Sunday, July 17, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Projects

Japanese Danchi housing complexes are sort of like old school Czech[oslovakian] Panelák buildings. During the immediate post-war years, there were the place to be, but now they just look old and shabby. For this building, the emphasis should definitely be on old. It is about half empty and most of those who live there are retirees. Of course, that gives everyone even more time to gossip about their neighbors. The Yamashitas will give them plenty to talk about, thanks to their new visitors in Junji Sakamoto’s The Projects (a.k.a. Danchi, trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The Yamashitas moved into the modest Osaka Danchi after precipitously closing their herbal medicine store. They had their reasons for wanting privacy. Nevertheless, their former customer Takashi Mashiro manages to track them down and convince Seiji Yamashita to keep supplying him with treatments. Fortunately, the depressed old herbalist still has most of their old stock stored in their crawl space. He is always inclined to be helpful, but Mashiro is also oddly insistent, even with his wacky Japanese syntax.

Things take a rather odd turn when Yamashita loses the building association election that he was only reluctantly dragged into in the first place. Feeling tired and unappreciated, he decided to climb in under the floor boards with his herbal stock, only coming out for meals and to prepare Mashiro’s deliveries. Naturally, this leads to rampant speculation Hinako Yamashita has murdered her husband. Basically, her response to this chatter is a healthy “sod off.” As the dramatic arc demands, gossip reaches and fever pitch just as Mashiro reveals his true nature and places a whopper of an order.

At the risk of being spoilery, we can easily compare The Projects with Cocoon (or Heaven forbid Batteries Not Included), except it is less cutesy and more down-to-earth. There are no montages to be found here. However, viewers will learn how a good deal about how Chinese herbal medicine is made.

Ittoku Kishibe and Naomi Fujiyama are also terrific as the Yamashitas. His permanent air of melancholy is pitched just right, while she is an impressively forceful and defiant. Together, they really seem like a couple with years of difficult shared history. The same is also true of Renji Ishibashi and Michiyo Ookusu as Shozo and Kimiko Gyotoku, the Mertzes of the Danchi. As a further plus, Takumi Saito’s wonderful awkwardness as Mashiro never comes across as schticky, which really helps make the film.

The Projects is exactly the sort of film that wins audience awards, but in this case it would not be inappropriate. It is a film with tremendous heart, but it has no time for cheap sentimentality. Highly recommended, it screens this Tuesday (7/19) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.