Recommends: Top 50 Japanese Films (PART 3)
The last stretch is upon me and I realised before that I got a little carried away, a little overexcited by the promise of some of the previous entries. So this time, we’re keeping it short and sweet; concise as a cucumber. Or so I say. But all said and done, this has come rather late and there is no good excuse for it. Conciseness would have been a reflection of someone managing their time well. I have not.
Where last time I discussed gender, it is here I want another opportunity to discuss further diversity and representation within Japanese cinema. There are other things missing from Japanese cinema that I have a minimal education or knowledge in with regard to politics, race, disability, sexuality and mental health within the country. As I have said, these films are ones I have enjoyed immensely and I feel are beginning to show some progress in representation. Where Japanese cinema is far behind in representation, I do feel its creative ideals and its ingenuity has reached out to many, speaking to many such as myself and been eye-opening where many films in the western canon have failed. I therefore do not wish to scrutinize too much where I cannot fully grasp the scope of the issue, which I am aware is there. I do hope, in the next coming entries, you can see some progress, if minute. And I know there is much more to explore within this issue that I would gladly tackle at a later date. I want to, I intend to. For now, I would like a chance to celebrate the last twenty one years of Japanese cinema and it’s progression within many of the contexts I have highlighted in my criticisms and concerns.
33. Eureka (Dir. Shinji Aoyama, 2000)
This was film I came upon via online shopping rather than any movie database, forum of blog. It struck me as strange that something that (in the UK) was an Artificial Eye release and yet not even mentioned or appearing in the boast posts of the most hardcore Asian cinema and boutique collectors. I had to ask myself why that could be. Suspicions lent themselves to pondering that its bloated runtime of more than three hours could have been the cause or the sepia-like grade, the non-traditional presentation of the frame, or the subject matter. It certainly couldn’t be because it starred the legendary veteran actor Koji Yakusho (What a guy: this is not the only time I’m going to point him out today, the guy truly is a legend appearing in plenty of my recommendations in Part 2). Three survivors of a senseless bus massacre, the driver and two schoolchildren, struggle to move on from the trauma left to them eventually finding comfort in forming a found family with one another.
How can such a basic premise flirt with such an exhaustive runtime? Let me tell you. What became clear was the frankness in which it bore its soul. The story is slow but never dull; unfolding its various layers, the otherworldly connection between the three characters, the bonds that they have formed by such horror. A horror no one else can fully comprehend. It’s so warmly heart-breaking, the interactions of the driver with the children as he becomes a surrogate father to them. He finds a place for himself where his old life can no longer fit him. And the film asks the biggest questions. Why was it that they survived? How are they supposed to live? Are they allowed to?
34. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Dir. Shunji Iwai, 2001)
Pretty much the defining teen film of the early 2000’s, Iwai managed something rarely found in depictions of adolescent crisis on film, an experience all too familiar and entirely tragic. Apparently inspired by the director’s attendance at a Faye Wong concert, he eventually began work on an online novel through chat logs of teen fascination with a fictional pop star. Finally he used the online presence of the story to create the eventual film using the platform to engage his audience in an interactive experience in the run up to the film. Exploring bullying, isolation and escapism, the film revolves around a group of teens and the music of the enigmatic singer Lily Chou-Chou. It is here in the ‘Ether’ that these teens escape, through chat rooms where the characters reveal their deepest feelings about the singer. Not until then end do we know which teen is under what online pseudonym, but this safe space runs parallel to the harrowing lives the youngsters follow, constructed non-linearly to enhance the feeling of fragmentation and displacement in their lives. Escaping through the musicians music, they are not brought together but flung into isolation.
