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

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. 

2005
- 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.

2006
- 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.

2007
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.

Megane ("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.

2008
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...

2009
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
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.]