10 Best Japanese Films 2012
Among my compatriots – writers, editors, programmers – in the world of Japanese film, there’s been a general agreement. It’s been a piss-poor year for Japanese film. Not only have there been few good films, but there’s been the shuttering of many a theater, particularly here in Tokyo. In the neighborhood of Asakusa, where the first movie theaters in Japan appeared, the last of the revival and pinku houses were closed last October, leaving the neighborhood with none – zero – movie houses.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Kore-eda turned to the TV this year. Their small-screen works have been lauded, but I’ve yet to see them. Also I missed Nobuhiro Yamashita’s The Drudgery Train, which a lot of folks have put on or near the top of their best lists for the year. He’s one of the few directors who’s climbed from indie successes (Linda, Linda, Linda) to making serious and good movies in the more industrial wastelands of cinema. His 2011 film, My Back Page, was one of my favorites from last year. Takashi Miike, still prolific – three films in 2012 – is cementing himself in commercial hackdom. And Beat Takeshi continued his soured and calcified yakuza franchise with Outrage Beyond, a considerably better film than last year’s Outrage, but still pretty much schtick.
That said, with readily available and cheap means of producing films, there are an awful lot of indie films being made here. And most of them are awful. And unfortunately, some of the most awful ones seem to get institutional support. And some of the same directors keep coming out with newer and awful-er films year after year. Among the worst are Tatsushi Omori and Shuichi Okita, who both had their newest efforts premiere at Tokyo’s major film festivals this year.
That said, there are a number of filmmakers who are making great films. Some years, I’m hard pressed to come up with 10 films that are really worthy of saying their the best. This year, I’m completely behind each and every one of my selections.
If there is a trend in Japanese indie cinema, it’s one that recognizes the limitation of budgets and means and allows smart filmmakers to craft intimate dramas that speak to contemporary issues, long-ignored by mainstream media and rarely brought up in the public discourse. Films about the aging population, bullying and the destruction of the old social contract leaving people with less means to prosper – or even survive – are being made. It’s a good sign.
Herewith is my list.
1. Kamihate Store / Kamihate Shoten
Tatsuya Yamamoto’s first feature – he’s been around for a few years as a documentarian and a producer – follows the story of an old woman who owns a rundown grocery store at the end of the bus line on a small island. Her only customers are people who come to this desolate place to commit suicide. They stop at her store to buy their last meals – home-baked bread and bottle of milk. Ex-softcore porn star, Keiko Takahashi delivers the performance of the year as the store’s owner. Yamamoto takes an otherwise very downbeat subject and builds a compelling tale, filled with sadness and redemption.
2. The Charm of Others / Miryoku no ningen
The most thrilling debut of the year was Ryutaro Ninomiya’s The Charm of Others. The rambling story follows the uneventful lives and petty power struggles of a bunch of guys working dead-end jobs at a repair shop for broken vending machines. These déclassé losers are portrayed not just with bitter satire, but also with a lot of affection and understanding. Ninomiya’s canny direction and dramatic set pieces would have made Cassavetes proud. Ninomiya himself plays one of the main roles with an oddly winning and ambiguous charm.
3. Women and Toilets / Donzumari benki
Equal parts Bunuel and post-feminist screed, Haruhi Oguri’s Women and Toilets (a bad translation of fairly untranslatable title) goes headlong down a hysterical path, following a particular dark pathology, twisting it in as many directions as she can, coming to a strangely redemptive conclusion. Rising character actress, Nahana, pulls out all the stops in a truly brave performance.
4. My House
Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, better known for his 20th Century Boys franchise went small with My House. My House pits the story of a homeless man against that of an upper middle-class boy. When their worlds collide, there’s nothing but tragedy. He posits a perverse romanticism of a self sufficient homeless world against a sterile “normal” life, but doesn’t hold back on the cruelties of life on the street, nor the humanity-stealing world that most Japanese accept as normal.
5. Just Pretended to Hear / Kikoeteru, furi wo shita dake
Just Pretended to Hear, is yet another audacious debut. Director Kaori Imaizumi handles the story of a 13 year-old girl, sensitively played by Hana Nonaka, dealing with the death of her mother. The confusion and grief are compounded by her father completely losing it and the complication reaction she has to another classmate who reaches out to her. Imaizumi doesn’t hold back on the complexities of loss, bringing an emotional heft and honesty to a story, that in lesser hands would merely be cathartic. Just Pretended to Hear leaves the viewer as devastated as the characters.
6. Dreams for Sale / Yume Uru Futari
Miwa Nishikawa, for lack of a better comparison, is like the Lucrecia Martel of Japan. Nishikawa’s been running variations of a theme – doing good or bad things and getting contrary results. In Dreams for Sale, a couple’s lifelong dream – a restaurant of their own – goes up in flames. The husband basically becomes a pimp to raise money for a new place. How he touches lives, how he takes advantage of people, how he destroys his own life is vividly portrayed in all its comedy and tragedy.
7. A Song I Remember
I missed this at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year, so it’s on this year’s list. Director Kyoshi Sugita’s a cinematic minimalist that reminds me of a low-budget Antonioni. A Song I Remember, his feature debut has a bit of Blowup and a real feel for the desolate surrounding that make up the Japanese landscape. The story, about a relationship and the secrets and alienation that underlies it, is pitch perfect. His use of space, sound and time are remarkable, suspending the moments, creating a world imbued with mystery.
8. Flashback Memories 3D
Matsue Tetsuaki’s Flashback Memories 3D is s a very loud movie — and a total head trip. Tetsuaki’s documentary of Goma, a techno-didgeridoo player, follows one performance. In the background a a green screen collage of videos and stills illustrated his career and life. But then, the revelation that brain damage from a car accident means that Goma doesn’t remember any of his life — including, the very performance you’re watching. History, memory, and Goma’s particular way of surviving by performing and living in the present collide, making this testament to a fascinating artist a genuinely moving experience.
9. Nippon no Misemonyasan
Nippon no Misemonyasan is Yoichiro Okutani’s paean to the last freak show in Japan. He spent a couple of years embedding himself with a low-budget sideshow that works the matsuri circuit at shrines throughout Japan. The show highlights a host of low-budget wonders such as a woman who bites heads off of snakes.The film has some rough moments with its decidedly zero budget look, but the subject matter alone makes for a profound foray into an old institution that will soon disappear. Okutani is one of the few brave filmmakers in Japan that gives a shit about tradition and is doing something about it.
10. Love Thy Woman
Love Thy Woman is a short, part of a trilogy of films packaged under the aegis of Virgin. Directed by Koki Yoshida, whose Household X is one of the best films of the decade, it expands of Yoshida’s theme of women-on-the-verge. This time the story’s about a woman, a virgin in her 30s, who first, gets bullied by a high-school boy, then seduces him. Love thy Woman is a strange and compelling exploration of the profound affects of sex. It borders on a strange male fantasy, but the main performance by Sawa Masaki brings a feminine sensitivity to the role that takes the whole film to a new level. Yoshida’s attention to detail and sense of mise-en-scene are, once again, perfect.