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LA EigaFest 2015: ‘Rurouni Kenshin’ & ‘Tag’

The LA EigaFest is important; for most American audiences, the only Japanese films available to us are the (incredible) Studio Ghibli films, and there’s the stereotype that every Japanese film is either anime, Godzilla, samurai or Yakuza. But it’s one of the more vibrant and wonderful filmmaking countries in the world, and LA EigaFest gives us a glimpse into some of the best coming out of Japan each year.

This year that meant a combination of romantic comedy, action, drama and yes, anime, samurai and Yakuza.

The festival’s opening film was the trilogy capper Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends. The swords and sandals epic is based on a manga, and is expertly directed by Keishi Otomo, with the final (?) heroes journey of the titular Kenshin, and his unreal footwork. Kenshin is a lot of fun, structured like a video game (Kenshin‘s video games are wildly popular), with Kenshin fighting various “bosses” along the way until facing off against The Final Boss, Shishio, a fight that lives up to the anticipation, thanks to reuniting Kenshin with his various friends and allies and fan-favorite characters.

Masaharu Fukuyama is wonderfully smoldering; he’s somehow simultaneously over-the-top and dangerous as Kenshin’s master Seijuro Hiko. Munetaka Aoki is hilarious as Sanosuke Sagara, the fun-loving, punchy sidekick and best friend.

It’s nothing new: we’ve seen this story a million times before, but it’s effective, and the action can be breathtaking, especially with the knowledge that none of it is done with CGI. The choreography is unreal.

My other foray into Japanese cinema came with Tag, the midnight-plus screening of Shion Sono’s latest. Sono is one of Japan’s most beloved cult filmmakers, a guy who refuses to be pigeonholed into any genre, but likely will surprise, scare and freak you out with whatever he’s working on. He achieves that with Tag, a film that refuses to be simply categorized or even reviewed. I’ve been unable to properly come to terms with the film since watching it.

The film follows Mitsuko (Reina Triendl), a shy poetry-writing Japanese schoolgirl, who witnesses an entire bus of classmates get CUT IN HALF by a malignant wind. This is only the beginning of what feels like a fever dream, as Mitsuko finds herself down the rabbit hole in an insane world wherein death comes to everyone around her.

If Tag is anything, it’s ambitious. Sono tackles multiple universes and the notion of fate, and the ripple effect of reality, or in Tag‘s case, surreality. Tag fetishizes Mitsuko and her Japanese school girl friends uncomfortably, and revels in its violence and random sequence of events, but that’s precisely the point: it’s all a game, one rigged by men. There isn’t a single man in the entire movie until the final moments, as Mitsuko’s nightmare is all for pleasure of the (likely male heavy) audience. It’s meta, supposed to be deep, but Sono’s message is somehow a combination of obscured and heavy handed, with a denouement that tries way too hard to do too much, questioning whether or not the previous 80 minutes were worth it, or even the same movie.

It’s definitely entertaining, surprising and unlike anything you’ll likely see in the states. Regardless of your feelings about Tag, it will make you want to watch more Shion Sono, one of the most out-there directors working today, and the kind of discovery tailor made for LA EigaFest.

Until next year!