10 Best Japanese Films 2011

2011 in Japan was marked by the disaster of 3.11. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown decisively changed the conversation of the future of Japan. By the end of the year, a number of documentary filmmakers presented an array of either heartfelt, pandering, exploitive and/or amateurish films attempting to grapple with the issues. The commercial cinema by and large ignored the the most important, game changing event of the last half century beyond announcing a few films, the worst of which, The Woodsman and the Rain, as escapist placebos to the genuine national tragedy of 3.11.

I only included one film on my ten best, questionable as a documentary (it’s something beyond that rubric), dealing with 3.11. Sitting on my desk, unseen as of yet, is a DVD of Yoju Matsubayashi’s Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape, one film that everyone I know recommends highly. Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone, which premiered at Tokyo Filmex this year, is an intriguing and flawed film, that didn’t quite make it to my top 10 list. Nonetheless, as we rapidly approach the first anniversary of the disaster, I’m interested in how the commercial industry and the indie world will tackle the defining national issue of the early 21st century.

In my capacity as a writer for a local magazine, I’ve  have the distinct pleasure of viewing a mess of really bad films – many from filmmakers who can and should do better. This year’s releases by Sono Sion (Guilty of Romance), Ryuichi Hiroyuki (River) and Shinji Aoyama (Tokyo Park) come to mind.

Between the banality of commercial Japanese product, a disparate and unfocused indie community and the monumental effects of 3.11 – culturally, monetarily and emotionally – it seemed a particularly weak year for Japanese film. But amongst the dross, there was some genuine gold.

Herewith are my favorite Japanese films of the year.

Saya Zamurai / Scabbard Samurai

Funnyman Hitoshi Matsumoto, in his third big screen outing, brought massive heart to his natural inclination toward heady intellectual comedy. The story of Nomi, a sadsack samurai who has 30 days to make the disconsolate son of the local shogun laugh or face death, sets up the situation for an exploration of the art and commerce of comedy. Small stupid jokes turn into spectacle as Nomi-san goes to his inevitable end. The laughter and the tears are well earned. Matsumoto is one of the best comedy directors to come down the pike in quite a while. Saya Zamurai puts him in the leagues with all-time greats. We’re talkin’ Chaplin, Keaton and Tati here.

 

 

Website (Japanese)

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Kiseki / I Wish

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, was met with some reduced expectations and bit of downputting. Coming on the heels of his outre fable, Air Doll, some critics wanted something a little more sexy than the story of a couple of brothers, waiting for a new train line to be completed. They were totally wrong. I Wish delivered a moving tale about dreams and wishes – fulfilled and unfulfilled – with deep honesty, bittersweet humor and some purely magical moments of cinema. The ensemble of actors, fronted by the child manzai team, brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda were impeccable. I Wish was the perfect antidote to the gloom that hit the nation after 3.11. It stands among Kore-eda’s best films, which is saying a lot.

 

 

Website (Japanese)

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Kazoku X / Household X

Household X, the second film by Koki Yoshida, was one of the most thrilling discoveries of the year. Simple and unsentimental, a story unfolds of a family falling apart. Following in a tradition of tales of urban alienation, Yoshida uses a shaky Dogma-esqe style to show the details, faces and places that’s part Chantal Akerman, part John Cassavetes. There’s not a thrown away shot in the film. Each image holds on it’s own while developing leitmotifs and associations that ultimately build to seeming soft, but emotionally purging climax. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata covered similar territory a couple of years ago, but seems sentimental and cliched compared to Yoshida’s timely masterpiece.

 

Website (Japanese)

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My Back Page

Nobuhiro Yamashita, best known for Linda Linda Linda, took two of Japan’s most popular actors, Kenichi Matsuyama and Satoshi Tsumabaki, giving them roles they could finally sink their teeth into. For someone born in 1976, Yamashita gets the 60s and 70s much better than most people who lived through those heady years. My Back Page’s exploration of the idealism curdled by madness and ideology – and how it was enabled – manages both to celebrate and criticize the time and characters. Contemporary filmmakers have been looking back at those years. Last year’s  Norwegian Wood comes to mind. But all pale in emotional depth and capturing the zeitgeist of the times as well as My Back Page.

