Saturday, January 16, 2021

Two from Japan: Wood Job! and To the Ends of the Earth

Apparently, the way to get me to stop procrastinating about which movies the local theaters are streaming is to give me the chance to make a double feature out of them. One movie, you can brush off, saying you can watch it later, but two is something you plan for, and maybe move up because the opportunity to see both isn't going to be there past a certain window. Thus, I finally catch To the Ends of the Earth after it's hung out in the Brattle's virtual room for the better part of a month.

(They're both pretty good, with Wood Job! probably still available via the Japanese Embassy's New Year Japanese Film series until sometime Monday and To the Ends of the Earth in the Brattlite through at least Thursday.)

We're right up at 11 months of no/limited theaters, and this really reminded me how much I miss double features, specifically. They can take many forms - so long as you've got just enough time to get up, stretch, and hit the concession stand in between, it doesn't matter whether it's Ned (at the Brattle) or Ian (at the Somerville) booking two things that kind of go together or you just trying to get the most out of that trip on the subway - but if the movies are good and neither of them is too long, it's an evening or afternoon full of entertainment that doesn't require a lot of stops or cost very much.

And if you're lucky, there's actual synergy there, something that connects the movies, intended or not, that sparks something in your brain. In this case, it's actor Shota Sometani on one level, or just the general fish-out-of-water idea as attacked by two very different Japanese directors. If you're with someone, you've got more to talk about afterward. If you're logging it on Letterboxd (or even writing this nonsense), it gives you a little extra material in the front of your brain to work with, even if it doesn't directly connect.

Anyway, double features are great. I'm going to try and arrange my evenings around two compatible movies more than I have and positively live at the Brattle when I have the opportunity to do so again.

Wood Job!: Kamusari nânâ nichijô

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (New Year J-Film Fest, Vimeo via Roku)

I would have found Wood Job! to be a fairly enjoyable film if it didn't get a little screwy in the end, but maybe a forgettable one. It works from a standard fish-out-of-water template that the filmmakers really aren't interested in subverting at all, but the filmmakers are aware of that, letting the movie argue for pride in unglamorous work done well and against detached irony without making too big a thing about it. That it finishes kind of weird just helps it stick.

It opens with Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani) discovering that he was not accepted to any of the universities to which he applied, leading his girlfriend Reina (Nana Seino) to break up with him as his friends almost immediately start planning to leave him behind. Not wanting to spend a year in cram-schools and reapplying, he impulsively answers an ad for a forestry program (a month of training and 11 of internship), only to find the training camp way out in the middle of nowhere and no-one like the cute girl on the recruitment poster anywhere in sight. But it turns out that she's not just a model - Naoki Ishii (Masami Nagasawa) lives in the small village of Kamusari, even further up in the mountains, and joining the lumber company that operates there means being hosted by Yoki Iida (Hideaki Ito), the toughest and gruffest of Yuki's trainers.

There's no particular doubt about where screenwriter/director Shinobu Yaguchi is going with this (working from a novel by Shiwon Miura), and he both knows what he's trying to do and that audiences have been watching variations of this story for a hundred years and that it's probably been told ever since people first started building cities. That familiarity is baked into the script from how it acknowledges that Yuki isn't the first city dweller whose eye Naoki has caught to the point when he literally throws someone looking at "Slow Life" cynically away, but there's a smart practicality to it: This internship program is necessary because places like Kamusari are shrinking, and it's worth noting that the makers of this film make the village messy and utilitarian rather than put together by detail-obsessed artisans. Also, there's a practical necessity to it; where a lot of films extolling country life don't make much more than an nostalgic argument, there's not much arguing when Nakamura Lumber namesake Seiichi (Ken Mitsuishi) points out that maintaining the sort of forest that regularly produces the sort of perfect, knotless timber that comes from 105-year-old trees without thinking on a generational scale.

It leads to the characters being fairly familiar types, but the cast handles it pretty well. Shota Sometani does a nice job of catching how Yuki is ignorant and initially soft but not actually dumb, never actually letting enough petulance in to make him unpleasant; Yuki's learning and growing and Sometani is able to communicate that without starting as a jerk. He complements Masami Nagasawa well, even if there's a sort of "well, who else is there?" feel to their pairing. Naoki's no-nonsense and independent but Nagasawa has her come across as part of this place rather than above it (even if a lot of Naoki's neighbors talk about her like she's some sort of spinster in her mid-twenties). They're fine, but it's kind of surprising that Hideaki is the only one who really gets to steal scenes as the broadly-played Iida; enough characters get distinctive looks and ways of talking that it's kind of surprising for them to be pushed so far into the background.

On the other hand, that might betray the method by which the movie takes a turn or two toward the peculiar later on, which is kind of clever: Yaguchi and all make jokes, but they're straightforward enough with the hows and whys of lumberjack work and admiring the natural beauty of the surrounding country that the audience absorbs it to the point that later talk of forest goddesses and over-the-top rituals involved in the worship thereof come about, a viewer can go for how gloriously tacky the event is without snickering at it so much as laughing at how Yuki is confused and manages to stumble in the most ridiculous possible way.

