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

September 1, 2015

Sake by Region Updates: Ibaraki and Tokyo

Two posts in the Sake by Region series which is under revision, have been updated and expanded and are available at: Ibaraki and Tokyo.

August 5, 2015

A History of Japanese Film By Year: Cinematic Bubble (2005-2009)

Here are some characteristic trends of the years 2005-2009: 

- An overproduction of films, a sort of cinematic bubble (of course also thanks to digital video, which has lowered the barrier to film making by significantly lowering the costs of equipment, also for editing). When more than 400 Japanese films are made in one year (on a total of more than 800 released in that same year), it is impossible they all find a public or even are brought out on DVD. Many are probably scrapped without finding viewers. After all, the cinema is no longer the sole way to spend one's free time as in the 1950s, on the contrary.

- An absolute dominance of anime, which now takes up at least 60% of film production (like pink films did in the 1970s and 1980s). Most of these are for under-twelves. 

- Dominance of manga as the source for films, not only anime, but also live action films. This is not necessarily beneficial, as manga are two-dimensional and lack the depth possible in novels.

- Just like elsewhere in the world, CGI (computer graphics) are often added to live feature films. It seems to be very addictive for directors and producers, so much so that many films suffer from an overuse of CGI. Basically, CGI can always be detected and looks unrealistic. I definitely prefer films without these cheap effects. 

Conservatism and risk aversity in choice of subject. Not only are these the years of the remake, even of such classical films as Kurosawa's Tsubaki Sanjuro (2007) or his Hidden Fortress (2008) - something which to me makes no sense at all as the easily available originals are a million times superior to their cheap rip-offs - a playing on safe attitude also speaks from the numerous films that are based on already popular manga, TV series and mass fiction bestsellers. 

- In the mainstream, a large number of nostalgic films is made, looking back to the "glorious" fifties or even the war, emphasizing the sense of community among the Japanese in those periods. 

- Also in the mainstream, there is a dominance of major TV stations in the sense that popular series are made into films for the cinema by the TV stations. These are often conventional mysteries or police procedurals; others are pure idol vehicles. 

- Previous indies directors (including all famous names as Miike, Tsukamoto, Sono, Hiroki, Koreeda and Kurosawa) who have made it also internationally, are accepted by a more mainstream public and start making films aimed at such a public. This often - although not always - leads to a decrease in artistic quality.

- The positive trend noted in my previous post of more women being active as directors continues. 

- Visitors at film festivals abroad seem to expect that Japanese films are violent and filled with gore and some directors unfortunately consciously cater to that preference. 

- Due to the collapse of the DVD market, it is difficult for new indies film makers to grow, as there is almost no market between their no budget first films and expensive mainstream films (as the straight-to-video market was in the 1990s). Foreign film festivals and, increasingly, foreign financing therefore are important. Happily, Japanese films remain popular at such festivals. 

- This year, there are 2,926 screens in Japan, of which 1,954 in cinema complexes. 356 Japanese films are produced (41.3 % of total). Admissions stand at 160,453,000.

The best film of the year is Yawarakai Seikatsu ("It's Only Talk") by Hiroki Ryuichi, starring Terajima Shinobu who already played the lead in the same director's Vibrator. It is the story of Yuko, a thirty-five year old, unemployed and mentally unstable urbanite. She suffers from regular bouts of deep depression. Her parents have died in an accident and she lives off the insurance money, spending her days writing a blog. When she discovers the decidedly unglamorous attraction of the Kamata area in Tokyo, she moves there, as it seems to fit her. She sometimes meets men (usually via her blog), but without forming any fixed ties. That is not very surprising, for one of them is a young yakuza who is also manic depressive (she shows him the park in Kamata where a Godzilla statue has been built of old tires), another is a former school pal who is now a politician but who suffers from erectile dysfunction, and a third a married pervert who wants to bring her to orgasm in public places. Then one day her cousin Shoichi (Toyokawa Etsushi) appears on her doorstep - he has left his family to be with his mistress, but has been dumped in his turn - looking for a place to stay the night, but when he sees the demons Yuko is fighting with (she just has an attack of depression when he is with her), he decides to stay and help her. Terashima Shinobu (the daughter of Hibotan Bakuto actress Fuji Junko) plays the greatest part of her career, with a fearless honesty, willing to appear damaged and flawed, completely open to the camera. Toyokawa Estushi is also excellent as the slightly behind-the-times country cousin in his leather jacket and driving an antique American convertible. Arguably the best film by Hiroki Ryuichi (who later in the decade would start making more commercial work), an intriguing insight into the mixed-up mind of present-day Japan and its drifting young generation, shot in a near documentary style. Also captures the old-fashioned charms of Kamata with a loving gaze.

Noriko no shokutaku ("Noriko's Dinner Table") by Sono Shion starts out as a family comedy about a busy father (Mitsuichi Ken), mother and two daughters, Noriko (Fukiishi Kazue) and Yuka (Yoshitaka Yuriko), with a communication problem based on intergenerational tension. The sisters are also bored with life in the dull town of Toyokawa. Noriko then runs away to Tokyo where via a chatroom on the web she has come into contact with the mysterious Kumiko (Tsugumi), who is later revealed as the figurehead of a shady cult that dismantles its members' "false" personalities. The sinister group is also responsible for the mass suicide from Sono's previous film Suicide Club. The cult hides behind the facade of a rent-a-family business, The Family Circle, where anyone can rent grandchildren for an afternoon visit or a wife for a walk in the park (we even see an instance of a man who wants to kill a cheating lover, and is allowed to really murder the role playing woman). The elaborate role playing of the cult members is made possible by the fact that their real personalities have been deconstructed. Later, the sister Yuka also runs away to join the same Family Circle, but as both have new identities, they are not "sisters" anymore. Finally, mayhem breaks out when the father - after the suicide of the mother - comes to Tokyo to find his daughters and claim them back, turning the film into a bloody psychological thriller. He has discovered what happened and uses the trick of renting a family to come into contact with them, but can role-playing really replace family ties? And are Noriko and Yuka still the same persons? Interesting film about identity and alienation, without the extreme splatter of Suicide Club.

