Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

August 3, 2015

Sake from Fukushima Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Fukushima Prefecture, the southernmost of the Tohoku prefectures, is the largest prefecture in Japan after Hokkaido and Iwate, and is in fact made up of three areas: Nakadori in the center, where the Shinkansen and expressways are and the capital Fukushima City as well as Koriyama - this is also the industrial and agricultural heart of the prefecture; Hamadori along the coast, with Iwaki in the south (a large city in a former coal producing area) and Soma in the north - the industry here is mostly fishing and power generation (this is where the nuclear accident of March 2011 happened); and the large Aizu basin in the west.

There one also finds the beautiful Bandai-Asahi National Park, around the volcano Mt Bandai which erupted lastly in 1888. Aizu Wakamatsu is an old samurai town, Kitakata is known for its many stone storehouses. Ouchijuku in the west is an old post town, almost untouched by time.

As the weather and food in Fukushima differ per region, the taste of sake also is different. Hamadori (which only has a handful of breweries) is known for its relatively dry sake, in Aizu with is snowy winters and fermented foods (miso), the sake is sweetish and deep in taste. The sake from Nakadori is neither sweet nor dry, but strikes a good balance between the two other areas.

Fukushima is home to 56 breweries (figure from 2015), putting it in the top ten nationwide, and at the head of the Tohoku region (although the total volume produced in Akita is much larger). There are both large and small companies. More than half of all breweries can be found in the Aizu area in the west, on the one hand because the Aizu basin is a good rice producing region, on the other hand because the feudal lords of Aizu Wakamatsu enthusiastically promoted sake brewing as an industry. In the town itself, one still finds 12 breweries.

In general, there is a lot of variation among breweries in Fukushima - there are breweries that work with the Kimoto or Yamahai methods, breweries that use organic rice, etc. Toji working in Fukushima are often from the Nanbu or Echigo (especially in Aizu) guilds. The prefecture was as a whole a bit late to jump on the ginjo bandwagon, but that has now changed, partly thanks to the development by the prefecture of the "Yume" (dream) yeast for ginjo sake. Popular locally produced types of sake rice are Gohyakumangoku and Hanafubuki.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Daishichi (Daishichi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Nihonmatsu). Est. 1752. Finest proponent of the traditional Kimoto-method for making the yeast starter. Unique super-flat rice polishing technology leads to more efficient polishing and therefore a purer sake. A well-balanced combination of depth ("body") with sophistication and refinement. All sakes suitable for dinner, including main dishes. Kimoto provides "bridge" to creamy and buttery dishes, as well as being sturdy enough to fit to meat. Also makes a prize winning Umeshu with junmai sake as its base. Active exporter. Extensive English website. Brewery visits with tasting possible upon advance application, but in the brewing season the inside of the brewery cannot be shown. Located in Nihonmatsu, between Koriyama and Fukushima, in the Nakadori area.
  • Eisen (Eisen Shuzo Co., Ltd., Aizu Wakamatsu). Est 1869. Located in the Aizu region, and uses pure water from Mt Bandai and Mt Nishi. Makes a dry sake where the usual sake from the Aizu region is rather sweet. Moved from the city to a new factory at the foot of Mt. Bandai (of which one among three Kura is fully automated; ginjo is handwork). Ginjo sake of high level. 
  • Oku no Matsu (Okunomatsu Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Nihonmatsu). Est. 1716. Another brewery from the old castle town of Nihonmatsu. Known for its light-flavored but down-to-earth junmai, as well as its sparkling sake. Active in exports. Label features an interesting calligraphy that looks like a human face. Sake gallery with shop and tasting corner.
  • Suehiro (Suehiro Shuzo, Aizu Wakamatsu). Est. 1850. One of the largest producers in Fukushima. Has contracted more than 100 local farmers for its rice. Products show great variety, from a very dry Honjozo ("Kira," or "killer" in English for its razor sharp finish) to a polished Daiginjo. First to experiment with Yamahai method in 1911. Also active in exporting. Moved to new factory in outskirts, but old factory "Kaeigura" in Aizu Wakamatsu still in operation for ginjo and kimoto sake. Visits to Kaeigura are possible without reservation. Also has a cafe, camera museum, hall and shop (take circulation bus Haikara-san and get off at the Yamato-machi bus stop).
  • Yamatogawa (Yamatogawa Shuzoten, Kitakata). Est. 1790. Grows its own rice, including Yamada Nishiki for the Daiginjo sake. Its Kasumochi Genshu is a sweet sake made with double the amount of koji. Other brand names the company uses include Yauemon, Tsuki Akari and Rashiku. Old brewery in the city is now brewery museum, moved in 1990 to new facilities in outskirts. The Yamatogawa Sake Brewery Museum is a 15 min walk north of Kitakata Station and also has a tasting corner. 
Fukushima Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. 
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink.

August 1, 2015

Sake by Region Update: Yamagata

Another post in the Sake by Region series which is under revision, has been updated and expanded and is available at: Yamagata.

July 31, 2015

Cicadas in Japan (Semi)

When you hear the cicadas (semi) strike up their loud song outside your window in Japan, you get the feeling that summer has truly come. The cicada is associated with the summer season in folklore, literature and film, and there is also the children's summer pastime of trying to catch cicadas and other insects.

[The Japanese minminzemi]

The cicada (the name is Latin and means "tree cricket") counts 3,000 different species (and more are being discovered). An adult cicada can become two to five centimeters in length. Cicadas have two prominent eyes set wide apart on the sides of the head and large, membranous wings.

Cicadas have a life cycle of two to five years. Almost their whole life they spend underground as nymphs feeding on the sap of roots. They have strong front legs for digging and use these in the final nymphal stage when they emerge to the surface. They then shed their shell on a plant or tree and become adults. You can sometimes see these abandoned shells - in fact exoskeletons - still clinging to the bark of a tree or to a twig.

[Cicada shell]

Now the mating season starts and that is when that big sound is made by the male cicadas! Their songs are meant to attract the females. They produce their characteristic sound by using tymbals, membranes in the abdomen, which are rapidly vibrated, while the largely hollow abdomen serves as a sound box. Every type of cicada has its own, particular song, to attract the right female. To hear this song, male and female crickets have tympana, the equivalent of ears. As the sound produced is so large (even 120 dB), the male cricket disables his own tympana while singing. Besides the mating song, crickets also have a distress call (when they are caught, for example) and some sing a courtship song, after the female has been attracted by the mating call.

After mating, the female cicada deposits her eggs in the bark of a tree, after slitting this open. She may lay several hundreds of eggs in different places. When the eggs hatch, the small nymphs fall to the ground, where they burrow and then the life cycle as described above starts again. The underground phase of their life is by far the longest, as it can take several years.

Cicadas feed on the sap of twigs or trees; their enemies are mainly birds.

As the cicada sheds its shell to start a new life, in Japan it is seen as a symbol of Buddhist reincarnation; and the shortness of its life as cicada (as opposed to its life as nymph), during which it sings its life out, mates, reproduces and dies, is seen as a symbol of the evanescence of life.

In his book Shadowings, the Irish-Japanese author Lafcadio Hearn, who had a deep interest in weird and exotic things, has dedicated a whole chapter to cicadas. He starts by quoting a senryu that deftly expresses the feeling of the transience of life induced by the cicada:

their voices all consumed 
by their crying -
the shells of cicadas

[Koe ni mina / naki-shimote ya / semi no kara]

The "shells of cicadas" in the above poem does not refer to the shell of the nymph, but to the dead bodies of grown-up cicadas.

Nowadays, people in Japan close their windows and huddle by their air conditioners, shut off from nature. In this most seasonal country of the world, in that way the true feeling for summer is lost. Without hearing the cry of the cicadas, it is not really summer in Japan!

Hearn also describes how over the several weeks of summer, different cicadas appear with their different songs. In early summer the aburazemi ("oil cicada") appears, so named because its shrilling resembles the sound of oil or grease frying in a pan. The aburazemi begin to sing at sunrise, when, as Hearn describes it, a great hissing seems to ascend from all the trees - the sound with which I woke up this morning. Hearn also quotes the following senryu:

has the dew taken life
with that voice?
the aburazemi! 

[Ano koe de / tsuyu ga inochi ka / aburazemi]

In early summer next the mugikarizemi or "barley harvest cicada" appears, which makes two distinct sounds in different keys, resembling the syllables shi-in, shin -- chi-i, ch-i. 

While all cicadas make their music only in the full blaze of day, pausing even when clouds obscure the sun, at around this time also a cicada appears which sings only at dusk (and is therefore called Higurashi) and is one of the really musical cicadas. Hearn describes its sound as kana-kana-kana-kana-kana, slowly descending from a very clear, high key - somewhat like the sound of hand bell, very quickly rung. It has a great sonority.

Extremely loud is the minminzemi, which sings during the hottest period of the year. It derives its name from the fact that its note is thought to resemble the syllable "min" repeated over and over again, first slow and very loud, then more often and quicker, until it dies away in a sort of buzz: mi-in - mi-in - min-min - minminmin -dzzzzz.
The sound is plaintive and not unpleasant, although it means emphatically that it is very hot outside! Hearn mentions that the chant of this cicada is often compared to the sound of the voice of a priest chanting the sutras.

But it is rather loud, so it probably inspired the following senryu:

cicadas add to the heat -
I wish to cut down
the pine tree

[Semi atsushi / matsu kirabaya to / omou made]

Sometimes the noise is so great that you would think the whole tree was covered with cicadas - while it is only a single one:

shrilling
thicker than the tree
the cicada's voice

[Naite iru / ki yori mo futoshi / semi no koe]

One of the last cicadas to mature is the tsukutsukuboshi, the most musical of all, whose song resembles that of a bird. I am not sure I have ever heard this one, but perhaps I mistook it for a bird! This is probably the type of cicada that in the past was caught and sold in a small cage.

And then the final cicada to appear is the autumn cicada, tsuriganezemi or "Temple Bell Cicada." Its voice is light and does not resemble so much the big peal of a temple bell itself, but rather the soft, deep and sweet humming which follows the peal, wave upon wave. The song of this cicada is much "cooler" (it has a silvery substance) and signifies that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching.

