Friday, July 8, 2011

Mondocurry NYAFF report vol. 7: Enter The Japan Society, Japan Cuts Begins, The Buddha & Ringing In Their Ears

The Night

Last night was The New York Asian Film Festival’s first of its tenth anniversary screenings held at The Japan Society. This also marked the opening night of this year’s Japan Cuts, a festival that coincides with the New York Asian Film Festival for a few days before accelerating into its own program of Japanese films. I saw one movie that had long been on my agenda, RINGING IN THEIR EARS, and decided to duck into the screening of the anime OSAMU TEZUKA’S STORY OF BUDDHA which preceded it. This was the result of feeling my time was already sufficiently spent at the manga cafĂ© down the block (I will maybe eventually relay more about that experience on the Epicuriosities Blog) and hearing about tickets for BUDDHA approaching the sold out point. It was a somewhat odd bit of scheduling with the anime, which did eventually fill up every seat in the house (not surprising, as anime has a built in audience to start with) leading into the much less attended but excellent RINGING IN THEIR EARS. No worries, just more curry flavored chips and red wine for me at the reception. And I suppose it’s easier to party after the being pumped up by the latter movie’s raucous sounds.

The Movies

It’s a bit difficult for me to report much on OSAMU TEZUKA’S STORY OF BUDDHA, as anime lacks human performances to comment on and I am unfamiliar with the original manga by Tezuka. Of course, he and his work are of legendary status in the realm of manga and I think this first installment of a trilogy maintained a sense of the grand scale of the story. It is not presented in Tezuka’s original drawing style, which would probably be a bit too cartoonish for a motion filled version of this epic, nor is it drawn in the hyper stylized manner that most anime takes on.

This part of the story serves as a set up for the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment, focusing on his time as the prince, Siddharta, and his kingdom’s battles with the aggressing kingdom of Kosala, led by Chapra. Both Siddharta and Chapra are engaging fantasy characters, whose paths are marked by idealism and opportunism. There are some impressive battle scenes and a minimum of confusing points (I may be more prone to confusion than others as large scale fantasy epics are not so much my thing). Tezuka’s affinity for animals and nature is also clearly shown; they are portrayed throughout the film with grace or serenity and figure prominently into the story.

RINGING IN THEIR EARS is a big sloppy love letter to Shinsei Kamattechan, an indie rock band that director Yu Irie clearly saw something very special in. This may night seem remarkable except, instead of leaving the band to remain as the subject, he seems to have invited them to take part in the storytelling process. If this reeks of conflict of interest, then be prepared to have your expectations blown away because it completely and amazingly works.

And that is not the only feat pulled off in this deceptively clever movie. The narrative shifts back and forth between a few different characters: That of a high school student more focused on a career in the game shogi than entering a good college, and a single mother struggling to support herself and her five year old son. Although the mother and son’s stories are intertwined they have their own distinct scenarios to deal with, the son’s being one of the most surprising and delightful to see unfold. Along with these characters, the band and their manager also have their own storyline, which is a point in the movie that thought-provokingly blurs the line between fiction and reality. Yes, it is a situation constructed for the movie, but the band members play themselves and it makes one wonder if in fact the situation is based on reality, and if so then how much?

Then there is lead singer and band frontman Noko, who is almost completely out of the picture until his eccentricities, which are a big part of his charm to the troubled souls who are drawn to the band’s music, come more and more into the light as the film goes on. This also makes you wonder if this is a truly accurate portrayal or the stuff of a myth in the making. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.

The stories that weave in and out of the narrative get into some really dark territories, not afraid to address serious social issues or show characters at their lowest low points. Like other modern Japanese movies, there is not a sense that everything needs to wrap up neatly either. Sometimes it is enough to just show that life goes on, and there is a definitely a sense of that here, as well.

RINGING IN THEIR EARS is another great music film from Japan that culminates in a cathartic live performance, joining the likes of LIVE TAPE and this year’s NYAFF pick, ABRAXAS. It has the distinction of the band’s unique way of using technology to interact with its fans. In addition to that is the very interesting way that director Irie brings his vision together. As one begins to see how all of the elements pull together into a brilliant concept, right up to and including the song that plays over the end credits, it is one of the most rewarding film going experiences one is likely to have at the festival or beyond.

OSAMU TEZUKA’S STORY OF BUDDHA plays again at The Japan Society on Sunday, July 10 at 12:30 pm

Then, TAKE THE DAY OFF because RINGING IN THEIR EARS plays at The Walter Reade Theater on Monday, July 11 at 1:30 pm.

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