Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2012
- 14 January 2013
- Tom Mes
- Jasper Sharp
- Catherine Munroe Hotes
- Julian Ross
- Roger Macy
- Marc Saint-Cyr
- Eija Niskanen
- Mark Player
Seen from Tokyo, the year 2012 has been too diverse to draw any overall conclusions on "the state of Japanese cinema today". For this, I refer you to Jasper's entry below, which I agree with to a certain extent, but with the aforementioned diversity strongly in mind. I for one look forward to the new year, and its first signs are good.
Aside from the titles listed below, there were a fair number of worthwhile films from various nooks and corners of the Japanese film industry. These include Odayaka (Odayaka na Nichijo), a characteristically Cassavetes-styled drama of post-Fukushima angst from Love Addiction director Nobuteru Uchida, Tetsuya Nono’s ode to rock and motorbikes A Road Stained Crimson (Akai Kisetsu), Kota 'Yuriko's Aroma' Yoshida’s cheeky farce Ochiki, Juichiro Yamasaki's rural drama The Sound of Light (Hikari no Oto) and Tatsushi Omori’s absurdist dark comedy Bozo (Botchan). These will likely pop up at a festival near you over the course of 2013.
1. The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (Fugainai Boku wa Sora o Mita, dir: Yuki Tanada)
That I am a fan of Yuki Tanada should be no secret to anyone who has been reading this website for the past few years. Moon and Cherry still ranks as one of my favourite Japanese films of the past decade, and Ain't No Tomorrows remains a standout. But past merits do not guarantee a top spot, or even inclusion in a top ten. The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, however, simply raises the bar even higher than its predecessors and confirms Tanada as Japan's first truly major filmmaker to emerge in the new millennium.
2. Saudade (Saudaji, dir: Katsuya Tomita)
Working class odyssey and new hope for Japanese cinema, indie and otherwise. One of the true must-see Japanese films of recent years.
3. For Love's Sake (Ai to Makoto, dir: Takashi Miike)
Yes, Takashi Miike makes his films for the sake of love, but this one didn’t receive much of it from Japanese audiences. It’s their loss.
4. Dreams For Sale (Yume Uru Futari, dir: Miwa Nishikawa)
A frustrated wife decides to turn her husband’s penchant for infidelity into a source of gain after their restaurant business has burned to the ground. Nishikawa delivers proof that high concept can breed human cinema.
5. Our Homeland (Kazoku no Kuni, dir: Yonghi Yang)
A maker of great personal documentaries delivers a great personal first fiction.
6. GFP Bunny (GFP Bunny Tariumu Shojo no Purogramu, dir: Yutaka Tsuchiya)
GFP Bunny's free-form yet deeply thought-through style and narrative make it both unclassifiable and refreshing. This should be mandatory viewing at film school entrance ceremonies.
7. Lesson of Evil (Aku no Kyoten, dir: Takashi Miike)
Where For Love’s Sake failed, this one did succeed in setting the local box office ablaze. Remains to be seen whether it will do anything abroad after the tragic, real-life gun massacres we’ve been forced to witness of late. At least Miike’s surprisingly dry handling of the abundant violence here deflects any accusations of Lesson of Evil being exploitative or fetishistic.
(NB: Japanese film distributors, you do not get to overrule English grammar.)
8. I'm Flash (dir: Toshiaki Toyoda)
Returning to a more accessible narrative style, Japan’s Rock ’n’ Roll Tarkovsky seems to gradually be heading back to the point where he left off a few years ago, before his forced exile from filmmaking. Can we at last look forward to that oft-rumored biker movie?
9. Samezame (dir: Kumiko Hoshizaki)
The outstanding entry in the 2012 edition of the consistently interesting Peaches Festival / Momo Matsuri program. This short is a succinctly told, funny and well-observed little tale of a relationship gone stale. Very promising indeed.
10. Since Then (Are kara, dir: Makoto Shinozaki)
A return to form for the director of Okaeri and Not Forgotten, which sees him back in the territory of his widely praised 1995 debut, but with a post-3/11 twist. Though the flat, digitally shot images do undermine the power of the compositions, their lack of depth paradoxically also suggest the solitude of life in drab, functional interiors with perhaps more force than the 16-mm Okaeri did.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sho Miyake's Locarno-selected Playback looks great in monochrome, but produced by an actor's agency and starring its entire roster of talent, it's indulgent and aimless instead of the intelligent reflection on film acting it likes to think itself to be. If it's an intelligent cinematic exploration of playacting and performance you're looking for, watch Takashi Miike's Deadly Outlaw: Rekka from 2002 instead. Celebrity photographer Mika Ninagawa's sophomore directorial effort Helter Skelter is a dramatically limp adaptation of Kyoko Okazaki's edgy manga that reveals its hand (and its lead actress's other physical assets) far too soon. Past Yubari Grand Prize winner Yosuke Okuda's first professional film Tokyo Playboy Club, which screened in competition in Rotterdam, gave the distinct impression that its director's true character lies very far from tough guy posturing. It's my hope that the talented Okuda will one day make a truly honest film. My House, finally, saw blockbuster hack Yukihiko Tsutsumi mistakenly believing himself to be a filmmaker.
