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Sketches of Kaitan City

June 21, 2011

Kaitan-shi jokei (Japan, 2010)

The young Kazuyoshi Kumakiri broke into worldwide fame with his ultra-violent political splatter Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts (1997). The dull cult favorite was positively receiced and toured festival around the world, despite its 1970’s student radicalism roots and commentary that probably went unnoticed by many. The director’s festival success has continued ever since, but audiences have changed and Kumakiri has grown up. In his latest film Sketches of Kaitan City he doesn’t have anyone brutally killed.

Sketches of Kaitan City is based on an unfinished novel by Yasushi Sato. The author committed suicide in 1990, but his novel was released posthumously to the extent material could be found. From the 18 stories featured in the book, 5 were used in the film adaptation – and to great success: Kumakiri’s 2½ hour movie became a regular choice on Japan based critics’ top 10 lists last year. Notable financial success seems unlikely, though.

Kumakiri’s approach to the material is admirably brave, but risky: he distances the film from easy entertainment and quick digesting. Storylines begin from the middle, and often end before the conclusion. All characters share the fear of losing something, be it job, family, or house. Melodrama is kept strictly out: Kumakiri’s directorial touch is passive and coldish, if slightly hopeful, supported by steady tech credits and excellent performances.

The slow pacing and the amount of storylines can make Kaitan City’s first episodes feel as if they ended before they’ve reached their full potential (or, perhaps it was just the broken air conditioning that made concentration in the specific over-sold-out screening more challenging than usual…). A more thorough inspection of characters and storylines might have been preferable. But then again, criticism on such issues would feel somewhat off considering the film’s title.

It’s after the first two storylines when Kaitan City really finds its level. Episodes become longer, the characters also perhaps also interesting, and there’s even additional bite to Kumakiri’s filmmaking. Former US-rocker Jim O’Rourke’s (United Red Army, 2007) restrained but impressive soundtrack is used to great effect, as are the cold images Kaitan City. Shot in Hokkaido’s famous port town Hakodate (here playing the fictive Kaitan City), the chilly views are often magnificent, if scarcely used.

Sketches of Kaitan City is an episode film, but it doesn’t clearly separate its stories from each other. There are no visible transformation parts between episodes. The storylines follow each other on the fly, take place at the same time in the same city, and share similar themes. Some of the questions presented early on won’t be answered until near the end. Due to its style and structure Sketches of Kaitan City is very much a slow burner, but gains more power episode by episode. It is, for a chance, a movie with characters that can’t be interpreted in 10 minutes. While not most innovative Japanese cinema of today, Kaitan City is, no doubt, one of the strong films of 2010.

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