Oh, Reel-y: Japan Cuts

I’m burning out a little on movies this summer. I’ve been attending screenings at Japan Cuts, an annual festival in NYC showcasing contemporary Japanese cinema. Japan Cuts typically follows the NYAFF, overlapping for one weekend where they share billings.

Some people love the bizarro craziness of Japanese films, but sometimes the most they impress on me is an overwhelming sense of WTF-ness. Still, I’ve watched some rad, bewildering films at the festival, and here’s my take on what I’ve seen in the past few weeks. As with the NYAFF films, I’ll roll out my thoughts in installments.

***

Tokyo Playboy Club
2011

It’s hard for me to categorize Tokyo Playboy Club. It’s kind of a crime movie or a dark comedy, I guess, but it’s also a weird sad tale of a bunch of people making bad decisions and trying to clean up their messes afterwards. There are sudden scenes of violence, like a Coen Brothers movie, but not as intricately plotted or structured. Tokyo Playboy Club meanders through the lives of a bunch of Tokyo lowlifes who work at a sleazy night club that nobody seems to attend. The plot was a little uneven, with the focus shifting from character to character as the movie went on in a way that makes you ask, “Wait, what happened to so and so?” But there are some nice pretty shots.

***

Girls For Keeps
2011

I’m far more likely to watch films of certain genres when they’re from another country. Girls For Keeps is a “chick flick,” a condescendingly titled genre derided because it commits the cinematic crime of portraying a group of female friends and doesn’t have any explosions. I was afraid that it would be like a Japanese Sex And The City, which I haven’t seen but totally pass judgment on, and while fashion does play a minor role in the movie, the movie avoids the crass materialism I associate with Carrie Bradshaw, et al. The movie starts off a little saccharine, but then rights itself. It follows the lives of four women: Yukiko, a 29-year-old in advertising grappling with “growing up”; Seiko, a married architect dealing with sexism in the workplace from her subordinates; Takako, a single mother trying to be everything for her son; and Yoko, a single 30-something who nurses a massive crush on a far younger coworker. The movie hammers a semantically meh theme that “all women are girls” that cheapens its complexity, but it’s an interesting portrait of contemporary urban life in Japan as women deal with changing gender norms and roles.

***

9 Souls
2003

With a mesmerizing opening scene–a sweeping shot of a city as buildings gradually disappear–and a weird symbolic ending involving a translucent key, 9 Souls is one of those WTF movies that I associate with Japanese cinema. It’s about 9 inmates who escape prison, and it starts off as part dumb comedy, part road trip film, part buddy movie but ends up… I’m not sure where, exactly. The first third of the movie has a juvenile sense of humor, with cross-dressing and sheep sex scenes, but the latter half of the movie subtly shifts to some dark and disturbing places. I’m not familiar enough with Japanese society to fully understand its commentary and critique on Japan’s penal justice system and other aspects of its culture, but see this if you like your movies weird.

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