Celebrating Japanese film at the MFA

A scene from the 2017 film “Blade of the Immortal,” directed by Takashi Miike.
Boston Festival of Films from Japan/MFA
A scene from the 2017 film “Blade of the Immortal,” directed by Takashi Miike.

It’s been a while since there’s been a major local retrospective of Japanese cinema, so the Museum of Fine Arts’ inaugural Boston Festival of Films from Japan (Feb. 1 to Feb. 28) is a welcome addition to the local arts calendar. The films on the program range from anime to melodrama, crime thriller to period epic, and many have in common the theme of revenge. 

Veteran director Takashi Miike’s exhilarating and exhausting 151-minute “Blade of the Immortal” (2017; screens Feb. 2 and Feb. 18.), is based on a manga (a Japanese graphic novel), but also draws on such hard-core samurai (or chambira ) films as Kihachi Okamoto’s brilliant and relentless “The Sword of Doom.” 

That is especially true in its black-and-white opening sequence, when the swordsman Manji methodically mows down a seemingly endless onslaught of assassins. Near death after this encounter, Manji gets an unwanted gift from an 800-year-old sibyl-like nun, who infuses him with “sacred bloodworms.” These heal all wounds (what they can do with severed limbs is especially creepy) — it’s much like the situation with Wolverine and the “Twilight” vampires, except Manji is more miserable about it. Nonetheless, the film thereupon switches from monochrome to sumptuous color. 


Fifty years pass, and the film ventures into a scenario familiar from “True Grit” and “Léon: The Professional.” Rin, a young girl seeking vengeance for her father’s murder, enlists Manji in her mission. But as the bodies pile up and good and evil blur, both Rin and Manji have doubts about the righteousness of their cause. That doesn’t prevent an epic donnybrook at the end, when Miike indulges his talent for martial arts choreography, inventive mayhem, and black comedy. 

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As the title suggests, Lee Sang-il’s “Rage” (2016; screens Feb. 7 and Feb. 15) also explores the concept of vengeance, and its multi-narrative, chronologically fluid structure underscores the theme’s ambiguity. Detectives investigate a gruesome double-murder scene where the word “rage” has been daubed on the wall with the victims’ blood. They narrow the suspects down to a young drifter who may or may not have had his face surgically altered (shades of “Dark Passage”). 

Lee then interweaves the stories of three young drifters who resemble the police mug shot and may or not be the killer. Each enters the life of someone who, in one way or another, also lives on the margins of conventional society. They include a gay, closeted businessman; a mentally unstable girl recently rescued from the sex trade; and a lonely girl on an island. The multiple points of view, flashbacks, and flashforwards add to the confusion of identities, but more intriguing than solving the mystery is the film’s exploration of issues of trust, isolation, victimization, and, of course, revenge. 

Another unexpected visitor disrupts the domestic tranquility, in Koji Fukada’s deft and disturbing “Harmonium” (2016 ; screens Feb. 9 and Feb. 11). The humdrum life of Toshio, his wife, Akié, and his young daughter, Hotaru, is epitomized by meals eaten in near silence. Toshio reads the newspaper, Akié says grace, and Hotaru is eager to practice on the title instrument for an upcoming recital. 

That ends when someone from Toshio’s past, Mr. Yasaka, takes a job in Toshio’s metal shop and moves into his home. Yasaka is ghostly in his immaculate white shirt, and even more spectral when he wears white work overalls, but Hotaru takes a shine to him, especially when he teaches her a new tune to play on the harmonium.


In addition to his startling and symbolic use of color, Fukada employs mise-en-scène and elliptical editing to heighten suspense and deepen psychological nuance. His tone varies from sardonic to tragic as he erodes the façade of normality and shatters it with jolting impact. The film’s excellence was recognized at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize.

In Atsuko Hirayanagi’s “Oh Lucy!” (2017; screens Feb. 16), the pattern of office drudge Setsuko’s life is barely disrupted when someone commits suicide in front of her by jumping in front of the train while she is commuting to work. Grudgingly, she attends an English class when her sister Ayako’s daughter, Mika, begs her to take her place and pay the tuition. There the instructor John (Josh Hartnett) starts the lesson with a hug and then gives Setsuko her “American name” — Lucy — along with a blond wig. 

The new persona eases Setsuko’s inhibitions, but not always for the better. When Mika flies off to California with John, Setsuko and Ayako team up to track her down, and during the road trip long simmering family resentments erupt in impulsive, vindictive behavior. Hirayanagi expertly orchestrates the tone from effervescent comedy to unsettling absurdity — any film that begins with a suicide must confront the darkness again before the end. 

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Peter Keough can be reached at