is itself weathering an onslaught of pop idols, movies, and telenovelas exported from South Korea and the rest of East Asia. The Japan Cuts lineup suggests that these two conflicting currents have prompted many Japanese filmmakers to look inward in the hopes of reclaiming their artistic heritage.

The effects-laden “Dainipponjin” and “Always: Sunset on Third Street 2” are two examples of Japan’s response to such cutting-edge South Korean blockbusters as “The Host,” which have dominated the entire East Asian market of late. But these Japanese films aren’t outright imitations of Korean or American cinema. In fact, they pay loving homage to Japan’s iconic science-fiction movies of the “Godzilla” or “Dynaman” variety. “Dainipponjin,” a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary about an ineffective superhero and his unglamorous daily existence, is perhaps a perfect antidote to “Hancock.”

Photographer Mika Ninagawa’s drop-dead gorgeous debut, “Sakuran,” is without doubt a direct response to “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The film, based on a manga cartoon, is a courtesan chamber drama that boasts an unusual Jane Austen-esque feminist edge. Ms. Ninagawa isn’t preoccupied with how to be proper, as in the golden days of the Toho or Shochiku studios. Instead, she scores her period film with a modern sound track, as Sofia Coppola did with “Marie Antoinette.” Ms. Ninagawa’s frame compositions are luscious and vibrant — also a departure from the clean lines and muted palettes seen in previous films of this ilk. In this, she demonstrates how to infuse a sense of modernity into a formalist genre without turning it into a garish drag show, the way Rob Marshall did with “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

By contrast, Takashi Miike, Japan’s premier cult filmmaker, would rather give Americans a taste of our own medicine by retaliating against Hollywood’s co-opting of Japanese culture. Indeed, his new film “Sukiyaki Western Django” indicates how the Japanese really feel about “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Last Samurai.” “Sukiyaki” is a perversion of the spaghetti Western, which originated in Italy but was unmistakably American. In keeping with a cycle of influence shared by East and West, the story follows Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” which itself borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” Mr. Miike dresses his Japanese cast in cowboy duds and has them recite barely intelligible broken English so the viewer will know exactly what the Japanese think of Tom Cruise as a samurai.

But it’s not all modern commentary. Indeed, the old is again new in Japan’s theaters. Kon Ichikawa, the legendary director who passed away this year at 92, remade his 1976 masterpiece “The Inugami Family” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Kadokawa production company. Fatefully, the 2006 remake, “Murder of the Inugami Clan,” would be his final film. Both versions are part of the Japan Cuts program, and for Ichikawa’s fans, it should be moving and unforgettable. For those fans, “Filmful Life,” a documentary about Mr. Ichikawa’s career by the acclaimed director Shunji Iwai, will be required viewing.

The series also includes a couple of tough films on historical subjects that have remained divisive in Japan. Koji Wakamatsu’s three-hour docudrama “United Red Army” chronicles the transformation of a band of politically radical students into an international terrorist organization. And Li Ying’s documentary “Yasukuni,” about pilgrims and protestors gathering each year at the Yasukuni Shrine memorial for war criminals (who are also regarded by some as national heroes), found that many movie theaters in Japan would rather cancel bookings of the film than screen it. So kudos are in order for Japan Society for not shying away from controversy.

Through July 13 (333 E. 47th St., between First and Second avenues, 212-832-1155).

The New York Sun

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