The Sacramento Japanese Film Festival always has been a reliable source of Japan’s best-known cinematic imports: films by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa and samurai movies, by Kurosawa and others.
The festival’s 12th edition, at which Kurosawa’s 1949 detective noir “Stray Dog,” and director Setsurô Wakamatsu’s 2014 meditation on honor, “Snow on the Blades,” both will show Saturday, July 16, at the Crest Theatre, attest to this.
But the festival also is following its usual form by complementing such works with character studies focused on women or older people – topics also typical in Japanese cinema and that merge, this year, in two standout films showing back-to-back on Sunday, July 17.
“Sweet Bean” showcases Japanese star Kirin Kiki as an eccentric senior who takes a job at a dorayaki (bean paste pancake) shop, and “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight,” a documentary about three Japanese war brides that was made by their American-born journalist daughters.
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Four of the festival’s seven films, including its Friday, July 15, opener, “Pale Moon,” in which a woman steals from her bank job to help her indebted boyfriend, feature lead or prominent female characters.
This ratio is “a coincidence,” said Barbara Kado, committee chair for the festival headquartered at the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church. She and fellow programmers “always are looking for a good story,” she said, regardless of genre or character gender.
But the committee chooses from what’s out there, usually movies already playing the festival circuit. And films about women and multigenerational family dynamics are staples of Japanese and Japanese American cinema.
The great directors Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, whose films screened at the Sacramento festival in past years, devoted themselves to chronicling the plight of women in Japanese society. And the interaction of parents and their grown children serves as a “constant theme” in Yasujiro Ozu’s work, Kado said. Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story,” which the SJFF screened a decade ago, concerns an aging couple whose children do not have time for them.
Such stories reflect “the Japanese social structure,” Kado said. “It is extremely family-oriented, and not the cult of individuality by any means.”
The push-pull between individual desires and family is fertile ground for cinematic exploration and the reason it was possible for Kirin to gain her greatest success late in life.
In the United States, older characters usually are ancillary to the story unless they’re being played by an aging legends. But Kirin, though a veteran comic actress who has been a star for decades in Japan, did not become an institution or win her two Japanese Academy Prizes until she was past 60.
“It was only in the past 10 years that movies became my passion and focus, that I was offered parts for which I had the responsibility to deliver a performance,” Kirin told the South China Morning Post earlier this year. “I didn’t feel such a responsibility with earlier films.”
She has found juicy roles as mothers and grandmothers, often in the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose quiet explorations of family dynamics have drawn comparisons to Ozu. Kirin played the grandmother of a boy switched at birth in Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son,” which opened the SJFF last year, and a mother who joins her husband for a tension-packed gathering with their son in “Still Walking,” which played the local festival in 2011.
Tokue, Kirin’s character in “Sweet Bean” (directed by Naomi Kawase), does not have children. But there’s a makeshift-familial quality to its central trio: Tokue, a fragile-looking yet upbeat woman determined to work at the sweets shop; Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), the world-weary shop manager who grudgingly agrees to hire Tokue when she offers to work for practically nothing; and Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a schoolgirl customer who finds a stability in the shop that’s missing from the apartment she shares with her hard-drinking mother.
Three mothers who are roughly Kirin’s contemporaries, but who left Japan in the early 1950s, are the subjects of “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight,” the title of which comes from a Japanese proverb connoting resilience.
In the 27-minute film, directors Lucy Craft, Karen Kasmauski and Kathryn Tolbert, all journalists born to Japanese mothers and American fathers, track the journeys of their mothers from post-World War II Japan to the United States, where they often were culturally adrift.
Their American husbands, it turns out, did not live the glamorous lives promised by Hollywood movies. But the three mothers showed the same steel throughout their lives in America they had shown by leaving all they had known before in Japan. All three still live in the United States, and are interviewed in the film.
“Get Up Eight” also tells their daughters’ stories, exploring the tension that arose between what Kasmauski, speaking by phone from her home in Virginia, calls “old-school” mothers – women raised in households where parental authority was absolute and unquestioned – and their American children.
In the film, Kasmauski recalls asking her father, Steve, an enlisted Navy man who had met her mother, Emiko, in a social club in Japan, why the American mothers she met were warmer than her own.
“She’s just Japanese,” came the reply.
Kasmauski, a photographer who has worked closely with National Geographic, will appear with the film at the Crest. Always fascinated by her own mother, Kasmauski met Tolbert, an editor at the Washington Post, and Craft, a multimedia journalist in Japan, through journalism circles. All had been pursuing separate projects on Japanese women before coming together to make the film, Kasmauski said.
“It was like finding lost tribe members,” Kasmauski said. When she and her siblings were growing up, “we were the only multi-ethnic people” in the neighborhood, she said. “Nobody was multiracial. It’s not like all our mothers moved here together.”
Yet the estimated 50,000 women who came here postwar shared a certain grit.
“Think about it: This woman is probably going against her family’s wishes, marrying a guy who tried to kill her seven years before, to go to a place where she doesn’t speak the language,” Kasmauski said. “She is a very determined to do something with her life.”
12th Sacramento Japanese Film Festival
When: July 15-17
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: $10 per film; $37 festival pass
Information: www.sacjapanesefilmfestival.net, 916-476-3356
All films in Japanese with English subtitles except the English-language “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides.”
Friday, July 15
7:30 p.m. “Pale Moon”: A bank teller falls for a college student with loan sharks on his tail.
Saturday, July 16
11:30 a.m. “Stray Dog”: This Akira Kurosawa noir in which a detective (Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) searches for his stolen pistol came out in 1949, a year before Kurosawa’s international breakthrough “Rashomon.”
2:20 p.m. “When Marnie Was There”: In this anime from Studio Ghibli (“Princess Mononoke”), a young girl makes a mysterious friend in an abandoned mansion.
4:25 p.m. “A Boy Called H”: A tailor’s son comes of age during the tumult of World War II.
8 p.m. “Snow on the Blades”: A samurai who failed to protect the official he was guarding spends the rest of his life hunting down the assassins.
Sunday, July 17
2 p.m. “Sweet Bean”: An eccentric older woman’s (Kirin Kiki) deft way with red bean paste improves the fortunes of a dorayaki shop.
4:20 p.m. “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides”: The journalist daughters of three women who met American husbands in postwar Japan track their mothers’ and their own journeys. Filmmaker Karen Kasmauski will appear with the film, and the owners of Sacramento’s Binchoyaki restaurant will sell special dorayaki pancakes, with bean paste from Osaka-Ya, before and after the film.