Three minutes into A Man, you already know that Rie (Sakura Ando), who is minding her mother’s stationery shop in rural Miyazaki prefecture, will be dating the guy (Masataka Kubota) who walks into her shop one depressingly rainy afternoon. Rie is a single mom, having divorced her husband some years ago and she’s living with her young son and widowed mother. You can tell Rie doesn’t have much joy in her life. You can tell that this guy – Daisuke – has even less joy, even emotionally stunted. Of course, they hit it off. Then it’s three years later and Daisuke and Rie are married, with a new baby in their family. Life seems to be going incredibly well for them until Daisuke is killed in an accident. At the one-year memorial, his estranged older brother turns up from Gunma prefecture, clear across on the other side of Japan. Rie shows him Daisuke’s photo and he immediately says: “Who is that? That’s not Daisuke at all. That’s a completely different man.”
Memo: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own peril but stay if you want insightinto the greater themes of the book and movie.
An occurrence like this happens more often than you may think, even in a super-ordered and family-oriented society like Japan. According to the Metropolitan Police Agency, between 80,000 and 90,000 people disappear annually in Japan, and those are just the numbers based on reports filed by their families. Many of these missing persons end up as suicides or like Daisuke, goes off the radar to live a completely different life. Legally, if a person has gone missing for 7 years the spouses and families become eligible for their life insurance. This is why some people opt to disappear instead of committing suicide, the reasoning being that after seven years at least their families will get a substantial payout whereas most life insurance policies have a suicide clause.
The reasons for disappearing varies but in many cases, money is a key factor. Debt, bankruptcy or sheer poverty. In Japan, once a person slips up financially, the odds of resurfacing are dismally low. It’s often simpler to disappear, change your name and assume a new identity, which is what Daisuke seems to have done.
Based on the bestseller novel by Keiichiro Hirano and directed by Kei Ishikawa, A Man explores the world of identity scams, imposter syndrome and the ‘oyagacha phenomenon (the notion that one’s birth parents are like a box of chocolates; you just don’t know what you’re getting until it’s too late) that has become a reason and excuse for many of the ills of the Japanese existence. Failed in the university entrance exams? Failed in multiple relationships and can’t get married? Failed to land a high-paying job and now life is screwed? It all has do with oyagacha and how, if you don’t have the right lineage, you may as well give up and wallow in misery.
Daisuke suffers from oyagacha on turbo wheels. His past is revealed in tragic, harrowing increments by Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a lawyer whom Rie hired to look into her late husband’s past. Understandably, she wants to know the real identity of the man she married and loved for the past three years. Intriguingly, Rie’s mother and son, now a teenager, doesn’t oppose her in this quest to dredge up what is effectively a pile of dirty laundry. In real life if something like this got out in a rural area, Rie’s son will be bullied relentlessly at school and her mother will be forced to close down the family stationery store out of shame. Yes, it’s that bad.
But in A Man, her family is actually supportive of Rie and by implication, the lawyer Kido. This is because Hirano is an advocate of the ‘bunjin’ or the ‘dividual,’ as opposed to the individual. Every one of Hirano’s books have dealt with the ‘bunjin’ in one or another, as a way to survive in modern Japan. The idea is to have multiple personalities, each specific to dealing with people and situations in the outer world. Instead of being locked into a restricting and uncompromising ‘me,’ multiple personalities enables the person to become more relaxed and fluid in their approach to life. Hirano has argued that the ‘bunjin’ method could be the only means to escape from ‘oyagacha.’ And by constantly updating the many bunjin in your mental stable, you can finally tell fate, destiny and parents to go f#ck themselves.
After Kido’s investigations, it turns out that Daisuke was a young boxer named Makoto Hara. Hara was his mother’s maiden name. Makoto/Daisuke grew up in an orphanage because his mother abandoned him after his father was arrested for a triple murder and put on death row. If anyone had the right to complain about oyagacha, it was Makoto/Daisuke, for his upbringing was nothing short of a horror show. He got into boxing because he wanted to batter himself to the point of becoming unrecognizable. In one scene, Makoto weeps that he wants to tear off his face because it resembles his father’s visage.
The more Kido digs into Makoto/Daisuke’s past, the more dirt he shovels up about the thriving identity business where desperate people buy and sell their birth names as a means to escape their lives. Initially Kido is mildly repelled by the identity scam game before getting becoming inordinately fascinated. That’s because Kido himself is a victim in the ‘oyagacha’ game – he’s a third generation ‘Zainichi (Japanese Korean resident)’ – and likely to be reminded of his ancestry more often than he’d like to admit. His in-laws for example, have no qualms about making racist remarks right in his presence, then following up with “but you’re third generation so of course you’re practically one of us.”
The ending scene is both poignant and abrasive. Kido has finally put Makoto/Daisuke’s case to rest but in the process, discovers that his own reality has become skewed and uncomfortable, like a once-beloved jacket that no longer fits. The story however, doesn’t leave Kido stranded. Now that Kido knows the ins and outs of the identity scam game, he too, can choose to disappear and become a completely different someone else. Before the ending credits roll, we see that the temptation is already there.
