From the bustle of neon-lit Shinjuku and its ultramodern skyscrapers to the traditional scenery of Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms, and Shinto shrines, Tokyo has served as a source of creative inspiration for generations of international filmmakers. Anticipating the 2020 Summer Games, when the eyes of the world will once again fall upon Japan’s dynamic capital, Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination considers the ways Japan—and the elusive concept of “Japaneseness” —is rendered and interpreted outside its borders with a revealing selection of Tokyo-set films by foreign directors, including Japanese co-productions, Hollywood blockbusters, and European arthouse favorites.
The series kicks off November 8 with Werner Herzog’s latest film Family Romance, LLC, a quasi-documentary narrative feature concerning the function of role-playing in matters of love and business, screening in New York for the first time since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Herzog is one of several non-Japanese filmmakers in the series—along with Abbas Kiarostami, Michel Gondry, and Bong Joon-ho—with films featuring all-Japanese casts, offering outsider perspectives in the guise of native speakers.
The majority of the series, however, is made up of films that make cultural difference and discovery their central subjects: poetic essay films chronicling first encounters (Wim Wenders’s Tokyo-Ga and Chris Markers’s Sans Soleil); Western narratives of self-discovery through a figurative embrace of the Japanese “other” (Dorris Dorrie’s Cherry Blossoms and Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift); and works focused on the alienating limits of cross-cultural understanding (Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Alain Corneau’s Fear and Trembling).
The rarest screening in the lineup is a 35mm presentation of Tokyo Pop (1988), a largely forgotten and overlooked gem of American independent cinema co-written and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The film follows a young New York singer (Carrie Hamilton) who moves to Tokyo and soon finds herself romantically and professionally involved with a Japanese rock ‘n’ roller (Yutaka Tadokoro aka Diamond Yukai) who enlists her as his band’s frontwoman. Unavailable on DVD or streaming, Japan Society’s November 22 showing likely marks the first time Tokyo Pop will screen in New York since its 1988 theatrical run.
“Taken together, the films in this series offer fascinating insights into outside perceptions of Japanese values, customs, and scenery through the specific site of Tokyo, both as a constellation of symbols signifying ‘otherness’ and an actual geographic location,” says K. F. Watanabe, series curator and Deputy Director of Film at Japan Society. “From intimate familiarity and affection to degrees of exoticization and borderline xenophobia, the wide-ranging responses to foreign encounters with Japan embedded in these films also present an opportunity to consider the assumptions we bring to our own engagement with Japanese art and culture, whether as a Japanese, outsider, or someone in-between.”
Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination is part of Japan Society’s year-long, institution-wide Passing the Torch series and is organized in conjunction with the exhibition Made in Tokyo: Architecture and Living, 1964/2020, on view through Jan. 26.
Family Romance, LLC
Fri., Nov. 8 at 7 pm
Dir. Werner Herzog, 2019, USA, 89 min., DCP
*NEW YORK PREMIERE
The latest by Werner Herzog—a self-financed micro-budget meta-narrative feature about Japan’s unique “rent-a-family” industry—finds the well-traveled German director shooting in the Far East for the first time, working primarily in Tokyo with a cast of non-professional Japanese actors. Playing a version of himself in a film that continually blurs documentary with fiction, Family Romance’s actual founder Yuichi Ishii stars as a man hired out to play the missing father of 12-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Yanimoto)—a job that becomes increasingly complicated when feelings of affection start to surface and role-playing gets entangled with reality. Along the way, Herzog explores tangents of other instances of willed self-deception and fantasy, including visits to a hotel run by humanoid robots and a funeral parlor where people can pay to experience their own memorials.
Sat., Nov. 9 at 2:30 pm
Dir. Wim Wenders, 1985, West Germany/USA, 92 min., DCP
Traveling to Tokyo in 1983, Wim Wenders sets out to find remnants of Yasujiro Ozu, whose work he considers a “holy treasure of cinema,” and meets with the Japanese master’s former leading man Chishu Ryu and cameraman Yuharu Atsuta. While there, the German director reflects on the sights and sounds of the sprawling metropolis he had previously only encountered through Ozu’s films, journeying into pachinko parlors, public parks and a plastic model factory with a tourist’s sense of curiosity and fascination. A time capsule of early ’80s Tokyo, captured in gorgeous 16mm Eastmancolor footage by cameraman Ed Lachman, Wenders’ highly personal tribute to Ozu also doubles as a poetic rumination on the evocative power of images.
