Friday, July 24, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Sacrifice

Before Japan was traumatized by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it was traumatized by cults like Aum Shinrikyo and the United Red Army. Midori is a college student who was traumatized by both. Her mother forced her to join the Sacred Tide cult, but she snapped out of their spell when she witnessed the destruction of 3-11. She never freed herself from the Tide’s clutches, but Midori did. Unfortunately, the cult has not forgotten about the young woman or her psychic powers in Taku Tsuboi’s Sacrifice, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Just before the disaster struck, Midori (the evil collective called her “Ap”) saw visions of it in a prophetic dream. That certainly impressed the Sacred Tide. Even though she managed to escape, they still keep tabs on her through brainwashed members stalking her on campus. To make matters worse, she is having catastrophic visions again.

Meanwhile, the popular but under-achieving Toko tries to take out her frustrations on loner Okita, after discovering his morbid fascination with a string of cat mutilation-murders. However, his interest is not what she assumes. Instead, he is conducting his own investigation, because he suspects the crimes are linked to the murder of a classmate.

Sacrifice lacks the operatic sweep and outré imagery of Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, the films are close cousins thematically. However, there is a ripped-from-the-headlines matter-of-factness to Sacrifice that just might make it more unsettling. Tsuboi vividly portrays how cult members willingly surrender their individuality. He also makes it clear doomsday cults are in the doomsday business.

As Midori/Ap, Michiko Gomi is convincingly freaked-out and socially awkward, as is appropriate for a cult survivor. Likewise, Miki Handa humanizes the petulant Toko to a surprising extent, while Yuzu Aoki projects plenty of steely dangerousness beneath Okita’s standoffish reserve.

only runs a svelte 76 minutes (another dramatic contrast to Sono’s 237-minute Exposure), but Tsuboi still successfully springs several surprising revelations within that time-frame. Fans of Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 should definitely appreciate how crazy the grand conspiracy gets, yet it always scrupulously observes the internal logic of the hyper-real world Tsuboi creates. Very highly recommended, Sacrifice screens virtually through July 30th, as part of the 2020 Japan Cuts.