A list of the films I’ve seen from Japan, listed alphabetically (including those made by foreigners in Japan).
This list is dedicated to Alexandra Michel Hopkins, because she asked it to be.
-Letters from Iwo Jima: This was the first Japanese film (or, film in Japanese) that I ever saw. I had been much more curious for this film than for Eastwood’s other from that year, and so, when I put it on, my eyes eagerly awaited brilliance. The film portrayed the Japanese as soldiers dedicated to their cause, but who were also wary of the war, and who were very much so human. It gave way to a much more serious view of Japanese soldiers than any other film that I had come across (usually, they’re treated like crazed dogs), and I found myself incredibly moved and pleased with the film.
-Summer Wars: While I did find that Summer Wars may have gone on for too long, this tale of a boy who gets in way over his head with a girl, her family, and the whole world, is one that is very fun and energetic, as well as having some surprisingly serious themes and material. I found myself intrigued by the humanity displayed, and then laughing at some of the more ridiculous aspects of it (a computer so large that it needs a room filled with ice to keep from over-heating). Sure, it did have issues with pacing, especially toward the end, in which there were too many twists of the screw, but I thought it was a very entertaining, and quite lovely, film.
-A Man Vanishes; What is fact? What is fiction? In life, can one be the other? Imamura asks all these questions in more in this pseudo-documentary. Two years after a man disappears, an investigation is started as a documentary with an interviewer and the disappeared man’s fiancee. The film progresses as they interview many, many people, learning tidbits of information here and there, learning messages through mediums, etc. Then though, around the halfway mark, the film begins to change its course, as the sister of the fiancee is introduced, and a form of sibling rivalry appears onscreen. Then, the fiancee falls in love with the interviewer, showing how one story can veer off and spawn another wholly different one. Finally, after a nearly endless confrontation scene, the entire film breaks down before our eyes, and we are shown reality. But are we? What is reality in this film? Do we trust what we are shown onscreen, through such a subjective lens? Should we simply take it all in as viewers? The film is endlessly fascinating. I don’t know what is truth, and what is not, but I know where I put my faith.
-Black Rain: Imamura’s devastating look at Hiroshima and its aftermath produces a sometimes startling film that rests heavily on the humanity of its characters. Years after the bomb fell, people are succumbing to sickness induced by being near the flash, and under its shower of black sludge; for one woman, it is impeding into her marriage, since no family will accept a wife who is so ill (even if she may not be so). Imamura’s use of calm and quietude here produces something quite unlike most of his other films; other than the dropping of the bomb, there are hardly any big events that occur. Mainly, it is people living through life while awaiting the death that they know sits outside their very doors. A very powerful film.
-The Eel: An interesting film, indeed. After a powerhouse opening of brutality, the film veers into slightly odd territory, as the main character is released from jail, and he finds it difficult to integrate himself back into society. He buys an old barber shop and attempts to build a thriving business there, while remaining to himself. Life changes, though, when he meets a woman who brings with her heavy baggage of her own. The movie builds and builds with impressive sequences revealing levels of character buried beneath stoic glances. The ending is both sad and, somehow, kind of hilarious, as a convoluted mess of story threads plow into each other at the same time. It is all handled with a serious, but, somehow light, touch. Splendid.
-The Insect Woman: Wow. Some of cinema’s most awful characters enter the same film together and never leave. What an interesting story of a girl brought up by a family willing to whore her out and a father who doesn’t seem to understand his place as provider. Imamura seems to bring in a recurring theme that he’ll hit later, and that is the Electra complex, women being attracted to their fathers, and then moving out in the world, but still desiring a similar relationship. A child born pure turns into a used and abused woman, and then into a devious one who will do whatever she can for herself, no matter who she ends up hurting in the end. It is a stunning film of growth, and how and why one changes over time. The film covers perhaps sixty years, and it ends with the woman, still feisty, but unable to keep herself afloat any longer. What an experience.
-Intentions of Murder: A crazy example of the power that women hold, Intentions of Murder builds around a woman who tries desperately to care for her son and husband, but who seems completely incapable of doing so (at least, in their eyes). One day, alone in her house, she is raped, and then the rapist becomes obsessed with her and wishes that they’d flee off together. All the while, her family still finds her dumb, and her husband cheats with a librarian on the side. The woman herself, though, holds it all together, even though she is often clumsy about it, and her methods come across to those around her as sheer stupidity. But Imamura is praising women, and noting the fact that, more often than not, one’s family could not last without a matriarch.
-Pigs and Battleships: This was the first Imamura film I saw, and I was quite astonished. The film is centered around pretty-dumb gangsters during wartime, in which they make money from selling pigs. It follows one younger lad who wants big action to prove himself, and the woman he loves, who wishes they could just leave and go somewhere far off. Imamura, again, shows the resilience of women, in that she is almost the only level-headed one in the film, during even the bad times, and, after it ends, we know that she will thrive, while the rest of them deal with the law. It is quite astonishing, and the scene with the released pigs, while being perhaps a little long, is pretty powerful and hilarious.
-The Pornographers: What an interesting film to watch; this is another with some rather reprehensible characters (greedy men who make pornography), and yet you can see Imamura’s boundless fascination with all of the goings on. A pornographer lives with a woman and her son and daughter, helping them out with the money he gets from his films while being given a place to stay. She will not marry him because of her dead husband’s dying wish, and so he is sexually frustrated. The film follows his exploits with her, and then with the daughter, as well as his issues with the police and gangs that want to hurt him. All of this is handled in a somehow light, yet still serious, manner. Several scenes are, while not gruesome at all, kind of terrifying, as the woman goes crazy in the hospital, or when (in the film’s best scene) the man gets an idea for the perfect woman, and he commits to building her. Imamura’s interest in these matters is very powerful, and he fills the frame with images and ideas that delve into family matters, ethical matters, matters of the heart, etc., all of which end with one man doing what he thinks is best for himself. It is a rather astonishing watch.
-The Profound Desire of the Gods: This is one full film. On an old island in Japan, ritualistic life takes precedent over everything. Here, when new technological advances come into play, the islanders might try to deal with them in the best way possible, or they might try to get rid of them. When an engineer comes to set up a new water pipe to help the island thrive, they steer him away from the best source of water – a source directly above an important religious site. He finds out about it, though, and he attempts to put his pipes there. The oldest family on the island, though, has been cursed with bad luck, and they are now considered beasts; a large rock had landed on their land, destroying their rice field, and the father is chained to the site until he can make the rock collapse into the earth. The film takes interesting turns again and again, as the family tries to get in with the engineer, providing a husband for their daughter, and a link to the real Japan that the son has always wished. It is an always fascinating film, one that pushes its ideas of societies and nature deep within its audience. It is a very long film, but one most certainly worth watching. Imamura stated that he became so enamored with the island that he didn’t want to leave it; his fascination is in every frame of the film. Truly remarkable.
-Vengeance is Mine: And what an astonishing film this is! After a criminal has murdered two men, he flees and is on the run for seventy-eight days, during which time he meets many individuals, including a motel owner and her mother, who has her own past secrets. Again, Imamura shows us another Electra complex (in many ways, at least), this time with the wife of the murderer and his father; they must, though, conceal their love for each other, due to fear of Enokizu (the murderer), and shame in the face of the mother and the community. The film is fascinating in that it doesn’t so much as tell why these things are the way they are – why Iwao Enokizu killed those men, and why he continues committing crimes while on the run. No, it is more fascinating with the How of everything. How did he stay hidden, and with whom? His intentions are never explained, but we must sit and observe in hopes to learn something about mankind, or, at the very least, about this one man.
-Tampopo: This movie is absolutely delightful. Here is something I haven’t seen too often in Japanese cinema – someone who builds a story around food, and who then proceeds to interlude his film with Bunuelian scenes that, while still about the main topic, have nothing to do with the main narrative at hand. It is a very fun film, one about a man who comes and attempts to help rebuild a woman’s dying noodle shop, with the people they meet along the way. What a joy to see them all work together, building toward the same goal, as Itami’s playful, kind-of funky music and storytelling create something very different from the normal cinema, but very true and good, anyway.