“Intimate Stranger” will be screened with English subtitles at 6:50 pm on March 17, and at 4:15 pm on March 21 at Shibuya Eurospace. On March 21, there will be a post-screening talk with Jake Adelstein, the journalist and author of “Tokyo Vice.” https://www.cine.co.jp/shinmitunatanin/eng/
In Intimate Stranger a razor blade – the old fashioned kind that you see barbers wielding in movies, with an open blade that folds into a scabbard – makes a frequent appearance. So often in fact, that its significance shifts from symbolic to menacing, and the film starts to feel like a horror story. It’s pretty sharp, this blade, enough to slash open the face of a yakuza but with the right pressure, will leave a photogenic wound on a young man’s face. One of the questions that came up during the Q&A session after the screening of Intimate Stranger held at the FCCJ, was whether the writer/director Mayu Nakamura went around with a razor blade stashed in her bag. To which Nakamura replied breezily, in English: “I keep a razor blade in my heart.”
Intimate Stranger is about a woman with a missing son, who connects with a 17-year old boy during a mask-clad, pandemic stricken winter in Tokyo. The woman works in a high-end shops that sells baby clothes, and at night she trawls the Net in search of a son who, in his photo that sits on her desk, looks incredibly unhappy. The teenager whom she takes under her wing (though the story reveals the circumstances are far less benevolent) is missing a family who cares about him. They strike up a relationship of sorts, each enabling the other to be what they want: a devoted mother, an adored and adoring son. Only the older woman is aware that this charade has a payoff.
The woman is Megumi, and she’s Nakamura’s creation as well as a bit of her altar ego. Megumi has no qualms about keeping a razor blade on her person: she uses it as much for self-defense as a source of sensual pleasure. An attractive, fiftyish woman played by veteran Asuka Kurosawa, Megumi is first seen as a lonely single mother looking for 17-year old Shimpei, who one day left their little home and never returned. The young scammer she befriends is Yuji (Fuji Kamio) who shows up to claim the reward cash promised for ‘any information’ about Shimpei. Yuji is one of the runners for a phone scam operation but he’s not very good. His boss is abusive and violent and Yuji sticks around because he has nowhere else to go. When he meets Megumi, he cadges a cafe meal and 5000 yen in return for fabricated information. “I met your son in an Internet Cafe. We played some video games together, and then he left.” He’ll probably feed her enough lies to string her along, and at the right moment another runner will call her up, pretending to be Shimpei, and ask for money.
Megumi however, surprises Yuji by inviting him into her apartment “just until Shimpei comes home.” And Yuji can’t resist the prospect of home-cooked meals and a warm bed, plus a maternal figure who scolds him for throwing his dirty jockeys under the bed. She promptly picks them up, launders them, hangs them out to dry and irons them out. Megumi is a great launderer as well as cook, cleaner and knitter of baby clothes. She revels in doing what other women may consider domestic drudgery, with a repressed, almost secret joy. This trait may be particular to Japanese women – they grow up expecting and expected, to spend their adult lives running a household, bearing and raising children and receding into a hard shell of domesticity. After years of doing that, a kind of demon may take up residence in her mind. “I feel like I’m in a pressure cooker,” says Megumi at one point. “The pressure mounts and mounts and one day, I snap.”
Sparse and minimal on the surface, Intimate…ispacked with a roiling, murky weirdness Nakamura feels is unique to Japan. In one scene, Megumi airs her views to Yuji: “Did you know that phone scamming happens only in Japan? Grown men calling up their mothers and grandmothers for money and expecting to get it…this would be unthinkable in the West. Why does this society pamper their males so much?” And Yuji, who earlier had scammed an old woman out of 200,000 yen by pretending to be her Covid-infected grandson, has no answer.
Intimate…is Nakamura’s second fiction feature, since 2006 when she made her debut with “The Summer of Stickleback.” Nakamura is not your ordinary Japanese filmmaker, meaning, she didn’t apprentice (read: slave labor) under an older, established male director or work in Japan’s tradition-entrenched, labor intensive studio system. Nakamura got her filmmaking experience and eye for frame composition in London, first as an undergrad at the University of London’s film society, and later in the graduate program of NYU film school. She made her first film at the age of 18, “on a Super 8” and 2 years prior to that, had quit high school in Tokyo to enroll in a London boarding school. “My father was a poet and my mother was a journalist,” Nakamura told me in a separate, private interview. “They never said ‘no’ to my plans. I’ve always been independent and competitive and I hate to lose.” You could say Nakamura benefitted from this upbringing but she also made paid a hefty price to be the person she is today. Her parents were so wrapped up in work that they left their 6-year old daughter to live with her grandparents in Kyoto, where she subsequently spent the rest of her childhood. “Kyoto is heavily conservative. They don’t take kindly to outsiders and since I was from Tokyo and couldn’t speak the local dialect, I was bullied.” It was the kind of intense and destructive bullying designed to break her spirit – everyone in school ignored her totally and pretend she didn’t exist. “As a result, I became very strong,” laughed Nakamura adding that whatever hardships came her way, they couldn’t match what she suffered through in Kyoto.
As soon as she could, Nakamura got herself out of Japan and spent the next 14 years of her life abroad. She even got a green card in the US (“I won it in a lottery”) indicating that there could be a god out there who evens up past misfortunes with a destiny jackpot.