Cherry Blossoms (Kirschblüten – Hanami)
Sat., Nov. 9 at 4:30 pm
Dir. Doris Dörrie, 2008, Germany, 124 min., HDCAM
The third film partially shot in Japan by German director Doris Dörrie (whose interest in Japanese culture began with a visit to the 1985 Tokyo International Film Festival), this profoundly moving drama takes inspiration from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and adds a cross-cultural twist. An elderly couple, Rudi and Trudi (Elmar Wepper and Hannelore Elsner), travel from the Bavarian countryside to Berlin to visit their children, only to be greeted as inconveniences upon arrival. When tragedy befalls Trudi, a grief-stricken Rudi travels to Japan, a country that his wife longed to visit but never could, and meets a young butoh dancer (Aya Irizuki) who helps him tap into Trudi’s lifelong love for the Japanese dance form.
Like Someone in Love
Sat., Nov. 9 at 7 pm
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2012, Japan/France, 105 min., DCP
Following the Tuscany-set Certified Copy (2010), Abbas Kiarostami continued to work outside of his home country of Iran with this Japanese-French co-production largely set in Tokyo. Sociology student Kyoko (Rin Takanashi) moonlights as a high-end escort without the knowledge of her highly volatile and jealous boyfriend (Ryo Kase). When she is assigned to an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno), who seems more interested in polite conversation than carnal pleasures, the pair find themselves in an ambiguous relationship that extends beyond the initial call of service. Shot by Takeshi Kitano’s regular cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima, this masterfully directed arthouse drama finds the Iranian auteur continuing his exploration of the complex tension between simulation and reality with richly layered images of Tokyo as seen through windows and within reflections.
Lost in Translation
Tue., Nov. 19 at 7 pm
Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003, USA/Japan, 102 min., 35mm
Nearly two decades on, Sofia Coppola’s early aughts classic about loneliness, ennui and brief encounters abroad continues to be a touchstone of 21st-century Western representations of Tokyo on film. Beginning with the desire to set a story in Japan’s busy capital, the American director drew upon personal experiences to craft this finely-tuned feature about an aging movie star (Billy Murray) who develops an unexpectedly intimate bond with a young newlywed (Scarlett Johansson) while they are both staying at the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku. Distinguished by a dreamlike mood mixed with bemused humor derived from (largely exaggerated) cultural differences and Murray’s uniquely droll persona, Lost in Translation paints a compelling portrait of the isolating and enthralling experience of being a stranger in a strange land.
Fri., Nov. 22 at 7 pm
Dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui, 1988, USA/Japan, 99 min., 35mm
Bleach-blonde rocker Wendy (Carrie Hamilton) spontaneously hops on a plane from New York to Tokyo with dreams of making it big in Japan as a singer. Finding herself broke and alone soon after arriving, she takes up work at a hostess club before running into Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, Japanese musician Diamond Yukai), a grinning rock ‘n’ roll frontman with whom she eventually finds a romantic and musical connection. A largely forgotten gem of ’80s American independent cinema by Fran Rubel Kuzui (best known as the director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992), Tokyo Pop takes us on a breezy tour through bubble era Tokyo, replete with tongue-in-cheek nods to the city’s American-influenced pop culture and a standout rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.
Sat., Nov. 23 at 2 pm
Dir. Chris Marker, 1983, France, 103 min., 35mm
Driven by a desire to “capture life in the process of becoming history,” the enigmatic and influential French filmmaker Chris Marker traveled the globe and made a sprawling body of hybrid work that ruminates on the nature of memory and time. Of the several films he made in Japan (where, among the crowded drinking holes of Shinjuku’s “Golden Gai” district, there is a bar named after one of his early masterpieces), this singular essay film remains the late director’s greatest achievement. An unnamed woman narrates the poetic letters and philosophical reflections of an invisible world traveler accompanied by footage of Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, San Francisco and, most significantly, Tokyo—a city whose people, streets, malls and temples inspire the traveler’s richest observations.
Sat., Nov. 23 at 4:30 pm; Sat., Dec. 7 at 2 pm
Dirs. Michel Gondry/Leos Carax/Bong Joon-ho, 2008, France/Japan/South Korea/Germany, 102 min., 35mm
A distinguished trio of non-Japanese filmmakers converge to offer wildly varying and accomplished short films that take inspiration from, and are shot entirely within, Tokyo. French director Michel Gondry leads with Interior Design, a characteristically whimsical fable about existential anxiety and corporeal metamorphosis in an aimless young woman who moves to Tokyo with her amateur filmmaker boyfriend; in Merde, French director Leos Carax introduces his own unique “Godzilla” in the form of a mysterious sewer-dwelling man who devours cash and chrysanthemums while terrorizing Tokyo’s streets (and later reappears in the director’s 2012 film Holy Motors); and, finally, Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Korean director Bong Joon-ho imagines a surreal romance between a hikikomori (shut-in) who falls in love with a pizza delivery girl in Shaking Tokyo.
Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements)
Sat., Nov. 23 at 7 pm
Dir. Alain Corneau, 2003, France/Japan, 106 min., 35mm
Returning to her birth country of Japan from Belgium for an entry-level interpreting job at the Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo, wide-eyed Amélie (Sylvie Testud, who memorized her Japanese lines phonetically and won the Best Actress César for her efforts) is ready to accept anything in order to return to her roots and become “truly Japanese.” Her eagerness, however, is only met with a series of increasingly humiliating scoldings, punishments and demotions from every rung in the Yumimoto hierarchical ladder. Adapted from Amélie Nothomb’s semi-autobiographical novel by French director Alain Corneau, Fear and Trembling is a sardonic depiction of Japanese corporate culture and gender relations told from a Western perspective that comically imagines modern Japan as a closed country still operating under a severe bushido code.
House of Bamboo
Sat., Dec. 7 at 4:30 pm
Dir. Samuel Fuller, 1955, USA, 102 min., 35mm
The great Samuel Fuller was among the first Hollywood directors allowed to shoot on location in Japan following the end of the war, and the first to capture the country’s exoticized vistas in full color CinemaScope—including, in the words of the film’s original trailer, “the wonders of Fujiyama” and “seething, swarming, modern Tokyo.” U.S. military detective (Robert Stack) goes undercover in Tokyo to infiltrate a crime syndicate run by an ex-G.I. (Robert Ryan) and gets mixed up with a “kimono girl,” played by transnational film star Shirley Yamaguchi. A hard-boiled and entertaining thriller that offers a fascinating glimpse of Tokyo immediately after the American occupation and a decade before it opened its doors to the rest of the world with the 1964 Olympics.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Sat., Dec. 7 at 7 pm
Dir. Justin Lin, 2006, USA/Germany/Japan, 105 min., 35mm
The divisive third entry in the immensely popular Fast & Furious franchise restarts the film series by introducing an entirely new set of characters and shifting the four-wheel action to Tokyo’s underground world of illegal drift racing. Outsider teen Sean (Lucas Black) sets out to become top gaijin and unseat the local “Drift King” with the help of street racing veteran Han (Sung Kang), embroiling himself with a yakuza boss (Sonny Chiba) in the process. Muscularly directed by series favorite Justin Lin (who takes more than a few liberties with regard to cultural fidelity), this pop action spectacle foregrounds the thrill and neon sheen of the city’s nightlife through its racing scenes, including an unforgettable chase that swerves through Shibuya Crossing.
ADDITIONAL NOVEMBER & DECEMBER FILM SCREENINGS
Monthly Classics: Tora-san’s Runaway
Friday, November 1 at 7 PM
Dir. Yoji Yamada, 1970, 88 min., DCP, color
Tora-san travels to Hokkaido to visit a former oyabun (yakuza boss) whose deathbed wish is to meet his estranged son, a train stoker in the city of Otaru whom he abandoned at birth. Affected by the situation, Tora-san renounces the yakuza lifestyle and seeks to earn an honest living as a laborer in Shibamata. He ends up downriver working at a tofu shop where he falls in love with the shop owner’s daughter Setsuko (Aiko Nagayama) and loses track of his original noble intentions. New 4K restoration.
Monthly Classics: Tora-san Meets His Lordship
Friday, December 6 at 7 PM
Dir. Yoji Yamada, 1977, 99 min., DCP, color
After feeling insulted by his family yet again, Tora-san leaves Shibamata for the city of Ozu in Shikoku where he has a chance meeting with the descendant of a local aidmyo (feudal lord). Lonely and in the last years of his life, the Lord seeks to reconcile with his deceased son’s wife Mariko (Kyoko Maya) whom he has never met and is living somewhere in Tokyo. Moved, Tora-san takes on the near-impossible task of finding Mariko and benefits from a previous act of kindness. New 4K restoration.
Tickets may be purchased online at japansociety.org, in person at Japan Society, or by calling the box office at 212-715-1258.