-Harakiri: Kobayashi weaves an incredible tale of a ronin’s attempt to avenge his loved ones in this absolutely incredible film. A man arrives at the Iyi clan’s base and asks if he, a poor man who can find no work anywhere, can commit harakiri as a way to die with honor. In an attempt to sway him out of it, the clan’s head first tells him the story of a young man who came for the exact same reasoning, but who, he believed, was really only wishing for money; they let him kill himself with his cheap bamboo sword. But the ronin will not be swayed, an, out of respect, they give him permission to perform harakiri. Before he does, though, he recounts his connection with the boy who had come before him, and his true reason for arriving. It all leads to the film’s astonishing climax and tragic, though heroic, ending. This is a film that is brimming with life – it is never dull, not for an instant, even as people simply sit completely still and talk with one another. There is tension to every scene, as every new request by the ronin reveals more beneath his character. Kobayashi’s camera tracks along, creating an intense momentum at certain scenes – it also goes incredibly wild, tilting, bending the audience’s hope away from them. The power of this film is astounding. It is at once incredibly beautiful, tragic, and profound.
-Millennium Actress: This has to be Kon’s masterpiece. The story of a girl’s growth from war-torn Japan and into the movie industry as a high-class star creates an incredibly memorable film that hits all the right notes. It does, like many of Kon’s films, double back on itself, but here, it is all done in such a way as it is not confusing, but, rather, it all helps to create the mood and tone of sadness at things lost – this longing for something that could never be. In the film, a studio man and his cameraman go to film an interview with the aging starlet, and during the course of it, they learn everything there is to know, and they are even able, themselves, to impart information to her. It is a film about movies, and about desire and nostalgia for things past, and it is one that I will keep coming back to again and again.
-Paprika: Here, Kon is able to utilize a device that sets his whole film in motion, and it is a good thing, too, since he likes often to delve into the
psyche of his characters. The device gets inside one’s dreams, and, from this, we are able to see their fears realized. Something that seems common in Kon’s films is also here, and that is a desire for things past, something that one cannot change, though he wishes with all his heart that he could. The story takes a turn for the dark, though, when the dreams of some are over-taken by a maniacal toyman, who may or may not even be responsible for the whole outburst. The odd thing about the film, though, is the character of Paprika, who is an altered form of a woman who works for the film’s main company; she seems to change form often, and sometimes not even within dreams, and it can become a bit confusing. And the ending gets very crazy as the dream world impedes upon the real world, and all things normal are transformed into horrifying depictions of themselves. It’s kind of a scary film, but it is fun, and almost always fascinating.
-Perfect Blue: This is my least favorite film by Satoshi Kon, because it leads in one direction, and then pulls the carpet out from under you so many times that, by the end, you have no idea who or what was real, and it just leaves you feeling lost. It is not a bad film, though, because it thrusts interesting images at you, and it keeps this very peculiar, though incredibly creepy, tone throughout. The film centers on a pop-star who no longer wishes to sing, because she wants to act, instead. Her fans, and one fan, in particular, do not like this at all, and so all hell breaks loose, either within her mind, or within the world of the film (I have no idea). It is one crazy situation after another, and, because of this, while it does produce some very interesting threads, it is not one that I’d immediately recommend.
-Tokyo Godfathers: This one, on the other hand, is incredibly fun, and it keeps coming back in my mind in the days since I’ve watched it. Three homeless people (and older man, a transvestite, and a teenage girl) find a baby thrown to the garbage on Christmas night, and they decide to find out what happened to her by finding her parents. Through this, though, each “Godfather” must deal with his or her own past, leading to some very emotional sequences only akin to Millennium Actress. One of the most fascinating things about the film, though, is something that Kon does that most other filmmakers fail to do: even while the story is continuing, and while it keeps throwing curve-balls, it never feels dull, or like it should end. No, never does it get boring, suffering from the dreaded “million endings syndrome.” Somehow, he was able to push things tight enough in the editing and construction that nothing ever feels like too much. Really, it is a wonderful film to be cherished, one that is very beautiful and full of life, even during its tougher times, and it is not dull for a moment.
-Seven Samurai: It took me a very long to see this, the film that most people consider (alongside Ikiru) to be Kurosawa’s masterpiece. It is truly a fantastic film – long, intricate, every detail is laid out right before your eyes within dazzling story-telling. It is funny, too, as Kurosawa seems to be often in his films, but its heart is always firmly at center. In the early sixteen hundreds, a group of farmers gets word that their village is to be plundered by bandits as soon as their crops become mature. Terrified, they attempt to gather some samurai together to help rescue their city. After some time, they wind up with eight, who become the most important players for the rest of the film. It is a large movie, and it seems to explore its space so well – even the smaller characters seem to carry a lot of weight in their scenes, and the larger ones have much to do. Watching everything unfold is fascinating, as Kurosawa leaves in most everything that might be considered cutting-room-floor material in another film. And then, the battle takes place over several days, with different attacks happening left and right, and much waiting. What an incredible picture. It holds its head strong on its shoulders. Bu the ending proves it, as all was not what was hoped for.
-Yojimbo: It took me a long time to see any Kurosawa films, but I was fortunate enough to run across this one playing one night, and so I made sure to attend. Long story short – it was hilarious. When a conniving samurai comes to a town divided by rivalry, he tries to make as much money as possible by playing both sides. He holds all the cards, until some slip-ups put him in a dire situation., which shows that, no, he’s not really only about money, but about the worth of good people, too. It’s such an interesting film to sit through, primarily because your allegiance keeps shifting – sure, you’re always with Mifune’s character, but sometimes the dumb rivals’ offers sound very good, until you learn that they plan to stab him in the back. toward the end, things get dicey, but Sanjuro knows how to handle himself. It’s very exciting.
-Patriotism: The one film that Mishima ever made, and it’s a short based on his own short-story, although, in construction, it varies greatly from the story. For one thing, the story actually has dialogue, and it gets very heavily into the thoughts of its characters. The film, though, is quite obscure, in that it pushes all of that away for a simple telling of that night in 1936 when one man decided not to go along with the uprising, but kill himself with his wife in the name of the nation. It is a beautiful telling, still, with its stark black and white photography, and its use of raw emotion to stand for words. While it is a very tough film to sit through, based on the idea of watching seppuku as it actually happens, it ends in incredible beauty as the two bodies lie still on a zen garden. Pretty amazing.
-Howl’s Moving Castle: Hmm. This is my least favorite Miyazaki film. A young woman gets caught up in a world of violence and magic after meeting a famous magician named Howl. It’s not a bad film, but it ends kind of ridiculously, with everything wrapping up in a nice and neat little bow. There are certainly some cool sequences, and some scary stuff, too, but there seems to be just something a little off. The characters don’t seem as fleshed out as in other Miyazaki films, as the character of Howl is kind of a ridiculous person. Maybe that’s the point – he’s paying for his vanity – but it still seems hard to get behind him as a person and really care that our main heroine loves him.
-Kiki’s Delivery Service: This was amazing. The emotional pull of many of Miyazaki’s film is always strong, but here, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. The story of a young girl trying to make her way in a new place as a witch provides for one of Miyazaki’s best movies. The thirteen year-old Kiki is an incredibly kind soul, not angry or dispirited, who moves to a new city for a year to train to become a witch. On arrival, she finds the place to be incredibly daunting, until she meets a bakery shop owner who offers her a job as a delivery girl (and, since Kiki’s main craft is flying, she is incredibly willing to oblige). Sure, she has her ups and her downs, as every coming of age tale is bound to have, but she remains strong, even though some dark hours do come upon her (as the time when she feels she might e losing her witch powers). But oh how incredible it is to watch her fly, to see her face all this adversity. Such a kind heart like hers makes me feel very happy to be watching the film and to care about her. There is a moment late in the film when an old customer wishes to repay her for the huge helping hand she offered earlier in the film; it had me in tears. It is an astonishing film that I wish more people would think is as great as I do.
-My Neighbor Totoro: Oh, how wonderful! Here is a delightful little film about two little girls living with their father in a new house at the country-side. Their mother is sick in the hospital, and they often visit her. On their arrival to the new house, the little girls figure that it is haunted, and one day, the smaller child runs into the woods and comes across a massive Totoro. From there comes a series of adventures into the woods and around the country with exciting and interesting creatures of fantasy. Later, when they find out that their mom is still sick and is unable to come home, the little sister disappears and the rest of the film is dedicated to find her by utilizing their new friends. It is a wonderful and lovely film, filled with astonishing images and a true heart.
-Ponyo: This film made me cry in its exuberance. There is a scene where the daughter, Ponyo, of the water God flees from her home and turns into a little girl – she runs on the tsunami waves that she causes through magic. It is so full of energy, life, and joy that I was overwhelmed by its beauty. The film follows a little boy who finds Ponyo one day and begins to take care of her. Her father, though, is a strict being, and, after she escapes from him again, a mess of issues occur due to her departure. The issue with the film is its ending, which makes everything just way too easy. In Spirited Away, there is a test for the main character, and there is another one here, but this just plays out too simply. Not great, but the film is still wonderful.
