A couple standing on a hilltop and embracing, they are silhouetted in front of an orange sun rising or setting.

"Labyrinth of Cinema", film still courtesy of AMG Entertainment.

Take a Chance on Japan

While most film buffs are acquainted with the classics of Japanese cinema, it’s rare these days that new films from Japan are widely released in the United States. Our fall film series New from Japan aims to remedy this by presenting nine new features and documentaries that provide a panorama of current filmmaking in Japan. You may not be familiar with the directors or stars, but they are all streaming for free, so why not take a chance?

You can read the full film descriptions here; of course, I think they are all worth seeing, but I thought I’d use this post to highlight two filmmakers whose work is less known to American audiences but is deserving of a closer look.

Nobuhiko Obayashi has had a long and varied career, but other than his cult horror movie House (1977), he is virtually unknown in the United States. A few years ago, I saw him speak at a film festival in Italy where he was being honored for his achievements. It happened to be Liberation Day, when Italians celebrate the end of the Nazi occupation of their country. That morning, Obayashi had spontaneously joined the parade and found himself walking next to a woman who, like him, was old enough to remember World War II. Although they couldn’t speak each other’s language, Obayashi said he could feel they both understood the bond they shared.

Although Obayashi was only a child when the war ended, its aftermath turned him into a committed, lifelong pacifist. His final film, Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), which is streaming in the New from Japan series, takes as its theme the history of Japanese warfare and war movies, but it is far from a somber affair. Instead, it is chock-full of the goofy special effects and good humor that abound in Obayashi’s body of work.

Despite Hirobumi Watanabe’s high regard among critics and his being the recipient of awards in Japan and at international film festivals, he has somehow managed to remain under the radar. But a mini-retrospective of his work was a surprise hit at this year’s virtual Far East Film Festival and may help change that. The three films of Watanabe’s that I have included in the New from Japan series exemplify his strange combination of structural rigor and quirky humor—sort of like a Japanese Jim Jarmusch. Watanabe makes his films far from Tokyo in his rural hometown of Otawara and shoots mostly in black and white. He uses his friends and family as cast and crew members (his grandmother’s actual 100th birthday party is a highlight of one of his films) and often includes his own rotund and jocular presence on screen. He is a director well worth discovering.

The rest of the New from Japan series features trips to Uzbekistan and Mexico; a fictional portrait of a forty-something single woman; and documentary portraits of master book designer and photographer Daido Moriyama, whose work was included in a Freer and Sackler exhibition last year. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to sample all of them.

New from Japan film selections:
Get to Know Hirobumi Watanabe:

Tom Vick

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer and Sackler and the author of "Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki and Asian Cinema: A Field Guide."

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