Japan's major haiku poet Basho wrote a famous haiku about cicadas when visiting Yamadera Temple in Yamagata (how quiet / sinking into the rocks / the voices of cicadas) - emphasizing the quietness of the venerable temple, for even cicadas voices don't disturb it, but seem to sink into the very rocks. Here is another one by Basho, which, in Hearn's words, "preaches the Sutra of Impermanency:"

soon to die
without realizing it - 
the voice of a cicada

[yagate shinu / keshiki wa miezu / semi no koe]

The title for this haiku is mujo jinsoku, which means "the vicissitudes of life are swift, and our life is ephemeral," a phrase much loved by Basho.

The sound of cicadas is sad and nostalgic to human ears - it is certainly not just noise. Life is short and fragile, not only for a cicada, but also for humans. That makes it all the more important to appreciate each moment as precious.

[Based on information from Lafcadio Hearn's Semi chapter in Shadowings (freely available at Gutenberg), as well as cicada data from Wikipedia (incl. the photos). The quotation about "mujo jinsoku" is from Basho's Haiku by Oseki Toshiharu (Maruzen: Tokyo, 1990). The literal translations of the senryu and haiku are my own.]

Sake by Region Update: Miyagi

The post on sake from Miyagi in my Sake by Region series which is under revision, has been updated and expanded and is available at: Miyagi.

Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa

July 30, 2015

Sake by Region Update: Iwate

The post on sake from Iwate in my Sake by Region series which is under revision, has been updated and expanded and is available at: Iwate.

Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa - Yamanashi
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa

July 20, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Postmodern Peak (2000-2004)

The first years of the new century are the time that the wave of cinematic revival by indies and anime reaches its top and a large number of gripping, alternative films is produced. Of course, it was too good to last, but really great while it lasted - the curve would start heading down by the end of the decade (more about that in my next post). 

Many of the indie directors who started in the nineties, flourished in this period and made some of their best works. Important new directors are Sono Shion, Yukisada Isao, Toyoda Toshiaki, Miki Satoshi and Lee Sang-Il. Gratifying is also that many woman directors break through the glass ceiling in an industry that long marginalized women: Kawase Naomi is joined by Nishikawa Miwa, Ninagawa Mika, Tanada Yuki, Ogigami Naoko, Ando Momoko, Yang Yong-hi, Oh Mipo and Sakamoto Ayumi. These directors are not incidentally today making some of Japan's most interesting films.

The general atmosphere of Japanese films remains dark. Often alienation from society and the search for identity are emphasized. These were the years of the "lost generation," young people who had grown up during the economic crisis. They often became "freeters" (free part timers), partly our of necessity (there were no stable jobs), partly out of choice (they didn't want to copy their fathers who had dedicated their lives to their companies, only to be discarded). 

The style of indies films remains that of the New Wave of the Nineties: a distant and objective camera, as well as long and static shots. In short, a minimalist style. An exception is Miike Takashi with his extremist and over the top style, full of stomach-turning violence, and also new director Sono Shion, who even outdoes Miike in this respect.

It is also the  period of postmodernism, which had of course already started in the 1980s-1990s, but which becomes dominant in this period with its many pastiches and remakes (remakes are of all time, especially in Japan, but now we find conscious pastiches rather than independent new versions). We also see that high art and low art styles are mixed, that art films borrow the style of genre films, while also many styles and genres can be mixed in one and the same film. The constructed nature of what appears on screen is not concealed, linear time is fragmented and there are many references to (quotes from) other films (intertextuality). Finally, postmodernism does not have faith in master narratives of history or culture or in the self as an autonomous subject. It is rather interested in contradiction, fragmentation, and instability. All these elements can be found in the indies of this period. 

For the general public, indies are out of their nature not very popular. The mainstream prefers anime (except a few such as those made by Ghibli, exclusively for children, taking care of 60% of total film production), nostalgic films and war films about how good and heroic Japan used to be (for the older generation), sentimental love stories (for young women) and TV series transferred to the large screen (mainly housewives). The dominance of a young, male public that asked for violence and sex in the 1960s and 1970s has been turned on its head. 

In 2000, the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council was established by the government and the next year the Japanese Foundation for the Promotion of the Arts laws were passed. These were intended to promote the production of media arts, including film; they also stipulated that the government must lend aid in order to preserve film media. There is however no direct support for new Japanese films as in France.

2000
This year, there are 2,524 screens in Japan, of which 1,123 in cinema complexes. 282 Japanese films are produced (31.8 % of total). Admissions stand at 135,390,000.

Three of the top four positions at the box office were occupied by the usual crowd of anime films for under-twelve kids (Doraemon, Pocket Monsters and Conan the Detective) with in between a conventional thriller about terrorists who occupy a dam and threaten to blow it up (Whiteout). The prequel to The Ring, Ring 0: Birthday came in at No 7, as this were after all still the heydays of J-Horror. More gratifying was the fact that the period film Ichikawa Kon made on the basis of a script he wrote together with Kurosawa, Kinoshita and Kobayashi, Dora-heita, was also in the top ten (see below). At the end of the year appeared the controversial Battle Royale by Fukasaku Kinji, which netted 3.1 billion yen. It has been counted as a box office result for 2001, where it came in as No. 3.

Battle Royale by Fukasaku Kinji becomes an ultra-controversial examination of the institutionalization of violence. A fascist teacher (Kitano Takeshi) maniacally leads his high school class on a government-sponsored survival-of-the-fittest experiment on a deserted island. The students are each given a bag with a randomly selected weapon and sent off to kill each other in a deathly game. They are also fitted with explosive collars that go off when they don't play by the rules. The sadistic instructor gleefully announces new deaths over a loudspeaker system. Uncompromising film with over-the-top violence among teenagers, which led to questions in the Japanese parliament (especially as real life cruel murders by juveniles were then getting much media attention) and a ban in several countries. But in Japan the film was a blockbuster. A sequel, Battle Royale II followed in 2003, but was of a very different nature and a flop (production started when Fukusaku was already very ill, and was completed by his son). (AM Associates / Fukasaku-gumi / GAGA / Toei etc). (See my post about Best Cult Films at Splendid Labyrinths)


Kao ("Face") by Sakamoto Junji tells the story of a flabby, plain woman (marvelously played by character actress Fujiyama Naomi), who is drudging away as seamstress in her family's dry cleaning shop in Amagasaki, until she accidentally kills her haughty and dashing sister, in a quarrel after the death of their mother. She escapes (it helps that this is the early morning the Kobe earthquake struck) and starts a turbulent journey of self discovery, working as a maid, as a waitress and again as seamstress, making various friends along the way. At first, she looks so plain that nobody notices her, but as her self-confidence helps her blossom into beauty, that changes and several times she has to flee hastily. In the end, she swims away from the police chasing her on a small island. We know she will be caught and that she must atone for manslaughter, but we keep rooting for her. A wonderful film that won the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year as well as Japan Academy award for Best Director; Fujiyama Naomi won several Best Actress awards, for example at the 22nd Yokohama Film festival. Abroad the film was less successful - our heroine is very far from your all-American role model - but that is exactly why I prefer Japanese cinema. (Eiga Gekijo / Kuho / Mainichi Broadcasting System)


Hotaru ("Firefly") by Kawase Naomi is about the intense love affair between a traumatized striptease dancer (Nakamura Yuko) and a solitary potter (Nagasawa Toshiya) - they meet when the dancer returns after many years absence to her village in the Nara area. The firefly of the title is a symbol for the main character who, as a firefly, uses her shining beauty to attract a partner, but than gets burned by the heat. Again filmed in the director's signature documentary style, like her first film Suzaku. Shown at the Rotterdam Film festival of 2001 and winner of the Fricespi Award at the Locarno Film festival. (Dentsu Music And Entertainment / Imagica Corp. / Les Films de L'Observatoire)

Eureka by Aoyama Shinji is a four hour drama about a bus driver (Yakusho Koji) and two children, a brother and sister, who are the only survivors of a murderous hijack of their bus and then have to live with their trauma, which sets them apart from other people. It also leads to the break-up of both their families. They come together with the driver as a surrogate parent and finally take a road trip to attempt to overcome their damaged selves and find hope for the future. Filmed in sepia tones. Inspired by the traumatization of the victims of the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway. Entered into the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. (Dentsu Music And Entertainment / Imagica Corp. / Suncent Cinema Works)



Tokyo Gomi Onna ("Tokyo Trash Baby") by former pink film director Hiroki Ryuichi is an ironic romantic drama. A waitress (Nakamura Mami) who works as freeter in a coffee restaurant has a crush on a rock musician living in the same apartment building and always goes stealthily through his garbage hunting for mementos (empty cans, empty packets of cereals, empty cigarette cases and cigarette butts, a torn jacket), with which she decorates her room. She has quite a collection, identifying with him through the discards of his day-to-day existence. When she finally becomes his girlfriend for one night, she is the following morning discarded like a piece of trash, which motivates her to collect all the collectibles and throw them away at Yumenoshima, a landfill island in Tokyo Bay built of trash. A gentle critique of consumer culture and the consumption of human relationships. (Arcimboldo Y.K. / Bonobo Co. / CineRocket)

Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha ("Dead or Alive 2: Birds") by Miike Takashi is the best film of the DOA trilogy. Two contract killers (Takeuchi Riki and Aikawa Sho) from Osaka happen to meet in the course of different jobs of killing the same gang boss and realize they were childhood friends. They find themselves drawn back to their childhood haunt, on the remote Oki Islands in the Japan Sea off Shimane Prefecture (an area where exiles were sent in the past). They also meet another friend - the three of them were orphans in the local orphanage, for which they decide to do a theatrical play. There are many such nostalgic scenes, but fully in quirky Miike-style. Later, the killers go back to Osaka, donating the money they earn with their killings to African charities. And when they both have been fatally shot, in their minds they return once more to their island, now both surrealistically covered in blood. By the way, at the beginning of the film, Tsukamoto Shinya plays the role of a flamboyant bartender-conjurer. (Toei Video / Excellent / Daiei)