Through the eyes of a fourteen year old, we see his anti-social behaviours, his disassociation and the descent of his best friend once the top of his class to the school bully following a near death experience. No one is okay. Iwai infuses the film with an amazing soundtrack incorporating the works of Debussy and the songs of fictional Lily Chou-Chou, a highlight being the powerful Glide, (exactly the kind of music I would have and still do jam to even now) Beautiful cinematography through the lens of a digital camera gives the film a far more authentic feel. Best of all, its characterization, writing, originality and young actors are astounding. Few films have imbued the online alter-egos of its characters so effectively whilst capturing the honest depiction of fanaticism in youth, and the importance of music as an identity at such a young age. The film never forces extremism. It’s rooted in reality and far more moving for it. A brief skim though the comments of the films soundtrack on YouTube is evidence that even twenty years on, this film has found a connection with the adolescents of now and I mean, how much more powerful can something be than seeing that. It really is something else.
Further Youth movies of the early 2000’s that prove that Japanese cinema has a true knack for it:
- Ping Pong (Dir. Fumihiko Sori, 2002) is the story of two friends partaking in a table tennis tournament and the excitement and drama that revolves around the sport.
- Linda, Linda, Linda (Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005) follows a group of teenage high school girls who form a band to perform covers of their favourite punk groups music and the highs and lows of teenagerdom. They are the coolest girls around!
- Moon and Cherry (Dir. Yuki Tanada, 2005) is an indie film about a teenage girl who joins an erotic literary group and goes onto explore love and sexuality.
35. Pulse (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
The other Kurosawa is truly the master of genre and no J-horror of the early 2000’s creeped me out as much as his. Forget Ringu (Nakata, 1998) and Ju-on (Shimizu, 2002), that walk alone is enough to genuinely terrify. It’s all about the atmosphere with the plot being a little hard to follow on the first couple of watches. But that’s kind of beside the point because what Kurosawa really explored was the devastating isolation of the internet age, the loneliness. It doesn’t even seem like an extreme reaction to the online world, I mean it’s all too relatable. The internet is an abyss.
After a college student commits suicide, Tokyo students begin witnessing horrifying visions transferred to them via the internet. Following three seemingly unrelated individuals, they attempt to solve the mystery behind the malevolent spirits found in their computers. With eerie dark shadows of victims left on the walls, unnerving grainy webcam footage of dark rooms and the creepy-ass red tape sealing doors shut that everyone suddenly wants to open, the film is masterfully suspenseful. Ignore the American remake. It should go without saying but considering how outrageously butchered it is to the original with an over reliance on CGI that makes you wonder if it is just the Americans that are scared of loud noises and digitally imposed ghosts, it really will ruin what is a master class in mood. And like I said, that walk you ain’t gonna forget anytime soon…
Some more of my favourite J-Horror for you to peruse:
-Versus (Dir. Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000) is zombies against gangsters and its awesome and striking and worth every minute.
- Dark Water (Dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002) is the story of a divorcee and her young girl being haunted by a ghostly girl in their new apartment and the Nakata film I find in many ways more enjoyable than his Ring films.
- Marebito (Dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2004) is Shimizu’s better film in my opinion, about a man who, whilst exploring the dark hellish underbelly of Tokyo, comes across a chained vampiric woman who he takes home.
36. Blue Spring (Dir. Toshiaki Toyoda, 2001)
One more Youth movie I want to talk about that deserved a place on this list is Blue Spring. I wrote a review of it earlier this year, so taken by it as I was. Where Lily Chou-Chou is silently devastating, Blue Spring is an explosion of adolescent rebellion and childhood loss. I mean the quote, ‘Aren’t there some flowers that never bloom’ sums up the heartache of these teenagers. I want to just give them a secure home life, some structure and hope for the future!
