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film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for December 2010

10 Best Japanese Films 2010

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Here, my friends, is my list of the 10 Best Japanese Films of 2010. The astute viewer may note that Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, one of the most lauded of Japanese films this year is missing from this list. OK, OK, I missed any screenings of it, missed the theatrical run and haven’t seen it yet on DVD. Apologies.

Also, a couple of films that I saw this year, Live Tape and Bare Essence of Life / Ultra Miracle Love Story, by any measure should be on this list, but were actually released in 2009, so I made a somewhat arbitrary decision to leave them off. My apologies to Tetsuaki Matsue and Satoko Yokohama, the fine filmmakers who crafted those two films.

Unfortunately, many of these movies may never cross the pond to the USA, but a positive trend is that over the last year more and more Japanese DVD releases are featuring English subtitling. However, wherever and whenever you can catch these films, by all means do, subtitled or not.

Haru to no tabi / Haru’s Journey

Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as a cranky proud old man hitting the hard roads of Japan, humbling himself before his brothers and sister in hopes of one of them taking him in, shows an actor hitting new heights. Sure, he was brilliant in Harakiri and transcendent in Ran, but in Haru to no tabi he becomes sublimely human. Director Masahiro Kobayashi’s cold-eyed look at family dynamics and the current state of Japan finds him moving away from his strong formalism into a less austere style. He’s still austere here, but there’s not a single shot wasted in this heartfelt journey.

Website (Japanese)

Kaitanshi Jokei / Sketches of Kaitan City

This has been a year for directors trying to make their marks with big sprawling Babel-esque sagas. Kazuhoshi Kumakiri’s beautifully shot and moving Sketches of Kaitan City takes a similar scenario, but the 5 stories don’t so much intersect as they fall on the same plot of ground, the fictional Kaitan City. The stories do build upon and against each other, though, weaving a tapestry of frayed and embattled lives. Sketches of Kaitan City is downbeat, near despair, but ultimately on the side of the survivors.

Website (Japanese)

Nudo no yoru: Ai wa oshiminaku ubau / Night in Nude: Salvation

Night in Nude: Salvation is the ostensible sequel to the 1993 film of the same name. Starring Naoto Takenaka (the funny bald guy in Shall We Dance) as a hard-boiled everyman caught in a blood-soaked and perverse chain of events. Director Takashi Ishii, a sort of psychotronic Hitchcock-channelling prankster, puts Takenaka through a dark night of the soul that’s grisly, crazy and way fun. Standout performances abound from Takenaka himself, a trio of avenging hostess bar angels (Shinobu Otake, Harumi Inoe and Hiroko Sato) and good old Joe Shishido, mumbling through a role as a perpetually drunk incestuous mobster.

Website (Japanese)

Torso

Kore-eda’s longtime cinematographer, Yutaka Yamazaki, made his directoral debut this year with Torso. Following in the footsteps of Air Doll, Yamazaki takes on a story of a human loving a sex toy with a much different outcome than Kore-eda’s opus. Makiko Watanabe aces the role of a alienated woman “in love” with a blow-up male torso. Rising star Sakura Ando, playing her sister adds to the tension when discovers her secret desire. All in all, a taught and forgiving drama that makes loving an armless, headless, legless torso make sense.

Website (Japanese)

Peace

Kazuhiro Soda expands his vision of observational documentary with Peace. Taking on the big issue of peace, Soda finds his metaphors and images in the quotidian. Following his parents-in-law through their daily routine – dad taking care of stray cats and driving physically-challenged townsfolk in the back of his van to appointments, mom making visits to housebound retirees to make sure they’re taking care of themselves – Soda slyly coaxes out the big picture of what peace means to the humans and felines in question. Peace is filmmaking without a net, taking chances, going to unexpected places – and succeeding.

Kazuhiro Soda’s Blog (Japanese and English)

nude

Yuichi Onuma, at last count, made no less than 3 movies this year, nude being his best realized. Based on the best selling autobiography by AV (Adult Video) star Mihara, nude chronicles a classic story of small-town girl coming to the big city, taken in by a tout, becoming an idoru (idol), and working her way through pinku to hard-core roles. nude works in not sensationalizing, but in drawing out the inner drama of a woman making adult choices and exploring the emotional cost of those choices.

Website (Japanese)

Kawa no soko kara konnichiwa / Sawako Decides

Sawako Decides plays it broad and slyly at the same time. Yuuya Ishii’s comedy is full of stupid funny bits, but ultimately builds a subversive theme where the heroes of the story find their transcendence and their inner peace through their mediocrity. While laughing one’s way to the decidedly depressing denouement, Ishii builds a perverse case for Japanese unexceptionalism through an exceptional person who just doesn’t realize it.

Website (Japanese)

Ichimai no hagaki / Postcard

At 98 years old, Kaneto Shindo still shows he’s got the chops and the smarts to pull off an incisive anti-war film, Postcard. The acting is expressionistic, the situations stilted, theatrical and broad, the pacing delirious – everything that modern entertainments are not. With strong central characters played by Etsushi Toyokawa and Shinobu Otake, the tragedy of a woman who loses one, then a second husband to the war  (then her step-parents!)  builds to a magical reconciliation – all the while keeping strong in its anti-nationalistic and pacifistic stand. Shindo has said that this will be his last movie. Let’s hope not.

