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CIFF 2015: Two Films from Masato Harada

October 16, 2015

 

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Each year at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) I discover a filmmaker for the first time because he or she has submitted a film that stands out in some way. It could be a director who’s been around for a while or a newcomer, it doesn’t matter really – there’s just something about their work. This year that director is Masato Harada from Japan, who has two excellent films playing this weekend at CIFF, “Kakekomi” and “The Emperor in August”, both of which offer compelling stories that take place in different historic moments in his country.

You may recognize writer/director Harada from his acting work, primarily the villain roles he played in Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise from 2003 and in Jet Li’s “Fearless” in 2006. Or maybe you saw “Chronicle of My Mother”, his film from 2011.

Regardless, this is the first time I’ve seen any of Harada’s films and I’m kind of blown away that both of these great period films have come out in the same year – at least in Japan, where “Kakekomi” was released on May 16, 2015 and “The Emperor in August” on August 8, 2015. They are making their U.S. debut at CIFF and I really hope they find viewers that appreciate them as much as I have. Both of these films warrant multiple viewings, since there is so much to take in – rich characters portrayed by a versatile cast with dense plots in truly compelling stories.

 

 

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KAKEKOMI

Set in the Edo period of Japanese history, Kakekomi are runaway women, seeking refuge from their unhappy marriages in the mountaintop temple Tokei-ji. In this story, based on the novel Tokeiji Hanadayori by Hisashi Inoue, we follow three divorce-seeking women who seek freedom from their painful marriages, but must first commit to two years of monastic service at the temple. One of the kakekomi develops a forbidden attraction to a caring young writer/doctor, but ultimately this is a tale of sisterhood and women’s rights, beautifully filmed with powerful performances by Hikari Mitsushima (“Hara-Kiri: Death of the Samurai”), Erika Toda and Rina Uchiyama. It’s the more humorous of the two, but it still deals with subjects such as abuse and independence with an authentic honesty. I left “Kakekomi” educated, moved and impressed by such powerful storytelling. Sure, it’s lengthy at 143 minutes, but it’s filled with enough fascinating characters that it’s never really an issue.

Oct. 17th at 3pm and Oct. 18th at 7:30pm

RATING: ****

 

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THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST

Harada’s intimate war room feature can be considered a remake of  “Japan’s Longest Day” (or “The Emperor and the General”) from 1967, taking place during the days leading up to August 14th, 1945 when Japan officially surrendered at the end of World War II. It’s a war movie where battlefields are meeting rooms in which conversations – both calm and heated – are had by powerful men who surround Showa Emperor, Hirohito (Masahiro Motoki, “Departures”) at an Imperial conference, where ultimately a decision is made to accept the Potsdam Declaration. This doesn’t sit well with many of the young soldiers in the Army insistent on continuing the war, who secretly band together to form a coup. For some, this will be a history lesson, but at no point will it cause your eyelids heavy. Like “Kakekomi”, the film is elegantly shot, wonderfully acted by the likes of Kōji Yakusho (“Babel” and “13 Assassins”) and Kazuhiro Yamaji (also in “Kakekomi”) and includes strong characters who become increasingly complex as the tense plot unfolds.

Oct. 18th at 1:15pm

RATING: ****

 

 

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