Archive for the ‘Nobuhiro Yamashita’ Category

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Moratorium Tamako

January 17, 2014

The unlikely pairing of a slacker director and idol makes tranquil, charming cinema

Moratorium Tamako (2013)

Nobuhiro Yamashita started his career with minimalist, pitch perfect slacker films such as Ramblers (2003). He later entered mainstream cinema, but never quite lost his indie qualities. Moratorium Tamako is a nice example of Yamashita helming a somewhat mainstream project in his own, recognizable style.

Yamashita’s latest is a very simple film. With a running time of only 78 minutes (lovely!), and most of which is dedicated to the leading girl Atsuko Maeda lying on the floor, playing Playstation, or sleeping, there truly isn’t much melodrama going on. But small details and quiet humour have always been Yamashita’s strength. Moratorium Tamako is no exception.

Yamashita’s love and sympathy for his unlucky protagonists is once again evident in Moratorium Tamako. This is what sets Yamashita apart from some of his rivals, such as the more mean spirited Yuya Ishii, or even Aki Kaurismäki. Yamashita smiles at his characters, but never makes cruel fun of them. He can identify and sympathise with, say, a girl who failed finding a job and now spends her days reading manga and lying on the floor, as in Moratorium Tamako.

With his last two films, Yamashita has found his new heroine in Atsuko Maeda. The unlikely pairing of a slacker director and former AKB 48 idol is actually quite functional. Maeda is surprisingly natural as a lazy, not-into-anything Yamashita heroine, yet retaining her cute looks and easy-going mainstream appeal that just might be what Yamashita needs to get his films financed.

It is, in fact, quite unusual for a Yamashita film to center so strongly around one character (instead of a duo or trio of ill-lucked protagonists). It is perhaps because of this that Moratorium Tamako is an even quieter film than Yamashita’s films in general. That being said, there are two important supporting characters; Tamako’s single father, and a quiet elementary school boy who is an especially Yamashitan character.

Of course, Moratorium Tamako is by no means a match to Yamashita’s unparalleled Osaka era films (Hazy Life, No One’s Ark, Ramblers), but it’s a pleasurable small film. Like all of Yamashita’s films (and unlike most small scale Japanese films these days) the film also looks solid. It was shot on digital, but it has a pleasing, roughly film-like look to it.

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Quick Takes #3

January 12, 2013

The End of Puberty (Koi ni itaru yamai, 2011)

Perky high school girl (Miwako Wagatsuma) and a shy teacher (Yôichirô Saitô) change genitals in Shoko Kimura’s dull fantasy/comedy/drama.

The PIA Film Festival financed indie film is visually pleasing enough, but lacks any memorable moments. Character development is non-existent, wacky ideas underutilized, and energy lacking. Audiences mislead by the catchy theatrical trailer are in for a disappointment.

Kimura seems to have something to say of a world where men have lost their balls and women are unable to take the lead – indeed, interviews have confirmed her conservative views – but the topic eventually leads nowhere.
Perhaps most interesting is the film’s soundtrack that plays like an old Nintendo game, but like the rest of the film, it remains a curiosity that never really catches fire. The film is a far cry from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s similarly themed 1982 classic Transfer Student.

The Samurai That Night (Sono yoru no samurai, 2012)

Actor and stage director Masaaki Akahori’s directorial debut is a long revenge drama lacking in revenge. The star studded but low key arthouse drama follows a widowed, obsessed man stalking the hit-and-run crook that killed his wife after the release from prison.

Opting for strong realism, rather than fantastic revenge fantasy, the film has its moments but doesn’t eventually find very much depth. Little happens within its two hour running time, and some scenes come out “made-art” rather than natural storytelling. Characters feel distant, though Masato Sakai is not bad in the lead, and heart knob Takayuki Yamada makes a surprisingly believable killer. Mitsuki Tanimura, Tomorowo Taguchi, Hirofumi Arai, Go Ayano, Sakura Ando and Denden co-star.

The Drudgery Train (Kueki ressha, 2012)

Fan favorite Nobuhiro Yamashita’s welcome return to slow paced, rather non-commercial cinema. With a 19 year old protagonist who burns his money on booze and strippers, and whose father is a sex criminal, it’s certainly a film of old school Yamashita ingredients.

