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Overlooked gems in Japanese imports

These post-golden age releases, while a bit difficult to categorize, are worth seeking out.

July 01, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

BACK in the so-called golden age of art-house films, Japan was something of a world-cinema powerhouse. The family dramas of Yasujiro Ozu and the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa were the best-known exports, but Japan was also home to such disparate major filmmakers as Kenji Mizoguchi, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

No equivalent new wave has taken the place of these old titans, and most American viewers know contemporary Japanese cinema primarily for its anime innovations (notably, those of Hayao Miyazaki) and as ground zero for the "Ring" and "Grudge" horror franchises. Films that don't fit neatly into genres have had a harder time making it abroad. Those that turn up generally do so after a lag of a few years and thanks to the efforts of small, adventurous distributors -- among them, Viz, a San Francisco company that specializes in Japanese pop culture and has brought to DVD two of the best (and least classifiable) Japanese films of recent years.

Made in 2004, Katsuhito Ishii's languid, lovely family portrait "The Taste of Tea," out on Tuesday, is a magic-realist updating of Ozu. The quaint title (a nod, presumably, to Ozu's "The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice"), the dreamy fixation on trains and, above all, the low-key style of observing families in daily situations and across generations, evoke that most revered and influential of Japanese masters. This is new territory for Ishii, who's best known as an animator (he contributed the anime sequences to Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1") and whose previous live-action films include the ultra-violent romp "Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl" (1999).

"The Taste of Tea" boasts a few fantastical CGI flourishes (a train bursts through a lovesick boy's forehead in the opening minutes) but settles mostly for a tone of whimsical understatement. The Harunos, who live in a verdant mountain town outside Tokyo, are lovingly drawn eccentrics. The father is a hypnotherapist who occasionally uses family members as guinea pigs, the mother an animator returning to work after a long absence, the grandfather a musically inclined kook.

The younger Harunos serve as the empathetic points of entry: Teenage son Harime shyly pines after a beautiful classmate, who to his terror and delight has joined him on the school board game Go team. Young Sachiko is haunted by a larger version of herself (a wonderful literalization of a burgeoning adolescent self-consciousness) and believes that she can exorcise her giant doppelganger only by executing a perfect back flip.

"The Taste of Tea" often suggests a calmer "The Royal Tenenbaums." Ishii's gentle absurdism hits a peak of sublimity in the YouTube-ready "Mountain Song" sequence, but he never allows the quirks to dominate, and even the supporting characters are given room to breathe. A visiting uncle (Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano) provides one of the most memorable scenes: a lingering, tongue-tied encounter with an ex-lover, rooted equally in pain and tenderness.

Nobuhiro Yamashita's "Linda Linda Linda," made in 2005 but just out on DVD from Viz, shares the near-plotless drift and small-scale humanism of "Taste of Tea." With the generous yet deadpan slacker odysseys "Hazy Life" and "No One's Ark," Yamashita has already established himself as Japan's answer to Jim Jarmusch or Richard Linklater. A high school musical with lovable underdog heroines and a score by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, "Linda" has all the wit and charm of Linklater's "School of Rock" but almost none of the drama.

Days before they're due to play at a school festival, three female bandmates impulsively recruit as their vocalist a Korean exchange student (Bae Doo-na of this year's monster movie "The Host") who barely speaks Japanese. For much of the film, the girls simply practice the titular song, an infectious anthem by the Japanese pop-punk band the Blue Hearts (which thankfully lends itself to multiple airings).

The film takes its sweet time getting to the requisite triumphant performance, and the climax, set in a less-than-packed auditorium, is all the more remarkable for its modesty. The girls have learned a song, they've learned to play it together, and for three euphoric minutes, nothing else matters.

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