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by Mark Jenkins,
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JANUARY 5, 2009

Interior Designs

The Freer/Sackler's Japanese cinema series reflected a nation whose art-film style is more universal than its culture.

By Mark Jenkins

My 2008 best-film lists are available at and INDIEWIRE. The two Top 10s are not identical because of differing definitions of what constitutes a 2008 release.

DIRECTOR SATOSHI MIKI, whose work was featured during the first weekend of the Freer and Sackler Galleries's "Roads to the Interior: Another Side of Japanese Cinema," introduced and discussed each of his three films. He spoke mostly through an interpreter, venturing only a few words of English. Miki didn't wait for the translator, however, when an audience member likened the director's 2007 Adrift in Tokyo to Akira Kurosawa's final movie, Madadayo. "Don't compare me to Kurosawa!" he exclaimed.

Miki never explained the vehemence of his response, but he had a point. There was nothing of Kurosawa, or the other greats of postwar Japanese cinema, evident in his movies. That was also true of the other eight local premieres, all of which shared little with the work of Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, and not much more with that of their great contemporary, the more domestic-minded Yasujiro Ozu. The program's relatively young directors (born between 1954 and 1977) even seemed beyond the influence of such "Japanese new wave" filmmakers as Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, who reacted against Kurosawa and his peers (among other things).

The ambitious "Roads to the Interior" was not, of course, a comprehensive overview of recent Japanese cinema. Costume films set in the samurai era are still being made, but weren't featured here; neither were sci-fi and tech-happy fare, animated or otherwise. As programmer Tom Vick wrote in his introduction to the series, he chose movies that "offer a corrective" to Western stereotypes of Japanese life and culture. Practically speaking, that meant mostly films about families under stress — an Ozu theme, here sometimes wildly updated — often set in small cities and towns. If a lot of these characters were adrift, it usually wasn't in Tokyo.

The series's title was derived from 17th-century haiku master Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior. (The title is often translated Narrow Road to the Far North, but "interior" is more accurate.) Japan now has the world's most-controlled countryside, so the wildness Basho once encountered is gone. One of the surprises of Naomi Kawase's lyrical 2007 The Mourning Forest, set in the woods outside tourist-swarmed Nara, was that the director could find enough woods to situate the tale. Mostly, "the interior" depicted in these movies was globo-contempo exterior: highways, gas stations, modest restaurants, and conibis (convenience stores), framed by the occasional mountain or sprig of greenery.

Japan's rustic past survives in place and family names; Miki's surname means "three trees." Some enduring traditions, notably Buddhist mourning rituals, are depicted in these movies, but usually without the proper filial piety. The protagonist of Miwa Nishikawa's 2006 Sway, a scruffy-chic Tokyo photographer, arrives late for his mother's small-town funeral, and eventually betrays his older brother. In Daihachi Yoshida's riotous 2007 Funuke, Show Some Love, You Losers!, another Tokyo resident returns home for her parents' funeral. But the elders's death was freakish, and their daughter, a failed actress, arrives principally in search of money. A cop and a gangster's trip to the funeral of woman — she was one's wife and the other's lover — leads to sacrilege in Masahiro Kobayashi's 1999 Bootleg Film, a dark yet flashy comedy heavily indebted to Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and Godard's Band of Outsiders. (The movie is so early '60s that's it's in black and white, although it also sometimes also recalls Takeshi Kitano's 1997 Hanabi.)

There's also a funeral procession in Adrift in Tokyo, one of the many seemingly random events observed by the protagonist, a heavily indebted law student whose graduation is several years overdue. The kid wanders the metropolis with a yakuza who's paid him for his company, often traipsing the "wrong" side of sights that would be postcard views from the opposite angle. Being picturesquely Japanese, it seems, is all a matter of framing.

At one point, the unstudious law scholar encounters some perky girls soliciting donations for the children of Afghanistan. Insular Japan has (almost) yielded to global engagement, although traditional provincialism remains. Kobayashi's stark, painful 2005 Bashing, based on actual events, is the tale of a young woman who's widely despised because she inconvenienced her country by getting kidnapped while doing relief work in Iraq. This documentary-influenced movie also includes a funeral, and it's not an occasion for comedy.

Kobayashi himself, and a third one of his films, were originally scheduled, but both had to be cancelled. No doubt the director would have mentioned different influences than Miki, who hailed the genius of the Coen brothers. Yet Kobayashi, Miki, and the rest of the retrospective's directors are akin in taking their cues from the universal models for today's low- and medium-budget filmmakers: TV, documentary, and the various new waves. (Bootleg Film includes recurring on-screen discussion of Reservoir Dogs and other American flicks.) "Roads to the Interior" featured some distinctly Japanese themes, but no homages to scroll paintings or Kabuki and Noh theater, all of which were painstakingly evoked by Japanese directors in decades past. (No koto or shamisen music, either.)

The most traditional of the nine films, The Mourning Forest, finds some solace in nature. But several of the movies present life in a picturesque seaside town as the worst fate imaginable. Bashing is set in such a place, as is Miki's 2005 Turtles Swim Faster than Expected, the droll tale of a bored, neglected housewife who signs up as a spy. (She's assigned to be a sleeper agent, which means her job is to pretend she's a bored, neglected housewife.) A ticket to Tokyo or Osaka is the glad — well, relatively glad — payoff in both The Sakais's Happiness, a quirky 2006 family melodrama, and Funuke, Show Some Love, You Losers!. In the latter, the magic carpet is victory in a manga-drawing contest, the contemporary Japanese equivalent of being discovered in Schwab's Drugstore. While only the protagonist of Bashing contemplates fleeing her homeland, some sort of escape — including into death — is a unifying theme.

In the Dec. 22 New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote about the Japanese vogue for cellphone novels, simple e-serials that convey the travails, guardedly autobiographical, of their youthful authors. According to the article, the novels are sometimes set in boring oceanfront burgs. One of the earliest successes of the genre has been adapted into a movie: Train Man, the tale of a desperately shy computer tech who romances a more sophisticated young woman, egged on by an online crowd of anonymous tipsters and boosters.

Set entirely in Tokyo, the film is closer to John Hughes than, say, Shunji Iwai's great All About Lily Chou-Chou, which evokes the J-internet experience more cleverly (and chillingly). But Train Man shows that even Japan's happy-ending rom-coms capture some of the unease of the post-post-war generation. The movie's portrait of young Japanese men as inexpressive dweebs echoes that of "Roads to the Interior's'' Fine, Totally Fine, director Yosuke Fujita's slightly autobiographical 2008 farce. The difference is that, in this tale of two hopeless brothers's unrequited love for the same woman, the object of their affections is also a loser — a hopeless klutz. She, too, finally escapes, the only one of the series's characters to find release by leaving the big city (Tokyo) for a small one (Nara again).

If Bashing was the series's most powerful entry, and Bootleg Film its most audacious, Your Friends was the most Japanese in its mix of sentiment and fatalism. Directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, a soft-porn veteran whose mainstream movies tend to be sexually frank, the uncharacteristically gentle 2008 film is the flashback-heavy tale of friendship between two small-town schoolgirls. In a country where physical imperfection is sometimes treated as just another irksome attempt at nonconformity, Yuka and Emi are linked by the former's degenerative kidney disease and the latter's permanent limp. Both wrenching and hopeful, the movie is a sympathetic account of two outsiders that counsels defiance of society and acceptance of mortality. That's a thematic combination worthy of — shhh! — Kurosawa.