Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2013
- 10 January 2014
While there are scholars currently going around giving lectures about the “success” of Japanese cross-media marketing, the situation on the ground for many of those who spent the past years enthusiastically following Japanese cinema seems to paint quite a different picture. If the reactions of Midnight Eye’s contributors are anything to go by, many seem to be losing their passion due to the dearth of good films on offer. Surely, if a significant number of regular contributors to a website devoted to Japanese cinema feel that they either haven’t seen enough good films or haven’t seen enough Japanese films period during 2013 to list their “best”, there seems to be some ground to the increased use of the adjective ‘insular’ to describe the recent output and attitude of the archipelago’s film business – which this year patted itself on the back for higher box office takings and a higher number of releases. And this is not only the opinion of outside commentators, as this recent interview with director Lee Sang-il shows.
Paradoxically, having spent most of 2013 in Japan, perhaps being closer to the source (and therefore effectively being more "insular") has resulted in my list containing no less than 12 films that I can heartily recommend from this year’s crop. What with the exorbitant prices of cinema tickets, I saw very few on their actual theatrical run and quite a number at festivals instead, and as a result I have yet to catch the latest by Hirokazu Koreeda, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. As far as the festivals were concerned, though, the year had three major markers for gauging the state of domestic films: the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, the Tokyo International Film Festival and Tokyo FILMeX. A fourth would be the Pia Film Festival, which I unfortunately had to miss out on.
Yubari confirmed its reputation as a place to discover new (though not necessarily young) talent. Its three award winners all made it into my top twelve. TIFF made a big thing of its renewed dedication to championing the Japanese indie scene, but the two films it included in the competition made for a wildly uneven selection: Hospitalité director Koji Fukada’s latest film, Au Revoir l’Eté (Hotori no Sakuko), was a pleasantly meandering slice-of-life drama, which would go on to win prizes at the Three Continents festival in Nantes, France, and at Black Nights in Tallinn, Estonia. Hideo Sakaki’s Disregarded People (Sutegataki Hitobito) was misogynistic to the point of misanthropic, but tried to pass itself off as a deep statement on the human condition. Most of the choices for TIFF’s Japanese Cinema Splash section are best left uncommented on, with the exception of the earnest, but overlong and too obvious rural drama The Tale of Iya (Iya Monogatari, dir: Tetsuichiro Tsuta) and And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku, dir: Hirobumi Watanabe) a very funny and no less surreal no-budget indie that stars Kiyohiko 'KEE' Shibukawa doing his familiar Setagaya slacker routine amid comically drab surroundings whose deadpan inhabitants simply couldn't care less.
The competition at FILMeX also included two home-grown productions: the well-constructed if otherwise conventional documentary The Horses of Fukushima (Matsuri no Uma, dir: Yoju Matsubayashi) and Tokyo Bitch, I Love You by Household X director Kohki Yoshida. The latter gained a special mention from the jury and certainly had its moments of inspiration, but it also showed a director more adept at filming buildings than humans. At 74 and 70 minutes, though, both these films formed welcome respite from the age of overlong Japanese films. May they form a turning point in that regard at least.
FILMeX’s three-film retrospective tribute to Shochiku director Noboru Nakamura, meanwhile, was two-thirds fairly unexceptional shomingeki, although his 1964 prostitution drama The Shape of Night (Yoru no Henrin) was solid and occasionally stylish, if not quite the great lost film some seem to wish to promote it as being.
The Best (in no particular order):
A Woman and War (Senso to Hitori no Onna, dir: Junichi Inoue)
Acolytes of the late Koji Wakamatsu banded together to make this film that is entirely in keeping with their mentor’s tradition of provocatively mixing sex and politics, placing a finger on a spot that is still particularly sore: the domestic repercussions of Japan’s actions in World War 2. Adapted from Ango Sakaguchi’s novella, the film spotlights the sort of those on the home front in bombed-out Tokyo.
There Is Light (Kurayami kara Te o Nobase, dir: Yukihiro Toda)
Intended as a TV documentary for national broadcaster NHK, this wound up as a fiction feature starring swimsuit model Maya Koizumi s a prostitute who specializes in servicing the disabled. An unprejudiced approach to the unconventional subject matter help this stand out, as does the remarkable lead performance by Koizumi.