Kimyo na circus ("Strange Circus"), also by Sono Shion, is a bizarre and hallucinatory film about incest, murder, suicide and switched identities, framed by Felliniesque theatrical scenes at a transvestite night club (which give the film its title). There is also a wheelchair bound woman, a writer, who may or may not have made up the first half of the film, and her unstable, androgynous assistant, who may be a transsexual. The line between reality and fantasy is crossed and recrossed and in the end the question remains: what is real and what not? With Miyazaki Masumi in a triple role as Sayuri / Mitsuko and the writer Taeko. An outrageous revival of the ero-guro tradition.

Tsuki to cherri ("Moon and Cherry") by Tanada Yuki is a bright comedy about a student called Tadokoro (Nagaoka Tasuku) who, to get extra credits, joins his university's most obscure extracurricular circle, the erotic writing club, led by a grumpy Emoto Akira. Here he is quickly picked up by the club's only female member, the spunky Mayama (Eguchi Noriko), who in a funny gender reversal uses the men around her for her own ends. She is already a successful writer of erotic stories and soon deflowers the shy virgin Tadakoro to get material for a new story. Next she also sends him to an SM dominatrix to write up his shocking experiences. Eguchi is a captivating presence, a strong, independent-minded woman. Tanada Yuki is one of the several women directors who came up at the start of the new millennium. (In fact, this film was brought out 25 Dec., 2004.)

Kanaria ("Canary") by Shiota Akihiko - the director of the 1999 Moonlight Whispers -  shows how deep the Aum Shinrikyo trauma has cut into Japanese society. Shiota highlights the most vulnerable group, the children of the cult members, and his film is set after the murderous attack and consequent disbanding of the cult (here called "Nirvana"). A mother had joined the cult with her son and daughter. After the disbanding of the cult, the mother who is a cadre member, flees, the twelve-year old Koichi (Ichida Hoshi) is taken into child welfare and his younger sister goes to live with their grandfather. But Koichi wants to be with his sister and breaks out of the welfare unit in the Kansai to travel to Tokyo. He soon meets Yuki (Tanimura Mitsuki), a girl desperate to flee from her abusive father, and the scarred youths decide to make the journey together. The film sometimes reminded me of Koreeda's Nobody Knows, another study about child abuse. The first half of the film is best, as a sort of road movie. In the second half we get flash backs to the misbehavior and cruelty of the cult, but also the harshness of the reaction of Japanese society: the grandfather is deemed guilty just because he is a family member and has been driven out of his house in Tokyo. The films ends on a note of hope as Koichi and Yuki develop a sort of familial bond and symbolically form a new family with Koichi's little sister.

Linda Linda Linda by Yamashita Nobuhiro is a film about high school girls who start their own band to take part in a school contest. The teenage girls have to learn to play their instruments from the bottom up and then practice a single song, "Linda Linda Linda" (from the real life 1980s band The Blue Hearts). Their lead singer is a Korean girl with only little Japanese, played by Bae Du-na (who would later become famous for her title role in Koreeda's Air Doll). Happily, there are no idols in the cast, and also for the rest this is a laid-back story, with no unwanted dramatizing of the proceedings. A laconic and pleasantly minimalist film.

Itsuka dokusho suru hi ("The Milkwoman," lit. "One day when reading books") by Ogata Akira is a poetical film about the unconsumed love between a 50-year old woman, who works as a milk woman and also as cashier in a supermarket, and her former school mate who has a position in Children's Affairs at the City Hall. He is married, but his wife is mortally ill, which is also the weakest point of the film, for it drags it down into sentimentality. The wife finally sends a letter to the "milk woman," asking her to marry her husband after her own death. Another less strong point is that several problems of contemporary Japan have been pulled in: problems of children abandoned by their parents and the problem of an aging population having to cope with senility. But the beautiful setting in Nagasaki with its hills and endless staircases makes much good. With Tanaka Yuko (who won Best Actress at the Yokohama Film Festival for this role) and Kishibe Ittoku.

Kuchu teien ("Hanging Garden") by Toyoda Toshiaki is a drama about a family (father, mother, daughter and son) living in Japan's soulless new apartment suburbia, whose members have decided they will hide nothing from each other and be strictly honest. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The mother (Koizumi Kyoko) is hiding her own violent youth - she even tried to kill her own mother (Imajuku Asami) - and the fact that she meticulously planned her present-day life by seducing her husband on a "fertile day." As his wife has to work to pay back the apartment loan, and is too tired at night for lovemaking, the husband (Itao Itsuji) seeks his pleasure with several mistresses. In fact, the family is like a hanging garden, without any stability. Things come to head at a birthday party for the tutor of the son, who is also the father's mistress, a catharsis which is also helped by the presence of the chain smoking grandmother. The love hotel where the daughter was conceived on the above mentioned "fertile day" also plays a role in the film, as it is visited by the father with a mistress, by the daughter who wants to see where she was conceived, by the son with his tutor, and by the grandmother who enjoys the big revolving bed. A satire that is both funny and chilling and deserves to be better known.

Ranpo jigoku ("Rampo Noir") is an omnibus movie based on four stories by the ever-popular Edogawa Ranpo. Asano Tadanobu plays in all four episodes, by four different directors, as Jissoji Akio and Sato Hisayasu. The film is rather arty and ponderous, with beautiful shots (especially in the second section "Mirror Hell" with all its mirrors) but lacks impact. The third story, "Caterpillar," was in 2010 remade as a full feature film by Wakamatsu Koji.

