The Tokyo International Film Festival, which runs Oct. 20-28 at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills and other venues around the capital and the Tohoku region, is a great opportunity to see new Japanese films — with a couple caveats.
First, not all of them are screened with subtitles, though if you stick to the Competition, Special Screenings and Japanese Eyes sections you and your Japanese-language-challenged date will be safe. The only exception is the unsubbed Japanese Eyes screening of Keiko Tsuruoka’s “Kujira no Machi (The Town of Whales),” the winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Pia Film Festival.
Second, screenings in the Special Screenings section, devoted to commercial films scheduled to open soon in local theaters, are often packed with excited fans of one or more of the film’s stars, who appear for the ritual stage introductions. (Directors, unless they are celebrities as well, are invisible to this crowd.) Be prepared to buy your tickets early — and endure the inane questioning of said stars by a presenter.
The only Japanese film in the Competition section, Tetsuaki Matsue’s “Furasshubakku Memorizu 3D (Flashback Memories 3D),” leads my personal to-see list. Two years ago, Matsue’s documentary “Raibu Tepu (Live Tape)” won Japanese Eyes Best Film honors for its no-cut filming of singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno as he wended his way through Kichijoji playing his off-kilter songs and chatting with wit and poignancy about his life and career.
The new film is also about a musician, didgeridoo player Goma (real name Hiroki Morimoto), who suffered severe damage to his memory functions in a road accident. The title refers to Matsue’s kaleidoscopic 3-D re-creations of his subject’s brain images. The film, however, focuses more on Goma’s mesmerizing live performances, backed by a three-man percussion ensemble, as well as on videos and diary passages by Goma and his wife, Sumie, recording the struggles of his postaccident life with an openness that is heartbreaking, but finally hopeful.
In the Special Screenings section, I’ve ticked “Tsui no Shintaku (A Terminal Trust),” the first fiction film by Masayuki Suo since his gripping, disturbing 2006 courtroom drama “Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai (I Just Didn’t Do it).” It is also the first on-screen reunion of stars Tamiyo Kusakari and Koji Yakusho since their turns as elegant dance teacher and awkward salaryman student in Suo’s 1996 international smash “Shall We Dansu? (Shall We Dance?).” In the new film, Kusakari plays a doctor and Yakusho her seriously ill patient. Expect something thoughtful, informed — and utterly unlike the usual sob-fest Japanese medical melodrama.
Also on my list in Special Screenings is “Yokomichi Yonosuke (A Story of Yonosuke),” the followup to 2011′s “Kitsutsuki to Ame (The Woodsman and the Rain),” director Shuichi Okita’s gentle-spirited, wickedly funny TIFF Special Jury Prize winner about a middle-aged lumberjack (Yakusho again) coming to the rescue of a flailing first-time film director (Shun Oguri). This time the title hero, Yonosuke (Kengo Kora), is a hick from the sticks who comes to Tokyo for college — and demonstrates his talent for samba.
Japanese Eyes is mostly for showcasing new talent, which makes the screenings something of a voyage into the unknown. One established director in the section, however, is Yutaka Tsuchiya, whose 1999 documentary “Atarashii Kamisama (The New God)” sympathetically and incisively examined the inner workings of a rightist punk band (whose charismatic lead singer, Karin Amemiya, Tsuchiya ended up marrying). His “Peep ‘TV’ Show” (2004) was a fiction film with documentary touches about the adventures of an Internet voyeur and those he spies on, including a Gothic Lolita girl played by Amemiya.
Tsuchiya’s new film, “GFP Bunny — Tariumu Shojo no Puroguramu (GFP Bunny)” is another mix of fiction and documentary, based on the true story of a teenage girl who poisoned her mother with thallium in 2005. The “heroine,” a dedicated if disturbed student of bio-engineering, begins to see her mother, a fervent believer in dubious antiaging remedies, as a subject for her dangerous experiments in modifying the human blueprint.
Another veteran director with a new Japanese Eyes entry is Makoto Shinozaki, who debuted in 1995 with “Okaeri,” an intimate drama about the dissolution of a mind and a marriage. Since then Shinozaki has tried his hand at horror and even a spy-thriller parody, but his latest, “Are Kara (Since Then),” is a serious drama about a Tokyo shoe-store clerk dealing with her boyfriend’s breakdown after his traumatic experiences in Tohoku on March 11, 2011.
Of course, some of the best Japanese Eyes films may well be discoveries from little-known talents — the section’s raison d’etre. And you won’t have to compete with the fans of an ikemen (pretty boy) heartthrob for tickets. I’m taking a flyer on “Nanika ga Kabe wo Koete Kuru (Something Wicked Comes Over the Wall),” theater-manager-turned-director Norio Enomoto’s horror flick/coming-of-age road movie. It’s playing on a double bill with Shinozaki’s “Are Kara” and, at 35 minutes, has the great advantage of being short. Why not try?
Giovanni Fazio’s TIFF 2012 picks
Something in the Air (Apres Mai)
The latest by one of my favorite directors, Olivier Assayas (“Carlos,” “Clean”), is a semi-autobiographical look at the Paris uprisings of 1968 through the eyes of a teen. It’s a view of ’60s-’70s student rebellion that’s part period piece, part love story, and entirely truthful in showing the gradual disillusion with leftist dogma.
(Oct. 24, 28, Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills)
Allison Anders (“Gas Food Lodging,” “Border Radio”) used Kickstarter to crowd-fund this black-and-white tale of a rock ‘n’ roll meltdown set in Los Angeles’ indie scene; supporters included Quentin Tarantino, Sonic Youth and Ethan Coen. Supposedly based on the Britpop love triangle of Suede’s Brett Anderson, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Elastica’s Justine Frischmann.
(Oct. 23, 26, Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills, with guest Q&A)
Post Tenebras Lux
Carlos Reygadas is regaled on the European festival circuit, and this one scored Best Director at Cannes. It’s “slow cinema” at its best/worst: beautifully shot yet entirely inscrutable and moving at a glacial pace, with predictably “transgressive” shocks. Not necessarily recommended, but it’s likely your only chance to see if it lives up to the hype: Reygadas films rarely play in Japan beyond TIFF.
(Oct. 24, 27, Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills)
Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux a la Reine)
Veteran auteur Benoit Jacquot’s latest is a resplendent tale of lust and jealousy during the early days of the French Revolution. Hardly touching on Marie Antoinette’s famed love affair with Count Fersen, this one’s about the other woman: Madame de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), with whom the queen (Diane Kruger) was infatuated. A sumptuous delight for the senses.
(Oct. 22, Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills, with guest introduction)
Nick Cassavetes revisits some of the themes he explored in “She’s So Lovely” (1997) with this visually stunning story of a drug-addicted woman who just can’t quit. The film unfolds to show the color and light-filled world of Mary’s (Heather Wahlquist) hallucinations, while at the same time revealing the damage she inflicts on herself.
(Oct. 21-22, Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills, with guest Q&A)
Trouble With the Curve
Clint Eastwood is at his best when paired in a father-daughter-type situation with a tough young woman — and this is it, directed by his reputed disciple Robert Lorenz. Gus (Eastwood) has sacrificed everything for his job as a pro baseball scout, including daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), who steps in to help out when he begins to lose his sight. Tears, people.
(Oct. 28, Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills)