10 Best Japanese Films 2009

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Added 12/26/2010 – Thanks for checking out the post “10 Best Japanese Films 2009.” My “10 Best Japanese Films 2010″ can be found at this link.  Be sure to check out other ten best lists for 2010 and other news from Northwest Film Forum by other contributors to Hot Splice by clicking here.

You can also see my regular reviews and reports on Japanese cinema (and more) at a page of madness. Click here.

Over the last 3 years, Japan’s become my beat. Of course, I try to keep up with international cinema as best as I can, but at about 1,800 yen (20 bucks) a pop for a night at the cinema, I’ve been quite judicious in my filmic consumption. However, I’ve become quite a regular at the industry screening rooms hidden in the bowels of generic buildings (exception – Eiga Bigakku in the Tokyo Film School does have quite a bit of character) clustered around the old film industry center in and around Ginza. Many of the films on my top ten list probably won’t cross the pond. It’s a shame, because they’re good films. But keep an eye open for festival screenings, online streamings or any opportunity to catch a glimpse of Japanese film production for 2009.

The list below is not definitive. I missed a few that had good buzz. Bandage – a fictional paean to the 90s band boom in Tokyo – and Live Tape – a single shot film following an improvising street busker wandering through the streets of Kichijoji, a hipster area on the west side of Tokyo – are both on my must see list. I saw a few too many that had good buzz that turned out to be total time wasters.

Symbol

I have to place Matsumoto Hitoshi’s Symbol at the top of the list. From his roots in the groundbreaking manzai team (two person standup – imagine Abbott and Costello in Japanese) called Downtown, Matsumoto hit the big screen a few years ago with the strange and hilarious Dianipponjin (Big Man Japan). His followup goes over the top with a deconstruction of comedy that’s part Kubrick, part Tashlin, completely original.

Trailer (Japanese)

Kuki Ningyo / Air Doll

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Air Doll tended toward a bit of critical dismissal – too light, too commercial. With the stunning performance of Du-na Bae as a blow-up doll come to life, this reworking of Pinocchio (or is it Blade Runner?) is amazingly frank and touching with what may be Kore-eda’s persistent theme – what makes us human.

Trailer (English Subtitles)

Ai no Mukidashi / Love Exposure

At 4 hours, Love Exposure seemed a bit short. When the lights came up I wanted still more. Sono Sion’s over the top skewering of contemporary culture had a little something to offend nearly everyone – Catholicism, terrorism, up-skirt photography, high school mores and so much more came under the knife. Love Exposure is a delightfully excessive and tasteless film by the man who made Suicide Club.

Trailer (Japanese)

Wakaranai / Where Are You?

This year I saw Kobayashi’s Masahiro’s 2005 film Bashing. Wakaranai mines the same territory as the previous film, the lives of the marginalized and forgotten of Japan. Though not quite as perfect as Bashing, Wakaranai expands on similar themes. Along the lines of the Dardenne brothers, Kobayashi’s creating an oeuvre of beautiful and terrifying films of lost hopes, fuckups and ultimately, dreams.

Website (Japanese)

Miyoko Asagaya Kibun / Miyoko

Adaptations of manga are a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema. Most manga/film crossovers are built solely with marketing in mind. Miyoko Asagaya Kibun is from a definitely different sensibility. Adapting Shiniro Abe’s seminal 1970s mangas that documented the craziness of the times along with his own faltering grasp on mental stability, Miyoko Asagaya Kibun mixes manga, fiction, history and biography brilliantly. This directing debut by Yoshifumi Tsubota is the most auspicious of the year.

Website (Japanese)

Dotei Horoki

Director Komuna Yuichi is making his mark as the low budget storyteller of the special fringes of Japanese culture that are becoming the mainstream. He hit the scene a few years ago with Maid in Akiba, about the otaku/maid cafe culture centered around Akihabara in Tokyo. In Dotei Horoki (more or less meaning “virgin perv”), Komuna tackles the Japanese 30 year-old virgin problem with incisive humor and smart dialogue.

Trailer (Japanese)

Dear Doctor

While not quite as wicked as her debut film, Wild Berries, Nishikawa Miwa’s Dear Doctor beautifully realizes a small community where lies big and small sustain its functioning. Following in the footsteps of Kore-Eda, Nishikawa, along with Kawase Naomi are creating a cinema style that exhibits profound ideas and sensibilities with a light touch.

Trailer (Japanese)

Raise the Castle

There’s a somewhat annoying tendency in Japanese pop horror and comedy movies of having long dead samurai come back to life, in most cases ghoulishly zombified, to avenge some past wrong. It’s a hoary plot device. In Raise the Castle it works. Kohatsu Yo’s low budget debut manages to balance sweet comedy, a bit of a social/historical message and a love story. This film may be the be-all and end-all of this genre.

