Thursday, February 4, 2021

Japan Society's "21st Century Japan: Films 2001 - 2020": Feb 5 - 25 | Virtual Festival Exhibition



This past year saw film festival organizers respond to the pandemic in a variety of ways. Generally by cancelling altogether, optimistically postponing, or moving proceedings online. Select festivals and independent theaters took up the baton early in their scheduling by moving their programming onto various web portals, which allowed the savvy viewer to attend (in quotes) through virtual theatrical settings. These actions salvaged the cancelled 2020 edition of Cannes, which was then redistributed to festivals in New York, Toronto, and elsewhere as the global festival community collaborated in restructuring their curation. More specifically, many of the "Asia-themed Film Festivals Migrate Online Amid Coronavirus Pandemic", and programming like San Francisco's Japan Film Festival, and Japan Society's New York Japan Cuts festival, continued their role during the pandemic as standard-bearers for the issuance of quality film from Japan. This was also mirrored in examples seen in European settings like Frankfurt's excellent Nipppon Connection. All of which presented their usual array of new and cutting edge cinema in the unusual setting of an online platforms in 2020. For further reading, The Japan Times feature highlights the unexpected convergence of quality and volume on offer from the latter, "Frankfurt's Nippon Connection Brings Together an Extensive Collection of Japanese Films". There's also no shortage of excellence presented annually by Japan Society's North American setting of, "Japan Cuts Film Festival at Japan Society Emphasizes the Eccentric". Year in and year out, the festival offers "Asian Cinema That Pauses for Reflection", "Life in the No-Go Zone of Fukushima and Two Views on Husbandry", "The Hard Road of the Japanese Documentary Maker", and generally an expansive representation of, "The Best of Contemporary Japanese Cinema".

These various festivals continue to represent and offer a bounty of cinema over the course of the two decades since the Japanese cinema explosion of the 1990s. The directors who led that wave; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase, and Takashi Miike,are still among the industry's most high profile faces on the international festival circuit. Contemporaneously, a new generation of filmmakers are also making themselves heard. Though one is hard-pressed to see the abundance offered by these voices in domestic theaters. Particularly regionally here in the northwest as we have seen a significant dropoff of such titles in the programming offered in the once-abundant Seattle International Film Festival. Make no mistake, while there is a dearth to be seen on domestic screens, this is not representative of the volume and quality still issuing from Japanese film culture. Taste of Cinema's 2017 overview goes some way to assert this, with their substantial serving offered in the "The 25 Best Japanese Movies of The 2010s (So Far)". 2015 was a standout year for this set of rising new directors, it saw the domestic release of Shunji Iwai's disorienting urban drama, "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle", Ryusuke Hamaguchi's 5-hour domestic tranquility stunner, "Happy Hour", and Koji Fukada taking home the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes for “Harmonium”. In many regards, this "New Wave of Japanese Filmmakers Matches the Old". Of them, it could be said that "Fukada’s Filmmaking is a Breath of Fresh Air" following most explicitly in the footsteps of Kiyoshi Kurosawa in his darkly pessimistic take on the concerns that comprise modern Japanese life. It is not long before it becomes clear that, "In ‘Harmonium,’ a Family has Let the Wrong One In". There have also been strong returns offered by "Sion Sono's Set of Films That Don’t Fit His Bad-Boy Label", and Takahisa Zeze's miraculous transformation seen in "The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine", offering up a whole new array of concerns around, "Takahisa Zeze's Crime, Punishment, and Transcendence".

Which brings us to Japan Society's newly launched virtual cinema platform and their curated overview of  "21st Century Japan: Films 2001 - 2020". Spanning some 30 titles, from the first two decades of the 21st century, their overview acts as both an excellent primer for the uninitiated, as well as a deeper delving into the works of numerous directors who's work received scant theatrical screenings stateside. Many of the aforementioned directors are represented, including Yoji Yamada's fresh yet classical take on the period drama seen in, "The Twilight Samurai", more tempered representations of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's cinema of unease, found in "Bright Future", "Real", and his later, "Journey to the Shore". Sharing thematic concerns with the Kurosawa, Naomi Kawase's "Still the Water" stands as one of contemporary cinema's most vital explorations of a loved one's end-of-life preparations. Japanese cinema's great provocateur, Takashi Miike is incongruously represented here by one of his children's films "The Great Yokai War", and their maker of muted-yet-nimble familial melodramas Hirokazu Kore-eda is seen in equally unusual form with "Air Doll". Tales of youth and developing self determination and independence are represented by Nobuhiro Yamashita's "The Drudgery Train", Yuki Tanada's "One Million Yen Girl", and through the lense of magic realist nostalgia in Ryuichi Hiroki's "The Miracles of the Namiya General Store". Psychological thrillers make up no small volume of the series, with Miwa Nishikawa "Sway", Tetsuya Nakashima revenge drama, "Confessions", Kazuya Shiraishi's "The Devil’s Path", and contemporary neo-noir in Yukiko Mishima's "Shape of Red". More unquantifiable is Kiyoshi Kurosawa protege, Yui Kiyohara's inexplicable and excellent directorial debut, "Our House", and the brazenly tongue in cheek commentary on the Japanese film industry found in "Red Post on Escher Street" by the hyper-prolific Sion Sono. The toughest of the films on offer will be Shinya Tsukamoto's hard-as-diamond remake of Kon Ichikawa's "Fires on the Plain", which six decades later still watches as one of the most unflinching condemnations of war and nationalism ever dedicated to the screen.