Friday, July 15, 2011

Japan Cuts ’11: Sketches of Kaitan City

The fictional Kaitan is like the Japanese equivalent of Springfield, USA. Though modeled on Hakodate, it could be any industrial city struggling with new post-industrial realities. In this case, the closure of a major ship-building dock causes serious repercussions for scores of average working class citizens in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Carveresque Sketches of Kaitan City (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Japan Cuts New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema now underway at the Japan Society.

The docks are Futa Ikawa’s life. That is where his father died in a work-related accident and where he would subsequently find work to support his younger sister Honami. Yet, ship-building means something deeper to him than a mere paycheck. The majestic sight of a ship launching still makes him misty eyed. Not so for his union. While they go through the motions of a strike after major layoffs are announced, the fix is clearly in. Indeed, the union almost immediately calls off their labor action for a bit of severance consideration and, so it is suspected, cushy replacement jobs for their leadership.

As Ikawa spirals into an ever deepening depression, several marriages are straining to the breaking point. Ryuzo Hika works in the planetarium, which ought to be a good recession-proof job. Yet, he is miserable at home, alienated both from his emotionally distant son and his openly contemptuous wife, who is most likely cheating on him. Domestic life is even more harrowing in the Meguro household. It is unclear whether his spousal battery is a reaction to his wife’s physical abuse of her step-son or the cause, but it hardly matters for the young astronomy loving boy. While these personal calamities mount, an old woman tends to her cat in the ramshackle house coveted by city planners.

Based on an unfinished novel by Yasushi Sato, Kaitan juggles about a dozen major characters whose lives only tangentially intersect. Unlike many urban tableaux films, Kumakiri never shoehorns the characters into a compulsive series of coincidental connections or near-misses. Instead, each story arc is allowed to unfold naturally, but not necessarily to resolve, at least with any sense of finality or satisfaction. Life just goes on, more or less.

Aside from an under-developed story of a bus driver father and his estranged son, each strand of Kaitan has ample time to live and breathe. However, the Ikawas are arguably first among equals, due to both the exquisite tragedy of their tale (culminating on New Year’s Day at sunrise) and the touching conviction of Pistol Takehara and Tanimura Mitsuke, as Futa and Honami, respectively. Indeed, the entire ensemble cast is grimly convincing (even if the elegant Kaoru Kobayashi is somewhat hard to believe as the nebbish Hika’s wife).

Granted, it is a relentlessly naturalistic film with a two and a half hour running time, but Kaitan never feels draggy, unlike some of the more demanding Chinese indie digital imports. This is undeniably art cinema as well, rendered in grim grays, but it has a readily accessible plot (several in fact) and an unusual emotional immediacy. Highly recommended for those not currently struggling with depression, Kaitan screens this coming Tuesday (7/19) as this year’s Japan Cuts continues in New York at the Japan Society.