Pacchigi! ("Break Through!") by Izutsu Kazuyuki, although brought out in 2004, won the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 2006. That award is something I don't agree with: although the issue of ethnic Koreans living in Japan is an important one, Izutsu treats it even less serious than Yukisada Isao did in Go (2001): by dressing it up in cartoonish high school violence plus some Romeo and Julia romance. That may have been the only way to make the problem palatable to young film goers, but with all the over the top violence and manga-type faces the result is too artificial.

In his black comedy Takeshis', Kitano Takeshi examines the relationship between himself and his media generated public persona. He tells the story of Beat Takeshi, a prominent actor, driven around in a limousine, who meets his double named Kitano, a convenience store clerk with bleached hair who dreams of becoming an actor and is always humiliated when he goes to auditions. When their paths cross, however, the clerk starts hallucinating about becoming Beat. All the actors have double roles, with Kitano in several disguises. The film is rather a collection of loose gags, full of references to Kitano's other movies, which becomes tiresome after a while. Kitano unfortunately would continue doing the same thing in Glory to the Filmmaker (2007) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), two odd films which seem insider jokes for his own amusement. Fortunately, Kitano made several excellent films in the 1990s, for which he will be remembered in cinematic history.

Yokai Daisenso ("The Great Yokai War") by Miike Takashi is, like the same director's Zebraman (2004) and Yatterman (2009), basically a mainstream film for children (although some of the yokai-monsters are so frightening that the film is not suitable for those of a tender age). I don't like the CGI - the old-fashioned 1968 Yokai Hyaku Monogatari, a Daiei tokusatsu film, was more fun in that respect. But I appreciate that Miike pays homage to yokai manga artist Mizuki Shigeru by having him appear as demon king and by setting one scene in Sakaiminato, the Tottori town that has a Mizuki Shigeru Museum and a road decorated with sculptures made after his manga creations.

- This year, there are 3,062 screens in Japan, a number for the first time since 1970 higher than 3,000. With a production figure of 417 films, Japanese films have a higher proportion (53.2) than foreign films, something which would only grow stronger over the next years (in total, 821 films were released this year). But this number also points at a cinematic bubble, as many of these films never reach a wider public (or a public at all) or are never released on DVD. 

My favorite film of this year is Kamome shokudo ("Seagull Diner") by Ogigami Naoko, a quietly humorous drama filmed in Helsinki, where a Japanese woman (Kobayashi Satomi) tries to run a diner. She is joined by two other Japanese women stranded in Helsinki (Katagiri Hairi and Motai Masako). At first there are no customers at all, then a Fin comes who studies Japanese and has questions about Japanese culture, and finally more and more follow. The diner serves coffee and cinnamon rolls, but also onigiri, although these take some time to become popular among Fins (the diner doesn't want to cater to Japanese travelers, but aims at the locals). A subtle portrait of three independent women, succeeding in a foreign culture by patience and small daily efforts. The interaction with the Finnish people (played by Tarja Markus and Markku Peltola - known from the films of Aki Kaurismäki) is also very nicely done. Based on a novel by Mure Yoko.

Another excellent film by a woman director is Yureru ("Sway") by Nishikawa Miwa, a family drama formatted around a courtroom drama. When trendy Tokyo photographer Takeru (Odagiri Joe) visits the countrytown where his family lives, we notice various tensions between him and his father, his elder brother Minoru (who has remained at home; played by Kagawa Teruyuki) and his ex-girlfriend Chieko (Maki Yoko). The still unmarried Minoru harbors romantic feelings for Chieko - she works as an assistant in his gas station. Unfortunately, the family's black sheep Takeru is an irresponsible boy who not only consciously enrages his father, but also spends the night with the ex-girlfriend, thereby reviving Chieko's unrealistic hope of joining him in Tokyo, and damaging his brother's prospects. That brother, by the way, has his own problems, for he is fed-up with being treated as a "doormat" by everybody else. The next day, the two brothers and Chieko make an outing to the Hasumi Gorge, a place they often visited in their youth. When Minoru and Chieko are crossing the dangerously swaying suspension bridge over the gorge, Chieko falls to her death in the raging river below. Was there a quarrel and did Minoru push her off? Was Takeru a witness to the incident, and if so, will he be a reliable witness? Sway is a film about the chasm between social pressure and individualism, the countryside and Tokyo, family life and freelancing. But it also shows that the foundation of glitter, fashion and acting cool on which Takeru has built his life is innately unstable. Therefore, as many young people in Japan today, he is "swaying." Official selection for Cannes (the only Japanese film this year).

Strawberry Shortcakes by Yazaki Hitoshi is a a poignant look at loneliness in the socially fragmented big city, through the prism of the lives of four young women, filmed as a near documentary. The story is based on a popular manga by Nananan Kiriko, who writes for a public of adult females. The four self-sufficient women living in contemporary Tokyo are followed two by two and their lives run parallel through the whole film, with subtle interactions. We have cheerful Satoko (Ikewaki Chizuru) who works as a receptionist for a call girl service. Satoko has found a small black stone that fell from the sky and that she has christened "god." She mumbles prayers to the stone to let her find someone who will love her. The classy Akiyo (Nakamura Yuko) works at the above call girl service. She is so death-obsessed that she even sleeps in a coffin - it is fun to see the smoke of her morning cigarette rise up from the window in the lid. She diligently saves the money she earns with her often degrading work in order to buy a condo situated on the 5th floor or higher - so she can jump out and kill herself efficiently when she gets old and senile and can no longer manage on her own. The reclusive Toko (Iwase Toko aka manga author Nananan Kiriko herself) is a book illustrator who works obsessively to forget the recent separation from her husband. Toko represses past memories and suffers from severe bulimia - so realistically acted by Iwase that it is painful to watch. The cutesy Chihiro (Nakagoshi Noriko) is Toko's roommate. She is an office worker (OL) who loves shopping, fashion and makeup and dreams about the ideal boyfriend who will fulfill all her wishes - for her, such a boyfriend is "god." All these four women struggle with their loneliness and try to find a patch of warmth in the cold concrete of the vast city. The film is very authentic in its portrayal of these largely "normal" young women and presents their sometimes melancholy situation without getting sweet or melodramatic - on the contrary, all scenes are infused with a fine sense of humor.

