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To be blunt, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre - out at Don Mills and Eglinton - is not one of the most convenient locations for a film festival. But it's worth enduring a bus ride to experience the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, which returns for 2013 with a slate of features you're unlikely to catch on local screens again.
The festival kicks off tonight (Thursday, June 13) at 7:30 pm with the Canadian premiere of Tenchi - The Samurai Astronomer, a long, expensive biopic about the 17th century scientist who took Japan from the Chinese Senmyo calendar to the Yamato standard. It's the new film from Yojiro Takita, director of the Oscar-winning drama Departures, and star Junichi Okada (of the boy band V6) spends a great deal of time gazing into the middle distance and looking thoughtful. I wouldn't put it too high on my must-list.
But Friday night's bill - the whimsical Rent-A-Cat at 7 pm and the manga freak-out Helter Skelter at 9:15 pm - offers two very different, equally intriguing reasons to attend.
Rent-A-Cat is a charming, curiously structured tale of a young woman (Mikako Ichikawa) who busies herself loaning kittens to lonely people in her neighbourhood, the better to avoid dealing with her own isolation. It feels like the set-up for a quirky romantic comedy, but director Naoko Ogigami refuses to commit to that genre; instead, she goes somewhere a little different, and the result is a pleasant surprise.
Helter Skelter is also about a lonely young woman, but its tone and intent are 180 degrees removed from Rent-A-Cat. Mika Ninagawa's film is a garish psychological thriller about a model (Erika Sawajiri) so dedicated to achieving what she sees as perfect beauty that she destroys herself in the process. Imagine Black Swan set in the world of high fashion instead of ballet - and with even less restraint - and you've got the general idea.