Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2001

23 January 2002

by ,

And so we come to the inevitable end-of-year lists. Midnight Eye looks back at 2001, the year of its inception.

(The votes of the Best of 2001 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is...)

Tom Mes

Looking back at 2001, it's hard to believe that Midnight Eye only properly started in late March. Here we are doing a year-end review and we weren't even in existence for more than 9 months out of that year. It's thanks to the overwhelming reception the site has received from all of you out there that we hardly feel like newcomers anymore. Which is of course what we are, especially compared to such stalwarts as Kinema Club or the Mobius Home Video Forum.

All in all we came in at the right time. 2001 was the year of Battle Royale, Takashi Miike, Brother, Eureka, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the demise of Suncent films, the record-breaking success of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, and the welcome return of veterans like Seijun Suzuki and Shohei Imamura. With such high-profile activity, we could have picked a worse year to start a website on Japanese cinema.

When we (Jasper Sharp, Martin Mes, myself and occasionally Joep Vermaat) started giving shape to the seed of an idea I'd had sometime in the spring of 2000, our goal was to focus on the films and filmmakers which were not already receiving attention in the mainstream press. Glancing through even the more dedicated film magazines of the last few years, contemporary Japanese cinema seemed to consist of Takeshi Kitano, Takeshi Kitano and Takeshi Kitano. Ambitious as we were, we were hoping to change this by filling a website with opinionated writing on all facets of contemporary Japanese cinema.

And things have certainly changed. It now seems that Kitano is almost overshadowed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose masterpiece Cure was released in the US, followed by a travelling retrospective of his work and an imminent Hollywood remake of Pulse), Takashi Miike (whose uniquely outrageous cinema and astoundingly prolific output amazed everyone), Hayao Miyazaki (whose Spirited Away sank Titanic at the Japanese box office and made world news as a result), Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale and another batch of retrospectives) and Shinji Aoyama to name but a few. It's thanks to the great films of these people - and, let's face it, the not so great recent work of Kitano himself - that the tides are changing. In our heart of hearts we are so bold as to hope that Midnight Eye has played at least a minor part in affecting that change.

It's a great start, but there are still so many inhumanely talented Japanese filmmakers who still aren't receiving the recognition they so richly deserve (Makoto Shinozaki for example). As long as these people still toil away in obscurity, Midnight Eye's task is not yet done.

Thank you all for being there with us, and have a great year!

Tom's top five Japanese films of 2001

1. Electric Dragon 80,000 V (dir: Sogo Ishii)

Cinema at its purest: sound and vision, both delivered to spectators at levels of outrageous intensity. Another landmark film by a landmark director.

Visitor Q (dir: Takashi Miike)

A phenomenon in itself: the cinema of Takashi Miike. Though he also gave us one of the worst Japanese films of the year - the dismal Family - Visitor Q was that rare combination of an intelligent screenplay filmed with a remarkably consistent set of stylistic and narrative devices. Forget about shock value, this film has other things on its mind.

3. Not Forgotten (Wasurerarenu Hitobito, dir: Makoto Shinozaki)

Despite a lack of commercial success, Not Forgotten more than lived up to the promise of its predecessor Okaeri. Amid the increasingly self-absorbed films delivered by other directors of Shinozaki's generation, Not Forgotten stands out by daring to be fictitious, which ironically makes story and characters feel all the more human and real.

4. Bad Company (Mabudachi, dir: Tomoyuki Furumaya)

Taking two Stanley Kubrick films as his model, Furumaya returns from a seven-year hiatus with a scathing attack on an educational system more concerned with brainwashing than teaching. A film both harrowing and touching, and mandatory viewing for everyone who saw the similarly-themed Battle Royale.

5. Pistol Opera (dir: Seijun Suzuki)

Maybe it wasn't the film for those who cling to retroactive mythmaking about its director, but as in the case of ED80,000V, Pistol Opera was a film that stepped beyond narrative to become thoroughly cinematic. That it was theatrical at the same time only proves Suzuki's accomplishment. A comeback of grand proportions.

Honourable mentions

Pulse (Kairo, dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Further proof, if any proof was still needed, that when it comes to genre cinema, Kiyoshi Kurosawa stands at heights his fellow filmmakers can only dream of.

Nekojiru-so (dir: Tatsuo Sato)

Striking surrealist animation, based on the work of the late manga artist Nekojiru. Though only 30 minutes long, it's a marvel from start to finish.

Worst film of the year

H Story (dir: Nobuhiro Suwa)

An infuriating, tedious, sad, self-indulgent and anti-cinematic mess which should have Nobuhiro Suwa ostracized from filmmaking.