The clapping game in which challengers see how many claps they can do before having to reach out for the railing on the roof of the school defines who is top dog. The winner is a reserved, quietly rebellious, teen whose success begins to unsettle the balance in the school full of troubled students. His best friend, always the underdog, demands to be heard to be the top of something and a rivalry takes over what was once a close companionship. Violence is part of everyday, their lives are brutal and yet there is beauty in the blossoms that grow and the flower garden tended by one of the schools kindest teachers. This is not enough. Thee Michelle Gun Elephant punk songs, full of rage yet deliciously stylish, are perfect for the loudly rebellious but unexpectedly heartfelt film, Toyoda’s construction of the chaos amongst the youth is heightened by their presence. The track Drop is truly powerful and not to be missed both in the films context and as a standalone. Check out my Blue Spring Review, I am aware that I am not doing it the justice it deserves. I was blown away by it personally and look forward to the upcoming box set and individual releases through Third Window Films of Toyoda’s other works including Pornostar (1998), 9 Songs (2003) and Hanging Garden (2005)
37. The Twilight Samurai (Dir. Yôji Yamada, 2002)
This I had on my list for a long time before getting around to watching it and I regretted that decision. A tender but powerful story of a widowed samurai and his two young daughters trying to make ends meet is unable to marry the woman he loves. Furthermore, he is once again called out for his profession. It’s an angle we rarely see in the Jidaigeki (period) films about samurai, replacing the honorable samurai or the rebellious ronin with a hard-working and doting father. The film chooses to be quiet and gentle, although it carries some excellent scenes of intensity and violence which are all the more striking in contrast. Overall the film critiques duty over emotions and carries great scenes of intimacy between the family. Samurai have never been more vulnerable.
[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]
Other amazing modern Samurai movies include:
- The Hidden Blade (Dir. Yôji Yamada, 2004) follows a low-esteemed samurai who must give up his love for a woman to pursue a task of great heartache to regain honour for his family name, overthrowing a rebellion concocted by his closets friend.
- Zatoichi (Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2003) is a retelling of the infamous blind swordsman who, now in retirement as a masseuse must aid a village who are suffering beneath the rule of warring gangs.
- 13 Assassins (Dir. Takashi Miike, 2010) is a remake of the 1963 film in which samurai are secretly hired by the government to overthrow a Lord who is massacring his own people. Yakusho is also in it so…
38. The Taste of Tea (Dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)
What a weird little film. I love it. This often appears on the Japanese films of the 2000’s and for good reason although when pitched can often fall flat of what it’s really all about. Yes, there is a young girl who is accompanied by a giant version of herself everywhere she goes who no one else can see. There’s also a eccentric grandfather who lurks in his studio working on a rather secret project, an awesome artist of a mother who just goes with the flow animating short movies with the help of grandfather, a lovesick teenager who is socially awkward and finds the game Go is the way into the girl of his dreams heart, a sound-engineer and record producer uncle who was once cursed after taking a dump on a skull in the forest and a seemingly normal father who is a hypno-therapist and also an avid Go player. They’re just your average family.
Funnily enough, it’s a very touching and intimate portrait of a family. Stylistically it’s striking and quirky but at its heart there is a very sweet story of a family united by their unconventionalism, for they are allowed to be themselves. It explores the idea of how intimately families do know one another despite not always vocalising it, how accepting and perceptive we are of their funny little ways. It’s an eventful film, plodding yet familial as it invites you into the humour and drama of their lives. It’s funny and sweet and totally unforgettable.
39. Memories of Matsuko (Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima, 2006)
There was certainly a rise in surrealism in the Japanese cinema during this decade, for here we have a musical drama, homage to Gone with the Wind, classic Hollywood, fantasists and dreamers, and a big old middle finger to reality, following the life of Matsuko. Even that description does not quite capture quite how original this film is. Nakashima has made a few highly entertaining films but his most moving and eye-grabbing work I found, was Memories of Matsuko.
A young man has to clear out his reclusive deceased aunts flat, known to the neighbours a hoarder and to his family as a failure. It is through sorting out her belongings that he is able to connect with the woman and piece together the disappointing life she lead. A daydreamer and playful young woman, a series of events led to her being exploited by others, her openness and kindness of heart used against her. We witness her fall from grace and her rejection by society. All told through magnificent set pieces and musical numbers. Matsuko is a tragic figure who was happiest in her own head. No one is quite so relatable to me. It’s beautiful and funny in places, interwoven with tragedy and hope. Matsuko’s escapism, her world is one that is hard but made with her desire to find the best in any situation.
Other Nakashima films worth a look:
- Kamikaze Girls (2004) is the tale of an unlikely and surprisingly sweet friendship between a materialist Rococo Period fanatic and a tough biker girl.
