Tuesday, July 1, 2014

JAPAN CUTS Genre Genetics: Diversifying the DNA of Japanese Film

Snow White Murder Case © 2014 “Snow White Murder Case” Production Committee

“Film genre in Japan could, and often is, thought of in terms of the nation’s much discussed ‘Galápagos syndrome,’” said Joel Neville Anderson, curator for JAPAN CUTS 2014, which boasts an especially diverse selection of films, ranging from outré thrillers and comedies to dramas and documentaries reflecting social issues.

He's referring to the phenomenon where many Japanese products have been developing differently from the rest of the world due to Japan's geographical and cultural isolation, much like the unique wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.

The majority of Japanese film productions, said Anderson, evolved from pre-existing manga, novels, or plays. And even the original productions have a quality that many perceive to be distinctly Japanese – such as the peculiar, off-the-wall comedy, sophisticated sword fights, and raw, gut-churning thrillers and horror films.

However, there are some signs of change: international films have slowly but surely been influencing the Galapagosized Japanese films.

“While the industry may appear to develop and mature independently, there is and always has been considerable influence from and on foreign cinemas,” Anderson said.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the thriller/action films of JAPAN CUTS 2014, running July 10-20 at Japan Society.


"This year foreign influence is especially evident in two impressive remakes, " said Anderson, "Hideo Nakata’s supernatural thriller Monsterz adapted from the Korean film Haunters, as well as Sang-il Lee’s Unforgiven, a samurai-Western adapted from Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed original." Another example is Man from Reno, a Japanese and American co-production of a gender-flipped, fresh look into film noir.

Monsterz (Jul 13) is a paranormal thriller involving a mind-bending man, and Shuichi, the only one mysteriously unaffected by this power. Unforgiven (Jul 15) is the remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, where the American West changes to Meiji-era Japan and a former samurai, after having sworn off his sword, goes on one more mission he can’t refuse. Man from Reno (Jul 19) is a Japanese-American film that reverses the gender roles of a typical thriller movie, with a female crime novelist visiting San Francisco becoming involved in a series of events after a night with a handsome stranger.

Other notable movies, all co-presented with action-thriller purveyors at the New York Asian Film Festival, include The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (Jul 10), about an undercover cop infiltrating a yakuza gang, The Snow White Murder Case (Jul 11) follows a mysterious murder which blows out of proportion from social media exposure. Miss Zombie (Jul 12) follows a zombie who works for a family and is exploited, and then have the tables turned against them. All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa (Jul 13) is reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel as it follows an appraiser and a magazine editor who must solve a mystery threat to steal the Mona Lisa.


“Melodramatic form has recently received new forms of mass-spectatorship through the online streaming of television dramas from Japan, Korea, and greater East Asia; however melodramas were a cornerstone of the golden age of Japanese cinema in the postwar period,” Anderson said.

My Little Sweet Pea (Jul 19) follows an aspiring anime voice actor tracing her long-lost mother’s life as her mother suddenly returns to her life and leaves just as abruptly. Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (Jul 20) show a heartwarming story of a middle-aged manga artist looking after his senile mother and looking back at her life. The Extreme Sukiyaki (Jul 16) is a slice of life movie with four aimless friends going on a trip to the beach with just a sukiyaki bowl.

“Films such as My Little Sweet Pea and Pecoross address new changes in contemporary society, such as divides in urban and rural life, youth aspirations in anime and the entertainment industry, divorce, as well as aging society and care for elders,” Anderson said.


Even in the uniquely absurd brand of Japanese comedy films, the keyword appears to be “variety”. A notable comedic movie is Neko Samurai (sold out), where a lone samurai is assigned to assassinate a white cat, but fails and befriends it, causing him to be roped into a feud between cat lovers and dog lovers. 

“This year we celebrate the incredible versatility of international star Kazuki Kitamura, who goes from playing sinister to heroic to comical roles with seeming ease,” Anderson said, as he stars in the mystery thriller Man from Reno, the comedic Neko Samurai, as well as the festival’s surprise screening of the Indonesian-Japanese horror-thriller Killers.

Hello! Junichi (Jul 20) is a coming-of-age story of a third-grader and his friends who put on a concert with the help of their apprentice teacher. “Hello! Junichi is a fantastic mash-up of genre and influences, as director Katsuhito Ishii takes the humor of his previous films specifically for adult audiences Funky Forest: The First Contact and The Taste of Tea and perfectly adapts to a story that's incredibly fun for cinephiles of all ages.”

As for comedic films with an unusually dark or erotic twist, check out Maruyama, the Middle Schooler (Jul 11) following Maruyama, a sex-crazed boy who injures himself after attempting “self-fellatio”, and with a new neighbor in town and mysterious incidents, he reimagines his surroundings as a manga-like fantasy world. Greatful Dead (Jul 18), follows Nami, a woman who takes selfies next to dead, lonely elders, sent to a murderous rage after a lonely old man she was prizing finds a new life with Christian volunteers. The Passion (Jul 18) is about Frances-ko, a woman raised in a convent longing to know about love and sex, but after calling out a sign from above, finds a human-faced growth between her legs that constantly insulting her, and she tries to adapt to her new situation.

Check-out the full JAPAN CUTS 2014 lineup for more on these films, and even more genre favorites.

--Younjoo Sang

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