|Agitators In Arms: Japan Cuts programmer Samuel Jamier and director Junichi Inoue|
As if this summer weren’t hot enough, the Japan Cuts festival has been screening a mature batch of imports with no small amount of onscreen scintillation, proving sex to be a pervasive aspect of the culture.
It is used as a form of emotional leverage and manipulation in crime story DREAMS FOR SALE; and in drama THE COWARDS WHO LOOKED TO THE SKY (reviewed here), both a means of escape and fitting in, a necessary path to reproduction that is crucial in keeping with small town conventional values.
This past week 2 films were screened, which cast copulation at opposite poles of the spectrum of darkness and light. Both screenings were also attended by the films' respective directors, who also made very different impressions. Junichi Inoue, the director of anti-war diatribe A WOMAN AND WAR, purposefully wearing a Che t-shirt, wasted no time in uttering his hatred of the Bush administration hence his surprise at returning several years later to the US. Meanwhile, Yukihiro Toda, here to represent his debut feature, THERE IS LIGHT, about a prostitute working exclusively with disabled clientele, humbly expressed his gratitude to the audience before abandoning the introduction, speechless until the q & a that followed the film.
In A WOMAN AND WAR, the approaching defeat at the hands of China and Allied forces during World War 2 finds its characters consumed in a vacuum from which morality has been completely sucked out. Lambasting their own military forces and speaking of rape that will come at the hands of non Japanese soldiers, sex is looked upon as a defiant last act of resigned defeat. Older men come on to women arguing that things will end soon anyway. “Let’s screw each other to show we know we are being screwed by the war” (or something to that effect) is the attitude embraced by a wilting writer, maintaining a journal to avoid the draft, and the oblivion-obsessed barkeep he couples with. Describing an upbringing peppered with abuse and followed by work as a prostitute, she reacts to sex frigidly, without feeling, only experiencing arousal when violence is involved.
Meanwhile, a soldier returning from the battlefield who has lost an arm in combat, invites women to accompany him to a distant place where he can obtain free rice; then, when reaching an isolated spot, savagely chokes them to unconsciousness and commits heinous acts of rape. This occurs after initially speaking out against and even trying to stop a group of men from carrying out just such an act. He could have been maintaining a sense of decency in the presence of his wife and child, who were since moved to a safer. That or perhaps a switch was flipped in his agonized, combat afflicted mind.
The grim film looks quite good in spite of a low budget and limited shooting time. The outdoor settings have a natural beauty, and the dilapidated ruins of war are sufficiently gray and soot covered. When the war does end, the tragic survivors seem to take little solace, almost burdened by the thought of continuing to live in such destitute conditions. It is a blunt but effective tome on war.
Toda’s brief feature film, THERE IS LIGHT, takes a morally ambiguous stance on prostitution. It begins with a mild-mannered yet formidable manager of an escort service for severely disabled customers speaking to Saori on her first day at the job. She visits customers, whose disabilities include a fatal flesh deteriorating disease, a disfiguring condition that causes the man to need human assistance and specialized equipment to move, and a bike accident victim whose body from the waist down has ceased to function. It is the last of the three, whose appointment with Saori was arranged by a mother desperate to return her son to her idea of normalcy, who affects her the most.
The bold film addresses the relatively low status of Japan’s disabled citizenry, with the manager referring to the country as ‘disability unfriendly’ resulting in afflicted people staying out of sight.
The interactions are moving, at times light hearted, and not lacking in any of the frank sexual grammar afforded more conventional situations.
Saori‘s transformation is key and acted with accomplished subtlety by gravure model Maya Koizumi, an as of yet inexperienced actress. She goes from a strictly business mindset to realizing the feelings she brings about in these despairing individuals is something worthwhile. And that she herself, a fragile and guarded soul, can find salvation in her interaction with just such a pained individual.
A few narrative turns that feel forced can be forgiven in light of the larger statement being made about a vastly neglected but significant population in Japan. It is a film that should make people think twice before coming to blanket moral judgments about people’s paths in life. How even those working in a profession that conventional wisdom tells us is degrading can be seen as a source of hope or even just temporary relief for those who are largely forgotten by the rest of society.
The first time feature director Yukihiro Toda modestly but enthusiastically took answered questions about his film, discussing what brought him to take on this topic,working with the lead Maya Koizumi and the actors portraying characters with disabilities, and challenges he faced in making the film.
Sex is clearly an influential force in several aspects of Japanese society and there are daring, mature directors willing to hold nothing back in exploring its impact. And in turn, the Japan Cuts festival has gone to lengths to bring their visions direct to us.
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