Air-conditioned melodrama

In its 13th year, the expanded Sacramento Japanese Film Festival serves up classics and new releases

<i>Our Little Sister</i> is saved by its strong acting. Teehee, sparklers!

Our Little Sister is saved by its strong acting. Teehee, sparklers!

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

The Sacramento Japanese Film Festival runs July 14-16 at the Crest Theatre. Ticket and parking information available at

For anyone still fiending for a film festival fix after last month’s French Film Festival, this movie marathon provides the perfect chaser.

The Sacramento Japanese Film Festival has evolved over the years from a single-day event into the current three-day festival format. Now in its 13th year, the SJFF is still only one of a handful of North American film festivals devoted exclusively to Japanese cinema. This year’s lineup boasts seven films, one classic and six new releases, although many of the newer films played commercial festivals in 2015 and 2016.

Kôji Fukada’s implosive melodrama Harmonium, for example, won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes 14 months ago, but only premiered stateside this summer. Mariko Tsutsui gives an intense performance as Akie, the unsatisfied small-town wife of a withdrawn machinist named Toshio. Into their lives glides the ghostly Yasaka, an ex-con with an unspoken connection to Toshio. Yasaka slowly proves himself a better father and husband than his old friend, until a sudden and shocking act of violence turns the narrative on its head. Harmonium is a borderline-unbearable bummer, but it’s also quietly captivating, with evocative framing and excellent performances.

Most films in this year’s festival use Japan’s present to talk about its past, or use its past to comment on the present. Festival selections The Eternal Zero and Persona Non Grata are World War II stories, while The Magnificent Nine is an 18th-century samurai epic.

But Keiichi Hara’s animated Miss Hokusai manages to straddle eras. It tells the story of an overshadowed artist who puts her career on hold to serve her more famous father. The film provides some invigoratingly out-of-context rock ’n’ roll needle drops and feminist attitude. Miss Hokusai mostly gets by on atmosphere, but it’s a fantastic example of the wide variety found in Japanese animation.

The festival kicks off on Friday night with the crowd-pleasing Our Little Sister, a delicately constructed and observant human drama typical of writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (Like Father, like Son). After their deadbeat father dies, three tightknit sisters bring in the 13-year-old daughter from his estranged second family. Emotional without getting sentimental, Our Little Sister is the sort of “coming to terms” therapy narrative that should be drooling claptrap, but Koreeda and his actresses make it seem honest and authentic.

And if you’re in the market for authentic film art, it doesn’t get much better than Floating Weeds, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 Technicolor masterpiece about an itinerant Kabuki actor who returns to the seaside town where his ex-lover and secret son live. It’s one of the most beautiful and devastating film dramas ever made, a blazing beacon that continues to light the way forward for Japanese cinema.