That god, in the scheme of Intimate Stranger, is definitely female. Nakamura, who had waited a decade to make Intimate…, says that after her years abroad, she was floored by many aspects of Japanese womanhood and felt the need to unleash her bewilderment and rage. “I had a very tough time getting funding. I was told by male investors that it was disgusting for an older woman to be in a semi-erotic relationship with a teenage boy. I am sure that they wouldn’t have said that if the genders were reversed. In Japan, women past 30 are no longer women, they’re expected to become mothers and morph into asexual beings.” Megumi, for all her allure, clings to her identity as a mother. The apartment she shares with Yuji is a metaphor for her uterus, explained Nakamura, which account’s for the feeling of deep security, coupled with unbearable claustrophobia. They say that few people ever survive their mothers but my guess is that even fewer women survive the experience of being a mother.
Matrix Resurrections opened on December 17 (Friday) in Tokyo. I went to the 9:20 am showing, giving up the chance to watch the 4D version, which is dubbed into Japanese. It’s a rare thing to see a US movie first in Japan. And that is the only justification I can find for posting a review here, on this Japan centered-blog.
If you loved The Matrix but the original Matrix trilogy left you feeling vaguely unsatisfied and lacking closure, then Matrix Resurrections is just the cure. It’s not a reboot of the series, but a sequel with loving homage to the original. “The Resurrections” in the title is a big hint.
Neo is not dead but still somehow alive in a new configuration of the Matrix, once again as Thomas A. Anderson. Except this time, he’s a legendary computer game designer, whose claim to fame is having created the sprawling, highly interactive game, The Matrix, which made a generation of humans question their own reality.
Yet, Anderson is plagued by visions of a past that he never had and imagines he is not in the real world but a construct, much like the game he designed. His benevolent psychotherapist tries to keep the suicidal Anderson on the straight and narrow path, with compassion, understanding and a ceaseless prescription of blue pills.
Maybe those blue pills are also jumbo Viagra. Thomas Anderson seems perpetually depressed, like John Wick, after his wife died and a Russian gangster killed his dog. He also has the same shabby facial hair as John Wick, except Anderson is not a ninja assassin. A woman who may have been the model for Trinity in his game frequents the same coffee shop close to his office, but she seems more like a motorcycle riding soccer Mom, or computer geek idea of a MILF, than a world saving heroine.
From the very start of the film, we know that Anderson is not crazy. Anderson/Neo has not been forgotten. In a dark corner of the video game world he designed, someone or something is trying to free him—or so he believes. He’s not incorrect.
Of course, Agent Smith is also not dead, but he’s not the same program he was before.
The gradual reappearance of heroes, heroines, and villains from the previous films is handled with grace, wit and subtle foreshadowing. The Oracle and The Architect are conspicuously absent. Morpheus also returns but not the way you remember him. The movie is well-written with delicious doses of dark humor and wonderfully choreographed action sequences.
One the best action sequences takes place on a Shinkansen in Japan. However, despite being set on a bullet-train there is no slow-motion “bullet-time” action on the train.
BTW, there is only a smattering of the “bullet-time” effects that made the first film so ground-breaking, but for good reasons. It’s two and a half hours of B+ grade sci-fi suspense with an ending that won’t leave you wishing you were dead. It did make me hope they don’t do another sequel.
It’s a fine open-ended conclusion. Let’s leave it at that.
Yes, it’s a love story, as every reviewer will tell you, but specifically about “the power of love” (pun intended). It’s also a story about making hard choices when the path of least resistance seems the most comfortable.
Open your mind, lower your expectations, and you’ll find the trip back to the Matrix a worthwhile journey.
Editor note: Japan had two different military programs working on developing an atomic bomb. The movie reviewed here only discusses one of the programs. Japan’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons was much more successful than imagined, click here and read What If Japan Had the Atomic Bomb First? For more details.
Review by Kaori Shoji
“Gift of Fire (Japanese original title: Taiyo no Ko)” proffers an unsettling view from an old and familiar window. Directed by Hiroshi Kurosaki, the gist of this story set in the summer of 1945, is this: just weeks before Japan’s surrender in WWII, a team of graduate students at Kyoto University were hard at work on the creation of a nuclear bomb. While this piece of information may not be news to many western historians, the majority of the Japanese are bound to feel baffled. For generations, the Japanese were conditioned – by our elders, by the media, by the education system and history itself, to feel that we were the victims of a war that very few in the populace ever wanted to fight. And now a Japanese movie is saying we could have been the perpetrators of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack? That’s an incredibly heavy load to process, and still more to confront.
After all, Japan had banked the struggle of the postwar years and the rapid growth era that followed it, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horrors that happened on August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima and then, a mere 72 hours later in Nagasaki, were recounted through generations and revived in the media more times than anyone could count. It was a legacy of suffering, a collective mantle of unspeakable sadness under which the Japanese toiled and labored for decades to come. At the same time, the two bombs exonerated the Japanese from having to explain and face up to wartime atrocities – the crimes committed in Korea, China, Singapore and pretty much the entire Asian Pacific Rim. Call it the a-bomb card, pulled out when the Koreans or Chinese got noisy about acknowledgement and reparations for war crimes. And whenever the Japanese people protested against the econo-centric measures of the government that irredeemably polluted oceans and mountains and quashed the livelihoods of millions of traditional workers. For seventy plus years, the a-bomb card served Japanese politicians, their politics and the national conscience. We suffered enough, now leave us alone.
But “Gift of Fire” says it may be about time to turn in that card.
