Japan Cuts 2021: Experimental Shorts

Japan Cuts, America’s leading festival in contemporary Japanese film, has quite a broad selection at this year’s hybrid online-and-in-person festival. The features paint an eclectic modern industry for Japanese film and the shorts are sure to do the same. This year’s shorts are separated into narrative shorts and experimental ones. In this case, experimental meaning… anything but narrative films, although a few do have story arcs. It’s a broad range, with a range of qualities and experience in the filmmakers included. Herein is a grouping of curious new shorts working well outside normative commercial arenas.

Honeymoon

Honeymoon. Dir. Araki Yu.

Honeymoon is about both the laborious discomfort of following traditions at the cost of personal expression and the way traditions are co-opted and reframed from the East to the West. A good idea, framed tediously with mostly one shot of a couple sitting in for a marriage ceremony while off-screen commentators narrate their situation. It never arises beyond vague curiosity, at best, causing us discomfort for having to sit in on uncomfortable traditions and confront them, and at worst, not going anywhere or producing any movement.

In a Mere Metamorphosis

In a Mere Metamorphosis. Dir. Onohana.

In the blink of an eye… The image distorts and disturbs itself, awakened from a watery reverie. There is not so much a clear image as an idea of time and form. When the visual bends and the sound bends with it, the shifting itself becomes the form of the piece. It’s good art. We can track the emotion and the shape, or the lack of proper shapes, and feel a certain way about it. It’s a mere Metamorphosis. A clever construction of art. That’s all but that’s also everything.

June 4, 2020

June 4, 2020. Dir. Yoko Yuki.

A brief animated snapshot of a day and a space of mental wellbeing suspended in time, June 4, 2020, is a diary entry expanded into a light visual medium. Strokes of green paints of various shades create an impressionistic view of the author’s visit with family. They had not been back home in a long time and this is their visual homecoming, to the rural region of the Aichi prefecture. The author’s grandfather had gotten sick and they had to go home and grow some vegetables and care for their grandmother. This imagist self-reflection is both a kind meditation on what we’ve all been through the last time, and a multimedia approach to capturing one singular moment. The author becomes one with their grandparent’s home, understands the cycle of life and grief, and then shares their moment of vulnerability with the audience. It’s simple freeform filmmaking and a fair, if small, way of internalizing what it felt like when people had to go care for their elderly family. Brief and touching but the image never expands beyond the simple multimedia methods of storytelling. It remains one person’s journal of one day and while some of the feelings are universal, there’s not enough material to hold onto and remember it for.

Night Snorkeling

Night Snorkeling. Dirs. Nao Yoshigai & Hirofumi Nakamoto.

It feels like a loose definition of Experimental Film, to include a short film that is equivalent to home movies uploaded to any video file sharing site. There isn’t art or direction here, so much as there is a couple aimlessly exploring the coastal region of Japan, because that’s what they like to do. It isn’t an invalid choice, to simply film oneself doing anything. Probably it’s good to have a record. To create a small portrait of time you’ve spent underwater, as a couple. It’s a sweet thing to do, really, to preserve simple experiences for an audience. It’s not Experimental, however, so much as it is Naturalistic. It’s really the most obvious thing to do. I’m happy for them, although I’m not perfectly sure what it’s doing here. Snorkeling really does look like the best hobby. Bless them.

Red Table

Red Table. Dir. Hakhyun Kim.

I’ve never had any particular taste for the off-kilter grotesqueries of animation used as a prism to show darkness through children. It’s not to my taste. It may be for someone. Folks like Bill Plympton and his brand of absurdity in animation, but it’s not a specific interest of mine. And Hakhyun Kim’s short picture plays like so many of Plympton’s do. Hot take: Plympton has a signature style, but I do not find it enjoyable or very fulfilling to watch. To me, his method is haphazard visual design, pointed largely in its oddness and peculiarity, but lacking meaningful visual indicators. That’s how Red Table plays, too, it’s about a child with X’d out button eyes who smells money and causes some chaos in the nightmare of its capitalist playroom. The message there is self-evident but none of the delivery very much interests me.

Reflective Notes

Reflective Notes. Dir. Koki Tanaka.

I’ve seen too many COVID shorts now. Almost all of them play the same way. They ask the same questions. They follow the same string of thoughts. What does it really mean, that we’ve been locked away for so long? What does it mean to come back from that? Does it matter? It’s probably the last thing I want to see, a whispered meditation on what it all means. It was tired and old before it happened. We all sat in this mode long enough. When we returned and found the movies were just sitting there, too, there was nothing more hopeless than that. A black hole of thought, the COVID shorts have already run their course. There’s not a new idea here and it’s presented as we’ve seen everything the last two years. Please stop!

School Radio to Major Tom

School Radio to Major Tom. Dir. Chisaka Takuya.

I love David Bowie. I love the aesthetic of ’80s Japanese films. I love radio plays. I love short films! Great! We’ve found a great match. Here, a boy records a radio play based loosely upon David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. When he arrives one day, he finds that a young woman has gone in, and added her own recordings. They go back and forth for a while and create something together, like letters from lonely penpals. With precision and grace, Takuya transports us back to the past with a sentimental and short story about two lost people finding each other. I like it a whole lot. Sometimes the simple tools of nostalgia are the best tools.

Zona

Zona. Dir. Masami Kawai.

Early in July, Seattle caught a big heat wave. We desperately searched for a hotel. I got one booked, which promised an instant reprieve from the dry heat. Nobody has AC here and staying home just wouldn’t do. We got to the hotel and we breathed a collective sigh of relief into the sweltering air which returned a salty taste. Finally, a moment to enjoy the heat. We got some of our bags sorted in the car, got my daughter out, and went to check in. The nice lady at reception scrambles trying to find our room. Nothing. Maybe there’s an error? No error. She looks us up by name. We had booked a month out, at the hotel’s first opening spot. Shit. I spent the next six hours scrambling and checking in with hotels and trying to find the right spot. Eventually we did, landing in a place where someone had just canceled as we were walking up. Sweet reprieve. We entered our room and the AC barely ran but it was a sweet enough victory and we didn’t die of heat. It’s the small wins.

Zola is about a drought in Los Angeles. That is an increasingly regular thing. We are pretty locked into global climate change now. Things won’t get better. So must simply adapt and find the best solutions we can, while contributing the smallest footprint that we can. The characters of Zona are past that point. They just need some damn water. It’s a worrying little short with decent framing. It’s a fine small thing showing at Japan Cuts and maybe worth a few moments of your time.

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