Monday, June 27, 2005

The Taste of Tea & A Few Cursory Notes on Current Japanese Cinema

Among the new titles at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, Katsuhito Ishii's The Taste of Tea (2004) deserves nothing less than to become a major cross-over arthouse hit. Why? Ishii's film is exactly what everybody always says they want their film-going experience to be: something new and different. While The Taste of Tea, easily one of the funniest films I have seen in the past year, consciously references Japan's cinematic past -- namely the works of Yasujiro Ozu and particularly The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) -- it does so in order to define Japanese experience here and now. Ishii, who according to the program notes directed the animation segment in Quentin Tarantino's splatter-riot Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (which I detested, by the way), refracts Japanese experience through recent pop culture, creating a set of characters who possess cartoonish qualities of their own, at times dress in superhero costuming, and who in a few cases are themselves manga illustrators. Yet, if Tarantino's first Kill Bill delights in a dehumanized violence of a sort that comes from thorough participation in video culture, The Taste of Tea -- like the second Kill Bill -- manifests a genuine sympathy and generousness towards each of its characters, allowing Ishii's film to transcend the post-modern trap of self-satisfied irony. There is a warmth mingling with all this absurdity, making the experience of The Taste of Tea something more than pop-culture masturbation.

Beyond Ishii's post-Superflat work, Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated opus, Howl's Moving Castle, and Hirokazu Kore-eda's richly allegorical, high-concept Cannes prize-winner, Nobody Knows (both 2004), likewise mine similar adolescent territory, though offering far less pop-infused takes on modern Japanese life. Each of these films shows an emotional depth that is all-to-often a casualty of our ironic zeitgeist, which is not to say that Japan isn't as guilty as the rest of us in this respect: Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001) remains the most horrifying cinematic experience I've had all decade, and represents one of the few times in which I have found myself genuinely concerned with the impact that a film might have on its viewer's. Having said that, Japanese cinema at its best, as opposed to Ichi, seems to be experiencing a renaissance, if these three works are in any way representative. In fact, for all the hoopla surrounding recent Iranian, Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean cinema, I'm not so sure that there's any richer center of filmmaking today than Japan, especially when one also considers the work of Kitano, K. Kurosawa, Aoyama, and Oshii, to name only a few. Here's hoping that this thesis can be tested by all of us before what seems to be another "golden age" passes.

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