The first film I saw at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival may also have very well been the best one. Eloquently constructed, it tells the story of tensions between two workers at a rural plastics factory, one of whom being eight months pregnant. The entire film is great, but its final scenes are some of the strongest and most heartfelt I’ve seen in a long while.
2. Freeter’s Distress (dir. Hiroki Iwabuchi)
This uber-low-budget film is probably my personal favorite of what I saw at Shinsedai. Not a documentary so much as a diary, it reveals the hardships of young Hiroki Iwabuchi as he struggles to make ends meet with just a part-time job, sometimes only just barely scraping by. It gives a whole new meaning to no-budget filmmaking.
3. Toad’s Oil (dir. Kôji Yakusho)
Mixing nutty, screwball comedy with heartbreaking drama, Kôji Yakusho’s debut film, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is seriously messy, but in a good way. Somehow, he makes it all work, stirring together a cross-country road trip, two touching father-son relationships, liberal doses of traditional folklore, one aggravated black bear and much more into a most pleasant viewing experience.
4. Aruongaku (dir. Tomohisa Takashi)
Another of the gems found at Shinsedai, this doc provides an insightful portrait of musician and video artist Takagi Masakatsu. Highly inspiring for anyone with creative aspirations.
5. Departures (dir. Yojiro Takita)
Japan ’s recent winner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar isn’t without its share of weak points or formulaic ingredients. However, it still holds up as an enjoyable, affecting and often funny film about life and death. Tsutomu Yamazaki in particular is marvelous, skillfully stealing every scene he’s in.
Top Five DVD Releases of 2009
1. AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa (Criterion)
Alas, my bank account and already extensive collection of the Emperor’s film’s ruled out the possibility of me getting this early on, but it’s still impressive enough to make me include it here – and salivate a little. While devoid of special features, the set would still make a wonderful addition to anyone’s DVD library, if only because it gathers together the bulk of Kurosawa’s films in one set. Also, the previously unreleased “Sanshiro Sugata,” “The Most Beautiful,” “Sanshiro Sugata Part II” and “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (all planned to be released separately by Criterion at some point) are definite draws.
2. Tora-San: Collector’s Set 1 (Animeigo)
I haven’t actually picked this set up or seen any of the films it contains, but I know enough about them to appreciate this release. The “Tora-San” series is one of Japan ’s most successful franchises and, at forty-eight films, easily the longest-running one. Now, thanks to Animeigo, its first four entries are available to North American audiences in a handsome package.
3. In the Realm of the Senses (Criterion)
Criterion certainly deserves props for releasing not one, but two films by Nagisa Oshima on their prestigious label (the other being his kaidan “Empire of Passion”), but this one’s release in particular is worth some congratulations. The famous, beautiful and chilling “In the Realm of the Senses” is still, to this day, censored in Japan for its graphic sexual content. That we have the freedom to see it as it was meant to be seen is a great gift; to be able to keep it on our DVD shelves and see it at our leisure is a true luxury.
4. Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu (Criterion)
I hadn’t really heard of Hiroshi Shimizu before Criterion’s Eclipse branch released this four-film set, but now he is one of my favorite filmmakers from Japanese cinema’s golden age. His stories of life on the road combine a gentle, generous spirit with the pleasures of discovering some of the more hidden corners of Japan in the 1930s and ‘40s.
5. Dodes’ka-den (Criterion)
Long known mainly for the disaster it brought upon Akira Kurosawa, “Dodes’ka-den” was finally given a respectable DVD release this year. A dazzling, bold and intimate display of creativity, it illustrates the great filmmaker’s talents outside of the jidai-geki and noir genres in which he created his more famous masterworks.
Top Ten of the 00's (in alphabetical order only)
Battle Royale (dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary and influential adaptation of Koushun Takami’s novel might have tipped into cheap exploitative spectacle, but, amazingly, the confrontational thriller manages to keep its sharp social critique intact every step of the way.
Bright Future (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)
A fascinating tale about jellyfish and unexplainable violence, “Bright Future” provides an emotionally affecting look at loneliness and the distance that lies between generations.
The Clone Returns Home (dir. Kanji Nakajima, 2008)
Noticeably influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky, this gorgeously shot study of identity and loss offers one more reason to celebrate the return of smart science fiction this past decade.
Departures (dir. Yojiro Takita, 2008)
See #5 on my Top Five Japanese Films of 2009
Dolls (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2002)
While I’d probably consider “Sonatine” to be my favorite Kitano film thus far, this is easily his most masterful.
Ichi the Killer (dir. Takashi Miike, 2001)
It’s been many years since I’ve seen the insane yet brilliant “Ichi the Killer,” but many of its images still linger strongly in my brain, as if carved there. Still one of Miike’s strongest films, it’s a must-see – if you think you can stomach it.
Nobody Knows (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004)
The first film of Koreeda’s I ever saw, “Nobody Knows” is a film of heartbreaking poetic beauty.
Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
As someone constantly on the lookout for high-quality fantasy cinema, I always look forward to seeing a Miyazaki film. Of the ones I’ve seen thus far, this one still deserves recognition as his masterpiece, and I think I’d be hard-pressed to find a worthy challenger for that lofty position.
Visitor Q (dir. Takashi Miike, 2001)
This film’s here simply because I couldn’t just pick one Miike, and also, of course, because of the way it amazingly combines the grotesque with tenderness, hilarity and beauty.
Vortex & Others (dir. Yoshihiro Ito, 2001-2008)
This is a fantastic, delightfully imaginative collection of shorts from filmmaker Yoshihiro Ito. He was possibly the most rewarding discovery from last year’s first Shinsedai Cinema Festival, and is definitely on my list of Japanese filmmakers to keep an eye open for.