However, the dubious honours in this category go to:
Isn't Anyone Alive? (Ikiteru Mono wa Inainoka, dir: Gakuryu Ishii)
Yes, there are countless worse films made every year by what is generally considered the mainstream of Japanese film, but one does not expect any better from those. One does, however, expect better from Sogo Ishii, whose name change sadly has not stopped the downward trajectory of the quality of his films.
The past few years have hardly been overwhelming ones for Japanese cinema from my perspective. When we first started Midnight Eye back in 2000, the films of directors such as Sogo Ishii, Mamoru Oshii, Ryuichi Hiroki and Shinji Aoyama represented everything that the films of my country weren’t - boundary-pushing, stylish, innovative, enigmatic, but still somehow relevant and engaged with a contemporary reality. In contrast, the scene has grown really tired of late, not to mention tiresome. At present, I can barely bring myself to keep up with much of the new releases, just so that I can say I’ve seen the latest potboiler about a schoolgirl rap band, some drippy jishu about an alienated Office Lady, or another nostalgic high-gloss remake with bad CGI of a 1970s cartoon series that wasn’t even part of my nostalgia in the first place. And don’t get me started on Japanese documentaries… let’s just say that basically anyone can string a load of talking-head interviews together and label it a "documentary".
In the meantime Britain has produced a new wave of really extraordinary talent, figures like Peter Strickland, Ben Wheatley, and Richard Ayoade, to name but a few of the more recent ones. We do big budget better too (ok, Skyfall might have had American money in their somewhere, but we can still count it as culturally British, and with a British director in the form of Sam Mendes). Even ostensibly middle-of-the-road dramas like John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel work brilliantly on their own level - funny, touching, humanistic, this is a film I can unreservedly and unapologetically say I enjoyed and would recommend to everyone. And then there’s the feel-good flicks like Fast Girls (Regan Hall)… bouncy and pacey enough to at least do what they say on the tin, which is to entertain. Or Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Harry Potter outing, The Woman in Black, which also marked the long-awaited revival of Hammer studios – while it might not have trod new narrative ground, it made for a beautifully shot and remarkably efficiently constructed shocker.
So is it me that has changed? Quite possibly. It certainly doesn’t seem to be Japanese cinema, that’s for sure. After a good 15 years of trying to keep up with what’s going on in the scene, one begins to get irked by quirk, one grows intolerant of films taking the seemingly standard running time of 128 minutes to tell a story that could have been told in under 90 (and in many cases probably didn’t need to be told at all), and one pines for something that actually deals with some of the issues of the day in an intelligent adult fashion – which in 2012, both in Japan and globally, there were certainly no shortage of such issues.
I can’t help feeling we’ve reached an impasse, in which a fairly mediocre and wildly inconsistent talent such as Sion Sono gets hoisted aloft by the fanboy community as a trailblazer for the industry, mainly because, as far as I can see, people really seem to need such a figure. If it wasn’t him, it might well be someone else. We’re all looking for the next big thing, after all. The point that worries me is that since we started Midnight Eye, the words “Japanese cinema” have ceased to become used as just a description applied to a body of films from a specific geographical area. They designate a genre in and of itself, whose overseas viewers have come to expect a certain type of product, which is catered for by distributors, sales agents and festival programmers, and sadly, increasingly by the filmmakers themselves. Japanese cinema seems to be eating itself before our very eyes.
It might not all be terminal. Whenever I jaded feel like this, I go back and re-watch the films of Shohei Imamura, Hiroshi Shimizu, Seijun Suzuki or Yasuzo Masamura, and I’m reminded, no, it isn’t me that’s changed. I just don’t think there’s anyone out there capable of directing something like The Ballad of Narayama, Red Angel or Gate of Flesh at the moment, much less the industry support for it.
