Film festivals are magical places. For the last two months you’ve had the choice of rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy for the umpteenth time or waste your money at the theaters with a slew of an almost unheard of amount of dreck, but this Saturday at LA’s EigaFest, I managed to discover three movies I would never have seen or likely heard of otherwise, and finish off with the most important Japanese film of all-time and arguably the best monster movie ever. That’d be a 60th anniversary screening of Godzilla, the king of all monsters/kaiju. This all came a day after the international premiere of Lupin The Third (review).
It’s really hard to walk into a movie theater and see a film that you have no preconceived notions of, with spoiler-y movie trailers, herpe-like ad campaigns and…the internet. But going into a movie with little more than its title, a vague approximation of its cast and the scant IMDB synopsis is wonderful. We should be seeing movies with the capacity to surprise us, bewilder us, or bewitch us, to jump into the world without doing research beforehand, to do so blinded. It’s the cinematic equivalent of backpacking without a map (or GPS); we don’t know what we’re in for, and that’s what makes it thrilling. It’s pure, exciting (potentially an expensive risk), and is what watching movies is all about. This process is much easier when it comes to foreign language films, unless that’s your cup of tea.
You’ll see a great many cups of tea in Ask This of Rikyu, a film depicting the life of Sen no Rikyu, the man who most influenced the Japanese’s “Way of Tea.” He’s a precious figure in Japan’s history, a man whose zen-like approach to beauty has had everlasting effects on Japanese culture. I don’t drink tea, and watching this movie made me feel shameful, criminal, and foolish about it. Any stress that I have in my life is my own fault: tea would’ve relieved it immediately.
Rikyu begins at the end, on the eve of the stolid man’s ritual suicide, immediately rewinding 21 years previously, working our way back to when, Rikyu (Ebizo Ichikawa), whose name means “rest your blade,” finally can no longer. Rikyu, or Yoshiro Sen before he was known otherwise, is the arbiter of beauty: “beauty is what I say it is,” and no one argues, not even his warlord Oda Nobunaga (Yusuke Iseya). When the enigmatic Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Nao Omori) comes into power as Chancellor to the Emperor, he brings Rikyu along with him, to be the tea master to the ruler.
Mitsutoshi Tanaka’s film is deliberate, almost as soothing as a cup of tea, seemingly lacking a sense of urgency, until the political situation in Japan (and the ensuing war with Korea) begins to muddy even the simplistic beauty of Rikyu’s famed Teahouse. Hideyoshi grows mad (with power) and jealous of Rikyu’s growing cadre of acolytes and the love he inspires across all of Japan. After the opening scene where Rikyu arrives late to bring Oda gifts (or as he suggests, perhaps he’s come early), Rikyu is perfect, Saintly, honor personified, even-keeled, absorbed in the Way of Tea, and creating an aura of hospitality in others.
The most compelling story almost comes too late: when we meet who Rikyu’s been working for, who taught him the way of tea, and who he’s consumed with, in every waking moment. It’s clearly not his wife So-on (Miki Nakatani), a relationship that presents a missed opportunity. A loveless marriage in Japan in the 1500′s likely wasn’t rare, but a movie that tackled that facet of Rikyu’s life would be. Rikyu is depicted as a hero, but his quiet solitude, painful restraint, and unrelenting pursuit of beauty tore his family asunder.
While the increasingly maniacal Hideyoshi (he literally has a comic book villain-y cackle in the waning moments of the film) is painted as the villain (he actually lets his subjects know when to laugh), Rikyu never quite recovered from his past, when he lost the woman he truly loved.
After a slightly snoozy (but compelling) historical epic, Wood Job! was as refreshing as a trip to the countryside after a lifetime in the city. Wood Job! is a wonderful coming-of-age comedy, deserving of its exclamation point, in which Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani), in quick succession, learns that he’s failed all his university entrance exams, and he won’t have his girlfriend to soothe his sorrows: she unceremoniously dumps him. After some desperately drunk karaoke, Yuki is lost, and so, he leaves his fate up to a magazine rack. He closes his eyes, spits out his gum, and sees what sticks. This might be the most effective way to choose one’s future.
When divine intervention spits back a green trainee magazine with a beautiful woman on the cover, you sign up, and that’s exactly what Yuki does, eschewing another year in school for a lark. He takes a train off into the woods, wearing the clothes teenagers seem to wear exclusively at the mall that you cringe at, and wonder about the fate of humanity. Yuki’s immediately thrown into a beginner program, joined by a jumbled swathe of humanity: guys out of military school, those seeking to change careers, or nerdy forestry majors. After an injury and an intense encounter with Yoki (Hideaki Ito), Yuki’s ready to quit, until he meets the woman on the magazine cover that he’s been searching for: Naoki (Masami Nagasawa). She drives him to the bus stop, urging him to leave; after all, city boys never stick around.
