Bringing the Best of Japan to SoCal Screens

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From left, Katsuhisa Namase, Fumiyo Kohinata, Kyoka Suzuki and Rinko Kikuchi star in the Japanese version “Sideways.” (20th Century Fox/Fuji Television)

The 2010 Japan Film Festival Los Angeles is underway at selected theaters around SoCal, showcasing a wide range of films from Japan through April 25.

Cinemas in Hollywood, Irvine and Torrance will host the third annual event, which hopes to deliver a better appreciation of contemporary Japanese culture to the Los Angeles community. With the belief that cinema is a bridge that connects us all, JFFLA has planned the festival to help inspire open communication and the exchange of ideas between Japan and the U.S.

The crop of new and classic films include comedies, dramas and animation. They will screen at various times at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, the George Nakano Theater in Torrance and at Starplex5 in Irvine.

Among the films being featured is one of the last screen performances from the late Brittany Murphy, who died unexpectedly at the age of 32 last December.

Brittany Murphy and Toshiyuki Nishida attempt to drown their sorrows in the noodle soup-flavored “Ramen Girl.” (Media 8 Entertainment)

In “Ramen Girl,” Murphy plays Abby, a fairly spoiled American four years out of college, who has come to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend—who dumps her in the first few minutes of the film. She becomes a castaway in the Tokyo metropolis, disenchanted with her monotonous office job and feeling victimized and alone.

From her apartment balcony, Abby has a revelation about the ramen shop across the street and decides that she must learn how to make the ubiquitous fast food. The shop’s owner, Maezumi (played by the always solid Toshiyuki Nishida) is a master ramen chef who is nearing the end of his cooking days and spends as much time draining a whiskey bottle as he does preparing noodles. When the whimpering, rain-soaked Abby arrives—speaking no Japanese at all—he couldn’t be any less interested in her problems.

“Ramen Girl” offers plenty of awkward moments, not the least of which is the sight of Murphy, looking zombied from the outset, with dark circles around her eyes. The fact that the chef understands zero English leads to dysfunctional communication for most of the film, but the two form an unlikely bond wrought from their inner suffering.

An enjoyable (if not somewhat obvious) cameo is made by Tsutomu Yamazaki, one of the stars of the delightful 1985 classic, “Tampopo.” Yamazaki plays a grand master of ramen, who samples Abby’s eventual soup creation versus that of a competitor who has tormented Maezumi for years.

Also playing during the JFFLA is the Japanese remake of “Sideways,” the 2004 smash that lit a fire under the wine industry—as long as you weren’t selling Merlot.

Like the original, this turn takes place in California, although further north in Napa Valley. Michio, played by popular character actor Fumio Kohinata, is a struggling, middle-aged scriptwriter in Japan. In an attempt to reinvigorate his creative spirit, he and buddy Daisuke (Katsuhisa Namase), who is on the eve of getting married to an American girl, venture out on a week-long road trip to the Napa. There, they meet local residents Mayuko (Kyoka Suzuki) whom Michio tutored 20 years past, and her free-spirited friend Mina (Rinko Kikuchi).

This take on “Sideways” takes a decidedly Japanese approach to its sentimentality and themes, with much of the content softened, notably the unsavory language used by Paul Giamatti, the ruthless beating delivered by Sandra Oh and the unabashed depictions of sex. Also missing is the bashing of Merlot, which drew the ire of vintners nationwide.

“Sideways” was filmed entirely on location in California with an all-American crew, and a sound track composed and supervised by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

Both “Ramen Girl” and “Sideways” are showing this Saturday at the Nakano Theater in Torrance.

Among the other films being screened during the festival are robot adventure “Yatterman,” “Lost & Found,” named the Best Narrative Feature at the 2008 Austin Film Festival, the biopic about Jokichi Takamine “Sakura Sakura,” and the JFFLA 2010 Film Competition Winners.

Tickets for all films are $10 for adults, $7 kids. More information and full schedules can be found at www.jffla.org/2010/en/.

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