Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Top Ten Japanese Films that Make Us Cry

Shortly after posting last month's Top Ten List Bob, Marc, Matt and myself got together over beers to discuss amongst other things what our next list would be. Quite a few ideas for lists came out of this brainstorming session (lists that you'll be seeing in the coming months), but the one that came together the fastest was a list of Japanese films that moved us to tears. And when I say fast I mean fast, as in about 10-minutes, but it makes sense. It's the films that have an immediate impact on you that stick with you the most, whether they have you rolling in the aisles with laughter, shocked out of your seat with fright, or in some cases sick to your stomach due to some very graphic content. It was probably the beer that got us into a maudlin mood though, so one after the other we jotted down films that had us reaching for the tissues, and now we present them to you all. Some will be no surprise to Japanese film fans at all, while others aren't films you'd normally associate with shedding tears, but we believe all of them deserve a place on this list. So, without further adieu here are the top ten Japanese films that make us cry.

10. Funky Forest - Katsuhito Ishii (2005)

It can't all be weeping hand-wringing and tragic emotional scenes, so we thought we'd kick off our list with tears of joy - crying of the happy variety. "Funky Forest: The First Contact" flits between skits, sketches, recurring characters and some of the strangest sights you'll ever see, all the while doing it with a firm grasp of the silly and the absurd. The movie is not filled with character based comedy or punchlines, but the incessant piling on of incredibly goofy premise on top of incredibly goofy premise (with characters that seem to take things in stride) should have you in fits of giggles by the time the random Intermission kicks in with its countdown clock. The question is, what will eventually send you over the edge? The "Guitar Brothers" (Tadanobu Asano and a chubby white kid)? The "Babbling Hot Springs Vixens"? Or will it be one of the Homeroom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! episodes (my favourite being the one where Yasuda accuses the class of stealing one of his shoes - "I need two shoes for them to be shoes. You got me?" - when he is clearly wearing both)? It might even be one of the many dance scenes. This isn't just slapdash random bits thrown together though - there's a certain precise quality to the editing and the timing of characters' line readings that add to the humour. As well, there's the semblance of a theme somewhere in all of this of how dreams mix with reality, but you may not see it through the tears of laughter streaming down your face. BT

9. Visitor Q - Takashi Miike (2001)

A Takashi Miike film that makes you cry? And not because it made you crap your pants in disgust? Granted, I’m sure my taste is a little skewed, because I view "Visitor Q" as Miike’s masterpiece, but films I elevate to this status I do so only because they’re films that affect me deeply. Films that make me feel a range of emotions. Very few films can take you on such a rollercoaster ride, and even fewer can do it in 84 minutes. Its progression is genius in its execution. First you’re disgusted, then disturbed, and then a mixture of both. But once the visitor arrives, everything changes. The tone, the relationships, the depiction of the acts of violence, it all changes. You begin to smile a little, then maybe even laugh, and at the most bizarre things. Part of this results from Kenichi Endo’s performance, which is comedic gold. My first tears during the film came (bad pun) while he has sex with his co-workers corpse and uses her shit as lubrication. Is that right? Did I really laugh that hard? Yes, I did. But before you know it, Miike pulls the rug from under your feet, and the film achieves a level of beauty that will bring a tear to your eye. And yet what are you really crying at? A mother you lactates all over her family, finally breast feeding them? But somehow it moves you, somehow, the extreme nature in which the various events are depicted allow you to find the beauty in even the most bizarre act, as long as they come out of genuine love. And ultimately, in the end, that the point. It’s beautiful, touching and moving. Like most Miike fair, it’s incredibly transgressive, it definitely pushes the limits of its on screen depiction of the family unit, and won’t please most, but there is nothing that he does that doesn’t serve the story. Nothing is pointless. It’s expertly crafted. It’s Miike creating art. And you will cry at its disturbing depiction of a dysfunctional Japanese family, at the incredible insane humour, or at the beautiful climax as the family finally comes together as a cohesive, loving, family unit. MH

