Comment: The State of Japanese Cinema

April 12, 2014

For quite a few years already it’s been popular pastime among Japanese film commentators to complain about the state modern Japanese cinema. In fact, some devoted souls seem to do little else. Yet, I would dare to somewhat disagree with them.

Certainly, Japanese cinema today isn’t what it was back in the 70’s, 60’s, or whichever is your favourite decade. It isn’t even what it was a bit over 10 years ago, when Asian cinema in general was enjoying a boom.

Yet, with the amount of interesting new films that have played in theatres / festivals during the past year or so in Japan – much less so anywhere else – I wouldn’t call the situation a catastrophe, not even close.

Not when there are films like The Tale of Iya (2013) – a breathtaking 169 min epic gorgeously filmed on 35mm and echoing masters like Shohei Imamura and Kaneto Shindo, butt adding its own magic – in theatres. Not when the most stylish Japanese film in years, Daisuke Miura’s 18-rated psychological drama Love’s Whirlpool (2014) (Ai no uzu) just opened a month ago. These are but two examples of excellent films that are in Japanese cinemas right now.

The year 2013 was panned by many Japan-critics, yet it saw the release of some tremendously original films, such as GFP Bunny (2012), which takes the true story of a schoolgirl who poisoned her mother, and turns it into a punk study on body modification, plastic surgery, bullying, biotechnology, surveillance technology, and more.

Even more memorable was the gekimation animation The Burning Buddha Man (2013), in which a Buddhist monk saves an orphan girl and then introduced her to a bizarre hidden world of mutants, monsters, terrorists and Buddhist alternative reality in which time runs at different speed. Another debut film worth attention is Junk Head 1 (2013): a slightly flawed but tremendously impressive 30 min cyberpunk stop motion animation set in the distant future where humans send an adroid to spy on clones living in an underground coplex. The film is even spoken in multiple fictional languages.

Japanese animation produced some other noteworthy pictures as well. While international attention went to Miayzaki’s final film, it was Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) that was praised as the true masterpiece. Unfortunately I failed to catch the film in theatres, and I’m still waiting for it to hit the home video. Makoto Shinkai’s breathtakingly beautiful Garden of Words (2013), which further cements his position as Japan’s best animation director still in business, has already reached foreign shores.

Quite surprisingly, indie favourite Hiroshi Ishikawa’s (Tokyo . Sora, Su-ki-da) meditative return to big screen went almost unnoticed by many. Petal Dance (2013) shows Ishikawa in top form with mesmerizing visuals and one of the best acted and most natural scenes (a five minute single shot scene in a car) I have ever seen.

Japanese slacker cinema, which was made popular by directors such as Nobuhiro Yamashita and Yuya Ishii, is still producing some great films. The wonderfully titled Fuck Me to the Moon (2013) adds a fresh twist to the genre by integrating music and cinema. The film follows two miserable yet lovable amateur musicians trying to charm a sexy woman who moves in with them by composing music. Nobuhiro Yamashita also had a highly enjoyable new film, Tamako in Moratorium (2013), released last year.

Japanese genre and exploitation films have admittedly suffered greatly from the shift to bargain basement digital cinematography and ever shrinking budgets, resulting in some visually unappealing works. However, if one manages to look beyond the rough looks, there have been some highly enjoyable films on offer. The latest one is Kurando Mitsutake’s ultra-violent and superbly stylized B-action film Gun Woman (2014), which is a major step up from his earlier movie Samurai Avenger. Takanori Tsujimoto’s Bushido Man (2013), while no visual feast, takes a Heroes of the East -esque premise and unloads a long series of brilliantly choreographed action as Mitsuki Koga duels with the masters of kung fu, samurai sword, knife, and several other martial arts.

If we stretch the inspection period a little bit further to films that actually premiered in 2012 but still played in Japanese theatres in 2013 we should certainly mention The Kirishima Thing (2012) – a poignant and very stylish high school film released to mainstream audiences but directed with the finesse of a fine indie film. The film was no success in multiplexes, but later had a second theatrical run in arthouses. Japan’s most interesting documentary filmmaker Tetsuaki Matsue’s Flashback Memories 3D (2013) is also worth seeing, although I prefer his Live Tape (2009) and the terrific Tokyo Drifter (2011), both of which follow musician Kenta Maeno singing and wondering around Tokyo.

Finally, Audio Erotica has to be mentioned. This highly Tsukamoto-esque 40 minute film of a woman who becomes addicted to her boyfriend’s voice – much less so the man himself – immediately made its director, a young female named Kimi Yawata, a name to remember. Another interesting young female director is Nagisa Isogai, whose flawed but interesting schoolgirls-hunting-molesters film The Lust of Angels (2014) is almost like a modern feminist upgrade of the girl gang films of the 70’s.

Of course, there were also many promising films that I missed, like Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage (2011) director Eisuke Naito’s Puzzle (2014), Hisayasu Sato’s Hana-Dama (2014), Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s The End of Summer (2013), Shinji Aoyama’s Backwater (2013), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (2013), Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Devil’s Path (2013), Kenji Murakami’s Sound Hunting (2013), and Junichi Inoue’s A Woman and War (2013).

The future seems decently interesting as well. Kumakiri’s new film My Man (2014) stars Tadanobu Asano and the extremely talented Fumi Nikaido. Splatter director Yoshihiro Nishimura recently wrapped the filming of his new ninja movie Ninja Torakage (2014) on location in Iga. Yukihiro Toda, whose 2013 Yubari winner Extend Hands from Darkness (2013) is also worth seeing, is working on a new sex crime film Anata mo mata mushi de aru (2014). Nobuhiko Obayashi’s latest, Seven Weeks (2014), already played in Yubari to a great acclaim. Sion Sono, who hasn’t done a good film since 2010, is also of potential interest with his Tokyo Tribes (2014) being released in August.

With movies like this I certainly don’t feel there’s a huge lack of interesting stuff to see. The problem, then, probably has more to do with how well these films (do not) travel abroad and domestically. Even in Japan indie productions can be difficult to see outside major cities and/or festivals.

It is absolutely true that Japanese mainstream cinema is getting less and less interesting while the good films often come from interesting newcomers. Unfortunately the attention is not shifting: film festivals abroad are still focusing on the (more or less) tired stuff by Miike, Kitano, Sono etc. instead of looking for new talents. Criticism on the state of the industry in this sense is fully justified; however, to say good films are not being made in Japan anymore doesn’t seem like a very strong argument to me. It’s more like the good films are no longer being discovered and discussed about.

One comment

  1. Good article. I’m looking forward to new films from Japan every year so the naysayers are missing out. It however sucks that the access to most titles is rather limited outside of festivals so most people don’t quite get around to most of those…

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