Japan Cuts 2018: The Auteur Parade
This year’s lineup of the always-impressive Japan Cuts brought the North American premiere of the most interesting and long-awaited Japanese films of last year, as well as showcasing new talent that has been part of festivals of the first half of 2018 all over the world. But the most surprising element is the presence of the latest films of three important and established auteurs that are still actively working, and how they function as what’s been called “old man’s cinema.”
Nobuhiko Obayashi, Kazuo Hara, and Takeshi Kitano all had films at the festival that showed their mastery and experience that they’ve accumulated through the decades. Their films, which are highly impassioned and personal efforts, feel like summaries of their careers. Because of their age and the slow rate of their output (it might even be the last film for at least one of these masters, although I’m not killing them off), these works also feel like fitting farewells.
In the case of Kitano’s Outrage Coda (2017), I’ve already written about it in my piece on the Mar del Plata Film Festival for this very site, in which I said that the film condenses both characters, plotlines, and images from his yakuza and non-yakuza (like Kikujiro ) works. Kitano is aware of his twilight as an artist and explores the possibility of destroying everything that built his film career by saying that this will be his last violent film, preferring more personal works, such as the ones he made in the late-aughts going forward.
Kazuo Hara’s first film in 12 years, Sennan Asbestos Disaster (2017), is a documentary in the tradition that only Hara can conjure: absolutely upfront, confrontational, and critical of the Japanese government and its lack of care for the people that have sacrificed their life for the good of society. In this case, the workers and neighbors of the asbestos factories in the city of Sennan, in the province of Osaka, who collectively sued the government for not protecting its people from the dangers of this silicate mineral. Hara follows the plaintiffs for almost ten years. Some of them bedridden and some with breathing difficulties, they talk with lawyers; rehearse the declarations they’ll say in court; and visit people who worked in the factories decades ago only to realize that they’ve died of the same diseases that many of them are still fighting, like asbestosis.
The most impressive element in its three-hour-plus runtime is how the camera is almost always handheld by Hara himself, who conducts the interviews, travels with the plaintiffs (who know him and address him directly), makes constant pans, and is even pushed around when confronted with the guards of government buildings. It is in front of these buildings that the plaintiffs gather to protest and block the government’s attempts to appeal after they lose case after case.
The documentary is heartbreaking at times as we see some of the claimants break down when they are not eligible for compensation once the settlement is agreed upon, due to arbitrary conditions, or in the end when we see pictures of all the people that died as they were waiting for a final verdict. Justice is depicted here as something that’s slow, and when it eventually comes, it appears as hypocritical and a façade. When the Prime Minister of Japan asks for forgiveness, the calculated nature of his words feels disingenuous, and the way that Hara shoots and edits these sequences shows us that, even though the affected have received money, they’re still going to die an awful and morally exhausting death.
This year’s closing film was Hanagatami (2017), the magnum opus of Nobuhiko Obayashi, cult Japanese director of Hausu (1977) and The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (1983) among other works. The film is set around the few weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, where the feelings of nationalism and a hatred of international intervention ran freely among the people, especially the adolescents, who are the protagonists. They are confronted with their first experiences of love, with troubling emotions, in which every performer conveys this excess with acting that ranges from a deepening of voices, a use of wide-eyed facial expressions, and a corporeal stillness — all of which signifies the hormonal turmoil that parallels the international turmoil happening at the edges of the story.
Hanagatami’s visual style is decidedly and strikingly Brechtian; the movie starts with a man writing down the tale that we’re about to see at the same time as we glimpse Obayashi’s director chair, signaling that this might be a written tale (it’s adapted from a novel by Kazuo Dan), but warning us that it’s purely a visual film as the set rotates, showing new elements that were hidden in the corners. Then the film changes to black-and-white, adding an iris shot (recalling silent cinema) as the protagonist ponders on top of a crag over the sea whether he’s brave enough to jump. The film changes once more to color, now placing its characters on sound stages even if the action occurs outside, using chroma key to add backgrounds, in this case the location of a small seaside town: giant bright moon over the sea, huge crashing waves, and red sunsets over the shore.
In many ways Hanagatami reminded me of The Night Across the Street (2012), the last film by the late Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, as they are both literary adaptations made by visually striking filmmakers that set their tales around the time when they were young; use a color palette dominated by reds, oranges, and browns; and even situate their films in seaside towns. Like Ruiz, it’s as if Obayashi were signaling a goodbye (that luckily hasn’t happened yet, he’s still alive even with a diagnosed cancer, and he’s planning on directing a new movie) by going back to his infancy and youth, when the personality and moral is built, to present himself bare as a sentimentally acute man that has had his career obscured by his original and wacky style. These examples of “old man’s cinema” are the clear distillation of a full life not only related to cinema but to the most civilized of values: peace and compassion.
Japan Cuts 2018 ran from July 19 to July 29 at New York City’s Japan Society.