Not much of a year for Japanese film. It’s not just me. This litany’s been resounding amongst those of us who write on Japanese film. I was hard pressed to find 10 best this year, so I settled for 8. Of course, I missed some films that I should have seen. I missed Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Moratorium Tamako, just like I missed his film from last year, The Drudgery Train. No excuse. He’s a filmmaker that I like. There were several others that just flew by and before I knew it they were gone, unseen and unremarked upon. However, among my other favorites filmmakers, there were some who apparently took the year off. And what about Hitoshi Matsumoto? One of Japan’s best auteurs (an a hero now fallen from his pedestal) came up with one of the most unfocused and unfunny films of his career, R100. It had some moments, and a cameo by Seijun Suzuki, but moments do not a fulfilling film make. So, looking hard and long, I came up with my list for the best of the year. Eight strong films, all over the place. No trends in sight, but some good filmmakers working hard, coming up with good stuff. Here they are.
1. Sound Hunting / Oto o karu / オトヲカル
Kenji Murakami’s been working at the avant edges of super-8 and video for many years. He’s got a strong body of work. It’s personal. It’s political. It’s full of depth and humor. Sound Hunting is about the end of making films on film. A series of hand-developed “test rolls” of 30-year-old outdated super-8 stock whips by. Faded images, filthy with dust and shit of fields, street scenes, girls, the sea. Kenji’s voice shouting over the soundtrack in a demented litany “look I’m shooting a field!”, “I’m shooting a girl!”, “I’m shooting the wind!” over and over, until it’s drummed into our thick skulls, that at a primal level, this filmmaker’s doing what filmmaker’s have always done and he may be one of the last people to do it – make a film with a movie camera. 38 minutes of pure cinema.
Kenji’s blog – http://d.hatena.ne.jp/MURAKEN/
2. Bad Communication / BADコミュニケーション
Haruhi Oguri is the best feature filmmaker working in Japan right now. Bad Communication is kind of post-femnist version of Husbands. A quartet of 20-somethings go to mourn a friend at their beachside hometown. A night of drunken soul searching (if that’s what you can call it) puts all the boys back at square one. At once touching and entirely devastating Bad Communication shows that Oguri is one of the few filmmakers in Japan that has even a bone of honesty. Oguri’s one of these filmmakers who works in deep water, bringing intrepid viewers along with her – at their own risk.
Website – http://cinema.artport.co.jp/bad/
3. Senkyo 2 / 選挙2
Kazuhiro Soda once again visits one of his favorite subjects, Yama-san, on another Quixotic voyage deep into the heart of the Japanese electoral system. Once again the absurdity of it all is put on screen for all to see – with hilarious effect. Soda, who’s been a bit of a Japanese Frederick Wiseman, breaks the 4th wall this time, becoming an participant in the follies. He’s moving himself and his art in new directions – and that’s a good thing.
Website – http://senkyo2.com/
4. Japan’s Tragedy / Nihon no Higeki / 日本の悲劇
Masahiro Kobayashi does not make light films. Sometimes his films are so heavy, they fall. But not Japan’s Tragedy. His second collaboration with the great Tatsuya Nakadai is a chamber piece that talks about the legacy of 3.11, but pushes it deep into a larger critique, maybe condemnation, of Japanese society. Huge performances by all the actors involved. Devastating.
5. The End of Summer / Natsu no Owari / 夏の終り
The End Of Summer is Kazuyoshi Kumari’s adaptation of activist nun Jakucho Setouchi’s breakthrough 1963 autobiographical novel. With Kumari’s sure formalism and (yet another) breakthrough performance by Hikari Mitsushima, the story of a young woman breaking down societal and sexual barriers is still more than relevant.
Website – http://natsu-owari.com/
6. Devil’s Path / 凶悪
With Devil’s Path, Kazuya Shiraishi has made one of the creepiest films to hit Japanese screens. Not in the simple and stultifying creepiness of torture porn or most contemporary horror films, but something that settles right down into your bones. Lily Franky’s Teacher is right up there with any of the great psychopaths in film history.
