• Kerry Chambers

Recommends: Top 50 Japanese Films (PART 2)

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Here we go again: into part two. I don’t expect everything I have to offer will be to everyone’s taste, but when I thought about what I was choosing today, it was with regard to how moved I was, enthralled I was. Some of these don’t get spoken enough about, and in Japans film history, much after 1980 is often minimally explored with fixations on two or three filmmakers currently working. So, it felt that I had to find some variety in my selection, on often underrepresented films or even ones I just want to get talking about again. After all it’s my list; surely I get some kind of say in what I like.

Kagero-za (Arrow Academy, 1981)

Seventies Japanese cinema suffered heavily following their radicalism phase with the rising popularity and studio interest in the Pinku Eiga. This led to much of the output being soft-core sex pictures and less narrative-driven or ground-breaking cinema. Not to say the Pinku films were all bad; due to censorship laws and the lack of sex on screen, they were able to be far more creative with how they posed such intimate and saucy scenes. For example, the works of Kōji Wakamatsu (who would later go on to make acclaimed drama United Red Army in 2007) were incredibly politically-charged and socially stimulated and gave us interesting pieces such as Secrets Behind the Wall (1965), Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969) and Ecstasy of Angels (1972). Furthermore, Pinku films have seen many brilliant filmmakers way into the film industry since, and some of the films have managed to outlast many of their critics, even becoming cult classics with sound cinematic gravitas. But all of this is beside the point.

This Transient Life (Arrow Academy, 1970)

In other news, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss some gender politics here, if I may. Women in Japanese film have a strange history of representation. The passivity of their expected roles and their victimized depictions has led many to believe that there are little impressive films carrying female roles. In fact, I wholly agree that many films are irresponsible in their handling of the objectification of women. There is a clear imbalance with regard to violence and misogyny against women. But we are slowly beginning to see a difference. And one cannot write off the brilliant films of old that have tried to give voices to women where passivity once reigned. Furthermore, despite a low representation of women directors (there are very few, and they’ll all appear in part three of my list) there have been some films I have found rather empowering for women. Perhaps Anime has a better coverage overall, but with the progression of this list, the films become far more varied exploring the role of a woman in in both Japanese society and modern society as a whole.

House (Eureka, 1977)

Okay… now I’ve done that bit, let’s do this. Let’s see me ramble on some more!


18. The Buddhist Trilogy (Dir. Akio Jissôji)

I am guilty of prejudice. I am cheating in my own list. This is three films… well yeah? I’m slapping them together and saying their one. They are an entity all of their own. I love them more than anything I could ever bring into this world. My wild, philosophical, controversial, perverted, beautiful babies!

This Transient Life (Arrow Academy, 1970)

These three films I have explored in a relatively extensive essay regarding my love of the work and the themes that it represents, so there is little here for me to say that I haven’t already said. But I suppose I could describe each film, so then you know what you’re in for:

- This Transient Life (1970) - An illicit affair between brother and sister brings misery to those around them yet the young man displays little interest as he pursues a life of hedonism, obsessed with carving Buddhist statues.

- Mandala (1971) - A cult whose violent form of recruitment is through rape drives apart two men who are absorbed into the perverse lifestyle from their worlds as a part of the student rebellions where there is antagonism between the socialist factions.

- Poem (1972) - A houseboy, the illegitimate child of the family head who is fixated with his strict schedules and shrine etchings, is dragged into the seedy existences the lady of the house, her husband, his brother, the maid and the apprentice all the while trying to oversee, maintain and preserve the family name that in the hands of the future generations holds no meaning.

Mandala (Arrow Academy, 1971)

Jissôji uses these films to explore the sensuality of spirituality, the ugliness of humanity, with the vices of his protagonists bringing the downfall of those seeking enlightenment. His disillusioned trilogy contends with the interpretation of spiritualism in modern Japan, its relevance and irrelevance and its unsettling hold over human nature that far outweighs that of any societal or political leanings. These aren’t for everyone. They are, as you can see, rather intense and difficult to watch. They are violent, sexually and physically yet unusually powerful experiences. Viewed collectively, especially for first time viewers, these are some of the most rewarding films of seventies Japanese New Wave, a pinnacle moment in cinema and an underappreciated masterpiece.