Horyugai ("City of Lost Souls") is one of Miike Takashi's most over the top films. Set in the underground foreign communities of Shinjuku (Brazilians, Chinese, Russians, etc.) it tells about a Brazilian protagonist (Teah) who helps his beautiful Chinese girlfriend (Michelle Reis) escape the immigration authorities by a daring helicopter rescue, after which they want to leave Japan "legally" by obtaining false passports. But when they steal money for these passports, they antagonize both the yakuza and the Chinese mafia, which promises a wild ride. One the craziest films Miike has made, with weird camera angles (a killing filmed from the bowl of a toilet, in which turds are drifting), an unbelievable CGI cock fight, a dwarf who brushes his teeth with cocaine, and a booby-trapped ping pong match. That all tongue-in-cheek as a comic book come alive. (Daiei Motion Picture Company / Tohokushinsha Film Corporation / Tokuma Shoten)

Brother by Kitano Takeshi unfortunately shows a decline compared to Kitano's work from the nineties. Made in Hollywood, it is a rather straightforward genre piece, with Kitano just showing off how sadistic he can be. There is none of the philosophical depth of, for example, Sonatine in this pastiche of his own style. Working abroad for a foreign audience has Kitano trying to demonstrate the "beauty" of Japaneseness, of all things in the ninkyo ideal of extreme loyalty that is seriously presented as worthy (his yakuza from the 1990s were on the contrary extremely disloyal, and that was more beautiful). The names of the yakuza in this film are based on the names of wartime heroes as Admiral Yamamoto, and that is unfortunately not meant ironically. The film's title refers to the fact that the yakuza are homosocially bonding as "brothers" and the African-American small-time criminal Denny is accepted as the "brother" of the main character played by Kitano. The acting in this film, by the way, is weak, perhaps also because story and characterization are never convincing. (Recorded Picture Company (RPC / Office Kitano / Bandai Visual Company)


Versus by Kitamura Ryuhei proves to be one of the most extreme offerings of Japanese cult cinema. It is a blood-soaked frenzy set in an enchanted forest full of marauding zombies. In these woods, an escaped mass murderer finds himself confronted by a group of yakuza who have kidnapped a young woman and together they run into a group of ghouls hungry for human flesh. The result is a gore fest full of nonstop battles, blood and beasts, without backstory or character development, but just a postmodern collage of gun-play, martial arts, flying limbs and other blood-drenched stunt work. The only negative point is that it is too long. Strictly for fans. Kitamura Ryuhei would go on to make rather silly commercial idol vehicles as Azumi and has not fulfilled the promise of this first film.  (KSS / Suplex / WEVCO Produce Company)

Uzumaki ("Spiral" aka "Vortex") by Ukrainian-born director Higuchinsky (aka Higuchi Akihiro), and based on a manga by Ito Junji, shows how an entire rural town is besieged by horrific spirals. This supernatural J-Horror film patiently builds up mood, before letting the spiral madness explode. An impressive first feature filmed in an odd-ball, grotesque style. Just sit back and let the visuals spiral towards you. One of the best Japanese horror films - it deserves to be a cult item like House. (Omega Micott Inc. / Shogakukan / Space Shower TV)


Dora-heita ("Alley Cat") by Ichikawa Kon is a period film based on a script written by Ichikawa together with Kurosawa Akira, Kobayashi Masaki and Kinoshita Keisuke. The project had originally been planned for 1970, but could only be executed when Ichikawa was the sole survivor of the group and in fact still going strong as a director at age 84 (!). It is the story of a new magistrate (Yakusho Koji) who cleans up a corrupt and lawless town. He pretends to be an ineffectual alcoholic in order to lull his opponents into sleep, but has in fact been sent by the shogun on a special assignment. Surprisingly, the film's major weakness is Yakusho Koji, elsewhere a versatile and intelligent actor, whose low-key style is not suitable for jidaigeki, as he doesn't project any power - when writing his scenario, Kurosawa was obviously thinking about a forceful and morally ambiguous type like Mifune Toshiro. (Dora-heita Projects / Eizo Kyoto Film Co. / Mainichi Broadcasting System)

Chaos by Nakata Hideo is a clever, but conventional noir thriller, structured around a femme fatale (Nakatani Miki) and a fake kidnapping in which a handyman gets involved (Hagiwara Masato), who then has to solve the mystery to prove his innocence. A disappointing and two-dimensional creation from the maker of Ring, without cinematic interest (more like a TV film). (Twins Japan)

2001
The year of the record-breaking Japanese box office success of Spirited Away (see below), which made world news by even "sinking" Titanic. It grossed 30.4 billion yen and remains record holder to this day. Aside from the usual anime stuff, we find Onmyoji with 3 billion yen in position 4 (see below), and The Firefly (also called Hotaru in Japanese and not to confused with Kawase's film of the previous year), another vehicle for Takakura Ken's brooding masculinity, in position No 9.

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi ("Spirited Away") by Miyazaki Hayao is the story of 10-year old Chihiro, who during a family outing looses her parents in an abandoned amusement park (they have been turned into pigs). Chihiro next ends up in a giant spirit bathhouse, peopled by bizarre creatures, and ruled by an old witch, Yubaba. She has to take the name Sen and learn the rules of the place. During her adventures, which are also a sort of spiritual journey, Chihiro learns how to survive - from a pampered 21st century kid she develops into a self-confident heroine. At the same time, as usual with Miyazaki, this is not just an entertaining story, but on a higher level a criticism of capitalist consumption culture. A truly wonderful film that deserves all the praise lavished upon it. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Studio Ghibli / Tokuma Shoten / NTV)


Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu ("Warm Water under the Red Bridge") by veteran master Imamura Shohei is a heartwarming experience. Yakusho Koji plays a salaryman who has lost his job (and family) in the restructuring of the late nineties, but from a bum whom he meets in a tent city in one of Tokyo's parks, he hears about a treasure hidden in a house next to a red bridge in a small town on the Japan Sea coast. The real treasure he finds is the woman he meets in that house (Shimizu Misa), who has unusual life-giving faculties. Love blossoms, but first the redundant salaryman has to get back his self-esteem by doing some hard work with the local fishermen. This fairy tale would be Imamura's last feature film. (BAP Inc. / Catherine Dussart Productions (CDP) / Comme des Cinémas)


Suzuki Seijun, another veteran, makes Pistol Opera, a hyper-stylized, garishly colored remake of his 1967 Branded to Kill. Now there is a female lead (Esumi Makiko), called Stray Cat ("dogs follow masters, but I am a stray cat"), who is No. 3 Assassin and like in the previous film struggling to reach the position of No. 1. Filmed in a unique and mesmerizing style with complete disregard for plot and realistic scenes - in fact, the story is a mere hook for cinematic exuberance. (Dentsu Music And Entertainment / Eisei Gekijo / Ogura Jimusyo Co.)


Koroshiya 1 ("Ichi the Killer") by Miike Takashi stars Asano Tadanobu as a sadomasochistic yakuza hitman, and Tsukamoto Shinya as a sort of puppet master. Tsukamoto wants to destroy Asano's yakuza group that controls Shinjuku, and as a secret weapon uses Ichi, an unassuming teenager who slices his opponents apart with blades hidden in the soles of his shoes. As usual, Miike is very inventive in dishing up novel ways of torture - this film has been denounced for its delirious and stomach-turning violence. Based on an equally outrageous manga by Yamamoto Hideo. On the other hand, it is so over the top, that you can't take it seriously and that takes some of the edge away. (Omega Project / Omega Micott Inc. / Emperor Multimedia Group)


Miike Takashi also makes Visitor Q, one of his most outrageous and provocative films. It starts with a broken family that gradually comes together through the presence of a stranger in their midst ("Visitor Q"), but along the way Miike throws in every taboo subject imaginable, from incest to drug addiction to teenage prostitution to necrophilia. The film ends with the mother lactating on the kitchen floor after which the family members reunite in this pool of mother milk (is this reference meant as satire or homage of Japanese hahamono, mother films?). Ultimately, the harmony in the family is restored, but at the cost of multiple homicide. A straight-to-video film, that copied its central idea about the seduction of a dysfunctional family by a mysterious stranger from Pasolini's Teorema. (Alphaville / CineRocket)

Katakurike no kofuku ("The Happiness of the Katakuris"), also by Miike Takshi in this prolific year, is a black musical comedy about a family trying to run a country inn hoping that a future highway will bring in business. But their scattered guests have a knack of dying in odd ways, after which the family secretly buries them as those deaths might hurt their reputation. Unfortunately, they bury them right in the path of the planned highway... At the oddest moments, people break into song. A sort of impossible cross between The Sound of Music and The Living Dead. Features excellent actors as Sawada Kenji, Matsuzaka Keiko, Tanba tetsuro and Takenaka Naoto. (Dentsu / Eisei Gekijo / Ganmo)


Go by new director Yukisada Isao is a film questioning existing preconceptions of national identity, in a story about a Japanese-born teenager of North-Korean descent (second generation, a so-called zainichi) and the discrimination he experiences as he grows up. But it is also also a youth film, full of energy and an indomitable spirit. More important than what it says on your passport, is who you really are - national identities are just administrative constructs. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Toei Tokyo / Star Max / TV Tokyo)

Distance by Koreeda Hirokazu was directly inspired by the infamous Aum Shinrikyo sect that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995. Four family members of people who joined a similar evil sect and were killed by their fellow members come together for a memorial and discuss the direction their lives have taken after the disaster. (CineRocket / Distance Project Team / Engine Film)

Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs Kairo ("Pulse," lit. "Circuit"), a conventional J-Horror film that is a let-down after the director's artistic films Cure and Charisma. The protagonists are unmemorable teenagers like in Hollywood horror films, and the basic idea, of ghosts who via the internet invade our present world and destroy it as they have no space anymore in their own world, is rather ridiculous. If ghosts or souls would exist (which I deny), they would be immaterial and therefore take up no space! Moreover, Kurosawa forgets the basic rule of all horror films: never believe in your own ghosts, but present them ambiguously and teasingly as just a possibility, never as a fixed truth. With a later film like Loft (2005) Kurosawa would make an even more traditional and ridiculous horror flick (with a walking mummy); at least, on the positive side, Kairo contains ideas about loneliness in the contemporary world, which it philosophically equates with death. In that sense, the film could be seen as a post-mortem on a post-Bubble and post Aum-Shinrikyo Japan. (Daiei Eiga)