Favourite non-Japanese films (in no particular order)

  • The Way of the Gun (USA, dir: Christopher McQuarrie)
  • Memento (USA, dir: Christopher Nolan)
  • Sur mes lèvres (France, dir: Jacques Audiard)
  • Sous le sable (France, dir: François Ozon)
  • Amores Perros (Mexico, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
  • Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (France, dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (USA/NZ, dir: Peter Jackson)

Jasper Sharp

Another year relegated to the annals of history, another one begins. But before 2002 gets into full swing, it's time to look back on the various cinematic high and low points during Midnight Eye's first year of existence. As the international film press gather round to predict this year's hotshots for the Oscars, the consensus seems to be that 2001 delivered very few offerings of particular merit. Well, not being one of the ones queuing up to see such mega-budget turkeys as Pearl Harbour, Dungeons and Dragons or Tomb Raider, I can't agree at all.

For those prepared to cast their jaded eyes beyond California, the last year has delivered as rich pickings for cinemagoers as any other. There's been an outstanding selection of films from Korea, France, Hong Kong, Iran - I can't say I've seen as many of them as I'd have liked to, but at the same time, I've seen more than enough to make picking favourites a difficult task.

If there has been any notable trend over the year, it's been that Hollywood's hold on the non-English-speaking world does seem to show some sign of slipping. In Asia, the top grossing films in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan were all domestic releases. Still, with the major studios still operating a virtual monopoly of distribution, I doubt too many Tinseltown accountants are quaking in their boots. At the same time, I found it quite heartening to find that a subtitled film like Amélie can still pack out cinemas in London. It seems that audiences are not quite as unreceptive to foreign language films as we're led to believe.

From my vantage point in the UK, as far as Japanese cinema went, the big news was the inevitable Battle Royale. Critical opinion in the popular press varied, with the more conservative British reviewers unable to detect anything beyond Fukasaku's hyperbolic violence, though generally the film received surprisingly good reviews. This film, and accompanying retrospectives of the director's work in London and Bristol still gathered enough momentum with the British public to finally put Fukasaku's name on the map after a good 40 years in the industry, as well as doing no end of good in directing a number of curious viewers to Midnight Eye. Similarly, Takashi Miike's first foray onto UK shores in April met with enough gushes of approval to convince audiences that there's a lot more going on in Japan than the handful of releases over the past few years might have led one to believe. On the flipside, Aoyama's Eureka and the belated release of Oshima's Gohatto, despite meeting with nods of approval from the critical establishment failed to capture the public's imagination to quite the same extent. To my mind, Takeshi Kitano's first filmmaking foray outside of Japan, Brother, also proved a bit of a damp squib in comparison to his earlier masterpieces, though there are those that disagree...

The Japan 2001 celebrations in the UK also gave us such gems as the Barbican Centre's showcasing of the beautiful animations of Studio Ghibli, including a long overdue release for Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. The Tony Rayns curated Unseen Gems from Japan season provided a mixed bag of goodies, with delights such as Love / Juice and Not Forgotten nestling with curios such as The Hair Opera and genre classics as Gonin, and Raindance were kind enough to follow a few of my scheduling suggestions resulting in the first UK screenings for Visitor Q, Tokyo Trash Baby and Harmful Insect. Unfortunately the ICA's brief week of Takenori Sento's productions suffered due to a lack of significant press, being lost amongst a host of other cinematic activities going on in the capital at the time and perhaps being hampered trying to cram in too many films into too short a time. As I write, a retrospective to the great Akira Kurosawa is going on in the National Film Theatre. Yes, it's been a good year for Japanese in cinema in London. I can only pray that 2002 will deliver a similarly wide selection of treats from the East.

For those without access to the large-screen delights that capital living furnishes, there's been some pretty damn impressive DVD releases for the home cinema crowd as well. I wept with joy at the news that The Blind Beast was finally getting the treatment it deserved with a US release from Image Entertainment, as well as a handful of classics of cult cinema in the form of Female Convict Scorpion, Black Tight Killers and a couple of Koji Wakamatsu sexploiters. In the UK, Pagan Film's DVD treatment of Suzuki's masterpiece Gate of Flesh provided one of the highpoints of the year, as well as the two Lady Snowblood titles and the full series of Baby Cart films coming from Arts Magic Ltd on their Warrior label (sorry we haven't reviewed them all guys - there's only so many hours in the day!). There were also the British Film Institute's releases of three worthy Kurosawa titles; Yojimbo, The Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, and the French were lucky enough to be graced with some nice-price classics from Ozu, Kinugasa and Mizoguchi - now if only they'd provided English subtitles!

Well, without further ado, onto my personal faves of the year. Bear in mind that the result is limited to films I have seen during 2001, and having spent the first 6 months of the year in Amsterdam and the latter half in London (not to mention those titles that were only shown at film festivals), release dates may have differed in other parts of the world. There's probably plenty more that should have been on the list, but these are the films that immediately spring to mind as I look back on 2001.

