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July 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

2001
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.

2002
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.

2003
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 Ryuichi 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.

2004
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
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance
[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.]