A Case of Eggs (Keranhanpan, dir: Yuri Kanchiku)
A salacious Japanese photographer (Jun Murakami) flies to Korea to shoot pretty girls, while his sexually repressed female translator can’t help but look on – and gradually thaw.
Penance (Shokuzai, dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kurosawa’s four-hour plus TV miniseries deservedly saw itself released in cinemas internationally. A welcome return after the director’s nearly five-year absence in the wake of Tokyo Sonata – a film to which Penance also forms a thematic follow-up.
The Intermission (Intamisshon, dir: Norifumi Higuchi)
A tribute to a disappearing movie theatre becomes an evocation of countless wider social and political issues in a post-Fukushima Japan eager to bury one past in order to replace it with another, cleaner but altogether more dangerous version of history.
Winter Alpaca (Fuyu no Arupaka, dir: Yuji Harada)
Yuji Harada’s short films are mostly about people whose peculiar pastimes make them misfits, but who, often through a fateful encounter with a likeminded individual, ultimately find a tiny little place to call their own. Though he clearly operates in the Nobuhiro Yamashita vein of dry-witted comedy, from the evidence at hand, Harada’s particular strength lies in making you care for his misfits, no matter how peculiar their inclinations, like the dumpy, debt-ridden caretaker of the titular furry mammals in Winter Alpaca. He seems to be working with a stock company of actors, who adapt marvellously well to a variety of different characters, coming across as alternately threatening, nerdy, creepy, or kind - occasionally within the same film. Among them, actress Ayumi Nigo, lead of Winter Alpaca and the earlier Wall Woman (Kabe Onna), stands out, perhaps as a result of an immediately recognisable, atypical appearance that paradoxically makes her the perfect foil for Harada’s portrayals of a world that is uncaring but after all just big enough to accommodate every eccentricity. Winter Alpaca won Harada the Governor’s Prize at Yubari.
Uzumasa Jacopetti (Uzumasa Yakopetti, dir: Moriro Miyamoto)
If this were a list of the year’s weirdest films, Miyamoto’s unclassifiable second feature would easily take the top spot. The city of Kyoto has spawned an heir to Nicolas Roeg.
Abductee (Abudakuti, dir: Yudai Yamaguchi)
I’ve rarely cared for any of Yamaguchi’s previous works – those I’ve seen have always tended to feel like skits blown way out of proportion. With Abductee, however, he gives us mystery, tension, build-up, an effective use of limited space that never grows stale and a thoroughly unexpected denouement. Frequent second fiddle Yoichi Nukumizu has to carry almost the entire film by himself and does it magnificently well.
Sado Tempest (dir: John Williams)
A mixture of Shakespeare, Noh theatre, history lesson, science fiction and rock ‘n’ roll set on Japan’s centuries-old (and superbly photogenic) place of exile, the remote Northern island of Sado, this certainly grabs the title of most original film of the year. Better still is that it manages to have its disparate elements gel and keep the audience’s attention glued to its slow-burn storytelling. Thanks in no small part to a fine cast, with first-time actor Yasunori Henmi holding his own against a troupe of some of Japan’s finest screen thesps.
Soul Flower Train (dir: Hiroshi Nishio)
Discovered at this year’s Nippon Connection festival, Soul Flower Train serves up the Tokyo Story-esque premise of a father from rural Kyushu traveling to Osaka to visit his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in several years. After he gets his pockets picked on the ferry, a young woman, herself a former pickpocket, steals his wallet back for him, then guides him through the city while they wait for the daughter to finish work. Good-natured and comical, it nevertheless manages some genuinely poignant moments, particularly a finale that could have gone grotesquely over the top but ends up deeply touching.
Sound Hunting (Oto o Karu, dir: Kenji Murakami)
Murakami delivers a final farewell to the 8mm format he employed so often throughout his unique career - though this being a Murakami film, you never can tell...
Beautiful New Bay Area Project (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
A hotshot young architect falls for a female construction worker he spots on the site of his latest megalomaniacal building project. A simple enough premise that Kurosawa, in the space of a lean thirty minutes, uses to turn in a film that is half Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and half Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, and yet is filled with numerous touches that are typically Kurosawa – and are in fact reminiscent of his early 8mm experiments. Beautiful New Bay Area Project also contains a revelation in the form of actress Mao Mita, who impresses with both her acting and her karate chops.
