Saturday, July 12, 2014

NYAFF ’14 & Japan Cuts ’14: Wood Job!

Yoki Iida is a forester and he’s okay. Yuki Hirano is a forestry-trainee and he’s a mess. Trees will chopped, fish will be out of water, and lessons will be gently learned in Shinobu Yaguchi’s Wood Job! (trailer here), which screens as a joint presentation of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts.

After failing his university entrance exams and getting dumped by his girlfriend, Hirano does what any slacker would do. He applies for a “green job.” His real motivation is the pretty girl on the cover of the forestry brochure. However, it turns out forestry involves real work—something Hirano was never any good at. Yet, just when he is primed to desert, he runs into Naoki Ishii, the forestry covergirl. Evidently, she was never a student, but she once dated one. Frankly, she is rather annoyed to see her picture still in circulation and thinks even less of scammers like Hirano, who enroll hoping to put the moves on her.

However, Ishii’s telling off has a perversely motivating effect on Hirano. He sticks out the training program and accepts a yearlong apprenticeship in her remote lumber village. Of course, Hirano still has a lot to learn about the forest. His boss, the gruff but gruff Iida is not very impressed, but the mismatched mentor and protégé slowly start to grow on each other.

Will honest, hearty country living finally win over Hirano? Will he ever win over Ishii? Do you want to see grown men wearing a thong-sash during their Burning Man forest rituals? If you answered yes to that last one, Wood Job is definitely the film for you.

Granted, writer-director Yamaguchi follows a pretty well established formula. One could consider it Japan’s teenage/early adult Northern Exposure with lumber. Nevertheless, his mastery of mood and keen visual sense elevates it well above standard Doc Hollywood terrain. While mostly grounded, there is one particularly striking excursion into magical realism Yamaguchi executes with graceful understatement. He also gives viewers very practical instructions in proper tree-chopping technique. Seriously, you will think you can actually do this stuff after seeing the film.

Shota Sometani’s Hirano is a bit of a goof and a goon, but he portrays his maturation with a fair degree of subtlety. As Ishii, Masami Nagasawa brings some healthy verve and attitude, while developing nice Fleischman-O’Connell chemistry with Hirano. In contrast, Hideaki Ito is pure mountain man as Iida.

Somehow Yamaguchi is able to convey the sensation of that crisp mountain air. He is not afraid of a little sentiment either—and why should he, anyway? It is all quite a sweet, sure-footed, ax-wielding coming of age film that gets steadily more inviting as it progresses. Recommended for fans of bittersweet romantic comedies, Wood Job! screens tomorrow (7/13) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.