I’m also highly mindful that there have been times when I’ve felt like this before, that the next best thing always seems to come from out of nowhere when you least expect it, and that there are good films to be found, one just has to look harder and in different places. I’m not an unconditional lover of Japanese cinema, as you’ve probably guessed by now. I do think in the past the country has produced some exceptional films, directors and cinematic movements. But I also think that we do the industry as a whole a wild disservice if we continuously champion substandard or run-of-the-mill films.
Nevertheless, here are a few titles that caught my eye over the past year which, as far as I’m concerned, most definitely aren’t substandard or run-of-the-mill.
Top Japanese Films
1. The Echo of Astro Boy's Footsteps (Atomu no Ashioto ga Kikoeru, dir: Masanori Tominaga)
I don’t usually do my Best Of lists in any sort of order, but in this case I honestly think this was the best Japanese film I saw all year. It’s already a few years old now, and has done a few festivals, but I don’t think it has reached the audience it deserves. I suspect it is the mention of the words “Astro Boy” in the title that puts off potential viewers, who assume its appeal is a niche one. But you don’t have to know anything about Japanese animation, nor even its other main focus, which is the history of experimental electronic music in Japan, to be moved by this fascinating portrait of a remarkable individual. This is truly a little gem of a film, telling a touching story with an amazing "reveal" at the midpoint. I absolutely adored it, and it seems that most of the people who saw it when I programmed it at Zipangu Fest this year where in accordance that it was the best film of the festival. Forget everything I said about Japanese documentary!
2. GFP Bunny (GFP Bunny Tariumu Shojo no Purogramu, dir: Yutaka Tsuchiya)
GFP Bunny’s director Yutaka Tsuchiya is almost a unique figure in Japanese cinema. He seems to exist in a bubble, one of the few filmmakers I can think of who consistently reinvents himself with every film, and who doesn’t seem to be constantly peering over his shoulder looking at whatever everyone else is doing. And he has a clear project, a definite view of Japanese culture and society, which really seems to cut through all the crap. It is a tragedy these sort of projects are so hard to raise financing for, and that consequently he gets to make a film so seldom. Mercifully 2012 was one such year.
3. Saudade (Saudaji, dir: Katsuya Tomita)
I think this one falls into that category of flawed masterpieces that seem to appear from Japan every year. While I admire the epic scope of its drama, there’s no doubt that it could have benefited from a few nips and tucks here and there to bring it in at a slightly shorter running time, and a few of the more naïve scenes trimmed entirely (the dope-smoking scene, for example). But it did immerse this particular viewer in an entirely unfamiliar but recognisable world, and it definitely deals with some important subject matter. It’s also rather fun. Well worth a look.
4. Generator (dir: Takashi Makino)
More great stuff in the abstract experimental field from Takashi Makino, this time inspired by last year’s catastrophe at Fukushima. I can’t help wondering what direction Makino will head with this particular style in the future, but I’m quite happy to immerse myself in the here and now of it all. While on the subject of experimental film, I should also give an honorary mention to the Shinkan Tamaki, whose monochrome abstractions on 16mm film such as Climax (2008) and Sailing Across Images (2012), I also showcased at Zipangu Fest, although I’d say it's the Jim O'Rourke soundscapes that give Makino’s films the edge.
5. Somi - The Taekwon-do Woman (dir: Chang Yong Bok)
This Japanese-North Korean co-production might seem something like a cheat in my top 10 for 2012, in that it was not made in Japan, nor even by a Japanese director, and is in fact 15 years old. I think it is valid for inclusion because of its Japanese financing and the fact that its screening at Zipangu Fest was literally the first time it was ever shown in the West, as close as it will get to an official premiere. It’s essentially old school Shaw Brothers-style chop-socky relocated to medieval Korea, and with surprisingly strong production values. I loved it for two reasons. Firstly, on a personal level, it’s really exciting when one can resurrect a pristine print of a film no one has ever heard of before. Secondly, and tied in with the word “pristine” – in a year which saw the digitalization of cinema production and, in particular, exhibition, nearing completion, who knows when I’ll next have the sheer joy of seeing a virgin 35mm print projected – and what colours, what textures, what definition…
Only five this year, because I was very selective about what I watched in terms of new material from Japan.
Event of the Year:
Zipangu Fest 2012
I hope you’ll indulge me for dwelling rather too much on the festival that I curate, London’s Zipangu Fest. It might seem a little conceited singling out something I’ve organized myself as the best event of the year. The fact is that firstly, I didn’t get out and about as much to other festivals or events as I’d wanted. Secondly, given my ambivalence about much recent Japanese cinema, and the fact that I’m not sure at present in what form this festival will actually continue, we decided to go all out this year, and show stuff that I personally love.
