Anyone who saw the movie understands. I can't wait to devote another 4 hours to watching it again! George Harrison famously bankrolled a Monty Python flick simply because he wanted to see a Monty Python movie. If I had Beatle money, I'd write Sono a blank check.
2. Fish Story (dir. Nakamura Yoshihiro)
Near impossible to describe how this film works. "An ornate puzzle of interlocking narratives describing how a punk album from the 70s saves the world from a meteor impact 30 years later" sounds appropriately quirky, but it doesn't convey the humor or charm or fun of the film.
3. Kamogawa Horumo (dir. Motoki Katsuhide)
Commercial and slick, yes, but soulful, exciting, and deeply goofy. Chiaki-chan plays geeky, there are lots of laughs, and the effects are great--what more do you want?
4. Nobody To Watch Over Me (dir. Ryoichi Kimizuka)
This may sound like clichéd police procedural, but honest performances and smart pacing elevate it. Japanese critics prefer "Dear Doctor" and I might have gone with "Fish Story", but if this film is seen by Oscar voters, it has a shot.
5. K-20/ Yatterman (tie), (dir. Sato Shimako/Takashi Miike)
2009 was the year of the superhero in Japanese cinema, and here are two very different examples of why. "K-20" is as Hollywood as a Japanese film gets, but in the best possible way. Sato (the Japanese woman director who inexplicably gets left out of the discussion) channels Raimi and Mulcahy but never copies them, and the result is a fun steampunk popcorn flick that's better with each viewing. Miike had 2 major hits this year, cementing his commercial status in his home country, but he didn't lose any of his edge--he just translated it into a family friendly format. Hollywood should take notice: You don't need $200 million or 3D to make a superhero story thrilling and fun.
Top Five DVD Releases of 2009
1. Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (Criterion)
Criterion has been a good friend to fans of Japanese film, with 2009 sticking out as a particularly rich year. "Pigs and Battleships", "The Insect Woman" and "Intentions of Murder" probably didn't look this good in theaters, and the inclusion of "Imamura: The Freethinker"--a mid-90s episode of French TV show 'Cinéma de notre temps' focusing on the filmmaker--was the kind of out-of-left-field surprise that Criterion is known for. Slipcased set, booklets for each film with essays, lots of extras.
2. Nikkatsu Noir (Criterion/ Eclipse)
Joe Shishido in his swaggering prime. I dearly hope that the Eclipse wing of Criterion is profitable enough to continue, because these collections are deeply wonderful. Devoid of the more elaborate packaging and bundled extras of their pricier cousins, sets like "Nikkatsu Noir" nevertheless provide crisp, clean, restored versions of films that dearly want to be seen. Slipcased slimline set in the Eclipse style.
3. Debauched Desires: Four Erotic Masterpieces by Masaru Konuma (Kimstim)
Synapse may get the flashier releases and Pink Eiga may be more complete an overview of the genre, but Kimstim takes the pinky cake for this shockingly affordable and genuinely sexy 4-DVD set. "Wife To Be Sacrificed" is the title everyone will know (and rightfully so, it's a must-see), but each of the others--"Tattooed Flower Vase", "Cloistered Nun: Runa's Confession" and especially the beautifully composed "Erotic Diary of an Office lady"--deserve to be appreciated. Barebones packaging.
4. 893239: Yakuza Niju-Sanku (Kuro Tokagi Gumi)
Originally a YouTube challenge to create a yakuza-themed film for ¥100,000 or less (about US$1,000), "893239" collects dozens of entries ranging from the dark to the comic to the avant garde. The films vary from the slick and professional to the barebones-budget amateur, but they're nearly all surprisingly entertaining and most are subtitled. Barebones packaging.
5. Icons of Science Fiction: Toho Collection (Sony)
Three cheers for Sony for making a legit copy of "Mothra" available at last, and at a low price. "H-man" and "Battle in Outer Space" round out the set, and the world is that much closer to having all of Eiji Tsuburaya's awesome work on subtitled DVD. Barebones packaging.5
With all the talk of woman directors in Japan, Ogigami is strangely overlooked. All of her films are funny and charming, but "Kamome Diner" has the best combination of accessibility and just-this-side-of-twee characterization that mark her work. Imagine Wes Anderson's world filtered through a feminine, Japanese viewpoint and you're pretty close, with the notable exception that Ogigami's characters are far more realistic. Sort of.
2. Zatoichi (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2003)
As much as I enjoyed the somber "Dolls", Kitano's re-imagined "Zatoichi" is his most accessible movie. Kitano--always an interesting if uneven director--lost his way a bit in the second half of the oughts, but the goodwill he generated with this smart, funny crowd-pleaser is still buoying him. I wish he had envisioned this as the start of a series.
There's been a bit of a backlash against quiet, quirky comedies of late, but for me "Fine, Totally Fine" is above criticism. It's quite possibly the most perfectly cast film in recent memory, without one weak link or false note. YoshiYoshi Arakawa is the film's standout, aptly described by nearly half the world's reviewers as gormless; Kimura Yoshino plays against type as a wallflower and completely pulls it off.
4. Machine Girl (dir. Noburo Iguchi, 2008)
The film that started the dreaded splattergore subgenre. I'd argue that Takashi Miike had much more to do with turning on western audiences to the more, uh, extreme elements of Japanese cinema, but Iguchi's first widely seen feature gets all the blame. It's certainly over the top in a way few films are, and plenty of fun besides.
5. Always san-chôme no yûhi/ Always: Sunset on Third Street (dir. Takashi Yamazaki, 2005)
A huge commercial hit that also cleaned up at the Japanese Academy Awards, "Always" is polarizing: What some see as warmly and unabashedly sentimental others saw as cloyingly saccharine. I saw the movie without any preconceptions, and I deeply enjoyed it for what it was--a nostalgic trip through a pre-neon Tokyo with characters that, while idealized, were lovable. It also employs some of the most convincing CGI ever.
6. Taste of Tea (dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)
A crazy, creative exploration of the unconventional Japanese family, "Taste of Tea" is the nexus of Ishii's narrative storytelling and bizarre visuals. It's a great litmus test DVD: If you show it to that special someone you're dating and they don't like it, ditch them and move on--they're not right for you!
7. Kiraware Matsuko no isshô / Memories of Matsuko (dir. Tetsuya Nakashima, 2006)
"Matsuko" is a deeply melancholic story told in the vernacular of the technicolor musical, a singular work of visual art. It's not always a pleasant experience watching, but the juxtaposition of the downbeat narrative with such striking visuals, well… it's not quickly forgotten.
8. Suwingu Gâruzu/ Swing Girls (dir. Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004) The film that cemented Juri Ueno's celebrity and launched the careers of a half-dozen other young actresses is the best and brightest example of the Japanese high school 'losers become winners' film. Very similar to Yaguchi's preceding hit "Waterboys" but possessing a charm and rhythm all its own.
9. Ichi the Killer (dir. Takashi Miike, 2001)
Probably a less successful film that Miike's "Audition", but with little doubt the most deranged and violent yakuza film ever made. The art house crowd might have been able to appreciate "Audition" despite its gruesome bits, but "Ichi" is take it or leave it, in your face moviemaking that is as vibrant and shocking now as it was nearly 10 years ago.
10. Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu/ Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (dir. Shohei Imamura, 2001)
Imamura lost none of his edge as he aged, but he may have tempered it a bit. While sexually charged, "Warm Water" is more memorable for its magical realism. The number of filmmakers still creating unique, distinctive works 40 years on into their careers is not long, and as his last full-length film, "Warm Water" reveals Imamura to be as potent at 75 as he ever was.