Tokyo in New York

On Film / The Daily — Oct 17, 2019
Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949)

Over the next several weeks, New Yorkers will be treated to a wide range of thematic and historical perspectives on Tokyo. Starting tomorrow, Film Forum will present twenty-five films by Japanese directors, most of them from the mid-twentieth century and all of them focusing on the city’s culturally funkier eastern side. Shitamachi: Tales of Downtown Tokyo will run through November 7, and on the very next day, Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination, a series of eleven films by directors from around the world, will open at Japan Society and run through December 7.

Writing for the Notebook, Aiko Masubuchi, who has curated the Film Forum series, sketches a history of the term shitamachi, which can be translated as “downtown,” or even more literally, “low city.” It’s the part of Tokyo that runs along the Sumida River and spreads eastward through the marshier lands near the bay—as opposed to yamanote, the other half of the Japanese capital climbing west of the Imperial Palace. Unlike the boroughs of New York or the arrondissements of Paris, neither of these halves is officially mapped or administrated. “Beyond topography,” writes Masubuchi, “the two terms have carried connotations about the people” on each side and their respective lifestyles. “Yamanote was where the upper class lived, and on the contrary, shitamachi was where the lower class merchants, artisans, entertainers, prostitutes, and commoners lived.”


Making her selections and studying the history of shitamachi, Masubuchi has found the term “psychogeography,” coined, she says, by Guy Debord and further developed by Rebecca Solnit, to be a useful guide. She also began to see various narrative groupings emerge: “Stories of resistance against class oppression, against consumerism, stories of the U.S. postwar occupation, stories in solidarity with the common people, stories of the poor, and stories of the marginalized, but also stories of celebration, the arts, festivities, nostalgia for a time passed, irreverence towards authority, and, as the subtitle of film scholar Arthur Noletti Jr.’s book on director Heinosuke Gosho (Where Chimneys Are Seen, 1953) goes, stories of ‘laughter through tears.’ Perhaps due to the class implications of shitamachi, the setting seems to be fertile for humanistic and politically engaged films.”


The Japan Society series anticipates next year’s Summer Olympics, which most sports fans are referring to simply as Tokyo 2020. The oldest film in the series is Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), and while two others were made in 1983—Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Wim Wenders’s Tokyo-Ga—the bulk of the program is devoted to outsiders’ visions of the city in the twenty-first century. Of course Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), featuring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson bonding in alienation and ennui, is scheduled, but so, too, are such highlights as Abbas Kiarostami’s last fictional feature, Like Someone in Love (2012), and the New York premiere of Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC, “a self-financed micro budget meta-narrative feature about Japan’s unique ‘rent-a-family’ industry.”

On a final and admittedly barely related note, any New Yorkers looking to escape to the Japanese countryside might consider two films screening on Saturday as part of the ongoing series of ghost stories at the Museum of the Moving Image. Chuck Stephens calls Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) “a modern masterpiece of le cinéma du WTF?!” and Geoffrey O’Brien recommends Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965) as “a glimpse into some alternate zone where light falls differently on faces, time moves by a different measure, and terror blends disturbingly with beauty.”

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