Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Like other film festivals I’ve reviewed since the pandemic began, this year’s Japan Cuts is virtual. While nothing will ever match the experience of see a film on the big screen among other film buffs, the show must go on as they say in a Busby Berkeley film—can’t remember which one. At $99 for the entire festival or $7 per film, it is certainly worth it. In the past, when I have covered a NY film festival, I always regretted that many of my out-of-town readers will never be able to take part. Fortunately, for them and for the filmmakers who put so much time, money and energy making leading-edge cinema, virtuality has its benefits. Time constraints did not allow me to cover more than four films but based on what I have seen, this festival is a must for film buffs. Japanese films have been a mainstay of serious cinema for the past seventy years and it is still going strong.


i -Documentary of the Journalist

Isoko Mochizuki is Japan’s Helen Thomas. Until she died in 2013, Thomas was famous for stubbornly asking tough questions during press conferences at the White House. Mochizuki is Thomas on steroids. The documentary follows her around collecting information for her next article in the Tokyo Shimbun, usually focused on corporate an governmental malfeasance. Under Shinzo Abe’s administration since 2012, corruption has been rife and she has been practically the only reporter with the guts to take on the establishment.

What you will discover in this mostly cinéma vérité work, which follows her about on her rounds and at press conferences, is that the Japanese government is shielded from the most part from gadflies like her. To get access to a press conference, you have to be part of an old boy’s network that keeps trouble-makers out. It is not so much ideological as it is institutional. Picture McNeil-Lehrer at its most soporific and you’ll get a sense of the typical Japanese reporter.

You can’t help but think of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” as the film progresses. She has discovered that the USA has been expanding the Henoko military base in Okinawa at the expense of the people living there, which has been the case since 1609 when Japan colonized the island nation. To make room for its partner’s war machine, the government conveniently covered up how red dirt was being used for a landfill into the bay. Since red dirt upsets marine ecology, regulations do not permit using earth with more than 10 percent of red clay. In her interviews with environmental scientists in Okinawa, Mochizuki learned that it was closer to 70 percent.

Much of the film consists of her trying to pin down Abe’s chief spokesman at press conferences, Yoshihide Suga. Suga is a master of stonewalling, making most of Trump’s mouthpieces looking transparent by comparison. Unlike the American press corps that has any number of reporters willing to challenge Trump or his lackies, it devolved upon Mochizuki to challenge the lies.

Although most of us, including me, tend to associate Trump with people like Duterte and Bolsonaro, an argument can be made that his real soulmate is Shinzo Abe. After seeing the film, I was convinced that I had to allocate time for getting up to speed on Japanese politics since the Abe government has vowed to make Japan a first-rate military power. As part of its increasingly nationalistic military and economic posture, Japan has targeted South Korea in the same way that the USA has targeted China. An article titled “Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo” describes the bromance between the two nationalistic and corrupt politicians:

That Abe is now borrowing from Trump’s playbook on trade should come as little surprise. The two leaders have established a positive chemistry that is evident during their long and frequent meetings. When Trump visited Japan in May for the enthronement of the country’s new emperor, the two leaders embraced each other, sharing a round of golf, sushi, sumo wrestling and exchange of MAGA-inspired caps. Abe is known to be one of a few Western leaders Trump is fond of.

Reiwa Uprising

Although I didn’t plan my coverage this way, this film is a perfect companion piece to “i -Documentary of the Journalist”. It is a four-hour mostly cinéma vérité look at the election campaign of the Reiwa Shinsengumi (“new squad”) party that fielded 10 candidates to run against the Abe machine in 2019.

Reiwa can best be described as Japan’s version of the sort of guerrilla theater Abby Hoffman made famous in the 1960s. If Abe’s party was determined to represent itself as the embodiment of Japan’s largely militaristic and authoritarian culture, Reiwa turned that culture upside down and ran candidates who were the country’s outcasts and underdogs.