Bushi no ichibun ("Love and Honor") by Yamada Yoji is the third film in the director's "samurai trilogy." While the second film had a bit of a wandering plot, this is again a tight story like the first one, and a great revisionist period film with social criticism. Rather than repeating the plot, I feel I have to say a few more general words in defense of Yamada Yoji who is often regarded in English criticism as a "journeyman contract director" who just did what the studio asked him to do. Well, on the contrary, Yamada Yoji is an auteur and not a contract director (as also pointed out by Alexander Jacoby) - the proof is in the fact that he writes all his own scenarios like Ozu and Kinoshita did, and that he does express his own ideas in his films. These are generally socially critical from a leftist point of view and carry on the tradition of the shoshimin eiga (also by being somewhat sentimental as other films in that tradition). I believe it was his own choice to make all the 48 Tora-san films, and not pressure from Shochiku, because these movies allowed him to express his own ideas. But in between he also made a number of excellent other films like Where Spring Comes Late and Home from the Sea. In fact, his ideology has not changed since he made Shitamachi no taiyo ("The Sun of Shitamachi (=downtown area)") in 1963, where the heroine decides to marry a steelworker rather than the office worker who is courting her. In that same tradition fit these three period films in which he deconstructs the heroic image of the samurai as presented in other movies, and shows them to be what they really were in the Edo period: (often underpaid) local government officials.

Akumu Tantei ("Nightmare Detective") by Tsukamoto Shinya is the director's contribution to J-Horror. The film starts from a good premise: a danger that manifests itself from dreams, but that seems to have no physical form, although later it takes on the shape of a killer played by Tsukamoto himself. The "Nightmare Detective" is a tormented, reclusive young man called Kagenuma (Matsuda Ryuhei, the "beautiful boy" from Gohatto), who dresses in a simple hooded cloak. He has the power to enter the dreams of other people, but this a painful process for him and he sees his gift as a curse. The heroine of the film is yuppie female cop Kirishima Keiko (pop star Hitomi in her first film role), who has just transferred to homicide. Her first two cases are the bizarre deaths of a punk girl and an obese salaryman, who have both slit their throats in apparent suicide while they were asleep. Kirishima realizes that the deaths may not be suicides at all, but her bored, elder partner Sekiya (Osugi Ren) disagrees. Kirishima notices that just before their deaths both victims received a call from somebody identified as "0" on their cellphone screens. "Zero" of course denotes emptiness and death. The parapsychological killer apparently does his grizzly work by entering the dreams of his victims. Kirishima enlists the support of the - first unwilling - Nightmare Detective. She decides to be bait herself and dials "0". And so a mad chase ensues through a terrible nightmare world...

Sakebi ("Retribution") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is a perfect film-noir that treads a fine line between thriller and horror. As always by Kurosawa, there is also a wider, philosophical context. The Japanese title of this film is Sakebi or "Scream" - in the most haunting moments of this dark film we see a woman in red who utters an incredible, ear-splitting wail... But the title Retribution fits just as well, as it suggests the film's underlying idea: we are all collectively guilty, both for things we did and for things we neglected to do, and will get our "retribution" when time is ripe. Retribution starts out like just another thriller, with a cop, Yoshioka (Yakusho Koji, a favorite actor of Kurosawa), investigating the murder of a woman on a plot of reclaimed wasteland. A woman in a vivid red dress lies murdered with her face down in a pool of water. In the pool Yoshioka finds a coat button that matches his, and later his fingerprints are discovered on the body. He also starts seeing a ghost in just such a red dress (played by Hazuki Riona). Is he himself the murderer? Also his partner in the investigation starts having doubts. In the end, in a final twist, Yoshioka learns a terrible secret about himself - no one can escape the misdeeds done in the past...

Sakuran by Ninagawa Mika, based on a popular manga by Anno Moyoco, tells how a little girl is sold into the harsh world of the Yoshiwara pleasure district and grows up to be an oiran, a top prostitute. Played by Tsuchiya Anna, rebellious Kiyoha stands out for breaking all rules, brazenly talking back, challenging authority, and even running away. She next grows into a beautiful but straight-talking courtesan with a quick temper, who is popular among the men who frequent the brothel. Finally she becomes a Yoshiwara star, the top-prostitute who can show off her beauty slowly parading in super-high geta through Yoshiwara with her retinue. Ninagawa Mika's background is photography and not only the costumes and sets, but also all colors in this film are fabulous. Ninagawa turns her back on convention by the utterly modern, over-the-top beauty of the flamboyant kimonos, the contemporary ikebana flower arrangements, and a rock soundtrack. There are also other great ideas, such as making the top part of the gate leading into Yoshiwara into a goldfish bowl, a most fitting symbol for the women inside.

Hana yori mo nao ("Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a revisionist period film in a humorous vein, that also contains a homage to Yamanaka Sadao's 1937 Humanity and Paper Balloons. Soza (Okada Junichi) has been mandated by his clan to track down and punish the murderer of his father (Asano Tadanobu). But Soza is a reluctant warrior, he is terrible with a sword and hates violence and revenge. He prefers being a teacher for the children of the slummy tenement building where he resides (in fact, close to where the man he seeks is staying) and develop a relation with a kind young widow there (Miyazawa Rie). Soza prefers friendship, peace and family to bushido, and Koreeda tells us that, instead of the message of revenge, a father should leave his son the gift of peace and happiness. Koreeda reinforces this theme by setting the film in the year after the seppuku of the Lord of Ako from the Chushingura tale, while the 47 ronin are in hiding (some in the same tenement as where Soza lives) and waiting their chance of revenge on Lord Kira, something the director clearly disapproves of.