Electric Dragon 80,000 V. by veteran indie Sogo Ishii is a bizarre, 55-min. cyberpunk action flick about rock & roll and electricity. Filmed in a frenzied style that reminds one of Tetsuo, and with two literally high-voltage heroes (Asano Tadanobu and Nagase Masatoshi) slugging it out, this is a weird movie all in its own class. (Suncent Cinema Woks)

Riri Shushi no subete ("All About Lili Chou-Chou"), a youth film by Iwai Shunji, was honored at the Berlin, the Yokohama and the Shanghai Film Festivals. The anguish of teen life is evoked in the shape of a bullied schoolboy, who seeks solace in the ethereal music of a fictional pop star about whom he hosts an internet chat room. Stresses alienation and the impossibility of communication. (Rockwell Eyes)

Onmyoji ("Onmyoji: The Yinyang Master") by Takita Yojiro is a minor but colorful extravaganza about the exploits of Abe no Seimei, a (historical) master of the occult who served the Heian court in the tenth century. The film was quite successful in Japan and set off a tourist boom to the small Abe no Seimei shrine in Kyoto. One reason for its popularity was that the main character was played by the androgynous Nomura Mansei, a famous Kyogen actor (who also played in Ran). He faces off with Sanada Hiroyuki as Doson, a rival occult master who plots the downfall of the emperor by harnessing the forces of darkness. The special effects are a bit cheesy, but Onmyoji's ironic tone makes much good. Its success even called for the inevitable sequel. (Dentsu / Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. / Toho) (See my post on Japanese Horror Movies)


Sennen joyu ("Millenium Actress"), by Kon Satoshi, is arguably one of the best animation films ever made in Japan. An elderly actress is visited by a reporter and cameraman and asked to recount her life story. Her own touching memories center on the romantic feelings she developed for an artist / activist she met briefly during the war, but who had to flee and whom she never could find again, although she kept searching her whole life. These flashbacks merge with scenes from the many genre films in which she played (and which "cover a millennium," from period films to science-fiction) and gradually the reality of life and the fantasy of film become entwined. This Gordian knot is made even more intricate by the presence of the interviewers in her memories, first as onlookers, but finally also as participants. It is great to see how one cinematic medium, anime, celebrates another, live feature film, and this wonderful movie is also an interesting romp through Japanese film history. (Kadokawa Shoten / WOWOW / Chiyoko Committee / Bandan Visual Company)

Avalon by Oshii Mamoru is live action film by this anime director, made in Poland and with Polish actors. In a futuristic society, young people are increasingly addicted to an illegal interactive war game that is potentially deadly, but also offers escape from their bleak existence. One of the earliest Japanese films to fuse live action with the copious use of CGI (unfortunately, many more would follow). (Deiz Production / Bandai Visual Company / Media Factory)

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within by Sakaguchi Hironobu is a computer animation (based on a popular game) with impressively realistic human figures. The story is a nuts-and-bolts space opera, about a woman scientist who with a team of ragtag militants tries to head off an invasion by phantom-like aliens. What is revolutionary for its time is the use of computer graphics to simulate human actors - it looks quite gorgeous and took four years and $140 million to make. But the robotic images - how realistic they look - also leave one cold, and not surprisingly, the film bombed at the box office. (Chris Lee Productions / Square Company / Square USA)

2002
That mainstream films in these years are often aimed at kids is demonstrated by the fact that six out of ten of the most popular Japanese films at the box office are all anime. Number 1 is Ghibli's (though not Miyazaki's) The Cat Returns (see below), which nets a respectable 6.4 billion. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah (brought out at the end of 2001) stands at No. 3 (helmed by Kaneko Shusuke of Gamera 3 fame) and Genji: A Thousand-Year Love at No. 6. This last film is a modernized and historically totally inaccurate version of The Tale of Genji, with Genji played by Takarazuka actress Amami Yuki, and larded with pop songs. The only film for adults, Mohohan ("Copycat Killer"), a conventional thriller by Morita Yoshimitsu, stands as No. 8 (Morita had once made such excellent films as The Family Game and And Then, but gradually degraded to purely commercial work).

Tasogare Seibei ("The Twilight Samurai") was Yamada Yoji's first venture into period film territory and a deft demythologizing of the samurai. Based on a story by Fujisawa Shuhei. Set just before the Meiji Restoration, it follows the life of Iguchi Seibei (Sanada Hiroyuki), a low-ranking samurai employed as a bureaucrat. Seibei is nicknamed "Twilight" (Tasogare) because he always has to go home after work and never has time to go drinking with his colleagues (like a modern salaryman). This is because his wife has died and he has to take care of two young children and an almost senile mother. Miyazawa Rie shines as Seibei's love interest Tomoe, but Seibei feels he can't take a new wife because of his poverty. He also is a capable swordsman and when a renegade samurai barricades himself in a house in the town, Seibei is forced by the clan leaders to stand up for the "honor" of the clan, although he has no desire to fight. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Eisei Gekijo / Hakuhodo / Nippon Shuppan Hanbai) (See my post about Best Samurai Films)


Rokugatsu no hebi ("A Snake of June") by Tsukamoto Shinya is arguably the best film of this innovative director. It is an erotic film about a young woman (Kurosawa Asuka), married to a much older man (novelist Kotari Yuji), who experiences a sexual awakening when a stalker (Tsukamoto Shinya) blackmails her with compromising pictures he took of her and has her act out her own erotic fantasies. The film was shot in blue and gray tints and, as it is set in the rainy season of June, is full of gurgling water (clouds and rain are a sexual symbol in traditional East Asian culture). Tsukamoto, who here made his first film without horror or fantasy elements, handles the potentially exploitative subject with delicacy, and shows how the female protagonist develops into a self-confident individual. Won Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film festival of 2002. (Kaijyu Theatre)


In Dolls Kitano Takeshi shows us a "beautiful Japanese tradition," like in Brother, but now a more peaceful one, that of love until death as expressed in the bunraku puppet plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Three stories of eternal love are crisscrossed, but all end fatally. Set design and cinematography are exquisite - in fact, somewhat too much so, as the beggar-lovers, tied together by a red chord, walk around in Yamamoto Yoji designer clothes, through the landscapes of the four seasons with cherry blossoms, red leaves and snowscapes, which look too much like a tourist brochure. The start and ending of the film with bunraku dolls and puppeteers is a reference to Shinoda Masahiro's famous Double Suicide. Despite its flaws, this is a much better film than Kitano's previous Brother. (Bandai Visual Company / Office Kitano / TV Tokyo)


OUT by Hirayama Hideyuki, loosely based on a novel by popular author Kirino Natsuo, is a show window of the social problems that have beset Japan in the new millennium: four housewives (Harada Mieko, Baisho Mitsuko, etc.) have to work night shifts in a company making lunch boxes to make both ends meet. One of them has a son who is a hikikomori and a husband who is a shoplifter, a second one is a brand shopaholic with debts, a third one has to nurse a demented parent in her house as there is no money for a nursing home, and a fourth has an abusive husband who gambles away his income and gets rid of his frustration by kicking her in her pregnant belly. In a fit of anger, she strangles him with his belt when he is asleep and then calls her three friends to help her get rid of the body. They help out of solidarity - this is also a film about female empowerment, and in that sense a film in the same vein as Kao (2000). But not only the police, also the yakuza (who are suspected of the murder) are on the track of the four women... (Movie Television Inc. / Sundance Company)

Umi wa mite ita ("The Sea Is Watching") by Kumai Kei, his last film, is based on a scenario inherited from Kurasawa Akira. It is the story of a late Edo-period brothel in Yoshiwara, centering on two prostitutes, Oshin (Tono Nagiko), who falls in love with unlucky patrons, but is also unlucky herself for they always leave her in the lurch, and Kikuno (Shimizu Misa), a more experienced and cynical woman, who is also unlucky, for although an older client is willing to buy up her contract, she stays put as she can't leave her yakuza boy friend. It all comes to a head during a thunderous typhoon. More a Mizoguchi than a Kurosawa story - reminding one of Mizoguchi's last film, Street of Shame, although that is the much superior movie. The Sea Is Watching has several flaws, from the casting to the use of silly CGI, but it is still worth watching. (AII / Japan Road Service / Maru)

Kagami no onnatachi ("Women in the Mirror") is the last feature film by veteran New Wave director Yoshida Yoshishige. It is an evocation of the Hiroshima disaster seen through the fate of three women: an older mother (Okada Mariko); her daughter (Tanaka Yoshiko) who ran away 24 years ago and now is presumably found back, but suffering from amnesia; and the granddaughter (Isshiki Sae), who was brought up by the grandmother. As the person who may be her daughter has a sole memory of a hospital room in Hiroshima, the three women travel there to reconstruct their personal histories. The idea behind the film is that the daughter's identity was destroyed by her experiencing the atomic bomb disaster. This has fragmented her self, as if staring in a broken mirror. (Gendaieiga / Groove Kinema / Root Pictures)

Aoi Haru ("Blue Spring") by Toyoda Toshiaki takes place at a high school full of delinquents and misfits, where utter anarchy reigns, although the students have also established their own hierarchy which is more cruel than that outside the gates. While the miserable, powerless teachers live in fear of the students, yakuza patrol the school's fences to find prey to recruit to their ranks. This film stresses the similarities between gang life, school life and corporate life. A most bleak view, but with surprisingly little onscreen violence. (Filmmakers / Omega Micott Inc.)

If you think that Miike Takashi is weird, then watch this one: Jisatsu Sakuru ("Suicide Club") by Sono Shion starts with a bloody mass suicide of 54 teenage girls who jump together under a train and only gets weirder. "Nowadays Japanese are acting strange," says someone in this film, and that hits the nail on its head. Suicide seems a virus: teenagers jump from school roofs and train platforms, nurses fly from windows, others put their head in the oven, swallow pills or cut themselves to pieces. The investigating police detective (Ishibashi Renji) doesn't know what to make of it. Mysterious rolls of human skin are found, which seem to belong to the victims; an internet site seems to predict the suicides by colored dots; and a girl band sings a popular song "Mail Me," which may contain a subliminal message... Considering the fact that suicides in Japan were (and still are) at an annual high of about 30,000 this film gained a considerable amount of notoriety for its controversial subject matter and gory presentation. The film, by the way, can also be read as a critique of contemporary society, especially among the young, where commercial fads and trends pull people along who in the process loose their own identity. An impressive start for Sono Shion, who would become one of the most interesting directors of the new millennium. (Omega Project / Biggubito / For Peace Co. Ltd.)


