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Movie program offers some Japanese gems

by Mark Schilling

For foreign residents, monolingual or no, Tokyo International Film Festival offers a good chance to see new Japanese films with subtitles, especially in three of the main sections: Competition, Special Screenings and Japanese Eyes.

In the Competition section this year, two Japanese films will vie for the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix, TIFF’s biggest prize: Kaneto Shindo’s “Ichimai no Hagaki (Post Card)” and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s “Kaitan-shi Jokei (Sketches of Kaitan City).” The world’s second-oldest active director (Manoel de Oliveira, 100, is the oldest), Shindo, 98, has said that the World War II home-front drama “Ichimai no Hagaki” will be his last film. Its world premiere screening at TIFF will be a chance, hopefully not the final one, to see Shindo on stage and in person.

“Kaitan-shi Jokei” is based on a novel of the same name by Yasushi Sato, a writer often compared with his contemporary Haruki Murakami but who died in 1990 before he could reach his full potential. The film portrays ordinary lives in the titular Hokkaido town, a fictional stand-in for Sato’s native Hakodate. Director Kumakiri has worked in a variety of genres since debuting with the student-radicals-turned- killers shocker “Kichiku Dai Enkai (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts)” in 1997, but his best, most incisive work portrays society’s losers and loners, such as Maki Sakai’s failed actress in 1998′s “Nonko 36-sai (Kaji-tetsudai).”

The Special Screenings section, which presents mostly multiplex-ready commercial films, this year offers 10 Japanese titles, including “SP: The Motion Picture,” the first of a two-part suspense/ action epic based on a popular TV show; “Garo: Red Requiem,” a 3-D fantasy spun from director Keita Amemiya’s tokusatsu (special effects) TV series; and “Bushi no Kakeibo (Abacus and Sword),” Yoshimitsu Morita’s drama about a samurai who supports his family not with his sword but with his bookkeeper’s abacus.

High on my personal to-see list is “Byakuyako (Into the White Night),” Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s suspense drama starring Kengo Kora as the son of a murder victim and Maki Horikita as the daughter of a suspect. Fukagawa’s films, including 2005′s “Okami Shojo (Wolf Girl)” and 2007′s “Makiguri no Ana (Peeping Tom),” defy easy genre classification while getting inside the skin of their outsider heroes.

The Japanese Eyes section of new Japanese indie films opens with “Yoi ga Sametara, Uchi ni Kaero (Wandering Home)” by Yoichi Higashi, a veteran who won awards for the haunting WWII childhood drama “Eno Nakano Bokuno Mura (Village of Dreams).” Based on the true story of an alcoholic war-zone cameraman who finally sobers up — and learns he has terminal cancer — “Wandering Home” is a curious, compelling mix of black humor, bizarre surrealism and naturalistic drama. Tadanobu Asano is excellent as the soft-spoken, self-destructive cameraman.

Also screening in this section is Kohei Yamakawa’s “Anta no Ie (Your Home),” a drama about an aged couple that won the 2010 Pia Film Festival’s Grand Prix. A launching pad for new Japanese directors for three decades, the Pia fest has a deservedly high reputation, despite the relative scarcity of subtitled films in its competition. The Japanese Eyes screening brings an outstanding film from this year’s program to a wider international audience.