Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2011

1 January 2012
picture: Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2011

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Midnight Eye editors Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp weigh in with their choices in Japanese cinema for the year 2011.

Tom Mes

Despite all the changes the Japanese film industry has been undergoing since the turn of the millennium, what remains unchanged is the vibrancy and quality of the indie/amateur jishu eiga scene. We can add to this the promise found in the works of the graduates and alumni of an increasing number of film schools, with the Tokyo University of the Arts delivering some particularly outstanding talent these past few years. Whether the industry can or is willing to accommodate them, though, remains a serious concern.

The middle ground left vacant after the virtual demise of V-cinema is partially filling up again, thanks largely to the renaissance of Nikkatsu. Their Sushi Typhoon label is currently developing from a savvy marketing ploy into a full-fledged production outfit for very intriguing medium-budget genre films. Sion Sono figures into this pretty heavily, having upped the ante with the astonishing Cold Fish.

Meanwhile, other established auteurs continue to subvert and bend rules wherever they can, be it in blockbuster circles like Takashi Miike (though I have yet to see Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) or in a more uncompromising manner like Shinya Tsukamoto or Toshiaki Toyoda (whose Monsters Club I also couldn’t catch this year).

In no particular order, my favourites of 2011 were:

The Best:

Cold Fish (Tsumetai Nettaigyo, dir: Sion Sono)

I only, finally, got around to seeing this after watching Guilty of Romance, the film that is in every way its successor. This tale of manipulation and murder is not what most people would consider modest and subtle, especially during the repeated scenes of dismemberment. It is however a film that people should consider a masterpiece.

Although Denden’s turn as the cackling, overbearing fish trade magnate is the more obviously imposing, to me it was Asuka Kurosawa who truly shone as the villain’s wife whose silent waters run deep and dark. Kurosawa is an actress we see far too rarely, but when we do – see also Shinya Tsukamoto’s A Snake of June – she burns her way off the screen and through our retinas, remaining forever lodged in our nervous systems, moving up and down the spine, back and forth between the brain and the loins.

Kotoko (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)

Tsukamoto’s most uncompromised – and uncompromising – film since A Snake of June. Though like most of the director’s film it is in part a synergy of all that came before it, the title that Kotoko echoes most clearly is Vital. Pop singer Cocco’s lead performance is outstanding, bolstered by the kind of unconventional physical presence that you wouldn’t find in a professional screen actor.

Boys (Otoko no Ko, dir: Daishi Matsunaga)

Matsunaga’s enthralling documentary Pyuupiru 2001-2008 was one of last year’s revelations, but it offered few clues as to how the director would fare on a narrative fiction film. Well, he fared magnificently. Despite being only 30 minutes in length, Boys, a tale of bullying and the solace of a woman’s breasts, is a triumph of subtle direction and observation.

Abraxas (Aburakusasu no Matsuri, dir: Naoki Kato)

Punk rocker-turned-Buddhist priest suffers a nervous breakdown for lack of noise and adrenalin. His resolve to reunite with his old band mates for a one-off live show in his quiet coastal hometown sees him struggling with his neighbours as much as with his inner demons. A deeply cathartic celebration of non-conformism that is all the more touching for having been shot in a pre-catastrophic Fukushima.

Door to the Sea (Umi e no Tobira, dir: Reiko Ohashi)

The program of graduation films by students of the Tokyo University of the Arts was one of the highlights of the 2011 Nippon Connection festival. Among the five films presented, Reiko Ohashi’s Door to the Sea was the true discovery: an understated love triangle, directed with the confidence and eye for detail of a seasoned veteran. I was proud to be on the jury that made this the runner-up of the Nippon Visions competition (behind the grand prize winner, Go Shibata’s subversive and unrelenting Doman Seman).

A note to all Japanese film producers: hire this director or retire for being unfit for your job!

Guilty of Romance (Koi no Tsumi, dir: Sion Sono)

Like Cold Fish, Sono’s latest oozes enthrallingly perverse sexuality and is populated with memorable characters (Makoto Togashi’s professor-by-day, hooker-by-night is beyond fatale). But its true qualities lie, again, in the subtle details. I’m curious to see how the full-length cut that premiered in Cannes compares to the shorter version that was eventually released and which, in my opinion, should have been even shorter to focus more squarely on the transformation of its protagonist.

Kyojima 3rd Street, Sumida City (Kyojima Sanchome, Sumida-ku, dir: Kota Yoshida)

The second short film in my list this year, one in which the director of the superb Yuriko's Aroma shows that he doesn’t need to tackle deviant behaviour to prove himself a keen chronicler of man- and especially womankind.

Underwater Love (Onna no Kappa, dir: Shinji Imaoka)

Okay I’m somewhat biased here, but in spite (or because) of having seen the screenplay develop through successive drafts, I was truly amazed how touching, beautiful and whimsical this film is. And it has only impressed me more upon repeated viewing.

The Days After (Nochi no Hi, dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda)

The wonderful Air Doll demonstrated that Kore-eda finally discovered that art and commerce need not be at odds in cinema. His second work for hire, part of the otherwise so-so Kaidan – Horror Classics omnibus of supernatural stories made for national broadcaster NHK, sees him (and us) thoroughly convinced.

Midori-ko (dir: Keita Kurosaka)

A unique, beautifully hand-crafted, surreal animation whose only let-down is that it didn’t go as far into its subject matter as it could have. A bit more Cronenberg and a little less fairy tale would have given Midori-ko the edge it needed to become truly unforgettable.

Honourable mention:

Teto dir: Hiroshi Gokan

The other discovery from the Tokyo University of the Arts program at Nippon Connection. A surrealist spy saga crossed with Terayama-style experimental-theatrical shenanigans, wrapped in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa-esque vibe. And this is a student film...