But miraculously, Yuki does, and he graduates. He takes his gambit one step further: choosing a job at a lumber company, solely because he thinks that’s where Naoki works. He finds himself at a brutal job up in the mountains, in Kamusari, a village two hours from an actual village. It’s stunningly beautiful, but Yuki’s still blind to that, and more worried that his new co-worker and landlord happen to be Yoki, the frighteningly intense (and borderline abusive) instructor from school. But then, of course, Yuki becomes one with the crew, Yoki turns into a grudging mentor, and my heart is melting just thinking about it.
Shota Sometani is brilliant as Yuki, mostly because he’s so good at looking stupid, unfurling heretofore unseen facial expressions that most of mankind couldn’t even attempt to mimic. He’s a comedic force, and the rest of the ensemble plays off him perfectly. Writer-director Shinobu Yaguchi captures the quirks and surprising depth of the quaint logging village Kamusari and its noble citizens. Yaguchi is adept at mining forestry for humor, and along the way, providing a gripping glimpse into an occupation that likely isn’t brimming with demand. It’s something you didn’t know you craved knowledge about until it was right in front of you.
There is a surprising amount of poignance and emotional heft in a film where its climactic scene involves a bunch of nearly naked men sliding a tree down a ramp into a wooden vagina. Wood Job! is ridiculous, but in all the right ways. Even Yuki’s inevitable relationship with Naoki is more complicated and interesting than what you’d expect: it’s not destiny, and it’s not a cut and dry romance. It’s as complicated as chopping down a tree. Wood Job! is a world I didn’t want to leave.
Just as unique as the others (the only thing the three movies have in common? They were all adapted from novels), Bilocation is a trippy mindfuck of horror, one destined to have a mediocre American remake.
From Mari Asato, Bilocation is concerned with the sci-fi concept wherein a person is located in two distinct places at the same time. Shinobu Takamura (Asami Mizukawa) is a chain-smoking painter, but a lonely one, her existence seemingly as dreary as the dark gray of the charcoal she uses in her work. Her life changes when her nearly blind neighbor Masari rings her doorbell. Soon, they’re married and she finds herself at the supermarket accused of peddling counterfeit cash. It happens that fast.
She’s whisked away by Officer Kano, but thankfully, the cop is in on it: he has a bilocation too. It’s refreshing to see a movie unapologetically dive into its premise, as Shinobu gets thrown into the deep end immediately. She’s introduced to a secret meeting of people with bilocations, led by Iizuka, their mysterious benefactor.
Unfortunately, the bilocations, who materialize with blank eyes, aren’t just around to steal from grocery stores. They seek to take what’s most dear from their real counterparts. For one of the group, that means her sickly son. For Kano, it’s his job promotion. For Shinobu, that means Masari. Despite never really getting invested in their relationship, Masari’s a sweetheart, so we’re still invested in the battle. Armed with a mirror (bilocations are like vampires; they have no reflection), Shinobu must protect Masari from her bilocation, while maneuvering the increasingly confusing and dangerous Bilocation Brigade.
There are some leaps in logic at play that oftentimes plague horror movies. When we learn that the bilocations can only exist a certain distance away from the real McCoy, I didn’t understand why they all didn’t pack up and leave their loved ones in safety. At one point, Shinobu moves away from Masari to protect him…but moves back UPSTAIRS to her old apartment; that’s not far enough, lady. There’s a ton of “is this person the bilocation or the real person” game being played, and I wondered why the mirrors ever left their hands. Luckily, in both cases, it pays off to be patient.
It doesn’t pull off everything, however, and at one point, I feared that Bilocation was positing that a woman had to choose between being a housewife or an artist. Thankfully, it mostly skirted that offensive notion.
Bilocation has more endings than Lord of the Rings, each another scoop of crazy dolloped onto the sundae, and when the arduous thriller finally ends, it still packs an emotional wallop. There are almost too many twists, as Asato’s film nearly ties itself into a knot, but Bilocation toes the line expertly, and manages to stick the landing. When I first walked out of the theater, I was conflicted, but distance has brought me greater appreciation of the premise and all of the things that Bilocation does with it.
Photo Credits: Toei (Ask This of Rikyu), Toho (Wood Job!), Kadokawa Pictures (Bilocation)