Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Our Top Ten Favorite Japanese Sci-Fi films

When many of us think of Japanese genre films we think of such tried and true forms as yakuza movies, chanbara films, horror movies and even softcore pink films. When it comes to a genre like science fiction, though, most people believe that Japan's contributions are limited to kaiju monster films and cyberpunk anime adventures. While some of these have definitely paved new ground for science fiction on screen it's a mistake to think that Japanese film has only given us men in rubber suits and dystopian animation. With that in mind we at the J-Film Pow-Wow wanted to present our top ten favorite Japanese sci-fi films. We think more than a few of these will surprise you, if only for their unique twists on this expansive cinematic genre. Enjoy!

10. Returner - Takashi Yamazaki (2002)

2002's "Returner" is by no means original: A determined viewer could chart its influences, scene by scene, from earlier (and better known) films, chief among them "Terminator", "Matrix" and "Independence Day". But what matters here is the execution, primarily in regard to creating world-class special effects in a U.S.-style blockbuster-type of film on a Japan-sized budget. At first blush the use of digital effects is limited to "Transformers"-style shapeshifting spacecraft and alien assault troops, but the DVD extras reveal that much of the film's scope comes from huge sets that don't exist at all other than as pixels generated by animators. This seamless CGI work would serve director Takashi Yamazaki well in his subsequent films, among them "Always: Sunset on Third Street" 1 and 2 and this year's "Space Battleship Yamato." Anne Suzuki is the emotional anchor the film needs as a time-traveler from a future Earth ravaged by war with extraterrestrials. Before you can say "Kyle Reese" she convinces anti-Triad, leather-trenchcoated ace gunman Takeshi Kaneshiro to aid her in her mission to stop this war with aliens before it starts. One of the film's less plausible elements is the villain, a crazed silver-haired Yakuza who wants the alien's weaponry for himself. But no matter. The bullets fly—in "Matrix" bullet time, no less—and our heroes utilize their wits, martial skill and a pinch of future technology to avert disaster. Yamazaki follows James Cameron's advice to young filmmakers: He keeps the camera low and keeps it moving. To his credit, the acting and action are effective, the CG work blends beautifully with the practical effects, and the result is a slick if derivative sci-fi film that succeeds as matinee-style entertainment. EE

9. Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell - Hajima Sato (1968)

"I think we're in for something that will blow our minds" says one of the characters in Hajime Sato's 1968 Horror/Sci-Fi film "Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell". If your mind doesn't quite get blown, I would venture to say that it may at least be a bit warped by the end. The movie opens with a lurid sky of red and orange as the backdrop for a plane in flight (blood red according to the pilot). Within the next few minutes we learn of a recent assassination of a British ambassador in Japan, see a bird have a bloody run in with the window of the plane, learn of a possible suicide bomber on board and see the plane crash after a close call with a UFO. You have to like a film that just dives right into things...The survivors - a politician, his wife, a weapons manufacturer, a psychiatrist, a young blonde American woman, the co-pilot, stewardess, the assassin AND suicide bomber - aren't getting along so well. There's great tension in the air that is exacerbated by the lack of water and made even worse when they find out via the radio that they are left for dead since search and rescue have no idea where they are as the plane has apparently simply disappeared. Of course, that's nothing compared to what happens once the assassin stumbles across the alien craft, has his head split open and then begins attacking the passengers one by one. It's all pretty silly, but scads of fun. Over-the-top acting? Check. Gory effects? You bet. Brightly lit and colourful environment? Oh yeah. Unsubtle political potshots? I'll put it this way, the politician says at one point: "Humanism! Just what we need!". Perfect goofy sci-fi entertainment. BT