So to see one of my favourite Japanese titles, Matango, shown from 35mm (again, a near pristine print), was a sheer pleasure – and it was also a moment of rare beauty to see Kaizo Hayashi’s savvy 1986 homage to Japanese silent cinema, To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume Miru yo ni Nemuritai), projected from film too, the first time I’ve seen it in over ten years, and this was followed by Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Crossways (Jujiro, 1928) premiering with its new score from the band Minima at the same event – well, it was all very moving.
And more so because of the venue we used this year, the Cinema Museum in Kennington. Since discovering this magical, eccentric space earlier in 2012, I’ve been a regular attendee of its events. If you are a London-based cinephile and you’ve not been yet, then you should really slap your face for your stupidity, and be confined to an eternity of overpriced popcorn, audience members checking their mobile phones every minute in your periphery vision and shoddy digital projection.
Best of the Rest:
I should point here, I didn’t get to the cinema as much as I wanted this year, and was a more little conservative with my viewing than usual – although I did get round to watching a lot of older films. While all of these listed favourites happen to be British, I don’t think it was quite as strong a year for UK cinema as 2011. Nevertheless, I didn’t see very much from other countries, so that’s the reason for the strong patriotic tone to this list.
- 1. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)
- 2. Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, UK)
- 3. The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK)
- 4. Project Nim (James Marsh, UK)
- 5. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, UK)
I don’t think either of these were the worst films I saw this year, and I have to say, I was largely attracted to both through the technological aspects of their projection, but for various reasons, I found Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit to be disappointments.
Best General Event:
I know, a bit of a cheek adding another event here. Thing is, I think I saw more old stuff this year than new releases, and the one classic which I’d never seen but thought was absolutely astounding, was Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). If only the full 24-reel version still existed!
Also, great seeing 35mm projections of two Hammer films: Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (Terence Fisher, 1973) at Jeonju Film Festival in Korea, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Roy Ward Baker, 1971) at the Cinema Museum, with Martine Beswick in attendance.
Catherine Munroe Hotes
In past years I have contributed my top indie animated shorts of the previous year, but this year I thought I’d come up with a list that reflects my eclectic tastes. From guilty pleasures to the high brow, here is my top ten in no particular order:
Encounters (dir: Takashi Iitsuka)
This is the first of what I hope will be many "Super Organic Battle Action Adventures" from up and coming director Takashi Iitsuka. Using neither stop motion nor CG effects, Iitsuka’s action figure drama is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the great monster movies of Ishiro Honda and the supermarionation techniques of Gerry and Sylvia Andersons. A true delight for fans of cult film classics.
The Woodsman and the Rain (Kitsutsuki to Ame, dir: Shuichi Okita)
I hardly recognized young heartthrob Shun Oguri in the role of rookie schlock movie director Kochi Tanabe in this light comedy-drama by Shuichi Okita. Hunched over and with his hair in his eyes, Oguri nails the role of a shy, geeky young director in training. The real star of the film; however, is Koji Yakusho as the woodcutter who discovers a passion for filmmaking – with the hilarious running gag of one of Japan’s most recognizable movie stars playing a character ignorant about how a film set works. Following on the heels of his 2009 hit Chef of the South Pole (which I refuse to call by its grammatically ridiculous “official” English title), Okita is a young director worth keeping an eye on.
The Great Rabbit (dir: Atsushi Wada)
Wada’s first international co-production (CaRTe bLaNChe / Sacre Bleu) won him the prestigious Silver Bear at the Berlinale in February. The story plays upon the irony of calling such a benign creature as a rabbit “great” and can be read metaphorically as a warning against the dangers of worshipping false idols. A brilliant short animation in Wada’s characteristic thin line drawing style.
663114 (dir: Isamu Hirabayashi)
In January 2012, experimental filmmaker won the Noburo Ofuji Prize for innovation in animation with his profound response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima disaster. Using an ancient cicada as a metaphor for life on this planet, Hirabayashi emphasizes the endurance of nature – albeit in a mutated form – in the face of repeated human folly.
Last Fragments of Winter (Fuyu no Tampen, dir: Edmund Yeo)
Tokyo-based Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo’s latest cine-poem uses the lyrical beauty of Shinagawa-go blanketed in snow as a metaphor for both the ephemeral memories of an idyllic past and an eternal place where weary souls may go to rest.
