Japan Society’s film festival features LGBTQ themes

A scene from "Ice Cream Fever."
A scene from “Ice Cream Fever.”
Japan Cuts

Japan’s soft power has made its presence felt in recent American life. Anime and manga are staples of youth culture. The streamer Max reserves its own section for Studio Ghibli’s animated films. In 2022, Ryusuke Hamaugchi’s “Drive My Car” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, while Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” and Takashi Yamazaki’s “Godzilla Minus One” were substantial hits in the US.

Yet, a large number of Japanese films may go unseen because streaming services and distributors don’t think they can earn a profit. The 17th installment of the Japan Society’s “Japan Cuts” comes to our rescue, including work by long-established major directors — Shinya Tsukamoto, Hideaki Anno, Shunji Iwai, Gakuryu Ishii — alongside features by newcomers, a few revivals of older films, and programs of shorts. Two of this year’s films — Takeshi Kitano’s “Kubi” and Tetsuya Chihara’s “Ice Cream Fever” — prominently feature gay or lesbian characters, while images of queer sexuality are a small part of the documentary “Shunga: The Lost Japanese Erotica.”

The very first shot of Takeshi Kitano’s “Kubi” lets you know what the film will be like when a crab slowly crawls out of a corpse whose head has been severed. It’s obsessed with decapitation as the ultimate power grab. (The title translates to “head.”) Although Kitano’s films are extremely varied, a major strain in them has blended humor (he started out as a TV comedian) and brutal violence. “Kubi,” a project he’s been nursing for 30 years, tramples on the mythology of the noble samurai. Set in the 16th century, it returns to the foundations of Japan with a deep cynicism.

The film is based on a true incident, when Nobugana (Ryo Kase), who was struggling to organize Japan into one country, faced an attempted assassination by Murashige (Hideotshi Nishijima). Along with the rest of his inner circle, his underling, Mitsuhide (Hidetoshi Nishijima), is sent off on a quest to discover the revolt’s leader. Nobugana promises them that whoever finds the man will become his successor. The three principal characters are entangled in a love triangle. Hideyoshi, played by the director himself, observes and offers running commentary.

Rather than pleasure or emotional sustenance, the men of “Kubi” use sex as a means to manipulate their way to power. They go beyond messiness into downright villainy. Depicting gay samurai, although not unprecedented (Nagisa Oshima’s “Taboo” did so in 1999), is a part of the film’s attempt at tearing down Japan’s myths. (There’s no evidence of the queerness of the historical figures it portrays.) It’s the country’s equivalent of a ‘70s revisionist Western made in the US. Although “Kubi” includes many action scenes, it poses its actors with a slightly stiff, theatrical blocking. Kitano frames widescreen shots with very little camera movement. Few directors would dare to film the chaos of battle in a single take. The biggest problem with “Kubi” doesn’t lie in Kitano’s ideas or direction, but the sprawling script, where every scene holds the kernel of a betrayal or two. (He first laid out this story in the form of a novel.) So many of its characters are set up simply to die. That’s part of its biting humor — whatever their role in the film, man after man simply winds up with a sword stuck through his body — but the degree of violence dampens down the stakes. A pitch-black comedy, it’s also a serious vision of political corruption.

Testuya Chihara’s “Ice Cream Fever” struggles to find its own style. Adapted from Mieko Kawakami’s short story, it aims for a bright, colorful look, but this breezy tale of four women who either work at or frequent the Shibuya Million Ice Cream parlor fails to arrive at its desired aesthetic. It’s so chaste that it could be made for children, down to the camera cutting away just before two women kiss. Chihara never finds the appropriate light touch.

After writing one novel, Saho (Serena Matola) has given up on her dream of continuing down that creative path. Takako (Utaha), a teenager with dyed pink hair, pigtails, and piercings, and Natsumi (Riho Yoshioka), who’s a decade older, both work selling ice cream. After they meet in the parlor, Natsumi falls in love with Saho. Yu (Marika Mastumoto), a woman in her 30s, struggles to help her niece track down her missing father: The young girl is terrified that nuclear war will take place before she can reunite with him. Unhappily working for a corporation, Yu longs for a different path, opening a public bath. The women’s stories are edited together in a non-linear fashion.

“Ice Cream Fever” includes several music video-inspired interludes, but instead of communicating true joy, they’re a blur of ineptly edited shots. (Utaha is a real-life pop star.) Jun Imajo’s cinematography is washed-out, yet it drips garish colors. When so much of what “Ice Cream Fever” attempts relies on visual language, its failures in that department destroy any emotional resonance. Chihara says, “I experimented a lot with shaky camera, autofocus, and blurry effects to recreate the natural visual perception of the human eye. I learned that these techniques can underline the emotional state of my characters.” Chihara has learned from Sofia Coppola and Wong Kar-wai, but he lacks their feel for movies as sensual pleasures. As a love story between women, “Ice Cream Fever” is so timid and fragmentary that it lands well below 98.6 degrees.

“Japan Cuts 2024” | Japan Society | Runs July 10-21 | All films in Japanese with English subtitles | See japansociety.org for full lineup and schedule.