Japan Cuts 2020: Five Movies You Can’t Miss at This Essential Fest’s First Streaming Edition

America's best annual showcase of new Japanese cinema adjusts to the times with its first streaming-only edition.

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Over the last 14 years, Japan Cuts has unambiguously become America’s best annual showcase of new Japanese film. Produced in partnership with (and typically hosted by) New York’s Japan Society, the well-curated festival has provided domestic audiences with a comprehensive snapshot of the country’s ever-vital national cinema, from mainstream hits like “20th Century Boys” to obscure epics like “Heaven’s Story,” and from micro-budget dramas like “Amiko” to gonzo masterpieces like 2011’s immortal “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead.” (Cannes really dropped the ball on that one.)

And it wasn’t the only one: Despite the infinity pool of international streaming content that’s now available to cinephiles around the world, many (or even most) of the indelible movies that screen at Japan Cuts don’t go on to receive a proper release of any kind in the United States, which adds an extra touch of urgency to an already essential fest. But now — at the hour of our greatest need — one of New York’s premiere film events is going national and offering the entire country a chance to enjoy a full slate of new work that probably won’t be showing up on Netflix anytime soon.

Due to the kind of apocalyptic shitshow that could easily be the subject of a film in this festival, the entire lineup of Japan Cuts 2020 will be streaming from July 17 – July 30, with features prices to rent for $7 and shorts for $3. 

And this year’s program is up there with Japan Cuts’ best. No one who fell in love with “One Cut of the Dead” can afford to miss the “Opening Night” film, such as it is, as Ueda Shinichiro’s “Special Actors” recaptures some of the same energy that made his debut such an unhinged delight. “Fukushima 50” offers a star-studded yet somber centerpiece, as Ken Watanabe stars as the manager of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on the tragic day for which the facility would come to be remembered.

Other big names in the program include the late “Hausu” filmmaker Obayashi Nobuhiko, whose characteristically wild swansong is a three-hour meditation on cinema and its power to promote world peace, and “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches on” director Hara Kazuo’s four-hour “Reiwa Uprising,” a documentary portrait of a new left-wing political group that looks to challenge Japan’s nationalistic forces. 

As usual, however, the real treasures here are buried a bit deeper in the lineup, from a DIY anime rock-fest to a sweet, almost mumblecore romantic drama that feels like a nice update of “In the Realm of the Senses.”

Here are five great movies to seek out during Japan Cuts 2020.

The beautiful and flinty Naoko (Takiuchi Kumi) is due to be married to a military bigwig in just a few days, there’s just one little problem that might have to be solved first: She can’t stop flipping through the scrapbook of homemade porn she made with her burnout ex-boyfriend Kenji (Emoto Tasuku) some 15 years ago. The exhibitionism of it all still turns her on. They banged in public toilets, humped in alleyways, desecrated love hotels with the windows open. It was a sticky but sublimely innocent time.

Now in their mid-30s and both underemployed in the wake of the 3/11 disaster, Naoko and Kenji are each settling for stability in their own way, caught between a blissful past they can’t forget and a mediocre future they’re hoping to accept. With the house to herself for a night before her nuptials, Naoko reignites her old flame with the hottest of questions: “Want to go back in time?”

So begins a compulsive fuck-a-thon that only slows down when Naoko and Kenji start to chafe (and even that is more of a speedbump than a roadblock). 

A sexually explicit indie drama that goes down like a good-natured cross between “Before Sunset” and “In the Realm of the Senses,” Arai Haruhiko’s “It Feels So Good” tenderizes the Roman Porno tradition of Japanese cinema with the flaccid affect and fumbling uncertainty of a mumblecore film (not at all unexpected from such its lo-fi aesthete of a director, who’s also a frequent film critic and former Wakamatsu Kōji collaborator).

The result is a softcore but thoroughly un-sensationalized affair that bristles with the raw sterility of real life, and dares you to lust along with its characters as they try to lick each others’ troubles away. 

Naked in every sense of the word, Takiuchi is phenomenal as an iron-willed woman who feels bad for herself but refuses to be the victim, her performance taking on new depth every time a twist is added to Naoko and Kenji’s dynamic (an early encounter that could be described as rape is one of the film’s two major transgressive elements). Throw in some apocalyptic overtones, a dangerously polite classical score, and a DIY vibe that stops the movie from being swept away by its own dreaminess and it’s easy to understand how “It Feels So Good” landed the top spot on Kinema Junpo’s list of the best Japanese films of 2019.

When “Hausu” director Obayashi Nobuhiko was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live, he immediately decided to revisit an autobiographical screenplay idea that he’d written as a young man and kept in a drawer throughout his four-decade career as one of Japan’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers (not an easy pantheon to crack).

When Obayashi finished “Hanagatami” in 2017, the 80-year-old auteur found himself in an unexpected situation: He wasn’t dead. Complicating matters further, he was also haunted by the dying words that Kurosawa Akira had left behind to the next generation of directors: “The beauty and power film can save the world from war and lead it toward peace. If you can’t do it, your children can.” Obayashi determined that, if he was still alive, it must mean that he could do it.

And so — in the midst of receiving chemotherapy for the disease that he ultimately succumbed to this past April — the irrepressible renegade fit every hope he still had left for the future into one unforgettable three-hour swan song. 

Perhaps the highest praise that one can offer the inimitably surreal “Labyrinth of Cinema” is that it somehow manages to live up to the promise of its making. Technically the story of an Onomichi movie theater whose owners decide to screen a marathon of Japanese war films on the night before their business is shut down forever, Obayashi’s farewell can’t even get through the opening credits before it begins to fold into itself and throw up a more expressionistic plea for harmony.