8. Still Walking - Hirokazu Kore-eda (2008)

It's the little moments and the character interactions that resonate throughout Hirokazu Kore-eda's 2008 film "Still Walking". Household scenes that many people can relate to (conversations with Mom in the kitchen, stories told for the hundreth time, etc.) lead the viewer to a persistent state of familiarity and some gentle but very real laughter. It's mixed in with some bittersweet moments though, not to mention hidden resentments, regrets and other such family staples. In the case of this particular family, it's the tension that exists between second son Ryo and his father that drives the story. Since Ryo refused to follow the career path of medicine ("only" becoming a restorer of old paintings) and also married a "used" woman (ie. divorced), his father can't quite fully accept him. The parents are welcoming to his new bride and her son, but both are treated more as guests than as full fledged family. There's also still a great deal of grieving over the loss of the eldest son years earlier in a drowning accident and perhaps still a few unspoken thoughts. Kore-eda has mentioned that the script evolved from the passing away of his own parents and all the discussions of his childhood they had during the time they had left. There's a universal quality to these characters to which just about anyone can relate and so to is the main theme of the film: little moments with those you love can be very rich and rewarding - make the most of them while you can. BT

7. Spirited Away - Hayao Miyazaki (2001)

From his 1979 "Castle of Cagliastro" through to his 1997 mega-blockbuster "Princess Mononoke" Hayao Miyazaki's films have managed to do something very special: taken us on impossible, magical journeys while at the same time never straying far from the emotional core of our everyday existences. I can't think of any better example of this than his 2001 Oscar-winning adventure "Spirited Away". Once again the animation master centers his story around a young heroine, 10-year-old Chihiro, who when we first meet her is sulking in the back seat of her parents car as the family drives to their new home in a another part of the country. No kid likes the idea of moving away from their friends and school, but mom and dad definitely have their hands full with their sulky daughter. Chihiro gets a major attitude adjustment, though, after a wrong turn and a detour through what dad thinks is an abandoned amusement park lands her in an otherworldly bathhouse for the spirits, a place where she'll be separated from her mother and father, both of whom are punished for eating the food of the spirits by being transformed into pigs. I actually saw "Spirited Away" for the first time about 8-months after the death of my father (my mother having passed away three years prior), and my heart immediately went out to young Chihiro, a child who must grow up very quickly in a world that she can barely understand. Yes this world is inhabited by witches, talking frogs, walking daikon radishes and all other manner of yokai weirdness, but the key to Chihiro's survival, and the key to freeing her parents, doesn't come from some magical quest. No, Chihiro must hit the ground running and get a job at the bathhouse while always trying to remember her true identity, even after her name is taken from her. After having lost my parents all I had wanted to do was stop the world while I recovered, but even in Miyazaki's fairy tale worlds that isn't possible and I found tears pouring down my cheeks in sympathy for little Chihiro as she faces her fear and loneliness head on and finds the courage to navigate this unimaginable situation. CM

6. Red Beard - Akira Kurosawa (1965)

It often surprises me that Akira Kurosawa didn’t gain more honors and recognition from the West (particularly from Oscar-san) for Red Beard. Sure, it’s still widely celebrated (if slightly overshadowed by the many other crown jewels that fill the master’s filmography), but it especially seems to be the kind of dramatic, affecting, life-affirming story that would earn it plenty of little gold statues – if only for its emotional effect on countless audiences. The premise involves a young, headstrong doctor who, much to his dismay, is posted at a clinic run by the wise yet stern Red Beard (Toshirô Mifune). The medical facility serves as the perfect backdrop for many separate, episodic stories to unfold against, a number of them being quite powerful in their depiction of humans and their capacity for both cruelty and kindness, with two in particular just about guaranteed to have you reaching for the nearest box of tissues. One is devoted to Sahachi, a kind-hearted patient who, while on his deathbed, tells the story of the great love of his life and how he lost her (shown in a stunning, lengthy flashback sequence). By the time he finishes, the listeners huddled around him are, for good reason, all sobbing uncontrollably – and it would only be natural for you to join in with them. The second storyline sure to get the waterworks flowing focuses on Chobo, a sneaky little urchin who steals food from the clinic to help feed his family. He reveals the difficult conditions of his life to Otoyo, a girl his age with whom he gradually forms a warm friendship. However, the ugly specter of poverty reaffirms itself all too quickly when Chobo turns up one day and tries to feed Otoyo a story explaining his impending departure that only thinly hides the act of desperation that his family has chosen to carry out. Just seeing him trying to convince his friend with this lie while slowly realizing the horrible truth behind it (to say nothing of the suspenseful events that follow) is enough to make you realize, perhaps surprisingly, just how emotionally committed you are to these characters. MSC