The Kyoto University lab was under close scrutiny by the Imperial Army and the scientists were pressed for results. If and when they succeeded in splitting the atom, the plan was to drop the bomb on San Francisco. The students were plagued by doubts and filled with anxiety, and who can blame them. Nightly air raids, frequent power outages and utter lack of resources prevented their experiments from moving forward when all the while, they were listening to American news on a hand-crafted short wave radio. The Americans were closing in on the Japanese Imperial Army though the propaganda reports from the frontlines said otherwise. “Should we even be doing this, in the comfort of a laboratory? Shouldn’t we be fighting and giving our lives to this country?” says one anguished student, who eventually quits the project to enlist in the Imperial Army.
The truth was, the Kyoto University team lacked everything to build anything, let alone a weapon of mass destruction. Still, they forge on, fueled by a blind hope that an atomic bomb will change the course of the war or even end it. Besides, says Professor Arakatsu, the helmer of the project: “if we don’t build it the Americans will. And if the Americans don’t get there first the Soviets will. Why do you think this war started in the first place? It’s because the world is in a race to procure energy resources. Whoever gets control of the energy, gains control over the world.”
By saying that, Arakatsu has shifted the concept of war from ideology and nationalism to science and technology. Fittingly, “Gift of Fire” is mostly devoid of sentiment and righteousness, preferring instead to sanctify the scientist and all that he stands for. In Arakatsu’s laboratory, scientific advancement is a religion, and the god at the altar is Albert Einstein. The highest prayer of course, is E=mc2. The film marks the first time a Japanese film has addressed the atomic bomb from a scientific standpoint, and bringing in an American voice to the proceedings. Kurosaki persuaded Peter Stormare to appear in a voice-only role that defends, honors and ultimately glorifies the scientific mission.
Perhaps that voice belongs to Shu (Yuya Yagira) who is the most committed member in Arakatsu’s lab. Shu is responsible for procuring the much-needed uranium for their experiments, and turns to a local potter for his meager supply. The potter used to make beautiful things, but now he only makes funeral urns. “A lot of people dying,” says the potter matter-of-factly to Shu, pointing to the rows and rows of small white urns turned out in his kiln that day. Shu can only nod, bow and make his exit with the uranium powder stashed in his rucksack. Shu knows that Japan will hurtle toward a terrible defeat unless they can build the bomb before the Americans. At the same time he knows their chances of making that happen are practically zilch. Yet the thought of giving up never crosses his mind. A stubborn work-ethic and an obsessive regard for science dictates Shu’s actions and his MO, like the rest of his team, is to ‘ganbaru (do the best they can)’ until they drop.
Director/writer Hiroshi Kurosaki is a seasoned television director, best known for his work on the NHK morning drama series “Hiyokko, (2017)” which means ‘youngster.’ Kurosaki has a flair for portraying youth and innocence under duress. “Hiyokko” was set in the post war years, with a young female protagonist (Kasumi Arimura) searching for her missing father in Tokyo. Arimura teams up with Kurosaki again for “Gift of Fire” as she plays Setsu, who is Shu’s possible love interest. Setsu, perhaps as a nod to our times, is not the typical docile young woman of wartime Japan. In one scene she lectures Shu and his brother Hiroyuki (played by the late Haruma Miura who committed suicide last summer. The film marks his final screen appearance) about their tunnel vision, exhorting them to look beyond the war and envision a future without violence. In the post-screening press conference Kurosaki said: “I wanted to portray what a young woman must have felt in the final days before the surrender. She’s young and has an intense desire to live and experience life, but death is always there.”
“Gift of Fire” is not without redemption. What permeates the otherwise dark and spartan narrative is the sheer innocence of the characters, especially Shu and Hiroyuki. In their separate ways, the brothers seek closure to a war that had come to define their identifites – Shu by creating the atomic bomb, and Hiroyuki by flying a plane right into an American warship. Defeat may be imminent but neither of them are about to surrender peacefully. “They made mistakes, they’re not heroes,” said Kurosaki. “They are ordinary young men, blundering on and doing the best they can.” Sadly that’s never enough to right a ship gone horribly awry. END
TOKYO – November 6, 2020 The award-winning independent motion picture STAYby filmmaker Darryl Wharton-Rigby will screen at the Legacy Foundation Japan’s Legacy Lounge on Sunday, November 8 at 6pm prior to its November 17 release on Amazon Japan.
“I am excited to that STAY will finally be seen by audiences in Japan,” said Wharton-Rigby. “When I started filmmaking, I never imagined I would make a film in Japan. From Baltimore to Tokyo – What an incredible journey.”
STAY “a touching romance” follows the story of a couple who fall passionately in love over a weekend; Ryuu, a Japanese man who is a recovering addict, and Hope, an American enjoying her last days in Japan. The film features emerging Japanese star, Shogen and introduces British model/actress, Ana Tanaka.
Lensed by photographer Jeremy Goldberg and a score by Himaness, STAY, Wharton-Rigby’s second feature film, was shot on the Tokyo streets in 15 days, guerrilla style, a technique the filmmaker has used throughout his career.
“We have believed in this film and are excited to come home to Japan,” says Executive Producer, Christopher Rathbone. “Given the global festival acceptance and the awards won, STAY has been a real crowd pleaser. Audiences really like this film.”
“Shooting STAY in Tokyo on the BlackMagic Pocket Camera made us virtually invisible and allowed us to capture the city up close and personal. We shot on train platforms and trains, Tsukiji Fish Market, ramen shops… Everywhere,” explains Writer/Director Darryl Wharton-Rigby. Every day was something new and challenging. We were constantly on edge. I really wanted STAYto show Tokyo in a real and natural way.”
