Japan Cuts 2024

Mirai Moriyama in Kei Chika-ura’s Great Absence (2023)

A little over a year ago, Japan Society in New York presented the first retrospective in North America surveying the work of Shinji Somai. Active in the 1980s and ’90s, Somai, who died in 2001, was admired by such fellow filmmakers as Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa but barely known at the time in the West. On July 19, Japan Society will screen a new restoration of Somai’s Moving (1993) as part of Japan Cuts 2024, a showcase of more than thirty films opening today and running through July 21.

In a primer on Somai for the BFI, Josh Slater-Williams calls Moving “the ideal starting point” and notes that it “centers around a young girl called Renko (an incredible performance from Tomoko Tabata), who begins acting out in light of her parents’ messy divorce. The domestic drama morphs into something altogether more elemental and abstract in its incredible final half hour, set around a countryside fire festival.”

Tabata will take part in a Q&A following the screening, and the Japan Cuts lineup features two more revivals. “Few movies have ever convinced me of a director’s genius like Mermaid Legend, perhaps because few climaxes have ever made my jaw drop with such force,” writes Nick Newman at the Film Stage, where Toshiharu Ikeda’s 1984 feature is one of eight titles the staff recommends catching this year. “Though there are many works that resemble it from the outside,” writes Newman, Mermaid Legend “is the perfect vision, and the fortieth-anniversary restoration suggests a new entry in the canon.”

At ScreenAnarchy, Dustin Chang also recommends eight films, including Gakuryu Ishii’s “trippy” August in the Water (1995). “Taking on the grand theme of all life on earth originating from somewhere else in the universe, with technology taking over human form, and computer chips replacing human consciousness, therefore removing the need for physical bodies, the film charts very much in the territory of William Gibson and J. G. Ballard,” writes Chang.

Ishii will be in New York to discuss August in the Water as well as his latest film, The Box Man, an adaptation of Kobo Abe’s 1973 novel about a man who wears a cardboard box. “Abe’s book is a stunning addition to the literature of eccentricity, those bitter, crying voices of Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener and Dostoevsky’s underground man,” wrote Jerome Charyn in his 1974 review for the New York Times. “Abe had seen my films and liked them,” Ishii told Mark Schilling in Variety in February when The Box Man premiered in Berlin. Abe “wanted the film of the novel to be entertaining, so we tried to create a sophisticated cinematic fusion of the novel’s essence and the entertainment elements.”

This year’s roster of special guests includes Mirai Moriyama, the winner of this year’s Cut Above Award. He costars with Shuri in Shadow of Fire (2023), the latest film from Shinya Tsukamoto, whose first feature, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), is a cyberpunk classic. Tsukamoto will take part in a Q&A with Moriyama.

Shadow of Fire is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and writing for Screen, Wendy Ide calls it “a bruising and timely reminder that war is not just about geopolitical muscle flexing, it is about ordinary people piecing back together the shattered fragments of minds and bodies, about a society that has crumbled to a kind of savage subsistence. It is not an easy watch, but, driven by performances that range from haunting and affecting to terrifying and grotesque, it is a powerful one.”

In Kei Chika-ura’s Great Absence (2023), which Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, calls a “quietly tectonic heartbreaker,” Moriyama stars alongside Tatsuya Fuji, the winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Starting on July 19, New York’s Metrograph will spotlight Fuji with a series that includes films by Nagisa Oshima and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Takeshi Kitano’s Kubi (2023) is “a frantic, blood-drenched, star-studded historical epic that has more beheadings per minute than any feature film I’ve seen in a while,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “‘It’s rare for a director to get wilder as they age,’ observed my friend, the filmmaker Paul Duane, recently when discussing Kitano. When we talk of ‘late style,’ we generally think of movies that are stripped-down, austere, deliberately paced; Kitano seems to be going in the opposite direction, god bless him.”

At Filmed in Ether, a site whose name references Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), Natalie Ng talks with Iwai about Kyrie, starring Aina the End as a street musician who is mourning the the loss of her mother and sister and can only communicate through song. “At 178 minutes, the film is sprawling, yet its character-driven storytelling is highly immersive and will keep you hooked as we delve into not just Kyrie’s story, but the people that have shaped her life,” writes Ng.

On the Projection Booth Podcast, Japan Society Director of Film Peter Tatara and programmer Alexander Fee talk with host Mike White about the 2024 edition of Japan Cuts, which opens with the North American premiere of Masanori Tominaga’s Between the White Key and the Black Key (2023), a loose adaptation of jazz pianist Hiroshi Minami’s 2008 memoir. “Set over the course of an eventful New Year’s Eve in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1988,” writes James Hadfield in the Japan Times, “it’s a playful and peculiar film with a Möbius-strip narrative that allows its protagonist to cross paths with his older self.”

The festival will wrap with Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla: Orthochromatic (2023), a high-contrast black-and-white version of their 2016 blockbuster. “If the original 1954 Gojira was a metaphor about the atomic bomb and the destruction it visited upon Japan, Shin Godzilla feels very much like a post-9/11-and-Fukushima movie,” wrote Alonso Duralde at the Wrap when the original was crushing the Japanese box office. Anyone who has “foolishly dismissed the kaiju genre for being childish and simplistic may find themselves compelled by the ideas Shin Godzilla has to offer. Come for the city-flattening; stay for the political satire.”

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