5. Tokyo Tower - Joji Matsuoka (2007)

It would be accurate to say that Joji Matsuoka's 2007 drama "Tokyo Tower: Me Mom, and Sometimes Dad" was designed to squeeze tears out of its audience. Based on the memoir by actor/ writer/ artist Lily Franky, who grew up living with his hard-working mother while his father is off leading a bohemian life, the film follows Masaya (Jo Odagiri) from boyhood to manhood and beyond as he leaves home to find his way in Tokyo. Life isn't easy, a fact that Matsuoka and screenwriter Matsuo Suzuki continually remind us, as Masaya scrapes by, nearly starves, falls in love, and tries his best to cobble together a living as a radio DJ and illustrator. Of course none of this would be possible if it wasn't for the emotional, and most importantly, financial help from mom (Kirini Kiki) who slaves away back home running a small restaurant; but after she seemingly wins a fight with cancer she and her son move in together, growing closer and coming to terms with any differences they've had over the years. Cancer's an insidious thing, though, and when Masaya's mother's disease returns the prognosis isn't good. You can see where this is going, right? So could I, almost immediately "Tokyo Tower's" opening credits finished, but despite my intellect being a bit offended at the film's bold-faced attempts to tug at my heart strings my emotions just couldn't resist. As Masaya must almost single-handedly buoy up his mother while she undergoes a grueling regimine of chemotherapy I didn't just find myself crying but sobbing, the depiction of her battle being so wrenching and, dare I say it, realistic. While I question if "Tokyo Tower" deserved to win the award for Best Film at the 2008 Japanese Academy Awards I would say that if you are ever in need a film that will clear out your tear ducts then this would be the one. CM

4. Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu (1953)

Along with Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu" Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 domestic drama "Tokyo Story" is recognized worldwide as one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema. It's story of an elderly couple, played by Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama, making the long trip from Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their grown children, who greet them with indifference and more than a bit of annoyance at being put out, has often been held up as the penultimate example of Ozu's themes of the disintegration of the Japanese family and the generational divide, which it certainly is. If any curious film fan wanted the equivalent of an "Ozu 101" then this would be it, but taken just on it's own merits as a film "Tokyo Story" is a devastatingly sad, if understated work. If the early scenes, featuring the old couple's grudging acceptance that their children have grown up only to disappoint them, are a perfect crystallization of the Japanese notion of mono no aware, best described as the "pathos of things" or the bittersweet sadness of life, then the final part of the film when the matriarch of the family returns home only to die of a cerebral hemorrhage, are pure, heartbreaking human drama. We watch as her children, played by So Yamamura, Haruko Sugimura, Kyoko Kagawa, as well as her daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara embodying once again the ideal Ozu woman) race to their father's side, quickly realizing that any unkindnesses towards their mother they may be guilty of can never be made right. Their hearts sink and ours sink along with them. I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed as the youngest son, Keizo (Shiro Osaka) excuses himself from his mother's funeral, saying that he can't listen to the priest's bell any longer, "because every time it rings it's like she's getting further and further away." I know I can't. CM