8. Time Slip (a.k.a. G.I. Samurai) - Kosei Saito (1979)

At the centre of Kosei Saito's 1979 "Time Slip" (aka "G.I. Samurai") is a great performance by Sonny Chiba and a strong concept about a modern military outfit that travels back in time and meets samurai during the Warring States period. If it also has a bloated storyline, insignificant secondary characters and terribly misguided music, you can forgive it for the many things it does very well. Chiba plays Yoshiaki Iba, commander of a group of soldiers on maneuvers on a beach. Something seems amiss to them one night: Venus seems to be in the wrong spot in the sky and all their watches have stopped at exactly 5:18. Apparently caused by a solar flare of some variety, all the men on the beach and their vehicles and weapons are transported back in time. When they wake up they are back during a time of samurai and tribal warfare and seem to be right in the middle of a battle. They are able to repel the archers with their guns and this captures the attention of Kagetora, the leader of one of the tribes. Very quickly, Iba is drawn to him as well and realizes he has met a kindred spirit. Iba is frustrated by an inability to actually be a soldier as his life in the Showa Era is filled with peace and he can only lead his team through drills and exercises. Now he sees an opportunity to be part of history and participate in real battles. Kagetora invites Iba to help him conquer the country and to rule it with him - not simply because he has modern weaponry, but because he trusts and respects him. This relationship and the terrific half-hour long extended battle sequence are what make the movie work. It loses the opportunity to flesh out the many possibilities of how humans would respond to such a stressful and fantastical situation via its bland secondary characters, but fortunately that doesn't overly weaken the main premise: What would a man who wasn't made for these times do if he was brought back to the times he was made for? BT

7. 20th Century Boys - Yukihiko Tsutsumi (2008-2009)

From its city-stomping, poison-spitting giant robots to its elite police force dressed in Science Patrol-inspired orange jumpsuits and helmets, the near-future of "20th Century Boys" is a 9-year-old nerd's dream—in this case, literally. Summer 1969: Kenji, an elementary school student, passes his days with friends in a homemade grass fort writing the "Book of Prophecy," a science fiction tale of false prophets, doomsday viruses and terrorism on a massive scale. Fast forward three decades and the stories in the book start to come true, seemingly triggered by a masked cult leader known only as Friend. Based on his knowledge of the book, Friend must be one of their childhood chums—but which one? Over the span of three films and about 8 hours, the story of 20-year fight against Friend's tyranny unfolds, reuniting a small childhood gang in an effort to save the world from destruction. Well-documented (and apt) similarities to Stephen King's "It" aside, the three-film cycle of "20th Century Boys" is a vast entertainment, at times creating genuine tension and dread with its vision of a dystopian future. Elements of the story arc will feel familiar or even derivative to seasoned moviegoers, particularly fans of the original "Star Wars" trilogy and the "Lord of the Rings" films. (Ragtag group of friends on a quest to defeat a seemingly invincible foe, who happens to be faceless and represented by a giant eye symbol? Check!) And while very good across the board, the cast provides very few surprises in their roles. In fact, so cast to type are the actors that we had the mystery villain pegged 30 minutes into the first film. But the true star here is the scope of the future Japan depicted across the movies. Film one feels like an episode of "X-Files," all paranoia and conspiracy; film two a live-action anime, with bullet-dodging and virtual-reality time travel; film three—the best realized of the trilogy—runs the gamut from a walled-off Tokyo rebuilt to reflect the city of Friend's youth to flying saucers and a rock concert set against the backdrop of the world expo. None of the three films is a masterpiece, and each would benefit from cutting a half hour. But for fans of Japanese culture and near-future science fiction, there's no more fleshed-out realization of a world on the brink of chaos. EE

6. The Clone Returns Home - Kanji Nakajima (2009)

Surely one of the most impressive science fiction films to come out of Japan (and the East, for that matter) in recent years, Kanji Nakajima’s "The Clone Returns Home" adopts a fascinating approach to the familiar genre element of cloning technology. In the film, a space travel organization resorts to cloning human subjects in the event of fatal accidents – as a sort of life insurance in the most literal sense. The host’s memories are stored in a giant database, then uploaded to his clone(s) when needed. Nakajima mixes this ethically debatable method with the affecting story of Kohei (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), an astronaut who, as a boy, grew up alongside his twin brother Noboru (both youths played by real-life twins Ryô and Shô Tsukamoto) until an incident in a river resulted in the latter’s death. While on a mission, Kohei is killed, prompting his superiors to clone him shortly thereafter. This brings about a series of unforeseen consequences for the multiple Koheis that are created as well as his distressed wife. The film thus makes good use of the ideas surrounding cloning, but is ultimately a meditative study of childhood, sibling relationships, memory and identity. Stylistically, it bears a close resemblance to Andrei Tarkovsky’s own science fiction films – particularly "Solaris" (1972). Indeed, Nakajima, like the Russian master, situates most of the film in settings dominated by nature, enveloping the viewer and characters in rain, mist, wind, trees, rivers and fields overgrown with grass and shrubs. It is this vividly represented country setting that serves as the everlasting, time-conquered site of Kohei’s youth that he must revisit. The overall experience "Clone" offers is very much a spiritual one, its emotional core embodied by the anguished Kohei as memories of his mother and brother resurface and he struggles to find solace from the past. Gorgeously photographed and admirably crafted, "The Clone Returns Home" is an equally smart and stirring work of art. MSC