The Legacy Foundation Japan Legacy Lounge is located on the 9thfloor of 2-chōme-8 Azabujūban, Minato City, Tokyo 106-0045, which is above Soul Food House..
The Japanese have never been known for being warm, affectionate or touchy-feely but now it seems like everyone has wedged a hefty distance between themselves and other human beings. On TV, commentators are comparing COVID-19 to the AIDS scare of 30 years ago in the way it discourages people from physical contact, much less the exchange of body fluids. What a bummer. From casual hugs to love hotel trysts, direct contact just isn’t happening anymore and it’s taking a toll on our emotional well-being. Which is why you need to get to the theater this weekend to see Hatsukoi (First Love), if only as a reminder that even in this time of virus infestation, love can thrive – in a manner of speaking.
Hatsukoi is filmmaker Takashii Miike’s latest, and the cute title is a foil for the utterly sinister events that unfold on screen. This stands to reason – Takashi Miike has built his own cinematic kingdom on the foundations on gore and violence for the last 35 years. Why would he stop now? At the press conference given at the FCCJ earlier this week, Miike joked that he came up with the title in the hopes that people will be lured to theaters, thinking Hatsukoi is a “genuine love story.” If so, they are in for a rude awakening. Hatsukoi is less about the 59-year old Miike mellowing in his advancing years than Miike confirming he still has what it takes to go full throttle on his triple fortes of murder, mayhem and decapitation.
Having said that, Hatsukoi shows Miike in an uncharacteristically romantic mood, even occasionally favoring the love story factor over the blood-spewing brutality thing. As a result, Hatsukoi is much more palatable than Ichi the Killer: Miike’s 2001 landmark project that put his name on the Hollywood map. Both works share significant similarities – they’s set in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, where a yakuza turf war is raging. Both feature double crossing yakuza going at each other’s throats. And in both movies, the lead role is a sad underdog who never had a break in his life. In Hatsukoi, this is Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), a boxer whose day job is a busboy at a Chinese diner. Leo had been abandoned by his parents at birth and since then, he’s been licking the bottom of a very rotten barrel. That’s about to change however, when he meets a girl on the streets of Kabukicho – hence, the titular first love.
Interestingly, Hatsukoi’s present day Kabukicho is a different town from when Ichi had stomped its streets. The yakuza have gone corporate and their street cred is way down, which means they must look for ways to co-exist with the Chinese gangster groups that have infiltrated Shinjuku. But old-school clan boss Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) would rather just go to war and kill them all. This doesn’t sit well with Gondo’s young underling Kase (Shota Sometani), who is weary of the clan’s outdated notions of yakuzahood. He’s looking for a fast exit, but not before he lines his pockets with the clan’s meth supply. Crooked cop Otomo (Nao Otomo) is looking for a cut in Kase’s profits, plus a free sex session with the clan’s whore Monica (Sakurako Konishi), forced to turn tricks to pay back her father’s debt. Monica is the focal point of the story as well as the eye of the clan wars shit storm, and in the process she inspires Leo to dream of a future with at least a semblance of personal happiness. They fall for each other, and you can see they’re very careful not to muck it up with anything sexual just yet – it’s the first time either of them have ever been in love. The big surprise, coming from Miike, is that Hatsukoi is also about female empowerment. Leo and the other males in the cast may be compelling but they never get off the rails of Japanese machismo and as such, very predictable. The women characters on the other hand, are definitely not the familiar cut-out victims from a typical yakuza movie (take your pick between willing sex kitten or giving mother martyr). First, there’s Becky as Juli, a hard as nails yakuza moll who supervises Monica. When her boyfriend Yasu (Takahiro Miura) – the clan’s accountant – turns up dead, Juli morphs into a raging, screaming avenger with a tremendous blood thirst. She won’t stop until she hunts down Yasu’s murderer, even if that precludes her own, violent death. And Monica, who starts out as the stereotypical victim – sexually abused by her father, then sold into slavery to repay his debts – matures into a person with her own agenda under Leo’s tutelage. In the end, she even gives the ole patriarchy a good, hard kick in the teeth.
The flesh tearing, head-rolling bloodscapades of Takashi Miike is alive and well. But dig a little under the surface and you’ll see that maybe the filmmaker has changed, just as his beloved Kabukicho has altered beyond recognition. Far from the nonsensical blood-drenched antics of Ichi, it’s now a town where two young people can meet, fall in love and hold hands even as the world bleeds and falls apart around them. Under the current circumstances of virus angst, this particular love story is probably as good as it gets.
Let’s not call this an illustrious year for Japanese movies – a big chunk of my retina hopes never to witness another syrupy love story starring Sota Fukushi ever again. Or Ryo Yoshizawa or Ryota Katayose or any one of a platoon of mid to late 20s Japanese actors who spend most of their working hours wearing high school uniforms, pouting or playing some dreary team sport for the benefit of starry-eyed, female co-stars. If for some reason you wind up in cinema hell in the afterlife, try to strike a deal with the devil and avoid seeing Gozen Reijini Kisu Shini Kite (Come Kiss Me At Midnight). It’s being touted as the blockbuster love story to close 2019, but works more like a corrosive sugar crash that bodes ill for 2020.
