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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.