- Confessions (2010) is an intense mystery unravelling the plans for revenge by a mother against the students that were responsible for her daughter’s death.
-World of Kanako (2014) is the story of a man (played by, you guessed it… Koji Yakusho) who desperately searches for his daughter only to find that along the way there are many things in her life he knew nothing about.
40. Adrift in Tokyo (Dir. Satoshi Miki, 2007)
Miki is a really fun director. His vision is always striking and quirky and there are few I’ve found that match the level of silliness he is willing to explore whilst maintaining an actual plot. Look at Miki’s Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005); it makes a rather great statement about housewives and careers all under the guise of story about a lonely married woman who becomes a spy after finding a tiny flyer, fed up of looking after her husbands beloved pet turtle that he puts before her. He’s not weird for the sake of it, rather it exposes something rather interesting his characters, and their scenario is unusual, dismantling their personal truths. But his best work that reveals this would have to be his comedy Adrift in Tokyo. A little less quirky, what is really at its heart is a pondersome film unravelling the unlikely friendship between two men.
A thug offers to pay off a young Law students gambling debt if he accompanies him across Tokyo. With no ambitions, the student is drifting through life and so takes the older man up on the offer. The pair go everywhere, taking in the sights, enjoying various past times all the while learning more about each other. I love the sense of humour in this film, the performances are incredibly natural and dead pan and despite entering territories often heavy, there is always the light that shines down on these shadows. It is quirky, but not too much so. If anything it becomes a pretty forgettable feature of the film, so engrossing are the characters and story. Nothing wrong with quirky when it’s done well.
41. Departures (Dir. Yojiro Takita, 2008)
This one is pretty wholesome indeed. A Cellists orchestra disbands and he is forced to move with his wife back to his hometown. In need to a job, he answers an ad thinking it’s for a travel agency only to discover this is at a mortuary. Through this work he finds his true calling yet he desperately tries to hide his new found passion from his neighbour’s and partner. A taboo subject in Japan, a role often reviled in spite of its necessity in ritual funerals often based in Buddhist beliefs, the film exposes the tenderness and intimacies of Japanese burials.
It won the 2009 Academy award for best foreign film and although rooted deeply in the culture of Japan and the stigma surrounding death (It is considered unclean to touch the dead and so morticians are considered unclean, an attitude dating back to feudal Japan in which morticians were segregated from society). It’s an engaging and moving film that had a wider impact on its subject matter and with lovable cast it’s hard not to enjoy this delightful film and probably one of the most accessible films from Japan for any interested in sinking their teeth into something a little softer.
[Abridged from my previous article, Top 15 Japanese Films - 2020]
42. Tokyo Sonata (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
My last entry by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the one that took many by surprise, it’s a little bit of a tearjerker. Well, it was for me. Where so many of his works had been unconventional genre classics, he tried his hand at a more grounded family drama with his own unique flare and it was a success. It’s the film I would go as far to say is the best he has made so far. Japan like many other places experienced a severe economic crash that saw the loss of thousands of jobs, with many companies choosing to outsource as cheaper means. Therefore, with a rise of unemployment so there was a rise in depression and the strain on the family unit. Kurosawa was moved by this and wanted to uniquely explore the impact of this upon the average family, with each individuals story followed.
A father loses his job but keeps it secret from his family, spending his days at food banks and the employment office with other unfortunate salary men. Meanwhile his wife finds out all on her own, but choosing not to bring it up, she begins to steadily lose trust and faith in her husband She just wants to keep the family together, see a bright future for her children. Their eldest son is determined to join the army against their wishes and their youngest son is spending his lunch allowance on piano lessons. All are at odds, conflicting with their wants and desires, the needs of their family unit at a crisis point. Yet it is infused with perfect humour and drama, the overwhelming tragedy becoming something of a comical force in itself. But, it’s also muted. The greatest motif thought out the film is the flash of light, often caused by the neighbouring railway sparking on the tracks, a beacon of hope or a revelatory, exposing flash. It’s used in such powerful moments, something so ordinary, that it lends the film a feel of its own otherworldliness from the everyday. It’s an emotive film, with a final act that is simply unforgettable. And guess who has a small part… Koji Yakusho.