That said, there were some gems to be found among the pebbles, though none of them managed to command a fraction of the public’s attention during the Rugby World Cup games. Sadly for Japanese cinema, the tournament just torpedoed every other means of entertainment, leaving movie buffs blinking and coughing in the dust as we tried to remember the titles that made the year memorable. The ones that made it into the membranes of our brains however, were courageous, socially aware and unafraid to step on more than a few toes. Perhaps, as all the pundits are pointing out, Netflix’s original content blew a hole in the Japanese film industry and made things a lot more liberal. Or libertine, as the case may be. For more details, read on for the best films of 2019 – in no particular order.
1) 全裸監督 (Zenra Kantoku) – The Naked Director
This edgy, bold and often hilarious biopic of AV (adult video) director Toru Muranishi was brought to us via the heroic efforts of Netflix Japan, a three-man writing team and the sheer gutsiness of actor Takayuki Yamada in the titular role.
Muranishi was dubbed “the emperor of AV” during the 1980s when the adult video was all shiny and new and proffered the cheapest ticket to titillation in the privacy of your own six mat tatami room. Muranishi churned out titles by the dozens and to save on labor costs, he played his own leading man and had intercourse with the actresses as he filmed them. Which is you know, busy, considering that back in the day, cameras were non-digital and very heavy. He is also credited for ‘discovering’ the talents of rich-girl Kaori Kuroki (played here by Misato Morita) who initially consented to work with Muranishi as a way of rebelling against her parents. Unflaggingly energetic and completely unapologetic, Muranishi embodied the perverted but enduring Japanese male fantasy: that groping and raping a pretty woman is actually a nice way to start a relationship with her. Currently, Muranishi works as a TV commentator and still has a lot to say about sex and women, most of which are unfit for the ears of sane folk.
2) 天気の子 (Tenkino Ko) – Weathering With You
Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (of Your Name fame) came out with what was arguably the only really memorable film of 2019 with Tenki no Ko (International Title: Weathering With You. (Mild Spoiler Alert) A semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, the ending of Weathering With You instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question, in a nutshell, is this: Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good? In the story, a teenage boy is intent on rescuing the girl of his dreams, but the cost of his choice is non-stop rain that submerges most of Tokyo in water.
Up until Weathering With You, Japanese anime characters had consistently sacrificed their romantic inclinations for the benefit of family or society – most notably in the films by Hayako Miyazaki. Boy and girl would get to meet but they rarely ever got together, as there were much bigger things at stake. But in Weathering… the boy chooses to be with the girl, even though this meant they and everyone else will be drenched in rain for years to come. Weathering...features gorgeous artwork combined with the latest in anime technology and may alter your whole perspective on weather and how it affects the soul.
3) 新聞記者 (Shinbun Kisha) – The Journalist
It was a bad year for journalists. Or more to the point, it was the year that Noriyuki Yamaguchi, formerly of the TBS news department, gave journalists a bad name by raping fellow journalist Shiori Ito three years ago, and when he was deemed guilty in court, held a press conference in December to say that she was a big liar. No wonder Japan slid back to 121st place (out of 144 countries) in gender equality – this is lower even, than UAE and China.
But I digress. The journalism profession and women journalists in particular, got a redemptive respite with the opening of The Journalist. Based on the bestselling autobiography by Tokyo Shinbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalistis a suspense thriller about how the titular protagonist (played here by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung) dares to go after the government to unveil conspiracy cover-ups with zero support from her status-quo loving male colleagues. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat (Tori Matsuzaka) from ‘Naicho,’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident. The whole package is gripping, revelatory and entertaining, but it’s a shame director Michihito Fujii couldn’t get a Japanese actress to play the lead. Apparently, no one was willing to risk being seen as anti-Abe.
4) 七つの会議 (Nanatsuno Kaigi) – Seven Conferences
They say Japanese corporate meetings are getting longer by the year, mainly because they’re run by fifty-somethings who feel intimidated by millennials and need to show the young whippersnappers who’s in charge. I know people who went into a morning meeting to reemerge 5 hours later, then having missed their lunch hour, go into another meeting that lasted all afternoon. It’s only after 5 that their real work day begins, and it’s midnight before they can go home. Seven Conferences shows just how this schedule works and paints a precise if unflattering, portrait of a large Japanese manufacturer. From scene one, it has you fidgeting with painful discomfort and/or traumatic workplace flashbacks. Based on the same titled novel by Jun Ikeido (master of drawing dysfunctions in the Japanese corporate world) Seven Conferences is thought provoking without getting preachy, in spite of the frequent allusions to power harassment and ‘karoshi/過労死 (death from overwork).’ The movie opened before the Work Style Reforms kicked in, and the experience may be a bit like watching a dinosaur (the big, cumbersome Japanese electronics company) kick and struggle before dying, giving into a new age where putting in insane hours isn’t a guarantee for anything.
Editor note: The so-called Work Style Reforms set a cap at overtimes hours of 100 per month, 20 more than what the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare considered the danger line for death by overwork. Flaws in the law make it possible for people to be made to work even longer hours.
