10 great Japanese films of the 21st century

To celebrate a bumper year for Japanese cinema at the BFI London Film Festival, we look out some of the best movies to come out of Japan since the turn of this century.

Jasper Sharp

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015)

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015)

Japanese cinema had been pretty much written off by critics by the early 1990s. Then 1997 saw a dramatic turn in its fortunes, with international festival awards for Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku and Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke became the highest-grossing movie ever released in Japan, while Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance? became the highest-grossing Asian movie ever released in America.

The following decade was one of astonishing resurgence. The already substantial figure of 282 domestic releases gaining a 31.8% box office share in 2000 climbed to 554 with a 65.7% share in 2012, with local films outperforming foreign releases in 2006 for the first time since 1985.

Many of the filmmakers behind this renaissance are in force at the 59th London Film Festival, which features one of its largest selections of Japanese titles ever. There are new works from Cannes favourites Kawase (An) and Hirokazu Koreeda (Our Little Sister); Kitano’s comedic take on the yakuza genre with which he made his name, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen; the latest cult offerings from Takashi Miike (Yakuza Apocalypse) and Shion Sono (Love & Peace) and Ghost Theatre from the man who kicked off the J-horror boom, Hideo Nakata. There’s anime from Studio Ghibli’s Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There) and Mamoru Hosoda (The Boy and the Beast); and one discovery, as far as London audiences are concerned, in the form of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s five-hour portrait of four female friends in their late 30s, Happy Hour, which garnered a joint best actress award for its main players at Locarno.

The time seems ripe to explore the standout films of Japan’s glorious re-emergence as a force to be reckoned with. We might bemoan the limitations of distilling its massive industry output into a manageable 10 titles, and I’ll confess personal taste has played a part, as well as the restriction that the films be readily available in English-subtitled versions. Takeshi Kitano, Shinya Tsukamoto and Kiyoshi Kurosawa are among the notable casualties of the process, as their strongest work came out during the 1990s, and for the sake of balance, only one anime is included (there are plenty of worthy candidates on our list of 10 great anime films).

Finally a degree of pessimism by pundits inside and outside of Japan about the apparent rude health of the industry should be noted. It is no accident that all the titles in this list are from the first decade of the 21st century. While revenues soar, the increasingly distributor-dominated top-down structure of the market in recent years has seen a glut of big-budget TV tie-ins crowding out the kind of smaller films that resulted in the creative flourish celebrated here.

Audition (2000) / Battle Royale (2000)

Director Takashi Miike / Kinji Fukasaku

Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale (2000)

J-horror was by far the most salient manifestation of Japanese cinema’s overseas presence at the turn of the millennium, although its influential progenitor, Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), was released too early to make this list. The roots of ‘Asian Extreme’, the term used to market such films in the UK, stretch even further back.

These two works, representative of both trends, are worth mentioning in a single breath due to their impact in the west, bringing Japanese cinema a whole new generation of viewers and spearheading a swathe of similar (though lesser) releases: one the breakthrough success of a young and unbelievably prolific ambassador for this new overseas cult fanbase; the other the powerhouse swansong of a veteran filmmaker at the time all but unknown outside his home turf.

Both still pack a powerful gut punch, although Miike has lost something of the maverick status commanded by his earlier exercises in excess (like Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer) with the air of respectability afforded to him through his official sanctioning by major international festivals such as Cannes. Those of us there from the outset still chuckle at the memory of half the audience stampeding from the theatre during Audition’s abrupt switch from romantic melodrama to gruelling body horror at its European premiere at Rotterdam.