The minimal and slightly overlong film is, however, neither quite like nor as good as Yamashita’s early slacker masterpieces. Perhaps because of the source material – an autobiographical novel by Kenta Nishimura, adapted into screenplay by pink maestro Shinji Imaoka – Yamashita opts for slightly darker tones than expected. The recognizable Yamashita moments of quiet comedy are still to be found, though.

The start studded cast fare reasonably well, especially Mirai Moriyama who takes a minor gamble with his career. AKB48’s only acting capable member Atsuko Maeda is passable as well, though the whole cast suffers in comparison to Yamashita’s early works and their stars.

Flawed but pleasing, Kueki ressha may have a bit of difficulties finding its audience despite the puzzling Toei multiplex distribution that feels almost like a twisted joke by itself.

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Quick Takes #2: Short Films

July 29, 2011

Based on the song ”Thank You” by Shogo Hamada. One of the more unusual film projects, director Naoki Hashimoto set to make a double feature inspired by the works of singer / songwriter Shogo Hamada. The first film, Catch Ball (2005) was a poorly executed drama-comedy featuring two noisy kids (or chubby elementary school comedians, if you will) travelling to see their father. Kimi to aruita michi (2005), a junior high school film, is the far superior of the two. Beautifully shot with pleasing colors, slight grain and bright image, its visual appearance is slightly reminiscent of Iwai, Yamashita, and Ishikawa.

Hashimoto is not in the same league with the forementioned directors, though. His impressive images are coupled with songs that don’t quite blend in, and narration that sometimes brings it to the verge of accidental genre parody. Furthermore, the last five minutes is puzzlingly (and amusingly) bad in its uneven trendiness. But then again, taking a little less critical view on what came before it’s is actually rather nice little movie and certainly easy on the eye. Some might criticize it as bad film, but I’d be tempted to call it a good one.

Everybody wants to die in Tomoya Sato’s semi-documentaristic short film L’Ilya (2001). The 40 minute movie tries an interesting spin on the topic, adapting the view of a cinematographer turning suicides into disco-entertainment and video art. Shot harsh and grainy the pic looks pleasing but doesn’t have the courage to go to the satirical pop-dimensions of Sion Sono Suicide Club. Sato’s film is, in the end, a far more conventional offering with dramatic soundtrack and preachy message. It’s unable to bring anything of its own to the topic, mainly aiming at drawing affirmative audience reactions such as “yes, it’s a sad world indeed“. It soon becomes more frustrating than poignant.

One of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s many gun-for-hire gigs, Dohyogiwa no aria (2010) is a “cell phone romance” aimed at female audiences. The four part series was originally distributed as cell phone download content through AU’s Lismo Channel. Each of the five minute episodes covers a piece of the protagonist’s life, starting from childhood and proceeding to present moment: the wedding day. And yes, the series does feature Chiaki Kuriyama dressed up as a 12 year old, a 15 year old, etc., as part of the fun. Pacing is set with portable device in mind, however, the series does work on bigger screen as well. It’s nicely shot, and while Yamashita’s true slacker days may be long gone, his recognizable touches can still be seen. Chia-chan here is essentially a feminine reincarnation of the Yamashitan loser hero – not quite a Hiroshi Yamamoto, but facing the same communication problems nevertheless.

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Coming Future

May 24, 2011

Shinka (Japan, 2010)

Japanese independent cinema has never been doing better! Japanese independent cinema has never been doing worse! Certainly, it has never been like this before.

For years now the most interesting Japanese cinema has come from either indie side or small genre film factories. Rarely discovered by masses, it has lead to a misbelief that Japanese cinema has lost all its bite. The real problem, however, is not in the lack of talent but in its inability to live up to its full potential. It’s a global phenomenon that multiplexes are killing off small arthouse theaters, leaving indie films homeless. The problem may be even worse in Japan where business is highly networked, and quality alone isn’t enough to buy your film public screening time. Getting a movie into distribution can prove a real challenge. And that’s only after one has miraculously come up with a budget to shoot a film in the first place. Director Kyuya Nakagawa’s Coming Future was born from the lack of budget.

