MICA celebrates Japanese culture at Baltimore Japan Art Festival

By KATY OH | October 4, 2018

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Courtesy of Katy Oh Speakers on stage at MICA discussed their films and those of others.

On Sept. 28 and 29 the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) hosted the annual Baltimore Japan Art Festival, which provided an extensive schedule of events celebrating Japanese culture through art, food, music and film. The highlights of this year’s Festival not only included the celebration of renowned illustrator Yusuke Nakamura and her work, but it also showcased a selection of films from the 2018 New York Japan CineFest. 

This was the second time I’ve ever attended a film screening alone. The first, and only other time, was to see Kubo and the Two Strings — an animated film set in feudal Japan that details the journey of a young Japanese boy with a magical, musical talent. While it was admittedly an engaging movie, it was also another American production with white voice actors representing the Japanese characters. 

At the Japan Art Festival, however, I finally got a glimpse into a variety of Japanese films — all dubbing and appropriation free —that each touched on very universal themes.

Before settling into Falvey Hall, located in MICA’s Brown Center, I briefly spoke to Nick Hughes, the director of one of the featured documentaries, Hatis Noit

Hughes’ work documents a personal interview with the Japanese singer Hatis Noit in a recording studio as she mixes a variety of different noises and melodic harmonies. These soundscapes not only emulate the sounds of nature but also evoke feelings that are reminiscent of her hometown in Hokkaido, Japan.

During my interview with Hughes, he explained the process of putting together the documentary. 

Hatis Noit was a collaboration between a lot of people in Baltimore. [It was] part of a longer web series that we were working on based on travelling artists coming through Baltimore and then coming to record songs and do interviews. When Mike [Michael] Young introduced us to Hatis Noit who was touring from Japan, she came in and recorded and did the interview and totally blew us away,” he said.

Hughes described her music as “transcendent” and explained that the short documentary simply became “one of those projects where everything [came] together in a nice way.” 

He also expressed what he felt the Japan Art Festival meant for the Baltimore community.

“It’s a great way to keep people engaged in what’s going around in the world, for people to come together and dive into these topics,” he said.

While all of the films were indeed specific to Japanese culture, in the middle of each film I found myself caught in a flood of raw emotions that the rest of the audience clearly also felt: guilt, uncertain and apologetic but sincere, love. 

The theater also showcased three shorts produced by MICA students, all inspired by Yasu Suzuki’s The Apologizers — another film included in the line up. The first student’s work seemed to critique the lack of genuine, face-to-face apologies in a modern day society inundated by text messaging. 

Before I could recall the last time I physically verbalized an apology myself, the screen quickly turned over to another student’s short documentary. The film combined clips of interviews that asked individuals to express their thoughts on the pressures of confronting an overly apologetic workplace culture. The final student gave a more abstract interpretation of the vulnerability that comes with the process of self-forgiveness, utilizing movements of people sliding their hands behind a brightly lit, translucent screen. 

Yasu Suzuki, meanwhile, tackled the notion of an apology in The Apologizers by depicting two Japanese men travelling around New York City, doing exactly what the title suggests: apologizing. In a brief interlude, the two emotionally exhausted men sit in a park overlooking the New York City skyline and engage in what one would expect to be a heartfelt conversation. What we get instead is some much needed comedic relief from the distressing repetition of their heavy “sorries.” But by the end of the film, I saw the apologizers within all of us, as we mindlessly use the word “sorry” to mend broken relationships without truly evaluating if we actually feel this way. 

And if there’s one thing we shouldn’t be sorry about, it is loving. However in Wind Chime, directed by Mayu Ryokucha, the relationship between two loving sisters becomes complicated as they recite from a script to help one of the sisters prepare for her acting role. 

At first it is clear that they are simply practicing their lines. But a plot twist suddenly makes it extremely difficult to distinguish between what is reality and what is scripted. It is almost as if the script allows the sisters to cross socially acceptable boundaries of familial affection but without knowing what they’re actually doing. Just as the credits began to roll up on the screen, I could hear whispers across the room, multiple people around me asking, “What just happened?” — a cliffhanger at its finest. 

Nobuyuki Miyake’s Siren, on the other hand, speaks to the feeling of guilt: It misleadingly frames the story of an old grandpa who is suspicious of his neighbor, an obvious immigrant, in a way that exposes the dangerous xenophobia that we’re all possible of harboring. The filmmaker then juxtaposes all of the preconceived notions that the grandpa holds against his neighbor with a completely opposite turn of events. 

The night ended with director Makoto Nagahisa’s And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool. It was a beautiful and riveting coming of age story about four girls in a boring town, trying to discover love through fantasies and often finding themselves caught up in the unspoken jealousies within their friendships. While the title is a reference to the liberating act of rebellion the girls commit at school, at the conclusion of their journey at the height of youth, they themselves become free of their worries, dancing before the orange backdrop of the sunset and screaming in a karaoke room, a scene that will forever stick with me. 

Throughout the screening, I caught myself smiling at not just personally relatable scenes but at specific points where the outbreak of warm laughter throughout the audience interjected moments of intense concentration. I left the theater in awe of the capacities of storytelling in its best form.

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