-Spirited Away: This is probably the best Miyazaki film that I’ve seen, and it was my first, too. Learning lessons sometimes takes a long journey, and a lot of work, as our heroine of this film can attest. During their move, she and her family take a wrong turn and end up in a seemingly deserted village, where magic turns everything upside down. Her parents are turned into pigs, and, to get them back, she must work in a giant bathhouse ruled by an old, angry witch. Through twists and turns, dealing with monsters and love, she is finally able to achieve her goals. It really is a fun and cheerful experience. The people she meets throughout her journey are just as interesting as any supporting characters from any other great film. It’s probably the best animated film I’ve ever seen.
-Ugetsu: Here is a story of greed and ghosts, told only as the Japanese can tell it. During the 16th century, rebel armies are swarming townships and forcing men into slave labor. Two men attempt to make a killing during wartime by selling the pottery they had made at the market, to much apprehension from their wives. The film follows the men and the women after they are pushed out of their village in fear of invaders, and as they go to market. One potter falls in love with a ghost, thus leaving his wife and son behind while he lives the good life; the other, who longs to be a samurai, runs away from his wife with money to buy armor, and then, after stealing the head of a dead rebel general, he becomes incredibly praised as a great man. Both men leave their places as husbands and men of the community for their own selfish goals, and they must deal with the consequences. The raw emotions from facing all these scenarios are handled very well. The fear is tangible. The camera works to grip the audiene, make its heart pound, and it does so expertly. This is a fantastic film, full of eerie mystery and regretful decisions; nothing feels like it will end too well, but life has a way of being good or bad, and so you never know.
-Hausu: Oh my gosh, this is one crazy, crazy film. After a bunch of teenage girls, one of each stereotype, leave for a vacation to one of their Grandmothers’ houses, they find themselves in a world of hurt, coming across a demonic cat ruling a crazy, incomprehensible house. I really don’t know how I feel about the film. On the one hand, it’s kind of crazy fun, but on the other, it’s just so weird, and it doesn’t follow any logic. Maybe that’s the whole point of this kind of horror, but I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Still, it’s very much so worth a watch, just because it’s likely you’ll never see anything like it again.
-Death by Hanging: This is it. This is the film by Oshima to which all others might have to be compared. The story of a young man’s execution that does not at all go as planned turns into a powerful statement on national identity, on ideas vs. reality, on the death penalty – in essence, on many things, all of which are covered with expert hands. This is a truly beautiful film, one that holds a power in its hand unlike many later films Oshima would make. His use of the roving camera, his startling close-ups, his creative methods of storytelling – all of these create a film experience not to be missed. The attempted hanging of the criminal errors, and the young man comes to have amnesia, and so he neither remembers his crime, who he was, or that he ever felt guilty. Those who were there to assist and witness the execution must then put everything back into his mind with re-enactments of the murders, and of his family life. Imagination takes over in the second half of the film, as guilty passions and desires of each man are brought forth, and the young criminal realizes who he is, and why he must do what he chooses to do. It is an astonishing masterwork by one of cinema’s most radical minds, one who does not put up with many things, and who then decides to make a film from that. What an amazing experience.
-Empire of Passion: This is a crazy ghost story by Oshima. After she and her lover murder her husband, they must deal with their misdeeds throughout the following seasons. The tone that is set is one that is wholly Oshima – the characters interact with each other unlike in a film by any other director, and there is this creepy edge that pervades through the whole of it’s running time. The two characters finally have to face their crimes, after her husband comes back from as a ghost and begins terrifying them into submission. The film includes one of the most difficult short shots I’ve ever seen, as leaves of grass land in a character’s eyes. Ouch. It’s a pretty cool and freaky film.
-In the Realm of the Senses: This is the most incredible film of Oshima’s that I’ve seen. It is still very odd, and it doesn’t follow conventional standards of story-telling, but it pushes its agenda forward in that angry manner that only Oshima controls. The story follows Abe Sada, a woman who becomes the mistress of a wealthy man after working for a bit in a motel. From there, the two begin living together and engaging often in sex – sometimes pleasantly, and sometimes in a much more aggressive manner. The ending is quite the shocker, and when Oshima reveals that the story is true, it produces such a feeling within us – here is the story, and here is the fact: they are on and the same. It is quite an astonishing film, completely knowledgable of what it is, and sticking with that nature all the way through. It is not an easy watch, but it paved the way for incredibly adult-themed films like few other movies have done.
-Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: This is a good movie, but not a great one. It centers on a POW camp in Japan during WWII, where some angry, and some understanding, Japanese military men hold power over the captured English. The conflict here is interesting – the film is, of course, made by Japanese Oshima, and yet it seems as though the Japanese characters, while clearly not all bad, want mostly to keep their strangle-hold over their prisoners; it seems, even, that the film mostly sides with the English, even getting heavily into some of their minds, showing flashbacks, and hearing stories from them. This is all very interesting, but the film then suffers from the thing that Satoshi Kon got right on Tokyo Godfathers, and that is that this film keeps feeling like it is over, but then it goes on again. It’s like Oshima just didn’t have the right sense of pacing in the editing to make sure his audience actually wanted to stick around for the rest of the film. Still, it is a good film, because it does hold power in certain scenes, most notably the ending, but there are a few things that just do not work.
-Taboo: Taboo is not a film for which I really cared. Sure, it has it’s moments, and it is very Oshima in tone, but it’s almost more like a soap opera with samurais. Maybe that sounds good for some people, but for me, it was kind of lacking. Essentially, the samurai camp takes on a very good swordsman who appears very effeminate. As time goes on, several individuals, including some of the leading captains, grow attracted to the young man, who seems to play games with them all. This causes deaths and beatings. The last sword fight is handled very well, I think, shrouded in a thick fog, with a kind of ghostly atmosphere that Oshima got so right in Empire of Passion, but the film as a whole seems a bit flimsy and lacking in material. It seems as if every look is there to say, “Oh gosh, I can’t stand to not look at him, but I hope no one notices,” which, in itself, is not a bad thing, but, with the kind of camera and music that Oshima uses, it just doesn’t really pack that punch.
-The Only Son: This was the first Ozu I saw, and it was amazing. What an interesting way to make a film – it’s all smiles shielding the truth just beneath the surface. Here is the story of a boy who wishes to further his education, even when his mother has no money for that. Still, because of his persistence, she slaves away for years, letting the boy go up through his classes and graduate. After a long wait, she finally decides to surprise him and visit. It is when she goes to Tokyo and sees him that she, after spending much time around him and the wife she didn’t know he had, finally comes to grips with the fact that her son has gone nowhere in his life, and that, while he might be trying hard, he never got the job he wanted (he only works as a night-school teacher), and he doesn’t have the money to support his family. She is crushed, and she eventually leaves in great pain that all her hard work went virtually down the drain because of the times. The son has become a good man, as he does attempt to save a boy’s life, but he is completely unable to build his life the way he’d want. Ozu plans to movie perfectly, and it packs an incredible amount of emotion. The scenes of anger displayed between the mother and the son are brutal. It is a perfect film.
-There Was a Father: This film carries a lot of emotion, too, although, for me, it doesn’t have the same kind of meaning that I was expecting after watching The Only Son. At the end of it, all I got was, “He was a good man.” In any case, this film centers around a teacher who, during a trip with students, fails to notice that some students have snuck out onto a boat. They are informed quickly that the boat capsized, and that one of the students drowned. From there, he quits teaching, wanting never to be the cause of carelessness for a family’s child again. Years pass, and his son is then a hard-working young man, although the two rarely see each other. Some former students run into the old man and throw a ceremony for him and two other former teachers. It is there that the film has some of its best moments, but also, it is where most of the editing by MacArthur after the war took place, causing an intense destruction of something wonderful. A stunning and depressing ending follows, but, as I said, I never found all the meaning to it. That said, it is still an emotional experience, one that deserves to be viewed for the better. It is a wonderful film.
-Tokyo Chorus: This is an interesting silent by Ozu, one that uses comedy even in the face of some pretty sad situations. During the Great Depression, a father, after promising his son a bike, gets fired for attempting to save the job of an older employee. From there, he must confront his children and wife, and then look for work. He comes across his old drill instructor, who now owns a restaurant, and who promises to help him find work. All of this is handled rather lightly, as though most of it is less-than fully consequential. At one point, I thought it was veering into The Last Laugh territory, and that would have been a very bad thing, indeed; but it does not. Instead, it pushes forward with love and affection for its characters and the world around them. It is a good movie, one that might not have the kind of impact of other Ozu films, but one which does stand pretty well on its own two feet. It is funny (I laughed aloud quite often), and, although some scenes seem odd (our hero’s argument with his boss is handled in a decidedly hilarious, and very confounding, manner), most of it works. The main character, too, is a very enjoyable person, and it is nice to see films about good people.
-Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters: This film pretty much blows me away. The story of Yukio Mishima as told through his own words, and through his own stories, is astonishing in its construction. It is a biopic unlike most I have ever seen (although Haynes’ I’m Not There also does interesting things with its narrative), and its beauty in its set design and its camera work is matched by few. The film shows how the life and work of Mishima often coincided, producing a narrative through which one can learn about the man very easily by reading his works, sometimes even before the true life events were to happen. Perhaps it is not the perfect biopic, due to issues concerning Mishima’s family, and so not every fact is there. That said, what is there is miraculous. The score by Philip Glass is one I can listen to over and over again and of which I can never get tired. The film, in fact, includes one of my favorite shots from any movie: as he music swells, and the Mishima stand-in holds his hand above a woman’s breast, the Golden Pavilion from which guilt, pleasure, and fear is derived, comes flying toward the camera, bringing with it all meaning. It is an astonishing experience, one that captures a true man, even if his ideals were those that people might have a hard time believing. If there is an issue with the film, it is only due to an issue with Mishima’s own life, and that his ideology was not spread in the way he wished at his death.
-Ornamental Hairpin: This wonderful little film about the little pleasures and blunders of life and love follows a group of vacationers during one summer during World War II at a resort. We meet the various people – an annoying professor, an old grandfather with his two grandchildren, a younger man with his wife, a soldier – who stay in adjoining rooms as other groups of people come in and out of the resort. After a group of young women has left, the soldier cuts his foot on an ornamental hairpin while bathing. This sets up the rest of the film, where the professor, out of boredom and inspiration from the soldiers sensibilities, attempts to get the man and the young woman (who has returned to apologize for leaving her hairpin to cut the man’s foot) together. But the film is not only focused on this – it goes deeper. Made during the war, it addresses the issues of wartime rationing, but also that one must be thankful for what he has, due to the difficulties that others are facing. The love story itself builds, as we see more of who this woman really is (she wishes to escape her past), and how she feels toward this soldier. The ending is heartbreaking. It is really truly something that should be seen; it is handled eloquently, and yet somehow kind of playfully, too. Though, when Shimizu needs to get serious, he is incredibly willing and capable.
-The Naked Island: This is one film that is filled with the power of image and music combined into a ballad to the little man, the incredibly hard worker, and the life that he or she leads. The film is small, basically consisting only of four principle characters, and it focuses on the life of one family living on one of the many, many island around Japan, essentially subsistence farming. The labor is difficult, and the time it takes, and the amount of effort, is all incredibly well-documented. The little gestures of life and joy that pop up for the family now and again shows that hard work does pay off, even if in short-lived spurts, before it’s back to work. The film does progress into terribly tragic areas later, showing how life can sometime pull a fast one on you, and there is then nothing to do but keep living. This film works on so many levels, and I really hope that it is sought after by more people. I feel like I’ll keep thinking about this one for a very long time.
-Onibaba: What a crazy film this is. It seems somehow vastly different from most Japanese films I’ve seen, probably due to its very limited scope and characters. That said, it is no less powerful, as the tension builds slowly from the opening until the final insane climax. During civil war in Japan, two farming women, an older woman and her daughter-in-law, kill wandering samurais to trade their clothes and weapons for food. One day, a friend of theirs returns with news that the son and husband of the women has died. Due to sexual repression, the younger woman begins a sexual relationship with the friend, and the mother does not take a liking to it. She tells the younger girl that purgatory awaits for those who commit sin, and, as the movie progresses, the daughter-in-law begins seeing a terrifying demon as she tries to escape in the night to make love to her new man. Still, the climax is anything but what one would think, due to a chilling twist of events. It is an incredibly eerie, frightening story, told with sure hands and a good eye for emotionally-heightened compositions. What an incredible film.