Dreams for Sale (Yume Uru Futari, dir: Miwa Nishikawa)
Nishikawa continues to explore the dark underbelly of the human soul in her latest feature film. It is the story of a husband and wife who turn to a life of crime after a fire destroys their izakaya. Instead of just impersonally robbing businesses, the pair make it personal by fooling people looking for love into an engagement and then fraudulently “borrowing” money from them. Nishikawa always gets great performances out of her actors and this film is no exception, with a particularly impressive performance from Takako Matsu (Villon’s Wife, Confessions) as the wife.
Coming Out Story (dir: Kei Umezawa)
A tender documentary about the transgender activist Itsuki Dohi. The film is remarkable for its ordinariness. There are no flashy camera movements or artsy shots. The focus is simply on telling the story of Dohi, her friends, her community, the other transgender people whose lives she has touched, and her efforts to bring awareness to the human rights concerns of those of varying sexualities/genders. Many films about transgender people focus on outlandish transvestites or people who have been the victims of hate crimes. The transgendered in this film are shown to be just regular folks who are active members of their community. Dohi teaches math and runs a broadcasting club, one of the young people she is mentoring is an out and proud young trans man working in a care home for the elderly, while others are students just barely out of puberty who are just embarking on the path of coming to terms with their true identities.
Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko, dir: Naoko Ogigami)
This film’s premise would be completely ridiculous if it were not in the capable hands of Naoko Ogigami (Kamome Diner, Megane). Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa) seeks solace in cats after the death of her grandmother. To earn a living from her hobby, she rents the cats out to people in need of comfort. A delightful balance of the comedic and the sentimental.
Kiya Kiya (dir: Akino Kondo)
Painter and mangaka Akino Kondo’s latest animated short once again features her bob-haired alter ego Eiko. In addition to her usual insect imagery, Kondoh uses a kamishibai cabinet – a traditional form of storytelling with pictures drawn on paper – as a central metaphor in the film. Kondo was inspired by the archaic expression "mune ga kiya kiya suru" because it expresses the feeling of unease mixed with nostalgia that she expresses in her work. This feeling of unease is amplified in Kiya Kiya by the soundtrack which was composed by the American avant-garde artist John Zorn.
Shing Shing Shing (Shin Shin Shin, dir: Kohei Sanada)
Inspired by the folksy song of the same title by 70s band Happy End, Sanada’s graduate film from Tokyo University of the Arts is beautiful in an understated kind of way. It tells the story of a collection of people living together in a kind of surrogate, transient family as they have been torn from their blood ties by alcoholism, personal tragedy, or just plain family quarrels. Their tale of trying to get by selling okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) at rural matsuri (festivals) is also the story of the decay of small towns as they lose their industry and population due to continuing economic hardship. Despite the gloominess of his subject matter, Sanada manages to keep the film from wallowing in misery and there is much hope to be found in the bonds of friendship and his beautiful widescreen framing of both rural and urban landscapes. Kudos to both Sanada and his cinematographer Saori Nishi.
My non-Japanese top 5 (also in random order):
- Barbara (dir: Christian Petzold, Germany)
- Monsieur Lazhar (dir: Philippe Falardeau, Canada)
- Amour (dir: Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany)
- Tabu (dir: Miguel Gomez, portugal/Germany/France)
- De rouille et d'os (dir: Jacques Audiard, France/Belgium)
5 animated shorts:
- Wild Life (dir: Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, Canada)
- Tram (dir: Michaela Pavl&aacut;tov&aacut;, Czech Republic/France)
- Dimanche (dir: Patrick Doyon, Canada)
- Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto (dir: Johan Oettinger, Denmark)
- A Morning Stroll (dir: Grant Orchard, UK)
In no particular order.