M ("M: A Married Woman") by Hiroki Ryuichi is about a housewife, Satoko (Miwon), who, like a Japanese Belle de Jour, starts working as a prostitute by meeting strangers in motels. She seems an impeccable person, but in reality is oppressed by a strange Freudian guilt fantasy. She soon falls in the hands of a yakuza pimp (Taguchi Tomorowo) who starts blackmailing her. In the meantime, her husband (Omori Nao) gets suspicious when he sees what looks like her picture when browsing porn online. And, above all, a newspaper boy, Minoru (Kora Kengo), who has a mother fixation (he has obeyed Freud by killing his father) develops a crush on her and spies on her when she has her trysts. He finally wants to help her cut her ties with her yakuza. But the film is not a sensationalist, sleazy thriller, as Hiroki pays the necessary attention to character development and the ending is a pleasant surprise. M may stand for "Married," for "Minoru," but also considering all the violence that Satoko has to suffer from various men, for "Masochism" - and perhaps all three.

Taiyo no kizu ("Sun Scarred") by Miike Takashi is a restrained film (as far as Miike goes), but also a little known one which in fact shows the director in top form. A salaryman, Katayama (Aikawa Sho, interestingly cast against type), on his way home stumbles on a gang of teenage punks beating up an innocent man. When Katamaya breaks up the fight, the sinister, hooded and lollipop sucking teenager (Morimoto Satoshi) who leads the punks decides to revenge himself. He kidnaps and murders the small daughter of Katayama. Despite all this, the justice system sees Katayama as responsible for what happened and after just one year and a half the young murderer is released from prison. While fighting the obstruction from the justice system, Katayama tries to find out the murder's location in order to take revenge (in the meantime, his wife has committed suicide). And indeed, instead of starting a new life, the young killer is up to no good at all...

Another film Miike Takashi makes this year is 46-okunen no koi ("Big bang Love, Juvenile A"), an experimental movie featuring Matsuda Ryuhei and Ando Masanobu, about the bonds of love and murder between two male prisoners, filmed in the bare-bones style of Lars von Triers' Dogville. A surprising film, somewhat in the tradition of Izo.

Mamiya kyodai ("The Mamiya Borthers") by Morita Yoshimitsu (of The Family Game) is one of the best among the many Japanese quirky comedies about arrested development. Two otaku brothers live a contented bachelor life together, watching baseball and DVDs, playing Monopoly, collecting model trains, and eating gyoza. Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), the long and slim older brother, works at a beer plant and the short and fat younger brother, Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji), is a school janitor. Still, although they are decidedly uncool, they feel a wish to be accepted by others. But how? What about having a curry party and inviting some women, such as Tetsunobu's colleague, the shy teacher Yoriko (Tokiwa Takako) and the cute girl from the DVD rental shop, Naomi (Sawajiri Erika)? Will that work? By the way, well-known singer Nakajima Miyuki appears as the mama of the Mamiya brothers.

The darling of Japanese critics this year is feel-good film Hula Girls by Lee Sang-il, as it wins both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. After the Joban coal mines in southern Fukushima close in 1965, the town (now Iwaki) decides to fight the economic crisis by building a Hawaiian-themed tourist attraction with hot springs and hula dancers. Central to the film is the story of the young women drafted as entertainers for the new attraction, who have to overcome many (even violent) patriarchal objections when they start practicing with a professional dancer hired from Tokyo. The dance sequences are well done, but in the end this is a rather superficial and predictable film (Lee Sang-Il would make a come-back with the superior Akunin in 2010).

Kiraware Matsuko no Issho ("Memories of Matsuko") by Nakashima Tetsuya, with Nakatani Miki in the title role, received many accolades and certainly looks sleek (even too much so, the CGI gets awfully tiring)... but this story of a woman going down the drain because she picks the wrong men in her life, was too conservative and old-fashioned for me - and I disliked it all the more as this was presented in a funny light with a huge dose of sentimentality. I'm afraid the memories presented here are false.

Ojisan Tengoku ("Uncle's Paradise") by Imaoka Shinji is a modern pink film set in an ordinary, quiet fishing port. A young guy is visited by his mysterious uncle (pink film veteran Shimomoto Shiro), who has bad dreams and therefore tries to keep awake by imbibing endless vitamin drinks. But that makes him incredibly horny and he seduces all the women of the small town, signing his name on the naked bodies with a red felt pen. And that is only the beginning of the weirdness...

I only mention Shisei ("Shisei: The Tattooer") by Sato Hisayasu because it is part of a wave of remakes in this period of films based on stories by Tanizaki Junichiro, besides The Tattooer (Shisei) also Manji and Shunkisho. The Tattooer of course is the story of a tattoo artist who tattoos a spider on the back of a demure young woman, thereby changing her into a sadistic dominatrix. As pink director, Sato plays up the sexual side of the story, but he also concentrates on the tattooer: what is necessary to inspire an artist to his greatest creation? The remake by Zeze Takahisa in 2007 would focus on the woman and what the huge spider tattoo on her back does to her personality. Unfortunately, neither film is very good, and the best adaptations of these Tanizaki works date from the sixties, by for example Masumura Yasuzo.

Paprika, an animation film by Kon Satoshi, is based on a science-fiction novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka, and comparable in its high quality and mysterious atmosphere to the same director's Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. An instrument that allows therapists to enter their patients' dreams is stolen, and the fear is that it will be misused for criminal purposes. There is also the worry that it may have been an inside job. Only one person is able to retrieve the tool: Dr Chiba Atsuko, whose dream world avatar Paprika can jump from mind to mind... Unfortunately, this was Kon Satoshi's last feature film. He died in 2010 at the young age of 46.

