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February 26, 2013

Focus on Japanese Cinema - 2013


Having a short festival devoted to Japanese film just two days after the death of Donald Richie was purely coincidental. There would probably not be a festival such as this without his books that introduced most westerners to Japanese film. Richie has his own brief connection to the Denver Film Society, having presented Akira Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth as part of the Denver International Film Festival, about twenty years ago. Considering how rare it is to see Japanese movies, classic or contemporary, in Denver, this third Focus, at the society's Sie theater, has struck a pretty good balance of unfamiliar films by acknowledged masters as well as films by some younger filmmakers.

The series began with Kaneto Shindo's final film, Postcard (Ichimai no hagaki). A look at how World War II affected two men and their respective families, veers from impassioned passionate anti-war drama, to broad comedy, to a sweet, and sunny ending. There is an element of autobiography with one of the families eking out a living as wheat farmers. There is a remarkable scene with a group of sixty sailors, about to board a ship for the Philippines. We never see the ship, only the sailors as a group emerging in and out of the darkness. There are no scenes of battle, but actress Shinobu Ohtake, as the woman widowed twice by war, makes the horrors of war palpable with her performance.


Hanezu (Hanezu no tsuki) was my first opportunity to see a film by Naomi Kawase. It's the kind of film that defies easy description being part documentary, visual poem, and drama. Filmed in Nara Prefecture, the film alternates between past, the World War II era, and the present, with two stories about love gone bad, Repeated several times is part of a poem referring to a mythical time when the mountains rivaled each other for love. Concurrently in the contemporary portion is the very real excavation project of Japan's oldest capital. The title refers to a shade of red, which figures at several points throughout the film.

Programmer Brit Withey seemed a bit apologetic for including Japan's biggest hit of last year, Thermae Romae in the program. Based on the manga by Mari Yamazaki, the film was certainly a crowd pleaser. Mostly about a bathhouse designer from Imperial Rome who unexpectedly gets sucked in a whirlpool that leads to present day Japan, the film is an enjoyable mix of screwball comedy and romance. As the Roman Lucius, Hiroshi Abe gamely is seen nude in several scenes, while Aya Ueta as Mami, the aspiring young manga artist, is the perfect comic foil. One of the delightful anachronisms is the periodic appearance of Walter Roberts lip synching as a less than attentive Pavorotti stand-in. Not surprisingly, a sequel is in the works.

Also manga based was Sion Sono's Himizu. The film was a last minute substitute for The Land of Hope. For myself, I simply liked the opportunity to see a film by Sono on the big screen. Sono rewrote the screenplay to incorporate scenes of the effects of the disasters that hit northern Japan in March 2011. The physical ruptures of the country play against the ruptures of the respective families of the fourteen year old Sumida and Keiko. Thematically, the film is consistent with Sono's past portraits of disaffected youth. It is also an admittedly difficult film to watch with scenes of children brutalized emotionally, if not always physically, by their parents. Unexpected was the heart wrenching extended traveling shot with the young actors Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido running towards the camera, with Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" on the soundtrack.

Shohei Imamura's documentary, A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu) is a study of truth, reality and memory. The film begins as simply as a documentary about an office worker who has seemingly disappeared with no trace. Produced in conjunction with the Art Theater Guild, there are several avant-garde moments, notably involving a medium who claims to speak on behalf of the missing man. It is eventually revealed that the missing man has had a history of embezzlement, and that his relationships with his fiancee and her sister may have been complicated by infidelities. The man was last seen in northern Japan, and a scene of Imamura and the fiancee in a snowy locale made me think of Seicho Matsumoto's Zero Focus, a 1959 novel about a woman who seeks her newly wed husband who has disappeared in snow country. The man disappeared in 1963, and Imamura made his film in 1965. It may be coincidental, but it is tantalizing to think that there may be some connections here.

I wasn't able to cover all of this festival. Spread over two parts, Kyoshi Kurosawa's 300 minute Penance was programmed too late for someone dependent on limited public transportation after Midnight. I am certain that like most other Kurosawa films, this will get a DVD release in the near future. Blizzard conditions kept me from seeing two other Imamura documentaries, Karayuki-San: The Making of a Prostitute and In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers. Sorry, but I just don't have it in me to stand in the snow and wind for an hour and a half bus ride each way.

Considering the meager attendance of most of these films, I have to wonder about future programming. Are Denver area audiences only interested in coming out for familiar classics that can just as easily be seen with DVD player and a subscription to Netflix? For myself, I'm satisfied to have taken advantage of seeing a few more films that previously I could only read about.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 26, 2013 08:07 AM