The Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts festival — the largest of its kind in North America — concluded at the end of July and here at Diabolique, we were fortunate enough to catch a few titles. Earlier this week, Editor-in-Chief Kat Ellinger took a look at Sion Sono’s latest, Love & Peace (2015) and Whispering Star (2016), as well as Gakuryū Ishii’s fantasy film about a goldfish transformed into a girl, Bitter Honey (2016), certainly three of the more compelling Japanese cult titles released recently. And while Japan Cuts certainly does focus on current feature films, the festival covers a wide range that includes everything from documentaries to classic films and more obscure vintage efforts. While that in mind, I decided to cover Burst City (1982) aka Bakuretsu Toshi, sort of a punk musical about biker gangs that’s been labelled as one of the first cyberpunk films; The Artist of Fasting (2016) aka Danjiki Gainen, an absurdist drama inspired by Kafka about a man who goes on a hunger strike; and The Sion Sono (2016) aka Sono Sion to lu Ikimono, a documentary about one of the country’s most visionary contemporary filmmakers.
Toei’s Burst City was one of those films that had been on my register for some time, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing it until Japan Cuts. Directed by Sogo Ishii, this is the sort of chaotic mishmash of genres that led me to love later Japanese films — like Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero (1999) or Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) — and this is an obvious precursor to some of those more insane ‘90s and ‘00s efforts. In addition, it provides a glimpse of the punk scene during the period and features a number of bands like The Roosters and The Rockets, with numerous scenes of live performances. This, combined with the very vague plot, makes this feel something like an extended music video. An exercise in style — and soundscape — more than substance or coherency, Burst Cinema has few direct parallels in the country’s cinema of the ‘80s, (the editing in particular feels inspired) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) obviously owes the film a major debt.
In this way, it reminded me a bit of the Australian film Dogs in Space (1986), but if that was combined with a weird dystopian subplot obviously inspired by Mad Max (1979) and especially Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Warring biker gangs are forced to team up with each other, and some rebellious punk kids, to bring down a power plant being constructed in Tokyo, but cops and the yakuza get in their way. Notably released in the same year as Blade Runner, it’s somewhat of a mystery why this film doesn’t have a bigger English-language following, though it could be that the non-linear plot structure is a bit off-putting to fans of the more conventional dystopian sci-fi films. Regardless, it’s a worthwhile experience for anyone interested in ‘80s punk culture — it would make a hell of a double feature with Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978) — and is a must-see for all fans of unusual Japanese cinema.
On a completely different note is The Artist of Fasting, Masao Adachi’s film based on Kafka’s short story, “A Hunger Artist” (which is what I think everyone should have to read in school instead of The Metamorphosis). Returning from a decade away from the camera, Adachi is probably best known for his collaborations: with Kôji Wakamatsu on Violated Angels (1967), Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969), and Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), and Nagisa Oshima on Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), among others. He’s also regarded as a figure of controversy, thanks to his stint with the leftist organization the Japanese Red Army, essentially a militant terrorist group. Unlike other overtly politically radical filmmakers working in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Adachi has managed to produce a film that reflects his personal values — more than thirty years after the fact — but that also feels incredibly topical and relevant. It could be that I was so pleasantly surprised by the film, because it was the complete opposite of what I thought it would be; I honestly went into it assuming to find a quirky comedy with some romantic and political elements about the struggle of an outsider to exist in society, along the lines of something like I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), a genre I generally hate.
Rather, in The Artist of Fasting, the film’s protagonist (the prolific Hiroshi Yamamoto) is a man who plants himself in a shopping mall and refuses to eat or speak for forty days. But he’s really the backdrop for an array of the best and worst of humanity, who all try to interact with him in various ways: teenagers hoping to make it into viral videos, manipulative doctors, skeptical monks, an abused young woman, military police, and so on. The Artist of Fasting, then, sticks relatively closely to Kafka’s source material, while also incorporating Adachi’s own philosophical and political themes, revolving around the overarching theme of personal freedom — the monks in the film constantly speculate on the nature of freedom, viewing it largely as a prison. In an interview with Midnight Eye, Adachi said, “Throughout the entire filmmaking process of bringing an idea to the screen, I am trying to confront the problems of recent current events and situations, and to sum up my own political beliefs and theoretical convictions, and also to look back to my own activities in the past.” The Artist of Fasting is an elegant summation of this thesis.
Self-aware and deeply cynical, the film targets everything from media circuses and exploitative would-be do-gooders to sex abuse and the absurdity of philanthropic trends. With its grim tone and surprising sexual content (at least, it was completely unexpected by me), the specter of terrorism and political hunger strikes, in particular, loom large in the background. According to ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, Adachi responded to criticisms of his use of sexuality (there is a semi-graphic rape sequence), claiming, “I use rape in my work as a symbol of the miscommunication of the contemporary human condition.” Much of The Artist of Fasting is concerned with themes of miscommunication, attempts at expression, and the attempt (and failure) to understand a radical message. I can’t imagine it will reach a wide English-speaking audience, but it’s a quiet, effective film and certainly one of the most interesting adaptations of Kafka’s short fiction in recent memory.
Finally, The Sion Sono is also something completely different in tone. Arata Oshima (son of director Nagisa, one of my favorites) made this documentary about Sono while the latter was filming his latest, The Whispering Star. While I find the idea of producing a documentary on an artist who is still working and is quite active — and, arguably, has not left the prime of his career as a filmmaker — a bit strange, this focuses on everything from Sono’s private life with his family to his filmmaking style, his collaborations, and his work beyond cinema as a poet and painter. And, to be honest (though this is not meant to disparage Arata Oshima in any way), it would take relatively little skill as a documentarian to succeed with The Sion Sono, as the director is such a fascinating force. Certainly one of Japanese cinema’s wildest talents, his films cover a range of themes and styles, but are nearly always controversial and transgression-obsessed.
Sono is the epitome of cult figure, despite the fact that he has achieved international acclaim, or perhaps because of it, which Oshima’s film does manage to capture. The documentary focuses on Sono’s more controversial side — his drunken antics and temper tantrums — but also shows him as a deeply caring and almost fatherly figure. Interview subjects include some of the actors who have worked with Sono to his wife, actress and model Megumi Kagurazaka, who is also one of his most important collaborators — arguably someone who deserves a documentary of her own — and her colorful stories about the difficulties of working so closely with Sono were some of my favorite moments.
I can’t promise that The Sion Sono will be for everyone, but it will definitely be of interest to fans of the director, Japanese cinema enthusiasts, and anyone fascinated by the intimate lives and working habits of artists. It’s a solid introduction to the director and his work; yet, though it does stretch back to his childhood and early years as a writer, there’s something about it that doesn’t quite feel definitive, but perhaps this is more a reflection of Sono’s own restlessness and relentless work ethic that feels so very far from slowing down. At minimum, it’s a nice companion piece to his two films to also appear at the festival, Love & Peace and Whispering Star, which reflect that Sono is still exploring the bounds of cinema and is not afraid to continuing pushing his own boundaries as a director and artist.