War, family and sisterhood
Seven contemporary classics make the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival’s 14th year
Now in its 14th year, the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival remains only one of four film festivals in the continental United States that is exclusively dedicated to Japanese movies. Most of the seven films showing this weekend at the Crest Theatre debuted in American theaters a year or two ago, but only one of them ever played theatrically in Sacramento, so the festival gives local cinephiles an opportunity to catch up on contemporary Japanese cinema.
Take Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sedate yet surprisingly prickly After the Storm, for example. It played at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 2016 and received a limited theatrical release in early 2017, but never had a single showing in Sacramento. Teeming with Kore-eda’s trademark observational humanity and genre-subverting introspection, the film stars Hiroshi Abe as a once-promising writer who frittered his family away, and now pins his hopes on an encroaching monsoon to bring the brood closer together. An SJFF favorite (his Our Little Sister played last year), Kore-eda has already made two more films since After the Storm, including Shoplifters, winner of the Palme d’Or last May in Cannes.
Atsuko Hirayanagi’s melancholy crowd-pleaser Oh Lucy! also skipped over the Sacramento area during its theatrical run earlier this year, sticking instead to Bay Area art houses. The film features a fantastic lead performance from Shinobu Terajima as Setsuko, a lonely, middle-aged woman tricked into taking “American English” classes. When the handsome professor (Josh Hartnett) puts a blonde wig on her head and redubs her “Lucy,” Setsuko begins to embrace her brash new personality, even lustily following the teacher to America. Oh Lucy! doesn’t have much momentum or shape, but Terajima is wonderful.
Another Mill Valley veteran, Sunao Katabuchi’s hand-drawn animated epic In this Corner of the World is the one film from this year’s schedule that received a local theatrical release, playing briefly at the Tower Theatre last August. Based on a Japanese manga, the film concerns Suzu, a daydreaming teenager from Hiroshima married off to a young naval clerk in the early days of World War II. Fascinating and frustrating in equal measures, In This Corner of the World offers a compelling look at life in Japan during and directly after wartime, putting a rich female character at the center to boot, but it’s also maddeningly choppy.
Not surprisingly, the crown jewel of this year’s festival comes from Japanese legend Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers both before and after World War II. Coming from his pre-war period, the black-and-white battle-of-the-sexes drama Sisters of the Gion is set in the “pleasure district” of Kyoto, and the story follows two struggling geisha sisters with opposing opinions on dealing with needy men. Over an airtight 69 minutes, this gorgeously composed film presents a harsh assessment of the connections between gender inequality and economic inequality that feels more progressive and relevant than most modern movies.
Other films playing this year’s festival include the ninjas vs. samurai blockbuster Mumon: The Land of Stealth, Yoji Yamada’s Ozu-esque drama Tokyo Family and The Ito Sisters: An American Story, a new documentary with local ties. Visit sacjapanesefilmfestival.net for complete schedule and ticket information.