Poem (Arrow Academy, 1972)

For more on these amazing films, check out my article Existential Ecstasy: The Buddhist Trilogy by Akio Jissôji.


19. Throw Away Your Books, Rally in The Streets (Dir. Shuji Terayama, 1971)

It’s all about that New Wave. It always will be. Because it passed through the sixties and seventies with a style all its own despite being heavily influences by French New wave and Free Cinema. One of the best of the final days of the movement, a purely mesmerizing contribution is Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets. A young man is disillusioned by his current state of wellbeing, his family content with the social straits they are in, yet he desires to be and do more. And so we follow him down the rabbit hole.

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971)

It’s a psychedelic rebellion, a fever dream of radical ideas and wild visuals that take you on a journey of a purely scathing revolution. I’ve never seen a film like it. Terayama’s experimental film, using different colours on frames, non-linear editing, jump-cuts, strange vignettes and performative art, was his first full-length feature, and what he managed to make was something that no other directors has managed to surpass in sheer creativity in such a boldly opinionated way. Of the radicalism that rang through the cities across the world following Americas involvement in Vietnam, the marches against fascism, consumerism and materialism, with a world of youths wildly dissatisfied with their government bodies globally, nothing captures the disarray and mania of those times quite so well as it is captured here. Though hard to find, if and should it get home release, or a theatre-run, I would urge all to drown themselves in something unforgettable.

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971)
- Another rare but totally original film would be another of Terayama’s from 1972. Pastoral: To Die in the Country is about a young boy’s youth in a village filled with strange, off-beat characters straight out of a circus (nightmare), which was adapted from the directors own stage-play. Equally as experimental, this one feels incredibly other-worldly.

20. Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Dir. Shunya Itō, 1972)

The seventies came; the politically charged radicalism slowly evaporated away for some cash-grab cinema. Pinku films were all the rage. So we also began to see more exploitation cinema. This in itself, in many ways, was even more regressive than the Pinku cinema… except for a particular actress’s awesome filmography: Meiko Keiji. With lead roles in 1973 and 1974’s breath-taking Lady Snowblood films (an inspiration to the best scenes in Kill Bill Vol. 1), Teruro Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), The Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71), she became the face of strong independent women, scorned by man and seeking vengeance on all she sees. Her legacy remains highly influential, with her films still referenced today by great filmmakers such as Sion Sono, Park Chan-wook and Quentin Tarantino.

Jailhouse 41 (Arrow Video, 1972)

But one of her most iconic roles is as Lady Scorpion, of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (1972-73). That look, the all black with the wide brimmed sun hat; she’s cool as hell. Four films in total of its original run, the series follows Nami Matsushima who is betrayed by her cop boyfriend and thrown into jail for seeking revenge on him, failing in the process. Within the series, she tries to break out of prison, hunt him down, and inspire rebellion within the confines of her incarceration. A silent avenger, Nami becomes a cold-hearted woman on the hunt for those who have wronged her. My favourite of these films happened to be the second, Jailhouse 41. Here she escapes jail with a group of other women, some desiring to be reunited with family whilst others border on villainous. All the while, they are hunted by the warden who harbours a strong hatred of Nami, who he has kept in isolation up until her escape. It is the most experimental the films, with beautiful visuals and sequences far superior to that of the later entries. It’s simply oozing with pulpy styles, whilst also capturing some truly creative sequences; the waterfall of blood and the forest of autumn leaves being particularly striking.

Jailhouse 41 (Arrow Video, 1972)

21. In the Realm of the Senses (Dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1976)

I absolutely adore this art film in all its repugnancy. A former prostitute has a violent but passionate, twisted affair with her married employer and soon they are consumed with one another. Things get gruesome after that. Banned from Japan and just about everywhere else, made in France, produced by an aforementioned Kōji Wakamatsu and heavily censored, slapped with an X rating everywhere in the west, In the Realm of the Senses is as notorious an entity as its subject.

