“Family Portrait: Japanese Family in Flux” series, Feb. 15-24

    NYC’s Japan Society is presenting the 8th edition of its ACA (Agency for Cultural Affairs) Cinema Project this week. The series, which runs from February 15-24, is being called “Family Portrait: Japanese Family in Flux.” Go here for more information and tickets.

    Domestic dramas have always been popular in Japanese Cinema and many of the greatest Japanese directors have worked in the genre called shōshimin-eiga, stories that depicted–often humorously–conflicts between the generations of contemporary Japanese families, struggling with the contrary demands of modernization and tradition.

    Among the ten features being screened, the recent work of Ryota Nakano will be spotlighted. Two of his earlier films (“A Long Goodbye” [2019] and “Her Love Boils Bathwater” [2016]–both New York premieres) will be presented and the director will be in person for a Q&A session after his 2020 film, “The Asadas.”

    “The Asadas,” based on the true story of photographer Masashi Asada, is a funny and heartwarming tale that illustrates the enormous value of family photographs. Kazunari Ninomiya plays Masashi, a struggling photographer who gets his family (a homemaker father, a mom who works as a nurse, a more successful older brother) to pose in funny shots of them costumed in a variety of unlikely professions: firefighters, race car drivers, thieves, hooligans. Though he luckily finds an enthusiastic publisher to put out a book version of his project, the sales are low until he wins a top photography award. This sends Masashi on a career of custom portraits for paying families.

    After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and flooding, he travels north and becomes involved in a project to recover tens of thousands of photographs lost in the disaster. He and other volunteers carefully wash the photos and display them in hopes that survivors can recover their lost images, many of them being the only record of their dead family members. (The walls of photos eerily bring to mind similar projects in NYC after 9/11.) Though perhaps a bit too sentimental and a tad too long, “The Asadas” is a solid crowd-pleaser enlivened by great visuals and a soulful cast.

    Also highly recommended is “Tokyo Sonata,” a film directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), a filmmaker known mostly for horror films. It won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008.

    Shōshimin-eiga films are often about conflict within a family led by a “salaryman,” or white-collar worker. Ryūhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), a Tokyo salaryman, is an emotionally withdrawn and autocratic father, much to the dismay of his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi, also a popular Japanese singer) and their two sons Takashi (Yū Koyanagi) and Kenji (Kai Inowaki). When Ryūhei is laid off, he is so ashamed he hides his new status from his family, leaving home every morning in his suit, standing in free food lines and waiting in long queues for job searches. Meanwhile, there is trouble at home: his oldest son Takashi joins the U.S. Army (through a special program that lets non-U.S. citizens enlist) and is sent to fight in the Middle East. The younger Kenji uses his lunch money to pay for piano lessons forbidden by his father. And Megumi suspects that her husband is unemployed.

    Ryūhei is a cruel father, berating and even beating his children when they question his authority. A series of surprise violent incidents reduces Kenji and his parents to such a state of mutual numbness that the family regroups with a new spirit of cooperation. The moral of the story may be simple but it is undeniably true and powerful thanks to Kurosawa’s great visual and narrative skills and the wonderful cast (including Koji Yakusho as a troubled thief). 

    The festival includes two revivals: Kohei Oguri’s 1981 film “Muddy River” and Yasujiro Ozu’s rarely screened “Tokyo Twilight” (1957). Ozu is often called “the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers,” a master of domestic dramas, and an artist revered by many directors and cineastes for his unique visual style. He preferred direct shots of actor’s faces in dialogue scenes, rather than contrasting over-the-shoulder shots. Scenes often transition with shots of static objects instead of direct cuts. He invented the “tatami” shot, in which the camera is positioned below the floor to capture characters at eye level while they sit on tatami mats. And he is famous for skipping what seem to be significant events in a narrative with visual “ellipses.” (The best English language books on Ozu are David Bordwell’s “Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema,” Paul Schrader’s “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” and Donald Richie’s “Ozu: His Life and Films.”)

    His last black-and-white film, “Tokyo Twilight” tells another story of a salaryman’s conflicts with his offspring. Divorced, elderly Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishū Ryū, who acted in 14 of Ozu’s films, including his 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story”) lives with his two grown-up daughters. Takako (Setsuko Hara, who acted in six Ozu films) has left her abusive husband to live with her father. Her younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) is hiding her unwanted pregnancy from her father while desperately searching for her evasive boyfriend.

    Akiko visits a mahjong parlor and her description of the female proprietress Kisako (Isuzu Yamada) leads her sister to discover the woman is their long-lost mother. This is one of Ozu’s bleakest films yet it is no less masterful or emotionally powerful than his best work.

    Other series highlights include: US Premieres of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s “Yoko,” (starring Rinko Kikuchi) and Keiko Tsuruoka’s “Tsugaru Lacquer Girl.” Go here for more information and tickets.

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