Avalon (2000)

Director Mamoru Oshii

Avalon (2000)

Avalon (2000)

This live-action work from a director best known for his towering achievements in the field of anime, notably the features Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Innocence (2004), bares little trace of its Japanese origins. Shot in Poland with a Polish cast, its depiction of a dystopian future – in which a ragtag group of video gamers eke out an existence playing an illegal and highly addictive virtual reality battlefield simulation while searching for the gateway into a rumoured higher level – draws heavily upon the works of Andrzej Wajda and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

Prescient and still impressive, its use of computer graphics both to selectively drain the colours from the real-life images and to embellish the warzone scenes (impressively realised with the aid of the Polish army) was highly innovative in its day, and Kenji Kawai’s majestic orchestral score is remarkably affecting – never less so than during the heroine’s emergence into ‘Class Real’ at the film’s climax.

Mind Game (2004)

Director Masaaki Yuasa

Mind Game (2004)

Mind Game (2004)

Mind Game is a surreal plunge into the cluttered headspace of a wannabe manga artist. Reunited with his high-school crush after years apart, their romance is nipped in the bud when they get caught up in a skirmish with the yakuza. In their attempt to flee, they wind up in the belly of a huge whale, where they encounter a mysterious, bearded old Jonah who has been trapped inside for years.

If the story sounds unorthodox, wait till you see the visuals of this wild, psychedelic and highly experimental joyride through the outer limits of anime. It is to my mind by far the most deliriously entertaining example of the genre from a year that saw such hard-hitting releases as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. The film remains bizarrely little-seen outside of Japan, although fortunately its domestic DVD release carries English subtitles.

Moon and Cherry (2005)

Director Yuki Tanada

Moon and Cherry (2005)

Moon and Cherry (2005)

A noteworthy development in Japanese cinema during the first decade of the 21st century was the rise en masse of a new generation of women directors such as Miwa Nishikawa, Naoko Ogigami and Nami Iguchi, bringing a fresh subjectivity to the picture. Naomi Kawase has drawn the lion’s share of the western gaze in this respect, but Tanada’s is the more interesting voice.

Her low-budget debut is a sassy comedy in which a virginal student joins a university erotic writing society. In an acutely funny reversal of decades of male objectification of female sexuality in the national cinema, he finds himself seduced and used as the fodder for a series of stories by its only female member – the straight-talking and sexually assertive Mayama.

Largely unknown outside Japan, the film received a DVD release in the US under the title Electric Button. Tanada later scripted Mika Ninagawa’s Sakuran (2007) and went on to explore similar themes with Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008) and The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (2012).

Linda Linda Linda (2005)

Director Nobuhiro Yamashita

Linda Linda Linda (2005)

Linda Linda Linda (2005)

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s deadpan approach to comedy has elicited comparisons with Jim Jarmusch. It is certainly what sets Linda Linda Linda apart from other such other offerings as Swing Girls (2004), Hula Girls (2005) and Waterboys (2001) in a loosely defined and very Japanese genre: music and sports films depicting motley groups of underdogs who fight the odds before delivering rousing performances at the films’ finales.

This time it’s three unassuming high-school girls who decide to form a rock band to perform at their end-of-year festival, recruiting a happy-go-lucky Korean exchange student, aptly named Song, for vocal duties, despite her initial inability to speak Japanese – the scene in which she tries to book into a karaoke booth to practice is priceless. The performances are pitch perfect throughout, and never less so than with the girls’ rapturous climactic rendering of the classic 1980s pop-punk earworm by The Blue Hearts from which the film derives its title.

Hanging Garden (2005)

Director Toshiaki Toyoda

Hanging Garden (2005)

Hanging Garden (2005)

A former child prodigy of shogi (Japanese chess) and director of the cult favourites Blue Spring (2001) and 9 Souls (2003), Toshiaki Toyoda remains relatively unheralded outside of his homeland. This briskly paced and riotously funny dysfunctional family portrait is his best work, a multi-threaded black comedy focusing on the various members of a outwardly ideal family unit of mother, father and teenage son and daughter, as they each pursue their private peccadilloes once they leave the door of their dream home.

The title refers to the beautiful flower garden the mother cultivates on the balcony suntrap of their pristine modern apartment in the new Tama Hills development just outside Tokyo, which like the family itself, has no roots in its surrounding environment.

