Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Japan Cuts ’24: Between the White Key and the Black Key

The 1980s were an unusually good time to be a jazz musician in America. Wynton Marsalis made acoustic bop commercially successful again and the venerable Blue Note Records was re-launched. Evidently, in Japan, the jazz scene more resembled 1930s Chicago. Most musicians played in Ginza clubs that were clearly controlled by the Yakuza, at least according to musician Hiroshi Minami. He survived to write about those times in his memoir, but director-co-screenwriter Masanori Tominaga splits his persona in half in the appropriately syncopated and stylized adaptation, Between the White Key and the Black Key, which screens as the opening night film of the 2024 Japan Cuts.

Hiroshi yearns to play jazz, but his hip teacher knows he needs some seasoning, so he recommends gigging in the seedy Ginza cabarets. Sure enough, Hiroshi quickly gets an education. Fatefully, a mysterious Yakuza freshly released from prison requests Rota’s “Love Theme from
The Godfather.” Hiroshi obliges, even though the leader on the gig freaks out six ways from Sunday.

It turns out only Kumano, the boss known as “the King of Ginza” can call that tune and only Minami (Hiroshi’s future self, who coexists in the same time-frame) can play it. Fortunately, Hiroshi’s gig was at a club where musicians traditionally wear masks, because news of the transgression spreads quickly.

As it happens, the artistically frustrated Minami intends to desert Ginza to study real jazz at the Berklee School of Music. He only confides his plan to Chikako, who agrees to aid his getaway. That means they will need a sub to cover for him, so she recruits Hiroshi, an old friend from school.

Even though Tominaga and co-screenwriter Tomoyuki Takahashi have that Lynchian looping time thing going on, it is not what defines the film. Questions of artistic integrity and compromise are more important (and timeless) themes. Having played in Al Capone’s clubs, Armstrong would well understand Minami’s relationship with Kumano.

Even though little is done to physically distinguish Hiroshi from Minami, Sosuke Ikematsu is so good at creating such ying-and-yang personalities and carries himself so differently, viewers might start to wonder if he is the same thesp (which indeed is the case). Go Morita is also a wild chaos agent as the mysterious Yakuza. Whenever he shows up, the audience knows there will be trouble.

Japanese-American popstar Crystal Kay (who was born in Yokohama while her father was stationed at the Yokosuka Naval base) sounds great as the visiting vocalist Risa, whom Minami must accompany. Frankly, it is amazing how her numbers, including “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” can sound so fresh and swinging, while still comedically reflecting the mayhem backstage.

Perhaps Tominaga leans a little too far into the looking glass during the climax, but until then, the film definitely expresses a jazz attitude. Those involved, especially Kei Matsumaru (who plays out and in with equal facility, as a strange saxophonist constantly crossing paths with Hiroshi and Minami), understand the music and the travails musicians endure. Highly recommended,
Between the White Key and the Black Key screens tonight (7/10) as the opening selection of this year’s Japan Cuts.