The annual cinematic cornucopia known as Japan Cuts — the largest festival of Japanese film in the United States — has previously been presented in association with the even larger New York Asian Film Festival. This year, its ninth, Japan Cuts is going it alone as it presents 28 features and a program of experimental shorts beginning Thursday through July 19 at Japan Society in Manhattan.
Whatever the dynamics of the move to cut ties may have been, there’s a clear practical and symbolic logic: Japan’s film industry is probably the only one in East Asia with the heft, variety and quality to support an annual festival of this size. South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines turn out plenty of movies, but if you tried to showcase close to 30 mostly recent films from any of them, the results wouldn’t be so happy.
The festival’s curator, Joel Neville Anderson, doesn’t ignore the Japanese studio mainstream, a sector widely seen to be in a deep creative trough at the moment — the opening-night feature, Yu Irie’s spy drama “Joker Game,” was partly financed by one behemoth, NTV, and distributed by another, Toho. But Mr. Anderson’s interest clearly lies with the idiosyncratic, the eccentric, the experimental and the weird, a taste that Japan rewards as richly as any country, even the United States. Here are five films from this year’s festival, all independently produced, all out of the ordinary.
HARUKO’S PARANORMAL LABORATORY Lisa Takeba’s psychedelic, slightly twee but abundantly inventive comedy is about the romance between a girl and her television. Literally: One day while she’s complaining about the programming, her set grows the body and face of a strapping young man and starts yelling at her to shut up. Ms. Takeba keeps the conceit humming along — the TV-man is “super artsy” and gets a job hosting a televised language class (he can speak 12 languages when his secondary audio channel is turned on) — and uses it to poke fun at all sorts of pop-cultural targets including cosplay, prime time soap operas, variety shows, J-horror and Sailor Moon.
MAKEUP ROOM Kei Morikawa, a prolific director of pornographic videos, changes pace with this not-too-sentimental backstage comedy set entirely in the dressing room of a porn shoot. Five adult-video stars play actresses who hang out in the room, gossiping, complaining, freaking out and occasionally disrobing. The mainstream actress Aki Morita plays the makeup artist who holds together both the movie and the movie-within-the-movie — running lines, offering sexual first-aid advice, coaching the crew and reminding a first-time performer to find her socks after shooting a scene.
SANCHU UPRISING: VOICES AT DAWN The closing feature is a jidaigeki (period film) that evokes the most famous example of the genre, “The Seven Samurai,” with its focus on an embattled group of farmers, one of whom shares the name of a character from that Akira Kurosawa classic. Juichiro Yamasaki shot the film in glowing digital black and white, and in the old-fashioned 4×3 ratio, and faithfully recreates the costumes, styles and compositions of the traditional jidaigeki. Then he steadily pulls the movie in a different direction, giving it a squawking pop-jazz score, moments of nudity and an animated dream sequence, until in the final minutes he brings it all the way into the present. Throughout, he plays with the conventions of the genre — in one of the most striking examples, he replaces the traditional closing sword battle with a swirling, hypnotic dance performed by villagers celebrating their avoidance of conflict.
BELLADONNA OF SADNESS The most distinctive item on the program is this restoration of a 1973 animated feature produced by the anime legend Osamu Tezuka and directed by his colleague Eiichi Yamamoto. It’s an Age of Aquarius curio, based on a 19th-century study of witchcraft and featuring alternately flowery and surprisingly graphic depictions of sex. (No one under 18 will be admitted to the screening.) Fair warning: The story, about a peasant woman assaulted by the king on her wedding night, is both a female-empowerment fable and a rape fantasy, in which the initial attack is followed by less violent anime-style intrusions of flowering tendrils and devilish imps. But the impact of the story is secondary to the strangeness and beauty of the mostly still images (the camera moves slowly across them) done in styles resembling Klimt, O’Keeffe, Op Art, Ralph Steadman and the higher class of Playboy illustration.
SEVEN WEEKS Nobuhiko Obayashi is known in the United States for his 1977 feature “House,” a trippy, soft-core comic-horror film that made its debut here (to much acclaim) in 2010. He’s still working at 77, and his latest work is unclassifiable and dauntingly ambitious. At one level it’s a family melodrama, in the Japanese “hometown” genre, about the gathering of relatives following a death — a traditional story told in a magic-realist mode using some of the techniques from “House,” including the hallucinatory colors and the obvious green-screening of actors against the landscape, made more striking by Hisaki Mikimoto’s stunning digital cinematography. A toy-instruments orchestra, the Pascals, occasionally marches across the screen. One long sequence is reminiscent of a Robert Wilson stage spectacle.
But as the nearly three-hour film proceeds, it expands into an essaylike meditation on Japan’s recovery from both World War II and the 2011 tsunami, themes that Mr. Obayashi’s script braids with the slow revelations of family secrets. And then there’s the really unusual part: “Seven Weeks” also functions as an advertisement for its setting, the declining Hokkaido coal-mining city of Ashibetsu, because in real life Mr. Obayashi was fulfilling a friend’s dying wish by filming in his hometown.
The movie probably suffers greatly in translation, and American viewers may feel that the second half spends a lot of time elaborating platitudes about war and love. But Mr. Obayashi brings so much style to bear that your eyes, at least, will stay with him.