Best Japanese Films
- Generator (dir: Takashi Makino)
- The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masa Adachi and the 27 Years Without Images (dir: Eric Baudelaire)
- Never a Foot Too Far, Even (dir: Daichi Sato)
- Initial Vapor (dir: Rei Hayama)
- It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve – Masao Adachi (dir: Philippe Grandrieux)
- No Man's Zone (dir: Toshi Fujiwara)
- Like Someone in Love (dir: Abbas Kiarostami)
- here and there (dir: Ryohei Shimada)
- 2012 act. 5 (dir: Takashi Makino) (in 3D)
- African Dub (dir: Tamaki Shinkan) (performance)
(Keiya Ouchida) (1970) at Nippon Connection
(Yoji Kuri) (1964-1969) at Laputa Art Animation School
Children Hand in Hand
(Susumu Hani) (1964) at Asagaya Laputa
America America America
(Kenji Kanesaka) at Spelling Dystopia exhibition (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography)
(Rikuro Miyai) at Spelling Dystopia exhibition (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography)
(Toshio Matsumoto) (1960) at Experimental Ground 1950s exhibition (Museum of Modern Art Tokyo)
Nanji ka Itsuka Shinunone
(Michiko Sasaki) (1974) at The 1970s in Japan exhibition at Museum of Modern Art Saitama
(Shindo Kaneto) (1954) at BFI Southbank ‘Two Masters of Japanese Cinema: Kaneto Shindo and Kozaburo Yoshimura’ retrospective
(Takahiko Iimura) (1963/2012) performance at Place M gallery
(Shuji Terayama) (1974/2012) – performance with Henrikku Morisaki at the Tate Modern Shuji Terayama retrospective
From a very skewed and antediluvian list, but here goes:
Our Homeland / Kazoku no Kuni directed by Yonghi Yang. It’s a tricky business to make a feature film that is explicitly about your own family but Yang has skilfully avoided most of the pitfalls to make a fine film, which follows her two documentaries on the same subject. A father, of south Korean origin, sends his children to be educated in North Korea, with which he shares ideological affinity. The fictionalized film seemed to me to show, in the expatriating father, an abuser in denial, but when I put this to Yang at Nippon Connection, she said that she didn’t see ‘my father’ in this way. The film, in any case, explores the complexity of divided loyalties in a far more subtle way than my blunt question suggested.
Casting career actors in the main parts was actually not without risks, in view of the language competences and affinities they had to portray, but I thought Sakura Ando and Arata Iura were excellent in the main roles of sister-who-stays-in-Japan and brother-who-is-tied-to-the-north. Sakura Ando, in portraying a thinly fictionalized version of her director, must have needed considerable professionalism to be so convincing. Arata Iura was also far more convincing in this role than either of the two films I have seen him in in 2012 under Koji Wakamatsu. It clearly transpires that the erstwhile documentary-maker Yang, is a fine director of actors and her Oscar nomination will hopefully ensure that we see more her art.
No Man’s Land / Mujinchitai, the documentary by Toshi Fujiwara, is easily the best film I have yet seen on the subject of Tohoku’s triple disaster. Completely avoiding the easy travelling shots of destruction, inserted by many other filmmakers, he has focussed on families displaced, or threatened with displacement by the Fukushima meltdown. Fujiwara has the patience to let his subjects ask him some of the questions.
Thermae Romae, directed by Hideki Takeuchi was no masterpiece but served up an enjoyable entertainment film – at least it did for me because I managed to see it before any of the marketing hurrah that accompanied it. The jokes were serviceably funny if you haven’t seen the trailer ten times with each of the jokes badly told. If you’ve seen the trailer even once, I couldn’t recommend the film.
Kotoko, directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, was in a different vein but stood out from other close-focused dramas that I have seen. Tsukamoto himself acts the part of a ‘writer’ and the film seems briefly to turn into his fantasy but was primarily in the mind of the psychotic Kotoko. But Cocco was seriously good as the insecure mother.
I preferred Land of Hope / Kibo no Kuni to Sion Sono’s previous direction, also seen this year, Himizu. The relationship between fantasy and reality was better structured; and the music was not abusive, in fact it was intelligently melodramatic.
My other five best are all old films seen for the first time this year.
Dai Chushingura, Kinugasa’s 1932 take on the much-filmed epic was shown at Bologna in part 1 of the festival’s strand on early Japanese sound films. The usual soundbite on Kinugasa was that he declined rapidly from his Crossroads, but I have never been able to take a view myself. His post-war Gate of Hell is now out on DVD but he made many well-regarded films in-between. For sure, Dai Chushingura doesn’t look much like Page of Madness, but my understanding of Aaron Gerow’s book is that we would be unsafe to read this as a film of the 1920s. His 1932 film – a very early Japanese talkie – shows strong visual style and intelligent use of sound.
The Girl I Abandoned / Watashi ga Suteta Onna, directed by Kirio Urayama in 1969, was cherry-picked from the Tokyo NFC’s Nikkatsu season, by digging into my handy copy of Alexander Jacoby’s ‘Critical Dictionary of Japanese Film Directors’. It’s intelligently structured and makes some wry commentary within a popular film format. That the film’s location-shooting was on my jogging route was an unexpected bonus.
Haha / Mother, 1963, was shown as part of the BFI retrospective on Kaneto Shindo who died this year just before the season started, just short of a hundred. Haha has superb performances from Nobuko Otowa, Haruko Sugimura and Taiji Tonoyama. Shindo wrote few strong male roles, but Tonoyama’s taciturn character stood out. The deathbed scenes were given shorter treatment and greater depth than in his previous films – at the beginning where a single zooming shot set up a counterpoint to eros and life. And at the end in Sugimoto’s gaze.