5) 人間失格 (Ningen Shikkaku) – No Longer Human Novelist Osamu Dazai really had his moment in 2019. No Longer Human – a fictional biopic of Dazai’s last days in which he consorted with two mistresses while keeping his wife and children firmly on the sidelines – pushed his name back into the Japanese consciousness. Dazai died in 1948 at age of 38, in a double suicide with one of his lovers. His last work Ningen Shikkaku, was published posthumously, and this movie suggests he was collecting material for his next book with excessive drug-taking and philandering, and wound up pushing his luck a little too far. Filmmaker Mika Ninagawa is behind this bittersweet eye-candy of a movie, painting in bold strokes the desperation and addiction that defined Dazai’s (played by an excellent Shun Oguri) personality. Dazai also understood women in a way that no Japanese author has ever quite grasped (looking at you, Haruki Murakami) and the movie comes off as a deeply respectful tribute to that insight.
If you missed last year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters here’s another opportunity to see filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda in action. Kore-eda’s latest is Shinjitsu (international title: The Truth),which marks a celebratory first foray into working with an international cast and staff. And what a cast: the leads are French femme fatale extraordinaire(s) Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, joined by American indies icon Ethan Hawke.
Don’t let the Kanji character title fool you – nothing about “Shinjitsu is even remotely Japanese. To my relief and Kore-eda’s credit, he’s not pandering to western ideas of ‘Japanese-ness’ here, Not even a mention of a sushi restaurant. And he never shows signs that he’s a bit awed by the exalted figures walking around on his set. He simply goes about doing what he does best, which is portraying women in the family circle. (He does that with men too, but with women his gaze is warmer and far less analytical.) The filmmaker is especially adept at observing the emotional tug-of-war that inevitably erupts between older mothers and middle-aged daughters, the gentle power-mongering between husbands and wives, or the family matriarch quietly exerting her influence on the rest of her family. In Shoplifters, Kore-eda paid special attention and tribute to Kirin Kiki who starred as a sly, feisty old woman on the brink of destitution, surrounded by a family that subsisted on theft and shoplifting. Kiki died last year at the age of 75, – the same age that Catherine Deneuve is now. Kore-eda has said in interviews that he finds older women fascinating, not just because of the lifetime of stories they harbor but because they don’t capitulate easily to his directions, and has their own opinions.
With Catherine Deneuve in Shinjitsu, Kore-eda’s gaze lingers long and lovingly over the stunningly smooth contours of her face. When she speaks, everyone else falls silent, as Kore-eda makes sure she commands the kind of attention usually reserved for royalty. But then, pourquoi pas? Deneuve is probably the closest presence to royalty in France anyway. If Marie Antoinette were around to see Deneuve, she would probably be a fan.
In this, Deneuve plays Fabienne, a veteran French actress who has been estranged from her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) for years. But now her daughter, son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) has arrived in Paris from New York where they live, ostensibly to celebrate the publishing of Fabienne’s autobiography. From the beginning scenes when Lumir, Hank and Charlotte are rolling their suitcases across Fabienne’s large garden to get to her house, everyone’s nerves are on edge. Lumir is worried about what her mother may have wrote about her, and pissed off that Fabienne hadn’t sent her the galleys, even though she had promised. Hank – a TV actor, is uneasy about the fact that his wife pays most of the bills (Lumir is a screenwriter) and he doesn’t speak French. Even 7-year old Charlotte is apprehensive about meeting “grandmere,” as she understands that Fabienne isn’t your typical doting grandma. Indeed, Fabienne’s reception to the trio is cool and matter of fact, devoid of frilly dramatics that can accompany family reunions.
Lumir and her family is set to stay for a week, and Kore-eda traces each day with meticulous attention to detail. Fabienne is working on a movie – a sci-fi film about a mother who never grows old, but can only see her daughter once every 7 years. Lumir ponders over the wealth of meaning in that premise, while Fabienne just wants to get into the role and be good at it. Everyday, mother, daughter and granddaughter drive together to the film set and Lumir learns to put her initial animosity aside to look after her mom and enjoy her time there. Back at home, Fabienne’s current live-in boyfriend makes all the meals and her long-time secretary Luc arranges all her business affairs. Clearly, Fabienne hasn’t lost her allure to men; they flock around her like bugs to an incandescent light bulb. Even Lumir’s vagabond dad Pierre puts in an appearance. And one night when Fabienne kisses Hank good night, he becomes giddy enough to tell his wife all about it.
In the midst of it all, Lumir’s old resentments toward her mother come tumbling out of her emotional closet, but mother and daughter have both reached a point when they know that arguments won’t change anything – least of all, Fabienne. “I was never a good mother, but I am a splendid actress which is far more important,” says Fabienne at one point. Deneuve wears that line like a queen draping a long fur coat, and damn what the animal activists might say. (In the film, Fabienne walks her dog in leopard skin, the irony of which goes right over her head.) And Lumir turns her face away, and you can see she’s trying to hide a smile as if to say, “that is SO my mother.” It’s odd, eclectic moments like these that Kore-eda loves to depict; and no doubt it wouldn’t have gone over so lightly had the cast been Japanese. Family relations on the archipelago tend to be weighty, accelerated by decades of sameness and continuity. Kore-eda frequently punches a hole in that schematic, and he proceeded to tear that wide open in Shoplifters.
However, in Shinjitsu, and in Paris, Kore-eda seems to breathe easier, untethered by conventions, with a lot less to rebel against or prove. Apparently, the man doesn’t speak French beyond a few mundane phrases and the screenplay (written by him) was adapted into French by Lea Le Dimna. He made the whole thing mostly on gut-feeling and intuition and in many ways, Shinjitsu is his best work. Will he leave Japan to become a full-fledged international director? After Shinjitsu, that seems a likely scenario, which means the Japanese film industry will just have to carry on without him. What a devastating loss.