In the Realm of the Senses (Studio Canal, 1976)

Ōshima revels in taboo, basing the story on the notorious crime committed by Sada Abe in the early 20th century, and choosing to shoot un-simulated sex throughout all the while capturing some absolutely beautiful shots. It’s amazing what these directors can do, even under strain from the powers that be. Its ruthless portrayal of desire-turned-to-madness shifts the film into possibly the most unsexy, exhausting and down-right grotesque sex film in all of cinema.

In the Realm of the Senses (Studio Canal, 1976)

What is notable about the film is its depiction of female sexuality, the focus on Sada Abe’s pleasure and gratification more so than her lover. Within the canon of Japanese cinema, to see this agency within a woman is rare, and despite being such a violent conclusion to their obsessive lust, destructive even to those around them, it’s debatable as to whether female desire is represented positively. But within Ōshima’s hands, I do suppose his statement and his controversialism is that he is giving a platform in which a females lust can be explored, displayed with in a dominant stance as much as a males. This is to say, that Ōshima’s films modern interpretation can be as equally revolutionary as its un-simulated sex controversy of the time. The film still pushes all of our buttons on the very nature of sex in cinema and our own sexuality.

In the Realm of the Senses (Studio Canal, 1976)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


22. House (Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

Widely renowned and yet currently scantily available in the UK, with just two features available on home release and meagre few on streaming platforms, it’s no wonder many have never had the pleasure of immersing themselves in Obayashi’s vision. But this one makes a pretty good starting point. A horror comedy, it’s an absurd teen movie with impressive sets and funky effects. It doesn’t take itself seriously, and even all the way back in 1977, Obayashi was revelling in the silliness of the genre.

House (Eureka, 1977)

A schoolgirl takes her friends to her aunt’s home, a mysterious recluse, for the holidays. There they encounter a demonic cat, a very, very, haunted house and a very, very, very, haunted piano, among other things. It’s the most original in the genre. All the girls are named as kind of what they represent, such as Gorgeous, Fantasy, Melody and so on. There are scenes of Kung-Fu fighting, floating heads, hungry floating heads (these are two different things), and even hungrier musical instruments. The house falls into the spectacular, like Jumanji meets the spirit realm and who really knows why it’s all happening. The effects are so extra, so phenomenally visual, with apparently no intention of them ever being realistic, all feeding into the mood of the film. It’s pure fun. It’s weird and entertaining and engrossing. Obayashi seemed to have a vision unlike any other filmmakers, choosing to immerse himself in the over-the-top, the spectacular, the uncanny all to marvellous effect.

House (Eureka, 1977)
- Obayashi’s anti-war epic Hanagatami (2017) is worth a viewing for his unique visual style, and Third Window Films has announced further release of the filmmaker’s works in the UK for the first time including his final film Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

23. The Ballad of Narayama (Shōhei Imamura, 1983)

A remake of the 1958 classic of the same name, and equally as fascinating, Imamura returns to my lists with one of his best films of all time. Somehow surpassing its original - which is also phenomenal - he focused in on the intimacies, the physical and emotional intricacies of his characters. The tale explores Ubasute, the mythical practice (there has never been evidence of this tradition in Japan) in which the elderly are taken from the village and carried up a mountain, left to die. At the age of seventy, they will be taken. Orin is sixty-nine, and does not wish to burden her family and instead oversees her family, urging them to live their lives to survive, to ensure their survival, in the year she has left with them. But her eldest son, troubled by his father’s disappearance when he was young, is less than happy at the thought of losing his beloved mother, who when the time comes, he will have to take to the mountain.