Princess Sakura: Forbidden Pleasures (Sakurahime, dir: Hajime Hashimoto)
A rip-off of Sakuran rendered in the flat, ugly HD videography of Japanese TV drama. If you do a story about a cute courtesan and the men who clash blades over her, don’t make your lead actress bland or your swordfights and sex scenes boring. And that’s ignoring the misogynistic premise of a woman pining for the rapist who took her virginity.
An even worse offender in this last respect was the aforementioned Disregarded People (Sutegataki Hitobito, dir: Hideo Sakaki), in which scruffy vagrant Nao Omori rapes his way through the female population of his hometown, leaving his victims love-struck in his wake, as they return to bring him their bodies and envelopes of free cash to boot. Director laughably attempts to inject deeper meaning by contrasting one particular sex scene with a shot of a discarded fish head on a cement floor. The ending is similarly risible. Somehow this wound up in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival as a testimony to the event’s dedication to indie filmmaking, a choice that didn’t reflect well on either the festival or the indie scene.
Thermae Romae (Terumae Romae, dir: Hideki Takeuchi)
While investigating a rat hole in Shinzo Abe’s garden shed, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto is accidentally hurtled back through time to post-Weimar Germany, where he teaches a field marshal the necessity of keeping his troops’ morale by restoring a run-down hotel on the Ukrainian border into a military brothel.
I’ve spent much of 2013 feeling a bit like Rudolph Arnheim, the illustrious film critic and theorist of the silent era who, with the coming of sound, publically announced that cinema was no longer the same medium that he originally fell in love with and, with a shrug of his shoulders, walked away, never to write significantly on the subject again for the next eight decades until his death in 2007 (he actually went on to become rather better known for his contributions to the field of Gestalt psychology).
For me too, my relationship to cinema this year sometimes felt like something had fundamentally changed. Since 2012, the word itself has been, technically speaking, no longer even synonymous with that of “film”, and with 35mm now a minority exhibition format, digital projection the norm and theatre ticket prices in London way in excess of DVDs or Blu-Rays, it is difficult to discern any real advantage in going to see a new release theatrically over watching it at home.
The contemporary movie-going experience was for me encapsulated during one of my periodic attempts at catching up with what Hollywood is up to nowadays. The film in question, Elysium, was loud and bombastic, but furthermore, unimaginative and derivative. Aside from the absolute dearth of sympathetic characters, there was the same surfeit of CGI, de-saturated colour palette and shaky camera work I’ve seen all too many times over the past ten years. The whole exercise felt like it was designed by a committee, with little of the wit or inventiveness of its director Neill Blomkamp’s debut, District 9. However, what really killed it for me was the idiot in the row in front of me who spent pretty much the entire film bellowing into his mobile phone. I walked out about halfway through, feeling utterly alienated and annoyed by the whole experience. I probably would have felt similarly irked about Pacific Rim, had I not chosen to watch it drunk on the sofa, and this time it was me fiddling around with my mobile out of sheer boredom at the empty spectacle of it all.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I didn’t actually get to watch a lot of new releases this past year. Instead, I spent much of my time in a haze of nostalgia, catching up on the fuzzy areas in my filmic education or, whenever the chance presented itself, revisiting old favourites screened from the medium they were intended to be screened from. And I saw some great stuff – the complete 5-hour presentation of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) with a full orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this November was a particular highpoint, as was the amazing summertime open-air screening of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) at Somerset House with an audience of some 2000 – and both from 35mm! Now this for me is what cinema is all about.
And yet, if this all sounds a bit old-fogeyish, personal experience has shown me that I do sometimes go through periods like this, in which keeping up with the new releases becomes more a chore than a pleasure. In reality, my ambivalence to the output of 2013 has had less to do with the digital switchover than with other factors such as having a mass of other things to attend to, or not going to as many festivals as usual. Because, carping aside, the move to digital no more signals the end of cinema as an art form than the move to sound, colour or scope formats.
We are at another point of transition in the medium’s long and exciting history, and as I hope my Top 5 represents, I am just excited about the possibilities this might hold for the future as I am depressed by what seems currently to be an interminable annual glut of self-important superhero movies, routine sci-fi actioners and smartass CG animations that can’t decide whether they’re aimed at children or adult audiences. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff out there, I’m sure - it’s been more a case of finding the time and energy to hunt it down.