“Our wish for world peace resulted in this passionate movie!” chirps a disembodied voice in between an ode to poet Nakahara Chuya and a shoutout to… American stage icon Hinton Battle? Why not.

It’s a fittingly self-reflexive introduction to a film about a portal that opens between modern audiences and the war movies that document the worst atrocities in modern history, as “Labyrinth of Cinema” loops into a now-or-never meditation on film’s ability to reach people in their own time. Spaceships, yakuza, schoolgirls, a quick walk through the Russo-Japanese War, and more lo-fi green screen effects than most people could fit into their entire careers… Obayashi packs it all in to his last goodbye, which squeezes a century of Japanese movies into a slipstream as dense as the spaghetti bar that sent Homer Simpson to the hospital.

It’s an essential (if exhausting) “so long” to cinema from someone whose work has always been a testament to the medium’s power.

Yamada Kana’s debut feature has already been compared to the female-driven melodramas of Mizoguchi, but — tonally, at least — her cloistered modern chamber piece about the inner workings of a Tokyo escort service has just as much in common with the likes of Andrew Bujalski’s “Support the Girls.” Adapted to the screen from the director’s own stage play (and doing very little to disguise its origins as a piece of theater), “Life: Untitled” strips the titillation away from a misogynistic industry in order to humanize the women who devote their lives to it, if not always their bodies. 

Kanou (played by “Asako I & II” actress Itō Sairi) thought she was equipped for sex work, but her first customer can’t even get his clothes off before she bolts onto the streets outside their love hotel in nothing but her underwear. But a girl’s gotta eat, and so Kanou takes a job working the phones in the escort service’s dingy Shinjuku office, where she doubles as our window into an illicit — if strikingly mundane — world that’s easy to exploit so long as it’s hidden from view.

Taking a cold and capitalistic approach to sex that will frustrate anyone with more prurient interests (Yamada’s jagged little drama would rather get under its characters’ skin than ogle their flesh), “Life: Untitled” sketches a vivid cross-section of working-class women as they fight to preserve whatever shreds of their self-identity haven’t been subsumed into their labor. The result is a movie that’s too sharply written to feel like a slice-of-life story, and yet grounded enough not to dilute the day-to-day reality of getting screwed by your job. 

Imagine if Aki Kaurismäki directed an anime and you’ll have a vague idea of what separates Iwaisawa Kenji’s “On-Gaku: Our Sound” from the likes of “Nana,” “K-On!,” and just about every other story about Japanese teenagers who start a rock band. A DIY work of outsider art (Iwaisawa did over 40,000 pieces of illustration himself) that never deviates from its own strange wavelength, “On-Gaku” introduces us to a trio of high school toughs who form a noise group called Kobujitsu after someone hands an electric guitar to dead-eyed frontman Kenji.

One dissonant blast of sound is all it takes for these kids to feel like they’ve unlocked their true purpose in life (“You will address us as musicians from now on,” Kenji declares to one of the many cliques who are terrified of him. “With admiration”). By the end of this 71-minute oddity, our boys are melting faces from the main stage of a local music festival.

The journey from A to B doesn’t unfold how you might expect. In fact, even in hindsight it’s hard to say how one thing leads to another. Iwaisawa is marching to the beat of his own righteous drummer, and his tempo is a lot closer to Adult Swim than anything you might find on Crunchyroll. Kenji in particular feels like a squiggly foreign exchange student who’s come to Chiku High from the offices of “Dr. Katz.” A bald and unblinking kid who Sakamoto Shintaro voices like a self-possessed stoner version of Dr. Manhattan, Kenji is a deadpan comic icon in the making. At one point, he rocks a recorder so hard that it literally adds a new dimension to the world around him. However you decide to classify Kobujitsu’s sound (somewhere between Boris and Sunn O))), maybe?), the movie that brings them to life is unambiguously punk as hell.

Ueda Shinichiro blew us away with his deliriously clever “One Cut of the Dead,” a high-concept, low-budget riff on the zombie movie that did more to revitalize the undead genre than anything since “Shaun of the Dead” (and earned back roughly a zillion times what it cost to make). For his next trick, Ueda tried to avoid the sophomore slump by scaling up responsibly. Rather than go Hollywood or attach himself to a slick commercial movie of some kind, the DIY decided to stick with his strengths and create another — if slightly more expansive — manic comedy about a bunch of amateur performers who run smack into the real world while trying to put on a show.

Hey, when you find your wheelhouse, there’s no reason to leave it. 

In “One Cut of the Dead,” the crew of a zombie movie found their shoot interrupted by an actual horde of the walking dead. In “Special Actors,” an oddball troupe of street performers — penniless improv types who hire themselves out to play mourners at a funeral, seat fillers at a wedding, and various other real-life roles — are commissioned to save a girl from the UFO cult that’s trying to prey on her modest fortune. As the Special Actors square off against the religious acolytes, the poor girl in the middle is the only one who doesn’t realize she’s involved in an elaborate kind of stage fight. 

“Special Actors” is under a bit too much pressure to match the magic of its director’s breakthrough — there’s a whiff of self-reflexivity in Ueda’s decision to make the hero of this story a nervous burnout who has seizures whenever he gets stressed — and the script handles many of its most slapstick moments with the same grace as its leading man. But if this follow-up is missing the Rube Goldberg-like plot construction of his previous film, Ueda’s second feature still reaffirms that he knows how to bottle the joy and absurdity of artistic collaboration better than just about anyone else working in movies today.