Due to lack of funds not many new movies are made in Japan these days, the Japanese movie industry is in crisis. Even so, the movies produced are usually pretty interesting. To watch movies made in different countries is an excellent way to understand the diversity of cultures, values, ways of thinking and lifestyles around the world. Japanese cinema is usually quite slow but full of semantics; however these semantics many times transmit nostalgic and negative feelings, specially movies produced right after the war. In this post I will write about some Japanese movies I’ve seen lately, in no particular order. I think that, as a whole, these movies represent fairly well different genres and styles of Japanese cinema and will give you a good grasp of the cinema of Japan. Have you seen any of these movies? What Japanese movies have you seen lately? Any recommendations?
The last Akira Kurosawa movie I still hadn’t seen. Ran was one of his last movies and maybe the one in which he spent the most time; it took him 10 years to prepare the sketches and the script. At the beginning, the rhythm of the movie is very slow, but it helps to create tension in the viewers. After the first battle the rhythm increases and then the plot hooks the audience until the end.
An honorable feudal lord named Hidetora, that had never lost a battle, is nearing the end of his life and decides to call his three sons in order to distribute his inheritance. What he didn’t know is that the hearts of his sons were full of evil and eager for power.
Hidetora (standing up) distributing his territories and castles among his three sons (on the background) in one of the first scenes of Ran.
Akira Kurosawa during the shooting of Ran
Higanjima is one of the latest Japanese blockbusters. It is based on a popular manga with the same name. A group of friends from high school in a small town get together to go to a mysterious island called Higanjima; nobody has ever come back alive from the island but they decide to go there to rescue the brother of Akira. It turns out that the island is full of vampires and all kind of different monsters! Higanjima is an adventure movie, the classic situation where people in a group of friends facing a life or death situation start to doubt about everybody else, but little by little they manage to get by fighting forward like in an RPG.
The movie loses rhythm after half hour and in general is pretty bad. Even so, I enjoyed the mix of Japanese and Hollywood cultural elements.
Front cover of one of the manga volumes
Higanjima DVD cover
Score: 5.6 stars on imdb
Being based on an excellent novel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Tajomaru could have been an amazing movie. The script combines love stories, betrayal stories, family problems, respect depending on the caste of the characters, power ambition, etc. However the actors are quite bad, the pace of the movie has many ups and downs and the music doesn’t go well with the action. It is entertaining for a boring Sunday afternoon and indispensable if you enjoy movies set in medieval Japan.
4.- Okuribito (Departures)
Okuribito or Departures (international name) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year. It had been very long since a Japanese movie hadn’t won the award. Daigo works playing the cello in an orchestra in Tokyo but he is forced to abandon his passion and he returns back to his hometown in Yamagata to live with his wife. He finds a job in a funeral parlor… It is a rather sad movie that really gets to you heart. The soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi is fabulous.
Okuribito English version poster.
5.- Topazu (Tokyo Decadence)
Topazu or Tokyo Decadence (international name) is a movie that Ryu Murakami made in the 80’s. I saw it because it caught my attention that a writer that has been writing novels for more than 20 years had also directed a movie.
If you see Tokyo Decadence you can get an idea of how people lived in Tokyo at the height of the Japanese bubble of the end of the 1980s. The main character is a prostitute specialized in sadomasochist services that has to endure the perversions of a lot of rich people in hotel suites in Tokyo. She is not happy but she lives with the hope that her platonic love is reciprocated.
I really enjoyed the cinematography, the atmosphere, and being able to see Japan 30 years; but the movie in general was dull and monotonous. Anyway, I recommend it to Ryu Murakami fans (not to be confused with Haruki Murakami)
Score: 6.0 stars on imdb
Goemon, the most popular Japanese thief, is the main character in this movie. The story is based on the legend of the historical character Goemon, who supposedly existed. Oda Nobunaga betrays his most loyal vassal Hideyoshi Toyotomi; the young Goemon is loyal to Nobunaga and the anger makes him look for revenge to give back the honor to his feudal lord. Samurai story, epic battles (including Sekigahara battle), cutting-edge special effects, all condensed in more than two hours.
7.- Akiresu to kame (Achilles and the Tortoise)
Akiresu to kame or Achilles and the Tortoise (international name) is the latest movie by Takeshi Kitano, one of the most known Japanese directors outside of Japan. Akiresu to kame is a movie with many autobiographical elements, that the director uses to make fun of his own life as an artist. The nostalgic feeling of the movie reminded me a lot of Kikujiro no Natsu (known internationally as Kikujiro), also directed by Takeshi Kitano. I loved Akiresu to kame! Great movie!
Score: 7.5 stars on imdb
8.- Shogun Assassin (Kozure okami: Ko wo kashi ude kashi tsukamatsuru)
Based on Kazuo Koike manga Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami). The movie was released in 1980 and the truth is that, having read the manga, I wasn’t expecting too much of it, however I have to say that I loved it. Pure adrenaline!
The plot is based around a samurai (ronin) father and son who are looking for revenge. The father, “Lone Wolf”, is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, one of the best martial arts actors at the time. His performance in battles is brilliant and gives the movie a lot realism in some parts.
Don’t miss it if you enjoy samurais and revenge stories, like for example The Vengeance Trilogy or Kill Bill. In fact, Quentin Tarantino admits loving Shogun Assassin and that he watched it several times before and during the production of Kill Bill.
9.- Seppuku (Harakiri)
One of the best movies I’ve seen lately. The script is impressive and the performance of Tatsuya Nakadai superb. There are different movies with the same title, be careful, the good on is the one directed by Masaki Kobayashi in 1962. Almost all the movie is set in the same place, where the main character thinks aloud in front of a court about the dilemma of committing suicide or not following the Japanese harakiri/seppuku ritual.
The main character on his knees in front of a katana, which he will have to use to end his life.
10.- Crows Zero 2 (クローズZERO 2 Kurōzu Zero 2)
Another movie based on a manga. The action is set in a high school full of gangs related to yakuza groups; where there frequently violent fights and many other problems. Directed by Takashi Miike, the blood scenes are guaranteed althought not to the levels of Audition, another movie by the same director.