The most important thing for us cinephiles to remember, however, is not to confuse the method of delivery with the shared experience provided by cinema itself. With this in mind, and one of the main reasons I didn't see so much new stuff this year, is that currently London is awash with opportunities to revisit cinema’s pre-digital age, in a communal environment where the screening event is just as memorable as the film itself. Some of my more unforgettable film-related events of the year have been down to the amazing settings and spaces where the films were shown and the people I saw them with. All this, a little ironically, has been facilitated by the flexibility that digital projection from DVD and Blu-ray affords (as an example, I thought the outdoor screening of Jacques Cousteau’s surreal 1964 underwater odyssey World Without Sun at Peckham’s Centre for Wildlife Gardening as part of Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festivals was just plain magical).
So with this in mind, my top 5 of 2013 represents (in no particular order) only what I remember to be the best out of the very few recent titles I caught amongst a whole lot of other wonderful cinematic highpoints. I can’t pretend for one minute to have had my finger on the pulse of the contemporary industry, but to tell the truth, I really don’t care, as I don’t think any of year’s big titles that I have missed will ever compare with the likes of Napoleon, Throne of Blood, or even Jacques Cousteau for that matter. So there.
1. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
I know people either love or hate these films, but personally I am in the former camp, and I thought this was the most powerful of the bunch. Again, those magnificent long-take improvised performances would have been very tricky to capture in all their freshness and spontaneity on 35mm film, so here’s an example of one of the directions I hope cinematic storytelling will diverge along in the digital age, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that there will be another bout between Delpy and Hawke in the not-too-distant future.
2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
I’m with many of the opinion that this could well be a game-changer for Hollywood, on the level of stylistic experimentation at the very least. While there was rather too much backstory for my liking, it was great seeing a Hollywood sci-fi action movie that didn’t feel the urge to break up every sequence into an avalanche of subliminal edits, and for demonstrating how CG and 3D could be used together to present something that can be truly described as immersive.
3. Silence (Pat Collins, 2013)
Talking about immersion, this low-key film about a sound recordist capturing the resonances of Ireland’s rural landscapes was just that. I’m not a great fan of “slow cinema”, and believe me, this was very slow. However, it provided 2 hours of meditative time out of mind that wouldn’t have worked outside of a cinema context, what with all the distractions one gets when watching a film at home. Plus, I’m a sucker for films about sound recordists (The Shout, Blow Out, Berberian Sound Studios, et al), and films that really think about how sound can be used. I still remember vividly how I emerged out of this screening onto London’s Southbank one warm summer evening with my senses totally buzzing.
4. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013)
I’m sure no one is going to argue that Alan Partridge’s first big-screen outing represents the apogee of cinematic art, but I had a fun night out in a packed cinema, with everyone laughing away at the film’s absurdities – far more fun than sitting in at home in front of the TV.
5. Secret City (Michael Chanan and Lee Salter, 2013)
A really rough and raw portrait of the Corporation of London – what it is, what it does and its role in the financial crisis – this is a brilliant example of micro-budget guerrilla filmmaking that really hits its target. It’s not the sort of thing that will ever play on TV or in conventional cinemas, although it certainly needs to be seen by a lot more people, but its makers have been doing a wonderful job of bringing it to audiences through the festival circuit and special pop-up screenings, demonstrating that cinema still has the power to make one think about things one would never have thought about before, if you allow yourself to open your mind. Check out for yourself here.
Worst film of 2013
Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013)
In which Danny Boyle completely manages to dispel any of the good will he’d built up with the Olympics opening ceremony, and James McAvoy puts in his second most irritating performance of the year (after the only slightly less wretched Filth). Gratuitous in every sense of the word.
Japanese Films in 2013
This is going to sound a little odd, but looking back on it, I think I only saw a couple of Japanese new releases in 2013. This was in no small part due to deciding to skip a year organising the Zipangu Fest annual showcase of what’s latest and best in Japanese indie cinema – no wading through endless piles of festival screeners trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. At the same time, I really don’t feel like I’ve been missing out on much either.
Everything I said in my 2012 round up still stands. Japanese cinema is in a really uninteresting state for me at the moment, and one only has to go back and look at even the most mediocre potboiler from the 1950s or 1960s to realise just how low standards have fallen.