The Ballad of Narayama (Arrow Academy, 1983)

The film is intercut with the turning tides of nature, of animals and insects gorging on one another, intertwined in their own mating rituals, birth and more death. It’s brutal. Time moves on, where the passage of life through the romanticized eyes of human life is little more than nature in the realms of the beasts; so we have love, lust and mourn our deaths, they just continue through it all. In this Imamura compares his villagers, living a brutal existence of harsh laws, both unsentimental and primitive in their thoughts of sex, marriage and death. It is just their way. Imamura is asking us if we too can see them for their circumstance, criticize them or realize that the absence of such meditations on familial love is just one formed through a manmade lens. However, Orin’s eldest son is something of, or perceived to be, something of an anomaly within the constructs of their society as he struggles in turmoil at the brutality of their traditions, longing to protect his family from the cruellest practices. He becomes rather emotional to the audience. But he also grounds us in a way that allows us to relate to the rest of the village. There is something unsettling, but raw about its depiction of the people, something wholly understandable and recognizable in ourselves.

The Ballad of Narayama (Arrow Academy, 1983)

More sexually explicit, violent and invasive, Imamura chooses to follow the narrative through the final months of his character, revealing the lives of the villagers who have a clear deadline on their lives. It has more life, more drama than the original (no to say that it’s not worth seeing, it really is) where he delves into the domesticities. The tragedy of our life ensuring the death of our parents and loved ones, that life is an affirmation of death and loss. Imamura won his first Palme d’Or for this film, the only Japanese director to win two, and it is clear to see why with its exploration of the fundamentals of people, of life.

The Ballad of Narayama (Arrow Academy, 1983)
Other amazing late-career Imamura I regrettably cannot include are:
- Black Rain (1989) the better of the two films of the same name to be released that year (The other was Ridley Scott's abysmal action crime thriller starring an unbearable Michael Douglas but a too-cool-for-school Yasaku Matsuda) centres on the after-effects of a surviving family of Hiroshima, and the lives and loves they must seek.
- The Eel (1997) was Imamura’s second Palm d’Or winner and follows a man who, after his release from prison for killing his unfaithful wife in a fit of rage, pursues a quiet life as a barber whilst struggling with the guilt of his crime, unable to reciprocate growing feelings for a woman in his employment.
- Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) was the first Imamura I ever saw, and what a funky introduction with the story of an unemployed salesman who begins an affair with a reclusive, mysterious woman who, when orgasms, pours streams full of water from herself which flows into the river beside her home.

24. Tampopo (Dir. Jûzô Itami, 1985)

Food porn. The definition is this film. Featuring an array of talent including a young Kōji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, Tsutomu Yamazaki and Nobuko Miyamoto it’s a delightful genre-blending, comedy, western adventure through ramen. An homage to cuisine, its importance in Japanese living, loving and learning. Sweet, funny and moving, Itamis’ is far from underrated I fact it’s highly acclaimed and for very good reason with its originality and heart.

Tampopo (Criterion, 1985)

Two lorry drivers arrive in town, and decide to eat at the noodle shop of a kind widow named Tampopo. However, her food is poor, and the men take it upon themselves to help her learn to make the best ramen all the while exploring love and passion for all things food. Interspersed with stories within stories, we are guided on occasion by a sensuous gangster who features in a scene that somehow makes sharing an egg yolk both strange and erotic, Itami voices young and olds fascination with food. The textures, the way to eat it, the way it brings people together and grounds us, it’s one thing we all have in common. Food, guys… just really tasty looking food.

Tampopo (Criterion, 1985)

25. Yumeji (Dir. Seijen Suzuki, 1991)

I got myself into a little pickle here. You see, I wasn’t sure how to treat these films: as either a trilogy or individually. They’re all pretty amazing… and all featuring a powerful performance, equal parts enticing and unsettling, by Yoshio Harada. But could I cheat again the way I did with Jissôji… not really. Also because, my absolute favourite was the one that is often cited as the weakest of the trilogy, and that is a cause I simply feel I must fight for.

Suzuki’s trilogy begins with Zigeunerweisen (1980) about a professor who meets up with an old friend, the strange crowley-esque figure accused of murder and obsessed with the colour of bones. The two fall for a widowed geisha and a strange love triangle of sort’s forms, in which sex and the uncanny play crucial part. This was followed up by Kagero-za (1981) about a playwright inexplicably drawn to a mysterious woman where they then engage in an erotic rendezvous. Eventually, growing evermore obsessed with her, the woman is not all as she seems as it is revealed she could possibly be the ghost of his patrons’ deceased wife. Finally, in Yumeiji, we follow the life of the acclaimed artist Takehisa Yumeiji, his art, an encounter with a mysterious widow and the characters of her past.

