JQ Magazine: Film Review — JAPAN CUTS 2017 at Japan Society

Neko Atsume House, starring Atsushi Ito and an army of kitties, makes its East Coast premiere at Japan Society July 16.
(Neko Atsume House © 2017 Hit-Point:Neko Atsume House Production Committee)

By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle has completed a masters program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association of New York since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York Citybased soccer team.

The 11th edition of JAPAN CUTS, the Japan Society of New York’s extensive showcase of new Japanese cinema, premieres tomorrow (July 13) for 11 days of unique programming, special guests, and the chance to see exclusive North American releases. This year’s lineup—29 films in all—demonstrates the wide variety of Japan’s contemporary cinematic space. The programming runs the gamut from documentaries to shoestring independents, old classics and mainstream blockbusters. A handful of films were made available for JQ press screenings; here are some notable selections:

Neko Atsume House (July 16, 12:00 p.m.): Based on a popular smartphone game, this film deals with writer’s block in a most unique way. When the novelist-protagonist Sakumoto-san (Atsushi Ito) finds himself faced with his profession’s most dreaded dilemma, he accepts an assignment to write a series of horror novels—a major step backward for this once-celebrated author. In order to solve his predicament, he adopts the old cliché of secluding himself in a country house for creative inspiration. What follows is a thoroughly unexpected delight of a movie as he makes friends with a multitude of friendly felines with whom he bonds.

At the Terrace (July 16, 6:45 p.m.): Kenji Yamauchi adapts his play for the screen, in what can best be described as a Japanese Whos Afraid of Virginia WoolfThis dialogue-heavy film finds a group of guests drinking into the night. As the alcohol makes its way through their systems, the characters let down their guard and inhibitions and make confrontational and incriminating accusations against one another. The veneer of civility gradually dissipates until the carnal desires and petty jealousies take over the proceedings. In the process, Yamauchi skewers the pretensions of Japan’s professional and bourgeois class.

Haruneko (July 16, 8:45 p.m.): Dealing with the Japanese fascination with death is first-time director Soro Hakimoto’s Haruneko, a tale set at a forest café where people come to die. In some ways, the setting reminds one of the infamous “suicide forest” at the base of Mt. Fuji, another place for a similar purpose. Unlike that real location, Hakimoto creates an ambience that can only be described as “melancholy mysticism” as the café manager, young boy and an old woman guide their visitors into the deep woods to dissolve into the ether. This film debut serves as a harbinger of great things to come from Hakimoto, who establishes himself as Japan’s answer to the great Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives).

West North West (July 22, 4:15 p.m.): Director Takuro Nakamura presents one of the most though-provoking and provocative films of the series. His film dares to explore an LGBTQ love triangle between the punkish Japanese Kei (Hanae Kan) and the religiously devoted Naima (Sahel Rosa), an exchange student from Iran. Confounding the unorthodox relationship is Kei’s xenophobic and anti-Islamic girlfriend Ai (Yuka Yamauchi). In its social commentary, the film echoes Stephen Frears’ classic My Beautiful Laundrette, in its exploration of LGBTQ romance against a backdrop of racial bigotry and tension. Nakamura’s staid and steady direction effortlessly places the non-traditional triangle against the conservative complacency of Japan’s tradition social structure.

ANTI-PORNO (July 22, 10:30 p.m.): In the 1970s, Nikkatsu studios produced a number of soft-core porn films for the domestic market. Director Sion Sono’s ANTI-PORNO subversively works against the conventions of these Nikkatsu “pink” films and transgresses them in mind-boggling ways. The story reads as an S&M version of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, as Kyoko (Ami Tomite) terrorizes her subservient assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui), who is sadistically kept on a leash. Sono also uses a bright, primary color palette full of blinding reds and yellows, the kinkiness of which rivals any Almodovar film.

JAPAN CUTS 2017 runs from July 13-23 at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, in New York City. For this year’s complete schedule and tickets, click here.

For more JQ film reviews, click here.