Juon ("Ju-on: The Grudge") by Shimizu Takashi features the most creepy little boy in film history. He and his mother have been brutally murdered by the father and keep haunting their former house. When a social worker comes to visit that house, she is met by the terrible stare of the dead boy, while the mother comes slithering head-first down the stairs like a snake, waving her long black hair... An effective little shocker, one of the better J-Horror products. A sequel followed the same year, and a Hollywood adaptation was also made (with Shimizu himself as director). (Oz Productions) (See my post on Japanese Horror Movies)


Honogurai mizu no soko kara ("Dark Water") by Nakata Hideo is another J-Horror success of this year. A divorced mother who has just won a custody battle for her daughter, moves into an old apartment building, where water is constantly leaking and dripping, with great stains on ceiling and walls. Then a ghostly child appears... Nakata's best effort after Ring. (Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. / Nippon Television Network / Video Audio Project)

Neko no ongaeshi ("The Cat Returns," lit. "The Gratitude of the Cat") by Morita Hiroyuki is an anime film about a schoolgirl who is transported to the feline kingdom to marry a cat prince she saved from a speeding truck. This is the (rather unwelcome) "ongaeshi" or "act of gratitude" she receives from the King of Cats. Will she eventually be able to return to the human world? Based on a manga by Hiragi Aoi. Minor Ghibli, without any deeper philosophy, but still an enchanting fable for children.  (Ghibli)

2003
That Japanese mainstream films for adults are dominated by television is demonstrated by the fact that the No 1 box office success this year is Bayside Shakedown 2, which at 17.3 billion yen grosses even more than Harry Potter the year before. It is incomprehensible why a film made of a TV series, a conventional police procedural, would be so popular. The list of Best Ten also includes Zatoichi by Kitano Takeshi which earned a respectable 2.8 billion yen.

Zatoichi by Kitano Takeshi was not surprisingly this director's most successful film in Japan, as it is simply good, traditional chambara. Kitano was asked by a friend of Katsu Shintaro to make this film as an homage to the dead actor, and she put up part of the money. Kitano obliged with a twist, for his Zatoichi has bleached hair (chapatsu, which used to be a sign of rebellion among young people in the nineties, until it became somewhat mainstream). It is not a remake of any particular Zatoichi film, but rather a rearrangement of generic story elements. The tap dance at the end is also very effective, although not wholly original, for we already find jazzy dance and music in 1950s Toei period productions as the films with Misora Hibari. The difference with the Zatoichi from the 1960s and 1970s is that the blind swordsman at that time also embodied a certain form of social protest, while Kitano's postmodern pastiche is nothing more than entertainment. (Bandai Visual / Tokyo FM / Dentsu / TV Asahi / Saito Entertainment / Office Kitano)


Kohi Jiko ("Café Lumière") is a Japanese production by well-known Taiwanese "New Wave" director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made at the invitation of Shochiku as an homage to Ozu Yasujiro, whose centennial birth year was in 2003. Hou works with static cameras, and long and distant takes, something which inspired the young Taiwanese (and Japanese) directors of the nineties. His very distant camera and documentary style are however different from Ozu. The general homage to Ozu is clearest in the love of trains which runs through the film. The story is about a young Japanese woman (pop singer Hitoto Yo) who is researching the life of the Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye, who studied in Japan before WWII, with the help of the friendly staff of a second hand book store (Asano Tadanobu). She is pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend, but does not plan to marry him, something about which she does not consult her parents in any way - she just informs hem. There are several quotes from Ozu's films, for example when the main character has to borrow sake and a glass from the landlady, like Hara Setsuko did from her neighbor in Tokyo Monogatari. Nominated for Golden Lion at Venice. (Shochiku / Asahi Shimbun / Sumitomo Corporation)


Sarasoju ("Shara") by Kawase Naomi is another film in documentary style shot on a Nara location, this time right in the middle of the old Nara town, near Gangoji temple. It is the story of how a family deals with grief: the Aso family had twin boys, but one day, one of them suddenly disappeared and was never found again - not even his body. Now it is five years later and the remaining brother is seventeen and has a girlfriend. The mother is again pregnant and the family has to go on with their lives. (RealProduct)

Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs Akarui Mirai ("Bright Future"), a title that seems rather ironic, for the future of the two dangerous, aimless young men (Asano Tadanobu and Odagiri Joe) in this film is anything but bright. They work in a small factory producing oshibori hand towels. Both are prey to uncontrollable fits of rage, and especially irritated by their boss (although the boss is friendly and trying to help the boys). Not surprisingly, the factory owner is killed without reason and one of the young men is convicted of his murder - he commits suicide on death row. He used to keep a poisonous jellyfish as a pet and has given that in the care of his friend. The friend now sees the gulf between the bright future he dreamed of and the stark reality he finds himself in, but also realizes he must cope with life as he finds it. He releases the jellyfish, which reproduces in the drains of the city. One of the last shots of the film is a swarm of jellyfish making their way to the sea. (Uplink Co. / Digital Site Corporation)


Joze to Tora to Sakanatachi ("Josee, the Tiger and the Fish") by Inudo Isshin is an offbeat drama about an average college student, popular with girls (Tsumabuki Satoshi), who unexpectedly falls in love with a defiantly independent, lonely disabled girl (Ikewaki Chizuru). Of course the ending is sad as the boy can't keep his promises and gives in to the pressure of society which is against the relation of a healthy boy with a crippled girl. Excellent performances by all. (Asmik Ace Entertainment / Hakuhodo / IMJ Entertainment)

Hiroki Ryukichi makes Vibrator - not about a sex toy, but the vibration when a mobile phone rings, which is the only connection left to the world for a bulimic, lonely young woman (who is a freelance writer, so an insecure "freeter") expertly played by stage actress Terajima Shinobu. But one time she feels attracted to a young truck driver with bleached hair (Omori Nao) she happens to meet in a convenience store, and spends the night in his cabin. The next day, she joins him in his truck for an impromptu ride to Niigata, embarking on what will be a life-changing journey where she (re)discovers her emotional life and sexuality - she literally gets "in touch" with another human being again. A raw psychological film, which is also strangely uplifting and unforgettable, addressing problems in Japanese society that are of wider relevance than only Japan. Based on a novel by Akasaka Mari. (Nippon Shuppan Hanbai K.K. / Cine Quanon / Eisei Gekijo)

Gozu by Miike Takashi is a surrealistic, Lynchian yakuza flic, in which one man (Sone Yuta) has to get secretly rid of a colleague (Aikawa Sho) whose erratic behavior worries his bosses. He doesn't want to kill the colleague to whom he owes his life, but accidentally does so when he slams the brakes of his car and the colleague hits his head against the window. Next the corpse disappears and the unfortunate yakuza starts looking for it in a town where everyone seems to have a screw loose - a descent into the grotesque that is symbolic for the protagonist's confusion, and which is in fact a descent into his own Freudian subconscious. This V-Cinema film was shown in the Director's Fortnight section at Cannes. (Klockworx / Rakueisha)

Chakushin ari ("One Mised Call"), also by Miike Takashi, is this director's contribution to the J-Horror genre. The idea is the same as that of Ring: teenagers who hear a message on their mobile phone, are fated to die. After a conventional J-Horror start, in the second half we finally get some true Miike touches. Film did well at the box office (calling for a sequel), but has also been called a turning point in Miike's career to (slightly) more mainstream films. (Kadokawa-Daiei Eiga) (See my post on Japanese Horror Movies)

Hanai Sachiko no karei na shogai ("The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai") by Meike Mitsuru is a clever pastiche of pink films and at the same time one of the best pink films ever made. It tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a call girl (Hayami Kyoko) who is shot in the head and thanks to the bullet lodged in her brain turns into an intellectual superwoman, also possessing psychic powers. Viewers also encounter North-Korean agents, a rather stimulated professor and the cloned finger of George W. Bush that controls the atomic button... This loopy sex comedy made quite an impression internationally. (Kokuei Company / Shintoho Company / V Theater 135)



2004
Howl's Moving Castle wins big at the box office, grossing 20 billion yen in position No. 1. This is followed by two sentimental love dramas, Sekai no chushin de, ai o sakebu (Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World) by Yukisada Isao and Ima, ai ni yukimasu (Be With You) by Doi Nobuhiro. In the first one, the beloved one dies, in the second one, she is already dead. Purely commercial tearjerkers for young women. Half a Confession by Sasabe Kiyoshi is again a conventional thriller, standing at No. 10.

An infinitely better and more sensitive film is Tony Takitani by Ichikawa Jun, about a lonely technical illustrator who marries a woman obsessed with designer clothes and who attempts to replace her with another woman after her death in a traffic accident. He asks the new woman, whom he finds via a classified ad, to impersonate his deceased wife by wearing her clothes. The finest adaptation made so far of a work by popular author Murakami Haruki. Features stage actor Ogata Issei and Miyazawa Rie with fine performances. Poetic and restrained, a gripping meditation on loneliness and loss, filmed in a minimalist style which keeps very close to the original story. (Breath / Wilco Co.)


