The theme of Japan Society’s latest cinematic retrospective is a bit unorthodox: movies set in Tokyo… but shot by non-native directors. Being a gaijin myself, I find the idea of exploring and celebrating such unique and diverse cultural perspectives (the featured filmmakers hail from a variety of countries, united only by their status as outsiders) extremely appealing, and therefore leapt at the opportunity to attend two of tonight’s screenings:
Cherry Blossoms: In this German reinterpretation of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, an elderly couple is in the midst of visiting their now grown (and thoroughly self-absorbed) children when the matriarch suddenly succumbs to the terminal illness that she’s been keeping secret from her family. Her husband is devastated by her unexpected death: he’s a creature of habit, and without her to set his daily routine, he feels lost, adrift, and rudderless. On a whim, he decides to take a trip to Japan, belatedly fulfilling one of his wife’s lifelong dreams. What begins as a sightseeing tour of Tokyo (which is neither romanticized nor sensationalized, even as we delve into some of the city’s seedier districts) quickly evolves into a poignant meditation on memory, transience, and impermanence (replete with such stock symbols as mayflies and cherry blossoms) as an eccentric butoh performer teaches our protagonist how to let go of his grief while still honoring the legacy of his departed loved one.
Like Someone in Love: Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s final narrative feature (which is just as structurally unconventional as the rest of his notoriously idiosyncratic filmography, to the extent that it strains the definition of the word “narrative”) hardly feels like a foreigner’s point-of-view of Japan; indeed, in terms of its tone and subject matter, it’s highly evocative of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work. Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima paints a breathtakingly beautiful portrait of Tokyo, from cozy domestic spaces to foreboding, neon-drenched alleyways, but Kiarostami is far more fascinated with the landscape of the human face; he keeps his camera close to the actors, milking both suspense and dark comedy from simple shot/reverse shot compositions. I need more time to digest the subtleties and ambiguities of the film’s unapologetically minimalistic (and borderline nihilistic) story, but its style is absolutely sublime.