In its tenth year, Japan Cuts— North America’s largest festival of new Japanese film, held at New York’s Japan Society— wrapped up last week; following eleven days of screenings featuring some of the best cinema coming out of Japan today; as well as shorts, documentaries, and some old classics too. Diabolique checks out three of the titles screened at the festival in the first of two Japan Cuts based review features: The Whispering Star, Love & Peace and Bitter Honey.
If taken at surface value it would be easy to assume that Sion Sono’s haunting masterpiece The Whispering Star shows a marked digression away from the flamboyant excess with which he is usually identified. This said, all things considered, the film seems like a logical progression from the director’s emotive melodrama The Land of Hope (2012); focusing on the same theme of nuclear disaster, most specifically an aftermath that drives families and communities apart. Even more than this, the film follows some of Sono’s key themes as a leading auteur in contemporary Japanese cinema: the need to belong and identify, alienation, and the fragile nature of human connection through familial relationships. And it does so, not so much through the lives of those involved, but through the eyes of an A.I trying to make sense of humanity— or at least what is left of it— as she travels through space delivering a series of packages to the humans she seems to want to understand.
Starring Megumi Kagurazaka — Sono’s wife and star of a number of his films,— as artificial intelligence Yoko, the film has a limited cast which serves the main theme of desolation in the plotline well. Most of the “action” so to speak takes place on board Yoko’s rental spaceship; which resembles a traditional Japanese house externally, with the interior design indulging a kitsch retro style; complete with a hotchpotch of vintage gadgets— including a main computer that looks like a 1940’s wireless and speaks in a child’s voice, and a traditional wooden steering wheel that would look more at home on a boat. While space-centric sci-fi may usually be associated with the realm of the scientist or astronaut, and spaceships hi-tech design, Sono twists these limitations to present us with a window into another dimension: where space travel belongs to quiet unassuming female formed artificial intelligence, who devote most of their time to domesticity and mundane chores; like making tea, or sweeping the floor.
Most of the plot consists of Yoko wrapped up in her day to day routine. Sono using repetition to build a slow and steady rhythm as the narrative flows on; like constantly returning to a tap dripping or moths caught in a light fitting. This is interrupted with incidences of Yoko whispering into a tape recorder, musing over why humans— who have the ability to use teleportation— suddenly chose to wait where they were and send each other strange packages instead. The mystery deepens when she sees the contents; seemingly everyday items with no obvious value. The people she meets along her journey wait in a resigned solitude, and although Yoko appears to have no need for human contact, she does show incidences of compassion and a desire to find a connection of her own.
All I can say about this film is watch it, but with an open mind. The film is achingly beautiful in its own way, using the poetry found in loneliness and longing to gently push along to its poignant conclusion. Shot in black and white, the film only shows one single scene composed in colour as a narrative statement, and what a statement it is too. Partly filmed in the wrecked community of Fukushima— post earthquake and nuclear disaster, where the town remains mostly untouched since the day it was evacuated— the director summons in an otherworldly atmosphere that is highly unique and compelling.
The director said of the film, during the making of,— in the documentary on his life, work and philosophy, The Sono Sion, also shown at Japan Cuts— “I haven’t made a movie in a while that I put my heart into. I want to do my best but I’ve forgotten how to. It’s unhealthy. It’s hazardous to creativity. This one’s going to wash me clean. All the indecent jobs I’ve been doing recently”. The director may have been being slightly facetious when he said this, but for a film that was twenty plus years in the making (the original ideas and storyboards formed about a quarter of a century ago) it was really worth the wait.
Back on audacious form Love & Peace indulges the director’s love for bold statements and colour. Again, the deeper levels connect to Sono’s wider filmography as a whole; featuring some of those same themes of connection and belonging, with a moral tale on the perils of greed and excess. The film is a Christmas feel good number in many respects, which makes writing about it during a July heat wave a little strange, but regardless of this, the whimsical comedy value makes it a fun watch any time of the year.