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Director Tetsuya Nakashima

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (2004) anticipated a sea change towards a more hedonistic style of filmmaking in Japan, quite distinct from the soul-searching pessimism of fin-de-siècle auteurs like Shinji Aoyama, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano, with films by directors like Satoshi Miki, Kankuro Kudo and Suzuki Matsuo characterised by scattershot narratives, exaggerated performances, irreverent humour and an exuberant mise-en-scène.

Its follow-up, Memories of Matsuko, is more interesting in that its gaudy approach, peppered with vivacious musical numbers, belies the dark themes inherent in its tragic account of a young woman’s downward spiral into alcoholism and destitution. Miki Nakatani is a revelation in the central role of this surprisingly moving postmodern pop-art echo of Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952), while Nakashima is at the top of his game in terms of his technical virtuosity, before his slide into glossy stylistic glibness with the likes of Confessions (2010).

Still Walking (2008)

Director Hirokazu Koreeda

Still Walking (2008)

Still Walking (2008)

From early works such as Maborosi (1995) and After Life (1998) to Cannes competitors such as Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, like Son (2013) through uncharacteristic forays like his manga adaptation Air Doll (2009), Hirokazu Koreeda has been such a consistently strong international presence and his style so varied that it is difficult to settle on which is his best film.

My pick would be the relatively underappreciated Still Walking, a naturalistically shot depiction of a family’s uncomfortable annual get-together to commemorate the death of its eldest son. Critics were quick to draw comparisons with Yasujiro Ozu, but Koreeda himself cited a slightly surprising kindred spirit – Mike Leigh. Certainly this is no sentimental celebration of traditional family values, with the gathering marked by gritted teeth, uncomfortable silences and barbed asides as the assembled members’ masks of restraint occasionally slip.

United Red Army (2007)

Director Koji Wakamatsu

United Red Army (2007)

United Red Army (2007)

Koji Wakamatsu’s monumental docudrama recounts the run-up to the notorious Asama Mountain Lodge Incident of 1972, a 10-day standoff between the police and five members of a radical left-wing terrorist group who commandeer a mountain resort tourist lodge. It marked an astonishing career revival for a director whose heyday with his avant-garde exercises within the erotic pink film genre in the 1960s was long behind him. It won major awards at Berlin and was among the 30 key films of the 2000s picked out by the editors of Sight & Sound, although perplexingly failed to find a UK distributor.

Divided into three chapters, first exhaustively detailing the political climate of the 1960s that led to the formation of the group (using archive footage and dramatic reconstruction), the gruelling internal purges prior to the siege of the midsection and the action-packed climax of the incident itself, United Red Army is a gripping ride throughout. Though Wakamatsu was closer to the some of the individuals and the events depicted in the film than he would later care to admit, nothing is glamourised in his bleak depiction of young would-be revolutionaries goaded into committing unspeakable acts by an ideological zeal that transgresses all notions of humanity.

Love Exposure (2008)

Director Shion Sono

Love Exposure (2008)

Love Exposure (2008)

Love him or loathe him, you certainly can’t ignore the self-styled enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. With a pace of productivity to rival Takashi Miike, but less disciplined in his filmmaking approach, Sono’s output is wildly uneven, but occasionally the cards fall into place, as with this eccentric four-hour-long epic that proved a game-changer for his career.

It is best to take the plot with a pinch of salt – the wayward son of a Catholic priest finely hones his art of surreptitious up-skirt photography before falling for a violent man-hater who castrated her own father, an encounter which pitches him right into the heart of an oddball religious sect. What stands out immediately is the sheer brio of the piece. Love Exposure kicks off so briskly one barely notices that the opening credits only appear an hour into proceedings. It’s forgivable if the pace flags slightly in the final quarter, but nevertheless, Sono’s exhilarating indulgence of sheer nonsense still manages to include sequences of heightened emotional power that will catch the viewer completely off-guard.

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