3. Nobody Knows - Hirokazu Kore-eda (2004)

A tug on the sleeve is a simple gesture. Towards the end of Hirokazu Kore-eda's second entry on our list though, it packs an emotional wallop. This story of 4 children (the eldest being 12) abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves is sad, beautiful, sweet and terribly maddening. Maddening due to the fact that it is based on actual events. Beautiful and sweet because of how we gradually get to know the wonderful children portrayed. And sad...Well, tragedy befalls the children in a pretty crushing way. After their mother leaves to go work in another city (promising to be back for Christmas), Akira is left in charge and struggles to do his best to buy food and keep his siblings (each from a different father) together as a unit. His younger brother Shigeru is a handful with a quick grin, older Kyoko is sensitive, shy and desperately wants to go to school and 5 year old Yuki is just simply adorable. The performances of these children are phenomenal, the time spent with them is very carefully crafted and we begin to notice all the little changes and situations that affect them. Maybe the hardest thing to witness is discovering why their Mom left them - there's simply no room for these kids in her new world, so she simply discarded them. As terrific as this film is in every way, I don't want to dig into any research behind the actual stories that inspired it - I'm not sure I can handle knowing what really happened. BT

2. Sansho the Bailiff - Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

When those of us at the Pow-Wow initially brainstormed potential titles for this list, one name that kept coming up was Kenji Mizoguchi. There is a good reason for that: much of his long, illustrious career is dedicated to the kinds of misery-drenched tales of suffering (especially for women) that seem designed to draw strong emotions, if not tears, from the viewer. "Ugetsu", his classic kaidan, was a strong contender at first, but I persistently fought for another film of his instead: "Sansho the Bailiff". The 1954 masterpiece is a real downer even by Mizoguchi’s standards, beginning on a grim note and plunging his characters continually further into tragedy. The story follows a brother and sister who are separated from their parents and trapped in a slave camp for several years. Throughout their strife-filled existence, they are helpless witnesses (and sometimes more) to several atrocious acts of cruelty dealt to disobedient slaves. For most of the film, the children and their fellow victims seem to exist for no other reason than to suffer, just as their tormentors seem to make dispensing misery their sole purpose in life. The tearjerker scene to trump the rest comes at the very end when the young man, against all odds, concludes the long search for his mother on a desolate beach that feels like it borders the end of the world itself. There, he finds an old blind woman withered with age, a mere shell of the person she was before her long trials began. This scene is cinema at its most potent and emotional, sure to leave you absolutely awe-struck…right before you call your own mother and suggest a reunion ASAP. MSC

1. Grave of the Fireflies - Isao Takahata (1988)

If this film doesn’t make you cry, you’re a robot. I probably should elaborate more, but that’s probably the only justification this film needs to be the number one Japanese film that made us cry. In the long history of animated films, it’s the one that proves they’re just as powerful, just as poignant, and just as moving, as anything done live action. It’s one of the greatest animated films ever made, one of the strongest anti-war films ever made. It manages to be so depressing, because it balances its all consuming sadness with the beauty of the brother/sister relationship, and never borders on melodrama. Seita will do anything for his younger sister Setsuko, and it’s this ultimate devotion between two young children that is so heartbreaking. It doesn’t force you to be sad, it doesn’t hand feed you the emotions you should be feeling through music or over wrought dialogue. Instead, it let’s you become emotionally involved on a naturalistic level, through its use of relationships and its visual poetry. And poetry it is, poetry in motion. It’s not constructed as a typical animated film, but more as a post war Mizoguchi or Ozu film. It creates beauty out of stillness and silence. It doesn’t become dependent on its animated medium, but transcends it, making it accessible for people of all ages. The medium also makes it more acceptable to depict the fatalistic culmination of the brother/sister journey. And it brings an immense amount of tears to your eyes. Tears that still well up even when you think about the film. It’s almost inevitable from the first firebombing of Kobe that this film isn’t going to end in a happy place, and yet each time you watch it, you’ll cry like a little school girl. MH


Bloodybastid said...

No Naked Island??

Leonard said...

Excellent choice for #1, and an excellent review of "Grave of the Fireflies". I haven't seen it for about 3 years, and I still have difficulty even telling someone about it, without choking up.

Melissa said...

Great list ... and what about tekkonkinkreet? Sobbed!!!