Another film with Miyazawa Rie is Chichi to kuraseba ("The Face of Jizo") by Kuroki Kazuo. Based on a play by Inoue Hisashi (and still feeling too much like a theater play), this story is set in Hiroshima in 1948 and dramatizes the life of a young woman who is her family's sole survivor of the atomic blast. She imagines that her father is still alive and living with her, and has whole conversations with him. He even gives her advice when she meets a shy researcher in the library where she works and feels she cannot accept his gentle advances out of guilt for being the sole survivor. (Aoi Promotion / Japan Sky Way / Pal)

Daremo shiranai ("Nobody Knows") by Koreeda Hirokazu is heartbreaking film about four children (by as many different fathers) who are left in the lurch by a irresponsible, single young mother, who goes off with a new boyfriend. The kids have never been sent to school, but spend their days playing games and watching TV. The mother leaves some money, and the elder boy takes charge, but gradually things inevitably break down as finally the money runs out. Filmed almost as a documentary with the children behaving naturally, without obvious acting - the film was in fact based on a real incident, in which similarly abandoned children lived for months without parent, undetected by society. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. (Bandai Visual Company / Cine Qua Non Films / Engine Film)


Chi to hone ("Blood and Bones") by Sai Yoichi is an epic family saga, based on a semi-autobiographical novel, about a Korean who as a teenager in 1923 moves to Osaka and there over six decades builds up a fortune with a factory for processed seafood products, exploiting his employees. The cruel and violent man is like a moral black hole, he abuses and destroys the lives of his wife and family, has countless mistresses and children out of wedlock and shows no respect for anybody. Later he closes the factory to become a loan shark. Kitano Takeshi gives a fine performance as the brutal protagonist. What makes this film about an unlikable character worth watching is the humanity shown by the suffering family members around him. (Artist Film / Asahi Broadcasting Corporation / Be-Wild)

Kakushi ken oni no tsume ("The Hidden Blade") is the second film in Yamada Yoji's samurai cycle, based on novels by Fujisawa Shuhei. The story of anther low-level samurai (Nagase Masatochi) from northern Japan, who is in love with the peasant servant girl of his family, but cannot marry her because of their difference in status. The film also shows the changing times as the samurai have to learn the use of artillery. As in all three films, Yamada Yoji gives a revisionist view of the samurai, and shows that their daily lives were very different from the heroic sword-slinging that is usually shown on the big screen. (Eisei Gekijo / Hakuhodo DY Media Partners / Nippon Shuppan Hanbai)


Miike Takashi makes two films. Izo is a typical art film, about a samurai (Nakayama Kazuya) who in the late Edo period is unjustly executed on the cross and after death harbors such a strong lust for revenge that he keeps returning to earth in various periods and settings, always to kill his opponents. So this is a constant action film with one bloody killing after another, a bit like Versus, but with a philosophical twist: violence is unfortunately part of the DNA of humans and we can't get rid of it. (KSS / Excellent Film / Izo Partners)

Zebraman, on the contrary, is a more commercial work, mainly aimed at children, about a dopey schoolteacher (Aikawa Sho) who believes he has to save the world from evil by enacting Zebraman, the superhero of an old TV series. A spoof of superhero films, such as the Japanese Ultraman, but ultimately rather kid stuff. (Bingo Y.K. / Dentsu Music And Entertainment / Mainichi Broadcasting System)

Marebito ("The Stranger from Afar") by Shimizu Takashi features Tsukamoto Shinya as a freelance cameraman who is investigating an urban legend about spirits that haunt the Tokyo subways. What he finds is a young woman whom he takes back to his apartment. She does not speak, does not eat, and only drinks blood. In order to nurse her, the cameraman becomes a serial killer. Extremely claustrophobic, but one of the last J-Horror films worth watching as the boom had faded by now. (Adness K.K. / AtEntertainment K.K. / Culture Publishers)


Hauru no ugoku shiro ("Howl's Moving Castle") by Miyazaki Hayao took position between Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as one of the three best grossing films made in Japan at the Japanese box office of all time - and all were anime films made by Studio Ghibli. Based on a fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones, this is a complex fairy tale about a strong young woman working as a hatter in an idealized central European town. After being cursed by a witch, her body turns into that of an old hag and her only chance of breaking the spell lies with the flamboyant young wizard Howl who lives in a sort of steam vehicle annex castle that walks around on legs. A beautiful, life-affirming film, which is also a philosophical examination of identity. My only negative point is that I disliked the Harry potter-type witchcraft, but much was made good by the strong antiwar statement the film makes (which is typically Miyazaki). (Studio Ghibli)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence by Oshii Mamoru is a philosophical sequel to the groundbreaking 1995 film about futuristic crime fighters Batou and Togusa, made with a huge budget of 2 billion yen. This time they have to track down "gynoids" (a sort of sex bots) who have gone on a murder spree. Innocence was shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (the 6th anime film to have that honor). (Production I.G. / Tokuma Shoten / NTV / Dentsu / Mitsubishi Shoji)

Godzilla: Final Wars, directed by Kitamura Ryuhei (who here goes completely commercial), is released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Godzilla. The film (No. 28, and the final one of the Millennium Series) incorporates many nostalgic elements of the past (including actors in cameo roles and a variety of old monsters) - indeed, this monster movie was also a postmodern pastiche. (Toho)
A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]

July 10, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Revival (1995-1999)

The first half of the 1990s was still very much like the stagnant eighties, but the second half is harvest time. See my previous post for a general impression of the whole decade. 

In the last years of the millennium the revival of Japanese cinema through indies and anime finally becomes pronounced. 1997 even has been called an "annus mirabilis" (Mark Schilling). It is also at the end of the decade that Japanese cinema starts regularly appearing at film festivals abroad. Prestigious prizes are won by for example Imamura Shohei (his second Golden Palm) and Kitano Takeshi, but also films by Kawase (Suzaku) and Koreeda (Maborishi) create quite a splash. Shall We Dance, although a lesser film, becomes a great box office success in the United States. Miike Takashi's Audition shocks worldwide audiences. Excellent anime films which conquer world screens are Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell. These years also see the start of the J-Horror craze with the worldwide success of The Ring. Japanese cinema has finally overcome the chaos created by the demise of the studios (as producers) and an alternate system is now firmly in place. 

In the indies of this period, we see a group of works that share feelings of profound loss, alienation and hopelessness, caused by the disappearance of a beloved person, suicide or murder. There is a general feeling of lack of certainty, something not only brought about by the economic malaise, but also by the Kobe Earthquake and Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks which both happened in the first months of 1995 (although the films do not directly address these two causes). Examples are Kitano's Hanabi, Koreeda's Maboroshi, Kawase's Suzaku, Imamura's The Eel, Shinozaki's Okaeri, Higashi's Village of Dreams and Ichikawa Jun's Tokyo Lullaby. The millennium ends on a sad note in Japanese cinema.

1995
This year, there are 1,776 screens; 289 films are produced (among a total shown of 610) and attendance stands at 127,040,000.

Gogo no yuigonjo ("A Last Note") by Shindo Kaneto is about an elderly actress (Sugimura Haruko, well-known from Ozu's films) who spends a vacation at her summer villa in the mountains. There are several surprises: her housekeeper confesses that her daughter was fathered by the (now deceased) husband of the actress; and a equally elderly couple, who are old friends of the actress, comes to visit in what later proves to be a farewell gesture - the wife is suffering from dementia and they will later commit suicide together. A quiet and sensitive film by the 83-year old director, which also contains the last role of his wife, Otowa Nobuko, as the housekeeper of the actress. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai)


Tokyo Fist by Tsukamoto Shinya is another kind of "body horror" (compared to the same director's previous Tetsuo), about being beaten to pulp in boxing. Tsukamoto himself plays the main role of a nerdy salaryman. When a former classmate who is now a boxer (played by the director's brother, Tsukamoto Koji) "steals" his girlfriend (Fujii Kaori), the flabby salaryman starts training in earnest as a boxer and transforms himself into a mean fighting machine. The girlfriend, by the way, doesn't allow herself to be stolen, but discovers her own world of tattooing and body piercing while the two men slug it out as a form of sexual sublimation. In the end, all three reach liberation through pain. You have never seen such bruised and bloodied faces. A mad sadomasochistic film. Tsukamoto's overarching theme is the rediscovery of instincts that have been forgotten in modern city life, but those instincts then lead to chaos. (Kaijyu Theater)

Another violent film is Gonin ("The Five") by Ishii Tadashi, about a gang of five losers (who have nothing to loose anymore), victims of the economic downturn, who take on the yakuza by stealing a gang's money. At the same time a grim account of the rapid moral, social and economic decline of Japan in the nineties. A very intense and pessimistic film that explores the borderland of sanity, going over the top with ultra-violence and nightmarish images. The following year Ishii would follow this up with Gonin 2 about a similar gang of five women, but that one was devoid of deeper meaning. (Bunkasha / Image Factory IM Co. Ltd.)

Kamikaze Taxi by Harada Masato is about a young yakuza seeking revenge for the killing of his prostitute girlfriend by a perverted ultra-right politician in liege with his yakuza boss. In his revenge mission he gets unexpected help from a taxi driver (Yakusho Koji) whose parents emigrated to Peru and who has come back to work in Japan. The taxi driver in fact becomes his closest friend and guardian. Combination of road movie, gangster movie and social criticism - especially of the racism experienced by the Peruvian taxi driver who speaks "funny Japanese." (Pony Canyon)

Love Letter by Iwai Shunji has been called "Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique without the Catholicism." Two women (both played by Nakayama Miho) who have never met each other, have been in love with the same man, who is now dead. Through their correspondence they learn to come to terms with their loss. A trendy, romantic film, which was a hit with a hip, young and female audience. (Fuji TV)


Kokaku Kidotai ("Ghost in the Shell") is an SF anime by Oshii Mamoru, about a cyborg-cop heroine who chases after a "brain hacker" called the Puppet Master, before joining forces with him ("he" is in fact a sort of computer virus). The story is rather labyrinthine, but the film is eventually less concerned with plot than with philosophical questions about the blurring of the boundaries between humankind and its digital servants. The heroine is called a "ghost in a shell" because as a human robot she has been manufactured by the government and therefore does not own her body, which is just a shell for her consciousness, the only part that belongs to herself. Set in a fantasy, futuristic Hong Kong (but with still the old Kai Tak airport in Kowloon!). A sequel called Ghost in the Shell: Innocence will come out in 2004. (Bandai Visual Company / Kodansha / Production I.G.)

1996
Nikkatsu starts production again.

The number of admissions this year is the lowest ever since the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan started counting in 1955: only 119,575,000.