The best film of the year is Mogari no mori ("The Mourning Forest") by Kawase Naomi, which won the Jury Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, although it was shamefully ignored by Japanese critics. Set in the fields and woods of Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, it is the story of a woman who becomes a caretaker at a home for the aged following the death of her child – and finds herself on a quest with a senile man still mourning the wife he lost 33 years ago. In the film, both try to come to terms with their bereavement. As usual, Kawase's style is close to documentary, avoiding melodramatic developments or complex plot, and opting for location shooting in the beautiful nature of Nara. The performances are partly by amateurs, and their improvisations give a raw edge to the film that is balanced by the director's ability to catch subtle nuances of behavior and capture the momentary.

("Glasses") by Ogigami Naoko is about Taeko (Kobayashi Satomi), a professor who comes to the tiny Okinawan island of Yoron to spend a vacation in a place where her mobile phone doesn't work. She is the only guest in a quirky hotel managed by the cheery Yuji (Mitsuishi Ken), located where there is literally nothing to do but sit still and think - called "twilighting" in the film. It takes some time before the busy professor can adjust to the slow life, and the same is probably true for the viewers of this film, which proceeds very slowly, with beautiful shots of seascapes and Ozu-like scenes of people just sitting still. Taeko meets Sakura (Motai Masako) and elderly woman who comes every spring to the hotel to make shaved ice flavored with syrup and azuki beans (kakigori) in a stand on the beach - but she asks no money. She has a Buddha-like smile and seems always content. That is not the case with Haruna (Ichikawa Mikako), a teacher at the local high school, who also hangs around at the hotel and the beach and is rather argumentative - but her questions help Taeko think about her life. Finally, Taeko is traced by a male student (Kase Ryo), but this doesn't lead to any of the expected dramatic scenes (although we must surmise that he is in love with her and that Taeko came all the way to Yoron so that he couldn't call her on her mobile phone ) - almost no information about the characters is provided, the viewer has to guess. Thanks to the offbeat humor this "slow life" film is never boring and like Taeko we slowly succumb to the local custom of "twilighting." By the way, as in Ogigami's previous Seagull Diner, there is again a lot of delicious food in this movie. P.S. As regards the title: all characters in the film wear glasses, and Taeko looses hers when she leaves after the first visit as a symbol of her adjustment to the slow life on the island.

Exte ("Exte: Hair Extensions) by Sono Shion and with Kuriyama Chiaki, Osugi Ren and Tsugumi. This film about "killer black hair" is a spoof on J-Horror and the tradition of ghostly females with long, black hair. A dead woman keeps sprouting hair and a goofy hair fetishist decides to make money out if it by selling "hair extensions" to a beauty shop (where Kuriyama Chiaki works as a walking shampoo ad). Being from a dead female with a deep grudge, the hair extensions start killing their wearers in interesting ways. Finally, the film enters cult territory when a sort of hairy womb appears to regenerate the protagonists. Some campy fun. After watching, you will feel as if your mouth is full of hair... (See my more detailed post about this film)

Sad Vacation by Aoyama Shinji is the story of Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) who earns his living by doing various odd, half-legal jobs. He has an emotional scar as his mother abandoned him as a child and his father committed suicide. But he is kind to a Chinese boy, an illegal immigrant, and also to the traumatized sister (Miyazaki Aoi from Eureka) of a friend who sits in jail. Then his life takes a big turn: he thinks he recognizes his mother (Ishida Eri)  in the wife of a transport company owner who is soliciting his help in running the company. Will this be his chance to take revenge and settle the score with his mother? Set in Kitakyushu.

Tenten ("Adrift in Tokyo") by Miki Satoshi is about impoverished student Fumiya (Odagiri Joe), who owes the loan sharks big money, and debt collector Fukuhara (Miura Tomokazu), who proposes to make a walking trip together from the western part of Tokyo to Kasumigaseki - in this way the student can earn the money he owes. In fact, Fukuhara tells he has killed his wife because she was unfaithful to him and is making a last trip through Tokyo before turning himself in. What follows is a road movie with quirky encounters along the way, basically just two men walking and talking. While talking, Fumiya gets the feeling that he was the man with whom Fukuhara's wife was in love...

Groping women on packed trains is such a social problem in Japan that most commuter trains now have "Women Only" cars and men accused of this crime are almost automatically deemed guilty. But what if such an accusation is false? That is the problem addressed in Soredemo boku wa yattenai ("I Just Didn't Do It") by Suo Masayuki, a realistic and relatively light-hearted courtroom drama with Kase Ryo as a salaryman unjustly accused of groping a teenage girl on a packed commuter train. Suo uses the case to criticize aspects of the Confucian Japanese justice system, but the result is a rather labored one-issue film without further depth, despite winning the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Maiko Haaaan!!! by Mizuta Nobuo is a manic comedy about a instant ramen factory worker (Abe Sadao) who is obsessed with Kyoto's maiko, apprentice geisha. He spends most of his time writing posts and taking pictures for his maiko website and is very happy when he is transferred to the company's Kyoto plant so that he can fully indulge in his passion. His obsession also means he is neglecting his girlfriend (Shibasaki Kou), but she has a good idea: she will try to become a maiko to win him back...

Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai wo misero ("Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers!") by Yoshida Daihachi. When the parents of the Funuke family die in an accident, the three siblings (suffering from arrested development) are in desperate straits, facing conflicts and bloody quarrels. The eldest sibling, Shinji (Nagase Masatoshi), lives in the parents’ home with his friendly mail order bride Machiko (Nagasaku Hiromi). The youngest, Kiyomi (Satsukawa Aimi), is a high-schooler who hopes to become a manga artist. They are joined by their sister from Tokyo, Sumika (Sato Eriko), who is trying to pursue an acting career. The result is mayhem.

