Today, following an interminably long absence (thanks in large part to the cancellation of this year’s Japan Cuts, which absolutely devastated me), I finally returned to Japan Society—my favorite venue in New York City—for a double feature:
Dreaming of the Meridian Arc
To be perfectly honest, I went into this expecting a middling jidaigeki at best—generic, formulaic, and unimaginative. I was therefore delighted to discover that it was more subversive and postmodern than the standard fare, akin to Kazuo Mori’s Vendetta of a Samurai (albeit to a lesser degree).
Like that Kurosawa-penned hidden gem, this film features a modern-day framing device, in which a group of mild-mannered city officials struggle to produce a historical epic about local folk hero Tadataka Ino—the cartographer that, in 1821, created the first accurate map of Japan. When their hired writer discovers that their subject actually died three years prior to the officially recorded completion of his life’s work, however, our protagonists must untangle fact from fiction in order to find the human “truth” behind the legend.
The result, for better or worse, is a tearjerker as precisely calculated as a trigonometry equation. While the visual style practically screams “made-for-TV movie” (whenever something suitably melodramatic occurs, for example, every character gets a dedicated reaction shot), the cast certainly delivers where it counts; the actors obviously had a blast playing their dual roles (a gimmick that owes a greater debt to The Wizard of Oz than it does to Tadashi Imai’s Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai, I think).
Ultimately, despite its slight themes and modest ambitions (its intention to promote tourism couldn't be more transparent), Dreaming of the Meridian Arc is a charming, funny, and effortlessly entertaining diversion.
She is me, I am her
This COVID-themed anthology film is a master class in minimalism. The introductory vignette alone is worth the price of admission. Its story—which revolves around a trio college friends reconnecting over FaceTime after twenty years of radio silence—unfolds almost entirely in tight closeups, elegantly conveying the claustrophobia of quarantine-era existence. As the protagonists acknowledge, confront, and resolve the underlying tensions and unspoken resentments that shattered their relationship in the first place, however, the frame gradually widens out, revealing the empty space surrounding them—thus emphasizing their loneliness and isolation.
The remaining three shorts are equally compelling, tackling such poignant and relevant topics as unemployment, homelessness, prostitution, broken dreams, and the unanticipated disruption of everyday routines that people take for granted. Writer/director Mayu Nakamura personifies the indie spirit, accomplishing more than the average Hollywood blockbuster with significantly fewer resources. After all, producing a work of transcendent beauty doesn’t require a huge budget; you just need a simple premise, a small cast of relatable characters, a handful of real locations—and a clear enough creative vision to weave all of those disparate elements together.