 

 

Website (Japanese)

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NIGHTLESS

Film and installation artist Yuichiro Tamura’s ever changing experimental short (he re-edits it whenever screens it) NIGHTLESS is made solely of still images from Google Earth animated. Going down roads, past houses in the USA and Japan, NIGHTLESS show a world of mystery, timelessness and foreboding. The soundtrack bounces from an entirely absurd yarn (by Tamura) about growing up in Omaha to random police radio recordings. Tamura’s brilliant collage of seemingly arbitrary stuff shows him to be a master at pulling hidden and profound meanings out of the things of this world.

Yuichiro Tamura’s Blog (Japanese and English)

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Soreiyu no kodomotachi / Children of Soleil

Children of Soleil is a documentary following the life of Yasuo Takashima (AKA Ojichan), a bit of human flotsam, who has found himself living living on a boat on a canal in southern Tokyo with his dogs and a growing collection of junk boats and garbage. He’s a nutty character, who somewhere between his own obsessions, temperament, mental illness and alcoholism brings a profundity  to his yarns about his life and living on the canal. Director Yoichiro Okutani spent 2 years embedding with and befriending Ojichan to bring his story to the screen. Okutani’s eye, compassion and smart directoral decisions make Children of Soleil the best documentary of year.

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Tokyo Drifter

Matsue Tetsuaki returns to the screen with his singing songwriting buddy Kenta Maeno for an album’s worth of songs shot over one rainy night in May on the darkened streets of Tokyo. That’s all there is. Maeno singing and the rather dull backdrop of convenience stores, shuttered storefronts, rain – Tokyo in all its ugliness. After 3.11, the otherwise neon-lit metropolis became darkened shadow of it’s usual neon-lit glory. Tetsuaki and Maeno amazingly turn the bad times of early 2011 into a celebration of the place, of the darkness itself and of the potential of this changed city. Tokyo Drifter has the audacity to suggest that the post-3.11 world is the better times. The darkness turns to a sort of bassackwards optimism and I, for one, believe it.

 

 

Website (Japanese)

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Monsters Club

After Toshiaki Toyoda’s abysmal stoner slog of a couple of years ago, The Blood of Rebirth, expectations were a little low for Monsters Club, but damn, what return to form it turned out to be. Starring big eared heartthrob Eita, Monsters Club is a parable about a Ted Kaczynski-like hermit, living in a snowy Hallmark beautiful woods, sending letter bombs to the powerful. It’s a film that’s not perfect, but walks the high wire, bringing a mix of elements – the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa, performance artist Pyuupiru and a whole lot more – and pulling it off terrifying and beautiful brilliance.

 

 

 

Website (Japanese)

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CUT

I’ve been following Amir Naderi’s CUT over the last couple of years through production to its premiere. It’s a singular work, by one of the guys who invented contemporary Iranian cinema. CUT follows the travails of a young cineaste/filmmaker who becomes a human punching bag for a bunch of yakuza thugs in order to pay off his late brother’s debts. It’s a grueling watch as he is endlessly beaten. He survives by evoking… movies! The great ones that sustain the world. CUT is a cinephile’s movie. It’s big, passionate, referential and ultimately rewarding.

 

 

 

Website (Japanese)

Facebook Page

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Henji wa iranai / No Reply

At the age of 24, Satoru Hirohara seems to be embarked on “documenting” his generation with his second film, No Reply. It’s a slacker dramadey, following a couple on the verge of a breakup – a bit of a staple for young filmmakers. What makes No Reply work, is the layers of allusions, the details and ultimately a sort of reconciliation of the characters and a squaring up of their seemingly random trajectories into a fulfillment of their creative desires. No Reply works not just as a fascinating cultural window, but a celebration of being twenty-something.

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About Nicholas Vroman

Nicholas Vroman is a writer, photographer, musician, filmmaker and cultural explorer, originally from Seattle, now living in Tokyo. He writes regularly on Japanese film for Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow and EL Magazine (a Tokyo-based arts and entertainment rag) and occasionally for the likes of Filmmaker Magazine and Films in Focus.
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