Michael Conrad reviews four Japanese films

Michael Conrad is the 2012-2013 president of the First City Art Center board of directors.

Since college, I have had a keen interest in non-mainstream movies. My roommate was the campus projectionist, and he would allow me to sit with him and watch some of the most obscure movies that had been made in the industry. Ever since then, Hollywood Blockbuster type movies seem boring and without flair.

I had the pleasure of seeing Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” while in college, and this started my interest in Japanese Cinema. All things equal, I will choose a Japanese film over most others because of the combination of tradition, beauty of scenery, and unusual story matter. I have been happy to see that Japanese Cinema has continued to mature in the modern era, and I would like to share my thoughts on three recent ones and one older somewhat obscure film.

“The Taste of Tea”: (2004) Director Katsuhito Ishii

This is perhaps my favorite Japanese film, though the competition is fierce. In this film, Ishii profiles three generations of a family living on a common property in the bucolic countryside of Japan north of Tokyo. The anime-drawing grandfather has a magic allure to his grandchildren, each parent has found an unusual way to make a living, and the children are faced with social and mental challenges. Each character has to face their personal quest, and each meets it with unexpected yet glorious methods. This film is trance inducing, and many people complain that it is slow and boring. However, if each detail is observed attentively, the film, and particularly the ending of the film, will lift the viewer to a transcendent peace.

“Departures”: (2008) Director Yojiro Takita

This movie showcases the respect that Japanese culture has for its dead and departed, yet the taboo that still exists for those that complete the work on the corpses. A recently married cellist loses his job in the orchestra, and has to move back to his small village to live in the parental home and look for work. Thinking he is applying to a travel agency, he stumbles upon a job with a business that prepares the recently departed for burial for the families. At first repulsed by the idea, the main character begins to see the worth of his new role in society, though his wife and others are appalled by it. Sometimes comedic, the film never strays too far from its poignant task of looking at our views on death and dying.

“Tampopo”: (1985) Director Juzo Itami

This only at first brush appears to be a comedy, but tackles the importance of finding your calling and pursuing it with all of your energy. A widowed woman finds herself with her husband’s restaurant, and with the help of a trucker/cowboy friend that believes she can perfect the noodle dish; she rises to the occasion. This is a feel good movie with an offbeat, sometimes erotic twist.

“Woman in the Dunes”: Director Hiroshi Teshigahara

This creepy film is a metaphor for unhappy peoples’ lives. An Entomologist is studying exotic insects near the isolated coast of Japan, and is offered a night’s lodging at a woman’s shelter in the pit of a sand dune. Just like the insects that he studies, he becomes trapped in the sand pit with the woman. He realizes that this was her intent, as well as the intent of her villagers, all along. He struggles against the confines of the pit, all the while realizing that he is as helpless as an insect in a spider’s web. He must rely on her, and the villagers for his very survival for food and water, and he must labor to keep the sand from swallowing up his shelter. He eventually acquiesces to his situation over a long period of time, and the viewer is left to wonder if acquiescence is giving up or adapting.