Nakagawa is a young man who knows the industry. He has worked as an assistant director for Sion Sono, and as a sound technician for Yuya Ishii, Yoshihiro Nishimura, and Koji Shiraishi. Nakagawa’s aim for 2009 was to direct a movie of his own. When financing could not be found, he decided to get off to the street of Tokyo to make a zero-budget documentary on the state of Japanese independent cinema, jishu eiga. And capture a piece of living Tokyo on digital video while he’s at it.

Coming Future is not your typical documentary. It lacks traditional narrative, and was shot essentially without screenplay. Rather than exploring dying cinemas or explaining sad facts about filmmaking realities Nakagawa goes for a walk with his filmmaker pals – Tetsuaki Matsue (Live Tape, 2009), Koji Shiraishi (Shirome, 2010), Satoko Yokohama (German + Ame, 2006), Nobuhiro Yamashita (Ramblers, 2003), etc. It’s Christmas Eve, with Japan’s most interesting young filmmakers discussing their profession on the streets of neon filled Shibuya. The outcome is interesting.

With only limited planning applied, Nakagawa’s aim was to allow his quests to add their own personal flavor to their sections. Rebel director Kenji Onishi does this best. Carrying 8 mm camera with him, he frequently stops to film footage he could use in his upcoming movies. Coherence may not be this man’s specialty, but does such thing matter? Art doesn’t doesn’t need to have rules, and Onishi hates patterns such as watching movies from the beginning. Starting from the middle in more interesting, he states.

Onishi is a filmmaking dinosaur in the sense that he’s still shooting on film. Most indie filmmakers in Japanese these days shoot on digital, Nakagawa included. It’s far more economic, and good enough to produce movie theater level material. No doubt this has saved Japanese indie cinema from practical extinction. Yet filmmakers struggle. Even past indie champ Nobuhiro Yamashita, who had his mainstream success with films like Linda Linda Linda (2005), got stuck with TV shows and idol videos. There was just no one to finance a single movie project for him after Tennen kokekko (2007). That being said, 16 months after Coming Future Yamashita finally has his new film in theaters, a mainstream production none the less (My Back Page, 2011).

Nakagawa’s film is not only about filmmakers, though. He manages to surprise the viewer on a few occasions (those wishing to avoid minor spoilers and save the surprise may wish to skip this paragraph). He runs into pole dancer Cay Izumi (Sushi Typhoon regular) running guerilla show on the streets. The best moment comes when he drops indie films entirely and goes interview American G.I’s and Japanese schoolgirls about random things. It has nothing to do with the main topic, but it’s refreshing filmmaking. Like Onishi said, the strength of jishu eiga is that it’s not bound by established cinematic rules, but, at its best, has the possibility to do something unexpected. These parts further tie Coming Future into its time and environment, making it more of a zeitgeist than it would be without them.

Coming Future is not a film for grand audiences, but for those interested in Japanese jishu eiga it’s is a cool 90 minutes with some of the most interesting filmmakers in Japan. These kinds of movies have very small audience, but there’s always someone who will go see them. For filmmakers, it’s a rough business, though. No one ever got laid by making jishu eiga, Nakagawa complained at the Nippon Connection screening! Good luck to Mr. Nakagawa for finding a girlfriend!

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Nobuhiro Yamashita movies

June 21, 2009

Hazy Life (Japan, 1999) – 4/5

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s first feature length film follows two young men (played by the director-turned-actor Hiroshi Yamamoto and Teppei Uda) who are unemployed (aside from shooting amateur AV) and have little aim in life. They spent most of their time sitting in a tiny apartment, or standing outside it, usually not even talking to each other. Like all early Yamashita characters, they are likable losers whose life is completely free of major events. But Yamashita loves his characters and follows their boring life without any hurry. He allows the film to be slow – bland someone might say, although the truth is the exact opposite, and even Yamashita’s trademark dry humour is plenty here – and doesn’t try hook up the viewer with shocks, tricks or forced art that plagues a lot of indie cinema.