Website – http://www.kyouaku.com/
7. Schoolgirl Complex / スクールガール コンプレックス
Once he gets past the David Hamilton-ish soft-core schoolgirl perviness that begins Schoolgirl Complex, director Yuichi Onuma (yet again, another pretty much unsung and little-known Japanese auteur) let’s his tale of young and mixed-up love develop with intense scrutiny and dare I say, love. High school coming of age stories are a dime a dozen in Japan. And they’re usually pretty horrible. Coming out and coming of age have never been in better hands than with Onuma.
Website - http://sgc-movie.info/
8. Like Father Like Son / Soshite chichi ni naru / そして父になる
And then there’s Koreeda. As he himself has become a father, he’s been making family films. Or at least, films that explore the meaning of family and dynamics that make it up. Once you swallow the conceit of the switched-at-birth Macguffin, the rest falls into place. Smart, touching and unsentimental, Like Father Like Son shows Koreeda at his most sensitive. Brilliant performances from all involved. Lily Franky too!
Website - http://soshitechichininaru.gaga.ne.jp/
Idol Is Dead: Non-chan’s Propaganda Major War / Aidoru Izu Deddo – Nonchan no Puropaganda Daisenso / アイドル・イズ・デッド-ノンちゃんのプロパガンダ大戦争
Yukihiro Kato’s sequel to his 2012 opus, Idol is Dead, finds his girl group/thrash pop band Brand-new Idol Society (BiS) picking up the pieces from their previous no budget horror/music outing and going the distance in a newer, trashier and more fun adventure. Idol Is Dead: Non-chan’s Propaganda Major War joyfully sends up the social Darwinism that infects Japanese society from high school to the music biz. The film builds across a fairly convoluted plot that includes rivalries, battles, dismemberment, death by pickaxe (among other things), monumental projectile vomiting, lots of fake blood, anti-nuke protests, women’s prison shenanigans, bigger conspiracies, and a few more odds and ends, highlighting the battle between BiS and corporate idol group Electric★Kiss. Amid all the mayhem, BiS (Pour Lui, Nozomi Hirano, Yufu Terashima, Rio Michibayashi – all tough and charming) conquers all in a stunning final set piece. Nozomi, in the lead role carries a perfect balance of nerdiness and drive. The rest of the band follows suit. The exuberance of all involved is infectious. BiS not only rock. They rule!
Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2014.
Koji Fukada tries to channel Rohmer with mixed results in his new feature, Au revoir l’ete. Young Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) goes to spend an idyllic summer with her aunt, Mikie (Mayu Tsuruta), who’s house sitting for her sister in a beachside town. Sakuko’s 19 and trying to decide what next to do in her life. As the summer progresses, she meets a shy teen-age love interest, Takashi (Taiga) and observes the duplicitous sexual shenanigans of the adults that cross her life in this small town. Where Rohmer would slyly implant the moral conundrums of his characters into their souls and allow the issues to expand with his seeming light dramas, Fukuda doesn’t dig too deep. Au revoir l’ete, as likeable as it is, is more of a triumph of style over substance. A crack troupe of actors add some liveliness to the proceedings – including the very talented Kanji Furitachi as the manager of a business/love hotel – but character dead ends and lack of any dramatic arcs leave Fukada’s exercise not just light, but flat.
Originally published in EL Magazine, January, 2014.
Yojyu Matsubayashi returns to the scene of the 3.11 tragedy to document the fate of several equine survivors in Horses of Fukushima. Matsubayashi, arguably, already made the best doc on the disaster, Fuukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape. His followup is beautiful and devastating. The rescued horses that he follows suffer from several maladies – radiation poisoning, broken and infected limbs, the effects of malnutrition and starvation. They are matter-of-factly doctored, fed and “rescued” by their keepers, basically to show them off at the Soma-Nomaoi, a traditional Shinto horse festival. However, unlike the usual rah rah docs that celebrate the recovery and resuscitation of normal life in Tohoku, Matsubayashi continually lets the images undercut any sense of what is happening to these horses as a good thing. The offhand cruelty of their keepers, the miserable conditions that the horses are kept in, the absurdity of the Soma-Nomaoi – now a meaningless tradition that’s all about the show, rather than being connected to a real past – are shown without comment, but with a weathering critique of the “recovery.”
Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2013.
Shunya Ito’s long career has ranged from exploitation classics (Female Convict 701: Scorpion) to award-winning mainstream entertainments (Gray Sunset). He’s kept his followers on their toes and now in his late career, he’s still keeping true to his muse with another left turn. No Beginning, No End features Min Tanaka, butoh-esque dancer, going through 95 minutes of an extended dance-on-film performance. There’s no dialogue, just Min and a small cast of characters going through an expressionistic/surrealistic ritual of life and death, leavened with a bit of social critique. The images are strong and elemental, even if the set pieces can be a bit corny. There’s mud, fire and water abounding. Despite the facile workings of BIG themes, what makes the film a pleasure is the pure intensity of Tanaka’s performance. As a sort of everyman he rules the screen, mostly unclothed, as he moves through mud, ruins, rivers, city streets on his relentless trajectory. His movement and rhythm trump any meaning. Extra props for a sequence of him dragging himself naked down Omotesando Dori.
Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2013.
Michel Franco’s sophomore directing effort, After Lucia, shows a major talent, perhaps the major talent in a generation, coming from Mexico’s rich cinematic landscape. The plot of the film revolves around the deep and troubling extensions of bullying getting way out of hand. But the whole megillah is informed and deepened by another tragedy, the death of the titular Lucia, mother of Ale (Tessa Ia), the bullied teenager, and wife of her father, Roberto (Hernán Mendoza). After Lucia opens with Roberto, visibly distraught, picking up a car from a wrecking yard. A la Kiarostami, there is a long sequence of Roberto driving and driving. He suddenly curses, get out of the car, abandoning it in the middle of the street. We will learn that this is the car that his wife died in. He ups and moves from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with his daughter in tow to rebuild his life and leave the locus of tragedy behind him. He embarks on opening a restaurant. In the meantime, Alejandra finds herself in a new high school. Pretty, smart, and of a certain class, she falls in with a small clique of rich kids, finding a set of new friends. At a party one night she has drunken sex with one of them, Jose (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), who captures it all on his cell phone, passing the evidence of his conquest to any of the high school gang who wants to see. This begins the slut shaming and bullying of this “easy” girl that quickly escalates into tragic consequences. Ale’s fate goes from bad to worse. Tessa Ia gives a spellbinding performance that makes the viewer understand how an otherwise intelligent and capable young woman can fall into abject submission to the humiliations and degradations that her abusers subject her to. As Ale becomes more and more abused, she shuts down and can’t communicate her torment to anyone, particularly to her father. Her father also, stuck in not dealing with his grief over the loss of his wife, fails to communicate or understand the clues of unhappiness his daughter gives. She ultimately escapes – physically – from her bullies, but the emotional damage remains. When the details of the bullying are revealed, Roberto rightly is enraged. He finds his revenge on Jose in a devastating final scene, a long-take shot that mimics the opening sequence. At this point, the harrowing personal tragedies of Roberto and Ale take on a profundity worthy of the tales the great Greek playwrights or the story of Isaac. Director Franco fills every shot with exacting detail, a multiplicity of emotional and narrative threads – and ultimately a moral depth that makes for a stunningly great movie.
Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2013.
In Mourning Recipe, director Yuki Tanaka takes what in most Japanese directors would turn into a mess of sentimental tripe and turns it into a nuanced study of family relationships as they cope with loss, mourning and the twists that life takes. The story begins with Ryohei (Renji Ishibashi) very recently widowed and in the throes of depression. An impossibly kawaii young woman, Imo (Fumi Nikaido), comes to take care of him, bearing a manual of cooking and taking care of the household, lovingly illustrated and written by his dead wife. All of this is in preparation for the Buddhist 49th day commemoration for the deceased. In the meantime, Ryohei’s daughter, Yurkiko (Hiromi Nagasaku), in the middle of a bad breakup with her husband comes home to commiserate with dad. The preparations for a non-traditional memorial become the playing field for family traumas, grief and healing to come to the fore. The “happy ending” that comes is well earned. Tanaka turns what could have been a total cliché into a heartfelt celebration of life.
Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2013.