Super geek Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa— Why Don’t you play in Hell?) dreams of becoming the next Japanese Idol. He wants to play stadiums and have fans drop adoringly to his feet. The problem is, he’s a dork, not very talented and everyone he works with bullies and degrades him on a daily basis. His digestive problems don’t do him many favours either. Lacking confidence, it seems he will never even make it to ask out the girl he secretly loves, the similarly geeky Yuko (Kumiko Asô) — the two just have to limit themselves to bashful looks across a crowded office. Ryoichi does have one friend, a little turtle he dubs Pikadon, and tells all his hopes and dreams too. But when his cruel colleagues force him to flush the little critter down the toilet, Ryoichi feels like he has lost all hope. Pikadon travels the sewers, and is eventually rescued by a kindly drunk who possesses strange magical powers; living in the squalor under the city with a group of talking stray animals and animated toys. This mystery man gives Pikadon the ability to grant wishes, but as the wishes grow inside the creature, so does his physical size. It looks like Ryoichi’s luck is about to change after all, but whether it will bring him everything he truly hoped for is another question.
If the above plot rundown sounds bonkers, believe me I have done it no justice. This is only the tip of the iceberg, it goes about as far out as it possibly can, and some. Sono pulls just about every heartstring he can to get his point across, with the whacky comedy and ridiculously catchy pop/rock songs in the soundtrack proving infectious. There is something entirely gleeful about the entire piece; even in the moments of human rottenness that creep in as the story crashes along in a somewhat predictable fashion; right to its fabulous centrepiece of a giant singing turtle stomping its way through the city streets. A complete contrast to The Whispering Star in many respects, Love & Peace is a lot of fun, and proof that just like fellow countryman Takashi Miike, Sion Sono might just have been L’enfant terrible of Japanese cinema at one point, but as he matures he continuously demonstrates a versatility and creativity that is not only enchanting and compelling but impossible to resist.
Talking of whimsy, released in April this year, Bitter Honey (Mitsu no aware), loads on notions of the whimsical and absurd in bucketloads; in a fantasy based tale of an aging writer, Ojisama (played by the hugely prolific Ren Osugi) and his girlfriend Akako Akai (Fumi Nikaido)— a goldfish transformed into a nubile young woman— and the trials and tribulations faced by them as their unconventional relationship develops; all as Ojisama looks back and ponders his life, knowing he hasn’t got long left. Things aren’t all plain sailing for the pair, as well as petty squabble to contend with, it seems the ghost of a former acquaintance of Ojisama is back from the dead to haunt them, and Akako wants to mate with a fellow male fish to make them a family unit, assuring the reluctant Ojisama the eggs will become his if he rubs her stomach enough during her confinement.
Somewhere within this weird premise, director Gakuryū Ishii manages to build a wholly bizarre, but ultimately endearing, statement that explores the lines between love and death. It is difficult to believe, working under his former name Sogo Ishii, that this is the same filmmaker who helped pioneer Japanese cyberpunk cinema with forerunners such as Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982) — which also saw a showing at this year’s Japan Cuts. The film has some sublime moments of fantasy, especially those with a sexual subtext, although the comedy is sporadic and at times far too surreal to make it laugh out loud funny. Lead actress Fumi Nikaido is sweet to the point of sickly, which makes her role highly entertaining because it takes on such a perverse undertone (the constant demands to “Daddy”, and childlike behaviour toward her older lover). The 21 year old actress already has a fairly impressive portfolio of acting credits, and will most likely be known to Western audiences for her far grittier roles; for example Sion Sono’s Himizu (2011) or Why don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) or Takashi Miike’s bloodsoaked The Lesson of the Evil (2012) — her part here a complete contrast by comparison, and a welcome surprise that demonstrates the skill and versatility of the actress.
Overall, Bitter Honey is an acquired taste, but if you can get into its mix of eccentric flavours it becomes somewhat charming, and poses some questions that beg to be answered on a deeper level than immediately apparent.