Noruwei no mori / Norwegian Wood

Ahn Hung Tran’s long awaited adaptation of Haruki Murakimi’s novel Norwegian Wood was all the big buzz in Japanese cinema this year. No matter the director is Vietnamese, now based in Paris. The adaption is solid. The acting is top-notch. The cinematography and production design evocative of a time where thing were not necessarily simpler. There are standout performances by Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi, but particularly by newcomer, Kiko Mizuhara.

Website (Japanese)

Heaven’s Story

The first 2 hours of Takahisa Zeze’s Heaven’s Story are brilliant – as are much of the remaining 2 and half hours. Unfortunately the film eventually implodes while tying up it’s many loose ends. It’s added to this list, not because it’s necessarily a great film – it’s not – but for its consistently great acting and moments, and dare I say a few hours of truly incredible filmmaking.

Website (Japanese)

Sono machi no kodomo / その街のこども / This Town’s Children

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Milking a little more out of the popular 2010 NHK drama, Sono machi no kodomo (the movie version) edits and distills the original TV footage into feature length. Like Before Sunrise, the story follows a couple of 20 somethings over a long night. In this case, though there is much less of the slacker romance and chemistry of Before Sunrise and a much more didactic dealing with the trauma of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. Yuji (Moriyama Mirai) meets cute with Mika (Sato Eriko) at the Sannomiya Station in Kobe. They wander the streets of Kobe talking of life and their respective childhood traumas. The night leads into the day of the 15th anniversary of earthquake. Yuji moves on and Mika goes to the big public memorial. Moriyama and Sato give their best – Moriyama himself having witnessed the earthquake’s destruction of Kobe as a child. They develop an easygoing natural feeling relationship, but the endless talk they are burdened with by screenwriter Watanabe Aya makes the getting there a bit of a slog.

Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 12, 2010 at 4:26 am

Noruwei no Mori / ノルウェイの森 / Norwegian Wood

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Buzz has been building around Ahn Hung Tran’s highly anticipated adaptation of Haruki Murakimi’s popular novel, Norwegian Wood. Murukami’s woeful tale of growing up mixed up in the 1960s hits the screen as a melancholy and touching meditation on love and loss. Vietnam born, Paris-based Ahn Hung Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo) turns his graceful and insightful eye to a very Japanese story and brings out a universality of emotion. Apart from his stunning direction and the richly saturated images of veteran cinematographer Pin Bing Lee (Three Times, Millennium Mambo) he’s very well serviced by his main actors Kenichi Matsuyama and Academy Award-contender Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) and the breakout performance by model Kiko Mizuhara in her screen debut. Norwegian Wood opens sketching out the nascent high school relationship between Toru (Matsuyama), Naoko (Kikuchi) and her boyfriend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Their delicate balance between friendship and young love gets torn when Kizuki commits suicide. Cut to 1969. Student revolt is in the air and on the streets. The sexual revolution is playing itself out in the college dorms. Toru is living with a louche and likeable roommate, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), and working in a record store. Naoko reappears and their unrequited love becomes requited on the eve of her 20th birthday. However she soon disappears, still emotionally devastated by the loss of her young Kizuki. Meanwhile a young student, Midori (Mizuhara) works her way into Toru’s life in a nerdy/sexy very forward way. But as their relationship develops Toru remains obsessed with Naoko. He eventually tracks the still emotionally fragile Naoko to a mountain psychological retreat, where his visits find Naoka losing it more and more. Reconciling his doomed devotion to the increasingly unhinged Naoko and the possibility of a “normal” relationship with Midori becomes Toru’s raison d’etre, which he navigates as best as he can – as best as anyone can in an impossible situation. The journey ends in a particularly bittersweet way. Partly by the deft plotting and characterizations  of Murukami’s novel and partly by the sure hand of Ahn Hung Tran’s direction, the balancing of intersecting love triangles, a certain romantic fatalism that cuts across the tides of history and an evocation of the ghosts of lost loves caught forever in memory and on film are given ample room to live and breathe on screen. The detail in fashions and décor, the background action – helmeted and masked students running and carrying protest banners through urban streets, the wild Bronte-esque evocations of nature at Naoko’s mountain retreat – and the head-spinning soundtrack of obscure pyschedelia (and a more familiar tune, Norwegian Wood) create a pitch perfect world and time for these love stories to play themselves out.

Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2011

Aburakusasu no Matsuri / アブラクサスの祭/ Abraxis

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There are few things that go together better than zen and rock ‘n’ roll. Aburakusasu no matsuri chronicles the spiritual quest of Zonen (Suneohair) a guitarist/Buddhist monk/family man. In the opening scene we see him in a dingy Tokyo live house coming to a halt in the middle of a song, soon going into the wildest of noise solos. Thin tethers hold him together and soon he’s haltingly working towards spiritual fulfillment as a Buddhist monk. Doubts and unfinished emotional business plague him. At the suggestion of his spiritual mentor he holds a concert on the temple grounds. With shaven head and monk’s robes he finds his center in a maelstrom of harrowing guitar noise. Naoki Kato’s first feature isn’t perfect, but it’s a passionate and though-provoking essay on the many roads one can take to get to some sort of spiritual truth. Pop rocker Suneohair carries the burden of the show with a sensitive portrayal of a man on a rocky quest. In addition, his guitar playing and stage presence is quite amazing.

Originally published in EL Magazine, January, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 12, 2010 at 4:18 am