It’s been four years since NYC’s Japan Society has held a fully in-person Japan Cuts festival so this is your chance to see their annual selection of the best in recent Japanese cinema in actual theaters with special guests and events. JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film is the largest Japanese film festival in North America and runs from July 26 to August 6. This year’s selection includes 24 feature-length films and five shorts, including a tribute to musician and film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died in March. Go here for ticket and schedule information. Here are my picks from the festival.
The festival opens with “The First Slam Dunk,” Japan’s number one box office movie from last year, based on a long-running manga series (“Slam Dunk”) about high school basketball. Directed by Takehiko Inoue, creator of the manga series, the film follows 17-year-old Ryota (voice of Shugo Nakamura), who, still grieving from the death of his older brother, plays on the Shohoku High School team. Ryota, a point guard, aspires to a victory against the undefeated Sannoh High School team to honor his deceased sibling. I wasn’t as moved by the off the court scenes as the fans of the manga will be but the game sequences are stellar with a unique blend of 2D and 3D CGI that, combined with a powerful rock soundtrack, is both exciting and insightful about basketball strategy. Pick and roll!
“Under the Turquoise Sky” is a stunning road movie across a landscape unfamiliar to most of us with some odd expressionistic scenes that don’t work as well as the rest of the film. A wealthy Japanese man (Akaji Maro) challenges his spoiled young son (Yuya Yagira, a very popular young Japanese actor) to go with a Mongolian horse thief he has helped pardon (Amra Baljinnyam) to the Mongolian countryside in search of his long-lost daughter. The two men, who speak different languages, suffer the expected comic incidents involving miscommunication and mistrust of each other and in a land and culture that is still primarily agricultural. Most striking of all are the scenes depicting how hard but rewarding the lives of these poor Mongolian sheep-herders can be. The film is somewhat of an anthropological portrait of a land out of time but it is punctuated by surreal and comic sequences that often seem out place: The horse thief dreams of interrupting the wedding of a former girl friend. The searchers are chased by a couple of bungling Mongolian cops (called Laurel and Hardy in the credits). Earlier shots of the aimless son surrounded by a harem of lithe Japanese girlfriends seems out of touch with the film, as do slow motion, stylized shots of the grandfather’s face. I haven’t seen any of director Kentaro’s other films so I don’t know if these style collisions are one of his trademarks. But see it for its unique beauty and the two rich lead performances. The director and Yuya Yagira will introduce and hold a Q&A for selected screenings.
I’m not sure why Daisuke Miyazaki latest film is called “Plastic.” The topic comes up late in the film when the main character, twenty-something Jun, takes a job for a startup selling micro-organisms that can eat plastic (rather than waiting for them to disintegrate after 10,000 years). Jun is a guitarist who, with his girlfriend Ibuki (An Ogawa), shares an obsession with 1970’s glam rock band “Exne Kedy and the Poltergeists” (a fictional group created for the movie). Ibuki meets Jun when he shows up in her high school media room and makes use of the variety of musical instruments found there. There is a wonderful sequence in which Ibuki and her friends use makeup and costumes to turn Jun into a composite of Japanese glam rockers from the ‘70s. When Ibuki goes to college in Tokyo they break up. Two years pass and they both struggle with the restrictions of the Covid pandemic. A sold-out reunion of their beloved band leads them both to a possible reunion of sorts in a long, slow sequence that needs to be a bit more dreamy and hypnotic. But there’s no denying the appeal this tender romance will have for anyone whose relationship has been fostered by a shared love of music.
“Tokyo Melody: A Film about Ryuichi Sakamoto” is a 62-minute, rarely seen 1985 documentary about the late composer. Director Elizabeth Lennard will be in person for the screening of the rare 16mm print, which will be introduced by Sakamoto’s ex-wife Akiko Yano. The film blends quirky scenes of Ryuichi walking around Tokyo, talking about his love of French composer Claude Debussy with long scenes of the genius composer during the recording of his 1984 album Ongaku Zukan. I loved these recordings of him playing piano, especially the duet with his ex-wife (also a pianist). Sakamoto is mostly known for his 1970’s band Yellow Magic Orchestra and his award winning scores for “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Last Emperor” and “The Revenant” but he was also a fascinating composer of experimental music. This is a must see for fans of Sakamoto’s work.
In Japan, convenience stores (“Konbini”) are essential: places to buy your favorite Japanese snacks, pay bills, copy documents. Veteran director Satoshi Miki’s latest film “Convenience Story” (co-scripted by Japan Times film critic and writer Mark Schilling) is a very entertaining and playfully surreal satire of the film industry, writer’s block and… konbinis! Kato (Ryo Narita) is having problem writing his next script. His girlfriend leaves him when he loses her dog and she gets a big role in a goofy film. When Kato tries to find the dog (which he intentionally abandoned) he enters an odd konbini with no customers in the middle of nowhere. He is transported into a other-world where the store’s married couple welcomes him. The husband is an oddball who retreats to the forest to pretend-conduct classical music while his wife Keiko (Atsuko Maeda, who also stars in “I Am Who I Am” shown at this year’s festival) seduces Kato. Slapstick and whimsy rule this fun romp that may prompt you to peek past the bottles the next time you open the door of a convenience store beverage cooler.
If you saw Steven Spielberg’s film “The Fabelmans” last year you’ll remember his loving recreation of super-8 films he shot as a youth. “Single 8” is veteran film and TV director Kazuya Konaka’s tribute to his own high school obsession with filmmaking. When, in 1978, Hiroshi (Yu Uemura) sees “Star Wars” for the first time he become obsessed with the film’s opening shot. He gets his school to help fund a no-budget 8mm sci-fi film called “Time Reverse,” starring his classmates including Natsumi (Akari Takaishi), a girl they all have a crush on. The film captures their adventures figuring out how to shoot cheap special effects (turn the camera upside down and reverse the film stock later to simulate reverse motion, for example) and how to prep and write a movie. There is a goofiness to the film that may be intentional–maybe Konaka wants it to look like sappy ‘70s youth films?–or just part of his trademark style. Even though it’s a bit overlong, seeing the charming finished student film at then end is worth the ride.
Also: “I Am What I Am” (Toko Miura in her first starring role since “Drive My Car”), “When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty” (a drama about teens working in a Konbini!) and many more features plus showcases of short films and events. Go here for more information.