Review: Special Actors (Japan Cuts 2020)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

JAPAN CUTS 2020 is officially on! And the opening film this year may be the one that many have been legit waiting for their clocks to say 07/17/20 12:00:00 AM, and with good reason: it’s the follow-up from Shinichiro Ueda, whose debut effort, One Cut of the Dead, is a bona fide phenomenon (and which was the best film I saw during NYAFF 2018). All I can say is this: as much as I loved Kinta and Ginji, and perhaps it’s too early to say since I haven’t seen everything on my list, I nevertheless believe that Special Actors will end up being my pick as the best that the fest has to offer… despite how other critics out there have been kinda down on this flick.

The story goes something like this: Kazuto is a wannabe actor who can’t get through a single audition, due to his inability to handle pressure, which results in fainting. This does his jobby job no favors either; despite being a keeper of the peace, he has to look the other way when some drunkard tries hitting on another guy’s gal, who in turn gets punched in the face. Afterwards, Kazuto checks on the drunk idiot, and discovers that it’s his brother Hiroki? He too is an actor and the fisticuffs was part of an act; Hiroki was hired by the guy to demonstrate to the gal what tough stuff he is. Kazuto is then escorted by Hiroki to where he works: the Special Actors talent agency provides actors for special roles found outside of film and television. Like being the new boyfriend for someone trying to break up with a total a-hole, or to make sure that at least someone is crying at some other kind of a-hole’s funeral. Kazuto is hesitant on signing up, yet when Hiroki reminds his bro of that bills that need to be paid, which are all overdue…

The movie officially kicks into gear when a young woman shows up, seeking help. Her sister, who took over the family business of running an inn, after the untimely death of their parents, is also part of a wacky UFO cult. Said cult wants said inn as their permanent HQ, so it’s up to Kazuto, Hiroki, and the rest of the Special Actors to convince sis to not sign on the dotted line and also expose the charlatans for what they are! Saying much else would be entering spoiler territory, but let’s just say that not everything is as it appears… kinda like with One Cut of the Dead,. Yet not really, which seems to be everyone’s hang-up, that it’s not the same exact film as Ueda’s previous effort. Which is an unfair comparison; sure Special Actors is less frantic, because a different kind of story is being told here. One that’s admittedly more conventional, but more nuanced as well. Regardless, there are moments in which Ueda demonstrates that he’s the undisputed master of controlled chaos.

I really hate to beat around the bush, but again, I don’t want to say too much; TBH, in retrospect, I feel that my One Cut of the Dead review did just that. Though I also had no idea that it would set records by making 1000x its budget, plus seemingly everyone has seen it by now, so any such concerns are now moot. Still, that movie’s immense success demonstrated that there’s a legion of zombie fans out there, who were dying for such a fresh and brilliant send-up. And I suppose the tepid response to something that skewers UFO cults shows what little interest there actually is in the subject matter, comparatively speaking, yet some of us have been waiting for a comedy like this one for a very long time. Hence why I was far from disappointed with Special Actors! I also need to throw this out there: certain moments in this Shinichiro Ueda film reminded me of various others by Yoshihiro Nakamura, one of my all-time fave Japanese directors (BTW/FYI: don’t forget to pre-order the long awaited blu-ray of Fish Story next month).

You can view Special Actors, via online rental, from July 17 to 30, by clicking this link.

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Review: Shell and Joint (Japan Cuts 2020)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

In my previous review, I heaped a considerable amount of praise upon a movie starring a robot and a tanuki who spend the entire runtime of an hour and twenty-four minutes just talking about stuff. Some of it is philosophical, and some of it is absurd, yet all of it is supremely entertaining, fascinating even. I also noted my concern that said description had painted a pretentious picture, but there’s something else I neglected to mention, which is how Kinta and Ginji represents everything I love about Japanese cinema. Well, next we have another film that’s filed under avant-garde by JAPAN CUTS 2020, and it too features a whole lot of talking. No robots or tanuki this time, just people, though bugs are part of the mix. Yet despite many similarities, there are stark differences, and BOY OH BOY does Shell and Joint embody everything I can’t stand about Japanese cinema.