-Tattooed Life: This is odd. The editing is too choppy to maintain any level of dramatic tension, and the script itself cuts out way too many points that would have held individual scenes together. Two brothers, a yakuza and an artist, flee in attempts to get to Manchuria after killing a yakuza boss. They end up at a port town, and they find work in construction while hiding from the police, who are hot on their tail. The younger artist falls in love with the wife of the company head, and the older is chased after by her sister. And then comes scenes in which another clan is trying to snag up construction rights to build, but I couldn’t tell you much about them, since the film doesn’t establish too much what they’re actually about. The film, overall, is just incredibly messy. Actually, it is kind-of fun, in the sense that you can put it on without really worrying one way or the other if you’re fully “getting” it, or not. That said, I didn’t get this. It is too hasty, and things seem to happen for no reason. At least the battle toward the end is handled with a lot of skill, because the rest of it seemed to be thrown together in about two or three days.
-Grave of the Fireflies: One of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, due primarily to the joy that the characters have together, until an untimely demise rips them apart. Toward the very end of WWII, Japan faced repeated fire-bombings, and this is the story of a young teenage boy and his very little sister, and their attempts at survival during a time in which food is scarce, money is not to be found, and even family cannot take pity on other loved ones due to fear of not having enough. Moving in with tier Aunt once their mother dies, the two find themselves as annoying guests, and so they attempt to live on their own in a bomb shelter away from society. The boy finds that the best way for him to get food is to loot. his sister, meanwhile, becomes increasingly malnourished, and the film portrays her spark-of-life joy to sickly and depressed attitude with such delicate hands that the ending is anything but bearable. And, knowing that it all could have been avoided if only a few things were different here and there. It is a film of incredible power, one that shows the harsh trials one must face in reality.
-My Neighbors the Yamadas: This is wonderful, wonderful film. Animated with art the looks like it might come from comic strips, the film even has a form resembling that very medium, as it often shows little short stories that have some kind of goofy gag at the end. Some are very short, and others are quite a bit longer, but all are incredible in the way they portray this family – it might as well be your own – who is just trying to live together in peace, and survive. There is so much to be proud of here; not a moment feels inauthentic, from the accidental leaving behind of the daughter at the mall, to the frightening dealings with an allegedly deadly motorcycle gang, to all the pleasantness of the scenes of forgetfulness. There is one scene that hit me like a brick – the father calls home and asks his family to bring him an umbrella in the pouring rain, but none of them want to leave the house. He goes into a shop and buys an umbrella, but, as soon as he steps out the door, his wife, his son, and his daughter all come walking up to him, his umbrella in hand, very happy to be helpful to the older man. It is a scene of truth and beauty of the little things that make the world go ’round. Such wonderful occurrences are the stuff of life.
-Only Yesterday: This was my first Takahata. I watched it for the original director’s cup, and it hit me like few animated films before had. It is a film that seems as though it could have been made without animation at all, and yet that very medium leads to a wonderful telling of a very emotionally deep and personal story. It is very much reminiscent of the personal conflicts in Kon’s movies (although his came quite a bit later) – the past is always there, and the sins committed then are still being felt now. The story follows a woman of about thirty who goes to visit a rice farm; there, she learns how to plant rice, and she meets a man with who she feels she can really connect. A past incident, though, is constantly on her mind, and in one devastating car ride in the rain, the two discuss issues that lead to the emotionally scene of the past arriving in our character’s head. The film is interesting, though, in that it ends one way before the closing credits start, but you must stay through them to find the rest of the story, which ends much happier than it might have otherwise. It is an incredibly beautiful experience. The animation really brings this to life, although I doubt it would have been bad otherwise.
-Tetsuo, The Iron Man: I never want to watch this film again. It is not that it is a bad film; no, in fact, it is actually a very good film. It’s creepy filmmaking goes right along with its creepy subject-matter. That said, the tone that it sets is one that I cannot stand – that consistently industrial soundtrack, the painful black-and-white photography with its intense close-ups and its frenetic cutting, and just the overall weirdness of the story itself, all leads me to a place I’d rather not visit again. A man hits a crazy…um…guy one day and flees the scene. As time goes on, he starts growing metal out of his body. He gets attacked by a woman in a train station after she becomes possessed by the crazy guy. As the film progresses, the main character continues growing more and more metal from him, and, by the end, after a large battle, a massive symbiosis of him and the crazy guy is all in place. It is a very hard film to sit through on any screen larger than a computer monitor. I hope that those who haven’t seen it watch it, but I’d rather not do so myself again.