Wednesday, July 16, 2014

DEEP CUTS: The Head and Heart of JAPAN CUTS 2014

© 2013 “Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days” Production Committee

A selection of films from JAPAN CUTS 2014 (through July 20) provides deep,  illuminating commentary on contemporary Japanese society, from social shifts and inequalities to the ramifications of natural disasters.

More than three years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis continues, with the amount of radiation and its effects still a subject of much debate.

The burakumin were a lower social caste that traditionally dealt with butchering and other professions dealing with death. Although the caste system was abolished in the 19th century, many still face discrimination even today.

Two powerful documentaries in the JAPAN CUTS lineup examine these disparate, divisive issues. Particularly fascinating is how both films use animals to tell their stories, notes festival programmer Joel Neville Anderson.

“Nonhuman beings’ appearance on film and television is often relegated to anthropomorphism, in which they are observed for qualities shared with people,” he said. “However, in Yoju Matsubayashi’s Horses of Fukushima and Aya Hanabusa’s Tale of a Butcher Shop, animals (horses and cows, respectively), feature specifically as animals. They are approached with respect for their long history living alongside humans and contemporary intersection with tragedies precipitated by the nuclear power industry, as well as the prolonged discrimination of oppressed communities of people.”

The Horses of Fukushima, which screened yesterday follows rancher Shinichiro Tanaka’s horse, Mirror’s Quest, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Tanaka takes in his surviving horses from Fukushima despite the government’s order to kill them, and cares for Mirror’s Quest and the other horses exposed to radiation.

Tale of a Butcher Shop (Jul 19) follows the Kitade family, who has been running a butcher shop for seven generations, and their struggles to stay afloat as corporate supermarkets threaten their business. At the same time it is a look into burakumin issues as the family participates in the buraku liberation movement.

Another significant aspect of social relations that comes to light in this year's JAPAN CUTS is the tension between rural and urban life in Japan. People – especially youth – increasingly leave rural towns for schools and jobs in the city, and those living in the countryside face issues of both aging populations and competition with urban areas.

While the lighthearted comedy Wood Job!, which screened last weekend, follows a high school graduate who leaves the city to attend a one-year forestry program in Kamusari, the sprawling drama The Tale of Iya (Jul 20) tells a more common story.

The film depicts a rural community in Iya Valley that is shrinking and seeing a traditional lifestyle threatened by modern society. Haruna, a high school student living with her grandfather in the town, has to choose whether to stay or move to the city after finishing school.

“Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s Tale of Iya is remarkable not only for the dwindling community it is set in – in which scarecrows outnumber people – but also for the means by which the film was produced,” Anderson said.

“The director is a strong proponent of shooting on 35mm, and it shows beautifully in this epic work, with wonderfully composed frames and performers’ movements orchestrated in coordination with the camera. The film’s haunting and hopeful images of a landscape nearly emptied of people is perfect for this story of family life in transformation.”

Equitable treatment of women in the Japanese workforce has been a much discussed talking point in Prime Minister Abe's controversial economic growth plan. So it's serendipitous that JAPAN CUTS 2014 features five films directed or co-directed by women, the largest number of female directors in the history of JAPAN CUTS.

However, the increasing presence of working women is juxtaposed with the still-vulnerable position of women in Japanese society, as shown in the protagonist of 0.5mm (Jul 17), a home helper named Sawa, who loses her job and survives by taking advantage of older men and accessing their wealth.

“Momoko Ando’s 0.5mm expands from this seemingly simple premise to become a massive, by turns profound and hilarious journey across Japan’s embattled sexual landscape,” Anderson said. “But to reduce this work to such synopsizing does not do justice to the experience of watching, as 0.5mm continually shifts in tone, changing and changing until it reaches a profound depth few films touch.”

Japan's aging population and general population woes are much reported, but there is so more to the story than quarterly figures. In Pecoross' Mother and Her Days (July 20), one such story follows middle-aged manga artist/singer-songwriter/salaryman Yuichi, who watches out for his elderly mother, a constant source of comic energy and annoyance. As Yuichi decides whether to install her in a home for the elderly, the film jumps back in time to show her life in the tumult of the latter half of the 20th century--being raised as one of 10 brothers and sisters, surviving the war, and having to push her alcoholic husband along in life.

Pecoross’ is directed by the oldest active film director in Japan, Azuma Morisaki (b. 1927), who creates an emotionally complex work that is only the more profound and life-affirming for its seemingly lighthearted portrayal. As Anderson notes, “Another consummate two-hanky melodrama, Pecoross’ swept 2013’s prestigious film magazine awards, honored with best Japanese film by Kinema Junpo and Eiga Geijutsu.”

While they may not show all sides of the issues, and while they may raise more questions than answers, films such as these engender a conversation about important social issues affecting Japan and the world at large. Check-out the full JAPAN CUTS 2014 lineup for all these films and more.

--Younjoo Sang

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