Other late career Kurosawa I feel deserves some more love would be:
- Journey to the Shore (2015) in which a widows husband, who was lost at sea, returns and takes her on a journey to meet all those who helped bring him back to her.
- Creepy (2016) it the mystery/thriller in which an ex-detective and his wife move into a seemingly ordinary residential neighbourhood but are unnerved by a secretive, bizarre neighbour who begins integrate himself into their lives.
- Before We Vanish (2017) is about an alien invasion, in which the extra-terrestrial steal emotions from humans to better understand the planet they are overtaking, yet one in particular is gradually becoming overwhelmed as he begins to understand humanity.
43. Fish Story (Dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)
This was an unexpectedly cool film and something I am yet to see so masterfully executed anywhere else. Despite lower budgets and certainly less impressive CGI, Japanese cinema a few years ago had managed to concoct some great stories that allow us to overlook some of the less impressive effects. But who really cares? In the west we’re using special effects to mask the lack of plot so who are really handling it better? Fish Story certainly does. And it dips its toes in plenty of genres whilst it does it and unfolds a complex but rewarding film that ultimately defines the power of music and the impact of even the smallest decisions we make in life.
The world is ending. A man enters a record store where they begin discussing and playing the legendary single of the title by an obscure punk band called Gekirin, a group that anticipated the scene that was just emerging in the UK and USA. As the record plays, the film jumps across timelines exploring a bizarre cult awaiting the end, a late night crawl through the streets as a group of men look for women to entertain, a hospitality staff member on a ferry helps save a schoolgirl from hijackers and the gradual revelation of how the song Fish Story was written. The song ties the events together, somehow… The song is even more infamous for a silence in the middle of the track, under much discussion. Some say the recording was faulty during the process; others say the manager purposely had the segment cut out. But no one knows what is missing in those moments. As we move through the film something seems to gradually link. And my god is the payoff good. Not to mention that the song itself is kind of a banger.
Other cool genre bending films:
- One Cut of the Dead (Dir. Shinichirou Ueda, 2018) – A zombie hybrid with one of the best one-shots of the last ten years, it’s great and surprisingly clever.
- Melancholic (Dir. Seiji Tanaka, 2018) is the story of a recently graduated University student with no plans for his future who gets a job at a bath house after meeting a girl there only to find that at night his new workplace is being used by Yakuza for executions.
- Miss Zombie (Dir. SABU, 2013) is set in a world in which the undead co-exist the earth leading daily lives among us. A family hires an undead woman as a domestic servant and how her presence changes their lives.
44. Kotoko (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2011)
This is my favourite Tsukamoto film. Where his others have been extreme within their genre; body horrors and grotesque perverted ghosts stories, exploring the extremism and fragility of masculinity, in Kotoko he took something far more relatable to myself as he used the female psyche as his subject. Many of his films are described as horror but it was this one that disturbed me the most as it truly inhabited it’s disturbed protagonists existence. It was real. It was harrowing.
A young single mother is having a nervous breakdown. Her grip on reality is slipping away and her fantasies and paranoid delusions are consuming her fragile mind. She sees two versions of everyone, one good and one evil and yet cannot perceive which one is which. She lashes out at neighbours or locks herself and her young son away for days, convinced they want to hurt her and her child. Eventually he is taken away from her when she is suspected of child abuse and she must travel far to see him. She is only at peace when she sings. She is stalked by a novelist who desires a relationship with her whilst she herself turns to self-harm to ground herself in reality. The woman is so deeply troubled, yet it does not feel so out of this world. The machismo and outrageousness of Tsukamotos’ previous works have required the audience to suspend their disbelief and yet here he has portrayed a rather accurate portrayal of a severely mentally disturbed individual and the distressing, often fragmented existence they lead their daily lives with. So much of her struggle comes from a place of love and this makes it all the more terrible and her fate understandable. It’s a very intense film, violent and the truest ‘horror’ Tsukamoto has ever made.
