In conjunction with a beginner’s guide to Japanese literature, I thought I’d also post a few personal favorites in the contemporary Japanese film department for anyone who wants some exposure but doesn’t know where to get started.
Koreeda Hirokazu, Wandafuru Raifu (Afterlife). Koreeda has become a darling of the independent film world–other excellent films include Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows) and Maboroshi no hikari (Maborosi or Phantom Light). Afterlife imagines a kind of purgatory where the recently deceased must complete a single task before they pass on: choose one memory that they wish to take with them into the next realm, which the purgatory “staff” will then film as a movie for everyone to watch before they cross over. Moving, thought-provoking, and funny.
Takeshi Kitano, Hanabi (Fireworks). “Beat” Takeshi Kitano has made a career out of playing a tired, deadpan gangster who just wants the thugs to leave him alone so that he can have a beer and a cigarette. Hanabi is perhaps his best version of that character. A refreshing take on the yakuza (gangster) film, it follows Kitano as he attempts to have a last quiet vacation with his ailing wife, killing and maiming a few gangsters along the way, but only when they bug him.
Miyazaki Hayao, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away). Japanese animation is the genre that most viewers think of when they think of Japanese cinema. For some it’s a wonderful gateway into a much more diverse world of film, but for some it’s an immediate turn-off (the big eyes, the graphic sex, the over-the-top storylines). Miyazaki Hayao is a quiet animator who tells stories in soft, hand-drawn colors that will surely appeal to children but are written with adults in mind. Spirited Away is, at its most basic level, a fascinating and beautiful story. And Miyazaki gets a lot of points for populating his films with strong, independent female characters who don’t always end up rescued by a prince at the end. Other Miyazaki classics include Laputa (Castle in the Sky), Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, more for kids), and Kaze no tani no Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind).
Hideo Nakata, Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water). Think Japanese horror and you’rekely to think of Hideo Nakata’s Ring films, and while those movies will certainly give you the shivers, I would argue that Dark Water is more well-acted, well-written, and overall just a better film. It follows a single mother struggling to make a new home for herself and her daughter as her new apartment leaks water from mysterious sources and she sees fleeting images of a girl in a yellow raincoat. Don’t watch it before you take a bath.
Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Cure. Another J-horror classic by a filmmaker who’s finally being recognized as a major talent (see previous post, Film Review: Tokyo Sonata). The always excellent Yakusho Koji (who seems to pop up in every Japanese film, commercial, and TV show of the last fifteen years) stars as a detective investigating a series of murders–all committed by people who have no memory of what they did–while at the same time trying to care for his mentally ill wife. Kurosawa’s other classic ghost stories include Kairo (Pulse) and Sakebi (Retribution).
For more detailed reviews and info on the latest and greatest in Japanese cinema, check out Midnight Eye (www.midnighteye.com) or The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, a great book resource.