I also enjoyed seeing several films previously only known by reputation in the Isuzu Yamada season in Jinbocho. Yamada’s virtuosity, both as a classical performer, and as an actress in contemporary roles, continually impressed. As a Mother, as a Woman, 1952, gave a rare opportunity to see a film by Fumio Kamei, made during the period the two were an item. Kamei, for once, respects the melodrama format and light-pedals the messaging. However, all those English-language speed-signs are clearly there for a purpose and removed any doubt in my mind that Ozu’s shots were accidental.
I’ll close with my favourite film re-seen, which would be The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine / Madamu to Nyobo, 1931, by Heinosuke Gosho, also at Bologna, which was pure delight.
I think I’m allowed to mention one non-Japanese film. Song of Silence / Yang Mei Zhou, by Chen Zhuo. The value of this debut film is the sensitive way the simple story is told - narration only from a close-up hand-camera, and apparently natural sound, with long takes that continue as characters move off and on-camera. The essential story is that a deaf girl goes to stay with father who, unlike mother, doesn't sign, is absent in several ways and has a girlfriend not much older than her. The claustrophobia of that relationship in a high-rise flat is the centrepiece of the film. It held a mainstream audience in Udine spellbound for two hours.
Ten Best Japanese Films of 2012
- Our Homeland (Kazoku no Kuni, dir: Yonghi Yang)
- Kotoko (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
- Casting Blossoms to the Sky (Kono Sora no Hana, dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi)
- The Egoists (Keibetsu, dir: Ryuichi Hiroki)
- The Naked Summer (dir: Kenji Okabe)
- End of the Night (Yoru ga Owaru Basho, dir: Daisuke Miyazaki)
- Sukiyaki (dir: Tetsu Maeda)
- The Woodsman and the Rain (Kitsutsuki to Ame, dir: Shuichi Okita)
- Ringing in Their Ears (Gekijoban Shinsei Kamattechan Rokkun Roru wa Nariyamanai, dir: Yu Irie)
- The Sound of Light (Hikari no Oto, dir: Juichiro Yamasaki)
Best Non-Japanese Films
- Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino)
- Holy Motors (dir: L&eacut;os Carax)
- In Another Country (dir: Hong Sang-soo)
- Moonrise Kingdom (dir: Wes Anderson)
- Skyfall (dir: Sam Mendes)
- Something in the Air (Apr&egrav;s mai, dir: Olivier Assayas)
I have not seen everything that came out, living this year mostly in Finland and only visiting Japan. But, based on what I saw, this is my list.
Flashback Memories 3D (dir: Tetsuaki Matsue)
Matsue’s masterpiece, a touching portrait of a musician, with innovative use of 3D.
Our Homeland (Kazoku no Kuni, dir: Yonghi Yang)
A portrait of a family split between Japan and North Korea, based on the director’s own family history.
Dreams For Sale (Yume Uru Futari, dir: Miwa Nishikawa)
Nishikawa has been on my list before with Dear Doctor, and here she creates a another superb drama, trying to make us understand the actions and feelings of a couple who are after money instead of love.
Letters to Momo (Momo e no Tegami, dir: Hiroyuki Okiura)
A very Ghibli-style film from Production I.G, this is as charming and summery as the Southern Japan archipelago that forms the background for this coming-of-age story – with the most hilarious ghost-like yokai you are ever likely to encounter.
Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (Evangelion Shin Gekijoban: Q, dir: Hideaki Anno)
This installment in the theatrical continuation of the TV drama has all the great stuff of the Evangelion franchise: more angst than action, great music and visuals combined with an intriguing story line.
Land of Hope (Kibo no Kuni, dir: Sion Sono)
Year 2017 in the fictional Nagashima, where an earthquake causes the nearby Nagashima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to explode, with tragic consequences to two families, who live right at the 20-kilometer evacuation line. The film has one of the most chilling endings of the year.
Odayaka (Odayaka na Nichijo, dir: Nobuteru Uchida)
A 3/11 drama about a group of neighbours after the meltdown. Once the fear of radiation enters, the reactions range from supportive to denial and hazing.
Since Then (Are Kara, dir: Makoto Shinozaki)
Another meditation on 3/11, this time starting right after the quake, with an intimate drama of two people losing and then finding each other again.
Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko, dir: Naoko Ogigami)
A charming mini-novel type film about a lonely cat lady and the eccentric people she meets when renting out cats as companions for other lonely people.