The star of the film is candidate Ayumi Yasutomi, a female transgender Tokyo University professor whose hobby is horseback riding. To show her love for horses that represent the natural world disappearing beneath Japan’s feet, she was accompanied by a horse at all her campaign appearances. Yasutomi’s politics are not exactly ideological. At one point she says that Marxism, liberalism and conservatism have failed Japan. If she was referring to the Japanese Communist Party, I suppose she had a point.

Two of the candidates were quadriplegics, who also happened to be the only two that were elected to the Diet, thus making Reiwa an official party.

The film was directed by Kazuo Hara, who like Isoko Mochizuki has no use for Shinzo Abe’s retrograde social and economic policies. Like Werner Herzog, Hara is drawn to those who are square pegs in bourgeois society’s round holes. Made in 1972, his first film “Goodbye CP” featured men and women with cerebral palsy. His 1987 “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” features Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old WWII veteran who searches out those responsible for the unexplained deaths of two soldiers in his old unit. Errol Morris listed it as one of his Top 5 Favorite Films for Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing his latest, I hope to see more of his work. Highest recommendation for “Reiwa Uprising” that at four hours goes quicker than 90 percent of the films coming out of Hollywood.

Narrative films

The Murders of Oiso

Although people are killed in this film, it is really not a murder mystery. Instead, it is a character study of four high-school students who represent the kind of toxic values that might explain to some degree how Shinzo Abe has become longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.

Their time is spent hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and playing cards. Perhaps, they are no different than most teens but it is their indifference to anything outside their narrow frame of reference that makes you wonder about the health of Japanese society. Indeed, a large part of Reiwa’s success at the polls has to do with the country’s moral and spiritual rot.

The leader of the pack is a kid named Kazuya, whose father and uncle are partner’s in a crooked construction company, probably one not much different than the one pouring red dirt in to the water near the US military base in Okinawa. Kazuya gets his three pals jobs with the company but they seem to spend about as much time working as the guys that Tony Soprano placed in various New Jersey unionized shops.

The film does not have a conventional narrative arc and dispenses with the kind of suspense you expect in a murder mystery. (Not a single cop shows up in the entire film.) Like the two documentaries above, it is much more of a critical eye on Japanese society that is very much watching if you forgive its defiance of conventional filmmaking gestures.

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

The festival includes three of the Tora-San films as part of a retrospective. I was especially interested in them since I regard the director/screenwriter Yoji Yamada as one of Japan’s greatest. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had hopes that it might have been in the same vein as his samurai trilogy that I regard as a masterpiece.

I guess I should have realized that any film with “our loveable tramp” in the title is not going to be about sword fights. Instead, it features Kiyoshi Atsumi as Toro-san in just one of the 48 films Yamada did with him in this series from 1969 to 1995. Perhaps the only thing that Toro-san has in common with the samurai, especially after the Meiji restoration when they became itinerant swords-for-hire, is that he is rootless. He is a traveling salesman who owns nothing but the clothes on his back and his suitcase filled with dubious wares, none of which would qualify for an ad on a cable TV commercial at 3am in the morning.

As for being “loveable”, that’s used ironically since like Charlie Chaplin, Toro-san is anything but. Just as the little tramp was not above turning a dinner party into a food-fight, Toro-san always finds a way to antagonize people, always with no awareness of the consequence of his actions.

After returning to the town where he was born, he reunites with his long-lost sister who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. When he accompanies her to a dinner party hosted by the boss of the company where she works (she is soon to become engaged to his son), Toro-san gets drunk and starts to tell off-color jokes and generally embarrassing his sister. If you’ve seen Borat in action, you’ll get an idea of what kind of mischief his character is capable of.

Unlike Borat, Toro-san has an epiphany toward the end of the film when he discovers that the woman he loves has plans to marry someone much higher-up on the social ladder. Although the Toro-san films are comedies, they do reflect Japan’s strict class-based social codes that the anti-hero defies with abandon. Ironically, in his own way, he was the kind of film character that prefigured the Reiwa uprising. A man sick and tired of hierarchy, materialism and hypocrisy.

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