Each year the J-Film Pow-Wow picks our top films from the previosu 12 months. This year is no different, so during the next few weeks keep checking back for lists of which films captured the imaginations of our contributors. We kick things off with Chris MaGee's top picks of 2011!
*Note: This has been a very busy year, both professionally and personally for the crew of the J-Film Pow-Wow. Both matthew Hardstaff and Bob Turnbull have had life impinge on marathon moviegoing sessions throughout the year, so they will be chiming in with their top DVD releases, so you can start racking up your credit cards as well as add to your must see list.
1. Kotoko (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)
Director Shinya Tsukamoto has spent the last few years flirting with the mainstream. Sadly, efforts like "Tetsuo The Bullet Man" and the "Nightmare Detective" films felt more like a compromise than an artistic progression. What had happened to the Tsukamoto to frightened us with "Haze" or enticed us with "Vital"? Well, that Tsukamoto is back. Teaming up with his artistic muse, singer/ songwriter Cocco, Tsukamoto has produced a profoundly beautiful and disturbing portrait of one woman's struggle with mental illness. Self-mutilation, terrifying delusions and infanticide -- "Kotoko" is not an easy watch by any stretch, but it is a cinematic experience unlike any of us had this year, or in recent memory.
2. Wandering Home/ 酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう。 (dir. Yoichi Higashi)
Yoichi Higashi, the man who brought us the award-winning coming-of-age drama "Village of Dreams", had been absent from feature filmmaking for seven years, and many wondered when, or if, the 76-year-old director would step behind the camera again. "Wandering Home", the story of a fatal alcoholic and his struggle to get sober, finally broke Higashi's silence, and I for one am very happy. Tadanobu Asano, starring as real-life photojournalist Yutaka Kamoshida, delivers one of the best performances of his career; but besides some delerium tremens hallucinations there is no showy filmmaking here. "Wandering Home" is just a rock solid story about a very human struggle.
3. Milocrorze: A Love Story/ ミロクローゼ (dir. Yoshimasa Ishibashi)
For the past decade clips from TV Tokyo's late night comedy series "Vermilion Pleasure Night" have become viral sensations on Youtube. Now ten years later Yoshimasa Ishibashi, the man who brought us such zany clips as the One Point English Lesson and Oh Mikey!, delivers a full length feature film that further ups the zaniness ante. Interweaving three comic tales "Milocrorze: A Love Story" doesn't just win us over with laughs, but with wild creativity. Take a look at the opening sequence about a boy who covers the hole in his heart with a pot lid or the astounding slow motion sword battle to see what I mean. Still, the heart of "Milocroze" are the multiple performances by Takayuki Yamada. It's hard to think of any actor in Japan who could disappear into roles as diverse and strange as an abusive relationship councilor or a love starved samurai.
4. Ringing in Their Ears/ 劇場版 神聖かまってちゃん ロックンロールは鳴り止まないっ (dir. Yu Irie)
Japan's indie film scene is crowded with lethargic features centering around depressed and unemployed youth. Given that Japan has been suffering through a crippling economic crisis and this trend makes absolute sense. (The traumatic events and aftermath of March 11th only added to this bleakness). Still, it sometimes makes a movie lover pine for a film with energy and optimism... and we're not talking about the sappy variety of optimism on display in Japan's multiplex movie houses. 2011 saw an honest and uplifting film come from the indie scene -- Yu Irie's "Ringing in Their Ears". A trio of fictional stories are woven around real life indie rockers Shinsei Kamattechan, and the film climaxes in an electric live performance by the band.
5. No Reply/ 返事はいらない (dir. Satoru Hirohara)
Last year 24-year-old director Satoru Hirohara burst on to the international scene with his feature film "Good Morning to the World!!" This story of an isolated teen seeking out the owner of a lost satchel showed a lot of promise and ended up winning Hirohara the Dragons and Tigers Award at the 29th Vancouver International Film Festival. Still, "Good Morning" resembled many indie films by young Japanese directors. The question is whether Hirohara could follow through with another film. With "No Reply" Hirohara doesn't just follow through but totally outstrips his first feature. The slow single take, mid-shot aesthetic of “Good Morning to the World!!” is injected with true heart and soul with Hirohara introducing us to a young couple struggling with all the responsibilities that the word "love" brings.