Monday, July 15, 2013

Choice Cuts: The Bleeding Heart And Soaring Soul Of JAPAN CUTS 2013

AKB48 spreading music and hope in Japan.

While JAPAN CUTS is known for action packed, manga-inspired and genre-twisting blockbusters, especially those co-presented with NYAFF, there is another side to the festival encompassing impacting films that pull at heartstrings with their depth and far reaching soulfulness.

As the New York Times wrote in a feature about the more emotionally harder-hitting films this year:
A well-made bummer can be a beautiful thing, and while many countries have distinguished histories in the genre, none currently outdo Japan when it comes to outdo Japan when it comes to malaise and depression.
One of the more quietly devastating films in the lineup is Japan’s Tragedy. Directed by Masahiro Kobayashi and sharing the concept of the 1953 work of art, A Japanese Tragedy, the film focuses on an elderly father (played by  legendary Akira Kurosawa actor Tatsuya Nakadai), who while pain stricken by the death of his wife must cope with terminal illness. His son, who suffered major losses in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, remains lost emotionally and struggles to aid his father in recovery. Through his own affliction, the father tries to help his son one last time, deciding it best if he were allowed to die.

Shot mostly in black and white, the gravity of the themes and anguish of the characters are palpable and timely. In the tsunami that struck the northeastern Japan, some say “Japan’s elderly were hardest hit by the crisis” and even over two years later are displaced from their homes and not getting the care they need. When BAFICI first screened Japan’s Tragedy, they called the film “a profound analysis of the human condition and its unpredictable derivations” and noted that the titular tragedy is never pinpointed, stressing “the imprecision of that discomfort that afflicts Japan”. This silent yet pertinent theme is beautifully, painfully illuminated in Japan’s Tragedy.

Another powerful story is the documentary Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story. After being exposed to its language, culture, and history by her elementary school teacher, Taylor developed a love for Japan, ultimately taking part in the Japanese government’s Japan Exchange Teaching Programme (JET), which supports non-native Japanese to teach English in Japan. Tragically, Taylor is lost to the tsunami, but her life and legacy--shown through pictures, home videos, and heartwarming personal accounts within the film--offers a sense of hope that can only come by following one’s dreams.

Today the devastation from the tsunami can still be felt by the families of the 19,000 people dead or missing in Tohoku and the hundreds of thousands displaced, many still without permanent homes. Amidst slow recovery there are pleas to not forget those affected and still suffering. Live Your Dream shows us that even through loss, the memories we leave behind can never be forgotten.

For the JAPAN CUTS screening of Live Your Dream Taylor’s father and the documentary’s director will be on hand to introduce the film and take part in a Q&A it afterwards. Knowing many JET participants and hoping to apply for the program in the future, I see this film as a testament to Taylor and her family’s resilience. It’s a very moving portrayal and inspires people that despite everything one should never give up on their dreams.

Touching on similar themes, JAPAN CUTS presents the North American premiere of DOCUMENTARY OF AKB48: Show must go on. Japan’s pop music phenomenon AKB48, which boasts nearly 100 members, finds ways to give back to those in need in the months after 3/11. With some members hailing from Sendai (the largest city in the Tohoku region), the group tours the area and establishes the “A Project for Someone”, where they donate funds to the Tohoku region.

With three of JAPAN CUTS’ 24 feature films this year focusing on 3/11, it is evident the impact the devastation continues to have on Japan, from hardship to hope (related: Japan Society maintains regular updates of the recovery work funded by the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund). These films offer an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heartrending, often painful, but ultimately transforming stories that come from those experiencing and ultimately overcoming tragedy.

--Susan Berhane

Taylor Anderson and friend.

Images: (Top) DOCUMENTARY OF AKB48 No flower without rain © 2012 AKS Inc. / TOHO CO., LTD. / AKIMOTO YASUSHI, Inc. / North River Inc. / NHK Enterprises, Inc.  All Rights Reserved. (Bottom) Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story © 2012 Global Film Network All rights reserved.

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