Although not on the same level of his "Black Society" or "Dead or Alive" trilogies, Ryu ga gotoku ("Like a Dragon") is an action packed and entertaining yakuza flick where director Miike Takashi is on his home turf. We have the usual psychopathic gangster with an eye patch, carrying a golden baseball bat, and a fine Shinjuku atmosphere. The film is set during one, sweltering hot night, in which the city explodes into violence.

Sukiyaki Western Django, also by Miike Takashi, is a postmodern mix of a Western with a samurai film - not such a strange idea, as Japanese period drama was partly inspired by American Western, while Kurosawa in his turn inspired not only the serious Western (The Magnificent Seven) but also Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns. Miike has transplanted the medieval struggle between the Heike and the Taira to an American Western town, and both swords and guns serve as weapons. That the film does not really work is the fault of another idiosyncrasy: Miike has the Japanese actors speak phonetic (broken) English, which is so silly that it makes the film almost impossible to watch.

A third film this year by Miike Takashi, Crows Zero ("Crows: Episode Zero"), is based on a manga by Takahashi Hiroshi about high school gangs. The school is a stylish ruin, and the boys do nothing but fight for dominance - a bit like Toyoda Toshiaki's earlier Blue Spring. The ultra-violence is typically cartoonish and over the top, as are the various characters. This became one of Miike's most successful films in Japan, also because he cast hot young male stars with large female followings. Despite the black humor, in a two-dimensional film like this Miike has really sunk to becoming just another mainstream director.

Dainipponjin ("Big Man Japan") was written, played and directed by Matsumoto Hitoshi, in real life the "dim-witted" half of a highly popular "manzai" comic duo.  The film is a cross between a "mockumentary" and a riff on the giant monster genre - and the result is entertaining, although also somewhat tiresome. Matsumoto plays an elderly looser, living in a dirty wooden house, who however leads a double life as Great Defender of Japan against wacky, invading monsters - his fights are always shown on TV, but rather at midnight than prime time. Before these monster fights he connects to a power station to be blown up himself to gigantic size. The weirder the monster, the more serious Matsumoto Hitoshi, who never even smiles in the film and plays all the wackiness with a perfectly straight face.

The best film of the year is Aruitemo Aruitemo ("Still Walking") by Koreeda Hirokazu. A lyrical film about one day in the life of the Yokoyama family: the aged parents (the father a retired doctor, played by Harada Yoshio; the mother played by Kiri Kirin), who are visited for the death anniversary (meinichi) of the eldest son by their married daughter (played by You who also appeared in Nobody Knows) with husband and two children and their son (Abe Hiroshi), who has just married a widow (Natsukawa Yui) with her small son. Koreeda just shows us the family's domestic routines, the ordinary conversations, the visit to the graveyard, the family dinner, the kids playing around the house and garden, without any big dramatic moments, but through these small daily events the entire universe of the family life with its simmering tensions is gradually revealed. The elder brother died fifteen years ago when trying to save another boy from drowning. Not only is that boy now a fatty good-for-nothing (he is forced to make a brief visit on this special day), the father also secretly regrets that the elder brother died and not the second one. He had wanted one of his sons to take over his clinic, but the second son is an art restorer (and on top of that out of a job, something he hides from his parents). The parents also dislike the fact that he has married a widow who already has a child. The mother and sister are rather argumentative and are all the time talking in a smallish quarrelsome fashion (showing how much Japan has changed since Ozu, whose characters showed so much self-discipline!). The sister comes up and down on the same day by car, but the brother who can't afford a car yet, has to stay the night, very much against his wishes. As usual with Koreeda, the movie has been shot in a strong documentary style, as if we are eavesdropping on a real family and gradually learning their secrets. The performances are all very natural. A wonderful movie, of the kind that makes you exclaim "Good there is Japanese cinema!", and in my view Koreeda's best.

A close runner-up is Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, a realistic film (and not one of the director's horror movies, as most critics hasten to add) about a salaryman (Kagawa Teruyuki) who looses his job at a prominent company due to restructuring and joins the endless ranks of job seekers at Japan's labor office optimistically called "Hello Work." He spends his days in full suit and tie in a park, for he doesn't want to tell his wife (Koizumi Kyoko, the mother from Kuchu teien) about his loss of job and status. As a sort of compensation, he clings desperately and angrily to his patriarchal authority, forbidding one son who sees no future in Japan for himself to join (a non-existent foreign legion of) the American army, and the other, younger one, to have piano lessons (with a beautiful private teacher played by Igawa Haruka). As a result, the family starts disintegrating - the sons of course ignore him. But this is not just a film about a family tragedy leading to resolution and catharsis, Kurosawa shows us instead how the financial emergency is just a catalyst to reveal how lives and ties were damaged all along. The facade is destroyed, but that is a good thing as it allows the family members to make a new, more honest start. An excellent film about the agony induced by the Japanese economic crisis; only the sequence with an overacting Yakusho Koji as a desperate thief is weaker.

Zenzen daijobu ("Fine, Totally Fine") by Fujita Yosuke is one of those quietly quirky, but highly enjoyable Japanese films. It is a comedy about two unmarried friends with some sort of arrested development, one working as administrator in a hospital (Okada Yoshinori), the other (Arakawa Yoshiyoshi) as tree pruner in a park or helping out in his father's second-hand bookstore - he also has a dream of setting up the ultimate "house of horror" attraction. Both fall in love with a nerdy young woman (Kimura Yoshino) who is a walking disaster - she breaks expensive equipment in the hospital and has problems wrapping up pornographic magazines when she works in the bookstore, leading to great customer embarrassment. This is not slapstick, however, but a quiet comedy with lots of goofy ideas, perfect timing and excellent casting.

