Goings On

Japan Cuts 2019

On Film / The Daily — Jul 18, 2019
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet (1998)

Japan Cuts, which the Japan Society in New York bills as the “largest festival of contemporary Japanese cinema in North America,” will premiere twenty-six features and sixteen shorts from tomorrow through July 28. While the emphasis is indeed on the contemporary and an impressive roster of young filmmakers will be introducing their latest works, the guest of honor will be Shinya Tsukamoto, who established an international cult following thirty years ago with Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

It makes perfect sense that an audiovisual essay accompanying a season of films from the 1990s in London would begin with a discussion of Tetsuo. “I felt like maybe this is one of the first movies that is genuinely about the Internet,” says Deborah Pearson, reading from a letter she supposedly sent to Daniel Cockburn in 1989. Shot on black-and-white 16 mm and depicting the transformation of a salaryman into a grotesque mesh of flesh and metal, Tetsuo was embraced by the midnight movie crowd as an instant classic of cyberpunk horror. Tsukamoto made two sequels, Body Hammer (1992) and The Bullet Man (2009), and along the way, he picked up awards for his erotic drama A Snake of June (2002) before taking Kotoko (2011) and Fires on the Plain (2014), a remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 original, to the Venice Film Festival. As an actor, Tsukamoto has appeared in films by Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer) and Martin Scorsese (Silence).


Japan Cuts will present its Cut Above award for outstanding achievement to Tsukamoto and screen his latest feature, Killing (2018), which follows a samurai wandering the Japan of the mid-nineteenth century. The festival has also asked Tsukamoto to select another film from his oeuvre to screen, and his choice is somewhat surprising. In Bullet Ballet (1998), Tsukamoto plays a commercial director on a violent spree, and the film wasn’t all that well-received when it premiered in Venice.


At RogerEbert.com, though, Simon Abrams recommends catching both features. “The juxtaposition of these two films is striking given their mutual focus on personal trauma and sexual violence,” he writes. “Both Killing and Bullet Ballet are about reality as it’s experienced by characters who feel trapped in the interminable present. These movies sound like dripping water, grating steel, and heavy breathing. They’re more about what you’re having difficulty seeing than what you can clearly survey: Tsukamoto’s nervous hand-held camera often lurches with his camera operators’ movements as they try to keep up with his shell-shocked antiheroes.”


In his overview of the thirteenth edition of Japan Cuts for the Notebook, Sean Gilman focuses on films featuring young people in cities. The best of these, he argues, is “the ensemble comedy Jeux de plage, which takes its title, as well as every one of its many chapter heading intertitles, from the name of a French movie (Rules of the Game, Vivre sa vie, À nos amours, et cetera). Explicitly in homage to the vacation films of Eric Rohmer, and by extension the complete works of Hong Sang-soo, Jeux de plage is set across a single day at a rooming house at Shonnen Beach where a variety of young people from all over East Asia come to stay at the invitation of a mysterious woman whom we never meet . . . Director Natsuto Aimi keeps things bright and light, jumping between the various characters and their interactions, which veer easily from melodrama to farce to naturalist body horror.”


ScreenAnarchy has posted a batch of previews, and at VCinema, John Atom reviews one of Abrams’s favorites from the lineup, Sayaka Kai’s debut feature Red Snow, which centers on a journalist’s investigation of the case of a boy who went missing three decades ago. Atom finds that Kai “manages to deliver an effective story that delights in its own idiosyncrasies, even if, at times, it forces the suspense by overindulging in old horror and mystery tropes.” Like ScreenAnarchy, VCinema will be posting dispatches throughout the festival, and so far, these include Jason Maher’s reviews of Lee Sato’s The Kamagasaki Cauldron War, a comedy about the theft of a cauldron used in yakuza ceremonial rites, and Toshiaki Toyoda’s The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan, the true story of a chess player whose “uplifting ending is cinematic checkmate.”

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