Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Japanese Shorts, Made in America, at the Asia Society

Japan has long been a source of inspiration for American artists, and vice versa.  In that spirit, the Asia Society hosts a screening of seven short films of varying degrees of Japanese-ness from filmmakers working in America.  Diverse and intriguing, the New York Japan CineFest: Short Film Program will be a treat for short film connoisseurs this Friday night at the venerable Park Avenue institution.

For diehard fans of Japanese cinema, the highlight of the evening will doubtless be Justin Ambrosino’s The 8th Samurai (trailer here).  Absolutely not purporting to tell the behind-the-scenes story of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, it speculates what might have happened if a cap and sunglasses donning director had a dream telling him to cut one of the eight samurai from his upcoming epic, just prior to the start of shooting.  While Kurosawa’s film is an obvious inspiration, one luckless actor’s wickedly supernatural mother issues suggest the influence of Kaneto Shindo, the director of ambiguous horror classics like Kuroneko and Onibaba, who recently passed away after reaching the century milestone.

Filmed in glorious black-and-white by cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham, the subtitled Samurai is a moody but loving valentine to Japanese cinema.  Though Ambrosino is not anymore Japanese than he sounds, Samurai features almost the entire Japanese supporting cast of Eastwood’s Letters to Iwo Jima.  The second longest selection of the program at twenty-eight minutes, it is a fully realized, enormously satisfying film, by any standard.

Yet, perhaps the best film of the evening is the hardest to describe, combining elements of narrative, essay, and experimental filmmaking.  Observing the terms of his mother’s will, the introverted narrator of Ken Ochiai’s Frog in the Well (trailer here) travels throughout Japan spreading her ashes as directed.  Sometimes employing quick-cut film stills to create a live-action flip book effect, Frog has a decidedly unusual visual style yet it never overshadows the emotional significance of the grown son’s travels.  Indeed, it is surprisingly touching, while also enticing viewers to visit Japan.  Frankly, considering how gorgeous it makes the country look, starting in the snowy north and traveling down to Okinawa, the Japanese tourism board ought to buy television air time for it around the industrialized world.

Though much simpler and more straight-forward, Chisa Hidaka’s three minute Together: Dancing with Spinner Dolphins is also lovely to look at, following a swimmer as she frolics underwater with the beloved marine mammals.  It sounds great too, thanks to a shrewdly chosen excerpt from Ketil Bjørnstad’s The Sea, featuring ECM label mates Terje Rypdal, David Darling, and Jon Christensen.

Though something of a brief irony-driven short, Yoriko Murakami’s richly rendered stop-motion animated Corazon en Fuego / Heart on Fire puts a twist on the O. Henry twist, ultimately guiding its bereaved protagonist somewhere quite life-affirming.  Yasu Suzuki’s New York set Radius Squared Times Heart is even more upbeat, depicting a shy Japanese scientist courting a fellow tango dancer through his skills in the kitchen.  With its accessible Friends-style humor, it could easily be the crowd favorite of the evening. 

Far heavier, Haruhito Naka’s Into the New World rather awkwardly addresses big picture topics like God and 9-11 through half-baked magical realism.  Fortunately, Kosuke Furukawa’s only slightly metaphysical Uguisu is much subtler.  It also features an excellent supporting turn from Seiji Kakizaki, who has such presence as a diner customer getting under the skin of a hipster artist simply through his soft-spoken honesty, he sort of fools viewers into investing undue significance in his character.  Furukawa’s sparing use of color is also quite distinctive, as are the sly hints at the fantastical.

Overall, the New York Japan CineFest night of shorts is very strong, including two excellent films, 8th Samurai and Frog in the Well, plus several other quality selections.  Since most films are American productions, at least to an extent, it also represents an interesting change of pace for the Society, while still staying true to their mission and focus.  It is another example why New York cineastes need to follow their programming closely.  Definitely recommended, the short film program screens this Friday night (6/8) at the Asia Society.