It's big and goofy enough to lodge in one's head even if the rest of the movie is basic simple-life material. Even without that final hook to make it memorable, it feels more realistic and generous than usual, upbeat, earnest, and well-executed enough to be an enjoyable couple hours' escape.

Also at eFilmCritic

Tabi no owari sekai no hajimari (To the Ends of the Earth)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (first-run, Eventive via Roku)

Movies and other pieces of art made to commemorate things the way To the Ends of the Earth apparently was (the 70th anniversary of an Uzbek landmark built by Japanese prisoners of war and 25 years of diplomatic relationships between the countries) are odd ducks, trying to serve more masters than usual, and one wonders both if that was on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's mind as he took the job and what the two countries involved thought as they watched it get made and saw the finished product. It's far from gauchely celebratory and often as unsteady as its protagonist, somehow direct and earnest but also seemingly uncertain what it's even doing there.

It follows Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the on-air talent for a television travel program whose current assignment has her in Uzbekistan, where nothing is going right, from being unable to spot a semi-mythical fish at one stop to having to choke down a severely undercooked piece of local cuisine at the next. Translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) and grip Sasaki (Tokio Emoto) and friendly and helpful, but producer Yoshioka (Shota Sometani) and cinematographer Iwao (Ryo Kase) often seem to treat her as just another thing to shoot. She may be kawaii and bubbly on-screen, but she's withdrawn and homesick off and increasingly pessimistic about having the career she really wants.

Kurosawa and star Atsuko Maeda give the audience the first bit of nervous-but-professional Yoko turning the big, fake, scripted charm on and off early on, but it's almost a diversion, something the audience knows to expect and thus takes for granted. Something more real and important happens a few minutes later, as Yoko tries really hard to be a the sort of tourist who tries to get to know a place - taking local transit to a bazaar to find dinner rather than ordering room service - only to freak out when people get too close, ducking into a convenience store to get some familiar junk food. It's a moment that one doesn't need to have traveled internationally to find familiar, but it's fascinating to watch what they establish about Yoko here and in the scenes around it, because it shows that she's not just the timid opposite of her on-screen persona, but curious and maybe wanting to be more like that, but having trouble finding the means. Yoko is often isolated, by language barriers, people talking about her off to the side, or how her boyfriend being multiple time zones away makes texting hard, so Maeda has to shoulder a lot of the load of showing who she is on her own, and she's great at it, whether it's those internal moments a fantasy Kurosawa doesn't signal as being such until midway through.

Part of what makes this work so well is the way Kurosawa plays with the film-within-a-film conceit. He's spent much of his career as one of Japan's best horror auteurs, and he not only uses that to highlight how fragile a thing reality and mental health can seem, but by peeling back some of the emotional whiplash involved in making that sort of thing. What to think about a scene where the producers make Yoko repeat the same miserable experience multiple times, drawn out so that the viewer can sort of marinate in her screaming, after which she feels she has to volunteer to narrate how it was kind of fun? He and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa also have a real knack for making it feel like they're shooting somewhere they're not supposed to, with Yoko skirting dangerous-looking crowds in low available light, having people in the crowd turn their head to wonder what the fast-walking Japanese girl is doing where extras are usually more stoic, or having something important happen in deep background, like they were lucky to catch it at all and couldn't reshoot. Maeda's frightened body language is good enough that one might not really think that Kurosawa was putting her through the wringer the way Yoko's producers do her, but enough of the idea forms to make those scenes uncomfortable.

It's a heck of a thing to do for a movie supposedly celebrating a quarter-century of friendship, but it surprisingly doesn't feel like a director biting the hand that feeds him. The camera unironically loves the countryside, even when there's an abandoned industrial building nearby, and also lovingly lingers as Yoko visits the Navoi Theater (heck, it even makes the brutalist Hotel Uzbekistan look good). That visit is fascinating in part because of where it's placed - before we get background from Yoko and Temur on why the place and the scene are important, and for how Kurosawa lets the music swell in a way that's almost melodramatic except that the orchestra is on-screen and the audience is appreciating them as much as anything.

The last act is three different types of tumult - Yoko unlocks something in herself in a way that cleverly asks the audience to reexamine the smug way in which many judge how young people interact with the world, and there's joy in it but also increased terror, with something even worse and more out of her control coming up as soon as she seems out of the woods. It's melodramatic but smartly played. Kurosawa is playing on his own reputation as a horror filmmaker and Maeda's history as part of a J-pop girl group whose collective image is tightly controlled, but he doesn't fall so much in love with the self-reflexiveness of it all so much as he makes it a part of how Yoko sees the world and what she's got to overcome to make her way in it.

To the Ends of the Earth has to build for a while to get where it winds up and as a result can be kind of slow going toward the start because there's not a lot of distraction as Kurosawa brings out all the little details that he'll be returning to and paralleling later. Once it starts to roll, though, it's awful impressive - and even, maybe, the sort of earnest story of finding a connection far from home that it didn't seem to be at first.

Also at eFilmCritic

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