The Worst:

Bunny Drop (Usagi Doroppu, dir: Sabu)

Superficially pleasing, but superficial is about as deep as this maudlin, naïve, conservative fluff gets.

Jasper Sharp

2011 was a so-so year for Japanese film, in my opinion, and one also shared by Mark Schilling in his Japan Times article ‘BEST OF 2011: Lacking powerhouses, it was a lean year for Japanese movies’. I’ll actually have to confess to not catching many of the mainstream releases. They simply didn’t appeal. Instead I kept my eye on the indie sector, as reflected in my programming for Zipangu Fest. This is basically where all the interesting stuff seems to be happening at the moment.

I’ll also confess to watching rather less Japanese films this past year than usual, in favour of works from other countries. Is Japanese cinema losing its sparkle for me? Perhaps, certainly current releases, although there’s plenty of old classics still unknown in the West which I’m enjoying discovering. But the contemporary commercial scene? Let's just say that some of Tom’s choices I agree with, some I haven’t seen, and some of them I was either indifferent to or actively hated. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which belong to the latter group, but for now, the best (not in strict order)...

Into Your Star + other works (dir: Takashi Makino)

Difficult to pinpoint which of Makino’s mesmerising visual and aural voyages into the abstract is my personal favourite, but as Into Your Star was first shown in 2011, I’ll settle on this particular title while also emphasising that encountering the experimental films of Takashi Makino for the first time was nothing short of an epiphany. These are films that need to be seen in an immersive theatrical environment, not on DVD, so if they pass anywhere near you, don’t miss them.

Melting Medama (dir: Sayaka Oku)

Hypnotic, ever so slightly grotesque, first-time animated short that really demonstrates the expressive potentials of the medium. One of the discoveries that made my year.

Holiday (dir:Ryo Hirano)

Another animated short in my top ten? Maybe because this year I was struck by how visually un-engaging and baggy in their storytelling so many contemporary Japanese feature films are. Another discovery, Hirano’s work in general really impressed me this year, with Holiday really highlighting the levels of passion, talent and inventiveness one can find in the world of independent animation.

Midori-ko (dir: Keita Kurosaka)

Another masterstroke of hand-crafted indie animation, unique, darkly beautiful and powerful stuff.

A Night in Nude: Salvation (Nudo no Yoru: Ai wa Oshiminaku Ubau, dir: Takashi Ishii)

This characteristically over-the-top, tautly-plotted and sexy film noir was so chockfull of gratuitous nudity and violence that it detracted from the fact that its director is such an amazing technical craftsman, and one of the few directors in Japan at the moment who can light a scene and move his cameras to make a film that actually looks cinematic. Maybe not the most politically correct of works, but certainly an enjoyable way to pass one’s time. I’d personally like to see a lot more of Ishii’s recent work screened in the UK, as he seems to have rather fallen from favour of late, but in this instance you can blame greedy and obstructive international sales agents for making such an occurrence a financial impossibility.

KanZeOn (dirs: Neil Cantwell, Tim Grabham)

OK, it's not Japanese, but there are so many Japanese-made documentaries that make no attempt to make their subject look visually interesting, or that understand the concept of pacing and narrative, that I feel the need to single this one out just as an example of how things can be done. One of the things that immediately leaps in this meditation on the ritual role of sound in Japanese tradition and religion is an aesthetic style that perfectly matches the subject matter, in which image and sound are given an almost equal expressive priority. As well as conveying visually and aurally that which can only be conveyed visually and aurally, which to me has always been the essence of cinema, KanZeOn transports the viewer into an unfamiliar world, an unfamiliar mental space, while revealing an innate understanding of its subject that digs far beneath the surface ‘exoticism’, unlike such other foreign documentaries on Japan as Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo.

Abraxas (Aburakusasu no Matsuri, dir: Naoki Kato)

Kato’s film belongs to a distinctly Japanese genre, also occupied by Yamashita’s Linda, Linda, Linda, in which the film coasts along for about 90 minutes with nothing really consequential happening until its principle agents all take to the stage to belt out a heartfelt, raucous dollop of noise, raising the pedestrian to the sublime in the beat of a heart. By no means a perfect film, but one that’s difficult not to come out smiling from.

Boys (Otoko no Ko, dir: Daishi Matsunaga)

Great to see Matsunaga’s first stab at fiction after last year’s documentary Pyuupiru 2001-2008. I actually preferred this. For a 30-minute short it manifested a remarkably adept grasp of pacing and plotting, it looked great, and there was an actual sense of purpose to it too. I think we’re seeing a really interesting filmmaker emerging here.

Hiroshima Nagasaki Download (dir: Shinpei Takeda)

Touching and meditative road movie documentary of two college buddies travelling across North America interviewing survivors of the A-bombings who have made their home there. This list may look remarkably like my programme for Zipangu Fest last year, but it’s pretty difficult drawing a line between my role as a critic and as a curator. Let’s face it, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have shown it!

Shirome (dir: Koji Shiraishi)

Low-budget Japanese cinema is at its best when it’s at its most inventive, as with Tetsuaki Matsue’s Live Tape from two years ago. With Shirome, Shiraishi provides a totally off-the-wall hybrid of J-pop and J-horror that is far more entertaining, especially when seen with an audience, than anything from either field. Totally one of a kind.

The Worst:

Milocrorze: A Love Story (dir: Yoshimasa Ishibashi)

I absolutely detested this film, which amplified everything that I hate about a certain strain of modern Japanese cinema and its overseas fan-boy appreciation. The ‘quirkiness’, the puerile humour, the absolute lack of honesty, subtlety and substance... Yeeuuugh!!!!!