Japan Cuts: A Fig Tree in New York

By Thessa Mooij

(New York) - New York’s Japan Society usually screens the occasional film – such as historical biopics with a national character – that aren’t picked up by any U.S distributors or any of the city’s festivals.

However this year, the society presents its first full-bodied programme: Japan Cuts. This moniker definitely fits the bill. Co-produced with the New York Asian Film Festival, with its fondness for cult-ish horror and Bollywood B-movies, Japan Cuts consists of 15 U.S and New York premieres. No less than 13 of those have violent subject matters involving cut-up corpses, killers, yakuza, manga, personal angst or war traumas. The legacy of the samurai sword is alive and kicking.

Having recently enjoyed such classics as Harakiri, Tokyo Drifter and Ugetsu, I sadly lack the stomach for the current heirs of these genres: Miike Takashi and the younger generation of filmmakers with their penchant for extreme horror.

Two out of 15 films in the Japan Cuts programme seemed to be colorful, whimsical and made by female directors. Kakome Diner by Naoko Ogigami is about a Japanese woman who decides to move to Helsinki out of the blue, and opens up a diner there.

Having missed the other film at this year’s Berlin festival, where it won the Netpac award for best Asian film, I decided to go see Faces of a Figtree (pictured). The protagonist is Maasa, a high-strung mother and wife, who unintentionally alienates her grumpy husband and emotionally absent children the more she fusses over them. Her only real friend is the fig tree in her garden. Seen from her own scatter-brained perspective, the film promised to be a surreal character study.

I had first read about Faces of a Figtree in the December 2006 issue of Metropolis magazine, Tokyo’s English-language weekly. The film is the directing debut of veteran actress Kaori Momoi, who has worked Kurosawa, Sokurov, Miike Takashi and Rob Marshall (Memoirs of a Geisha). In Metropolis, an ebullient Momoi claims to have directed before under a pseudonym, because “in Japan, men find smart women unattractive. So I didn’t showcase my name. Now that I’m older, I’m at a point where I can reveal my name as a director.” Yes, and she also hopes to become 120 without significantly aging.

Details of such alleged previous work are not forthcoming and Faces of a Figtree shows all the hallmarks of a long-awaited feature debut. The hyperrealism is frantic, firing at all cylinders. Momoi’s joy of playing with extreme close-ups, animated non-sequiturs and visual jokes is infectious.

When Maasa's husband dies from overwork on his construction site, it turns out all the nagging and silences was really an expression of love between them. Maasa goes into denial for a while, but when she moves from her traditional Japanese home into her daughter’s apartment close to the Tokyo Tower, she finds some sort of balance. Happily working in a restaurant, where she can continue her frantic culinary administrations, the owner asks her to marry him.

This is where the film’s enthusiasm fails to carry it any longer. Maasa becomes completely unhinged. Her current husband is caring and understanding (and naturally her previously barren fig-tree is finally bearing fruit), but this is precisely the moment that she can’t keep it together any more.

Most actors love to showcase their abilities by playing madmen or junkies and by directing her first feature, Ms Momoi has created her very own showcase. But the other actors hold themselves up well against her self-indulgence. There is something about Maasa’s (and presumably Momoi’s own) frantic energy, colorful art direction and vibrant cinematography that keeps this uneven debut going.

Being no expert in current Japanese cinema, and not having seen any other films in this Japan Cuts programme, I am wondering whether Japanese films are drawn along neat gender lines: violence from male directors, whimsical quirks from female directors.

Are there any Kamera readers out there who have seen any films that could confirm or refute this? Can anyone recommend any other current Japanese films and has anyone discovered any new potential Miike Takashi's out there?

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