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No One’s Ark (Japan, 2003) – 4,5/5

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s near-perfect second film follows a young couple trying to start a business on a small island. But of course nothing really works out as planned. Written by Kosuke Mukai, who has worked on almost all Yamashita’s movies, No One’s Ark is slightly more story driven and bolder than the director’s debut feature. The character’s have ambitions and a plan… it’s just not a very carefully thought out plan and when it fails they find themselves in the typical Yamashita state of inaction. The film’s bigger budget shows in cinematography and great use of music, but the slow pace and excellently timed humour are still present. Yamashita regular Hiroshi Yamamoto and female lead Tomoko Kotera are absolutely perfect in the lead roles.

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Realism no Yado (Japan, 2003) – 4,5/5

Realism no Yado is the last one of Yamashita’s major Osaka-era works and also his best movie. Despite being based on manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge it feels 100% Yamashita / Mukai film. Keiji Nagatsuka and Hiroshi Yamamoto star as two young filmmakers who are to meet their producer is in a small norther town. The producer, however, misses the meeting. Now the two men who barely know each other are trapped in a cold sleepy town full uncomfortable ryokans. Saving them from a complete boredom they run into a nice young lady (Machiko Ono) who apparently lost her clothes while swimming (it’s was snowing just a while ago!). Realism no Yado is a more minimalistic film than No One’s Ark but even more successful. The humour is hilarious, the characters absolutely brilliant, and cinematographer Ryûto Kondô does terrific job. The soundtrack is also great, although it uses music very sparsely.

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Sono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki (2003) – 3/5

Sono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki, a fake documentary, is one of Yamashita’s weirdest projects. The director himself interviews and follows and favous detective (constantly talking to his cellphone, giving orders like ”send 300 men to the crime scene”) who has side job as an AV actor… except that his stories don’t sound exactly reliable… Sono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki is more of a 40 minute joke than carefully planned film, but it works quite well. Some scenes are awkward, while others are downright hilarious. Yamashita himself seem to have most fun; you can often hear him laughing behind the camera. This is a film for the fans of the director, not necessarily so much for the fans of his movies. Yamashita later continued on the same path with Fusho no hito (2005).

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Cream Lemon (Japan, 2004) – 4/5

After moving from Osaka to Tokyo, just before winning over the mainstream audiences with Linda Linda Linda, Nobuhiro Yamashita took an offer to adapt hentai manga into a live action film. Distributed by Fullmotion, a company best know for their series of erotic dramas (which include works by Yamashita’s old friend Ryuichi Honda), Cream Lemon turned out something a bit different than its premise. Yamashita made a film that plays 40 minutes without sex scenes, and 77 minutes without nudity, with the total running time clocking at 77 minutes. Pink, if it ever was intended to be a part of the product, seemingly went lost somewhere in the process. But Yamashita’s skill did not. While not as brilliant as the his Osaka slacker trilogy, Cream Lemon is still almost exceptionally good filmmaking in the drama genre. Yamashita handles the story of a brother who falls in love with his sister with humour, delicacy, perfect pacing and stylish cinematography. Kazuyoshi Ozawa and Yamashita’s regular star Hiroshi Yamamoto – both of whom have also starred in films by Honda – play small supporting roles.

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Linda Linda Linda (Japan, 2005) – 4/5

Nobuhiro Yamahita’s first mainstream film became a big international hit and deservedly so; it’s a brilliant movie. Yamashita was offered a rather typical studio film screenplay about four high school girls who form a band and perform at the school festival. Together with his long time screenwriting partner Kosuke Mukai Yamashita made some changes to the storyline (such as making one of the characters Korean) and delivered a film that is both a terrific crowd pleaser and still retains plenty of Yamashita style. Most importantly Yamashita’s directing is fresh, lacking the plastic feel of many other youth films, and paying attention to details. Only a couple of scenes feel overly conventional, and these appear mostly during the film’s final third. Some of the humour – such as the communication problems – remind of the director’s older films. The soundtrack is terrific, featuring a score by James Iha, plus four leads performing songs by the classic punk rock band The Blue Hearts. Aki Maeda, Yu Kashii, Base Ball Bear Sekine Shiori and the terrific Doo-na Bae play the lead roles. Although this was the first film Yamashita made with a new crew, many familiar faces are seen in supporting roles and cameo appearances. These include Yamashita’s regular actors Hiroshi Yamamoto and Takeshi Yamamoto, and the Midnight Eye critic Jason Gray as a Ramones member!