5. The Face of Another - Horishi Teshigahara (1966)

There are no futuristic cities, no spaceships, no aliens, time travel, clone or dystopian conspiracies - none of what has appeared on our list thus far - in our next pick for our favorite Japanese sci-fi films. What's behind Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1966 film "Face of Another" is a medical procedure so radical that it pushes it into the most profound science fiction territory. As were so many of Teshigahara's films "Face of Another" was based on a novel by absurdist author Kobo Abe and tells the story of Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), an engineer horribly disfigured after an industrial accident. When he's made an offer by surgeon Dr. Hira (Eiji Okada) to become the subject of an experimental new prosthetic, a brand new artificial face, Okuyama can't say no. What, though, are the ramifications of having a face that's not your own, a face of another. It's this basic philosophical question that drives Teshigahara's film. Okuyama soon begins to enjoy the anonymity of wearing a mask and begins to behave not like his old self, but a brand new person, a person without accountability and inhibitions. He even tries to seduce his estranged wife (Machiko Kyo) both as a way to reconnect with her, but as a kinky strategy to test her fidelity to him. Dr. Hira's concerns about his medical innovation begin to come true - what would happen if we could all wear masks, if we could take on personaes that are not our own and subsequently free us from any personal resonsibility? As Dr. Hira observes, "We would all be strangers to one another." Wearing a prosthetic face may seem a little far fetched, but viewed through our internet age the powerful metaphor of technologically granted anonymity takes on a whole new meaning. With so many of us relating to friends, family and often total strangers through faceless chat rooms, message boards and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter the dilemma that Okuyama finds himself in becomes disturbingly familiar. What other way can we determine the success of science fiction than when it becomes technological and sociological fact? That's exactly what Abe and Teshigahara did with the landmark film. CM

4. Tetsuo the Iron Man - Shinya Tsukamoto (1989)

Great science fiction is able to generate great new ideas, causing the viewer to think about realms of possibility previously uncharted. Shinya Tsukamoto’s stop motion phenomena "Tetsuo" manages to do just that, and in such a stark, gritty and original way. Combining the Kaiju film, avant-garde theatre and horror, Tsukamoto begins his penchant for exploring the realms of the human body; something our native David Cronenberg was much akin too. However Tsukamoto takes it to levels previously unseen. The kinetic style utilized by Tsukamoto may have been influenced by pre-cyberpunk genius Sogo Ishii, but Tsukamoto turned the human body into a thing of terror, mixing cyberpunk aesthetics with horrific visuals. And that’s not all. Through into the mix Tsukamoto’s base in theatre, particularly avant-garde theatre, and we get a film inspired as much by underground dance and stage performance as we do horror and science fiction. The use of the human body to express itself, not only as it fuses itself with metal, but also in its animated, theatrical motions, some of them dance like, becomes part of the vehicle that Tsukamoto uses to express himself. A frenzy of originality both narratively and visually, it also features the pulse pounding score by Chu Ishikawa. His industrial Armageddon styled sounds funnel mounds of anger and hatred onto the screen. You feel the grungy, post apocalyptic environment that actor Tomorowo Taguchi is becoming part of. As he becomes one with the cold, metallic world, so to does Ishikawa’s score become one with the images on screen. It’s a crazed, dirty mélange of sounds and images that create probably one of the most original science fiction films since the 1970’s. Yes, even more so than "Bladerunner". This is the anti-"Bladerunner". No shimmer. No beauty. No romantic notion of universal love between android and human (or android). No splendor with the union between man and machine. It goes against all of that. It pushes the genre into new, darker, realms. Places it should look. Inside of us. MH