Yumeiji (Arrow Academy, 1991)

I want to be clear. They are all impeccable films; truly masterful and enrapturing glimpses into the ever glorious vision of Seijun Suzuki. He chose to make a series of films that covered a version of Japanese history few get to see. The lusciousness, the western sensibilities conflicting with their Japanese aesthetics, with the culture and spirituality, the mysticism and mentality of the ancient culture; The Taisho Trilogy gives us a rare glimpse into that. The Taisho era is a brief period from 1912 to 1926 in Japan, often underrepresented despite being a lively time for art, music and fashion. The influence of western style is evident in this era within theirs and engineering. So Suzuki took this period in time, and crafted haunting tales, ghost-stories of sorts that captured the conflicts of interests.

Yumeiji (Arrow Academy, 1991)

Yumeiji hit’s different. Not just for the delicious score by Shigeru Umebayashi, it’s most familiar track made infamous by Wong Kar-wai’s corridor glance in In the Mood For Love (2000). It’s visually as delicious as all the others, but the incorporation of the artists’ works and the other-worldly state of the story incorporated into his vision, along with the mysterious ghostly tale at its core ticks all the right boxes for me. Yumeiji is an unlikable lead; his hubris, shallowness and brattishness, moving from one muse to the next and lusting for whatever is young and beautiful. But, his story cast a spell over me, engaging me from start to finish with its lushness. As the story unfolds, and dream and reality blur with every passing scene, his vision plays equal parts a blessing and nightmare to the audience. It’s a divine experience and, to me, a true masterpiece of late-career Suzuki.

Yumeiji (Arrow Academy, 1991)

26. Love Letter (Dir. Shunji Iwai, 1995)

I really went off on one over that last entry. This one is a little less complex for me. It’s just a love story. Where I usually turn for romance in Japanese media thought their literary fiction or anime, occasionally I find some brilliant soppy pieces that really flip my pancakes. Melodrama is, after all, far superior to drama because we all know, we just need emotions, all the time running on high to remind us that just a little bit of feeling is tolerable… we suppose. Usually, I just shove it way down deep. Love Letter decided to dig it up for me, dust it off and force me to soggily dry my own tears with it.

Love Letter (1995)

A woman still grieves years on after her fiancé died mountain climbing. Discovering his old childhood address, she decides to write to him on a whim, but is surprised to receive a reply. The sender is a woman who shares the same name as the deceased man, and the two begin to exchange letters as the man brings their lives together, helping them both come to revelations about him and themselves. Running a parallel narrative, and rather confusingly for myself at first, casting Miho Nakayama in both roles, it is both incredibly sweet, romantic slice-of-life and a life affirming piece. We see grief explored, who promises of futures beyond our hardest losses and tragic yet beautiful truths of our youths within its tale. After all these years, Love Letter is still a beloved classic across South-East Asia, often referenced and homage in many anime and K-drama’s, and for myself it held a very special place. It was so different from what I was used to seeing. It was hard-hitting and moving with amazing performances. And that finale… my goodness. That music... I better stop.

Love Letter (1995)
Honourable Mentions of Japanese romance I sob about:
- Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World (Dir. Isao Yukisa, 2004) is based on the light novel Socrates in Love by Kyoichi Katayama telling the bittersweet account of a man reminiscing about his first love in high school.
- The Milkwoman (Dir. Akira Ogata, 2005) follows the story of an older woman who reconnects with her school crush, never having confessed her feelings to him, as he tends to his dying wife.
- A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2007) tells the story of six students that make up the class of a small school in their sleepy village whose lives are changed when a new boy from Tokyo moves there.

27. Shall We Dance? (Dir. Masayuki Suo, 1996)

Better and funnier than the remake with Richard Gere, this often forgotten film is possibly the lightest and one of the most accessible on this list in terms of content. It’s also simply delightful. Starring the great Koji Yakusho, it follows an accountant who feels unfulfilled in life despite his loving wife and daughter. One day, on his commute home, he sees a woman dancing in the window of an adjacent building. From here he signs up for ballroom dancing.

