America may have the most globally popular cinema. Indian may take the cake when it comes to sheer quantity of films released.
But for innovation, quality, and sheer creativity, over a span of decades, it’s hard to top the output of the Japanese film industry. During the 1960s heyday of international cinema, the country kept pace with European hot spots such as France, Sweden, and Italy. And while the era of Japan’s grand masters–Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, etc.–has long passed, filmmakers with vision, craft, and chutzpah continue to carry the torch, as exemplified by the selections in this year’s “Japanese Currents” series at the Northwest Film Center.
A couple of names familiar to dedicated followers of filmdom pop up among the fourteen features screening at the Whitsell Auditorium between December 2nd and 11th. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) made his name as part of the New Japanese Horror movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s with films such as “Pulse” and “Cure.” Now he’s back with another foreboding single-word title, “Creepy.”
The star of this year’s “Japanese Currents” series, prime for broader discovery as a one-man cult-film factory, is Sion Sono. Active since the early 1990s, he also gained notoriety as a “J-Horror” auteur, before expanding his horizons somewhat with 2008’s four-hour-long “Love Exposure.” In recent years, he’s only gotten more prolific, and has nearly fifty films under his belt as a director, including five released last year alone in Japan.
The Film Center’s series includes a pair of those 2015 films, each bizarre in its own inimitable manner, as well as a documentary profile, “The Sion Sono,” which, frankly, makes him out to be a rather pretentious, difficult persona in real life. Energy, talent, and originality, which he possess in spades, can make up for a lot, but I’m glad I don’t have to work with him.
Sono is clearly the heir to a tradition of Japanese outlaw cinema that winds from 1960s renegades Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki through Kinji Fukasaku (“Battle Royale”) to the similarly productive and bizarre Takashi Miike. But his recent output has demonstrated a willingness and ability to move beyond the grand guignol of genre freakfests to someplace that, obscured perhaps by attention-getting shenanigans, there lies a soul.
Here’s a rundown of the five best titles, including Sono’s and Kurosawa’s, in this year’s “Japanese Currents” series:
“Love and Peace”: If you only see one Japanese film in the next 10 days, make it Sono’s bizarre fable about a failed punk rocker now stuck in a humdrum office job. When he gets another shot at the limelight, he won’t succeed without the help of the pet turtle that he flushed down the toilet and has now been enlarged thanks to a magical hobo who lives in the sewers. It’s all really rather heartwarming. (Wednesday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m.)
“The Shell Collector”: A blind old man lives alone on a remote island, perusing and studying the conches, bivalves, etc., that wash up on shore. One day a woman washed up on shore as well, suffering from a mysterious, incurable malady that’s apparently sweeping the globe. When one of his supposedly poisonous shellfish stings her an unexpectedly cures the disease, the old man’s life gets more complicated than he’d hoped. Based on a short story by American author Anthony Doerr (“All the Light We Cannot See”), this is an enigmatic and potent drama. (Saturday, Dec. 3, 5 p.m.)
“Creepy”: Kurosawa’s first out-and-out genre film in several years centers on a retired police detective, who now teaches criminal psychology but gets drawn back in to a six-year-old case about a family that mysteriously disappeared. Meanwhile, his wife encounters some, well, creepy neighbors, who of course turn out to be connected to the case. The movie lives up to its title, and then exceeds it with a third act that moves from creepy to downright disturbing. (Friday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m.)
“The Whispering Star”: Sono’s other film in the series is as spare and elegant as “Love and Peace” is extravagant and colorful. An android with the appearance of a human woman travels through the galaxy in her charmingly retro spaceship, delivering packages to some of the few remaining humans in the universe. One such planet bears an uncanny resemblance to the abandoned landscapes affected by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and reactor meltdown; in fact, those scenes were shot there, as shown in the documentary “The Sion Sono.” (Sunday, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.)
“Assassination Classroom”: The misfit, delinquent teen students in class 3-E have a new teacher. He’s a yellow-bodied, sphere-headed, smiley-faced, tentacled monster who has destroyed the moon and plans to do the same to the Earth at the end of the school year–unless the kids manage to kill him first. Matching “Peace and Love” in absurdity, if not heart, this adaptation of a popular manga is chockablock with bizarre visuals, insane slapstick violence, and enough gun-toting, uniform-wearing moppets to put “Battle Royale” to shame. (Sunday, Dec. 11, 4:30 p.m.)
(Full disclosure: the new film from director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, “After the Storm,” wasn’t available for preview, and I didn’t get a chance to watch the five-hour drama “Happy Hour,” because you gotta sleep sometime. For a full schedule, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/japanese-currents-2/)