10 Best Japanese Films 2009
Over the last 3 years, Japan’s become my beat. Of course, I try to keep up with international cinema as best as I can, but at about 1,800 yen (20 bucks) a pop for a night at the cinema, I’ve been quite judicious in my filmic consumption. However, I’ve become quite a regular at the industry screening rooms hidden in the bowels of generic buildings (exception – Eiga Bigakku in the Tokyo Film School does have quite a bit of character) clustered around the old film industry center in and around Ginza. Many of the films on my top ten list probably won’t cross the pond. It’s a shame, because they’re good films. But keep an eye open for festival screenings, online streamings or any opportunity to catch a glimpse of Japanese film production for 2009.
The list below is not definitive. I missed a few that had good buzz. Bandage – a fictional paean to the 90s band boom in Tokyo – and Live Tape – a single shot film following an improvising street busker wandering through the streets of Kichijoji, a hipster area on the west side of Tokyo – are both on my must see list. I saw a few too many that had good buzz that turned out to be total time wasters.
I have to place Matsumoto Hitoshi’s Symbol at the top of the list. From his roots in the groundbreaking manzai team (two person standup – imagine Abbott and Costello in Japanese) called Downtown, Matsumoto hit the big screen a few years ago with the strange and hilarious Dianipponjin (Big Man Japan). His followup goes over the top with a deconstruction of comedy that’s part Kubrick, part Tashlin, completely original.
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Air Doll tended toward a bit of critical dismissal – too light, too commercial. With the stunning performance of Du-na Bae as a blow-up doll come to life, this reworking of Pinocchio (or is it Blade Runner?) is amazingly frank and touching with what may be Kore-eda’s persistent theme – what makes us human.
Trailer (English Subtitles)
At 4 hours, Love Exposure seemed a bit short. When the lights came up I wanted still more. Sono Sion’s over the top skewering of contemporary culture had a little something to offend nearly everyone – Catholicism, terrorism, up-skirt photography, high school mores and so much more came under the knife. Love Exposure is a delightfully excessive and tasteless film by the man who made Suicide Club.
This year I saw Kobayashi’s Masahiro’s 2005 film Bashing. Wakaranai mines the same territory as the previous film, the lives of the marginalized and forgotten of Japan. Though not quite as perfect as Bashing, Wakaranai expands on similar themes. Along the lines of the Dardenne brothers, Kobayashi’s creating an oeuvre of beautiful and terrifying films of lost hopes, fuckups and ultimately, dreams.
Adaptations of manga are a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema. Most manga/film crossovers are built solely with marketing in mind. Miyoko Asagaya Kibun is from a definitely different sensibility. Adapting Shiniro Abe’s seminal 1970s mangas that documented the craziness of the times along with his own faltering grasp on mental stability, Miyoko Asagaya Kibun mixes manga, fiction, history and biography brilliantly. This directing debut by Yoshifumi Tsubota is the most auspicious of the year.
Director Komuna Yuichi is making his mark as the low budget storyteller of the special fringes of Japanese culture that are becoming the mainstream. He hit the scene a few years ago with Maid in Akiba, about the otaku/maid cafe culture centered around Akihabara in Tokyo. In Dotei Horoki (more or less meaning “virgin perv”), Komuna tackles the Japanese 30 year-old virgin problem with incisive humor and smart dialogue.
While not quite as wicked as her debut film, Wild Berries, Nishikawa Miwa’s Dear Doctor beautifully realizes a small community where lies big and small sustain its functioning. Following in the footsteps of Kore-Eda, Nishikawa, along with Kawase Naomi are creating a cinema style that exhibits profound ideas and sensibilities with a light touch.
There’s a somewhat annoying tendency in Japanese pop horror and comedy movies of having long dead samurai come back to life, in most cases ghoulishly zombified, to avenge some past wrong. It’s a hoary plot device. In Raise the Castle it works. Kohatsu Yo’s low budget debut manages to balance sweet comedy, a bit of a social/historical message and a love story. This film may be the be-all and end-all of this genre.
Soda Kazuhiro is the Frederick Wiseman of Japanese documentary. His first film, Campaign, was a fascinating study of the political scene in Japan. In Mental, Soda visits a small town mental clinic, exposing the stigmas around talking about mental illness and health in Japan through touching, funny and downright harrowing stories from the patients themselves.
Hiyashi Kaizo will be known to Seattle audiences for his wonderful homage to silent cinema, Sleep So As to Dream, presented a few years ago at NWFF with live accompaniment by Aono Jikken Ensemble. Hiyashi’s been working for years sending up the conventions of detective/spy movies. The Code is his latest and it never lets up with its nutty story, hilarious characters and situations. Plus, giving Suzuki stalwart Shishido Joe (Branded to Kill) a role makes The Code extra special.
Originally published in Hot Splice