Shall We Dance? (Miramax, 1996)

When I watched it, I didn’t expect to see something so similar to the western comedy and done so much better. Its focus lies in the businessman’s fulfilment rather than a complicated relationship triangle that often Hollywood wants to follow. The complexities within the society and it’s expectation of working men within Japan is explored here, with the strain it has on both their and their families lives leads into the explorations of a creative outlet that is both healthy and fun. It certainly did something different here, which was totally lost in in its American remake, with the original making a strong statement about its society. It’s a film about freedom of expression, on a button-up sort of way. Plus its dance sequences are fun, its humour is tip-top. You can see why it was one of the biggest films of the year in Japan.

Shall We Dance? (Miramax, 1996)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


28. Dangan Runner (Dir. SABU, 1996)

How much fun can one have with a crime film? For me, having grown-up with too many cockney geezer flicks and raging masculinity pictures, I found it hard to find much past Al Pacino movies and Get Carter (the 1971 version of course) to get my radar switched on. Of course, I then discovered South-East Asian cinema and now I have a long list of loves. One of which is this debut feature by the infuriatingly under-seen SABU (not to be confused with the actor… Sabu). A style all his own, SABU had dark-comedy criminal escapades nailed down on his first try and followed up with films of equal worth. And to think only one of his twenty-one films is available in the UK.

Dangan Runner (Third Window Films, 1996)

In Dangan Runner, a would-be bank robber, left by his girlfriend and sacked from his job, forgets his mask for his first heist but in an attempt to steal one from a nearby convenience store, he is chased from the premises by the clerk. The store clerk just happens to be a washed-up rock star, drug abuser currently on a frenzied high who is intent on catching the shoplifter. In their own chase, they pass a Yakuza thug who the rock-star owes money to, and he begins his own pursuit of the man. Together, the three chase one another through the streets of Tokyo into the night, their demons, and their sorrows playing out with each step they take.

Dangan Runner (Third Window Films, 1996)

It’s a simple premise with brilliant, entertaining intricacies. I love the films sense of humour and pacing that leaves even viewers exhausted by the end. It’s both satisfying and infuriating, who to root for we are never quite sure. With minimal dialogue from its leads, much of the drama taking place within their memories and fantasies, SABU gives some of his best dialogue to the foolish policemen preparing to intercept a gang war. Best of all, brilliant actor Shin’ichi Tsutsumi (most known outside of Japan for his roles in Hirokazu Koreedas’ 2015 film Our Little Sister and Sion Sono’s 2013 Why Don’t You Play in Hell?) made his film debut here and would go on to make four more films with the director. The combination of the two is brilliant, with some of the best, highest-octane and passionate performances by Tsustumi are found under SABU’s direction. It’s certainly an underrated cinematic pairing on screen. I’m hoping in the near future we will begin to see some of these works becoming available in the UK, not to be missed as some of the most engaging cinema of the last thirty years.

Dangan Runner (Third Window Films, 1996)
Other amazing SABU in need of a UK release:
- Postman Blues (1997) follows the mistaken identity of a humble postman by the police for a highly dangerous criminal.
- Unlucky Monkey (1998) is the story of a bank robber who is beaten to the robbery by another criminal, witnessing the man run off with the money he had meticulously plotted to steal. In his desperation, he is able to get hold of the money but accidentally kills an innocent girl and he flees the scene.
- Monday (2000) is the hardest to see of SABU’s films, a really rare gem in which a salary man attends a funeral and finds his life inexplicably turned upside down.

29. Cure (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

Japan reigns as the masters of the unnerving, often clever and intricate. This one is a bit of Hybrid. Moody, atmospheric and unsettling, Cure is often considered Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crowning achievement. Koji Yakusho rears his head again as the detective tracking identical murders in which victim are marked with a cross, with murderers seemingly unconnected, always beside the crime scene and with no memory of the events.