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Matsugane ransha jiken (Japan, 2006) – 4/5

Matsugane ransha jiken was marketed as a hip detective movie, and referred as Japanese Fargo. That’s Fargo re-written by Kosuke Mukai, based on another story, and directed by Yamashita who has little in common with the Coen brothers. That leaves us with a striking connection of both movies being black comedies and taking place in a small northern town (Matsugane was shot in the Nagano area). The ”hip detective” –connection is even more out of the wind; it simply doesn’t exist. That’s good news for many Yamashita fans. The director’s previous film Linda Linda Linda was terrific on its own right, but it’s also great to see Yamashita hasn’t sold out to big studio productions. Compared to the director’s Osaka movies Matsugane ransha jiken is slightly more polished in terms of production values, and also, to some extent, building up on a crime plot, but in spirit this is still very Yamashita. The opening scene alone shows a young kid discovering a woman’s body in the snow. When she shows no signs of life, the kid starts feeling her breasts. It’s a slightly disturbing but also a fun and quiet scene. Like the early Yamashita characters, the heroes of Matsugane ransha jiken don’t speak too much and rarely manage to say anything constructive. The slow pacing is sure to put off mainstream viewers, and Yamashita has great skill in capturing locations. The snowy, tiny bit grainy images and realistic audio create an illusion of a real small town (although fictional in this case) rather than movie set ups or postcard landscapes.

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Tennen kokekko (Japan, 2007) – 4/5

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s second big mainstream film’s got the most describing English title; A Gentle Breeze in the Village. It’s a visually very beautiful film full of light, colours and green nature (almost an exact opposite from Matsugane ransha jiken which had a cool and blue visual tone). But it’s also Yamashita’s least recognizable film to date. The director’s skill is very much present, but his trademarks are not. The Osaka-era slacker humour and characters are missing, and the film’s beauty is far more traditional. This kind of project could have been handled by any first grade mainstream director. Similarly the screenplay – which was not written by Kosuke Mukai but Aya Watanabe – is a conventional youth story taking place in a small village. It is a ”small and quiet” screenplay, but this type storytelling has become so common in Japanese drama cinema nowadays that it could be labeled as ”arthouse for mainstream audience” or vice versa.

The storyline begins when a new student, Hiromi, (Masaki Okada) arrives from Tokyo to countryside and joins a small school that only has 6 students. The oldest of the kids, Soyo (Kaho) immediately has a crush on him, although his arrogant big city type character comes as a set back. All this leads to a couple of romantic or otherwise unneeded scenes (the festival sequence for example) that don’t really have a place in the film. But such scenes are in the minority, thanfully, and don’t prevent Tennen kokekko from being a highly enjoyable and well acted movie. Yamashita loads the film with tranquil images of school corridors, small roads and nature. There is a short Tokyo segment as well, and interestingly Yamashita shows Tokyo as a bit depressive and threatening place. The director himself has also stated he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in Tokyo. Also worth a mention is that the ending scene – possibly by a pure chance – reminds of Shinji Somai’s Ohikkoshi (1993).

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Chugakusei Nikki (Japan, 2007) – 2,5/5

Ironically, one of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s least known works outside Japan is based on some of the best known material in Japan. Yamashita’s 50 minute Chugakusei Nikki was preceeded by comics and numerous TV version over the decades. And, as one might expect, this is yet another one of Yamashita’s ”challenges”, rather than a large scale or carefully drafted production. The film consists of 5 scenes taking place in junior high school on a day when the teacher doesn’t arrive and the students are alone all day. Chugakusei Nikki is not a quiet and dreamlike high school drama like many Japanese films in the genre nowadays (including Yamashita’s own film Tennen kokekko), but more like a day in zoo. In this respect, it reminds me of my own junior high school days. It’s a decently fun movie, but Yamashita’s fans were probably expecting a bit different kind of touch from the director.

