A look at Japanese cinema

Every year at the beginning of summer, Bucharest hosts a Japanese Film Festival lasting a whole week and showing movies seldom before seen outside Japan, all for free. After going to the festival for the past four years, I couldn't help but notice some patterns.

Now, most people are only familiar with titles such as The Seven Samurai or Ghost in the Shell, which are not only masterpieces, but also made for the international market right from the start. Suffice to say, average films addressed to a Japanese audience are very different. But it's these differences that make them interesting...

You know how American movies tend to focus on glamorous people and places? Well, Japanese movies usually go in the opposite direction, portraying impoverished characters and modest residences. They also often come with many small imperfections that would be deemed unacceptable in an American movie: bad camera focus, pacing issues or seemingly random scenes which involve the protagonists but have no bearing on the overall story. This is related to the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, though applying it to a permanent medium is something of a stretch. In any event, these two traits together make your typical Japanese movie feel more natural, sincere and believable than one made in the US, or even Europe.

Certain elements are also present in essentially any film from the` land of the raising sun. Children, for example, always portrayed with ternderness no matter how horrible the world around them. Humor, too — even the most serious drama has to crack a joke or three. Oh, and they don't have much of a taboo against nudity over there; talk of intimate issues is common as well. Other frequently recurring themes are the sea, and more surprisingly trains. There will also be, almost invariably, a small family diner where the characters meet to talk.

Perhaps the most interesting trait, however, is that auteur movies are, if not prevalent, at least a constant presence. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, they're often damn good too. My favorite creator is Takeshi Kitano, a.k.a. Beat Takeshi, whom you probably remember as the Big Bad from Johnny Mnemonic. Well, he's also a scriptwriter and director with a filmography ranging from goofball comedy (think Wile E. Coyote except in live action), through a vigilante flick reminiscent of Charles Bronson's and up to, yes, samurai flicks. But if I had to recommend just one of his films, it would be A Scene at the Sea, a sensitive love story and splendid example of the medium played for its strengths.

If there's one thing that bothers me about Japanese cinema, it's this: the festival strives to provide a wide selection of titles, yet a disturbingly high proportion of them are gangster movies. And they're incredibly violent. I've been talking to a couple of Japanese about it, and they don't get it either — or like it. But there you have it.