Jasper's top five Japanese films of 2001

1. A Tender Place (Yawaraka na Hou, dir: Shunichi Nagasaki)

God, I would do anything to see this film brought to a wider audience! One of the most moving and inspiring uses of DV I have ever witnessed. An outstanding piece of cinema, whatever medium, whatever language.

2. Not Forgotten (Wasurerarenu Hitobito, dir: Makoto Shinozaki)

Showcased during the Tony Rayns season at the NFT, there was not a single dry eye in the house at the end of this film. Okay, so the ending was slightly fudged but the preceding two hours were a joy from start to finish and I can honestly say this was one of the most touching films I have witnessed in a long time. After this and the beautiful Okaeri, I can't wait to see what Shinozaki has up his sleeve next.

3. Battle Royale (dir: Kinji Fukasaku)

Sure, like Not Forgotten, Battle Royale's narrative might not hold up completely under close scrutiny, but the film still backs an incredible emotional gut punch that holds up again and again with repeated viewings. There's far more than blood and gore to this particular classic (though there is a lot of blood and gore too...)

4. Hotaru (dir: Naomi Kawase)

Miss Kawase's works haven't been widely circulated in the English-speaking world, but the French sure know a good thing when they see it. Her raw, unmediated documentary realism completely won me over in this powerfully hypnotic story of an unlikely relationship. A rare gem indeed.

5. Uzumaki (dir. Higuchinsky)

Goofy tongue-in-cheek comic book grotesquerie from Higuchinsky proves that there's life in the Japanese horror film yet. Undeniably weird, but curiously unforgettable.

Honourable mentions:

Firefly Dreams (Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu, dir: John Williams)

He may not be Japanese, but he represents a far preferable alternative to the future of Japanese cinema than some directors I could mention. This beautifully shot rite-of-passage movie has been picking up awards left, right and centre on the festival circuit. More than just a curio.

Electric Dragon 80,000 V (dir: Sogo Ishii)

Like a bolt of lightning to the hypothalamus, Ishii sums up the entire appeal of Japanese cinema in a cosy 50 minutes. A cult classic - just don't forget your earplugs!

Worst films of the year

Visitor Q (dir: Takashi Miike)

Sorry Tom, I beg to disagree. It's not that it's the worst Japanese film I've seen all year. It's just that Miike's Love Cinema effort seemed far too calculatedly abrasive for me. Miike is an undeniably talented filmmaker. I just wish he'd slow down his output, lay off the bodily fluids and deliver something a bit more worthy of his skills.

Roji-E (dir. Shinji Aoyama)

A short film (well, I guess 50 minutes is short, compared with the epic running time of Eureka) that tried the patience of the entire audience I saw it with. I've tried, my God, I've tried, but I just can't see the appeal of this director.

Favourite non-Japanese films (in no particular order)

  • In The Mood For Love (HK, dir. Wong Kar Wai)
  • Amores Perros (Mexico, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
  • Memento (USA, dir: Christopher Nolan)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (USA/NZ, dir: Peter Jackson)
  • La Moitié Gauche du Frigo (Canada, dir: Philippe Falardeau)
  • The Circle (Iran, dir: Jafar Panahi)
  • Blackboards (Iran, dir: Samira Makhmalbaf)
  • Kandahar (Iran, dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
  • Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Korea, dir: Hong Sang-Soo)
  • Together (Sweden, dir: Lukas Moodysson)
  • The Others (Spain/USA, dir: Alejandro Amenabar)

Worst non-Japanese Film

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)

The critical establishment loves Michael Haneke. Like his previous Funny Games, I personally felt like murdering the guy by the end of this execrably self-indulgent, pseudo-intellectual piece of shit. In the UK, the Turner Prize for Art was won by a guy who turned a light on and off. Similarly, the Cannes jury heaped lavish praise on Haneke's film. Personally I don't believe that "Art" is about delivering "elliptical" pieces that challenge the audience/viewer. It's about communicating emotions, not about alienating the public, and films like this set the cause of international cinema back by decades. Anyway, I'd rather watch a light flashing on and off for two hours than ever have to sit through another Haneke film.

A big thanks to everyone one of you all that offered your help and encouragement in getting Midnight Eye off the ground, but special plaudits to:

  • Martin Mes (for his amazing behind-the-scenes wizardy in coming up with a beautiful looking site - Midnight Eye's unsung hero)
  • Stephen Cremin (walking Asian film encyclopaedia)
  • Hideki Hayashi, Osamu Kojima and Yumiko Tahata (Japanese lessons!)
  • Pete Tombs
  • Ray Edgar
  • Aaron Gerow (Kinema Club)
  • Todd Harbour, Mark Wickum and Richard Harland Smith (MHVF)
  • Roland Domenig
  • David Sin (the ICA)
  • Suzanne Ballantyne (Raindance)
  • Adam Newell