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It’s a small world (Japan, 2008) – 2/5

This is a Nobuhiro Yamashita film that went unnoticed by most people, largely because it’s only one half of the Jikken 4 gou project between Yamashita and novelist Kotaro Isaka. Isaka’s contribution is a short novel, Yamashita made a short film. Setting the movie in an abandoned school and only featuring a handful of actors It’s a small world sounds a bit more promising that it really is. Although several long takes and lack of music in many scenes are recognizable Yamashita, the film is a bit clinical. This shows for example in cinematography; there are postcard shots, but they don’t come alive in motion. Humour and well drafted characters are also absent from the pic, although it has to be mentioned that I have not read Isaka’s novel which no doubt weakens the experience and leaves it incomplete. Execution and content wise It’s a small world falls somewhere in between Yamashita’s refined masterpieces and more experiental works, without really managing to utilize the strengths of either. Nevetheless, it does have it’s moments and interesting premise that makes it worth a watch.

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Nobuhiro Yamashita

June 21, 2009

Nobuhiro Yamashita – the most interesting Japanese director of the late 90’s / early 2000’s – has often been compared to Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch. Yamashita makes low key comedies about losers who haven’t found their place in society. An IMDB user called Yamashita’s film Realims no yado an ”ultra-quiet comedy of microscopic humiliations” which is a good description of Yamashita’s Osaka-period films. However, Yamashita isn’t mean to his characters but shows great compassion towards them. Usually his misfortunate heroes feel rather comfortable with their little insignificant lives. These characters are also much influenced by the director himself, who often identifies himself with the main protagonists.

Yamashita made his silver screen debut with the Osaka set slacker film Hazy Life in 1999. It was followed by the similarly themed No One’s Ark (2003) and Ramblers (2003). In 2004 Yamashita moved to Tokyo, and the style of his films changed a bit. He started dividing his time between big mainstream pleasers such as Linda Linda Linda (2005) and Tennen kokekko (2007), and interesting smaller audience films like the hentai manga adaptation Cream Lemon (2004) and Matsugane ransha jiken (2006). While these films retain high quality, they are not quite as brilliant as the Yamashita works born in the the Osaka indie scene.

What has gone below most people’s radar is Yamashita’s work outside feature length movies. He has done a lot of short movies, television work and even fake documentaries. One of his most recent works is the Jikken 4 gou project where Yamashita collaborated with novelist Kotaro Isaoka, both men using different mediums (film / novel) to tell story. Generally speaking these smaller projects aren’t on part with Yamashita’s feature length movies and often feel very experimental. But that’s how Yamashita likes to work; to accept challenges and see if he can pull it off. Also, aside directing, screenwriting and producing Yamashita does some acting. He has played small parts in movie such as P Kan Couple (2005) and Have a Nice Day (2006), and also often makes cameo appearances in his own movies.

Yamashita often works together with his old friends that include Kosuke Mukai – who has written most of his movies – and actor Hiroshi Yamamoto who starred in all three of Yamashita’s major Osaka films. Another famous person Yamashita knows from his student years is the ’pink director currently making mainstream breakthrough’ Ryuichi Honda. Honda’s film Watermelon (2005) actually stars Hiroshi Yamamoto. Yamashita has stated that Linda Linda Linda (his big Tokyo / mainstream breakthrough) was the first film he shot with a crew that he didn’t know from his college years….

Partial director filmography:

Kusaru onna (1997) (Short film)
Donten seikatsu (Hazy Life) (1999)
Baka no hakobune (No One’s Ark) (2003)
Realism no yado (Ramblers) (2003)
Sono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki (The Most Dangerous Man Alive) (2003) (Short film)
Fusho no hito (2004) (OV)
Cream Lemon (2004)
Anatakikou: Lilly (2005) (Music video)
Linda Linda Linda (2005)
Yume juya (2006) (Episode 8: ’An Eighth Night of Dreams’)
Matsugane ransha jiken (Matsugane Pothot Affair) (2006)
Chugakusei nikki (2006) (Short film / OV)
Tennen kokekko (A Gentle Breeze in the Village) (2007)
Jikken 4 gou: It’s a small world (Short film)
Camouflage (2008) (TV series) (Chapter 3)
Shukan Maki Yoko (2008) (TV series) (Episode 4: Nakano no yujin)
Warera tenka wo mezasu (2008) (Short film)
Mecha kowa Vol. 1 (2009) (OV)
Mecha kowa Vol. 2 (2009) (OV)
Mecha kowa Vol. 3 (2009) (OV)