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16 April 2008

JAPAN FILM FESTIVAL: Los Angeles April 11-17

The Japan Film Festival is historically five years old and suffers from some growing pains. Originally called the Chanoma Film Festival, it focused on films that focused on everyday life. Chanoma literally means living room.

After all, samurai and geisha movies come over to the US. More recently, anime has become popular here. Films about everyday people in every day Japan were and are less popular and this void creates a biased view of what Japan is and how the Japanese see themselves. Few Americans who have never been to Japan have seen "Otoko wa Tsurai Yo" ("It's Tough Being a Man"), a long-running series with the same lead actor (Kiyoshi Atsumi) and same director (Yoji Yamada) that only ended with the death of the actor (48 movies from 1969-1995). Yet Zatoichi has made it over. Americans seeing only this side of Japanese films can easily theorize that Japan's national character clings to the sensibilities of the samurai. Atsumi's character, Tora-san is the anti-samurai and there are many characters that would contradict the samurai morality.

Now that anime and J-horror have found fans in the US, the festival organizers decided to reflect the growing variety of genres represented by re-christening it the Japan Film Festival. Supported by the Japanese Consulate General, the Japan Foundation of Los Angeles, numerous Japanese-American corporations, and much of the Japanese media in the Los Angeles area, the festival this year screened independent films to indicate the depth and variety of Japanese filmmakers.

Some of the problems with the film festival include the brochures: The schedule didn't seem to be printed based in alphabetical order, order according to the Japanese syllabary or day. The panel discussion on the Saturday prior to the festival lacked focus. Reviewers were not given screeners and many of these movies were not readily available.

American moviegoers might be shocked that the movies actually start on time--without endless commercials or trailers. Of course, the festival features some Kurosawa classics: "The Hidden Fortress" and "Sanjuro."

"The Hidden Fortress" stars Toshiro Mifune was a general who is protecting the princess of the defeated royal family. With the family's gold, they travel to a safe territory. Along the way they pick up two cowardly peasants who provide comedic relief. George Lucas was inspired by this 1958 film when he was making the original "Star Wars" movie, particularly in terms of having two often bickering and absurd characters telling the story--in his case R2-D2 and C3PO. The actual Japanese title, "Kakushi Toride no San Akunin" is "The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress."

The 1962 "Sanjuro" is the follow up to "Yojimbo." Its original name is "Tsubaki Sanjuro" which means "Camellia Thirty-Something Man." Based on the Shugoro Yamamoto novel "Peaceful Days," however with the success of the 1961 "Yojimbo" Kurosawa resurrected the anti-hero. In that movie, Mifune's character named himself "Mulberry Field Thirty-Something Man." This would later become Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name" who was embodied by Clint Eastwood. In "Sanjuro," nine young samurai plan to battle the corrupt leadership of their clan, but they are too innocent and rashly trust the wrong people. Luckily a rude and coarse ronin (Mifune) comes to their aid.

"Sanjuro" and "The Hidden Fortress" are available on DVD and at most of my local rental stores, but it is nice to see such classic on a big screen as they were meant to me.

Another film readily available on DVD, but nice to see on the silver screen is the more recent "One Piece: The Alabasta Adventure--The Desert Princess and the Pirates." Based on a Shonen Jump series (Shonen Jump is a weekly manga compilation that I've never really liked) by Eiichiro Oda, "One Piece" is both a TV series with 349 episodes as of the end of March and a movie series. This is the eighth in the series which now has nine episodes. The desert princess, Vivi, needs the help of Monkey D. Luffy, the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates. Luffy himself wears a straw hat. The duplicitous Crocodile has engineered a war between Vivi's father, King Cobra, and the rebels. The pirates all have special abilities or super powers as does Crocodile and his main henchman, the gay (his cape says "Okama") Bon Clay. There's a lot of blood-splashing violence, cute characters (usually animals) and odd-looking ones as well. If you're looking for the cute inventiveness and the environmental messages of Hayao Miyazaki, you won't find it here. To a certain extent, this movie, a retelling of the Alabasta arc of stories, is like a condensed form to quickly catch one up to the One Piece series that follows Luffy in his quest for the One Piece, the ultimate treasure that will make him the pirate king. The TV series began in 1999 and 349 episodes is a lot of catching up for anyone with a life.

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