Best Of the Japan Cuts Film Fest

Belladonna_Of_Sadness_Poster_250x358The NYC Japan Cuts Film Fest, held annually at the Japan Society, is singular in its presentation of contemporary Japanese Cinema to the US and we are lucky to have it here on the East Coast. This year’s ambitious slate was diverse and dynamic. Ive selected Snow on the Blades, Belladonna of Sadness and Undulant Fever out of the nearly 30 films on the roster to discuss here.

Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Saddness is an unforgettable piece of repertory madness. Made in 1973, the third in a series called Animerama shared with the renown Osamu Tezuka, Belladonna found its inspiration in a French work of non-fiction called Satanism and Witchcraft. This european source material is evident in the character designs and feudal christian themes. It follows the story of peasant Jeanne (Katsutaka Ito), who is raped on her wedding night in a Prima Nocta free for all. Returning to her husband Jean, she is thereafter haunted by a phallic specter that leads her to a date with the devil (the unmistakable voice of Tatsuya Nakadai), accusations of witchcraft, and a whole host of “its going to get worse before it gets worse” consequences. Eiich Yamamoto makes strange and wondrous bedfellows of Faust and Joan Of Arc. The film is both elegant and crude in its methods, making liberal use of static imagery that is panned across, with interspersed sequences of cell animation, and the dialogue overdubbed throughout. This interplay of methods is all the more exciting for its infusion of psychadelics, Masahiko Sato’s psych-rock score, chilling erotics and violence. There is something compelling in every sequence and it is a treasure of the fest as well as this entire year of cinema going. Belladonna has been treated to a 4K restoration by Cinelicious, with a hopeful 2016 Theatrical/ DVD release.

Setsuro Wakamatsu’s Snow On The Blades is a Jidai Geki film cut from the Chushingura cloth, except with one Ronin instead than 47. (Incidentally actor Kiichi Nakai starred in Kon Ishikawa’s 1994snow-on-the-blades-screenshot-02 version of that tale). Samurai and master swordsman Shimura Kingo (Kiichi Nakai) is promoted as the personal bodyguard of the Shogun’s Chief Minister. This is a momentous event that brings honor and joy to Shimura and his family. Though the Minister has ruled through a certain amount of cruelty, Kingo is won over by his more sensitive and humanistic qulaities. One fateful snow-covered day, due to the smallest decision on the part of his superior, Kingo fails in his ability to save the Minister in the face of an attack. Denied the honor of Seppuku (ritual suicide), Shingo spends the next 15 years hunting down the assassins to atone his mistake and earn the right to Seppuku. Snow On The Blades is an exquisitely photographed, utterly patient drama that walks (rather than waltzes) through the most rapid period of modernization in Japanese history: the Meiji Era. It does so with a sense of acknowledgement over the complexity of the socio-economic and cultural change that was rampant after 1868. Kingo holds fast to the old world and the samurai values that are stitched onto his heart as he ekes out a humble life with his wife. Character, place and a sense of passing time are the benchmarks of this film that bears a kinship to the samurai films of Yamada Yoji. Fixed loyalties and ideologies in a changing social schemata are the fuel for its drama, but the stakes are wholly personal. Snow On The Blades is memorable not just for its immaculate realization, but for the weight of its emotional sincerity.

feverHiroshi Ando’s Undulant Fever, an adaptation of the then controversial 1978 novel When I Sense the Sea by Nakazawa Kei, is an articulate treatise on differing and fluid expectations regarding relationships. I first became aware of Ando from his 2007 film “My Sister My Love” about the pained romance between fraternal twins. Where that film is focused on emotional and societal dimensions, Undulant Fever is focused on the physical and psychological, but the two share a sense of the emptiness between words and between objects. What appears like a story about a man with two concurrent relationships is in fact a non-linear portrait of a single relationship that, as the title insinuates, undulates. The film is successful in this binary approach much like Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

Hiroshi and Emiko (former model Yui Ichikawa) meet at school. He is up front about his desire simply to use her as a sexual object and repeatedly begs her to cease her advances and insistences knowing his incapacity for love. She consents to this objectified role and the two engage in what can sometimes seem an unhealthy symbiosis of abuses. In the scenes regarding the past, Hiroshi is a stoic shell, but he is keenly aware and almost fearful of the behaviors he possesses. This is put forward magnificently by Sosuke Ikematsu (Pale Moon). For a number of reasons I was reminded of the emotional desolation of David Mackenzie’s Young Adam. Yoi Ichikawa turns in a brave yet subtle performance that expresses confusion, rebellion and desire. In the scenes regarding the later years, a more connected couple is present. The relationship of “equals” that Emiko had craved all along as she consented to objectification and rejection has finally come to be. And yet, other disatisfactions emerge. The fog of conflict has risen and Emiko has a clearer picture of what transpired, what it means to her and what it implies for her moving forward. I respect Ando’s decision to drag this film out, because it helps to impart a sense of the relationship itself being dragged out. Conversations are slow, the camera is tame, many sequences are taken in one static shot. Im looking forward to the furtherance of Ando’s career.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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