Japanese Stars in Recent American Cinema

2015 March 29
by Stacy Smith

Lately there have been a bonanza of films being screened here in the city made by American directors starring Japanese actors.

One is Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, currently playing at IFC, Nitehawk Cinema and BAM.  It features the ever fabulous Rinko Kikuchi as a discontent OL who is dealing with a harassing boss, insipid colleagues and a mother who is nagging her to get married.  She is totally disconnected from the world around her, with her only salvation being her pet bunny and her worn out VHS tape of the movie Fargo.

She watches the scene where Steve Buschemi’s character buries the money over and over while taking meticulous notes, and is convinced that the treasure is still there and she is the Spanish conquistador who must find it.  Kumiko eventually makes it to the Midwest, but linguistic and other challenges ensue.  Nathan Zellner, half of the Zellner brother directing team, plays the one of the religious welcome guides at the Minneapolis airport, and the other half David plays the local sheriff she encounters en route to Fargo.  The movie is said to be based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who took a similar journey, but watch the movie first before reading about it to avoid spoilers.

This weekend I saw Man from Reno, playing at Regal Cinemas E-Walk in Times Square for a limited one-week release through April 1.  I was glad to be able to catch it this time around, as I had missed it last summer when it was shown at Japan Society’s Japan Cuts film festival.  At that time, male lead heartstopper Kazuki Kitamura (also star of Neko Samurai which played there) was on hand with director Dave Boyle for a post-screening Q&A.

Kitamura plays the eponymous character Akira, who has a one-night stand in San Francisco with Ayako Fujitani’s Aki, a mystery author from Japan.  The next day Akira disappears and Aki is left with both his suitcase and lots of suspicious characters who are looking for him.  Her story ends up dovetailing with that of a local sheriff who is on the trail of a man he accidentally hit with his car, who has also ended up disappearing after going to the hospital.  This suspenseful neo-noir tale has multiple twists and turns and is reminiscent of classics like Vertigo.

Boyle is a professed Japanophile who wanted to make a film that portrayed Japanese living in a different culture without using stereotypical elements like sushi, ninjas and otaku.  In an interview, Fujitani attributed this to what attracted her to the role.  In other media, Kikuchi commented that she appreciated how the Zellner brothers were so in tune with contemporary Japanese society (both actresses were said to have helped tweak the films’ dialogue).  An acute “Japan sensibility” is a common trait of these young male American directors (in addition to featuring local sheriffs in their movies), and perhaps the main reason they succeed in scoring amazing Japanese actors and producing entertaining, thought-provoking films.  Make sure to check both of them out during their limited runs!

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