Moe no suzaku ("Suzaku") by Kawase Naomi follows over 30 years the disintegration of a rural family living in the mountains of southern Nara Prefecture in documentary-like fashion. Mostly amateur cast. Local communities increasingly consist of only the elderly and are cut off from the world by the disappearance of public transport and other amenities, so people have no choice but to leave. The family consists of a grandmother, her son, his much younger second wife, his son by his previous wife, and a daughter by his present wife. The father is morose and on a certain day, just disappears into the mountains. His wife and her stepson are attracted to each other, but also the daughter has tender feelings for her half-brother. In the end, the mother and daughter return to her family, while the son and his grandmother plan to work at an inn, where they can get board and lodging. Shows the simplicity of life in such a cut off community, which Japan's wealth and modernization seem to have passed by. A beautiful, quiet film, with long shots like Ozu (but also improvisation which Ozu never allowed), that keeps the emotions seething under the surface solidly under cover. Wins the Golden Camera at Cannes for New Director. (Bandai Visual / WOWOW)

Maboroshi no hikari ("Maboroshi," lit. "Phantom Lights") by Koreeda Hirokazu is the story of a young woman (Esumi Makiko) who looses her husband through an unexplained suicide. Even after she remarries with a widower (like her, with one small child) five years later and moves to the Noto Peninsula and its majestic seascapes, she keeps being plagued by grief and even guilt. She is also afraid the same thing may happen again, as if her presence brings on death. When she shouts out her non-understanding, her present husband answers that it might be the phantom lights one sometimes sees hovering above the sea that have lured her previous husband away. In other words, it is something beyond human understanding and it makes no sense to keep thinking about it. Filmed in the typical nineties New Wave style with very long and static shots, with a distant camera. Based on a novel by Miyamoto Teru. A perfect first feature film. Wins the Golden Osella for Best Director at the Venice Film festival. (TV Man Union)

Okaeri by Shinozaki Makoto is about a young couple brought to sanity through the wife's mental illness (marvelously played by Ueshima Miho). A high school teacher only gradually notices the changes in his wife's personality. Also a critique of Japanese society where the man is busy outside, coming home late, and the wife is expected to be all day at home (in the film she has typically given up her own career to marry, and only does some part time translation work at home). "Okaeri" is the traditional greeting to welcome someone home, in the situation sketched above said by the wife to the husband. An earnest and touching film, shot in static takes. (Comteg)

E no naka no boku no mura ("Village of Dreams") by Higashi Yoichi is a magical evocation of rural life in Japan. Depicts the childhood of two nine-year olds in an idyllic but also haunted landscape in the years just after WWII - a landscape that now has disappeared. Berlin Silver Bear. (Siglo)

Shall We dance? by Suo Masayuki is a feel-good, light comedy about a (married) salaryman (Yakusho Koji) who tries to find a purpose outside his housing loan and office drudgery through social dancing. It helps that he is in love with his dancing teacher (Kusakari Tamiyo). Takenaka Naoto plays his equally dance-crazed colleague who is obsessed with Latin dancing and even wears a wig. This overrated, too slick comedy could also have been made in Hollywood; it not for nothing became the largest grossing Japanese film ever in the U.S. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year (prizes which in my view should have gone to Maboroshi or Suzaku). (Altamira Pictures Inc. / Daiei Studios / Nippon Television Network)


Kids Return by Kitano Takeshi is a nostalgic look at Kitano's own youth and an ironic account about the different paths in life taken by two juvenile delinquents, school bullies who waste their youth: one becomes an up-and-coming boxer, the other a low-level gangster. They both fail in their endeavors because of self-destructive character flaws. Another student, a quiet boy who always sits in a coffee restaurant to attract the attention of the waitress, equally fails in the salaryman job he gets, and after that also flukes his work as taxi driver. At the same time, two fellow students become stand-up manzai comedians - like Kitano himself - and they gradually do well. A film with conscious repetitions and circular motions, as if to emphasize that there is no escape from the past or one's own character. The camera always remains detached. (Bandai Visual Company / Office Kitano / Ohta Publishing)

Nemuru otoko ("Sleeping Man") by Oguri Kohei. After an accident in the mountains, a comatose man sleeps through the film and illuminates the experiences and emotions of those who look on. Set in a small onsen village in Gunma prefecture. A very poetic film about the passing of time, the cycle of life and the role of tradition in rural communities. Sponsored by the prefecture where Oguri was born, the shots of "traditional Japan" have sometimes been too much beautified. (Gunma Prefecture)

Gokudo Sengokushi Fudo ("Fudoh: The New Generation") by Miike Takashi is a mad fest of macabre humor, and a demented, mayhem parody of the yakuza genre. For more details, see my post about Yakuza Films (Excellent Film / GAGA)

1997
Princess Mononoke breaks the box office record with theatrical earnings of 19.30 billion yen.

Shall We Dance becomes a hit in the U.S.

Unagi ("The Eel") by Imamura Shohei. About a man (Yakusho Koji) who murders his faithless wife, and when he comes out of prison takes up with a young woman (Shimizu Misa) who has dark secrets of her own. Their connection will prove to be a healing experience for them both. The title is based on the fact that the man has a pet eel to which he imparts his thoughts. A surrealistic comedy. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Palme d'Or Cannes, Venice Golden Lion. (Eisei Gekijo / Groove Corporation / Imamura Productions)


Kyua ("The Cure") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is a haunting police thriller about murder and mind control, and an odd hybrid of philosophy and horror. Could only have been made after the mind control mass murders of Aum Shinrikyo. A streak of seemingly serial murders (where a large X is carved in the body of the victims) is not what it seems, for as the investigating detective (Yakusho Koji) discovers, the murderers are unrelated. However, they all have met a mysterious young guy who asks people "who they are" and by hypnosis brings out their hidden murderous desires. In this very bleak account, nobody is spared from the virus, and even the detective (plagued by the mental illness of his wife, as in Shinoda's Okaeri) falls victim to it. (Daiei)

Bounce Ko Gals by Harada Masato is a film about enjo kosai or "compensated dating" (a euphemism for teenage prostitution), a big item in the mid-1990s, with the whole country worried over the moral of its youth (of course it was also played up by foreign media and the internet, where the more extreme aspects of Japanese society are usually misleadingly magnified). Enjo kosai was not motivated by poverty, but by the desire for luxury goods or just "belonging" by doing the same thing as one's friends - and it was made possible by the elderly men who paid big cash. In this brisk and witty film, with three charming heroines (and Yakusho Koji as a yakuza boss angry with the "amateurs" for impinging on his prerogative of managing the sex industry in his "territory"), Harada heavily criticizes the sexual attitudes and economic realities of a male-oriented society which fostered this trend, refusing to pass moral judgement on his female subjects. (Horipro / Panasonic Digital Contents / Shochiku)

Kuroi shitagi no onna: Raigyo ("Raigyo") by Zeze Takahisa. Zeze came from pink film production and this film somehow still straddles the fence with that genre. Based on a real crime: the murder of a man by a woman he met through a telephone dating service. Shocking because of the explosion of violence, when the woman in the "love hotel" room suddenly starts hacking her customer to pieces. Concentrates on the psychology of the woman who always dresses in black. Set in a very bleak landscape, where violence seems the only way out. Zeze Takahisa was the most prominent among four directors who came up in the early nineties in post-Roman Porno pink cinema, and who tried to transcend the exploitation format through experimentation and social criticism. (Kokuei / Shintoho)

Tokyo Yakyoku ("Tokyo Lullaby") by Ichikawa Jun is an account of the emotional dislocation caused by a failed love affair. Also shows the detrimental effect of these passions on family life. With Momoi Kaori, who won Best Actress from Kinema Junpo. Like the other Tokyo films by Ichikawa Jun (The Tokyo Siblings, 1994, and Tokyo Marigold, 2001), an elegant homage to both Ozu and the city in which Ichikawa grew up. (Kindai Eiga Kyokai / Shochiku)

Gokudo kuroshakai ("Rainy Dog") by Miike Takashi chronicles the last days of a Japanese gangster (Aikawa Sho) stranded in Taiwan. He must take work as a hired killer from a local crime boss as his money has run out; on top of that, suddenly a woman he knew in the past presents a son to him. When he goes on his rounds of killings, the boy just follows in his footsteps. One of Miike's most subtle films, with rounded characters. Filmed during endless cloud bursts in the Taiwan rainy season. Part 2 of the director's "Black Society Trilogy," three (unrelated) films focusing on Sino-Japanese relations. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) was about the pursuit of a Chinese gangster by a mixed-race cop, and Ley Lines (1999) about a group of young Chinese sucked into crime after they move to Tokyo. (Daiei / Excellent Film)

Onibi ("Onibi: The Fire Within") by Mochizuki Rokuro is the tale of an aging yakuza trying to go straight, an effort undermined by the revenge the woman he loves wants to take on the man who has exploited her. Mochizuki had learned the trade in pornography and straight-to-video before in the nineties making a number of tragic but realistic yakuza movies with intelligently depicted and believable characters. Won Best Director from Kinema Junpo in 1998. (GAGA)

Mononoke-hime ("Princess Mononoke") by Miyazaki Hayao is an ecological fantasy set in medieval Japan. A young warrior is stricken with a deadly curse when protecting his village from a rampaging boar-god. He travels to find a cure and gets embroiled in the war between Tatara, a mining colony led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi, and the forest gods, who want to save their forest from human depredation. On the side of the forest gods also fights a young woman called Princess Mononoke, who was raised by a wolf-god. Lady Eboshi uses guns against her enemies (firearms were introduced to Japan in the 13th century, but generally found little use). Miyazaki draws no simplistic line between good and evil, showing the complexity of making choices in real life: Lady Eboshi destroys the forest, but she also gives many people a better future; she has bought up contracts of prostitutes to set them free, and she employs lepers (a class of people discriminated against until late in the 20th c.) as the builders of her guns. Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. (Studio Ghibli / Dentsu / Nibariki / NTV)

1998
The Ring sets off the J-Horror boom.

The box office hit of the year is Bayside Shakedown: The Movie, a police procedural drama based on a popular TV series, made by TV Fuji and Toho. Shows the tendency of mainstream Japanese cinema to safely repeat proven successes. However, inflated television does not make great cinema.

