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The Female Gaze in Japan

Chieko Baisho in Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 (2022)

Akiko Ohku, a prolific director of popular comedies, will be in New York on Friday when her latest feature, Wedding High, opens The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from Japan Cuts and Beyond. The series presented by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and New York’s Japan Society is a wide-ranging sampler of contemporary films written, produced, and/or directed by women, and it includes as well two new 4K restorations of features directed by Kon Ichikawa and written by female screenwriters.

In Wedding High, Ryoko Shinohara plays “a spark plug of a wedding planner,” as Mark Schilling puts it in the Japan Times. “Both she and her staff are dedicated to giving newlyweds the ideal wedding, even when their clients are driving them nuts with impossible demands. In this respect, Wedding High resembles the many Japanese movies in which a team unites to earnestly overcome obstacles, while delivering a collective shoutout to the organization men (and women) in the audience. The film differs in being light on its feet and even laugh-out-loud funny.”

On the opposite end of the generic scale, we find Conflagration (1958), a film Ichikawa considered to be one of his best. Cowritten with his frequent collaborator—and wife—Natto Wada, the tragic tale is an adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A monk with a stutter is humiliated by his peers and sets fire to their monastery. Conflagration “examines the spiritual and moral disintegration of a young man obsessed with beauty but shunned by society,” wrote Hayley Scanlon in 2016.

Ichikawa’s Her Brother was named the best film of 1960 by the prestigious magazine Kinema Jumpo. Screenwriter Yoko Mizuki, known for her work with Mikio Naruse on Floating Clouds (1955) and with Masaki Kobayashi on Kwaidan (1965), adapted the novel by Aya Koda. Her Brother “cools the typically overheated juvenile delinquent drama into surely the most genteel example of that genre ever made,” wrote Bruce Bennett for Film Comment in 2019. The film is “a careful, meticulous spelunking into the hidden character depths within a self-destructive family.”

Chie Hayakawa’s quietly dystopian Plan 75, the winner of a Camera d’Or Special Mention at Cannes earlier this year and Japan’s horse in the race for the Best International Feature Oscar, will close out the series on November 20. Chieko Baisho plays Michi, a maid who has lost her job and decides to sign up for Plan 75. For a modest reward, she will euthanize herself.

“With stinging precision, Hayakawa reveals a culture that seems almost mobilized to push corporately assisted suicide on those who are a burden to health care and financial systems,” writes Diego Semerene at Slant. “Because so much of Hayakawa’s film is given over to depictions of the procedures, formalities, and impersonal administration that define Plan 75, even the tiniest spark of feeling comes as a relief. In that sense, Michi’s subplot is especially captivating, and for the way that Hayakawa avoids sentimentality, treating the timid possibilities of a connection between human beings that’s beyond the register of a transaction with the utmost care.”

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