We continue our coverage of the 2016 JAPAN CUTS film festival with a look at three modern-day dramas. Additional information, screening schedules, and contact information for the festival can be found HERE. You can keep up with our continuing coverage of JAPAN CUTS 2016 HERE.
BURST CITY (1982)
One of my favorite parts of any film festival are the retrospectives: the handful of classic films they feature for the benefit of new generations of cineastes. They’re one of the best ways to (legally) watch obscure masterworks unavailable to the masses. I’ll never forget seeing my first Shunji Iwai films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It was an experience I’ll always treasure. As with the NYAFF, JAPAN CUTS is showcasing three classic films. Unfortunately, all three of them left me feeling sorely disappointed. First was Sogo Ishii’s Burst City (1982). I got all hot and bothered reading its description: a cyberpunk thriller part concert documentary, part teen rebellion flick, part punk manifesto. The early scenes seemed promising with their chaotic jump cuts, heavy film grain, and throbbing soundtrack. For a time it was simply enough to look at the film and its eclectic cast of drag queens, sukeban, leather freaks, salarymen, and nightstick-wielding police. But the novelty eventually wore off, stranding me with the sobering realization that I had no idea what was going on. Something about rival punk gangs trying to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant? I’m pretty sure one of the gangs—the Kikkawa Clan, I think—gets tricked into helping build the plant and enslaved. It all climaxes with a bizarre scene of the punks getting sprayed with water hoses in agonizing slow-motion. A subplot where the leader of the evil businessmen falls for a teenage prostitute goes absolutely nowhere. They inexplicably get killed and the film is none the wiser for it. All I can remember in hindsight are vignettes: punk rockers applying makeup and trampling Beatles posters on their way to the stage; a group of thugs getting fired from their day jobs and beating the crap out of their co-workers; three riot officers in rip-off Stormtrooper uniforms firing grenades into a crowd. Burst City is more interested in capturing an anarchic energy than in telling a cohesive story. Fair enough, I suppose. But to what end? The film reminds me of Ishii’s earlier film Crazy Thunder Road (1980), a stylistically audacious yet disjointed piece about rival motorcycle gangs. Both reveled in the ugliness of Japan’s cultural underbelly where its poor, unwanted, and unmotivated congeal into tight-knit, violence-prone communities. But both counter-intuitively end up saying practically nothing. As films, they are opaque curios. As time capsules of the start of a decade of economic uncertainty and turmoil in Japan, they are invaluable. But those wishing for a rewarding viewing experience will be left unsatisfied.
My disappointment continued with Junji Sakamoto’s Face (2000). Every 30-40 minutes or so, the film gets interrupted by a strange song. It’s an odd vaudeville doodad featuring what sounds like an affected European singing through the business end of an antique gramophone while someone whistles a breezy, jaunty melody. Since Sakamoto usually juxtaposes the song against frantic running or frenzied flight, I suppose these interludes exist to remind audiences that Face is at heart a dark comedy, sort of like the yodeling during the chase scenes in Joel Coen’s Raising Arizona (1987). The general premise seems tailor-made for the genre. After being incessantly bullied and abused by her sister, an overweight, homely seamstress named Masako (Naomi Fujiyama) strangles her in a fit of rage and goes on the run. Having suffered intense isolation for years, she’s completely unprepared for life on her own. She bounces around Japan under a number of assumed identities while working a number of menial jobs. But here’s the kicker: whenever Masako comes close to establishing a stable life for herself, somebody close to her unexpectedly dies a violent death. So she must flee the scenes of crimes she didn’t commit, trapped in a Sisyphean struggle worthy of Kafka (or, at the very least, O. Henry on a day he was feeling particularly saucy). The problem is that, except for the aforementioned musical numbers, Face plays the story completely straight. The film is shot, acted, and paced like a serious art film. Masako is a tragic figure, doomed to a lifetime of misery and isolation. She gets sexually assaulted twice, since apparently Sakamoto felt we wouldn’t feel sorry enough for her after just one rape. She’s repeatedly haunted by visions of her dead sister; her bloody specter taunts her in moments of weakness. She manages to find some measure of true happiness after befriending a bar owner named Ritsuko (Michiyo Ohkusu) and becoming a hostess—a delicious bit of irony considering her dead sister also worked as one. But everything gets ripped away from her once again. And once more we hear that damned music. What is Face trying to be? Let’s imagine for a moment that the music didn’t exist and the film was a pure drama. It would still seem bloated and directionless. Fujiyama is never able to properly develop Masako into a character; she spends almost the entire film silently enduring torment after torment. The few times she manages to come out of her shell are quickly curtailed by tragedy, forcing her back into her emotional prison. It’d be sad if it wasn’t so boring.
Finally we came to Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! (2001). Hashiguchi gained notoriety in Japan for his 1993 film A Touch of Fever, one of the country’s first to openly address LGBTQ+ lifestyles. As with that film, Hush! foregrounds the narrative with a young gay couple. Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) works as a veterinary assistant, grooming and nursing sick pets while his old crock of a boss force-breeds pure-bred golden retrievers. Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) lives a dreary closeted life working at a wave pool laboratory. In addition to routine abuse and bullying, he fights off the obsessive romantic advances of one of his female coworkers. After a chance meeting and hookup, Naoya and Katsuhiro move in together. But after seeing the two eating together and covertly flirting at a restaurant, a mentally unstable woman named Asako (Reiko Kataoka) approaches Katsuhiro and asks him to impregnate her. After some understandable hesitation—including an interlude where he visits his older brother’s house, leers at his undressing wife, and ponders the possibility of his being bisexual—he relents and the three move in together and form an odd, platonic ménage à trois. All this sets the stage for intense emotional development, eventually climaxing in their full maturation by the film’s end. But for a film with an ultimately uplifting ending, Hush! is painfully bleak and dreary. The film has a dim, washed out color palette that emphasizes grays and light greens of all things. The narrative lacks any momentum, slogging its way from one tedious scene to the next. Odd tidbits of plot are given considerable screen-time despite barely having any payoff. Exhibit one: Katsuhiro’s crushing co-worker. She pops up occasionally to make him very, very uncomfortable, leave, and later be bullied by Asako of all people. She doesn’t make Katsuhiro question his sexuality. Neither does she push the plot forward (you could argue that she’s responsible for Asako approaching Katsuhiro with her proposal, but that’s a piteous excuse—she already had her sights on him). She’s just…there. The film’s a battery of narcoleptic, navel-gazing misery. I can already hear its defenders: it might not be an interesting film, but it’s an important film both culturally and historically. To which I would reply that I shouldn’t have to endure tedium and boredom for the sake of art. The same goes for Burst City and Face. They don’t gain automatic immunity from criticism because of their status as classics. There are plenty of groundbreaking, culturally provocative Japanese films from Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Shunji Iwai, and the like which still hold up today. No free lunches for Hush!. I’ll call it what it is: flat, tiring, and disappointing.