Hana-Bi ("Fireworks") by Kitano Takeshi. A cop feels dreadful for having let down a buddy (who after being shot is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, which makes him suicidal) and also for neglecting his wife who is slowly dying of leukemia. Spiraling into depression, he leaves the police force and makes an ominous choice: he robs a bank and with the money starts touring around Japan with his sick wife. But there is no way out, and the ending is tragic. The road movie part of the film becomes a sort of michiyuki followed by the couple to their suicide. The colleague who ends up in a wheelchair is condemned to life, but finds some relief in painting (the colorful paintings used here were made by Kitano himself after suffering a scooter accident in 1994). Arguably Kitano's best film, his most consciously artistic work, and a sort of summing up of the films that went before. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival. (Office Kitano / Bandai Visual / TV Tokyo)


Wandafuru raifu ("After Life") by Koreeda Hirokazu shines a new light on matters of life and death. A film about the Other Side, but free from New Age ideas. The newly dead arrive in a sort of Limbo, where guides help them to pick a cherished memory they want to take with them into eternity (in Japanese, the film is titled "Wonderful Life"). They have three days to do this; at the end, a video of the selected memory is made. Koreeda uses documentary methods, working partly with amateurs whom he actually interviewed about their most cherished memory. He did the same with the professional actors playing in the film. An impressive, life-affirming film. (Engine Film / Sputnik Productions / TV Man Union)

Chugoku no Chojin ("Bird People in China") by Miike Takashi. A salaryman and a yakuza are both sent to a remote Chinese village to evaluate precious jade found there. When in the remote, paradisial area, they are sidetracked from their job by a mysterious rumor about people who are able to fly like birds, something which they start investigating... An interesting idea, but the execution remains rather thin. (Excellent Film / Sedic)

Kanzo sensei ("Doctor Akagi") by Imamura Shohei is set in WWII and tells the story of a country doctor (Emoto Akira) whose blanket diagnosis is always hepatitis, an illness he wages a one-man crusade against, earning him the nickname "Dr. Liver." His fervid campaign brings him the disfavor of the army, in the days that the war has turned against Japan. A former prostitute (Aso Kumiko) hooks up with him, but he is too busy to pay much attention to her. They happen to be out in a boat in the Inland Sea when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Dr Liver observes that the mushroom cloud looks exactly like "a hypertrophied liver." Based on a novel by Sakaguchi Ango. An interesting film of this great director that unfortunately has fallen a bit between the cracks. (Catherine Dussart Productions (CDP) / Comme des Cinémas / Imamura Productions)

Bullet Ballet by Tsukamoto Shinya is about an advertising executive (played by the director) who one day comes home to find that his longtime girlfriend has committed suicide with a gun. His life shattered by this death, the executive then develops in interest in guns. He finally joins a group of thugs who aimlessly wander around Tokyo beating up salarymen. Shot with a handheld camera in black and white. Continues the theme from Tokyo Fist. (Kaijyu Theater)


Ringu ("The Ring") by Nakata Hideo is the start of the J-Horror boom. A video tape with mysterious images on it kills those who watch it within seven days. When a TV journalist (Matsushima Nanako) investigates this (in a race against time because she has also watched the video!) together with her ex-husband (Sanada Hiroyuki), she discovers that the legend of Sadako, a child psychic who was killed by throwing her down a well, lies behind the video. The top grossing horror film ever at the domestic box office. Who can forget those final images when Sadako, her long black hair hanging before her white face like a curtain, glides out of the TV set? Set off the J-Horror boom, a torrent of terrors that included the Tomie films, The Grudge, and of course Ring sequels (and even a Hollywood remake, not to mention the Korean spin-off). (Omega Project / Imagica / Asmik Ace Entertainment) (See my post about Japanese Horror Movies)

Perfect Blue by Kon Satoshi is another psycho-horror film, but this time in anime format. A teen idol is suffocated by her own idol image and descends into insanity. A complex film with labyrinthine flashbacks and some strong adult content. A great debut by Kon Satoshi, who used to be a manga artist, and a new direction in anime. (Madhouse / Rex Entertainment)

1999
A, haru ("Wait and See") by Somai Shinji. A quiet and understated film about a successful salaryman, who has a beautiful wife and young son on whom he dotes. Everything in his life seems fine until one evening he is accosted by a disheveled man who claims to be his dead father. The dirty old man also invites himself to stay with the young family, a la Boudu Saved from Drowning by Jean Renoir. Then the financial company the protagonist works for is suddenly on the brink of bankruptcy. Both events severely lower the status the protagonist thought he possessed, and lead to a reexamination of his life. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year. Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival.


Gohatto ("Taboo") by Oshima Nagisa shows - like did his Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence - how obsession with love upsets strongly regimented organisations. The macho Shinsengumi army, at the end of the Edo period defending the shogun's lost cause, is joined by a beautiful seventeen-year old recruit (Matsuda Ryuhei) whose androgynous beauty generates so much passion that military order is upset. Love of boys was historically speaking quite normal among samurai (it was called wakashudo or nanshoku), although these men would also have wives and families. The title refers to the many rules a samurai had to obey, but ironically (at least, seen from a modern perspective) there was no taboo on nanshoku. This was Oshima's final film - a strange film, but also one with great charm and a rich blue-black color palette that wins from repeated viewings. Kitano Takeshi plays the recruit's captain. (Oshima Productions / Shochiku / Kadokawa Shoten)

Karisuma ("Charisma") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is an allegorical tale about a tree of that name. Yakusho Koji plays a detective who has bungled a hostage situation. While traveling to recuperate in an unnamed area, he comes upon a singular tree, about which the locals are engaged in a struggle with each other: some regard the tree as sacred and unique, others see it as a blight to the other trees in the forest which they claim it is poisoning, and a third group of greedy people wants to steal the tree. The detective finally has to make the clear choice he couldn't make in the hostage situation, when his wish to save both criminal and hostage led to disaster. Screened in the "Directors Fortnight" section of the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. (King Records / Nikkatsu / Tokyo Theatres K.K.)

Soseiji ("Gemini") is a rarity in Tsukamoto Shinya's work as it is an opulent historical film set in the Meiji period and (freely) based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo. It is the tale of a bourgeois doctor who during an epidemic refuses to treat slum people but who is then confronted by a vengeful twin brother who contests his comfortable life. The brother even imprisons the doctor in the dried up well in the garden. With lush colors and exaggerated make-up and costume design, this fantasy stands in stark contrast to the J-Horror films made in the same period. (Kaijyu Theater / Sedic / Marubeni)

Kikujiro no natsu ("Kikujiro") by Kitano Takeshi is a road movie about a loudmouthed drifter, a low level gangster, who escorts a boy to visit the mother he has never yet met. As she has remarried and obviously doesn't need him, the boy returns to his grandmother without speaking to her. Has been criticized for its mix of sentimentality and slapstick, and also for the flimsiness of its story - but the fact that Kitano is comfortable with long periods of inactivity, here and in other films, is exactly a distinctive element of his style. The relaxed rhythm is similar to that in A Scene at the Sea. And this is no kid's movie, as some of the jokes are "Kitano-esquely" cruel indeed. (Office Kitano / Bandai Visual / Nippon herald Films)

Odishon ("Audition") by Miike Takashi, based on a novel by Murakami Ryu, is a visceral shocker that created a big stir at the Rotterdam International Film festival in 2000. Starts as a romantic drama in which a middle-aged widower (Ishibashi Ryo), helped by a producer friend, holds a mock audition to find a new, young wife. He finds his ideal partner in Asami (a perfectly cast Shiina Eihi), a former ballet dancer who seems the ultimate, traditional-type of wife. But there is a whole world of fear and horror hidden behind her calm exterior, as the middle-aged lover will discover too late. The descent into a grotesque nightmare is so stomach-turning, that many in the audience in Rotterdam headed for the exit. And your view of Japanese women will never be the same again... (Basara Pictures / Creators Company Connection / Omega Project)

Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha ("Dead or Alive"), also by Miike Takashi, starts with such a fantastic ten minute intro rocking through criminal Shinjuku, that the rest of the film can only disappoint. It is the story of a gangster of Chinese descent (Takeuchi Riki), who wants to take over the Shinjuku underworld from Chinese and Japanese gangsters, and a cop (Aikawa Sho), who stands between him and complete domination. A very violent film, with rather graphic scenes. Unfortunately, the ending is just silly. Two unrelated sequels would follow in 2000 and 2002, making "Dead or Alive" a trilogy like "Black Society." (Daiei / Toei / Excellent Film)

Ame agaru ("After the Rain") is a period film based on the last script written by Kurosawa Akira and is directed by his former assistant director of 28 years, Koizumi Takashi. Travelers are trapped in a country inn due to bad weather, and as tensions rise among them, a ronin wants to cheer up everyone by arranging a great feast. The only problem is that he has no money, but there his prowess with the sword may help... A gentle film based on a story by Yamamoto Shugoro. Protagonist Terao Akira won the Japan Academy Award for Best Actor in 1999 and the film the Japan Academy Award for Best Film in 2000. (7 Films Cinéma / Asmik Ace Entertainment / Kurosawa Production Co.)

Poppoya ("Poppoya: Railroad Man") by Furuhata Yasuo is a typical vehicle for Takakura Ken, who plays his usual scarred and brooding elderly male. In this glossy melodrama he is a railroad man in Hokkaido, fully dedicated to his job (the poor workaholic has nothing else, his wife and daughter are dead), but nearing retirement ("poppoya" is a nickname for those railroad men who still have known steam engines). Then a young woman appears (idol Hirosue Ryoko, who can pull cute faces but hasn't learned how to act) who seems to be the ghost of his deceased daughter... A tearjerker strictly for Takakura fans (of which there are a great many in Japan). Won the Japan Academy Award for Best Film. (Toei)

Gekko no sasayaki ("Moonlight Whispers") by Shiota Akihiko is one of the many teenage romances that keep flooding Japanese cinema since the nineties, but with a twist: during kendo the boy discovers he likes to be hit by his girlfriend. When she notices his fetishistic and sadomasochistic urges, her first impulse is to send him packing, but then she realizes this also gives her power over her boyfriend... she even finds a perfect way of cruelly dominating him. (Viz Films)

Even at the end of the millennium, Japan remains under monster attack. Gamera 3; Jashin (Irisu) Kakusei ("Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris") by Kaneko Shusuke is a dynamic piece of monster mayhem (if you believe in stomping turtles), better than all previous Gamera films which were too childish, and also superior to most Toho fare - not for nothing Toho asked Kaneko to direct one of its next monster movies in 2001. (Daiei Studios / Hakuhodo / Nippon Shuppan Hanbai (Nippan) K.K.)

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]