By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle is entering a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University (MIA 2013) and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City-based soccer team.
Now in its seventh season, the JAPAN CUTS 2013 film festival runs from July 11-21 at Japan Society in New York and features less mainstream and more art house fare than in festivals past. JQ was able to screen three films from this year’s festival: Dreams for Sale (Yume Uru Futari), Helter Skelter (Heruta Sukeruta) and A Story of Yonosuke (Yokomichi Yonosuke).
Dreams for Sale, the most affecting of the three, tells the story of a young couple, Kanya (Sadao Abe) and Satoko (Takako Matsu), who find themselves in dire straits when their restaurant burns down to the ground. They soon realize, however, that the situation allows them to seek sympathy and romance money out of lonely singles that they encounter. This morality tale is directed in a naturalistic style by Miwa Nishiwaka. Within the director’s moving frame, the two main protagonists are allowed to express themselves both fully and in nuance as they work in tandem to bilk yen out of the unsuspecting victims.
What makes the film work so well is Nishikawa’s matter-of-fact stylistic depiction; she simply allows events to unfold naturally as the camera unobtrusively records them. At first, Kanya and Satoko’s cynical schemes have a darkly comic undertone, but gradually we, as the audience, begin to see the subtle changes that the couple undergoes as they begin to first doubt the morality of what they are doing and then doubt the strength of their own marriage and relationship. As in many great tragedies, this inner turmoil spills out into the external world as their actions have unpredictable repercussions beyond their control and affect unintended innocent victims.
Based on Shuichi Yoshida’s novel, A Story for Yonosuke introduces us to its titular character Yonosuke (Kengo Kora) as a college freshman in Tokyo in the booming 1980s, when Japan’s growing economy promised unlimited riches. Fresh from a small town in Nagasaki Prefecture, he initially comes across as a naïve comic figure, but his mix of uncalculating niceness and tenacious self-confidence allow him to ingratiate himself into the society game. The film soon sheds its fish-out-of-water comedy styling and becomes a drama about Yonosuke’s journey into adulthood. Along the way, director Shuichi Okita occasionally experiments with time by flash forwarding to the present before returning to twenty years prior. Okita and screenwriter Shiro Maeda examine some of the social problems facing the Japanese during the decline of the bubble years from the sheltered children of rich parents (ojosama) to the social nerds (otaku) and unemployed/underemployed (freeter).
Helter Skelter is the most jarring of the three films previewed. Far removed from the social dramas of the other two films, it is an exorbitant horror film with a uniquely grotesque look and feel by director Mika Ninagawa. Taking place within Tokyo’s high stakes fashion world, Helter Skelter follows the ambitious and ruthless pop star Lilico (Erika Sawajiri) who needs constant “check-ups” to keep her surgically enhanced face from receding into dark, bloody pockets of ghastly liquid. A sort of neon-punk infused version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Lilico becomes increasingly evil and murderous in her desperate attempts to maintain her beauty. Overall, these three films point to a promising JAPAN CUTS 2013 festival.
For a complete listing of this year’s JAPAN CUTS films, visit www.japansociety.org/japan-cuts-2013.