by Chris MaGee
The first question that people ask me when they hear that I write about Japanese film is, "Who are your favorite Japanese directors?" It's a logical question, but it's one that I find always has me freezing in mid-conversation. With the full variety and scope of Japanese cinema it's hard to winnow down to a handful of directors and sometimes I find myself relying on the stable of old standbys: Yasujiro Ozu, Takeshi Kitano, Shohei Imamura, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kaneto Shindo, and of course Akira Kurosawa. When I answer like this I always feel as if I'm cheating, though. Not that these men haven't made some of my very favorite films of all time, but, like so many Japanese film fans, these were the filmmakers that lit the initial fire, but over the years it was a new batch of filmmakers that have fanned it and kept it roaring. So when I was asked by the folks at Wildgrounds to come up with a piece that would introduce people to unknown or unappreciated filmmakers I thought it was the perfect time to give the kind of answer to "Who are your favorite Japanese directors?" that I wish I had always given.
I figure that it's best to start with names people will most likely know and then work down to the more obscure. I'd be afraid that approaching this from the other way around would make me sound like a pretentious bore. One filmmaker who already has a huge fan base, but who was in jeopardy of drifting into obscurity is Toshiaki Toyoda. The 40-year-old former chess prodigy made a shift to film in the 90's penning screenplays for the films "Checkmate" and "Billiken", but it wasn't until later that decade that he made his directorial debut with 1998's "Pornostar", a dark revisionist "Man With No Name" Western set in Tokyo's Shibuya district. The film, although wildly uneven, had all the elements that would one day define his filmography: fully-rounded and often eccentric criminal characters grouped together into a surrogate family, chilling scenes of violence, hints of magical realism, and the use of music to drive scenes forward. Toyoda would hone these elements through his next two films, 2001's "Blue Spring" about a group of delinquents who've taken over a high school, and 2003's "9 Souls" that followed a group of nine escaped convicts as they searched for redemption. By 2005 Toyoda was flowering into full maturity with his take on the domestic drama "Hanging Garden", but an arrest and subsequent conviction for possession of illegal stimulants had him nearly permanently blacklisted from the Japanese film industry. Thankfully he's making a return with a new project, the period adventure "Blood of Rebirth".
Another filmmaker who I think is criminally overlooked is Akira Ogata, especially because I feel his films have the potential to become classics if they were seen more often. The 50-year-old Saga Prefecture native got his start working as a cameraman for punk rock director Sogo Ishii and then as assistant director on Katsuhiro Otomo's 1991 live-action feature "World Apartment Horror". With that kind of resume you'd expect more in-your-face content and flashy visuals, but the two features that Ogata has directed thus far are delicate, restrained character studies. His debut, 2000's "Boy's Choir" followed two teenage boys through a series of vignettes as they come of age in an orphanage where they both sing in a choir. Each stage and scene in "Boy's Choir" reminded me of some of the best short fiction of Yasunari Kawabata and Ryunosuke Akutagawa: keenly observed kernels of experience held together with a whisper of a plot and imagery that borders on the surreal. For his follow-up 2005 film Ogata built on the strength of "Boy's Choir" and delivered "The Milkwoman", the story of a middle-aged spinster who delivers milk in a seaside town and who falls in love with a married social worker. Again, nothing is overplayed, but the drama of the situation comes through loud and clear. I'm hoping that with Ogata's upcoming manga adaptation "Non-chan Noriben" that we'll see yet another insightful film from this magnificent director.
Regular readers of the Pow-Wow blog will know that I'm a big fan of a) documentaries and b) experimental film and video, so it wouldn't seem right that I didn't mention a few names here. With the recent Renaissance that documentary films have seen in the past few years I think that one of its most promising voices is Kazuhiro Soda. Disillusioned by what he perceived as being the cookie cutter nature of the documentaries he was making for such major Japanese broadcasters as NHK Soda decided the best thing to do would be to break all the established rules of these TV docs: cut or the narration that told you exactly what was happening, cut out the talking head interview segments, cut out the emotive music that told viewers how and when to feel. Instead of arriving at a formless mess Soda's two "observational films" "Campaign" about a college friend who runs for municipal office, and "Mental" (above) that chronicled a unique out-patients mental health facility, successfully jettisoned the baggage of documentary filmmaking to present a clear and meditative viewpoint of their subjects. He's also picked up some major accolades, including a Peabody Award for "Campaign" along the way. In terms of experimental film and video... well, where can I start? If I had to pick just one filmmaker to highlight here I would have to pick 30-year-old Takagi Masakatsu. The Kyoto-native has spent the better part of this decade producing simple but sumptuous short films using nothing more than a digital video camera and his Mac computer. Children playing in a park, the light reflected off water, fireworks, amusement park rides, a woman riding on horseback - these are just a few of the singular images that Masakatsu takes and digitally manipulates into... how is the best way to describe it... dream-like mirages of light and colour. His work needs to be seen by many more people.
To prevent my list of names of filmmakers who get me excited about Japanese cinema from dragging on forever I'll touch on just a few more very quickly. Short films provide a perfect jumping off point for young filmmakers, and it's in short filmmaking that I think we're seeing the next generation of truly visionary feature film directors. One who has just made the transition is Tsuki Inoue whose wonderful "A Woman Who is Beating the Earth" (above) has garnered almost universal praise for its unique look at domestic violence. Inoue has now parlayed that success into her first feature film "Fuwaka no Adagio" that is poised to hit the worldwide festival circuit. Another short film director whose vision could easily carry a feature film is Yoshihiro Ito. Working by day making medical documentaries Ito spends his off hours creating surreal, funny, disturbing and inspiring shorts that revolve around such absurd premises as a man who is afraid of the mackerel that his wife is cooking for dinner, or a couple who can't use their arms but attempt to commit double suicide anyway. Another filmmaker who knocked me on my proverbial ass during my recent visit to Nippon Connection 2009 was Aki Sato, one of the filmmakers in the all women collective Peaches. Her film "emerger", about the unlikely alliance struck between an injured woman and a gay man as they search for human connection, ended up delivering more emotional punch and visual power in its short 42-minute run time than did most of the films that I'd seen at the festival and most of the films I'd seen in the months leading up to it.
So, coming to the end of this brief list I realize that there are still a slew of names I could go on about: Masahide Ichii, Maya Yonesho, Masahiro Kobayashi, Yuki Tanada, Hisayasu Sato, Naoyuki Tsuji. Maybe I'll have to revisit this topic in the coming weeks or months... or I could always fall back on Ozu, Kitano, Imamura, and Kore-eda like I do when I get cornered at a party. That wouldn't be a bad thing either.