So my major Japanese film fix of the year came from the Nikkatsu ‘Seasons in the Sun’ retrospective, which I programmed at the BFI Southbank in June. Not only was it a joy to see so many of these exuberant and meticulously-crafted pop cultural artefacts projected from 35mm on a large screen, and many for the first time ever outside of Japan, but I also made some wonderful discoveries of my own – Ko Nakahira’s Crimson Wing is something of a guilty pleasure, but with Umetsugu Inoue’s The Man Who Causes a Storm, I’ve got a new entry in my top 5 Japanese films of all time. Absolute bliss! It was the 11th highest-grossing Japanese film of its decade on its home turf, but sadly I don’t think any distributors outside of the country will ever be brave enough to even so much as take a look at the film.
Anyway, I’m sure that there have been some Japanese films from 2013 worthy of a closer look, like the two new ones from Studio Ghibli, which I’ll probably consider for my 2014 list, but like I said, I’ve hardly seen anything this year, so I will restrict myself to providing just a best and a worst.
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)
I sincerely think Kore’eda is the only director in Japan at the moment who can be considered at world class level and whose films, every single one of them, can stand up to close critical scrutiny. So much of the time when talking about Japanese cinema, one finds oneself making apologies for its shortcomings (bad pacing, bad acting, bad lighting, uninspired storytelling etc), but with Kore’eda one never needs to. Among the best films of the year by any director, Japanese or otherwise.
Land of Hope (Kibo no Kuni, dir: Sion Sono)
I think it’s far too early for fictional dramas dealing with the Fukushima disaster at the moment, being as it is still effectively ongoing, and anyway, I certainly don’t think a filmmaker as prone to ham-fisted excess as Sono is the man to be realising them. Some see Sono as an iconoclastic enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, but this attempt at something serious plays like an overblown (not to mention overlong) TV drama, and only really serves to highlight the sheer banality of much of his output. Truly awful, and if you think it’s just me, then bear in mind that the critics of the Japanese magazine Eiga Geijutsu voted this their worst film of last year, with another Sono title, Himizu, in second place.
In no particular order.
Best Japanese Films
- 45 7 Broadway (dir: Tomonari Nishikawa)
- Article Left for the Departed (dir: Takashi Makino)
- Cutie and Boxer (dir: Zachary Heinzerling)
- Deorbit (dir(s):Takashi Makino / Telcosystems)
- Flashback Memories 3D (dir: Tetsuaki Matsue)
…and two performances
- Human Flicker VJ (dir: Jun'ichi Okuyama) - performance at Super Deluxe
- Video Feedback Live Performance (dir: Masayuki Kawai) - performance at Dommune
Films at retrospective / exhibitions
(dir: Yoshihiko Muraki, 1967) - Art Media Center/TBS screenings at Tokyo University of the Arts
Epigraph of Metamorphosis - Record of Tetsumi Kudo
(Yasuhiro Yoshioka, 1969) - Kudo Tetsumi pre-exhibition symposium at National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Experimental Workshop Jikken Kobo Autoslide works
(1953) - Experimental Workshop Jikken Kobo at Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura
(Gurafikku Shudan, 1955) - Experimental Ground 1950s screenings at National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Knock - Terayama Shuji play
(dir: Nobuhiro Kawanaka, 1974) - Shuji Terayama Knock exhibition at Watari-um
Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer
(performed by Abe Shunya) - Nam June Paik and Electronic Ghosts: Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer with Shunya Abe event at Waseda University
Phantom Black Festival
(dir: Tamio Suenaga, 1968) - Nihon no Shashin 1968 at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
(dir: Toru Hamada, 1969) - Nihon no Shashin 1968 at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
Shadow of a Doll
(Yoichi Takabayashi, 1964) - National Film Centre
(Shozo Shimamoto, 1958) - Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibition at Guggenheim
Best books / exhibition catalogues
- Furuhata, Yuriko: The Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics. Duke University Press
- Hirasawa, Go (ed.): Oshima Nagisa: Nihon o toi tsuduketa Sekai-teki Kyosho. Kawade [JPN]
- Imura, Yasuko and Shigeru Matsui (eds.): Kyozo no Jidai: Tono Yoshiaki Bijutsu Hihyosen. Kawade [JPN]
- Jikken Kobo Experimental Workshop (Exhibition catalogue). Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura [JPN]
- Marotti, William: Money, Trains, and Guillotines. Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan. Duke University Press
- Matsuda, Masao: Fukei no Shimetsu (reprint) Koshisha [JPN]
- Munroe, Alexandra and Ming Tiampo (eds.): Gutai: Splendid Playground (Exh. catalogue). Guggenheim
- Oe, Masanori: Tamashi no Avant-garde - mou hitotsu no 60nendai. Machikarasha [JPN]
- Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor / Verena Paravel)
- At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)
- I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard (Matt Wolf)
- Artefacts (Cyprien Gaillard)
- All the Lines Flow Out (Charles Lim)
If I were to give a ‘ten best’ list this year, I would be largely repeating material from my festival reports from Udine and Frankfurt. Otherwise I’ve mostly watched films from as near 1939 as I can get.
