by Kaori Shoji
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.