3. Ghost in the Shell - Mamoru Oshii (1995)

It was practically a given fact that "Ghost in the Shell" would have a place on this list. One of the best known and most highly celebrated animes ever made, it is a certified classic of the cyberpunk genre and a key influence on "The Matrix." It follows cyborg police officers Batô and Major Motoko Kusanagi as they attempt to halt the sinister schemes of a mysterious criminal known as the Puppet Master. They search for him and his agents (some of whom serving him without even knowing it) through a futuristic Tokyo filled with colossal skyscrapers, colorful advertisements and grimy alleyways. The film has no shortage of action-packed sequences, some highlights including an enemy agent’s flight through a crowded market and the climactic battle between the heroes and a formidable, spider-like armored tank. Yet there are also some nice, quiet moments devoted to character and mood. At one point, the Major spends some of her free time diving to the darkest depths of the ocean. Afterwards, she and Batô drink beer and discuss what it means to be a cyborg in comparison to being human, the city’s lights glowing in the night behind them. There are also the wordless passages that simply focus on various areas of the giant metropolis, their poetic quality (partially created by Kenji Kawai’s dreamy score) certainly evocative of similar moments in "Blade Runner." "Ghost in the Shell" also poses many questions regarding what specifically qualifies as a life form and whether cyborgs and computer programs can possess souls. As the film glides along, it manages to balance all of these fascinating elements perfectly, ensuring that just the right amount of intense shootouts punctuate its clever and, some could say, prophetic depiction of cyberspace and information networks. MSC

2. Godzilla - Ishiro Honda (1954)

Throughout the American post-war occupation General MacArthur's SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) censorship policies forbid such themes and content as feudalism, the samurai code of Bushido, and the presence of the U.S. occupying forces themselves from Japanese movie screens. Besides these references to World War 2 were also forbidden, so the Japanese couldn't address the traumatic impact that the Allied fire bombings of Japan, the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent surrender by Emperor Hirohito had on their national psyche. In 1952 the U.S. occupation ended and so did its strict film censorship policies. Just two years later Keinosuke Kinoshita would finally allow the Japanese to grieve with his defining film "Twenty-Four Eyes" about a school teacher who must see her elementary school class grow up to become fodder for the front lines, but what Kinoshita's film didn't address or allow to be expressed was the monstrousity of warfare, the total destructive power that was unleashed upon Japan in between 1941 and 1945. One film, relased in the same year as Kinoshita's maudlin masterpiece, that took on this horror was Ishiro Honda's genre-defining monster film "Godzilla". Starting out with a thinly-veiled retelling of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru Incident in which a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to lethal levels of radtion from a U.S. nuclear test on Bikini Atoll, a fishing boat is mysteriously sunk. When a resuce ship is also sunk and the survivors speak about a gigantic "thing" that may have caused the two disasters Dr. Kyouhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) heads to a remote offshore island to get to the bottom of things. He soon discovers that the cuase of the nautical disatsers was a giant reptilian monster dubbed Godzilla by the island's natives. Godzilla has been awakened by U.S. nuclear tests and heads to mainland Japan to unleash its anger. While both Japanese and foreign audiences quickly latched on to the kitsch factor of the ungainly Godzilla suit used in production it would be a mistake to call Honda's original 1954 "Godzilla" anything other than an unrelenting allegory of WW2 and the A-Bomb. When the subject matter is too recent and too painful to address directly then what better way to tell the tale than through science fiction? CM

1. Akira - Katsuhiro Otomo (1988)

In my world, all science fiction begins and ends with "Akira". To an impressionable boy of fourteen, nothing in the science fiction world has obliterated my small feeble mind like Katsuhiro Otomo’s colossal masterpiece. It was the first film that opened my mind to Eastern religions beliefs, and did so in the form of bloody cancerous growth that consumed a large portion of Tokyo. It’s the one piece of science fiction that has been able to cross pollinate to other formats, and still retain its originality and scope (having Otomo do both the manga and the film obviously helps.) It falls in line with other great literary tomes like "Lord of the Rings" and "Dune", in which the worlds are so dense, filled with numerous intertwining tales, lineages that span unspeakable amounts of time, and history so finely detailed that the worlds become their own entity. What "Akira" lacks in literary density, it makes up for visually. Very few films are able to cram so many narrative and visual ideas into one 2 hour film. Each image speaks a thousand words. And that’s the other amazing thing about "Akira". It takes a huge manga, spanning thousands of pages, and condenses it into 2 hours. Not an epic 4 ½ monster like what is so popular now; instead all ideas are distilled into their perfect essence, and we are left with a science fiction film that explores the realms of religion, psychic combat, the origins of life and shifting nature of politics, and still retains its meditative stances on youth, the military and the moral corruption ultimate power brings. It’s frickin’ dense and frickin’ amazing! MH


keeperdesign said...

