This is the final post on the New York Asian Film Festival. Once again I strongly urge you to check out the schedule here: http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2013. I suppose the best argument I can make for attending one or more of these outstanding films can be reduced to two words: “Lone Ranger”.
I have to confess that Japanese films have been the least satisfying to me at the yearly NYAFF. To a large extent, this has been a function of the curator’s prioritizing the “hippest” kinds of films from Japan, usually around some plot like space aliens opening up a sushi bar that serves fish from their planet that turns the eater into a zombie. I guess my exposure to Kurosawa films at the tender age of 16 as a Bard freshman spoiled me. Considering Japan’s recent trauma over the Fukushima disaster, it amazes me that no filmmaker is motivated to take on corporate greed after the fashion of “The Bad Sleep Well”. Then again, the failure thereof might simply express the power of money in Japan’s culture, just as after the fashion that the dollar rules Hollywood.
All that being said, I was able to sit through all three films under survey here, which is more than I can say about the “blockbusters” showing in my nearby Cineplexes, including “The Lone Ranger”, “World War Z”, and “White House Down”.
Although the plot sounds as far-fetched as the one I invented above, “Thermae Romae”, that plays at the Japan Society on Sunday, July 14, 5:15 PM, is a perfect delight. Based on a manga (comic book) that sold 5 million copies and led to a TV show, it is the story of a Roman architect from the second century AD whose specialty is designing hot baths for the public. One day as he has been sitting in a bath with dozens of other Roman men and growing weary of the noise and tumult all around him, he dives to the bottom of the water to get some peace. Once there, he is swept into the drain and down a long tunnel of water into—believe it or not—the 21st century and the sales floor of an upscale Japanese bathroom fixture store. Once there, he meets a young and attractive woman who is working there part-time but who is really trying to make it as a manga author.
Speaking not a word of Japanese, the architect wanders from hot tub to toilet taking it all in, with the woman in tow. His both bafflement and awe over the advances of modern technology are played to comic effect but without the coarseness or cruelty of Borat’s encounter with American plumbing.
All in all, the film is in the spirit of “Mork and Mindy” or the hilarious but neglected “Earth Girls are Easy” with the difference that the alien is a second century Roman transported into the brave new world of the future.
Midways in the film, the process is reversed with the Japanese woman, who has sped-taught herself Latin, transported through time back into the second century where she helps Lucius, the architect, apply modern plumbing principles to the ancient world—including the design of outdoor mineral baths that help the Romans triumph over barbarian invaders. Like ancient Rome, Japan still has public baths and their amenities inspire Lucius as well. Yes, I know it sounds perfectly ridiculous but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
While the plot for “Dreams for Sale” is somewhat less zany, it is still quirky by any measure. Kanya and Satoko are the husband and wife owner-operators of a popular restaurant that catches fire and burns to the ground within the first five minutes of the film.
A week or so after the fire, Kanya has fallen asleep in a train station next to a woman who is just awoken from a booze-induced slumber. After throwing up on Kanya’s pants, she recognizes him as the owner of her favorite restaurant—someone she always had a crush on. He follows her to her apartment where she first cleans his trousers and then seduces him. After finding out about his disaster, she insists that he takes a small fortune from her since she really wants to see him get back on his feet.
When he returns home with the cash in hand, Satoko figures out almost immediately that it was payment for sexual services rendered and takes a match to the money as he sits in a bathtub mellowing out. Coming to her senses and forgiving Kanya in one fell swoop, she retrieves the partially burned and soggy bills from the tub and begins sorting them out to dry with him. They now realize that nothing must get in the way of putting together the funds for a new restaurant even if it means pimping out the rather homely sushi chef, who has a powerful attraction for lonely women, including a 300 pound champion-class weight-lifter. As they seek out targets for their scam, Kanya and Satoko pretend that they are brothers and sisters. She goes even further and tells the women who Kanya is proposing marriage to that she needs money for cancer surgery.
Although the film has some very funny moments, the cringe factor can sometimes make you feel that you are watching a Billy Wilder comedy with the dark side totally overcoming the light. Cynicism and bad faith are the main qualities exhibited by the main characters. Perhaps the film is a commentary on the contemporary social scene in Japan but something more direct would have worked better for me. In any rate, it does have its moments. It is showing at the Japan Society on Saturday, July 13, 3:45 PM.
Finally, there is “The Kirishima Thing”, an examination of the mores of high school students as they respond to the crisis brought on by the voluntary “dropping out” of school activities by Kirishima, a BMOC. As the linchpin in the volleyball team and the guy that both women and men rely on for inspiration and advice, he forces them to fall upon their own resources.
I found the film entirely unremarkable although some critics spoke highly of it. To be fair, this film was not my cup of tea at all. I will allow one of its fans from the Hollywood Reporter have the last word:
Many of The Kirishima Thing’s central ideas are familiar ones — that Kirishima’s power is given to him and not earned; that the constant demands to conform in Japan quash natural growth — but Yoshida, best known for lighter comedies like his breakout Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!, wraps them in compelling enough characters to move the story forward. Watching the kids struggle with being forced into personal agency is at times bittersweet, at others almost thrilling. Yoshida doesn’t get fancy with the camera, and the cinematography by Kondo Ryuto effectively mirrors the kids’ headspace as the story progresses: sharp and colorful when Kirishima is still a guiding factor in their lives, murkier around the edges once he vanishes.
You can see the film at the Japan Society on Sunday, July 14, at 7:30 PM. Or you can watch it entirely on Youtube starting with part one above.