Thursday, July 10, 2014

Japan Cuts 2014 Preview

JAPAN CUTS, a contemporary Japanese film festival provided by the venerable Japan Society, celebrates its 8th year here in NY. I got the first tastes of some of the most exciting new Japanese cinema to tell you about. After reading this, y'all mosey over to my friends at for complete coverage of Japan Cuts or visit Japan Society. Japan Cuts 2014 runs 7/10 - 7/20.

Neko Samurai
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A cute cat and a grumpy samurai...I mean, really? Japan, what took you so long?! Neko Samurai stars a mean faced ronin, Kyutaro (Kitamura Kazuki of The Raid 2, Man from Reno, Japan's Tragedy and the recipient of the Cut Above Awards at this year's Japan Cuts), looking for work in Edo. In the mean time, he ekes out a meager living making umbrellas. He is a fine swordsman but its his face that intimidates his enemies most. He is approached by a dog loving clan to assassinate a cat living in the house of a rivaling clan. The arranged marriage of two cats between the cat loving clan and shogun's will surely wipe out the dog loving clan! Kyutaro declines the job at first, but after seeing a large sum of rewards, he can't refuse. But once he sees the white cat, Tamanojoh, his heart melts. So he fakes the assassination and hides the cat in his boarding house with disastrous results - umbrellas ripped to shreds, cat pee on his bedspread...

Based on a TV series of the same name, Neko Samurai relies on its deadpan humor and of course, the adorableness of the white cat. Kitamura does a great job sustaining a straight face throughout the whole thing. Put down your swords and just look at that adorable cat's face. You will feel your murderous rage slipping away from your body. -- Dustin Chang

Japan Cuts 2014 celebrates Kitamura's career with candid introductions and Q&As for Man from Reno, Killers and Neko Samurai followed by the Japan CATS Party!

The Passion
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Frances-ko (Iwasa Mayuko) grew up in a convent. Since she is a virgin, she wants very much to have sexual experiences before she goes back to the convent when she gets old. But she doesn't really know the way of things in the world. Even though she works at a modeling agency, she has no idea how to talk to men. She asks men bluntly, "When our eyes met, did you think about having sex with me?" The answer is always no.

One day while praying, the answer comes down from below. It's a man faced tumor (hilarious Furutachi Kanji) that is attached to her vagina. He taunts her everyday, telling her how worthless she is as a woman. Now jobless, collecting garbage on the street (to be useful in some way, in her words), Frances-ko, just like anything in her life, accepts the trash talking tumor on her vagina with her typical nonchalance. She names the growth Mr. Koga and so begins an unusual symbiotic relationship between a woman and a tumor. Will Frances-ko finally find happiness?

Based on a prize winning novel of the same by Himeno Kaoruki, The Passion is a very funny and surprisingly tender film anchored by Iwasa's great performance as a naive woman who accepts the world as it comes to her.

Greatful Dead
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Touching upon ills of the society, Uchida Eiji's Greatful Dead is a dark comedy (emphasis on dark). Nami (Takiuchi Kumi), an attention starved girl grows up to be a sociopath who spies on people she calls 'solitarians' - unfortunate souls who (nearly) went mad out of loneliness. She finally finds her match in Shiomi (Sasano Takashi), a cranky elderly man and former TV star, living alone after his wife's death. She relishes obsessively on his every move through her binoculars. Things get up close and personal when Shiomi is approached by a comely Korean Christian volunteer Su-yong (Kkot-bi Kim from Breathless) who turns him into a life-affirming, bible quoting Christian. Nami can't stand losing her favorite solitarian and takes a drastic measure to reclaim her prized possession. Things turn violent, very very violent.

Uchida sets up Nami's story nicely and wins over our sympathy early on, thanks to Takiuchi Kumi's physical performance and deadly smile, only to turn it upside down later on. The growing number of shut ins and elderly people is a real problem and Uchida is not afraid of pursuing the touchy subject to extreme. It's a sickly entertaining film.

Hello! Junichi
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Ishii Katsuhito, the man behind Taste Of Tea and Funky Forest, makes an unabashedly children's movie, starring the scrumptious Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure, Sawako Decides) as a chain smoking, unorthodox teacher in training at an Elementary School.

The film features trials and tribulations of a shy and awkward 3rd grader, Junichi and his ragtag group of friends. This is the time when borrowing an animal-shaped eraser from a girl you have a crush on is as much a big deal as, I don't know, being a goalie at a World Cup shootout.

The only "Ishii-ness" comes from the dance sequence performed by Ishii regular Gashuin Tatsuya, playing once again, the weird grandfather. Extremely good natured and optimistic, Hello! Junichi is a movie for kids starring kids. If you enjoy listening to high-pitched shrills of 9 year old munchkins for 90 minutes, this movie is for you.

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