Ai no mukidashi ("Love Exposure") by Sono Shion is an absurdist story of epic length (clocking in at four hours) that mixes voyeurism, sexual perversion, religious cults, martial arts, humor and above all, romance. In fact it is a spoof of the ever popular youth film with its struggle towards sexual maturity. And as a postmodern statement it also references several other films, such as Sasori from the 1970s. The naive Yu (Nishijima Takahiro) is the son of a devout Catholic woman whose widowed husband next enters the priesthood. The pious mother also has installed a wish to marry a girl like the Virgin Mary in her son. But the father falls prey to a libidinous vixen (Watanabe Makiko) who seeks religion as a cover for her sexual urges. When she leaves the priest in the lurch after having seduced him, his own feeling of guilt makes him take it out on Yu, who has to confess non-existent sins on a daily basis. To have something bad to confess, Yu starts upskirt photography with a couple of friends (in fact, a serious social problem in Japan). Then, one day, when he happens to be in drag, he falls in love with Yoko (Mitsushima Hikari), his Virgin Mary, but unfortunately also a man-hating martial arts artist who prefers lesbianism. And then there is Koike (Ando Sakura), the female leader of a mysterious cult who seems enamored of both Yu and Yoko... The result is a blasphemous romp that would even have made Bunuel jealous.

Okuribihito ("Departures") by ex-pink film director Takita Yojiro becomes the first Japanese film to win an Oscar since 1955 - it also won both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. All these awards are unbelievable for what is just a sentimental, exploitative film made according to a typical feel-good and predictable Hollywood template. It is far inferior to above films as Still Walking, Tokyo Sonata, Fine, Totally Fine and Love Exposure. An unemployed cellist (Motoki Masahiro) takes a job preparing the dead for funerals (a job which today is rare even in the countryside, as this is nowadays usually done by the hospital). As working with dead bodies was seen as impure and therefore a job for Japan's lowest caste, his wife (Hirosue Ryoko) leaves him. However, she later comes back because she has discovered that she is pregnant for a Hollywood happy end.

Yamada Yoji's Kaabee ("Kabei - Our Mother") is a family drama based on the wartime memoir of Nogami Teruyo, Kurosawa Akira’s long time script supervisor. Yoshinaga Sayuri plays the title role of a mother who all alone has to take care of her two young daughters after her professor husband is arrested for "thought crime" one night in 1940. Filmed with restraint. Screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and also proved to be popular in Japan.

Yogisha X no kenshin ("Suspect X") by Nishitani Hiroshi is a solid suspense movie based on the eponymous popular novel by Higashino Keigo, which has also been translated into English (and also made into a TV series). Hanaoka Yasuko (Matsuyuki Yasuko) is in her home attacked by her ex-husband. When the brutal guy puts his hands on her daughter, both women strangle him. Neighbor Ishigami Tetsuya (Tsutsumi Shinichi), a reclusive math teacher, has heard the noise and helps the women get rid of the body. A day later the body of the dead man is found in a park, his clothes burned, his face bashed in. The young police woman Utsumi Kaoru (Shibasaki Koh) asks help from Tokyo University physicist professor Yukawa Manabu (Fukuyama Masaharu), alias detective Galileo, who sometimes assists the police in difficult cases. He is an old study mate of Ishigami and thinks Ishigami is a genius. Between both super brains a cat and mouse game starts...

Kuki ningyo ("Air Doll") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a Pygmalion-type story, about a sex doll that turns into a real woman. The inflatable plastic doll belongs to a middle-aged waiter, who has dressed it up in maid costume and also has endless conversations with it after he returns home at night. He apparently prefers the plastic doll to a real woman because she doesn't talk back or have her own ideas. But one morning (when the waiter is at work) the doll magically comes to life and starts walking around the neighborhood, an old part of Tokyo. She even gets a job, makes various friends, but above all, develops a mind of her own. She starts hating her sex slavery with the waiter and falls in love with a young guy. The living air doll is played by the perfectly cast Korean actress Bae Du-Na who brings much depth to her difficult role. A wonderful film, sophisticated and sensitive.

Dear Doctor by Nishikawa Miwa (known for Yureru) is about a doctor working at a small clinic in the countryside. He is a much-loved man (played by popular rakugo star Shofukutei Tsurube), especially because of the human care he gives to his patients, almost more like a priest than a doctor. That is in fact the problem: he is not really a doctor, as slowly becomes clear. The secret gets gradually out when a young intern shows up on his doorstep, and especially when an elderly widow (who is in fact dying from a serious disease but wants the "doctor" to keep quiet about it) is visited by her daughter who has really studied medicine. A quiet and low-keyed film that questions the model of modern medicine that is more based on business and technology than human care. A very humane story with subtle humor. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

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
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
[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.]

August 4, 2015

Sake Regions Update: Hokkaido and Tohoku

The posts about sake from Hokkaido and Tohoku are now all online in updated versions. Here is an overview:

The northern island of Hokkaido is known for its super-light and smooth sake. The climate is very cold in winter and in summer remains relatively cool, so sake matures more slowly. Brewers take in interesting ways advantage of their environment, for example by maturing sake in "ice caves."

North-eastern Japan or the Tohoku area is one of Japan's most interesting sake regions. The area is cold in winter, which causes a slower fermentation process. This in turn leads to a delicate, refined sake with a clean taste. There are of course also quite some regional differences within this large area:
  • Aomori: rather dry and fresh
  • Akita: somewhat sweetish due to the soft water 
  • Iwate: light and mild. Iwate is home to the largest brewers guild in Japan, the Nanbu Toji.
  • Yamagata: rather full-bodied
  • Miyagi: refined and quite dry sake
  • Fukushima: the Aizu region is rich and sweet, the Nakadori area is medium-dry and sturdy and the Hamadori area along the coast is dry.
Of course, modern breweries can freely select their own style and don't have to fit to the traditional style of their region, so this is just a very rough indication! 

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:

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.

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.

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). (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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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. (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.

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).

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.

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. (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.

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.

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...

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.

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.

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.

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.

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). (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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. (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.

A great and 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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).

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.

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
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
[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.]