Cure (Eureka, 1997)

Psychologically intense and offering little in explanation to the bizarre going on’s, Cure is a crime/horror drama that resembles something of David Fincher’s Seven but with deeper philosophical contemplation and a more unsatisfying state of play. Within its narrative, Kurosawa explores the persuasion of humans, the extent of which a people are capable of being influenced and is repression of emotion as much the incentive of intent to kill as those I tune with their emotions. Kurosawa is predominantly a genre director so often never treads similar ground once he has, but many of his films explore familial bonds though the perceptions of out-casted individuals in society. Yakusho’s character is as much an outsider here, his repression a shield that hinders his day-to-day life, struggling with a psychologically disturbed wife, incapable of such restraints.

Cure (Eureka, 1997)

[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]


30. Kikujiro (Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Now something light and cute. I’m not always about crying or sweating or unsettling the bones right out of my skin. Sometimes, I’m all about heart-warming road movies. In the hands of multi-talented everyman Takeshi Kitano, it’s an about-ness realized to perfection. Known to the nineties to early 2000’s crew as Takeshi of Takeshi’s Castle, that madly entertaining farcical programme that has some incredible re-watchability, in Japan Kitano is a renowned comedian, writer, actor, editor and director with tons of credits to his name. So I could have picked a few of his films. He began his directing career within the crime genre and eventually branched out into more dramas. One thing most notable about Kitano’s style is how pensive and contemplative his works are, they often have minimal dialogue with a poetic beauty to his filmmaking, infused with elements of humour. But when I think of something that embodies the heart of Kitano, I think it lies in Kikujiro.

Kikujiro (Pathe, 1991)

A young boy, who lives with grandma, desperately wants to find his long lost mother and dedicates his summer to the task. His grandmother’s friend, an irresponsible older man (played by Kitano himself) decides to accompany the boy on his journey across country, making the adventure memorable and fun when things don’t go quite as planned. A family-friendly film, it’s got a lot of wit and soul as it tells a big moment in such a little life. Kitano has done something very special with this story, without creating too much doom and gloom; instead a painting of pure joy, creativity and imagination that makes memories for the little boy that asked for so little but received so much in return. His choice of simple framing, patient and observant shots, the score by Joe Hisaishi, creates a a warm and cuddly feeling. It feels like a breath of fresh air. It's just lovely.

Kikujiro (Pathe, 1991)
Other Kitano films I highly recommend:
- A Scene at the Sea (1991) is about a young hearing-impaired garbage collector brings joy into his and his girlfriend’s life when he discovers his passion for surfing.
- Kids Return (1996) is the story of two high school dropouts who find success as an amateur boxer and a low-level gangster only to find that their past choices are marring their future.
- Hana-Bi (1997) is about a police officer who leaves the force after personal tragedy strikes, sending him into a melancholic spiral of violence and self-destruction.

31. Audition (Dir. Takashi Miike, 1999)

A year ago, when I made this list, I was adamant that I would not include Audition, instead focusing on the super enjoyable Lesson of Evil. And I still hold this in high regard. But upon reviewing more of his films, even enduring the filthy but shamefully enjoyable Visitor Q (2001), I realized that when I think Miike… like really think Miike, I gotta think of skin-crawling, thought-provoking nightmares. He has managed to pull off so many genre pieces, his Dead or Alive (1999 – 2002) films are great, 13 Assassins (2010) is glorious, The Happiness of the Katakuri’s (2001) has some good sequences and effects even if it’s kind of a less satisfying amalgamation of Obayashi’s House and South Korean dark comedy The Quiet Family (Kim, 1998) with musical in for good mix. I liked Ichi the Killer (2001)… Blade of the Immortal (2017) was pretty darn cool too and even his recent First Love (2019) was unexpectedly sweet. There’s so many within his filmography, to encapsulate it in one go is madness. But Audition is the one I think of.

Audition (Arrow Video, 1999)

Based on the novel of the same name by Ryu Murakami, this depraved drama follows a widower who, in search of a new wife, holds auditions in the guise of a fake production with the help of his producer friend to select the perfect woman. Who he chooses seems straight from his dreams; demure, beautiful and withdrawn, he is enraptured. Until he begins to notice she is not all as she seems.