Each and every reader should be adding their own choices to the list here in the comments. Surely you can't all agree with the list 100%! Let's have some chatter, people!

Just to clarify, I enjoyed both "Returner" and the "20th Century Boys" trilogy but they are not my favorite JSF films by a long shot. I do think they represent significant things in the context of that genre, but if I have a choice between re-watching them or re-watching "Mothra", it's The Peanuts in grass skirts all the way!

Chris MaGee said...

I agree with Eric that you should all disagree.

trertertertertert said...

That Japanese film Fudge 44

Rorschach said...

I'm not an old movies fan, but I'm a huge scifi fan, and I'm not sure this list is so well informed on this matter. I'll just comment on the recent movies of yout list and add my own.

Returner is ok, but not great. Like many J-movies that look like shonen, the writing and characters are stiffed and quite cliché, lacking the sort of realism you'd expect from an adult movie. But it's an ok B-movie for sure.

20th Century Boys is worst than that. Except from the first installment that looks inspired by the masterpiece Monster and is truly fascinating and frightening and looks pretty mature, the second and the third are pretty weak and fairly disappointing (like stupid sequels built to cash on a great movie), and seem aimed at boys and teenagers with stereotyped characters, childish characterization, passive manichean heroic characters (the girl is so cheesy and stupid), huge plot holes left hanging and quite nonsensical resolution.

Battle Royale wasn't mentionned and offers a really interesting thinking on a society obsessed with real tv and violence. Oshii's Sky Crawlers is a less graphic but more poetic and philosphical take on the same subject.

Casshern could also be mentionned here for its visual qualities, even if its script is at times chessy and silly. Casshern sins, the anime tv series supposedly following the movie (which itself is an adaptation of an old tv series), is darker and better in its thinking and philosophical issues, without the cheese factor.

IMO, where Japan is really at his best in scifi -and a major player, with probably the most interesting, challenging and deepest take on our probable close future- is not in live movies but in animation, especially in seinen. You mentionned both Akira and Ghost in the Shell, those are actual masterpieces that Japan gave us, but there are other ones as important (if not more) as those:
- Ghost in the Shell: Innocence: this one is even better than the first in terms of thinking and art. It may be harder to get into it, because it's less obvious and more philosophical, but it's absolutly brilliant and it was built to be watched a few times before you can even scratch the surface of it. Over than that, it's absolutly magnifiscent and a fascinating reflection on our changing world and the issues our species will have to deal with. Oshii made a few other interesting scifi movies like Avalon (live action), The Sky Crawlers, Pat Labor
- Paprika (and all Satoshi Kon's work for the matter): is a brilliant psychanalitic exploration of the human mind through dreams, and the most obvious inspiration for Inception (-- but far far better than Inception that is just an action movie without real scifi in it over that its CGI and setting. The dream world in Inception does not look like a dream at all, while Paprika's dreamworld is genuinely crazy, unpredictable, escaping the laws of physics and logic). Other brilliant works from Satoshi Kon (always focused on the human mind): Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, Paranoia Agent (tv anime series).
- Summer Wars from Mamoru Osada: was a pretty good and sensible cyber world vs. real world movie, from the director who already gave us the Girl Who Lept Through Time, another pretty good poetic scifi movie.

In tv series anime, you also have brilliant inspirational pieces (as good that any movie mentionned above, and waaaaaay better (and more mature) than Returner or 20th Century Boys) like:
- Dennou Coil: on augmented reality.
- Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex on the dangers of a society that relies too heavily on its medias.
- Serial Experiments Lain
- Texhnolyze: on our dying societies and life force.
- Ghost Hound: another anime adapting a Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell) manga on the human mind.
- Ergo Proxy

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