If you want to check out some of Tsukamoto’s earlier works:
- Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) was his first big hit and the story of an everyday salary man who is infected by metal that eventually takes over and warps his body, one of the best examples of body horror.
- Gemini (1999) is the story of duality in which a doctor in the early 1900’s is pursued and eventually replaced by his ‘evil’ doppelganger
- A Snake of June (2003) is about a woman blackmailed by a mysterious figure who requires her to partake in his sexual games to prevent him from revealing explicit photos of her pleasuring herself to her husband who she has a pleasant marriage with but no intimate relationship with.
45. The Woodsman and the Rain (Dir. Shuichi Okita, 2011)
This is genuinely what I believe to be one of the best comedies ever made. A really great story of the bond between a simple woodcutter and meek director filming a zombie movie in a small village, it’s funny but also explores a whole lot more. Its characters have to step out of their comfort zones, break their routines to get the best out of their lives. I’ve actually written about this film before in my article Top 10 Films about Filmmaking, but this also has a special place in my heart as such a feel good film. And Koji Yakusho (back at it again!) is amazing opposite Shun Ogiri.
The widowed woodsman of the title is rather gruff and reserved, his relationship with his lazy son is strained, both of them incredibly stubborn, and their communication is next to nothing. Eventually his son decides to leave home. A film crew comes to town to film a first-time director’s script about zombies. At first reluctant, he helps them out and becomes fond of the young director, taking him under his wing. Wanting to help him find the confidence he needs to realize his dream, the woodsman incites the help of the villagers to make the zombie movie the best it can be. It’s so nice! Like truly lovely and really funny.
- Okita has a beautiful voice as a filmmaker, managing the tragedy of everyday life and finding some delicate humour where necessary and this was displayed in his follow up film The Story of Yonosuke (2013) about a young man who made a difference to all the lives of those he meets, despite being clumsy and foolish, he has a heart of gold.
46. Still the Water (Dir. Naomi Kawase, 2014)
The greatest controversy about this list is that I have two female directors on it. Tried as I might, I simply had trouble sourcing the films of notable female directors, many not available to stream or buy, especially not English subtitled, either legitimately or otherwise. It was incredibly frustrating. Despite there being a rise in the last ten years, Japan is certainly starved of women behind the camera and I was acutely aware of how restricted I was in my choices. Not to say who I mention now is not worth mentioning. Internationally she is the most well-known and, yet, her films are sorely underrated in film discussion forums. This woman is the astounding Naomi Kawase. Similar in style to Hirokazu Koreeda, she is very much rooted in the documentary style of filmmaking that lends itself to realism whilst exploring themes of broken families and matriarchs, choosing to use amateur actors and often filming on location. Her films feel fresh and part of the earth leading to rather poetic experiences.
The one I was most moved by was her powerful coming of age story, Still the Water. A study of grief and womanhood, it follows a teenage girl whose mother, the islands shaman, is dying. Meanwhile she meets and falls for a boy who has just moved to the island following the separation of his parents, finding a solace in one another’s company. Scenes play out long and naturalistic, the shots of the seaside landscape are beautiful and reminder of our insignificance as species on this planet. The underwater photography is lush. But it’s most striking scene is as the family gathers before the bed of her dying mother, a both ritualistic yet also incredibly intimate moment, capturing the conflict between the loss of an figurehead versus the loss of a loved one. I felt something rather raw after watching the film; it found its way into all the cracks in my heart and reassured me in a way that even I can’t quite describe. Whatever it was, I found it was perfect for what I needed.
Other Kawase available in the UK:
- The Mourning Forest (2007) is about a nurse grieving for her dead child who finds herself wandering the forest with one of her elderly patients.
- Sweet Bean (2015) is the story of recently released convict who runs an unsuccessful anpan stand until he meets an elderly woman who teaches him the secret to creating the perfect red bean paste.
