Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mondocurry NYAFF report vol. 4: Enlightenment and Unrest in Rural Japan - ABRAXAS & THE LAST DAYS OF THE WORLD

The New York Asian Film Festival has quietly carved out a space in its lineup for excellent music related films from Japan. Recent examples of these are LIVE TAPE, Yu Irie’s 8000 MILES films, FISH STORY, and going back a bit further, LINDA LINDA LINDA. With this in mind, I had been eagerly looking forward to this year’s music-related films ABRAXAS and Yu Irie’s return to the festival, RINGING IN THEIR EARS. Today I saw the first of the two, the excellent ABRAXAS.

It is a moving character study of a restless soul (played by Japanese musician SUNEOHAIR) who has traded in his rock band for a monastery to find peace of mind, but is still plagued by an absence of inner tranquility. He finds that the music he left behind, despite some of the self-destructive behavior associated with it, was a part of his path to greater understanding. He tries to reconcile the two aspects of his life with a live performance in the quaint village where he now resides.

ABRAXAS challenges the notion that spirituality necessitates piety or that being a guide for others towards inner truth requires one to understand or preach life’s answers with certainty. It also shows that making intense, raucous music with wild abandon is not always the product of merely wanting to indulge a reckless lifestyle. Some powerful scenes from the film show the lead expressing his mix of angst and fascination with the nature of being through his creation of an surging wall of sound.

The film ends in a cathartic performance, which DB also noticed is reminiscent of the conclusion of LIVE TAPE (bear in mind this is staged while that film had the amazing distinction of being shot spontaneously in one take). It manages to reaffirm the notion that achieving fulfillment does not always mean maturing or changing entirely. The message that acceptance is a positive force in the universe is expressed throughout the film.

Adding to the authenticity of the film is the use of noise rock, a genre of music that prominently features washes of noise and discordant guitar sounds. This makes the performances sonically interesting and makes the monk’s obsession with guitar driven music seem far from superficial. Destined to be a festival favorite.

Although it was also set in rural Japan, THE LAST DAYS OF THE WORLD could not be more different. Spirituality and inner peace are out the window, traded for nihilism and unrest. It is a well shot film for a first time director, but its engrossing start fizzles out towards the movie’s second half.

Things begin with a critical look at Japanese society through a high school student’s point of view. Kanou’s classes are dull and irrelevant while his parents are carrying out a superficial and deceitful relationship, with dad in an unemployment rut. An odd series of hallucinations causes Kanou to ditch school with the girl of his desire being forced to come along for a bumpy ride.
It starts out as a stimulating one. It is rife with the lead character’s sexual desire, leading to erotic situations that prove both uncomfortable and provocative.

Unfortunately the characters that populate the beginning of Kanou’s trip are traded for far less interesting ones who appear at a party that lasts too long. The weird but engaging sex ends and we are faced with a parade of one dimensional outcasts that comes off like a Japanese version of a Harmony Korine film. With the absence of Kanou’s captive love interest, any dramatic tension that made the film interesting also disappeared. Perhaps the director was more interested in showing an anarchic vision of what could happen to a young man driven to extremes by disillusionment than a story about a relationship. There are interesting ideas in this film that doesn’t quite come together into a coherent vision.

ABRAXAS is playing again on July 5th at The Walter Reade Theater and THE LAST DAYS OF THE WORLD is playing again on July 8th, also at The Walter Reade Theater.

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