Certain facts of life we know to be true. The tide will turn. The sun will rise. Hayao Miyazaki is the god of Japanese anime. Still, the throne may be ready for a shakedown – or even a partial step down on the part of Miyazaki. Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) has blown a huge hole in the fortress of Miyazaki’s storied production company Studio Ghibli, with his latest: Tenki no Ko (International Title: ‘Weathering With You’).” It’s a semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, and the ending has instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question at the eye of the storm is this: “Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good?”
Though the verdict is still out, my guess is that Hayao Miyazaki would probably say a loud “no way”. As the ultra-stoic-but-always-benevolent tyrant of Japanese anime, he has consistently sacrificed his characters’ romantic inclinations to “much bigger things,” as he once said in an interview – i.e., the benefit or survival, of human society. In a Miyazaki story, boy and girl will get to meet but they will never get together, as there are much bigger things at stake.
In Weathering With You the Tokyo metropolitan area is locked into a rainy season that won’t go away. No one has felt the feeblest of sunshine or glimpsed a patch of blue sky for months. The only exit out of this perpetual wetness seems to lie in the hands of a pretty teenage girl named Hina (voiced by Nana Mori) Her sort-of-boyfriend Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) is sort of her boyfriend, because they don’t exchange so much as a kiss–gleans Hina’s secret power. Initially, he advises Hina to cash in by starting a fair weather business and Hina agrees to go on social media and advertise her abilities as the “good weather girl”. Soon, orders for good weather start pouring in and Hina is summoned to a barbecue party here, a sports event there, or even an ancestral ritual at an old lady’s home. The money’s not bad either, and as Hina’s little brother Nagi (voiced by Sakura Kiryu) joins in, the trio start to feel like a cozy little family.
Sixteen-year old Hodaka is too shy to admit his love for Hina–especially since she has informed him that her 18th birthday is coming up and therefore, she’s way too old for a kid like him. That doesn’t stop Hodaka from going online and researching the perfect birthday gift, which he buys with the money he made with Hina. All this will most certainly elicit stern disapproval from their parents but thankfully, there are no such people in Weathering With You. Hodaka has run away, from home and parents left behind on one of the Izu islands scattered along the Pacific. Hina’s mother died a short while ago and she is supporting Nagi in a tiny apartment near Shinjuku. First, she was on the night shift at a McDonald’s and when that didn’t work out, she made a half-hearted attempt to become a porn actress before Hodaka pulled her back.
All the while, the rain never stops.
Fans of Shinkai know dark skies and heavy rains are a big part of his m.o. Plus, the precise, almost photographic depictions of Tokyo’s train stations (mostly the Yamanote line) and streets, especially in the Shinjuku area. Weathering With You has ample portions of both – the story opens on rain-soaked streets, inky puddles and the lesser known alleyways in the Yoyogi neighborhood. When Hina clenches her fingers and prays to the heavens, the clouds part, exposing a glorious patch of azure sky and splendid slants of sunshine. People put their umbrellas away to look up with a smile, and Hodaka rightly observes that “it’s amazing how good you feel when it’s cleared up.”
The contrast of bad weather and good, is one of the factors that propel the story forward – you get a feeling of how badly people need the sun, and what lengths they will go to get it.
The implication is that Tokyoites are ready to sacrifice Hina on the altar of blue skies, even if they’re only very vaguely aware of her powers or even her presence. In the movie, Hina is a ghostly figure whispered about on the Net, and her abilities are never totally understood. The terrible truth is that the more Hina makes good weather happen, the less there is of her own self; her trade-off with fine weather is her own, physical existence.
One morning when Hodaka wakes up, she’s gone without a trace, save for the bathrobe she was wearing the night before.
(SPOILER ALERT: That is nowhere near the ending for Hina or Hodaka、so don’t let this review make you feel like we’ve ruined the movie. ↖)
In reality, Japan braces itself for a rainy season (usually occuring at the beginning of June and lasting four to five weeks) that wreaks havoc on many areas across the archipelago. This year, southwestern Japan was flooded by torrential rains and in Fukuoka city, trucks and cars were submerged in rainwater while soil erosion led to landslides that caused thousands of people to lose their homes. Tokyo wasn’t as bad but enough water came down to partially shut down public transportation and delay construction on Olympic facilities.
In Weathering With You rainfall spells dire consequences for the metropolis as entire neighborhoods disappear underwater and mighty architectural monuments like the Rainbow Bridge, become steeped in water. Still, as a sage old woman in the movie remarks, “It’s all right, Tokyo has gone back to its natural state. That’s all this is.” Indeed, the Japanese capital is a 400-year old artificial island made on a landfill and the greater part of Shinjuku as we know it today, used to be swampland. If we can live with that, surely we can live with Hina getting to have a life of her own, and maybe, eventually–perhaps–falling in love with Hodaka. And the greater good be damned.
Want to talk about movies? From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time. On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.
Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.
1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.
2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992 Directed by Juzo Itami
In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.
As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery.
One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’ The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.
5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami
Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.”
Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.
Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience.
7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008 Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.
Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.
8) 北野武監督 HANA-BI 1997年
Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face.
In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.
Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.
9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012 Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.
10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014 Directed by Naomi Kawase
Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach.
A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.