Audition (Arrow Video, 1999)

This film boasts some truly grotesque imagery, one including a dog bowl that I straight up don’t bother to even look at anymore; ultimately it represents all those things that draws Miike to cinema. His interest in media as a form of perversion, the use of film industry to hook women in and the consequences of that manipulation, pushing the boundaries of what can be seen on screen. As Ōshima did before him (Miike is a self-proclaimed fan of the masters work), he takes taboo subjects and throws them in our faces. But somehow, he finds humour in this human depravity. There’s no doubt that he is right about it either, there is something beyond ridiculous about human nature and capability, and what society constructs expects from us and what people are willing to do for the ultimate pain and pleasure. Audition feels more mature than his other works, an unsettling mystery/drama for much of the run-time. Sometimes he throws all his grossness at the wall to see what sticks, but in Audition, he lets it simmer for as long as possible before turning up the heat. And it becomes his most well-earned.

Audition (Arrow Video, 1999)
Some easy-breezy Miike I can’t help but love:
- One Missed Call (2003), a schlock horror that never fails to entertain me above all else and I return to over and over. Some films just have that kind of power over you.
- Lesson of Evil (2012) is about a handsome teacher with homicidal tendencies who has found a new killing ground at the school he works at.
- For Love’s Sake (2012) is a musical hybrid of a slice-of-life meets yakuza redemption tale.

32. Gohatto (Dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1999)

The first director to get three places on my list. I did say I loved him. And how can’t I when his last feature was the glorious Gohatto, translated into English as Taboo. Taboo! This film reminded everyone that he never really lost his magic touch; he just needed the right kind of stuff. What could be more appropriate for him than homosexuality within the notorious Shinsengumi militia unit? The hyper-‘masculinized’ Samurai were known to pursue relationships with other men, but by the 19th century (like most countries stuffy 19th centuries), it was severely frowned upon. It happened. Of course it did. But it’s something the history books wanted to keep under wraps. So Ōshima wanted to bring that up and remind everyone that the stifling, nobility of the Shinsengumi and their ancestors of the last two hundred years were not what everyone wanted to remember.

Gohatto (Momentum, 1999)

In Ōshima’s hands, the story gets messier when a young, talented recruit, at the end of the 19th century, catches the eyes of many of his colleagues threatening to disturb the rigid code, a code that maintains their order meticulously. The final set-piece is something reminiscent of the old studio ghost tales, in a dark romanticized set. The friction amongst the men oozes through the screen, unbearable as they fight for the new recruit’s attention. The youngster enjoys every minute of it, manipulating them to ascend the ladder. Ōshima creates the Shinsengumi’s ordered existence so far off from he rest of the world, a bizarre breed all their own made stranger by their strict rules that creates something off-balance in the most perfect way. They are expected to maintain civility and rules, never to show their passions and hearts… You have to see it to feel it.

Gohatto (Momentum, 1999)

For a final film, I think it’s pretty astounding and captures the spirit of Ōshima’s filmography, that sense of rebellion. As a filmmaker and a fighter, he find the injustice in a silences history of sexuality and forces us to face the not so terrible truth. Because he believed that things would no longer be taboo once we talked about the forbidden thing. His desire to expose us as a society and thinly veil it as a spectacle for us is genius; as though he says look over here, leaves us for a moment and the throws a sack of rocks in our face. I like to think that he criticizes as much out of hate as he does love for his country and their traditions.

Gohatto (Momentum, 1999)

 

There we go: Part Two over and done with. Now just one more to go. I hope you find something delicious to enjoy and have a look at some of my other recommends if you’re hungry for some Top 15 Akira Kurosawa, Top 10 Hirokazu Koreeda, Top 15 Sion Sono, Top 15 Studio Ghibli, Top 20 Anime series and Top 20 Anime Films.


Tampopo (Criterion, 1985)

CHECK IT OUT: TOP 50 JAPANESE FILMS PART THREE

277 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All