Shell and Joint is the long-awaited feature length debut of celebrated short movie maker Isamu Hirayabashi, and after this, I now have zero desire to see any of his previous, let alone future works. Things start off super promisingly enough with an aesthetic and implied vibe that strongly evokes Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, with a hint of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The latter especially so, due to the primary setting: a capsule hotel. The film features a considerably large cast of characters, some we see regularly, like the hotel’s receptionists & certain guests, and others who are just one & done. The film’s connective tissue is arthropods; you have one of the aforementioned receptionists reading a book about bugs, a retired Yakuza thug that’s now married and they’re also both beekeepers, a girl who assumes the way to bring her dead stag beetle back is with the Lightening cable that revives her mom’s dead iPhone, a dude in a sauna who goes on and on his sexual exploits that’s actually a cicada in human form, plus a trio of bugs in bug form (they’re actually puppets) to name just a few. Anyhow, arthropods are used to compared and contrast the points made in the multitude of conversations regarding human behavior, animal behavior, the passage of life, the passage of time, the significance of existence, the insignificance of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

So why was so much talking enjoyable in the last movie and not in this one? Like I said, whereas the robot and the tanuki talked about a bunch of different things, everyone here talks about the same damn thing, and in the same tiresome “oh wow, that’s SO deep” manner that’s fine once or twice in a Japanese movie, but it gets grating after the legit thirty-fifth time. Shell and Joint does feel like the work of a director who made a name by embracing the constraints of a short run time, but ends up floundering the open waters of feature length cinema, so the only thing he can come up with is to cram thirty-five shorts’ worth of material into a single vessel… which still could have worked if they’re all about the same damn thing. By far the best part is a segment in which two women ask a third about the products her company makes, which are vibrators, if only cuz the predictable grand statement about the human condition can be excused as drunken nonsense (the one asking clearly had a ton of shrimp and white wine). I should also maybe mention how, in addition to avant-garde, Shell and Joint is also listed under erotic. Thus everyone in the movie is super horny, and it too is super boring, which might be Shell and Joint’s most egregious offense. Did I mention that it’s two hours and thirty-four fucking minutes long? Back to the subject of bugs: at a certain point I became so bored that I fired up Animal Crossing on my Switch Lite to see if I might get lucky by landing on “tarantula island” (I’m in the southern hemisphere, so no scorpions for me, given how it’s winter on my end).

I also need to mention how the handling of the end credits is something I would have normally dug, ut taken with the rest of the movie, it’s just another sign of Hirayabashi trying too damn hard to impress/be deep/be weird/who cares. In the end, I suppose it’s appropriate that the JAPAN CUTS that has one the largest amount of super quality content has what appears to be the absolute worst movie that they’ve ever offered.

Don’t waste your time and instead see Kinta and Ginji, via online rental, from July 17 to 30, by clicking this link.

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Review: Kinta and Ginji (Japan Cuts 2020)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

As previously noted, JAPAN CUTS 2020‘s virtual screenings may be your one and only chance to see certain films, and at the absolute top of that list is Kinta and Ginji. It’s also one of those things that I absolutely loved, yet have a hard time recommending to most anyone else, because it’s basically the 2020 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of “not for everyone.”

The movie stars a robot and a tanuki who hang out in the woods, either shooting the shit or talking shit about each other. That’s it. Basically. It’s just one shot after another, of mostly trees, and of said pairing amongst the trees. Either walking and talking, or sitting down, sometimes laying down, but still talking. All they do is talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. Again, that’s seriously it.

Well, what do they talk about? All kinds of stuff: what they did since they last saw each other, what ever happened to such and such, what they dreamt of the other night, what in the hell is the other person’s problem, etc. They’re not best friends, yet the best conversations sometimes come from those we kind of can’t stand? Given its nation of origin, there’s a good amount of existential food for thought dished out, intermixed with utterly banal banter. But don’t take my word for it; the trailer is basically required viewing…

Basically, Kinta and Ginji is My Dinner with Andre, except, as noted, there’s a robot and a tanuki. And I feel just as strongly about the former as both Siskel and Ebert did when they reviewed the latter back in the day. So here’s the deal once more: 99.99% of the people out there will find the entire super boring, super dumb, maybe even super pretentious (I may have made things sound a bit more arty-farty than in really is, especially with the My Dinner with Andre comparison, but trust me it ain’t).

Yet for the other 00.01% whose reaction is, “ok, that sounds kinda interesting”, I implore you to not miss this chance. As stated above, I highly doubt that this will get picked up for distribution, and if it does, it’ll probably be saddled with a wretched dub like Violence Voyager. Also, this might be one of those films that you’ll really dig while enjoying a drink or a smoke, just sayin (tho I saw it clean and sober and legit believe it to be a staggering work of genius, again just sayin).

You can view Kinta and Ginji, via online rental, from July 17 to 30, by clicking this link.

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