But there’s a couple of recent films I’d like to mention. Bushi no Kondate / A Tale of Samurai Cooking by Yuzo Asahara seemed to tick too many marketing boxes and surely deserved to fail: the fan-bases of Aya Ueto (much TV and Thermae Romae, of which she’s down for a sequel) and of Kengo Kora (Story of Yonusuke); chanbara; rom-com; foodie-film; feisty fight-back woman’s film; gorgeous period costumes... But I thought it was a perfectly serviceable entertainment film and it kept its midnight-hour audience’s attention and sympathy at San Sebastian.
At least the music was held back a bit in this film, whereas in From Up on Poppy Hill / Kokuriko-zaka kara by Goro Miyazaki, the sentimentality was laid on too thickly for my taste. However, I find the burgeoning taste for 1960s nostalgia fascinating. A walk around bluffs of Yokohama later in the year showed why the location could only be shot in anime from around 1963. I had enjoyed catching many popular films from the 50s and 60s from Nikkatsu that Jasper Sharp brought to the BFI in June. It made me wonder how inhabitants of 2013 Tokyo would view the life depicted therein. Crossing the streets anywhere with gay abandon, a shedding of gendered gestures and language, and the nanny-state invisible and inaudible – it all must look the Wild West to someone from the third millennium. Poppy Hill played to this exoticism, notably on the piggy-back cycle-ride down the hill that seemed to go on forever. And at least I could recognise the tune from I Look Up When I Walk / Ue o Muite Arukou, 1962, from the homework provided by Jasper.
But please, BFI, try not to pitch the next Japanese season in June – against Nippon Connection and Alexander Jacoby’s and Johan Nordström’s wonderful exploration of 1930s Japanese films at Bologna.
The following are Japanese films that made an impression on me in one way or another (in no particular order). Disclaimer: as I was out of Japan for most of the year, I probably missed a masterpiece or two. For me personally this year included one new great cinematic experience, the establishment of Helsinki Cine Aasia film festival, which is again keeping me busy the first months of 2014.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no Monogatari, dir: Isao Takahata)
No matter how much Ghibli animation gets associated with Miyazaki, Takahata has always been keen on experimenting with different animation styles, this time with a wonderful hand-drawn look that runs counter to the over-detailed background depiction in most recent theatrical anime. His films always center on Japan and the same goes for this adaptation of a well-known folk tale about a princess found inside of a bamboo shoot.
The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu, dir: Hayao Miyazaki)
The final theatrical feature from Miyazaki (says he) is not a fantasyland tale, though many were waiting for the usual Ghibli fair. Points to Miyazaki for managing to enrage the Japanese right wing with this story of Horikoshi Jiro, who designed the zero fighters for the 15-year war. Anno Hideaki as the voice actor for Horikoshi is an extra bonus.
The Tale of Iya (Iya Monogatari, dir: Tetsuichiro Tsuta)
A gorgeously shot (on 35mm) film, set in the landscape of Kyushu, where it presents us with a construction company, local employees, gaijin eco-demonstrators and an old man and his adopted granddaughter, who live in a traditional house with no electricity – with no clean divide between good and bad. The film would have been pitch-perfect if the director had kept it under two hours, as the final scenes in Tokyo seem unnecessary.
The Horses of Fukushima (Matsuri no Uma, dir: Yoju Matsubayashi)
The former racehorse Mirror’s Quest was trapped in a stable within the 20-km evacuation zone after the Fukushima nuclear plant blew up. He escapes the trip to the butcher because his radioactive meat cannot be sold, and ends up taking part in a 1000-year old traditional samurai festival instead. The animal becomes the symbol of the Fukushima people’s suffering and their uncertain future amid bureaucracy, lies and inefficiency.