A Story of Yonosuke (Yokomichi Yonosuke, dir: Shuichi Okata)
Okata’s previous film. The Woodsman and hte Rain could have appeared on this list as well. Yonosuke the character may not hit the right path in life, but the director certainly has managed to do so.
Some memorable films from other countries:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (dir: Tomas Alfredson)
A masterfully directed, innovative and stylish adaptation of the Le Carré novel, with some of the year’s best acting.
Call Girl (dir: Mikael Marcimain)
Connects with the previous, with both having a Swedish director and sharing the same cameraman Hoyte van Hoytema. 1970s Sweden, that model democracy, reveals its uglier underbelly.
This is Not a Film (dir: Jafar Panahi)
A far more interesting self-portrait of a director than Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang, Panahi’s forced house arrest in Tehran brings in both touching and humorous moments.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir: Benh Zeitlin)
Zeitlin’s debut is an original piece of filmmaking. It is always a delight when you think: "Wow! I have never seen this kind of film before!"
Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendielloul)
A documentary about Rodriguez, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the early 1970s – except that nobody has heard of him. The film’s structure nicely fits with that of the mystery of Rodriguez.
Silver Linings Playbook (dir: David O. Russell)
Aren’t we all a bit bipolar?
A Royal Affair (dir: Nikolaj Arcel)
Costume drama the Danish way, with a political message and clear connections to the current day. I have not seen The Hunt, another raved-about Danish film, but here too Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest European actors working today, does gripping work.
Although my film viewing throughout 2012 has had a very strong Japanese focus, I haven't actually had the opportunity to see any new releases, which certainly puts me at a tremendous disadvantage when discussing the best (and worst) films of the year. But although I am unable to provide a list as such, I still feel the need to share some thoughts regarding other Japanese cinema-related events that have taken place over the last 12 months.
The year 2012 has seen me looking to the past of Japanese cinema for a number of reasons. I have been contributing to a forthcoming volume of Intellect Books' Japanese strand of the Directory of World Cinema series, obliging me to once again delve into and reflect upon the work of my favourite active Japanese director, Shinya Tsukamoto. Flying through his back catalogue in the space of a week has only strengthened my opinion that he is still one of the most fascinating, distinctive and visionary filmmakers of contemporary Japanese cinema. Nobody works with the language of film quite like Tsukamoto, and it was great to see this continue with his latest offering Kotoko – released in 2011, but not surfacing where I am (the UK) until October 2012. The film continues the Tsukamoto tradition of feeling redolent of past work whilst also building and expanding upon a careful evolution of ideas that charts all the way back to 1989's Tetsuo, which, much to my delight, is now available on Blu-ray along with its first sequel.
I have also been inspired to finally visit some of the films of master director Kaneto Shindo, who lived to enjoy his centenary back in April before passing away the following month. It saddens me to say that it was his death that finally gave me the inclination to explore his work; those that are readily available at least. My current favourite being The Naked Island (1960), a majestic exploration of the harsh realities of subsistence living and the delicate beauty of the family dynamic, all without the necessity or encumbrance of dialogue.
But perhaps the most worrying reason for my retreating to the past is because the future of Japanese cinema exhibition in the UK doesn't appear to be all that bright. A major blow arrived in June when Third Window Films managing director, Adam Torel, announced his having to begrudgingly pull the plug on its theatrical distribution channels due to the poor financial performance of Sion Sono's Himizu, writing a very candid letter to world cinema website Twitch explaining the obstacles he and other small distributors face in the unforgiving and grossly unfair UK film market.
However, there may be some hope. Jasper Sharp's Zipangu Fest has valiantly tried to stimulate interest in Japanese cinema over here in Britain by dispatching some of the films shown at the main event (held in London) around the country as part of a mini tour of independent cinemas. It's the only way I've been able to enjoy Japanese films in the cinema this year, even if they were old curiosities like the Ishiro Honda double-bill of King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962) and Matango (1963), or the extremely rare Japanese/North Korean co-production Somi: The Taekwon-do Woman (1997).
Another positive development lies in the recent announcement of the formation of a new company that will cater to the distribution of anime in the UK. Provisionally titled Anime Limited, the company has promised comprehensive, Criterion Collection-style home video releases of new and old anime favourites to commence during 2013, with the intention to then distribute theatrically. But if the UK market for Asian cinema is even half as bleak as Adam has suggested, this could merely be a well-meaning yet ultimately doomed pipe dream. Sadly, uncertain times seem to lie ahead.