We should all see more Japanese films – and TIFF Bell Lightbox’s massive Spotlight on Japan series of programmes makes this easy. A few years ago, my brother broadly introduced me to Asian cinema. We watched violent Korean action movies like Old Boy , Chinese tragedies such as Farewell My Concubine . However, when we watched Japan’s vicious – yet sort of funny – Battle Royale and Visitor Q , I realized that something especially weird and wonderful happens on the Japanese screen.
You have a choice of alluring programs: Tokyo Drifters, Japanese Divas and The Catch: Masterworks of Eighties Japanese Cinema. I went for the latter – and now I know of a decade beyond the visions of John Hughes and John Rambo. That said, the films of The Catch may be from the same era, but they appear to lack any sort of thematic connection. These films are as diverse as any.
I initially thought I saw a pattern between The Family Game and the first half of Violent Cop . The Family Game is a hilarious deadpan comedy about a boy trying to get into a good middle school. He doesn’t study because all he cares about is roller coasters – reading about them, doodling them, building models. His frustrated middle class parents hire a tutor. This tutor beats the boy and intimidates him, but they develop an odd kind of partnership – if not a friendship. The Family Game’s underlying theme is repression. Everybody, from parents to tutor to kid, seems to have buried a volatile set of emotions. Whenever these feelings escape, disaster happens. Violent Cop , a film about a violent cop, initially looks like it might be funny. The titular cop, named Azuma, foregoes protocol in favour of beating the hell out of his suspects. He takes on a rookie who has a silly habit of shielding criminals from Azuma’s routine thrashings. At this point, Violent Cop enjoys a bit of slapstick charm – but the film gets increasingly violent. By the end, my smile had vanished.
Next comes Fall Guy , another film I found hard to categorize. Once again, I started out laughing – but often my laughter was disrupted by some bout of brutality. Fall Guy is a movie about movies. Egomaniac film star Gin-Chan plays heroic samurai characters and enjoys mistreating his grovelling entourage. Gin-Chan is upset though. His co-star has been stealing his scenes and he worries that his celebrity days are numbered. In order to steal back glory, he asks his crony, Yasu, to perform a stunt so dangerous he’ll almost certainly die: taking a hit from Gin-Chan’s sword and falling down a 30 foot staircase. The staircase is ridiculously big and Yasu’s admiration for Gin-Chan is manic; I’m ready to laugh. But then we see a despairing Yasu trash his entire house and almost beat his pregnant wife. Once again, my smile fades.
Lastly, I watched Rikyu , one of the most austere movies I’ve ever seen. A historical film about warlords and tea ceremonies, Rikyu was directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. In his day, Mr. Teshigahara was also a master of Ikebana, the art of arranging flowers. To understand Rikyu , you have to approach it with that kind of zen perspective – something film in the West doesn’t know much about. Rikyu feels like a Tarkovsky film, where every second is supposed to be religiously deep, grave as can be, profound as art gets. Ironically, I sometimes found myself laughing when Rikyu, a tea master, super-seriously reveals the secrets of tea to his warlord master (yes, tea has secrets). Rikyu looks amazing and feels profound much of the time, but here the cultural barrier and the retro style often crossed the wires of humour and sadness.
What makes Japanese cinema so interesting is its evasion of labels. In every film I watched, I laughed and literally frowned, sometimes almost simultaneously. Hollywood or European cinema have developed as we have; we know the cues, when something should be laughed at – even when we don’t find it funny. Likewise, we know when a scene is supposed to be serious, whether its dramatic intentions succeed or not. With Japanese films I’m never quite as sure. There’s a back-and-forth of tension and explosion that seems to characterize a lot of the acting. When a character does let loose, I have no idea what will happen – hilarity or devastation. I really enjoy Japanese cinema for this reason. With such a strong tradition of cinema, Japan offers top-notch films. The bonus is that we get a whole new, unpredictable set of stories, problems, emotions and resolutions. The Catch: Japanese Cinema of the Eighties begins Tuesday, March 5th, 2013.