Website (Japanese)

Mental

Soda Kazuhiro is the Frederick Wiseman of Japanese documentary. His first film, Campaign, was a fascinating study of the political scene in Japan. In Mental, Soda visits a small town mental clinic, exposing the stigmas around talking about mental illness and health in Japan through touching, funny and downright harrowing stories from the patients themselves.

Website (English)

The Code

Hiyashi Kaizo will be known to Seattle audiences for his wonderful homage to silent cinema, Sleep So As to Dream, presented a few years ago at NWFF with live accompaniment by Aono Jikken Ensemble. Hiyashi’s been working for years sending up the conventions of detective/spy movies. The Code is his latest and it never lets up with its nutty story, hilarious characters and situations. Plus, giving Suzuki stalwart Shishido Joe (Branded to Kill) a role makes The Code extra special.

Website (Japanese)

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7 Responses to “10 Best Japanese Films 2009”

  1. logboy Says:

    i drew up a list of films whose websites were trackable during 2009

    http://www.nipponcinema.com/blog/logboys-list-of-2009-japanese-films/

    helps to give me a good sense of what’s out there, i suppose. when reviews and dvd releases make themselves relatively obvious – and there’s still a load that appear that don’t manage that – then i can go back and refresh my memory.

    what makes a lot of films stand out on your own list of top films for 2009 is that they’re films not obviously covered elsewhere but which seem to fit what i’d determine to be a loose definition of “of interest” : they seem to fit the bill of stuff that would normally get covered by blogs or be selected for festivals, but, for various reasons (both inconsequential and relatively calculating, or lacking, at times) they don’t always seem to. shame.

    festivals all over the globe have their “taste”, their “regular audience”, & seem to trying to build a more solid following and sustainability at the expense of the vitality from which they often originate and pride themselves upon. it’s a case of one unknown directors new film this year, tickets sell well throughout the screenings, equates to another film being booked when it’s turned out and reputation established through relatively little attention, and certainly not established simply on the confidence in judging it’s content as untested due to the range of material not getting a chance as a festival screening.

    shame, because festivals are also considered the buzz-centre for publicity for licenses, and unless it’s about the good films without the reliance upon reputation and style – i.e a festival that’s not about appearing to fit into the general style of any one (or various) festival(s) – then things fall through the cracks. DVD can, of course, build it’s own style for acceptable content, and in part its relative to festivals, and (more recently) it’s parallel to the tastes that are navigated within a wider range of stuff built from what’s considered financially viable in that field solely.

    as for other avenues from which films appear, are known about, or forgotten via, well, blogs need things about films to grasp onto, usually things that are quick and easy to write about. individuals that are buying into DVD of films are looking, all too often, for things to be gaining popularity elsewhere and things that are easy to grasp are quick and easy to become popular,

    suppose the lack of freedom in navigating films when you’re reliant on subtitles doesn’t help : it’s like trying to decipher a jigsaw with two thirds or more of the pieces missing.

    anyway. nice list. nice little reviews.

    btw, “raise the castle” seems to have been made a few years back and rereleased during 2009 in japan. an american dvd of it came a year or two back.

    • Nicholas Vroman Says:

      Thanks for the comment – and the exhaustive list of 2009 Japanese releases. FYI, the films on my list are all films that got released in theaters in Japan this year. Some were big movies, like Symbol and Air Doll, but most on my list were indies released in the art house circuit. I trust that all of them will appear on DVD, but Japan is still somewhat notorious for not having an English language subtitle option on commercial DVDs. That’s slowly beginning to change as distributors get hip to the potential life of their products outside the borders of Japan.

      As for Raise the Castle, I’m aware of its festival release and subsequent DVD from a few years back, but the new version was recut and footage added so it is a substantially different movie and it finally did get an official Japanese theatrical release this year.

  2. Luke McGrath Says:

    Hey man – thanks very much for this list. Just the kind of thing I was searching for – I look forward to checking out many of these releases.

    • Nicholas Vroman Says:

      Luke, Thanks for the note. I’ll be putting out my best of 2010 in January 2011. In the meantime, take a gander at my film writing blog. I write on Japanese films (good and bad) for a publication in Tokyo. My film blog collects all those reviews. Cheers, NV

  3. asd Says:

    love exposure ftw!

  4. brak Says:

    anyone know where to find Raise the cattle?

    • Nicholas Vroman Says:

      Raise the Cattle!
      Raise the Castle, the original version, can be found at amazon.com. For the new version (probably without subtitles) check out amazon.jp. Cheers.

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