Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Turning Japanese

Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film
Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street
July 2–13, 2008

Kon Ichikawa's
Murder of the Inugami Clan
Now in its second year, the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film is fast emerging as a prominent local survey of international cinema. Seventeen New York premieres are on the schedule at the Japan Society from July 2 through 13 , among them some intriguing, tough-minded films with pertinent, compelling social and political commentary.

Still, what distinguishes this year’s lineup is a tribute to master director Kon Ichikawa, who died in February at age 92 after a brilliant career of nearly 90 films, including such classics as Fire on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, Enjo, Odd Obsession, and Tokyo Olympiad.

The festival remembers Ichikawa with screenings of two films: The Inugami Family (1976), a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery that became a huge box-office hit in Japan, spawning several lesser but lucrative sequels; and Ichikawa’s final film, his own remake of the earlier hit, retitled Murder of the Inugami Clan (2006). At the time, Ichikawa talked of improvements in CGI effects that would make certain scenes better. But the remake is nearly identical to the original, lacking only the hysterical humor and offbeat perspective of Ichikawa’s detective hero -- played in both films by the same actor, Koji Ishizaka, who is far more entertaining in the earlier one.

Also part of the Ichikawa tribute is an affectionate documentary by director Shunji Iwai: Filmful Life consists almost entirely of still photos, clips from several Ichikawa films, and intertitles that spell out the narration. Iwai covers the master’s career through his long relationship with Yumiko Mogi, whom Ichikawa married and who scripted several of his greatest films. It’s a touching story that ended only when she succumbed to cancer in 1983.

A prize winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest is the opening night presentation of Japan Cuts. Visually stunning but emotionally stunted, Kawase’s drama largely fails in its earnest attempt to be a metaphorical journey through the various stages of grief. Far more satisfying is Nobuhiro Yamshita’s A Gentle Breeze in the Village, a low-key, coolly observant teenage love story that introduces a sophisticated city boy into a circle of friends at a small-town elementary school.

Finally, there are the two most politically engaged films in the series. Yasukuni, a controversial documentary by Li Ying, visits Tokyo’s Tasukuni Shrine -- site of the spirits of millions of Japanese war dead, including war criminals from World War II -- for a sobering exploration of how people and groups of various political stripes have claimed the place as their own. United Red Army is Koji Wakamatsu’s epic exploration of how 1960s political unrest led to the bloody “Asama Mountain Lodge Incident” of 1972, in which members of the extreme-left group, holed up in the mountains for guerilla-style training, were eventually undone by bitter infighting and the arrival of the police for a final shoot-out.

At more than three hours in length, United Red Army is an enormous test of patience for American viewers; but Wakamatsu staged, shot and edited the film with such enormous skill that, when the dramatic payoff arrives, it’s devastating.

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