47. Her Love Boils Bathwater (Dir. Ryota Nakano, 2016)
I suppose this is rather under seen as it has never had a formal release in either US or the UK. The ways I found to see it were rather suspect but I do not regret it. It was a reminder of just how many brilliant films have yet to be seen internationally until we starts realizing that the US box office darlings are eradicating true heart in out storytelling… but whatever. I have a bee in my bonnet today clearly. Anyway, what a refreshingly heartfelt film it was exploring the effect a woman has in the lives of so many.
The story follows a woman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. In her final months, she makes it her mission to reunite the family and the set them up after she is gone. This includes seeking the husband that left her long ago, reopening the family bath house to keep them financially stable and to help her daughter learn to stand up for herself in school and in life. It’s a gorgeous portrait of a broken family uniting in a time of crisis, and how their time together will bind them forever. Sometimes it’s a little sentimental but mostly it’s a spritely film with lots of soul and vigour, a real reminder to live each day as it comes and that life is too short to spend it frightened and bitter. It’s life-affirming, my favourite type of drama and an amazing bit of storytelling you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.
Some great recent films in Japanese cinema I can’t fit on this list:
- Happy Hour (Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2015) runs at a whopping five hours and follows the lives of four women, who are close friends, asking the big questions as each begin to wonder if they are living the lives they want to lead.
- Harmonium (Dir. Kōji Fukada, 2016) is a family drama in which a man hires an old friend to work for him only for for him to infiltrate the lives of his family.
- Mother (Dir. Tatsushi Ohmori, 2020) explores the toxic relationship between a single mother and her young son as the boy makes an unsettling decision.
48. Violence Voyager (Dir. Ujicha, 2018)
I still rave about this film. It’s been months since I last saw it and I even vented it all into an article (The Ghastly Master of Geki-mation) about the Third Window Films brilliant Blu-ray release of Ujicha’s output up to this release. But I can’t forget about it so easily. I mean, they’re Geki-mation for one, a style I think more storytellers should try out (I think many stories would benefit an animated or stop-motion style, we’re rather limited as human beings and I feel 2D being one of the best forms of expression). Violence Voyager was Ujicha’s latest film, a project that took him years to complete but was so worth it for its originality and retro feel.
During summer vacation, a young boy and his friend discover an amusement park run by a strange man whilst going to meet their old classmate in a neighbouring village. They took a detour across the mountains; big mistake. Themed on the idea of zapping monsters, soon they discover a ghastly plot in which they are abducting children and running grotesque experiments on them. It’s very old school, it feels like it should be straight out of the eighties. The effects and soundtrack are synthy and fun whilst the film itself carries a rather rebellious spirit in its choice of storytelling. The artist style is often horrific and gruesome, with lots of blood and other monstrously entertaining fluidy effects, yet after a while one forgets you are watching paper figures on sticks and your engaging in the narrative, something wildly admirable as so much time and effort was put into every frame. Does it technically count as animation? Yes. But does it also ground itself in reality. Yes. So I want to include it here, because I am less likely to call it an anime than I am anything else. Besides, I made my rules so I can bend them a little.
- Ujicha is currently working on his next project, there are possibly going to be dinosaurs involved and I can’t stop thinking about it. Check out his other film, The Burning Buddha Man (2013)
49. 37 Seconds... (Dir. Hikari, 2019)
When we talk about representation in Japanese cinema, I tend to only be able to discuss animation and literature, finding there cinema rather lacking in anything led by characters of a ‘minority’. Disability, race and gender all take the back seat. As I have previously stated, I am no expert so cannot quite grasp the depth and scope of this issue although I can hardly declare that the UK handles things much better, with the US studios patting themselves on the back for even implying that a character is a lesbian, not that one would know straight away without reading a character bio in the archives of the special features of a collectible box set. What I do know is that I was pleasantly surprised to find that 37 seconds existed and that it did something rather taboo: It cast a woman with cerebral palsy to play a character with cerebral palsy. It sounds ridiculous to type that and to see this as a taboo at all but somehow in 2021 this still seems to be up for discussion (I do not condemn the films of old not doing this, but I will certainly be harsher with the projects of today that choose not to). The thing is the story is so much more than its casting choice because it also captures an honest snapshot of the lives and the discrimination for those with disabilities. It’s also the other film directed by a woman on this list.
