The Japanese Currents New Cinema festival

Hard-working places like the Northwest Film Center supply film festivals almost to excess. As such, it’s easy for good stuff to get lost in the morass of lefty docu-dramas or overly arty art movies.

Hard-working places like the Northwest Film Center supply film festivals almost to excess. As such, it’s easy for good stuff to get lost in the morass of lefty docu-dramas or overly arty art movies.

The good stuff is this week’s Japanese Currents New Cinema festival, which runs from Thursday to Sunday at the Art Museum’s super swank Whitsell Auditorium.

A joint venture between PSU, the Japan-America Society of Oregon, and the ubiquitous Northwest Film Center, Japanese Currents is an eight-film series that seeks to illuminate the cutting-edge and envelope-pushing nature of modern Japanese film.

While “cutting-edge” and “Japanese film” might suggest to some a grand samurai slash-fest, the fact is that there’s little of that to be had here. Instead, the festival presents a more varied sampling of movies, with some documentaries thrown in for good measure. The four-day expanse is a little pricey at $30 for students, but you don’t have to spring for the series pass-at $5 per film you can afford to pick and choose what sounds interesting.

Hana: A must-see

Hana is the tale of the young samurai Sozaemon, who has sworn to seek revenge on his father’s killer. After two years, we find him living in an Edo (Tokyo) slum, having no success in his quest. A gentle soul and a terrible swordsman, Sozaemon prefers instead to run a neighborhood school for the local kids and develop a relationship with the lovely widow next door. His neighbors are a colorful bunch, replete with village idiot and even some of the legendary 47 Ronin lying in wait with revenge plans of their own.

As time passes, Sozaemon’s clan begins to express their disappointment in his slow progress, but he finds his own kind of way to honor his father’s memory while still staying true to the values that are important to him. If you can reconcile yourself to a samurai film without a single killing, then you will be richly rewarded with Hana.

Sozaemon is an extremely likeable main character, and the film is crafted so that it’s easy to sympathize with him and see honorable revenge, which is so compelling in other samurai films, as ultimately silly and wasteful. By the end, by even mentoring the son of his father’s killer, the thoughtful man reveals a strength that makes his Ronin neighbors look like fools.

A finely crafted and well thought-out film, Hana has humor and drama enough to keep one engaged to the very end. Characters are lively and well developed, including the tenement itself. The film’s message is both timely and timeless, and seamlessly integrated into the narrative in a way that makes it particularly effective.

While calling a film “heartwarming” generally makes it sound terrible, Hana is one of the rare few that actually does do some genuine, non-sappy warming. If you only see one film of Japanese Currents, this should be the one.

Spring Snow: A maybe-see

Spring Snow, better than some of the festival’s offerings but still somewhat boring, is showing on both Saturday and Sunday. Based on a novel by Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s most famous authors, the film follows a star-crossed young couple as they struggle against society, their families and themselves to understand and experience love on their own terms. Upper-class Japan of the early 20th century is the backdrop here, and the expected demons such as arranged marriages rear their heads to get in the way of the young, rich lovers’ happiness. The young man in question, Matsuga, matures from a spoiled, snot-nosed teen, to a man willing to make huge sacrifices for love, which end up being in vain. Unfortunately for the viewer, all this takes about three hours to unfold, and without any really new or original takes on the well explored theme.

Matsuga is really the only character that shows any kind of growth, which is admittedly the most interesting part of the film, but not quite interesting enough to carry the somewhat stock plot. Spring Snow is visually compelling, setting its characters against large and immobile landscapes that highlight the transitory nature of their love, but in the end one comes away wondering why so much time and effort was spent on mostly spoiled, unlikable characters. Despite its shortcomings, the film is not without merit and is worth it if one can put up with the length and slow pacing, if only for its capture of Japan in a time period rarely explored by other films.

Ghost in the Shell 2: A don’t-see

Any festival is bound to produce a couple of duds. The worst is Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which plays Saturday afternoon. While the original Ghost in the Shell was a fine film, the sequel tarnishes its predecessor’s legacy by omitting the action and (for the most part) original main character, and instead focusing on boring, unnecessary narrative and lamely “deep” philosophical musings. Ostensibly about a robot that goes insane and kills her master, by the end it’s not only impossible to tell what’s going on, but impossible to give a rat’s ass about what’s going on either. Someone obviously liked it, though, since it garnered a Palme D’Or nomination in 2004.

However, the festival does sport other films of promise, namely Yaji and Kita: Midnight Pilgrims, another unconventional samurai film about gay, pill-popping swordsmen on a psychedelic journey through feudal Japan.

In the end, what makes the festival unique and worth attending is the variety of the films offered, and their unconventional nature. While you can always go to Movie Madness and rent a samurai movie, you might not be able to do so with these films. They offer a different kind of picture of Japanese cinema than most people have become accustomed to, which keeps fine films like Hana from falling through the cracks.