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)
If any contemporary Japanese director resembles Ozu, it is Koreeda. Here he builds up a fine drama about two families, a career yuppie one and a working class one, whose sons were accidentally switched at the hospital after birth. The families Find out the truth when the boys are already six years old. Is it common blood or a life lived together that makes a father-son relationship?, asks this beautiful film.
The Great Passage (Fune wo Amu, dir: Yuya Ishii)
It’s hard to believe that a mainly one-office drama about a bunch of literary nerds compiling a new Japanese dictionary could make an exciting drama. But it does.
A Story of Yonosuke (Yokomichi Yonosuke, dir: Shuichi Okita)
Okita knows how to distill warm and subtle humor from his characters, in this case a child-like country boy who starts his university studies in Tokyo. Set during the 1980s, with flash-forwards to late 90s, this film beats most nostalgia pieces.
Short Peace (dirs: Katsuhiro Otomo, Shuhei Morita, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki)
‘Combustible’, Otomo’s contribution to this anime omnibus set in a sci-fi future world, has gained attention, not so much in the anime circles but at art animation events.
Library Wars (Toshokan Senso, dir: Shinsuke Sato)
Yes, this is a big-budget box office hit, but with the recent passing of the state secrets law in Japan, this action piece about an army of librarians defending book depositories in an imagined future, where books and free reading are under threat, touches on some very current issues in Japanese society.
And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku, dir: Hirobumi Watanabe)
This indie features the year’s funniest main character, a kind of dropout wanna-be hipster in the nowhereland between city and country. A true indie, produced by a Tochigi filmmaking commune, shot in black and white. And in this age of overlong features, it sure is nice to see a Japanese film that runs only 88 minutes.
Some non-Japanese films that gained my attention, were the following. Being a Finn, I decided to enlist the best Finnish fiction feature and documentary feature of the year, not only because of their country of origin, but because both were amongst the greatest cinematic experiences of the year.
The Act of Killing (dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)
How do you shoot a documentary about killers, who committed unbelievable atrocities back in 1965-66? You let the killers restage the killings and shoot them in weirdo popular genres. This masterpiece on political violence and the men who commit it opened the silenced discussion on the events of 1965 in Indonesia.
Zero Dark Thirty (dir: Kathryn Bigelow)
Not quite sure if this is an ultra-Republican film or a critique of the U.S. ’war on terror’, but it certainly is an impressive film.
Spring Breakers (dir: Harmony Korine)
On the surface this film looks like an average teenpic on college girls fulfilling their dream of having a substance-filled, bikini-clad spring break in Florida. But on closer look this film says a hell of a lot about our current culture.
A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, dir: Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia retains his long-take style of looking at people caught in their daily struggles in contemporary China, but this time he adds a little homage to King Hu here and there.
Concrete Night (Betoniyö, dir: Pirjo Honkasalo)
The Finnish documentary maker Honkasalo brings us a fictional, poetic story of a teenage boy growing-up in a rough neighborhood, where any softies and gays receive harsh treatment. One of the most beautifully shot b/w films to come out lately.
Stories We Tell (dir: Sarah Polley)
Documentary and (perhaps) fiction get their delightful mix in this film, which seems to be Polley’s own family story.
Finnish Blood Swedish Heart (Laulu koti-ikävästä/Ingen riktig finne, dir: Mika Ronkainen)
In the 1960s and 70s about 10 per cent of the Finnish population emigrated to Sweden. Rock musician Kai Latvalehto’s family was one of them. The documentary follows Kai and his father, who have been back in Finland for decades, take a drive down memory lane to the places in Sweden where they used to live. A study of immigrant identity in between cultures and a father-son relationship, in a road movie set to Swedish-Finnish immigrant songs.
Karaoke Girl (Chananun Chotrungroj, dir: Visra Vichit-Vadakan)
Another mix of fiction and documentary, this time by a young Thai female filmmaker, who took a real sex industry worker’s life (and cast her as the main actress) as the starting point for a film that beautifully juxtaposes neon-lit Bangkok and the sunny countryside.
Gravity (dir: Alfonso Cuarón)
Well, I like Sandra Bullock, and am happy to see her in a good film. And a good film this is, one of the rare ones in which 3D really works.
Before Midnight (dir: Richard Linklater)
A mature story of love and relationships, with nothing but Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talking, but what delightful revelations they produce. This is how true chemistry works between two actors.
Biancanieves (dir: Pablo Berger)
With its wonderful time jumps back to film history, this is another beautiful homage to cinema for us film history fanatics.