In 37 Seconds, our protagonist lives with her overbearing mother, whose husband left them long ago, and works as an assistant to her manga artist cousin, taking on most of the work and getting little pay or appreciation for it. She is coddled and treated like a child or completely invisible by those around her. And then one day, she wants to break free from it all. Working on her own erotic manga, she seeks employment at an erotic agency, where the editor tells her to go experience it for herself and then return so that her work will be more authentic. So she attempts this. We see her try and fail to have sex with an inconsiderate male prostitute, we see her get wasted at bars and befriend another disabled man, his kind-hearted prostitute companion and his carer. With them she gets to dress up, live her life and find that she can be independent. But the film goes even deeper than this, pursuing a narrative that requires her to explore her roots and her family to truly comprehend the mother that has smothered her with love. It’s a beautiful film; Hikari delves deep into the life of these characters and forces us to face our own prejudices in order to widen our eyes to a bigger picture. If you want more of me gushing about this film, check out my 37 Seconds Review I wrote last year because… this film hit hard.
More cinema that has some diverse representation for you to peruse:
- Close-Knit (Dir. Naoko Ogigami, 2017) tells the story of a little girl who is neglected by her mother and taken in by her uncle and his transsexual girlfriends who create the loving home she never had. Here’s another female film director for ya!
- House of Himiko (Dir. Isshin Inudo, 2005) is the story of young woman reconnecting with her homosexual father who left her and her mother years before at the care home he opened for Gay men, following the reveal that he is dying of cancer.
- Josee, the Tiger and The Fish (Dir. Isshin Inudo, 2003) is the story of a young man who cares for a wheel-chair bound woman, showing her a freedom she didn’t think she could have and eventually falling for her. This had a South Korean remake, Josee, in 2020 and a brilliant Anime remake released in 2021 of the same name.
- A Silent Voice (Dir. Naoko Yamada, 2016) is an anime so should not be recommended in theory, however, it explores the bullying of a deaf girl that led to her moving schools and the severe abuse the bully eventually received following the events from his own classmates. When they are older, they meet again and seek redemption and forgiveness in one another. It is also directed by a woman so deserves to be mentioned for that too!
50. Midnight Swan (Eiji Uchida, 2020)
I was waiting for the day that Uchida made a film I truly connected with. We started off on some uneven ground with Greatful Dead (2013), and he semi-redeemed himself with Lowlife Love (2015). We came upon something close with Love and Other Cults (2017). And then he made Midnight Swan and I forgot about any qualms I thought I had. Despite the casting being a little skew-iff, (I had hopes for A Fantastic Woman -Lelio, 2017 - situation) it was major step in the right direction in telling stories of transgender people on film in Asia that does not in some way fetishize or fanaticize.
A transgender woman living in Tokyo left her old life behind in Hiroshima where she was ostracized and now works as a dancer in a bar. Through a series of events, a distant niece who is a middle schooler arrives on her doorstep after being neglected by her mother. This unusual set up soon allows a bond to form between the two, despite reluctance on both parts, as the older woman takes on a maternal role to the struggling child. It’s so lovely and tender but with all the garish style of Uchida’s other works. Here he stops the shock factor, the infusion of sex and crudeness to get his story across, and finds a way to still explore his favourite subjects; that being those on the outskirts of society. In Midnight Swan he explores what it means to be a mother, and the importance of familial love, no matter who you are. Uchida has made something accessible and powerful; something that isn’t so much of a self-deprecating joke but more meaningful. There are not enough of these films in the world only popping up every few years, and many lack diverse casting or representation in the 21st century. But with each depiction on screen we get one step closer to a whole community of people believing their voices will be heard. That’s why it’s so important and I hope to see more thoughtful work to come out of Japan. We’re all humans on this planet after all. We deserve to feel like we belong.
There we go. It took me long enough but I finally completed my Top 50 Japanese Films. This could change in a year, more than likely it will. But until then I hope you all enjoyed and found some worthy watches. Let me know some of your favourite Japanese films of the 21st century. 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.
Catch you on the flipside!